GIBBON: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire [Ch. 15-16]

GIBBON: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire [Ch. 15-16]

Ch.15 – The Progress of the Christian Religion, and the sentiments, manners, numbers, and conditions of primitive Christians.

  • A pure and gentle religion insinuated itself into the minds of men whilst he Roman Empire was invaded by open violence, and undermined by slow moral and cultural decay. The Christian religion eventually erected the banner of the cross on the ruins of the Capitol. The religion has been diffused throughout all corners of the world, unknown to the ancients.
  • Gibbon shall endeavor to trace the progress and development of Christianity. However, this tasked is attended with two difficulties: the early records maintained by Christians are partial and scarce.
  • Gibbon is prompted to inquire by what means Christianity obtained such a remarkable victory over the other established religions of the world. One answer is that it is owing to the convincing evidence of the doctrine, and the ruling providence of its Author. But Gibbon writes that truth and reason seldom find such a favorable reception and that Providence condescends to use the circumstances and hearts of men as instruments to execute its purpose; and therefore, Gibbon is justified in seeking another answer to this inquiry.
  • Gibbon asserts that there are five reasons that explain Christianity’s growth and predominance: 1) the inflexible and intolerant zeal of Christians, derived from the Jewish religion, but purified from the narrow and unsocial spirit, which deterred Gentiles from embracing the laws of Moses; 2) the doctrine of a future life; 3) the miraculous powers ascribed to the primitive Church; 4) the pure and austere morals of the Christians; and 5) the union and discipline of the Christian republic, which formed an independent and increasing state in the Roman Empire.
  • Religious harmony existed in the ancient world – i.e. other nations and cultures were generally tolerant of other people’s superstitions. However, the Jews were different. The sullen obstinacy, with which they maintained their peculiar rites and unsocial manners, seemed to mark them out as a different species of man, who boldly professed their implacable habits to the rest of mankind. According to the maxims of universal toleration, the Romans protected the Jews, whom they despised.
  • The Jews attachment to the laws of Moses was consummate to their detestation of foreign religions. Intolerance seems inherent in religious spirit; the separation of ecclesiastical and civil power is the only means of maintain religious tolerance. Gibbon proceeds to give detailed accounts of members of a religions persecuting the members of another.
  • The devout attachment to the laws of Moses by the Jews living during the era of the second temple is surprising considering the incredulity of their forefathers. The contemporaries of Moses and Joshua beheld with careless indifference the most amazing miracles, and often rebelled against God. As the protection of Heaven was deservedly withdrawn from the ungrateful Jews, their faith acquired a proportional degree of vigor and purity. The belief in these early miracles preserved the later Jews from the universal contagion of idolatry.
  • The Jewish religion was admirably fitted for defense, but not conquest. They engendered irreconcilable hostility in those whom they conquered for the holy land. They were forbidden to contract any marriages or alliances other than to those of the Jewish faith. They had no obligation to preach the religion, or convert others.
  • The descendants of Abraham were flattered by the opinion that they alone were heirs to the covenant, and they were apprehensive of diminishing the value of their inheritance by sharing it with the strangers of the earth.
  • Christianity was offered to the worlds with the strength of the Mosaic Law, and unhindered by the narrow and unsocial spirit of the Jewish religion. The Christians interpreted the predictions of a Messiah as a Prophet, Martyr, and Son of God; the Jews interpreted the predictions as a King or Conqueror. The stringent observances of the Jews were cast aside in favor of a purer spiritual worship suited to all climates and conditions of mankind. The initiation of blood was substituted with a benign initiation of water. The promise of divine favor was no longer confined only to the posterity of Abraham, but to all mankind. It was also considered a sacred duty to diffuse the faith to others, and to warn them against a refusal that would be severely punished as a criminal disobedience to the will of a benevolent but all powerful god.

The theologian may indulge the pleasing task of describing Religion as she descended from Heaven, arrayed in her native purity. A more melancholy duty is imposed on the historian. He must discover the inevitable mixture of error and corruption, which she contracted in a long residence upon earth, among a weak and degenerate race of beings.

The promise of divine favor, instead of being partially confined to the posterity of Abraham, was universally proposed to the freeman and the slave, to the Greek and to the barbarian, to the Jew and to the Gentile. Every privilege that could raise the proselyte from earth to heaven, that could exalt his devotion, secure his happiness, or even gratify that secret pride which, under the semblance of devotion, insinuates itself into the human heart, was still reserved for the members of the Christian church; but at the same time all mankind was permitted, and even solicited, to accept the glorious distinction, which was not only proffered as a favor, but imposed as an obligation. It became the most sacred duty of a new convert to diffuse among his friends and relations the inestimable blessing which he had received, and to warn them against a refusal that would be severely punished as a criminal disobedience to the will of a benevolent but all-powerful Deity.

In part 1 of chapter 15, Gibbon discusses the origin of the Christian religion. He describes how Christianity arose from the Jewish faith, and was much more successful at obtaining followers because of the less stringent laws and observances required of their followers, and also because of the Christian duty to acquaint others with the inestimable blessing they will receive in the after-life, and to warn others that if they refuse to obey the will of the benevolent but all powerful god, then they will be severely punished.

The passage about intolerance being inherent to the religious spirit was insightful. Gibbon provides several examples throughout history of varying religions demonstrating barbaric intolerance for other people who possess superstitions different than their own. Why do people desire others to conform to their system of belief, or consider other people who do not possess their same principles and beliefs as inferior creatures deserving of contempt?

