Evelyn Waugh’s novel Helena tells the story of the mother of Constantine, the first Christian emperor in Rome, who granted religious toleration to the Christian minority (10 per cent?) in 313 AD. In the book, he has Lactantius, “the Christian Cicero” and adviser to Constantine, saying to Helena:
Suppose in the years to come, when the Christian troubles seem to be over, there should come an apostate of my own trade, a false historian with the mind of Cicero or Tacitus and the soul of an animal … a man like that might make it his business to write down the martyrs and excuse the persecutors. He might be refuted again and again but what he wrote down would remain in people’s minds … that is what style does—it has the Egyptian secret of the embalmers. It is not to be despised.
Waugh was writing about Edward Gibbon, and while the “animal” reference is cruel, the judgment is correct. Gibbon is unrelentingly hostile to Christianity.
The first volume of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire appeared in 1776, five years before Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown in 1781 and Britain lost the Americas, and the final sixth volume appeared in 1788, the year the First Fleet landed in Australia, and one year before the French Revolution. The work is a masterpiece, claiming to identify the causes for the decline, the disappearance of the Roman Empire in the West in 476 and the disappointing performance of the new Rome, Constantinople, the Byzantine Empire until it was overrun by Islam in 1453. The work provided a fascinating background to the times.
Gibbon saw it as his “melancholy duty”—a phrase Prime Minister Menzies used to announce Australia’s entry into the Second World War—to outline the triumph of barbarism and religion. Why did the empire fail? Could it happen again? Gibbon was optimistic on that final issue, but quite clear about the debilitating consequences of the spread of Christianity, on the Christians’ “unresisting softness of temper”, their “pusillanimous sentiments”, their Oriental superstitions. In the Christian system of institutional self-government, which Gibbon recognised as a strength, the “wisdom of the serpent corrupted the innocence of the dove”. Spiritual pride was a problem, even though in the early fourth century the Christian community was still “almost entirely composed of the dregs of the populace, of peasants and mechanics, of boys and women, of beggars and slaves”.
Why would a contender for imperial power such as Constantine, who fought seventeen battles as he journeyed from York to Rome and his victory at the Milvian Bridge, decide to back such a motley group, “obstinate and perverse enthusiasts” unable to produce a single engaging argument?
How much of this is true? What remains outside Gibbon’s portrait of Roman society, not merely of the strengths which provoked Christian expansion, but of the weaknesses, the evils, the vacuum in pagan daily life, which Christian teaching and practice healed?
Given the more than 1500 years of history covered in the volumes, and the more than 200 years of study, discussion and debate which have followed their publication, I have decided to focus my attention on the five reasons for Christian expansion which Gibbon nominated in chapters fifteen and sixteen of Volume One, to detail the arguments of Rodney Stark, an American sociologist who wrote The Rise of Christianity in 1996 (a work I have cited frequently since 1998), and to see what Evelyn Waugh had to say on Gibbon. Waugh is a writer of genius, but not a professional historian. However, when I was once asked to give a paper on Constantine and had studied the primary sources, I found his small novel Helena to be packed with insights and judgments that were entirely plausible for that period. So I won’t say much about Gibbon’s hostility to the first Egyptian hermits, his condemnation of monasticism—“this Egyptian plague”, a parasite on church and society—and his distaste, indeed contempt for Byzantium, the Eastern Roman Empire. I will be concentrating on the expansion of Christianity while it was still proscribed and often persecuted, until Constantine.
Obviously Christianity was not spread by military conquest, nor maintained then by imperial preference or legal constraints. Tides flow regularly in public affairs, and the tide towards what became the state religion did grow stronger in the fourth and fifth centuries. Peter Brown, biographer of St Augustine and the greatest living historian of late antiquity, has spoken of pagans then “lapsing” into Christianity.
