Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Key Dates of European History: 313

No question, the edict of Milan in 313 was an absolute milestone in European history. Formally, it legalised the practice of all religions and cults in the Roman Empire… technically, this was only relevant to one single persecuted religion- Christianity.

Almost overnight, Christianity turned from a major underground sect to the driving force in the Roman Empire. By 360, Christianity had become so powerful that the attempt to reinstate a pagan state cult by Julianus failed bitterly.

Some historians, as always, try to downplay the significance of this event, arguing that a legalisation of Christianity was bound to happen, and that Constantine had no particular affinity to Christianity, but merely tolerated it to stabilise his own power base.

Well, of course he did. And of course Christianity was already way too powerful a factor to be ignored. But that does not mean that its formal acceptance was not groundbreaking. From now on, Christians could freely spread their faith, and more importantly, were now able to ascend to a position of command- which they quickly did.

Let us look back a little now. Why exactly was Christianity so successful in the first place? If we look at it the way traditional history teachers, and of course Christian authorities themselves would like to have it, the Christians of late antiquity were a bunch of nice guys who never did any evil and stoically endured being tortured and killed by evil Roman emperors. They were all about being martyrs, and their dedication alone was enough to impress generation after generation of converts.

I am not saying that martyrdom did not play a significant role in the early days of Christianity. But there was more to the new faith than that. A bunch of nice guys never brought an empire to its knees; never have, never will. What was significant about Christianity was that it precisely tapped the pulse of its time.

We all know what the people of the ancient Mediterranean world believed in. Gods and great heroes. Zeus and Apollo, Hercules and Venus. The ancient religions were basically about powerful gods who stand by you if you gave them proper sacrifice. However, I personally believe that the pagan religions of ancient Greece and Rome had a few significant flaws. First of all, the gods were not almighty. They were more or less super-humans with the same flaws and ambitions as a mortal man; the only difference was that they were really, very, very powerful. But they did not possess ultimate power. Like any other being, they were subjects to fate, the true master of the universe. If fate dictated something, anybody, gods or men, had to obey.

Christianity on the other hand offered an idea that comforted many: The belief in a universal master plan. Even if nobody was granted deeper insight into it, there was at least the certainty that everything that happens has a purpose, and that this purpose is ultimately to each individual’s benefit, if they only believed.

What is perhaps even more important is that the Greek and Roman religions did not offer a proper idea of what awaited man after his death. There was no dogma that told you, and it took a good number of centuries until a vague concept of heaven and hell – Elysium and Tartanos – was established, but that never quite took off. Basically, the belief stuck that your soul lives on if you are remembered by those who live after you. A great idea for all the Caesars and Scipios; a terrible outlook for your average Publius Rusticus, servant of Cassius.

There were other faiths around that offered more elaborate eschatological theories. Egyptian faith, Judaism and Zoroastrianism spring to mind, although the latter one did not finalise its dogma until the 10th century.

The new faith, on the other hand, was all about eschatology. The idea was simple. As mentioned, there is a grand master plan. If you play along, you are rewarded in the end, if you don’t, you are punished. You don’t need to conquer foreign lands or build marvellous cities to be rewarded in the afterlife, all you need to do is play the role you are instructed to play, from the greatest emperor to the pettiest slave. If you do your job, you go to heaven.

This simple message was enough for many to convert. But the general concept of the religion was enhanced to please the more critical minds as well. When the Biblical canon was established, it contained four versions of the gospel, written by four different individuals. We all know that. What is so remarkable here is that the Christians of old did not expect you to believe just one person’s account. They had to convert people who were educated in classical Greek philosophy, no less, so they provided four accounts of the same story, each one ever so slightly different, but giving the potential convert a chance to critically check what he has been told. Of course, more gospels were excluded from Biblical canon than included- but the fact that we have four instead of one is already highly progressive for a religious movement of antiquity.

Finally, Gnosticism gave Christianity the possibility to offer a link with pre-Christian Greek philosophy, and hence a possibility to create a continuous flow with the pre-Christian past. This way, Christianity never became a breaking point, despite what many will try to tell you. It took its place in European civilisation without immediately abolishing all previous elements of culture, but gradually, in a time frame of 400 years, displacing them.