  • Some Jewish converts, who acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah foretold by their oracles, respected him as a prophetic teacher of virtue and religion, but they obstinately adhered to the ceremonies of their ancestors, and were desirous of imposing them upon the Gentile converts. They argued that if God had designed to abolish the sacred rites of their ancestors, then the repeal would have been no less clear than their first promulgation.
  • The Jewish converts, known as the Nazarenes, soon found themselves overwhelmed by the increasing multitudes that from all the various religions of polytheism enlisted under the banner of Christ. These Gentiles, with the approbation of their apostle, rejected the Mosaic ceremonies, and refused to their brethren the same toleration which at first they had humbly solicited for their own practice. The Nazarenes retired to the little town of Pella beyond the Jordan. Under the reign of Hadrian, the desperate fanaticism of the Jews led to their own calamity; The Romans, exasperated by the Jews repeated rebellions, exercised the right of victory with unusual rigor. Hadrian founded a new colony on Mount Sion, forbid any Jew from approaching the precinct, and garrisoned soldiers there to enforce his orders. The Nazarenes decided to elect a Gentile bishop, and the majority of their congregation renounced the Mosaic law and ceremonies, so they could enter the colony of Hadrian, and more firmly cement their union with the Catholic Church.
  • Gnostics criticized the Jewish religion. They argued that which consisted only of bloody sacrifices and trifling ceremonies, and whose rewards and punishments were all of a carnal and temporal nature, could never inspire the love of virtue or restrain the impetuosity of passion. The Biblical account of the creation and fall of man was treated with profane derision by the Gnostics. The Gnostics represented the God of Israel as liable to error and passion. They could not discover any of the qualities they believed the wise and omnipotent Father of the Universe possessed. The Gnostics believed Jesus was the first and brightest emanation of the Deity, and that he appeared on earth to rescue mankind from their various errors, and to reveal a new system of truth and perfection.
  • Despite their different doctrines, the Jews, Christians, and Gnostics all despised paganism. They considered that the demons who rebelled against God were the authors, patrons, and objects of idolatry. The demons walked about the earth to torment the bodies and seduce the minds of sinful men. The success of their malicious contrivances gratified their own vanity and desire for revenge, and gave them the only comfort left to them – the hope of involving the human species in the participation of their guilt and misery.

The Christ whom they adored as the first and brightest emanation of the Deity appeared upon earth to rescue mankind from their various errors, and to reveal a new system of truth and perfection.

Those rebellious spirits, who had been degraded from the rank of angels, and cast down into the infernal pit, were still permitted to roam upon earth, to torment the bodies, and to seduce the minds, of sinful men. The daemons soon discovered and abused the natural propensity of the human heart towards devotion, and artfully withdrawing the adoration of mankind from their Creator, they usurped the place and honors of the Supreme Deity. By the success of their malicious contrivances, they at once gratified their own vanity and revenge, and obtained the only comfort of which they were yet susceptible, the hope of involving the human species in the participation of their guilt and misery.

The early Christians were divided into many different sects. The most prominent were the Jewish converts, the Gentile converts, and the Gnostics. These three sects acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah, or at least an emanation of the Deity who was sent to the earth to reveal a new system of truth and perfection. However, the Jewish converts, or Nazarenes, refused to renounce the ancient ceremonies and rites of the Mosaic tradition. The Gentile converts rejected the Mosaic Law. The Gnostics rejected the Biblical account of the creation and the Fall of Man. The Gnostics treated the story with derision, and declared the God of Israel was liable to error and passion, qualities unlike the ones possessed by the actual omnipotent Father of the Universe.

The last paragraph of this section is quite interesting. It discusses the sentiments of early Christians towards the prevalent contemporary religion – polytheism. The Christians regarded the authors, patrons, ad objects of idolatry as demons who had rebelled against God. These demons were permitted to walk about the earth and torment the bodies and seduce the minds of sinful men. The success of these malicious contrivances gratified their vanity and desire for revenge, and obtained the only comfort left to them, the hope of involving the human species in the participation of their guilt and misery. This notion must have provoked some intense feelings of paranoia in the ancient times.

  • The deities and rites of polytheism were interwoven with every circumstance of public and private life that it seemed impossible to avoid the observance of them without renouncing the commerce of mankind and all the offices and amusements of society. The Christian was compelled to desert the persons who were dearest to him rather than contract the guilt inherent in these ceremonies. Even the arts of music and painting, of eloquence and poetry, sculpture and painting, flowed from the same impure origin. Apollo and the Muses were organs of the infernal spirit; Homer and Virgil were his most eminent servants.
  • So artfully were they framed that superstition always wore the appearance of pleasure and virtue. The Christians who were persuaded to partake in these ceremonies were plagued by their conscience and labored under the gloomiest apprehensions about future punishment.
  • As often as these ceremonies and rites occurred, they afforded the Christians opportunities of declaring and confirming their zealous opposition; thus, these frequent protestations fortified their faith.
  • The most sublime efforts of philosophy can extend no further than feebly to point out the desire, the hope, or, at most, the probability, of a future state. There is nothing, except a divine revelation, that can ascertain the existence, and describe the condition, of the invisible country which is destined to receive the souls of men after their separation from the body.
  • Nevertheless, there were several inherent defects of the Greek and Roman religions which rendered them incapable of providing a convincing answer concerning the afterlife. 1) The religious system was unsupported by any solid proofs. 2) The description of the infernal regions has been abandoned to the fancy of poets and painters, who populate them with so many fantastic monsters and phantoms that it is absurd. 3) The doctrine of a future state was scarcely considered amongst devout polytheists of Greece and Rome as a fundamental article of faith. The worshippers wished for temporal happiness, and Providence was thought to be principally displayed upon the theater of the present world.
  • We might naturally expect Providence to clearly reveal the principle of a future life to the chosen people of Israel, but the doctrine of the immortality of the soul is omitted from the law of Moses. Two sects of Judaism, the Sadducees and the Pharisees, arose in Jerusalem. The Sadducees, who were the more opulent and distinguished members of society, rejected the doctrine of the immortality of the soul as an opinion that received no countenance from the Old Testament. The Pharisees accepted many doctrines based upon tradition. These doctrines were often tenets from the eastern religions such as fate or predestination, angels and spirits, and a future state of rewards and punishments. The Pharisees zealously preached the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, but this zeal did not add any evidence to the doctrine, or make it more probable.
  • When the promise of eternal happiness was proposed to mankind on condition of adopting the Christian faith, it is no wonder that so advantageous an offer should have been accepted by great number of every religion. The ancient Christians were animated by a contempt for their present existence, and by a just confidence of immortality, of which the doubtful and imperfect faith of modern ages cannot give us an adequate notion. Ancient Christians also held the opinion that the end of the world, and the kingdom of heaven were at hand. The anticipation that Christ would come before the generation which beheld him upon the earth extinguished was enforced by the discourses of Christ himself, and had most salutary effects on the faith and practice of early Christians.

