Vol. 3, Chapter III (Cont’d) – Abolition of Gladiatorial Shows


6. And finally, one of the greatest and most beautiful victories of Christian humanity over heathen barbarism and cruelty was the abolition of gladiatorial contests, against which the apologists in the second century had already raised the most earnest protest.

These bloody shows, in which human beings, mostly criminals, prisoners of war, and barbarians, by hundreds and thousands killed one another or were killed in fight with wild beasts for the amusement of the spectators, were still in full favor at the beginning of the period before us. The pagan civilization here proves itself impotent. In its eyes the life of a barbarian is of no other use than to serve the cruel amusement of the Roman people, who wish quietly to behold with their own eyes and enjoy at home the martial bloodshedding of their frontiers. Even the humane Symmachus gave an exhibition of this kind during his consulate (391), and was enraged that twenty-nine Saxon prisoners of war escaped this public shame by suicide. While the Vestal virgins existed, it was their special prerogative to cheer on the combatants in the amphitheatre to the bloody work, and to give the signal for the deadly stroke.

The contagion of the thirst for blood, which these spectacles generated, is presented to us in a striking example by Augustine in his Confessions. His friend Alypius, afterward bishop of Tagaste, was induced by some friends in 385 to visit the amphitheatre at Rome, and went resolved to lock himself up against all impressions. “When they reached the spot,” says Augustine, “and took their places on the hired seats, everything already foamed with bloodthirsty delight. But Alypius, with closed eyes, forbade his soul to yield to this sin. O had he but stopped also his ears! For when, on the fall of a gladiator in the contest, the wild shout of the whole multitude fell upon him, overcome by curiosity he opened his eyes, though prepared to despise and resist the sight. But he was smitten with a more grievous wound in the soul than the combatant in the body, and fell more lamentably …. For when he saw the blood, he imbibed at once the love of it, turned not away, fastened his eyes upon it, caught the spirit of rage and vengeance before he knew it, and, fascinated with the murderous game, became drunk with bloodthirsty joy …. He looked, shouted applause, burned, and carried with him thence the frenzy, by which he was drawn to go back, not only with those who had taken him there, but before them, and taking others with him.”

Christianity finally succeeded in closing the amphitheatre. Constantine, who in his earlier reign himself did homage to the popular custom in this matter, and exposed a great multitude of conquered barbarians to death in the amphitheatre at Treves, for which he was highly commended by a heathen orator, issued in 325, the year of the great council of the church at Nice, the first prohibition of the bloody spectacles, “because they cannot be pleasing in a time of public peace.” But this edict, which is directed to the prefects of Phoenicia, had no permanent effect even in the East, except at Constantinople, which was never stained with the blood of gladiators. In Syria and especially in the West, above all in Rome, the deeply rooted institution continued into the fifth century. Honorius (395-423), who at first considered it indestructible, abolished the gladiatorial shows about 404, and did so at the instance of the heroic self-denial of an eastern monk by the name of Telemachus, who journeyed to Rome expressly to protest against this inhuman barbarity, threw himself into the arena, separated the combatants, and then was torn to pieces by the populace, a martyr to humanity. Yet this put a stop only to the bloody combats of men. Unbloody spectacles of every kind, even on the high festivals of the church and amidst the invasions of the barbarians, as we see by the grievous complaints of a Chrysostom, an Augustine, and a Salvian, were as largely and as passionately attended as ever; and even fights with wild animals, in which human life was generally more or less sacrificed, continued, and, to the scandal of the Christian name, are tolerated in Spain and South America to this day.


22. Evils of the Union of Church and State. Secularization of the Church

We turn now to the dark side of the union of the church with the state; to the consideration of the disadvantages which grew out of their altered relation after the time of Constantine, and which continue to show themselves in the condition of the church in Europe to our own time.

These evil results may be summed up under the general designation of the secularization of the church. By taking in the whole population of the Roman empire the church became, indeed, a church of the masses, a church of the people, but at the same time more or less a church of the world. Christianity became a matter of fashion. The number of hypocrites and formal professors rapidly increased; strict discipline, zeal, self-sacrifice, and brotherly love proportionally ebbed away; and many heathen customs and usages, under altered names, crept into the worship of God and the life of the Christian people. The Roman state had grown up under the influence of idolatry, and was not to be magically transformed at a stroke. With the secularizing process, therefore, a paganizing tendency went hand in hand.

