John Lord.

The Old Roman World, : the Grandeur and Failure of Its Civilization online

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calamities of the Jews, of Herod Agrippa, of Philo, of Nero's
persecution, of the emperors, but not of Christians. Eusebius does not
narrate a single interesting or important fact which took place in the
first century through the agency of a great man. We know scarcely more
than what is contained in the New Testament. We read that Clement was
bishop of Rome, but know nothing of his administration. We do not know
whether or not he was a man of any worldly consideration. Nothing in
history is more barren than the annals of the church in the first
century, so far as great names are concerned. Yet in this century
converts were multiplied in every city, and traditions point to the
martyrdoms of those who were prominent, including nearly all of the

[Sidenote: Obscurity of the early Christians.]

[Sidenote: Their intense religious life.]

In the second century there are no greater names than Polycarp,
Irenaeus, Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Clement Melito, and Apollonius - quiet
bishops or intrepid martyrs - bishops who addressed their flocks in upper
chambers, and who held no worldly rank - famous only for their sanctity
or simplicity of character, and only mentioned for their sufferings and
faith. We read of martyrs, some of whom wrote valuable treatises and
apologies; but among them we find no people of rank, not even ladies
like Paula and Marcella and Fabiola, in the time of Jerome, unless
Symphorosa is an exception. It was a disgrace to be a Christian in the
eye of fashion or power. Even the great Marcus Aurelius, so
distinguished as a man and a philosopher, had supreme contempt of the
new apostles of truth, and was one of their most unrelenting
persecutors. The early Christian literature is chiefly apologetic, and
the doctrinal character of the fathers of this century is simple and
practical, showing no great acquaintance with the system of heathen
thought. There were controversies in the church - an intense religious
life - great activities, great virtues, but no outward conflicts, no
secular history, nothing to arrest public notice. But the converts to
Christianity, plebeian as they were, were yet of sufficient consequence
to be persecuted. They had attracted the notice of government. They were
looked upon as fanatics who sought to destroy a reverence for existing
institutions. But they had not as yet assailed the government, or the
great social institutions of the empire. In this century the polity of
the church was quietly organized. There was an organized fellowship
among the members: bishops had become influential, not in society, but
among the Christians; dioceses and parishes were established; there was
a distinction between city and rural bishops; delegates of churches
assembled to discuss points of faith, or suppress nascent heresies; the
diocesan system was developed, and ecclesiastical centralization
commenced; deacons began to be reckoned among the higher clergy; the
weapons of excommunication were forged; missionary efforts were carried
on; the festivals of the church were created; Gnosticism - a kind of
philosophical religion - was embraced by many leading minds; catechetical
schools taught the faith systematically; the formulas of baptism and the
other sacraments became of great importance; marriage with unbelievers
was discouraged; and monachism became popular. The internal history of
the church becomes interesting, but still the Christians had no great
influence outside their own body; it was esoteric, quiet, unobtrusive;
and it was a very small body of pure and blameless men, who did not
aspire to control society.

[Sidenote: The empire in a hopeless state.]

While the church was thus laying the foundation of its future polity and
power, but nothing more, and failed to attract the great, or men of
ambitious views - those who led society - the empire was approaching a
most fearful crisis. Hadrian had built a wall from the Rhine to the
Danube to arrest the incursions of barbarians; the Roman garrisons
beyond the Danube were withdrawn; the Goths had advanced from the
Vistula and the Oder to the shores of the Black Sea; the Jews were
dispersed; a chaos of deities was in the Roman Pantheon; Grecian
philosophy had degenerated; the taste of the people had become utterly
corrupt; games and festivals were the business and the amusement of the
people; the despotism of the emperors had utterly annulled all rights; a
succession of feeble and wicked princes ruled supreme; the empire was
falling into a state of luxury and inglorious peace; the middle classes
had become extinct; and disproportionate fortunes had vastly increased
slavery. The work of disintegration had commenced.

[Sidenote: The church of the third century.]