The writings of Cicero represent in the most lively colors the ignorance, the errors, and the uncertainty of the ancient philosophers with regard to the immortality of the soul. When they are desirous of arming their disciples against the fear of death, they inculcate, as an obvious, though melancholy position, that the fatal stroke of our dissolution releases us from the calamities of life; and that those can no longer suffer, who no longer exist. Yet there were a few sages of Greece and Rome who had conceived a more exalted, and, in some respects, a juster idea of human nature, though it must be confessed, that in the sublime inquiry, their reason had been often guided by their imagination, and that their imagination had been prompted by their vanity. When they viewed with complacency the extent of their own mental powers, when they exercised the various faculties of memory, of fancy, and of judgment, in the most profound speculations, or the most important labors, and when they reflected on the desire of fame, which transported them into future ages, far beyond the bounds of death and of the grave, they were unwilling to confound themselves with the beasts of the field, or to suppose that a being, for whose dignity they entertained the most sincere admiration, could be limited to a spot of earth, and to a few years of duration. With this favorable prepossession they summoned to their aid the science, or rather the language, of Metaphysics. They soon discovered, that as none of the properties of matter will apply to the operations of the mind, the human soul must consequently be a substance distinct from the body, pure, simple, and spiritual, incapable of dissolution, and susceptible of a much higher degree of virtue and happiness after the release from its corporeal prison. From these specious and noble principles, the philosophers who trod in the footsteps of Plato deduced a very unjustifiable conclusion, since they asserted, not only the future immortality, but the past eternity, of the human soul, which they were too apt to consider as a portion of the infinite and self-existing spirit, which pervades and sustains the universe. A doctrine thus removed beyond the senses and the experience of mankind, might serve to amuse the leisure of a philosophic mind; or, in the silence of solitude, it might sometimes impart a ray of comfort to desponding virtue; but the faint impression which had been received in the schools, was soon obliterated by the commerce and business of active life. We are sufficiently acquainted with the eminent persons who flourished in the age of Cicero, and of the first Caesars, with their actions, their characters, and their motives, to be assured that their conduct in this life was never regulated by any serious conviction of the rewards or punishments of a future state. At the bar and in the senate of Rome the ablest orators were not apprehensive of giving offence to their hearers, by exposing that doctrine as an idle and extravagant opinion, which was rejected with contempt by every man of a liberal education and understanding.

Since therefore the most sublime efforts of philosophy can extend no further than feebly to point out the desire, the hope, or, at most, the probability, of a future state, there is nothing, except a divine revelation, that can ascertain the existence, and describe the condition, of the invisible country which is destined to receive the souls of men after their separation from the body.

In this section of Chapter 15, Gibbon illustrates some of the circumstances that occasioned the rapid growth of early Christianity. One such circumstance is that early Christians encountered the tenets of paganism on a daily basis. A Roman citizen could not avoid the ceremonies, rites, and rituals of Roman polytheism in private or public life. This provided opportunities for early Christians to oppose such traditions, which reinforced their zeal for Christianity.

Another circumstance that strengthened the faith of the early Christians, and gained the religion more converts, is the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. Devout polytheists of Rome and Greece were typically not concerned with a future life; the doctrine of a future life was not a fundamental principle of the systems of belief. Even a sect of the Jewish faith rejected the doctrine of the immortality of the soul as being unsupported by the Old Testament. However, the Christians believed in the immortality of the soul, and made it one of their most fundamental tenets. They preached to others that they would receive eternal happiness if they adopted the Christian faith. It is no wonder that such an advantageous offer should be readily accepted by a great quantity of people from varying religions. Furthermore, the anticipation of the Second Coming of Christ before the generation which beheld him on earth perished contributed to the zeal of the faithful to converts others and live an austere life according to the gospels before that time came.

