The Papacy: 2nd-5th Centuries

We learn of the first thirteen popes from Irenaeus of Lyons, who documented their colorful mythology from Peter to Eleutherius. This was a time of great paranoia for Christians following the Great Fire in Rome and the subsequent Neronian nightmare as well as a resurgence of violent persecutions under Emperor Domitian (AD 81-96) who promoted a delusional form of self-deification, dominus et deus or “master and god,” and he began torturing the new religion once again. This was the context in which the fevered Book of Revelation was likely written –a text which gleefully celebrates the downfall of Rome and subversively refers to Jesus as a “King” in contrast to the Roman Emperor. Emperors Trajan, Hadrian, and Antoninus Pius are generally remembered as more tolerant rulers, however the crowds in Rome still raged for more bodies to fill the ongoing circus festivals. Two of the most important Christian leaders were slaughtered in just such a way: St. Ignatius Bishop of Antioch was martyred being fed to lions in the Coliseum, and St. Polycarp Bishop of Smyrna (suspected author of several Pauline epistles) was supposedly stabbed to death at the age of 86 when attempts to burn him at the stake apparently failed. Other influential leaders of the epoch included Justin “Martyr,” a man who sought to harmonize old Hebrew scriptures with classical philosophic thought (he was beheaded around 165), Irenaeus of Lyons, the great early historiographer of early Christianity, was rumored to have heard the words of Polycarp who in turn had heard the words of John the Evangelist (relics and connections to the original people connected to Jesus have long been important to Christianity), and Tertullian, a North African polemicist who later was deemed a “heretic.” In Alexandria there flourished a rebellious form of elite Latin education from the likes of Clement and Origen.

Many of the post-Peter popes are obscure and met their deaths in martyrdom, each of them longing to suffer death in the way their Lord died. In a word, martyrdom became a way of life for the Church. In turn Rome was all-too eager to torture this fervent new religion as Christianity loudly decried all other religions as evil and demonic. Christians rejected the hedonistic and impure ‘ways of the world’ of “Rome” and “Babylon” (these terms were once referenced by early Christians to suggest an indulgent imperial way of life focused on excessive human delights, today similar code words like “secular liberalism” are amusingly employed). However, the growing Church at the time could take solace when some of the most vicious Emperors also met their grisly ends –Decius was slain by the Goths in 249, and Valerian was captured by the Persian King Shapur I who used the former Emperor as an enslaved mounting block for the rest of his life. While the Western Empire continued to lose population amidst rising crime and lawlessness, Marcus Aurelius and his son Commodus reignited persecution of the Christians as did Diocletian. In times of great difficulty, it is always easy for leaders to blame the most vulnerable. To compensate for all the bloodshed, early Church leaders began guaranteeing shelter in heaven for martyrs.

However, in 305 when Diocletian abdicated his imperial rule in order to grow cabbages on his humble country estate, a young general rose to power in his stead. We know him today as Constantine the Great, he was a celebrated military hero and tetrarch of Diocletian. At the famous battle of Milvan Bridge, his troops bore the “Chi Rho” emblem which was soon to become the symbol of imperial Christianity. And most importantly he provided a new direction forward for the fraying empire. He was a progressive of sorts who often snubbed the traditionalists of Hellenism. Constantine supposedly embraced Christianity personally as well as publicly. Whatever his political motivations, the effect of Constantine’s radically new religious policy had an extraordinary effect the world over. He issued the Edict of Milan in 313 granting complete religious freedom across the empire and he convened the First Council of Nicea in 325 as part of a response to the growing threat of “heresy.” A charismatic man from Alexandria named Arius began preaching that Jesus was in fact not co-eternal with God but rather that he was merely a man created by God for a specific time and place. Rome sought to quickly stamp out this wildfire but it was too late –nearly a hundred bishops were quickly excommunicated from Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere and in those days, theological questions were of great concern to the common market-goer. Fiery, impassioned speeches were widely distributed arguing for or against Arius; and Arianism continued to thrive in the empire for the next century or so. At any rate, the First Council of Nicaea confirmed the doctrine of “consubstantial” in order to reaffirm the notion that Jesus was one substance with God as described in the Nicene Creed (a version of which is still uttered in churches today, and which I can personally recite from memory).

