Robert “R.J.” Barthelmes graduated from Georgetown College in 2012 with a major in American Studies. In 2010, he worked as a Berkley Center Undergraduate Fellow and wrote for the Junior Year Abroad Network from Rome, Italy.
The world of Christianity erroneously heralds the Edict of Milan as the beginning of the greater Christian movement within the Roman Empire here in modern day Italy. As any Late Antiquity scholar will enlighten, the 313 AD decree by the converted, yet un-baptized, Emperor Constantine was an Edict of Tolerance, not of empire-wide call to conversion to Christianity.
It would be absurd to think that Constantine, a wary and cunning emperor, given his killing of Maxentius on October 28th, 312 at the Milvian Bridge in order to win the imperial throne, would attempt to create a mass Christian movement. Christianity in the early 4th century was a mere blip on the roadmap of the Roman Empire. Comprising only an estimated 5 percent of the Roman population, Christians were seen as a growing but insignificant cult. Although feared due to the aspect of being a mystery cult and allegations of cannibalism (due to the Eucharist) and incest (due to calling one another brothers and sisters), Christians were not a major ideological threat to the empire.
Nor were they a popular subject in the empire. Only 10 years prior to the Edict of Milan, the Emperor Diocletian in 303 AD enacted empire wide persecution of Christians which resulted in many of the martyrs seen buried today in the Christian catacombs outside of Rome along the ancient Appian Road. Why would an emperor publicly convert to Christianity and then try and completely sway his empire to Christianity in that sort of political environment? Based on the taboo nature of Christianity it would be political suicide in an atmosphere where Constantine had to establish his imperial legitimacy. And Constantine did go to great lengths to establish legitimacy given his parading into the city of Rome and his extensive building programs which exuded his power.
Constantine was a savvy emperor and political guru. He understood how to maintain the balance of power required of a Roman emperor. It is a stretch to say that Constantine would publicly create an outright Christian movement within the Roman Empire. Instead, as the sources and logic seem to suggest, Constantine appears to have had merely his own personal conviction towards Christianity. Apparently, he took that personal conviction seriously, using his status as emperor to insert Christianity into and already existing system of power in the Roman Empire. This move would forever define the status of Christianity in Rome. The effects of Christianity being secularized and inserted into public life are still readily apparent at some levels today, particularly with regards to architecture, within the secularized nature of the religiously heralded Eternal City.
Modern day Rome is a land of over 900 churches. From the massive St. Peters Basilica to the small parishes attended by everyday Italian citizens, the city of Rome is directly affiliated with the Catholic religion in contemporary rhetoric and appearance. Just the mere presence of the graves of great fathers of the Christian Church and relics that harkens back to the history of Christianity in this place and the greater Mediterranean world identify Rome with the religion Constantine converted to back in 312 AD.
Yet around the history and churches there exists real, modern life here in Rome. People go to work, take siesta, eat pizza and gelato from street vendors, tend to tourists, and go out late into the night, sometimes even congregating into the wee hours of the morning on church steps and in front of the landmark structures of organized religion. There is an unmistakably secular nature to the way people go about their lives in the midst of these utterly unique religious relics.
In fact, in many ways religious relics are simply a backdrop to a secular life
a framing of ancient design that provides a romantic setting for common doings. In effect, that was truly what many of these ancient buildings were meant to embody originally. For example, Constantines building efforts aimed at perpetuating his power base in Rome incorporated Christian churches and structures into designs. Constantine strategically built up Rome, improving the pagan structures at the city center and meanwhile formulated Christian structures into the city mix. The Christian structures were part of the overall ambiance of the building projects of Rome. Strategically placing Christian relics on the outside of the city, such as St. Peters Basilica, and formatting them after pagan Roman buildings (basilica being Latin for a Kings Hall
which Constantine redefined into the Kings Hall meaning God), Constantine used Christian structures as both a way of increasing his power and as a way to acclimate people to Christian structures in Rome. He deftly made it acceptable to the Roman people to have Christian buildings in Rome because of the way his Christian buildings looked no different from the pagan buildings.
In a way, this phenomenon of Christian architecture being viewed through the same lens as pagan or non-Christian architecture has been sustained or kept constant through the ages. For in modern times, when a student such as myself visits Rome...the Christian sites become run together in classes or tours with the Roman Forum and Coliseum. They are primarily, to the general publics eye, within the same landscape as the ancient Roman ruins or pagan temples. Rome retains a focus on itself as Rome, a city of men, not a city of God, through its architecture. For that this the same focus Constantine, the Christian emperor, maintained for Rome. It is the focus he had to maintain for Rome in order to legitimize his rule.