  • The ancient and popular doctrine of the Millennium was intimately connected with the Second Coming of Christ. As the works of creation had been finished in six days, their duration was fixed to 6,000 years according to the prophet Elijah. This period of labor and contention would be followed by 1,000 years of a joyful Sabbath, and then finally the last and general resurrection of the elect. This sentiment contributed to the progress of the Christian faith.
  • Whilst the glory and happiness of a temporal reign were promised to the Disciples of Christ, the most dreadful calamities were denounced to the unbelieving world. The rise of Jerusalem would be accompanied by the destruction of Babylon. As long as the Emperors of Rome ascribed to idolatry, the epithet of Babylon was assign to Rome. Pestilence, famine, foreign invasion, comets, and earthquakes portended the day when the city of the Seven Hills would be consumed by the flame of Heaven. The prevalence of volcanoes and beds of sulphur lend credibility to the argument that fire would destroy the world.
  • The condemnation of the most virtuous Pagans seems to offend the reason and humanity of the Present Age, but the Primitive Church delivered over without hesitation the far greater part of the human species to eternal torture. A charitable hope might be indulged in favor of Socrates, who had consulted the light of reason before the gospel had arisen, but those who obstinately persisted in the worship of demons after the birth and death of Christ were doomed. Christians savored their future triumph, and looked upon the future torment of the unbelievers with glee.
  • The early apostles and first disciples claimed to have supernatural powers of prophecy, revelation, exorcism, curing the sick, and raising the dead. At about the end of the second century, the resurrection of the dead was very far from being esteemed an uncommon event. Nevertheless, philosophers still rejected and denied the doctrine of resurrection, indicating that the resurrections were staged.
  • In modern times, there is a latent and involuntary skepticism within even the most devout worshipper. The admission of supernatural truths is much less an active consent than a passive acquiescence.
  • The early Christians’ states of mind were deeply influenced by the strong conviction of supernatural events.

At about the end of the second century, the resurrection of the dead was very far from being esteemed an uncommon event.

In part 4 of Chapter 15, Gibbon describes how the Christian interpretation of the after-life contributed to the extraordinary growth of the religion. The Christian faith preached an eternity of bliss for believers of the Gospel, and an eternity of torment for non-believers. Naturally, if Christians could persuade Pagans that the Gospel might be true, it would be easy to convince them that the prudent action would be to entirely accept the principles and beliefs of the Church given the severity of the reward and punishment in the after-life.

Gibbon is very satirical in his description of early Christians. He writes that they acquired a bitterness and resentment towards those people who were not Christians, even feeling glad when contemplating the torments that awaited non-believers after death. Furthermore, Gibbon writes that the act of resurrection was considered commonplace by the end of the second century, yet many skeptical philosophers derided the religion as a farce. Gibbon writes that it would be very easy to discredit these skeptics by performing a quotidian resurrection, yet the Bishops refused to perform them upon compulsion by a disbelieving Pagan.

  • The primitive Christians demonstrated their faith by their virtues. The Christian principles and values introduced a new set of manner to the world. Christians typically led a much purer and more austere life than those of their Pagan contemporaries.
  • Christianity accepted the most atrocious criminals into their fold. Criminals were inclined to wash away their past sins through baptism, and thus rid themselves of the pangs of guilt and their conscience. Thenceforth, they led a life of virtue. The desire of perfection was the ruling passion of their soul.
  • Because the early Christians were a small group, they had good reason to promote good behavior amongst the members of the following, lest one member garner a negative reputation for the whole society. Their contempt of the world exercised in them the habits of humility, meekness, and patience.
  • The primitive Christians interpreted the bible literally, and adhered to the rigid precepts of Christ and his apostles, to which succeeding commentators applied a more figurative mode of interpretation. Desirous to exalt the perfection and wisdom of the gospel, the early Christians carried the duties of self-mortification, purity, and patience to a height which is scarcely possible to attain, and much less to preserve, in our present state of weakness and corruption.
  • In the most virtuous and liberal dispositions are the love of pleasure and the love of action. The love of pleasure is refined by art and learning, and is conducive to the greatest part of the happiness of private life. The love of action often leads to anger, ambition, and revenge, but when it is guided by the senses of propriety and benevolence, it becomes the parent of every virtue. The union and harmony of these two propensities in one disposition constitutes the most perfect idea of human nature. An insensible and inactive disposition is utterly incapable of procuring any happiness to the individual or society.
  • The acquisition of knowledge and the exercise of reason employ the leisure of a liberal mind, but the bishops of the early Church rejected those activities with abhorrence. They despised all knowledge that was not useful to salvation. They disdained every earthly and corporeal delight. They rejected the practice of shaving as an impious attempt to improve the works of the Creator. It is always easy for the inferior ranks of mankind to claim a merit from the contempt of that pomp and pleasure that fortune has placed beyond their reach. The virtue of the primitive Christian was guarded by poverty and ignorance.
  • They abhorred every enjoyment that might gratify the sensual, and degrade the spiritual nature of man. Desire and lust was imputed as a crime, and chastity was considered the nearest state of divine perfection. The Church tolerated marriage, but imposed several restrictions upon the contract. People who married twice were labeled as adulterers and excommunicated.
  • The Christians were also averse to the business of the world. They possessed an unlimited capacity for forgiveness, and did not believe anyone should be punished; they even went so far as to invite the repetition of fresh insults to themselves. They belived that there was never an occasion to shed the blood of another human, either by the sword of justice or war. This exposed them to the contempt and reproaches of Pagans, who wondered what would become of the Roman Empire if the whole community adopted such a pusillanimous philosophy.

The bishops and doctors of the church, whose evidence attests, and whose authority might influence, the professions, the principles, and even the practice of their contemporaries, had studied the Scriptures with less skill than devotion; and they often received, in the most literal sense, those rigid precepts of Christ and the apostles, to which the prudence of succeeding commentators has applied a looser and more figurative mode of interpretation. Ambitious to exalt the perfection of the gospel above the wisdom of philosophy, the zealous fathers have carried the duties of self-mortification, of purity, and of patience, to a height which it is scarcely possible to attain, and much less to preserve, in our present state of weakness and corruption.