The third century saw the church more powerful as an institution.
Regular synods had assembled in the great cities of the empire; the
metropolitan system was matured; the canons of the church were
definitely enumerated; great schools of theology attracted inquiring
minds; the doctrines of faith were systematized; Christianity had spread
so extensively that it must needs be persecuted or legalized; great
bishops ruled the growing church; great doctors speculated on the
questions which had agitated the Grecian schools; church edifices were
enlarged, and banquets instituted in honor of the martyrs. The church
was rapidly advancing to a position which extorted the attention of
mankind. But even so late as the close of the third century, there were
but few Christians eminent for riches or rank. There were some great
bishops like Cyprian, Hippolytus, Victor, Demetrius; some great
theologians like Origen, Tertullian, and Clement; some great heretics
like Hermogones, Sabellius, and Novatian - all marked men, immortal men;
but of no great influence outside their ranks.

What could they do in a time of so much public misery and misfortune as
marked the empire when it was ruled by monsters; when the barbarians had
obtained a foothold in the provinces; when the capital was deserted by
the emperors for the camp; and when signs of decay and ruin were
apparent to all thoughtful minds?

[Sidenote: The church of the fourth century.]

It was not till the fourth century - when imperial persecution had
stopped; when Constantine was converted; when the church was allied with
the state; when the early faith was itself corrupted; when superstition
and vain philosophy had entered the ranks of the faithful; when bishops
became courtiers; when churches became both rich and splendid; when
synods were brought under political influence; when monachists had
established a false principle of virtue; when politics and dogmatics
went hand in hand, and emperors enforced the decrees of councils - that
men of rank entered the church, and the church had a visible influence
on the state. It was not till the fourth century that such great names
as Arius, Athanasius, Hosius, Eusebius, Cyril of Alexandria, Hilary of
Poictiers, Martin of Tours, Diodorus of Tarsus, Ambrose of Milan, Basil
of Caesarea, Cyril of Jerusalem, Gregory Nazianzen, Theophilus of
Alexandria, Chrysostom of Constantinople, arose and made their voices
heard in the council chambers of the great.

[Sidenote: The empire dismembered before the political triumphs of

But when the church had become a mighty and recognized power, when it
had assailed social institutions, when it drew men of rank into its
folds, when it was no longer an obloquy to be a Christian - then the seat
of empire had been removed to the banks of the Bosphorus; then the Goths
and Vandals had become most formidable enemies, and Theodosius, the last
great emperor, was making a brave but futile attempt to revive the
glories of Trajan and the Antonines. The empire was crumbling to pieces -
was dying - and even Christianity could not save it politically.

[Sidenote: The Christians form an imperfect barrier against corruption.]

[Sidenote: The Christians an esoteric band of worshipers.]

[Sidenote: Christians powerless outside their ranks.]

[Sidenote: The church powerless outside its circle.]

[Sidenote: Christianity itself corrupted.]