All this said, what makes Rome important on a Christian front is the contingent of people who do treat the Christian relics as instruments of furthering their faith. For these places have the capacity to facilitate individualized faith relationships with God based on their history and splendor. These personal relationships with God were the reason behind Constantine, later emperors and Christian figures building these monuments and relics in the first place. It is not these grandiose, external religious structures that make Rome a religious city. In fact, Rome may not even be most accurately described as a religious city. Rome is a city where people can see great architecture, amazing ruins, and gorgeous works of man. It is a city where the predominant trends of tourism and everyday life are humanist and secular. But the undercurrent of people, like Constantine, who live in this humanist world yet have a different Christian worldview, who come to Rome and treat the Christian architecture as significant are what is important from a Christian perspective. The faith of these pilgrims provides the architecture with constant meaning and this is what makes Rome constantly a city that can instrument and perpetuate faith.
COMMENT FROM EILEEN MCFARLAND - OCTOBER 5, 2010
Hey R.J.! I always think it's fascinating how we misremember history. Your entry definitely changed my view of Constantine. I also find it intriguing that "in many ways religious relics are simply a backdrop to a secular life." It reminds me of how Washingtonians view the monuments; speaking for myself, I probably don't appreciate them. I think it's easy for natives of famous cities to overlook the city's tourist attractions. However, I think extremely patriotic and history buff Washingtonians respond differently to the monuments. Similarly, I wonder if religious Romans react differently to Rome's religious sites?
Good luck with the rest of your semester!
January 12, 2011
The past 4 months have granted me the opportunity to engage with numerous cultures all over Europe and the Mediterranean world. Travels ranging from Dublin in Ireland to the Northern Sahara Desert in Tunisia have provided an unprecedented opportunity to engage with the gamut of the Christian, or what once was the ancient Christian, world. From the 4th century onward, Christianity was the king religion throughout the known civilized western world. Covering an area stretching from the northern European isles, west to the Iberian Peninsula, south to the Sahara Desert and East to Jerusalem and onward, Christianity spread quickly from its 33 A.D. origins. Over the decades the early Christian church was aided in its proliferation by association with the Roman Empire thanks to the efforts of Constantine, as I wrote about in my first letter. Yet following its rise under the Roman Empire, the main center of Christianity shifted to the north. Celtic Christianity took over as the main theological and evangelistic center of the world. While Christianity most certainly remained present throughout the dying and former Roman Empire during the Middle Ages, it took on a new form, one might argue a dying form.
Today, if you look at the area which once comprised the Roman Empire in terms of a Christian religious or rather, Christian faith experience in the modern day, in some ways you see a disappointing view. Without doubt Italy and Spain and the places in Europe that were once absorbed by the Roman Empire remain thoroughly Catholic countries. But over the past few decades, more and more has been written about the secularization of Europe. The reality is that only 48% of Europeans, according to a recent Eurostat poll believe in a higher power. In addition to the state of European areas which once were held as part of the Roman Empire, a look at the status of North Africa, the Middle East, Turkey, and the Balkan region, all key centers of Christian Rome in the 3rd and 4th centuries, is again surprising. Nowhere in these places is Christianity any longer a prevailing force.
Following the period of Late Antiquity, or rather the heyday of Christianity's conversing throughout the Roman world, the center of Christianity shifted to what was the outskirts of Europe. These outskirts of Europe, the Celtic, northern territories soon became the center of the Christian world. Celtic Christianity, largely through the Reformation, came to be pitted against Roman Catholic Christianity. While Roman Catholic Christianity had spread through an institutional framework, that being the Roman Empire, this new Celtic Christianity, in many cases devoid of large structural oversight, became very missions focused.
A look at the modern world with regards to Christian missions reveals the clear divide between this Celtic Christianity and Roman Catholic Christianity. This divide is different than the Protestant-Catholic divide, culturally and in some ways, politically. The divide between Celtic and Roman Christianity has to do with a style of life and a style of administrative handling of faith. Celtic Christianity became characterized by two prevailing trends-monasticism and evangelism. From the Celtic regions of Europe sprung forth missionaries and monks alike. Such is seen in the legacy of the Celtic churches which now are prevalent in church congregations throughout North America, China and parts of Africa, today. These congregations often lack the central organizational structure which still exists in the Roman Catholic church yet are very outward in their scope in terms of growth.
Differently, the legacy of the Roman Catholic church, seen strongest in places such as Latin America, is characterized by a continuation of rigid church structure and spread of the church through the planting of priests, rather than individualized evangelism. Through this model the fervor for the church seen in some cases from Celtic origins, is not present. And as seen with recent events and perpetuation of violence and societal distress in Latin America, the church as an institution for defining life may be fading away into a cultural backdrop, as it did in the case areas of the Roman Empire.
Unquestionably, and readily apparent through the scattered and varied nature of this letter, the study of Christian church history takes on a dynamic, ever changing character. This institution of Christian religion has had such sway on human beliefs, culture, and events and it has been a privilege to study it for the past 4 months.