Yet the pure spirit of Christianity could by no means be polluted by this. On the contrary it retained even in the darkest days its faithful and steadfast confessors, conquered new provinces from time to time, constantly reacted, both within the established church and outside of it, in the form of monasticism, against the secular and the pagan influences, and, in its very struggle with the prevailing corruption, produced such church fathers as Athanasius, Chrysostom, and Augustine, such exemplary Christian mothers as Nonna, Anthusa, and Monica, and such extraordinary saints of the desert as Anthony, Pachomius, and Benedict. New enemies and dangers called forth new duties and virtues, which could now unfold themselves on a larger stage, and therefore also on a grander scale. Besides, it must not be forgotten, that the tendency to secularization is by no means to be ascribed only to Constantine and the influence of the state, but to the deeper source of the corrupt heart of man, and did reveal itself, in fact, though within a much narrower compass, long before, under the heathen emperors, especially in the intervals of repose, when the earnestness and zeal of Christian life slumbered and gave scope to a worldly spirit.

The difference between the age after Constantine and the age before consists, therefore, not at all in the cessation of true Christianity and the entrance of false, but in the preponderance of the one over the other. The field of the church was now much larger, but with much good soil it included far more that was stony, barren, and overgrown with weeds. The line between church and world, between regenerate and unregenerate, between those who were Christians in name and those who were Christians in heart, was more or less obliterated, and in place of the former hostility between the two parties there came a fusion of them in the same outward communion of baptism and confession. This brought the conflict between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, Christ and antichrist, into the bosom of Christendom itself.


23. Worldliness and Extravagance

The secularization of the church appeared most strikingly in the prevalence of mammon worship and luxury compared with the poverty and simplicity of the primitive Christians. The aristocracy of the later empire had a morbid passion for outward display and the sensual enjoyments of wealth, without the taste, the politeness, or the culture of true civilization. The gentlemen measured their fortune by the number of their marble palaces, baths, slaves, and gilded carriages; the ladies indulged in raiment of silk and gold ornamented with secular or religious figures, and in heavy golden necklaces, bracelets, and rings, and went to church in the same flaunting dress as to the theatre. Chrysostom addresses a patrician of Antioch: “You count so and so many acres of land, ten or twenty palaces, as many baths, a thousand or two thousand slaves, carriages plated with silver and gold.” Gregory Nazianzen, who presided for a time in the second ecumenical council of Constantinople in 381, gives us the following picture, evidently rhetorically colored, yet drawn from life, of the luxury of the degenerate civilization of that period: “We repose in splendor on high and sumptuous cushions, upon the most exquisite covers, which one is almost afraid to touch, and are vexed if we but hear the voice of a moaning pauper; our chamber must breathe the odor of flowers, even rare flowers; our table must flow with the most fragrant and costly ointment, so that we become perfectly effeminate. Slaves must stand ready, richly adorned and in order, with waving, maidenlike hair, and faces shorn perfectly smooth, more adorned throughout than is good for lascivious eyes; some, to hold cups both delicately and firmly with the tips of their fingers, others, to fan fresh air upon the head. Our table must bend under the load of dishes, while all the kingdoms of nature, air, water and earth, furnish copious contributions, and there must be almost no room for the artificial products of cook and baker …. The poor man is content with water; but we fill our goblets with wine to drunkenness, nay, immeasurably beyond it. We refuse one wine, another we pronounce excellent when well flavored, over a third we institute philosophical discussions; nay, we count it a pity, if he does not, as a king, add to the domestic wine a foreign also.” Still more unfavorable are the pictures which, a half century later, the Gallic presbyter, Salvianus, draws of the general moral condition of the Christians in the Roman empire.