There are two very natural propensities which we may distinguish in the most virtuous and liberal dispositions, the love of pleasure and the love of action. If the former is refined by art and learning, improved by the charms of social intercourse, and corrected by a just regard to economy, to health, and to reputation, it is productive of the greatest part of the happiness of private life. The love of action is a principle of a much stronger and more doubtful nature. It often leads to anger, to ambition, and to revenge; but when it is guided by the sense of propriety and benevolence, it becomes the parent of every virtue, and if those virtues are accompanied with equal abilities, a family, a state, or an empire, may be indebted for their safety and prosperity to the undaunted courage of a single man.

In our present state of existence the body is so inseparably connected with the soul, that it seems to be our interest to taste, with innocence and moderation, the enjoyments of which that faithful companion is susceptible. Very different was the reasoning of our devout predecessors.

In part 5 of chapter 15, Gibbon discusses the virtues and principles of early Christians. Gibbon writes that early Christians lived a much more pure and virtuous life than their Pagan contemporaries. Christians disdained every enjoyment that might gratify the sensual, and degrade the spiritual nature of man. However, Gibbon asserts that their virtue was often protected by their poverty and ignorance. It is easier for a poor person to disdain the riches that fortune has kept beyond his reach than for a rich person to renounce the same goods that are easily accessible to him.

Gibbon’s description of what constitutes a virtuous man is also very interesting. Gibbon writes that the most virtuous and liberal disposition is one in which there exists a harmony between the love of pleasure and the love of action. The love of pleasure is refined by art and learning, and produces the greatest part of the happiness of private life. The love of action can often lead to anger, ambition and revenge, but when it is guided by a sense of propriety and benevolence, it becomes the parent of every virtue. This reminds me of Aristotle’s definition of virtue being an activity, not a quality.

  • Although the Christians disdained the pleasures and business of the world, their love for action could never entirely be extinguished. Thus, they shifted the focus of their energy to the government of the Church. The Church was concerned with its security, honor, and aggrandizement.
  • The government of the Church has often been the subject of contention. The early Disciples of Christ declined the office of legislation, and saw fit to allow partial divisions of the Church rather than exclude the Christians of a future age from the liberty of varying their ecclesiastical government according to the changes of time and circumstances.
  • But the most perfect equality of freedom requires the guiding hand of a superior magistrate. Thus, the early Christians decided to establish a perpetual magistracy to execute, during his lifetime, the duties of ecclesiastical governor. The man who held this position was titled a Bishop. The Bishops contributed to the success of the Christian faith. Their early jurisdiction was very narrow, consisting mostly of spiritual power and little temporal power.
  • Every Christian society formed a separate and independent Republic. By the end of the first century, the Christian world was not connected by any supreme authority or legislative assembly. By the end of the second century, Christian societies in Greece and Asia adopted synods, or ecclesiastical councils, whereto every society sent a Bishop to represent them at the council. Their decrees were titled Canons; the Canons regulated every important controversy of faith and discipline. The practice of synods was soon adopted by provinces throughout the Empire. A regular correspondence was established between these provincial councils.
  • By this alliance, the Bishops gained much more executive and arbitrary power over the clergy and people. Their language of exhortation changed to command. They exalted the power and unity of the Church, claiming that princes and magistrates might boast of temporal power, but the episcopal authority alone can claim to be derived from the Deity.
  • A hierarchy arose amongst the Bishops. Each Bishop sought to increase their power by bragging of the numbers and wealth of their congregation, the saints and martyrs of their province, etc. The Roman Church was the greatest, most numerous, and most ancient Church of the Western Empire. The Bishops of Rome claimed an inheritance to the prerogatives of the eminent apostle, St. Peter.
  • The progress of ecclesiastical authority gave birth to the distinction between the laity – or body of the Christian people, and the clergy – or men who were set apart for the service of religion. The clergy, imbued with the love of power, sought to increase the number of their subjects, and expand the limits of the Christian empire. They were destitute of temporal power, but they employed the two most efficacious instruments of government, rewards and punishments; the former derived from a promise of eternal bliss, the latter from eternal torment awaiting unbelievers.

Although the principles of the Christian faith induced an aversion to the pleasures and business of the world, it could not entirely extinguish the love of action which is inherent in all men. Christians directed their love of action to the government of the Church. There were several Christian societies without a common superior or legislative body. And because the most perfect equality can only be attained through a supreme magistrate, the Christian established the ecclesiastical power of the Bishop. A Bishop was the spiritual leader of each Christian society, and to further unite the common interests of all Christians, they held councils every fall and spring. At these councils, the several Bishops would make decrees, which were styled Canons; the Canons resolved every difficult controversy concerning the Christian faith.

The love of power motivated the Bishops to increase the number of their followers and enlarge the borders of the Christian Empire. Quarrels amongst the Bishops for esteem and power also transpired. However, the Christian Church did not possess temporal power. Instead, they employed the two most efficacious instruments of government, rewards and punishments; the former was derived from the promise of eternal happiness after death for followers of the gospel, and the latter from eternal torment for unbelievers.