I am not directly addressing the charge that Christian morality undermined Roman military strength, although bishops were not likely to have encouraged the successors of Crassus to emulate him, who after the revolt of Spartacus’s slave army crucified 6000 of them at intervals along 200 kilometres of the Via Appia. Nor would they have encouraged the legions on the northern frontiers to amputate the right forearms of their surviving opponents as Julius Caesar did in Gaul to remind them of the consequences of disobedience. This much should be readily conceded.
St Augustine wrote his twenty-two books of The City of God after the city of Rome had fallen in 410 to Alaric, a Visigothic noble, previously commander of the barbarian auxiliaries under Theodosius I, to answer the charge that the disaster occurred because the pagan gods had abandoned the Christian city. Augustine, whose mother Monica had hoped he would become a provincial governor, was deeply moved to produce the first classical exposition of the Christian philosophy of history, outlining the tension between Christianity and the world and explaining that the interests of God’s kingdom, the City of God, are not conterminous with those of any earthly kingdom.
For Gibbon all religion, certainly all popular religion, was superstition, but a variety of such non-demanding nonsense produced toleration and even religious concord. Judaism and Christianity fell outside this benign circle as the Romans destroyed Jerusalem twice, in 70 AD and 136 AD, and the persecution of the Christians was recurrent. His best-known quotation sums this up:
The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful.
The first cause of Christian expansion for Gibbon was what he called their intolerant zeal, which he believed they had inherited from the Jews, but had purified by their teaching of universal love and zeal for conversion. Strangely, I could find no treatment of the social consequences of martyrdoms. How many Christians were radicalised as Lenin was by the execution of his brother, as the third-century Alexandrian theologian Origen was by the martyrdom of his father? Nearly always the ancient Romans were not atheists or agnostics, but fearful polytheists, open to various capricious gods, just as we enjoy different sports or types of music. Monotheists are exclusivists and Gibbon never sufficiently acknowledged the distinctive claims of the transcendental creator God, who is loving and rational. Jewish and Christian beliefs in the supernatural are quite different from half-beliefs in the activities of capricious demi-gods. Gibbon refused to enter into the minds of the Christians he despised, preferring to ridicule and criticise them.
For Gibbon, the second cause was the Christian belief in the afterlife, in a heaven offered first of all to the poor and suffering, the converted pure in heart, although the teaching of an afterlife of suffering for evil doers was equally explicit. The dispossessed in every age have found this teaching attractive, when it is taught and practised.
The third cause was the miraculous powers, or miracles, of the first Christians, although Gibbon conceded that the age of miracles passed quickly.
Gibbon also had to concede as the fourth cause the virtues of the Christians, but was unable to concede this generously. For him, their virtue was guarded by poverty and ignorance, and their chaste severity, as exemplified in celibacy, was balanced out by spiritual pride. He did acknowledge the good work of the Christians in opposing infanticide.
For Gibbon the fifth and final reason for Christian expansion was “the union and discipline of the Christian republic”, the local leadership of the priests and the regional leadership of the bishops as “priests, prophets and kings”. He lamented this as the forming of an independent and increasing state in the heart of the Roman Empire.
Gibbon claimed that the prelates of “the third century imperceptibly changed the language of exhortation into that of command”, but this ignores the directives in the epistles of Paul and John and the high theology of the episcopate, monarchical episcopacy, in the writings of the martyr St Ignatius of Antioch around 100 AD.
Barbarism never triumphed completely even in the West, as the invading tribes were converted by the Christians. This was a slow, imperfect process, but still remarkable, and the Eastern Roman Empire was anything but barbaric, a sophisticated, literate and theologically interested community in the large cities at least. Exhausted by the struggle with the Persians, its eastern provinces fell easily to Islam, but the empire did survive for 1100 years. The British Empire did not last as long, and if American power were to last for that period, we in Australia would be grateful.