It is true, these earnest protests against degeneracy themselves, as well as the honor in which monasticism and ascetic contempt of the world were universally held, attest the existence of a better spirit. But the uncontrollable progress of avarice, prodigality, voluptuousness, theatre going, intemperance, lewdness, in short, of all the heathen vices, which Christianity had come to eradicate, still carried the Roman empire and people with rapid strides toward dissolution, and gave it at last into the hands of the rude, but simple and morally vigorous barbarians. When the Christians were awakened by the crashings of the falling empire, and anxiously asked why God permitted it, Salvian, the Jeremiah of his time, answered: “Think of your vileness and your crimes, and see whether you are worthy of the divine protection.” Nothing but the divine judgment of destruction upon this nominally Christian, but essentially heathen world, could open the way for the moral regeneration of society. There must be new, fresh nations, if the Christian civilization prepared in the old Roman empire was to take firm root and bear ripe fruit.


24. Byzantine Court Christianity

The unnatural confusion of Christianity with the world culminated in the imperial court of Constantinople, which, it is true, never violated moral decency so grossly as the court of a Nero or a Domitian, but in vain pomp and prodigality far outdid the courts of the better heathen emperors, and degenerated into complete oriental despotism. The household of Constantius, according to the description of Libanius, embraced no less than a thousand barbers, a thousand cup bearers, a thousand cooks, and so many eunuchs, that they could be compared only to the insects of a summer day. This boundless luxury was for a time suppressed by the pagan Julian, who delighted in stoical and cynical severity, and was fond of displaying it; but under his Christian successors the same prodigality returned; especially under Theodosius and his sons. These emperors, who prohibited idolatry upon pain of death, called their laws, edicts, and palaces “divine,” bore themselves as gods upon earth, and, on the rare occasions when they showed themselves to the people, unfurled an incredible magnificence and empty splendor.

“When Arcadius,” to borrow a graphic description from a modern historian, “condescended to reveal to the public the majesty of the sovereign, he was preceded by a vast multitude of attendants, dukes, tribunes, civil and military officers, their horses glittering with golden ornaments, with shields of gold set with precious stones, and golden lances. They proclaimed the coming of the emperor, and commanded the ignoble crowd to clear the streets before him. The emperor stood or reclined on a gorgeous chariot, surrounded by his immediate attendants, distinguished by shields with golden bosses set round with golden eyes, and drawn by white mules with gilded trappings; the chariot was set with precious stones, and golden fans vibrated with the movement, and cooled the air. The multitude contemplated at a distance the snow-white cushions, the silken carpets, with dragons inwoven upon them in rich colors. Those who were fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of the emperor, beheld his ears loaded with golden rings, his arms with golden chains, his diadem set with gems of all hues, his purple robes, which, with the diadem, were reserved for the emperor, in all their sutures embroidered with precious stones. The wondering people, on their return to their homes, could talk of nothing but the splendor of the spectacle: the robes, the mules, the carpets, the size and splendor of the jewels. On his return to the palace, the emperor walked on gold; ships were employed with the express purpose of bringing gold dust from remote provinces, which was strewn by the officious care of a host of attendants, so that the emperor rarely set his foot on the bare pavement.”

The Christianity of the Byzantine court lived in the atmosphere of intrigue, dissimulation, and flattery. Even the court divines and bishops could hardly escape the contamination, though their high office, with its sacred functions, was certainly a protecting wall around them. One of these bishops congratulated Constantine, at the celebration of the third decennium of his reign (the tricennalia), that he had been appointed by God ruler over all in this world, and would reign with the Son of God in the other! This blasphemous flattery was too much even for the vain emperor, and he exhorted the bishop rather to pray God that he might be worthy to be one of his servants in this world and the next. Even the church historian and bishop Eusebius, who elsewhere knew well enough how to value the higher blessings, and lamented the indescribable hypocrisy of the sham Christianity around the emperor, suffered himself to be so far blinded by the splendor of the imperial favor, as to see in a banquet, which Constantine gave in his palace to the bishops at the close of the council of Nice, in honor of his twenty years’ reign (the vicennalia), an emblem of the glorious reign of Christ upon the earth!

And these were bishops, of whom many still bore in their body the marks of the Diocletian persecution. So rapidly had changed the spirit of the age. While, on the other hand, the well-known firmness of Ambrose with Theodosius, and the life of Chrysostom, afford delightful proof that there were not wanting, even in this age, bishops of Christian earnestness and courage to rebuke the sins of crowned heads.


