The cultural and religious crisis through which the Roman Empire was passing in the fourth century is one of the most significant events in the history of the world. The old pagan culture came into collision with Christianity, which received official recognition during the reign of Constantine at the beginning of the fourth century and was declared the dominant State religion by Theodosius the Great at the end of that same century. It might have seemed at first that these two clashing elements, representing two diametrically opposed points of view, would never find a basis for mutual agreement. But Christianity and pagan Hellenism did intermix gradually to form a Christian-Greco-Eastern culture subsequently known as Byzantine. Its center was the new capital of the Roman Empire, Constantinople.
There are what we may call culminating epochs, in which the accumulating tendencies of the past, reaching a certain point, suddenly effect a visible transformation which seems to turn the world in a new direction. Such a culminating epoch occurred in the history of the Roman Empire at the beginning of the fourth century. The reign of Constantine the Great inaugurated a new age in a much fuller sense than the reign of Augustus, the founder of the Empire. The anarchy of the third century, when it almost seemed that the days of the Roman Empire were numbered, had displayed the defects of the irregular and heterogeneous system of government which Augustus had established to administer his immense dominion. His successors had introduced modifications and improvements here and there, but events made it clearer and clearer that a new system, more centralised and more uniform, was required, if the Empire was to be held together. To Diocletian, who rescued the Roman world at the brink of the abyss, belongs the credit of having framed a new system of administrative machinery. Constantine developed and completed the work of Diocletian by measures which were more radical and more far-reaching. The foundation of Constantinople as a second Rome inaugurated a permanent division between the Eastern and Western, the Greek and the Latin, halves of the Empire —a division to which events had already pointed— and affected decisively the whole subsequent history of Europe. Still more evidently and notoriously did Constantine mould the future by accepting Christianity as the State religion. (from J. B. Bury, History of the Later Roman Empire, pp. 1-2.)
The person who was chiefly responsible for the many changes in the empire was Constantine the Great. During his reign Christianity stepped for the first time on the firm ground of official recognition. From this time forward the old pagan empire gradually changed into a Christian empire.
The conversion of nations or states to Christianity has usually taken place during the early stage of their historical existence when the past has created no firmly established traditions, but merely some crude and primitive customs and forms of government. In such cases the conversion has caused no great crisis in the life of the people. But this was not characteristic of the Roman Empire in the fourth century. It already possessed an old world culture and had developed forms of government perfect for that time. It had a great past and an extensive body of ideas which had been assimilated by the population.
This empire, changing in the fourth century into a Christian state, entered upon an era during which its past was contradicted, at times completely denied; this was bound to lead to an extremely acute and difficult crisis. Apparently the old pagan world, at least in the domain of religion, no longer satisfied national wants. New needs and new desires appeared which only Christianity could satisfy. When a moment of unusual importance is associated with some historical personage who happens to play a leading part in it, a whole literature about him is created which aims to evaluate his significance for the given period and attempts to penetrate into the innermost regions of his spiritual life. For the fourth century this important personage was Constantine the Great.
Cf. Athanasius the Great
A History of the Byzantine Empire - Table of Contents
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