Christianity in the Roman Empire
Some further musings regarding the Christianisation of the empire in the 4th century and afterwards.
We know what certain people believed, because they wrote about it. Either they were writing massive works like St Augustine or they were composing hagiographies of saints and other holy figures.
What we really cannot say to any great degree is what the general population believed, or whether they adopted Christianity with any degree of exclusivity in the early period.
Certainly, the centres of Christianity were the cities and towns of the East, at least initially, and that there was no real homogeneity of belief across the various Christian groups. We see this in the almost incessant disputes over points of interpretation and doctrine. It took the prestige of a Christian emperor to try and stamp a conformity of belief across his domains. I have written before about the Council of Nicaea and this was only the first of many Church Ecumenical Councils convened under the authority of an emperor. Religious dissent and heresy was to threaten the unity of the empire again and again over the centuries.
In the Roman west, where urbanism was much less developed, it is likely that the adoption of Christian belief among the rural populations was much slower than in the east. Certainly, local pagan cults had persisted with tenacity throughout the pagan period of Roman rule, generally involving deities and practices far removed from the Graeco-Roman Mediterranean norms.
In the west from the 3rd and 4th centuries onwards, the Church was dominated by bishops who were closely allied with the educated elites, generally being from the same class. The survival of the Church was thus linked to the survival of “civilised” values, to the continuation of a life of letters, dinner parties and comfortable living. It was a life that was not widely available to the masses, living as most did, a life or agrarian subsistence farming or as virtually indentured serfs on huge agricultural estates. The life of a well-to-do pagan like Ausonius (Decimius Magnus Ausonius), who apparently converted to Christianity at the end of his life, would not have been materially different from that of an educated Christian like Aurelius Ambrosius, better known as St Ambrose, an almost exact contemporary.
The eventual guarantors of civilised values in the West were the Germanic strongmen who imposed order on the fragmented remains of the empire, themselves Christians of a kind, Arians, and Arianism was quite similar in conception to the cerebral Platonic Christianity of the traditional educated Romans of the west, steeped as they were in classical philosophy and learning.
In the east, far more Christianised in any case and with a more demotic form of Christian congregation and establishment, the military emperors of the Dominate, themselves self-made men, were more closely allied to the Christian bishops and priesthood than to the traditional educated pagan elites. The linkage was made explicit under the successors to Constantine, as bishops became influential courtiers, men with the ear of the emperor, but at the same time dependent on the emperor. It is no coincidence that Caesaropapism became entrenched in the east, where imperial power remained strong, and the patriarchs were subordinate to the emperors.
So, in summary, the bishops of the west allied themselves with the successors to the Roman emperors to guarantee the continuation of civilised values, whereas in the east the bishops , by virtue of the adoption of Christianity by Constantine, allied themselves with the emperors for the same reason.