25. Intrusion of Politics into Religion

With the union of the church and the state begins the long and tedious history of their collisions and their mutual struggles for the mastery: the state seeking to subject the church to the empire, the church to subject the state to the hierarchy, and both very often transgressing the limits prescribed to their power in that word of the Lord: “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” From the time of Constantine, therefore, the history of the church and that of the world in Europe are so closely interwoven, that neither can be understood without the other. On the one hand, the political rulers, as the highest members and the patrons of the church, claimed a right to a share in her government, and interfered in various ways in her external and internal affairs, either to her profit or to her prejudice. On the other hand, the bishops and patriarchs, as the highest dignitaries and officers of the state religion, became involved in all sorts of secular matters and in the intrigues of the Byzantine court. This mutual intermixture, on the whole, was of more injury than benefit to the church and to religion, and fettered her free and natural development.

Of a separation of religion and politics, of the spiritual power from the temporal, heathen antiquity knew nothing, because it regarded religion itself only from a natural point of view, and subjected it to the purposes of the all-ruling state, the highest known form of human society. The Egyptian kings, as Plutarch tells us, were at the same time priests, or were received into the priesthood at their election. In Greece the civil magistrate had supervision of the priests and sanctuaries. In Rome, after the time of Numa, this supervision was intrusted to a senator, and afterward united with the imperial office. All the pagan emperors, from Augustus to Julian the Apostate, were at the same time supreme pontiffs (Pontifices Maximi), the heads of the state religion, emperor-popes. As such they could not only perform all priestly functions, even to offering sacrifices, when superstition or policy prompted them to do so, but they also stood at the head of the highest sacerdotal college (of fifteen or more Pontifices), which in turn regulated and superintended the three lower classes of priests (the Epulones, Quindecemviri, and Augures), the temples and altars, the sacrifices, divinations, feasts, and ceremonies, the exposition of the Sibylline books, the calendar, in short, all public worship, and in part even the affairs of marriage and inheritance.

Now it may easily be supposed that the Christian emperors, who, down to Gratian (about 380), even retained the name and the insignia of the Pontifex Maximus, claimed the same oversight of the Christian religion established in the empire, which their predecessors had had of the heathen; only with this material difference, that they found here a stricter separation between the religious element and the political, the ecclesiastical and the secular, and were obliged to bind themselves to the already existing doctrines, usages, and traditions of the church which claimed divine institution and authority.


26. The Emperor-Papacy and the Hierarchy

And this, in point of fact, took place first under Constantine, and developed under his successors, particularly under Justinian, into the system of the Byzantine imperial papacy, or of the supremacy of the state over the church.

Constantine once said to the bishops at a banquet, that he also, as a Christian emperor, was a divinely appointed bishop, a bishop over the external affairs of the church, while the internal affairs belonged to the bishops proper. In this pregnant word he expressed the new posture of the civil sovereign toward the church in a characteristic though indefinite and equivocal way. He made there a distinction between two divinely authorized episcopates; one secular or imperial, corresponding with the old office of Pontifex Maximus, and extending over the whole Roman empire, therefore ecumenical or universal; the other spiritual or sacerdotal, divided among the different diocesan bishops, and appearing properly in its unity and totality only in a general council.

Accordingly, though not yet even baptized, he acted as the patron and universal temporal bishop of the church; summoned the first ecumenical council for the settlement of the controversy respecting the divinity of Christ; instituted and deposed bishops; and occasionally even delivered sermons to the people; but on the other hand, with genuine tact (though this was in his earlier period, a.d. 314), kept aloof from the Donatist controversy, and referred to the episcopal tribunal as the highest and last resort in purely spiritual matters. In the exercise of his imperial right of supervision he did not follow any clear insight and definite theory so much as an instinctive impulse of control, a sense of politico-religious duty, and the requirements of the time. His word only raised, did not solve, the question of the relation between the imperial and the sacerdotal episcopacy and the extent of their respective jurisdictions in a Christian state.

This question became thenceforth the problem and the strife of history both sacred and secular, ran through the whole medieval conflict between emperor and pope, between imperial and hierarchical episcopacy, and recurs in modified form in every Protestant established church.