The origins of the Papal States are obscure, a region in Central Italy ruled by the Pope until 1870, but during the barbarian incursions the Catholic structure was often all that continued to function. I glimpsed how this happened in ancient times when I was in Papua New Guinea as Apostolic Visitor to their seminaries in 1994. Tavurvur had erupted and much of Rabaul, the provincial capital of Eastern New Britain, had been buried. For days, no help arrived from the central government and when helpers did come they reserved their early ministrations for their “one-talks”, that is, family and friends. Karl Hesse, the German archbishop, had the only agency able to offer help from the beginning. And he did. I saw how he was greeted as a hero for his efforts when we toured the area together soon afterwards.
To return to my theme. The triumph of barbarism was incomplete and the Church did much to diminish or remove that barbarism.
Religions and movements expand because people find their teaching and practices either pleasant or useful or true. In an initial sense at least, we can only deal with these “secondary causes” as Gibbon called them, or basic facts, because God has no hands but ours. God’s providence is at work, usually in hidden ways.
It was Rodney Stark, writing as a sociologist, who reconsidered the remarkable expansion of Christianity in a Roman society which was more cruel and licentious than ours. For at least 90 per cent of the inhabitants of the Roman Empire life was, to quote Thomas Hobbes, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. Gibbon idealised pagan life, even for the small elite, although Roman law and the Roman peace were effective, ruthlessly imposed and maintained.
Christianity wrought a number of social revolutions, which converts welcomed. Women were among the principal beneficiaries, first of all because of the rejection of infanticide, usually through exposure, of deformed male babies and unwanted baby girls. Rome was like China today, which has 32 million surplus males, and Rome was like the Western world today, unable to maintain its population by natural reproduction.
Women were in short supply, as ancient Italy usually had 130 to 140 males for 100 women. A study of families around the ancient religious city of Delphi showed that only six families out of 600 had more than one daughter.
Among Christians, the reverse situation prevailed. Christians welcomed their baby daughters and more women converted than men, often producing further secondary conversions as their pagan husbands converted.
Roman society was spectacularly unequal and hierarchical and the many slaves were at the bottom of the pile, probably around 30 to 40 per cent of the population. Their economic role was central, not least because they kept low the salaries of the free working class. They were not always badly treated by their owners, the Stoics in particular emphasising slave-owners’ obligations, and slaves could gain their freedom.
Christians insisted that slaves be well treated (see Ephesians 6), and their Eucharistic communities welcomed them, unsegregated. Rome was not only divided by class and money, but the many migrant nationalities were regularly antagonistic. Race riots were not unusual. All races were welcome at the Eucharist.
Two Popes, the martyr Callistus early in the third century and probably Pius I (c 140 AD) had been slaves, and Constantine from the beginning forbade the practice of branding slaves on their faces. Progress was very slow, but there was intermarriage, with Clovis II, King of the Franks, marrying his British slave Bathilda in 649 AD. As regent for her son she campaigned to halt the slave trade, but this was not achieved until St Anselm was Archbishop of Canterbury in the late eleventh century; or perhaps even later.
The brutal public spectacles which the emperor and leading citizens provided for the “plebs” and indeed all classes, the bread and circuses, constitute another major difference from us. While Roman prosperity remained, giant amphitheatres around all the major centres in the empire, like the Circus Maximus and the Colosseum in Rome, provided spectacles where professional gladiators, sometimes women, fought one another or animals to death. The survivors would live or die according to the “thumbs up” or down of the emperor or governor, as the crowds howled and roared their approval or condemnation.
Constantine officially abolished gladiatorial combats, although they often continued for decades in many places, probably with gladiators fighting animals. Christians were forbidden to attend, but Augustine talks of his friend Alypius in early fifth-century North Africa attending; originally keeping his hands over his eyes and then succumbing to the spectacle!
Christians revolutionised health care because they stayed and cared for their sick, even in times of plague. Therefore more of them survived. Medical care was basic and ignorant and society’s obligations to the ill were not rated highly, partly because they were so powerless. This was also a society where mercy and compassion were regarded as weaknesses to be eliminated.