  • The first Christian communities were comprised of men who sold all their worldly possessions and were content to receive an equal share of the general distribution. The Church gradually abolished this practice, which in lands less pure than those of the apostles would soon have been corrupted and abused by the selfishness of human nature. Instead of absolute sacrifice, a modest proportion was accepted by the ministers of the gospel. The Christians wished to distinguish themselves from the Jews who donated a tenth of their estate by resigning a fortune that would inevitably be destroyed with the world anyway. By the end of the third century, The Christian Church had acquired several opulent estates throughout the Empire.
  • Some unfaithful Bishops used the riches of the Church to gratify their own sensual pleasures, for personal gain, for fraudulent purchases, and for rapacious usury. Typically though the money was used in such a manner as to gain honor for the religious society. The Bishops would distribute money, to the poor, widows, orphans, travelers, pilgrims, and criminals, especially those who were imprisoned for the sake of religion. The smaller congregations were assisted by the alms of their more opulent brethren. The Church paid less attention to the merit of the intended recipient than to his or her distress.
  • The censures of the Church were chiefly directed at the most scandalous sinners; i.e. murderers, frauds, incontinent men, heretics, and idolaters. The consequences of excommunication were temporal and spiritual, but the apprehensions of the after-life far exceeded the temporal sufferings of the excommunicated.
  • Two opposite opinions –justice and mercy – divided the Church. The gates of reconciliation and of heaven were seldom shut against the returning penitent, but a severe and solemn discipline was instituted which, while it served to expiate his crime, also deterred others from following his example. A sentence of perpetual excommunication was reserved for some of the most heinous offenses.
  • The doctrines of excommunication and penance formed the most essential part of the early religion. It was much less dangerous for the early Christians to neglect the observance of moral duties than to despise the censure and authority of the Bishops. The absolute command over the consciences of other men is most gratifying to the pride of the human heart.
  • Zeal, the immediate expectation of another world, the claim of miracles, the practice of rigid virtue, and the constitution of the primitive church were the chief secondary causes responsible for the growth of Christianity. The disorganization of polytheism, the indifference with regards to an after-life, and the various deities striving for the devotion of people contributed to the decline of polytheism.
  • Human reason, unassisted, is incapable of perceiving the mysteries of faith, but the skeptical writings of Cicero and other opponents of polytheism, contributed to the credibility of the Christian faith. The people, when they discovered that their deities were rejected and derided by those whose rank or understanding they were accustomed to reverence, were filled with doubts and apprehensions concerning the truth of the polytheistic doctrines. The decline of the ancient religion exposed numerous people to a painful and comfortless existence. A state of skepticism may amuse a few inquisitive minds, but the practice of superstition is so congenial to the multitude, that if they are forcibly awakened, they will regret the loss of their pleasing vision. The necessity of belief is so necessary to the vulgar, that the fall of one system of mythology will inevitably be succeeded by the introduction of another. Mankind desires nothing more than an object to worship. Given this fact, Christianity’s rapid growth is not surprising.

The situation of these unfortunate exiles was in itself very painful and melancholy; but, as it usually happens, their apprehensions far exceeded their sufferings.

It was by the aid of these causes, exclusive zeal, the immediate expectation of another world, the claim of miracles, the practice of rigid virtue, and the constitution of the primitive church, that Christianity spread itself with so much success in the Roman Empire.

The people, when they discovered that their deities were rejected and derided by those whose rank or understanding they were accustomed to reverence, were filled with doubts and apprehensions concerning the truth of those doctrines, to which they had yielded the most implicit belief. The decline of ancient prejudice exposed a very numerous portion of human kind to the danger of a painful and comfortless situation. A state of scepticism and suspense may amuse a few inquisitive minds. But the practice of superstition is so congenial to the multitude, that if they are forcibly awakened, they still regret the loss of their pleasing vision. Their love of the marvellous and supernatural, their curiosity with regard to future events, and their strong propensity to extend their hopes and fears beyond the limits of the visible world, were the principal causes which favored the establishment of Polytheism. So urgent on the vulgar is the necessity of believing, that the fall of any system of mythology will most probably be succeeded by the introduction of some other mode of superstition.

In part 7 of Chapter 15, Gibbon describes the communal ideals of early Christian congregations. New followers would sell everything they owned, and give the proceeds to the community to be distributed equally amongst the other members of the faith. The Christians soon discontinued this practice because the same justice in the distribution of necessities could not be expected from debauched men who could never adhere to the example set by the benevolent apostles.

Gibbon also summarizes the secondary causes which he has discussed in the preceding parts of this chapter; those causes being: zeal, the expectation of another world, the rigid practice of virtue, the claim of miracles, and the constitution of the primitive church. In addition to these secondary causes, Gibbon cites the skeptical writings and speeches of illustrious men, such as Cicero, as being a catalyst for the adoption of the Christian faith. Gibbon argues that the state of skepticism may amuse a few inquisitive minds, but the belief in superstition is so congenial and necessary to the multitude, that when one system of mythology is annihilated by Reason, then a new system is quickly adopted to alleviate the pain and comfortless situation of complete skepticism.

  • The appellation of heretics has always been applied to the less numerous party. Pliny, in a letter to Trajan, laments the magnitude of the evil – Christianity – which he vainly attempted to eradicate.
  • After 60 years of receiving the sunshine of Imperial favor, the Christian society of Antioch was composed of 100,000 followers; this was about 1/5 of the total population of Antioch.
  • A perpetual stream of strangers and visitors flowed into Rome. Whoever was guilty or suspected had hope he could evade the vigilance of the law in the obscurity of the immense capital. In such a various conflux of nations, every teacher either of truth or falsehood might easily multiply his disciples. In the middle of the third century, Gibbon estimates that there were about 50,000 Christians in Rome, and that the total population of the city was not less than one million.

In part 8 of Chapter 15, Gibbon relates the difficulty in tracking the early quantitative progress of Christianity. Gibbon makes uncertain estimates about the number of Christians during the few centuries after Jesus’ crucifixion. He conjectures that there were about 50,000 Christians in Rome during the middle of the third century when the total population of the city was no less than one million. Thus, the Christians represented 1/20 of the population. The dissemination of Christianity to provinces in Gaul was hindered by the weather and language barrier. The progress of Christianity in Persia was hindered by the established Persian priesthood, unlike the feeble foundation of Greek mythology encountered by proselytes in the Roman Empire.