Thus, when Christianity was pure, and a truly renovating religion, it
had no social influence on the leaders of rank and fashion. How could
people of no political or social position, who were objects of ridicule
and contempt, have effected great social or political changes? Until
their conversion, they had not modified a law, and still less enacted
one. How could they reach the ear of those who disdained, repelled, and
persecuted them? They had no influence on the makers or the executors of
laws. They could not call in the vast power of fashion, for they had no
social prestige. They could not create a public opinion, for they were
obliged to hide to save their lives. They had no learning to attract
philosophers. They were not allowed to preach in public, and could not
reach the people. They had no schools, nor books, nor colleges. They
could not assail public institutions, for despotism was established and
was irresistible. There was no liberty of speech by which they might
have made converts above their rank. They could not subvert slavery
without influencing those who controlled it. They could not destroy
disproportionate fortunes, since the wealthy were protected by
government. They could not interfere with games and demoralizing
spectacles, for these were controlled by the emperor and his ministers,
whose ear they could not reach, and upon whom all lofty arguments would
have been wasted. The court, the army, the aristocracy, rushed with
headlong eagerness into excesses and pleasures, which could not have
been arrested by the wise and good of their own rank; much less by a
class who were obnoxious and forgotten. The Christians could not even
utter indignant protests without personal danger, to which they were not
called. There was no possible way of presenting a barrier against
corruption, outside their own ranks. Obscure men in these times can
write books, but not under the empire; now they can lecture and preach,
but not then. They were obliged to conceal their sentiments when there
was danger of being suspected of being Christians. Those who have
observed the resistless tyranny of fashion in our times - how even
Christians are drawn into its eddies, not merely in such matters as
dress, and houses, and education, but even in pleasures which are
questionable, and in opinions which are false - what are we to think of
the overwhelming influence of fashion at Rome, when society was still
more artificial, when its leaders were kings and tyrants, and when all
the propensities of human nature were in accordance with the customs
handed down for centuries, and endorsed by all who were powerful in
ordinary life. If Christians are so feeble in Paris, London, and New
York, in suppressing acknowledged evils which come from the world, how
could the early Christians prevent the ascendency of evils among those
over whom they had no influence - perhaps those who did not feel them to
be evils at all. If Christians who affect great social position in our
cities cannot break up theatres and other demoralizing pleasures, how
could the early Christians bring the games of the amphitheatre into
disrepute? If social evils increase among us in spite of churches and
schools and a free press and lectures, how could we expect them to
decrease when no power was exerted to bring them into disrepute, and
when the general tone of society was infinitely lower than in the worst
capitals of modern times? What would wealthy senators, with their armies
of clients and slaves, or the frivolous courtiers of godless emperors,
or the sensual equestrians who composed a moneyed class, care for
opposition to their pleasures from those whom they despised, and with
whom they never associated, and who had no influence on public opinion?
The Christians could not, and dared not, make their voices heard, to any
extent, outside their own esoteric circle. They had an influence, or
their circle could not have increased, but it was private and concealed.
Artisans talked with artisans, servants with servants, soldiers with
soldiers. They converted, quietly and unobtrusively, by private talk and
blameless lives, those with whom alone they freely mingled. Thus their
numbers multiplied, but their prestige did not increase, until these
mechanics and laborers and slaves exercised some fortunate influence, by
occasional entreaties, on their haughty masters. A favorite slave could
sometimes gain the ear of the lady whose hair she dressed; or some
veteran and trusted servant might persuade an indulgent master to listen
to the new truths which were such a life to him. Thus the circle of the
Christians gradually embraced some of the more candid and intellectual
and fearless of the great. But it should be borne in mind that as the
circle was enlarged, especially so as to embrace people whose lives had
been egotistical and self-indulgent, the standard of morality was
lowered. Also we should remember, as the circle increased, even of
devout believers, that vice and degeneracy increased also outside the
circle, and also as rapidly. The overwhelming current of corruption
swept every thing away before it. What if the small minority were
virtuous, when the vast majority were vicious. They were only witnesses
of truth; they were not triumphant conquerors of error. If the state
could have lasted a thousand years longer in peace and prosperity, then
the leaven of the Gospel might have leavened the whole lump. But the
barbarians could not wait for society to be renovated. They came when
society was most enervated. When the Christians had gained sufficient
influence to stop the games of the circus and the amphitheatre; when
they had induced emperors to modify slavery; when they uttered protests
against demoralizing amusements, the barbarians had advanced, and were
becoming the new masters of the empire. The prayers of Augustine, the
letters of Jerome, the sermons of Chrysostom, the ascetic example of
Basil, could no more arrest the march of the avengers of centuries of
misrule than the intercession of Abraham could stop the thunderbolts of
God on the guilty inhabitants of Sodom. The Roman world, so long
abandoned to every folly and sin, must reap the bitter fruit. It was no