In general, from this time forth the prevailing view was, that God has divided all power between the priesthood and the kingdom (sacerdotium et imperium), giving internal or spiritual affairs, especially doctrine and worship, to the former, and external or temporal affairs, such as government and discipline, to the latter. But internal and external here vitally interpenetrate and depend on each other, as soul and body, and frequent reciprocal encroachments and collisions are inevitable upon state-church ground. This becomes manifest in the period before us in many ways, especially in the East, where the Byzantine despotism had freer play, than in the distant West.

The emperors after Constantine (as the popes after them) summoned the general councils, bore the necessary expenses, presided in the councils through commissions, gave to the decisions in doctrine and discipline the force of law for the whole Roman empire, and maintained them by their authority. The emperors nominated or confirmed the most influential metropolitans and patriarchs. They took part in all theological disputes, and thereby inflamed the passion of parties. They protected orthodoxy and punished heresy with the arm of power. Often, however, they took the heretical side, and banished orthodox bishops from their sees. Thus Arianism, Nestorianism, Eutychianism, and Monophysitism successively found favor and protection at court. Even empresses meddled in the internal and external concerns of the church. Justina endeavored with all her might to introduce Arianism in Milan, but met a successful opponent in bishop Ambrose. Eudoxia procured the deposition and banishment of the noble Chrysostom. Theodora, raised from the stage to the throne, ruled the emperor Justinian, and sought by every kind of intrigue to promote the victory of the Monophysite heresy. It is true, the doctrinal decisions proceeded properly from the councils, and could not have maintained themselves long without that sanction. But Basiliscus, Zeno, Justinian I., Heraclius, Constans II., and other emperors issued many purely ecclesiastical edicts and rescripts without consulting the councils, or through the councils by their own influence upon them. Justinian opens his celebrated codex with the imperial creed on the trinity and the imperial anathema against Nestorius, Eutyches, Apollinaris, on the basis certainly of the apostolic church and of the four ecumenical councils, but in the consciousness of absolute legislative and executive authority even over the faith and conscience of all his subjects.

The voice of the catholic church in this period conceded to the Christian emperors in general, with the duty of protecting and supporting the church, the right of supervision over its external affairs, but claimed for the clergy, particularly for the bishops, the right to govern her within, to fix her doctrine, to direct her worship. The new state of things was regarded as a restoration of the Mosaic and Davidic theocracy on Christian soil, and judged accordingly. But in respect to the extent and application of the emperor’s power in the church, opinion was generally determined, consciously or unconsciously, by some special religious interest. Hence we find that catholics and heretics, Athanasians and Arians, justified or condemned the interference of the emperor in the development of doctrine, the appointment and deposition of bishops, and the patronage and persecution of parties, according as they themselves were affected by them. The same Donatists who first appealed to the imperial protection, when the decision went against them denounced all intermeddling of the state with the church. There were bishops who justified even the most arbitrary excesses of the Byzantine despotism in religion by reference to Melchizedek and the pious kings of Israel, and yielded them selves willing tools of the court. But there were never wanting also fearless defenders of the rights of the church against the civil power. Maximus the Confessor declared before his judges in Constantinople, that Melchizedek was a type of Christ alone, not of the emperor.

In general the hierarchy formed a powerful and wholesome check on the imperial papacy, and preserved the freedom and independence of the church toward the temporal power. That age had only the alternative of imperial or episcopal despotism; and of these the latter was the less hurtful and the more profitable, because it represented the higher intellectual and moral interests. Without the hierarchy, the church in the Roman empire and among the barbarians would have been the football of civil and military despots. It was, therefore, of the utmost importance, that the church, at the time of her marriage with the state, had already grown so large and strong as to withstand all material alteration by imperial caprice, and all effort to degrade her into a tool. The Apostolic Constitutions place the bishops even above all kings and magistrates. Chrysostom says that the first ministers of the state enjoyed no such honor as the ministers of the church. And in general the ministers of the church deserved their honor. Though there were prelates enough who abused their power to sordid ends, still there were men like Athanasius, Basil, Ambrose, Chrysostom, Augustine, Leo, the purest and most venerable characters, which meet us in the fourth and fifth centuries, far surpassing the contemporary emperors. It was the universal opinion that the doctrines and institutions of the church, resting on divine revelation, are above all human power and will. The people looked, in blind faith and superstition, to the clergy as their guides in all matters of conscience, and even the emperors had to pay the bishops, as the fathers of the churches, the greatest reverence, kiss their hands, beg their blessing, and submit to their admonition and discipline. In most cases the emperors were mere tools of parties in the church. Arbitrary laws which were imposed upon the church from without rarely survived their makers, and were condemned by history. For there is a divine authority above all thrones, and kings, and bishops, and a power of truth above all the machinations of falsehood and intrigue.