It was also interesting to read Gibbon’s explanation of the exaggerated number of Christians found in the contemporary writings of the era. For example, Gibbon writes that Pliny exaggerated the number of Christians in the city of Rome because he despised them, and wished to eradicate them from the city. Thus, Pliny exaggerated their numbers to give greater weight to his argument that they posed a significant danger to the safety of the Republic.

  • The constitution of society is such that while a few people are distinguished by riches, honors, and knowledge, the body of the people is condemned to obscurity, ignorance, and poverty. The Christian religion applied to the whole of mankind, and therefore must have drawn a far greater number of proselytes from the lower rather than the superior ranks of life. Whilst they cautiously avoided the dangerous encounters of philosophers, they mingled with the rude and illiterate crowd, and insinuated themselves into those minds, whom with their age, their sex, or their education, were best disposed to receive the impression of superstitious terrors.
  • The early Christians were hostile towards philosophy and science. They concluded that whilst mathematicians were concerned with geometry and measuring the earth, they lost sight of heaven. They believed that philosophers corrupted the simplicity of the gospel with the refinements of human reason.
  • That Christianity would arise first amongst the inferior ranks of men is logical considering that the faith is for the poor in spirit, that men afflicted by calamity and contempt of mankind will more cheerfully listen to the divine promise of future happiness; while on the contrary, the fortunate are satisfied with the possessions of the world, and the wise are always eager to dispute and assert their superiority of reason and knowledge.
  • The great Roman philosophers and writers such as Epictetus, Galen, Pliny, Marcus Antoninus, and Tacitus adorned the age in which they flourished, and exalted the dignity of human nature. Yet all these sages overlooked or rejected the Christian system. Their language or their silence equally discover their contempt for the growing sect, which in their time had diffused throughout the Roman empire. Those who did mention them, considered them only as obstinate and perverse enthusiasts, who exacted implicit submission to mysterious doctrines without being able to produce a single argument that could engage the attention of men of sense and learning.
  • The arguments made in defense of Christianity during the early years of the faith consisted chiefly of attacks against the extravagances of polytheism, and displaying the suffering of their injured brethren. However, when the early Christians wished to prove the divine origin of the faith, they insisted more strongly upon the predictions of the Messiah rather than the miracles which he is supposed to have performed. This mode of persuasion loses much force when it is addressed to those who neither understand nor respect the Mosaic dispensation and prophetic style.
  • Furthermore, the claims of miracles made by the early Christians are made incredible by the lack of care or notice shown by their contemporaries. Supposedly, the blind saw, the lame walked, the sick were healed, the dead were raised, daemons were expelled, and the laws of nature were frequently suspended for the benefit of the Church. But the sages of Greece and Rome turned aside from these miracles, and appeared unconscious of any alterations of the moral and physical government of the world. Seneca and the elder Pliny recorded all eclipses during their lifetime, yet neither recorded the preternatural darkness of the Passion claimed by the Christians. Pliny records the singular defect of light which followed the murder of Caesar, but there is no mention of the darkness of the Passion.

Such is the constitution of civil society, that whilst a few persons are distinguished by riches, by honors, and by knowledge, the body of the people is condemned to obscurity, ignorance and poverty.

Whilst they cautiously avoid the dangerous encounter of philosophers, they mingle with the rude and illiterate crowd, and insinuate themselves into those minds, whom their age, their sex, or their education, has the best disposed to receive the impression of superstitious terrors.

The names of Seneca, of the elder and the younger Pliny, of Tacitus, of Plutarch, of Galen, of the slave Epictetus, and of the emperor Marcus Antoninus, adorn the age in which they flourished, and exalt the dignity of human nature. They filled with glory their respective stations, either in active or contemplative life; their excellent understandings were improved by study; Philosophy had purified their minds from the prejudices of the popular superstition; and their days were spent in the pursuit of truth and the practice of virtue. Yet all these sages (it is no less an object of surprise than of concern) overlooked or rejected the perfection of the Christian system. Their language or their silence equally discover their contempt for the growing sect, which in their time had diffused itself over the Roman empire. Those among them who condescended to mention the Christians, consider them only as obstinate and perverse enthusiasts, who exacted an implicit submission to their mysterious doctrines, without being able to produce a single argument that could engage the attention of men of sense and learning.

The adoption of fraud and sophistry in the defence of revelation too often reminds us of the injudicious conduct of those poets who load their invulnerable heroes with a useless weight of cumbersome and brittle armor.

But how shall we excuse the supine inattention of the Pagan and philosophic world, to those evidences which were represented by the hand of Omnipotence, not to their reason, but to their senses? During the age of Christ, of his apostles, and of their first disciples, the doctrine which they preached was confirmed by innumerable prodigies. The lame walked, the blind saw, the sick were healed, the dead were raised, daemons were expelled, and the laws of Nature were frequently suspended for the benefit of the church. But the sages of Greece and Rome turned aside from the awful spectacle, and, pursuing the ordinary occupations of life and study, appeared unconscious of any alterations in the moral or physical government of the world. Under the reign of Tiberius, the whole earth, or at least a celebrated province of the Roman empire,  was involved in a preternatural darkness of three hours. Even this miraculous event, which ought to have excited the wonder, the curiosity, and the devotion of mankind, passed without notice in an age of science and history. It happened during the lifetime of Seneca and the elder Pliny, who must have experienced the immediate effects, or received the earliest intelligence, of the prodigy. Each of these philosophers, in a laborious work, has recorded all the great phenomena of Nature, earthquakes, meteors comets, and eclipses, which his indefatigable curiosity could collect. Both the one and the other have omitted to mention the greatest phenomenon to which the mortal eye has been witness since the creation of the globe. A distinct chapter of Pliny is designed for eclipses of an extraordinary nature and unusual duration; but he contents himself with describing the singular defect of light which followed the murder of Caesar, when, during the greatest part of a year, the orb of the sun appeared pale and without splendor. The season of obscurity, which cannot surely be compared with the preternatural darkness of the Passion, had been already celebrated by most of the poets and historians of that memorable age.