reproach to Christianity that it did not avert the consequences of sin,
any more than it was a reproach to Jonah that he could not save Nineveh.
If Christianity effects so little with us, when there are no opposing
religions, and all institutions are professedly in harmony with it; when
it controls the press and the schools and the literature of the country;
when its churches are gilded with the emblem of our redemption in every
village; when its ministers go forth unopposed, and have every facility
of delivering their message, even to the wise and mighty; when
philanthropy comes in with its mighty arm and knocks off the fetters of
the slave, and sends the Gospel to every land - how could it affect
society when every influence was against it. If religion wanes before
the dazzling forces of a brilliant material civilization, and scarcely
holds her own, when all profess to be governed by Christian truth, so
that in a moral and spiritual view, society rather retrogrades than
advances, I am amazed that it made so considerable a progress in the
Roman empire, and increased from generation to generation until it shook
the throne of emperors. And the example of the early church would seem
to indicate that religion can only spread in a healthy manner, by
constantly guarding and purifying those who profess it. It would seem
that the true mission of the church is to elevate her own members rather
than to mingle in scenes which have a corrupting influence. It is not
easy to make the theatre a means of moral improvement, for it will be
deserted when it rises above popular tastes, and the more it panders to
these tastes the more it flourishes. The theatre may have been elevated
at Athens, when the citizens who thronged to hear the plays of Sophocles
were themselves cultivated. Racine may have been relished at Versailles,
but only because the court of a great king composed the audience. The
theatre never rises _above_ the taste of those who patronize it.
Christian teachings would have been spurned at Rome even had there been
no persecution. The church flourished because it instructed its own
members, and quietly gained an extension of its influence, not because
it appealed to those who opposed it. The church, in those days, was not
a philanthropical institution, or an educational enterprise, or a
network of agencies and "instrumentalities" to bring to bear on society
at large certain ameliorating influences or benignant reforms. These
were beyond its reach. But it was a secret body of believers, a kind of
freemasonry which aimed to control and reform those who belonged to it.
Its rules were for members, not the outside world. Hence the history of
the early church refers chiefly to its discipline, to its officers, to
the management of dioceses, to councils, holydays, festivals, liturgies,
creeds, bearing only on its own internal organization. The members of
this secret society lived apart from the world, absorbed in their own
spiritual interests, or seeking to save the souls of those with whom
they came in contact. The true triumphs of Christianity were seen in
making good men of those who professed her doctrines, rather than
changing outwardly popular institutions, or government, or laws, or even
elevating the great mass of unbelievers. And it is more comforting to
feel that the church was small and pure than that it was large and
corrupt. And for three centuries there is reason to believe that the
Christians, if feeble in influence and few in numbers when compared with
the whole population, were remarkable for their graces and virtues - for
their noble resistance to those temptations which enthrall so great a
number of our modern believers. Insignificant in every public sense,
they may not have lifted up their voices against the system of slavery
which did so much to undermine the state; they may not have lectured
against the despotic power of the imperator; they may have taken but
little interest in politics, rendering unto Caesar whatever was due,
whether taxes or obedience; they may not have formed schools or colleges
or lyceums; they may not have meddled with any thing outside their
ranks, except to preach temperance, justice, and a judgment to come, and
a Saviour who was crucified, and a heaven to be obtained; but they did
practice among themselves all the duties enjoined by Christ and his
Apostles; they refused to sacrifice to the gods of pagan antiquity; they
visited no shows; they attended no pageants; they gave no sumptuous
banquets; they did not witness the games of the theatre and the circus;
they did not play at dice, or take usury, or dye their hair, or wear
absurd ornaments, or indulge in unseemly festivities: they detested
astrologers and soothsayers, shrines, images, and idolatry; they kept
the Sabbath, educated their children in the faith, settled their
disputes without going to law, were patient under injuries, were
charitable and unobtrusive, were full of faith and love, practicing the
severest virtues, devout and spiritual when all were worldly and
frivolous around them, ready for the martyr's pile, and looking to the
martyr's crown. That Christianity should have rescued so many from the
pollution of paganism in such general degeneracy, is very wonderful.
That it should have extended its circle of sincere believers amid
increasing degeneracy, is still more so, and is a most encouraging fact
to the friends of religious progress. If it could not reach the
fashionable and the worldly wise before society was undermined, and the
provinces had become the prey of barbarians, it still could boast of a
glorious army of martyrs, witnesses of the truth, whom all ages will
hold in veneration, precious seed for future and better times. If
Christianity, when it was a life, - a great transforming and renovating
power, reforming what was bad, conserving what was good, - had but little
influence beyond the circle of believers, still less could it save the
empire when it was itself corrupted, when it was a mere nominal
religion, however extensively it had spread. When it became the religion
of the court and of the fashionable classes, it was used to support the
very evils against which it originally protested, and which it was
designed to remove.