The Western church, as a whole, preserved her independence far more than the Eastern; partly through the great firmness of the Roman character, partly through the favor of political circumstances, and of remoteness from the influence and the intrigues of the Byzantine court. Here the hierarchical principle developed itself from the time of Leo the Great even to the absolute papacy, which, however, after it fulfilled its mission for the world among the barbarian nations of the middle ages, degenerated into an insufferable tyranny over conscience, and thus exposed itself to destruction. In the Catholic system the freedom and independence of the church involve the supremacy of an exclusive priesthood and papacy; in the Protestant, they can be realized only on the broader basis of the universal priesthood, in the self-government of the Christian people; though this is, as yet, in all Protestant established churches more or less restricted by the power of the state.


27. Restriction of Religious Freedom, and Beginnings of Persecution of Heretics

Sam. Eliot: History of Liberty. Boston, 1858, 4 vols. Early Christians, vols. i. and ii. The most important facts are scattered through the sections of the larger church histories on the heresies, the doctrinal controversies, and church discipline.

An inevitable consequence of the union of church and state was restriction of religious freedom in faith and worship, and the civil punishment of departure from the doctrine and discipline of the established church.

The church, dominant and recognized by the state, gained indeed external freedom and authority, but in a measure at the expense of inward liberty and self-control. She came, as we have seen in the previous section, under the patronage and supervision of the head of the Christian state, especially in the Byzantine empire. In the first three centuries, the church, with all her external lowliness and oppression, enjoyed the greater liberty within, in the development of her doctrines and institutions, by reason of her entire separation from the state.

But the freedom of error and division was now still more restricted. In the ante-Nicene age, heresy and schism were as much hated and abhorred indeed, as afterward, yet were met only in a moral way, by word and writing, and were punished with excommunication from the rights of the church. Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and even Lactantius were the first advocates of the principle of freedom of conscience, and maintained, against the heathen, that religion was essentially a matter of free will, and could be promoted only by instruction and persuasion not by outward force. All they say against the persecution of Christians by the heathen applies in full to the persecution of heretics by the church. After the Nicene age all departures from the reigning state-church faith were not only abhorred and excommunicated as religious errors, but were treated also as crimes against the Christian state, and hence were punished with civil penalties; at first with deposition, banishment, confiscation, and, after Theodosius, even with death.

This persecution of heretics was a natural consequence of the union of religious and civil duties and rights, the confusion of the civil and the ecclesiastical, the judicial and the moral, which came to pass since Constantine. It proceeded from the state and from the emperors, who in this respect showed themselves the successors of the Pontifices Maximi, with their relation to the church reversed. The church, indeed, steadfastly adhered to the principle that, as such, she should employ only spiritual penalties, excommunication in extreme cases; as in fact Christ and the apostles expressly spurned and prohibited all carnal weapons, and would rather suffer and die than use violence. But, involved in the idea of Jewish theocracy and of a state church, she practically confounded in various ways the position of the law and that of the gospel, and in theory approved the application of forcible measures to heretics, and not rarely encouraged and urged the state to it; thus making herself at least indirectly responsible for the persecution. This is especially, true of the Roman church in the times of her greatest power, in the middle age and down to the end of the sixteenth century; and by this course that church has made herself almost more offensive in the eyes of the world and of modern civilization than by her peculiar doctrines and usages. The Protestant reformation dispelled the dream that Christianity was identical with an outward organization, or the papacy, and gave a mighty shock thereby to the principle of ecclesiastical exclusiveness. Yet, properly speaking, it was not till the eighteenth century that a radical revolution of views was accomplished in regard to religious toleration; and the progress of toleration and free worship has gone hand in hand with the gradual loosening of the state-church basis and with the clearer separation of civil and religious rights and of the temporal and spiritual power.