Crucifixion was then abolished shortly thereafter, and Constantine did not stop there. As his last great reform, he moved the capital of the empire eastward to the shores of the Bosphorus to an old Greek city at Byzantium he dubbed “New Rome,” but the common tongue simply referred to it as Constantinople in his honor (that is to say: Istanbul, not Constantinople). Before he departed, Constantine built a variety of lavish churches including St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem to honor the supposed discovery of the true cross of Jesus by the Emperor’s mother St. Helena, and a number of other churches throughout the empire –including the Great Church of St. Sophia (“Hagia Sophia”). By the time Constantine died in 337 a mere 35 years had spanned between Diocletian’s reign into what now seemed like a whole new empire, albeit one in complete decline.

While all of these changes were met with much rejoicing among the Christian world, the Pope/Bishop of Rome’s claim to complete political power was suddenly threatened as the empire tipped eastward. In response following Constantine’s death, Pope Sylvester was said to have miraculously healed Constantine of leprosy, and so he offered in return the “Donation of Constantine” which promised the rule of the Church in Rome forever (unsurprisingly the document was later a proven forgery, sadly it took nearly a thousand years to do so). Also around this time the historian Eusobius of Caesara offered a considerably more optimistic and less apocalyptic vision forward for the church.

In 381, the new Emperor Theodosius the Great –a fanatically anti-Arian Spaniard– convened a Second Council at Nicaea which sought to make all heretical doctrines a crime against the state. Suddenly, the once persecuted church had become the chief persecutor of heretics and it would continue to be so for centuries to come. The threat of Arianism died out as time passed, but Jews replaced them as the regularly and routinely persecuted faith at the hands of Christianity for many more centuries after Jews were overwhelmingly blamed for the death of Jesus across Europe. Many other non-conforming doctrines emerged during this period including Manichaeism and Neoplatonism, but perhaps the most significant was monasticism –an ascetic, hermetic rejection of established Christian authority which prevailed in various corners of the world.

The relationship between east and west at this time was deteriorating rapidly, despite Constantine’s unifying efforts, as ecclesiastical authority was split between Constantinople and Rome. In the west, Latin was the ruling “apostolic” language as Damasus I commissioned Jerome’s Latin Vulgate (the now famous translation of the Bible). In the east, the mostly forgettable string of Emperors ruled the Church, regularly convening ecumenical councils at their own whim. By the fifth century a feeble, bumbling emperor in the west, Honorius, was easily overthrown by an invading army led by Alaric the Visigoth, himself a Christian as were many outsiders to the empire by this time. The pope at the time was Innocent I, a man whom John Julius Norwich dubs “arguably… the first really great pope. A man of vast ability, high resolution, and impeccable morality, he stands out like a beacon after the scores of mediocrities that preceded him. Papal supremacy, he determined, should be absolute…” (22). In the years that followed the Huns led by the much-feared Attila nearly marched on Rome and would have likely leveled the city if not for Pope Leo I who, according to legend, met with Attila outside the city gates and managed to prevent a likely bloodbath. This single act of persuasion has often been remembered as one of the greatest acts ever performed by a sitting pope, for which he is sometimes called “Leo The Great.” Unfortunately, it was not enough when the Vandals launched their own attack on Rome shortly thereafter. While invasions continued, the western Roman empire gradually collapsed leaving many plunged into chaos and despair. However, by now the Church saw its chance to reach out and grasp the political power it had so desperately lusted after.


For this reading I used John Julius Norwich’s 2011 single volume history of the papacy Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy and Diarmaid MacCulloch’s 2009 work of popular history, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years.

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