[Sidenote: It adopts oriental errors.]

It first adopted many of the errors of the oriental philosophy.
Gnosticism was embraced by many of the leading intellects of the church.
It was the reaction of that old aristocratic spirit which had ruled the
pagan world. It was an eclecticism of knowledge and culture which had
originally despised the doctrines of the Cross. It united the oriental
theosophy with the Platonic philosophy, both of which were proud,
exclusive, disdainful. "It drew a distinction between the man of
intellect, whose vocation it was to know, and the man who could not rise
above blind and implicit faith." The early Christians were characterized
for the simplicity of their faith. But with the triumphs of faith arose
the cravings for knowledge among the more cultivated part of the

[Sidenote: Attempts to reconcile reason with faith.]

Paul had seemingly discouraged all vain speculations, and the Grecian
spirit of philosophy, believing that they would not avail to the
explanation of the Christian mysteries, but rather prove a stumbling-
block and a folly, since the realm of faith was essentially different
from the realm of reason - not necessarily antagonistic, but distinct.
This fundamental principle has ever been maintained by the more orthodox
leaders of the church - by Athanasius, Augustine, Bernard, Pascal,
Calvin - even as the fundamental principle of sound philosophy which
Bacon advocated, that the world of experience and observation could not
be explained by metaphysical deductions, has been the cause of all great
modern progress in the sciences. The Gnostics, the men who aimed at
superior knowledge, disdained the humbling doctrine of Paul, which made
faith supreme over all forms of philosophy, and were the first to seek
solutions of difficult points of theology by abstruse inquiries -
honorable to the intellect, but subversive of that docile spirit which
Christianity enjoined. This tendency to speculation was unfortunate, but
natural to those active minds who sought to discover a connection
between the truths taught by revelation, and those which we arrive at by
consciousness. Grecian philosophy, when most lofty, as expressed by
Plato, was based on these mental possessions - these internal
convictions reached by logic and reflection. What more harmless, and
even praiseworthy, to all appearance, than was this earnest attempt to
reconcile reason with faith? The finest minds and characters of the
church entered into the discussion with singular intensity and ardor.
They would explain the Man-God, the Trinity, the Word made flesh, and
all the other points which grew out of grace and free will. A
dialectical spirit arose, which combated or explained what had formerly
been received with unquestioning submission. In the first century there
was scarcely any need of creeds, for the faith of the Christians was
united on a few simple doctrines, such as are expressed in the Apostles'
Creed. In the second and third centuries agitations and speculations
began, and with the Gnostics, that class who invoked the aid of Oriental
and Grecian philosophies in the propagation of the new religion. It was
to be made dependent on human speculation - a most dangerous error, since
it reintroduced the very wisdom which knew not God, and which the
Apostles ignored. It ushered in the reign of rationalism, which still
refuses to abdicate her throne, and which is absolutely rampant and
exulting in the great universities of the most learned and inquiring of
European nations.

[Sidenote: Gnosticism.]

But Gnosticism partook more of the haughty and exclusive spirit of the
eastern sages, than of the patient and inquiring nature of the Grecian
schools. It soared into regions whither even Platonism did not presume
to venture. It sought to subject even the Grecian mind to its wild and
lofty flights. The doctrines which Zoroaster taught pertaining to the
two antagonistic principles of good and evil - the oriental dualism -
Parsism had great fascination, especially to those who were inclined to

Online LibraryJohn LordThe Old Roman World, : the Grandeur and Failure of Its Civilization → online text (page 45 of 50)