In the beginning of his reign, Constantine proclaimed full freedom of religion (312), and in the main continued tolerably true to it; at all events he used no violent measures, as his successors did. This toleration, however, was not a matter of fixed principle with him, but merely of temporary policy; a necessary consequence of the incipient separation of the Roman throne from idolatry, and the natural transition from the sole supremacy of the heathen religion to the same supremacy of the Christian. Intolerance directed itself first against heathenism; but as the false religion gradually died out of itself, and at any rate had no moral energy for martyrdom, there resulted no such bloody persecutions of idolatry under the Christian emperors, as there had been of Christianity under their heathen predecessors. Instead of Christianity, the intolerance of the civil power now took up Christian heretics, whom it recognized as such. Constantine even in his day limited the freedom and the privileges which he conferred, to the catholic, that is, the prevailing orthodox hierarchical church, and soon after the Council of Nice, by an edict of the year 326, expressly excluded heretics and schismatics from these privileges. Accordingly he banished the leaders of Arianism and ordered their writings to be burned, but afterward, wavering in his views of orthodoxy and heterodoxy, and persuaded over by some bishops and his sister, he recalled Arius and banished Athanasius. He himself was baptized shortly before his death by an Arian bishop. His son Constantius was a fanatical persecutor both of idolatry and the Nicene orthodoxy, and endeavored with all his might to establish Arianism alone in the empire. Hence the earnest protest of the orthodox bishops, Hosius, Athanasius, and Hilary, against this despotism and in favor of toleration; which came, however, we have to remember, from parties who were themselves the sufferers under intolerance, and who did not regard the banishment of the Arians as unjust.

Under Julian the Apostate religious liberty was again proclaimed, but only as the beginning of return to the exclusive establishment of heathenism; the counterpart, therefore, of Constantine’s toleration. After his early death Arianism again prevailed, at least in the East, and showed itself more, intolerant and violent than the catholic orthodoxy.

At last Theodosius the Great, the first emperor who was baptized in the Nicene faith, put an end to the Arian interregnum, proclaimed the exclusive authority of the Nicene creed, and at the same time enacted the first rigid penalties not only against the pagan idolatry, the practice of which was thenceforth a capital crime in the empire, but also against all Christian heresies and sects. The ruling principle of his public life was the unity of the empire and of the orthodox church. Soon after his baptism, in 380, he issued, in connection with his weak coëmperors, Gratian and Valentinian II., to the inhabitants of Constantinople, then the chief seat of Arianism, the following edict: “We, the three emperors, will, that all our subjects steadfastly adhere to the religion which was taught by St. Peter to the Romans, which has been faithfully preserved by tradition, and which is now professed by the pontiff Damasus, of Rome, and Peter, bishop of Alexandria, a man of apostolic holiness. According to the institution of the apostles and the doctrine of the gospel, let us believe in the one Godhead of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, of equal majesty in the holy Trinity. We order that the adherents of this faith be called Catholic Christians; we brand all the senseless followers of other religions with the infamous name of heretics, and forbid their conventicles assuming the name of churches. Besides the condemnation of divine justice, they must expect the heavy penalties which our authority, guided by heavenly wisdom, shall think proper to inflict.” In the course of fifteen years this emperor issued at least fifteen penal laws against heretics, by which he gradually deprived them of all right to the exercise of their religion, excluded them from all civil offices, and threatened them with fines, confiscation, banishment, and in some cases, as the Manichaeans, the Audians, and even the Quartodecimanians, with death.

From Theodosius therefore dates the state-church theory of the persecution of heretics, and the embodiment of it in legislation. His primary design, it is true, was rather to terrify and convert, than to punish, the refractory subjects.

From the theory, however, to the practice was a single step; and this step his rival and colleague, Maximus, took, when, at the instigation of the unworthy bishop Ithacius, he caused the Spanish bishop, Priscillian, with six respectable adherents of his Manichaean-like sect (two presbyters, two deacons, the poet Latronian, and Euchrocia, a noble matron of Bordeaux), to be tortured and beheaded with the sword at Treves in 385. This was the first shedding of the blood of heretics by a Christian prince for religious opinions. The bishops assembled at Treves, with the exception of Theognistus, approved this act.