One anecdote is indicative, of Galen, the most famous ancient physician, a prolific author, who lived through the terrible plague of 167 AD under Marcus Aurelius. Galen did not stay in Rome to help but quickly retired to his country estate in Asia Minor. No more was required or expected.
Another interesting example of an important change the Church introduced around 600 AD under Pope Gregory the Great was not mentioned by Stark, but is found in Joseph Henrich’s recent book The Weirdest People in the World (2020), where WEIRD stands for “Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic”.
Henrich’s clear and controversial thesis is that the millennia-long campaign, banning unions not merely between first cousins, but distant relatives too, transformed the organisation and psychology of once tribal European societies. The Western world, unlike the Middle East and Africa, where a quarter of modern weddings still occur between relatives, now has many “WEIRD” people; an odd bunch, made up of autonomous individuals, generally more trusting, patient and non-conformist, who have also benefited from Christian opposition to arranged marriages, polygamy and incest.
From the beginning Christ brought peace, spiritually and psychologically, to his tormented listeners and from the beginning his followers linked sexual activity to love, urged heteronormativity in a polyamorous society (where the walls of the baths in Pompeii show little was off limits) and punished public lapses from their exclusive heterosexual marriages. The penitential processes were fierce and adulterers, with murderers and idolaters, were expelled from the community, sometimes for years. The children of stable loving marriages thrive and adults not so blessed in their childhood often come to recognise this.
Christianity humanised the Roman Empire and the barbarians who took it over in the West, although the process was imperfect and slow, with both progress and regression. But we could not say that the Christian religion triumphed, whatever the alliance or contest between throne and altar, because the “world, flesh and devil” are never routed and often prevail; and in “Christian” societies.
One might compare ancient pagan Rome and the successor Christian empires to Britain in the nineteenth century and Britain today after two world wars. Britain is no longer the head of empire, the most powerful nation militarily or economically, but most of the population now have a better, more humane way of life. It was similar for the citizens in the Western kingdoms and Byzantium, when there was peace; and pagan Rome never had a Charles Dickens to describe the misery of their poor.
For generations the leadership of Britain and its empire was nourished by a stream of graduates who had studied the classics of ancient Greece and Rome, taken “Mods and Greats” at Oxford University. When I was there in the 1960s an early set text for everyone studying modern history was Gibbon’s classic. Boris Johnson read classics at Oxford. Athens and Rome, with Jerusalem, provide the foundations for our way of life, but the study of the Roman Empire was appropriate for those running another mighty empire.
Australia is a distant outpost of empire, of Anglophone culture on the southern boundary of Asia, which the resurgent Middle Kingdom of China regards as a weak link it would prefer as a vassal state and a reliable supplier of raw materials, including coal for their power stations.
Just as Constantinople replaced Rome, so New York has replaced London. When Singapore fell to the Japanese in 1942 and Prime Minister Curtin announced that we now looked to the United States, General MacArthur told him he was having none of that as Australia was simply a good launching pad to attack Japan.
This year we celebrate the seventieth anniversary of the ANZUS Treaty between Australia and the US. The US is immensely more powerful and successful than Byzantium ever was. Without doubt the twentieth century was the American century. As the US pivots to the Pacific Ocean and redefines its priorities, we hope that this is like the consolidation of boundaries by the Emperor Hadrian, when the Roman Empire was at the height of its power. Hadrian’s Wall in northern England, completed in 128 AD, proved to be more reliable and enduring than attempted alternatives further north among the Picts.
We do not want to believe that recent developments are preliminaries to the US leaving us and our part of the southern hemisphere as the Roman legions departed from Britain in 410. Despite the best efforts of the Church, centuries of turmoil and darkness followed.
This is an edited version of an address Cardinal Pell delivered in September to a symposium on “Barbarism, Religion and the Rule of Law” organised by the Boston, Melbourne, Oxford, Vancouver Conversazioni on Culture and Society, in collaboration with the Institute for International Studies at the University of Chile and the P.M. Glynn Institute at the Australian Catholic University