But the better feeling of the Christian church shrank from it with horror. The bishops Ambrose of Milan, and Martin of Tours, raised a memorable protest against it, and broke off all communion with Ithacius and the other bishops who had approved the execution. Yet it should not be forgotten that these bishops, at least Ambrose, were committed against the death penalty in general, and in other respects had no indulgence for heathens and heretics. The whole thing, too, was irregularly done; on the one hand the bishops appeared as accusers in a criminal cause, and on the other a temporal judge admitted an appeal from the episcopal jurisdiction, and pronounced an opinion in a matter of faith. Subsequently the functions of the temporal and spiritual courts in the trial of heretics were more accurately distinguished.

The execution of the Priscillianists is the only instance of the bloody punishment of heretics in this period, as it is the first in the history of Christianity. But the propriety of violent measures against heresy was thenceforth vindicated even by the best fathers of the church. Chrysostom recommends, indeed, Christian love toward heretics and heathens, and declares against their execution, but approved the prohibition of their assemblies and the confiscation of their churches; and he acted accordingly against the Novatians and the Quartodecimanians, so that many considered his own subsequent misfortunes as condign punishment. Jerome, appealing to Deu_13:6-10, seems to justify even the penalty of death against religious errorists.

Augustine, who himself belonged nine years to the Manichaean sect, and was wonderfully converted by the grace of God to the Catholic church, without the slightest pressure from without, held at first the truly evangelical view, that heretics and schismatics should not be violently dealt with, but won by instruction and conviction; but after the year 400 he turned and retracted this view, in consequence of his experience with the Donatists, whom he endeavored in vain to convert by disputation and writing, while many submitted to the imperial laws. Thenceforth he was led to advocate the persecution of heretics, partly by his doctrine of the Christian state, partly by the seditious excesses of the fanatical Circumcelliones, partly by the hope of a wholesome effect of temporal punishments, and partly by a false interpretation of the Cogite intrare, in the parable of the great supper, Luk_14:23. “It is, indeed, better,” says he, “that men should be brought to serve God by instruction than by fear of punishment or by pain. But because the former means are better, the latter must not therefore be neglected …. Many must often be brought back to their Lord, like wicked servants, by the rod of temporal suffering, before they attain the highest grade of religious development …. The Lord himself orders that the guests be first invited, then compelled, to his great supper.” This father thinks that, if the state be denied the right to punish religious error, neither should she punish any other crime, like murder or adultery, since Paul, in Gal_5:19, attributes divisions and sects to the same source in the flesh. He charges his Donatist opponents with inconsistency in seeming to approve the emperors’ prohibitions of idolatry, but condemning their persecution of Christian heretics. It is to the honor of Augustine’s heart, indeed, that in actual cases he earnestly urged upon the magistrates clemency and humanity, and thus in practice remained true to his noble maxim: “Nothing conquers but truth, the victory of truth is love.” But his theory, as Neander justly observes, “contains the germ of the whole system of spiritual despotism, intolerance, and persecution, even to the court of the Inquisition.” The great authority of his name was often afterward made to justify cruelties from which he himself would have shrunk with horror. Soon after him, Leo the Great, the first representative of consistent, exclusive, universal papacy, advocated even the penalty of death for heresy.

Henceforth none but the persecuted parties, from time to time, protested against religious persecution; being made, by their sufferings, if not from principle, at least from policy and self-interest, the advocates of toleration. Thus the Donatist bishop Petilian, in Africa, against whom Augustine wrote, rebukes his Catholic opponents, as formerly his countryman Tertullian had condemned the heathen persecutors of the Christians, for using outward force in matters of conscience; appealing to Christ and the apostles, who never persecuted, but rather suffered and died. “Think you,” says he, “to serve God by killing us with your own hand? Ye err, ye err, if ye, poor mortals, think this; God has not hangmen for priests. Christ teaches us to bear wrong, not to revenge it.” The Donatist bishop Gaudentius says: “God appointed prophets and fishermen, not princes and soldiers, to spread the faith.” Still we cannot forget, that the Donatists were the first who appealed to the imperial tribunal in an ecclesiastical matter, and did not, till after that tribunal had decided against them, turn against the state-church system.