In the last part of Chapter 15, Gibbon doubts the validity of the Christian faith. First, he attacks the intelligence of the initial converts. Gibbon states that as Christianity was a faith directed towards all of mankind it unavoidably was compelled to acquire a greater number of the inferior ranks of men who were more credulous and disposed to receive the impression of superstitious terrors. Furthermore, the Christian promise of eternal happiness after death appealed to those who were unfortunate, and afflicted by the hardships of the world and the contempt of mankind. The fortunate people were content with the possessions of the world, and the wise men sought every opportunity to dispute a topic until they had proven their superior reason and knowledge.

Gibbon also explains that the great philosophers and writers of Rome either entirely disregarded Christianity, or derided it as a group of perverse enthusiasts who exacted the implicit submission to supernatural mysteries without providing a single argument which could engage the attention of men of sense and learning.

Finally, Gibbon rhetorically asks how it is possible that the illustrious and learned men of Rome could disregard the supernatural miracles which were claimed to have occurred by the Christians. The early Christians made so many claims of men being raised from the dead, the blind seeing, the lame walking, the sick being cured, etc. that the disregard shown by men such as Seneca and Pliny seems absurd. Pliny and Seneca both recorded eclipses. However, they did not record the most miraculous preternatural event to ever transpire in history according to Christians, the preternatural darkness of the Passion.

Ch.16 – The Conduct Of The Roman Government Towards The Christians; From The Reign Of Nero To That Of Constantine.

  • If we consider the austere and virtuous lifestyle of the early Christians, then we must suppose that however the learned and polite may deride the miracles they ought to have esteemed the virtues of the new sect, and the magistrates would have protected that order of men who yielded passive obedience to the laws despite their refusal to engage in the active cares of war and government, not persecuted them. Furthermore, a tenet of Polytheism was universal toleration. Thus, Gibbon is at a loss to explain the hostile actions taken by the Roman Princes, who beheld myriad forms of religion subsisting in peace under their sway, towards Christianity.
  • About 80 years after Christ’s death, a proconsul of the most amiable and philosophic character sentenced some of the disciples to death. To relate the causes, extent, duration, and circumstances of the persecution to which the ancient Christians were exposed is the design of this chapter.
  • One plausible conjecture as to the motives of the persecutors is that they were indignant over the Christians’ claim that they alone possessed divine knowledge, and the Christian attitude of disdain for every other religion as impious and idolatrous. The myriad other religions tolerated one another because they mutually indulged each other. The Jews and Christians invidiously pretend the unique possession of divine knowledge and piety.
  • The Jews were persecuted because they frequently grew impatience with Roman authority, and massacred Roman citizens. Gibbon writes that we are tempted to applaud the severe retaliation exercised by the Roman legions against a race of fanatics, whose superstitions rendered them enemies not only of the Roman government, but of all mankind.
  • Notwithstanding these continuous provocations made by the Jews, the resentment of the Roman princes expired after the victory over the rebels, and the Jews were still permitted to practice their religion in peace.
  • Given the Jews abhorrence of polytheism yet were still permitted to practice their religion without persecution form the Roman officials, there must exist some other cause for the persecution of Christians. The difference between them was that the Jews were a nation, and the Christians were a sect. This was very important to the Romans; for the antiquity of the Jewish religion justified their beliefs to the Romans who esteemed tradition and ancestral customs. The Romans regarded Christians as apostates. Every Christian abandoned the superstitions of his family, city, and province. He refused to hold any communion with the gods of Rome, the empire, or mankind. (I do not agree with Gibbon’s argument. I think that the chief cause of the persecution of Christians was their invidious way of proselytizing, and their abhorrence and intolerance of other religions. Christians believed that they alone possessed divine knowledge, and all other religions were profane and idolatrous).
  • Christians imputed Pagans as impious. This aroused resentment in the Pagans. Furthermore, the Pagans considered Christians to be atheists because they could not understand the Christian spiritual conception of the Supreme Being, nor could they understand the want of festival, altars, and sacrifices to this god.
  • Pagans were disposed to adopt the notion of the Son of God in human form. Several Pagan stories contain similar man-gods, such as Bacchus and Hercules. But the Pagans were astonished that the Christians deserted the temples of these ancient heroes for an obscure teacher who had fallen a sacrifice to the malice of his own countrymen. The Pagans reserved their gratitude for temporal benefits; they did not care for the promise of life and immortality after death. Jesus’ benevolence and constancy in the midst of suffering were insufficient in the minds of the Pagans to compensate for the want of fame, empire, and success.
  • The Roman government distrusted any association among its subjects, though formed for the most harmless or beneficial purposes. The Christians were illegal in principle, and in consequence might become dangerous. The Roman princes sought to subdue the independent spirit of Christians, who boldly acknowledged an authority superior to the Prince.
  • Thus, the Christians took precautions to conduct their religious rites in secret. However, this policy aroused the suspicion of the Pagans. The Pagans presumed that the Christians were engaged in every kind of abomination imaginable. Rumors such as infant sacrifices were disseminated about the Christian sect.

In part 1 of Chapter 16, Gibbon investigates the causes of the persecution of early Christians at the hands of Roman officials. Gibbon writes that myriad religions existed in the Roman empire, and that they mutually tolerated one another. However, the Jews and Christians were intolerant of other religions. The two faiths both claimed exclusive possession of divine knowledge, and denounced all other religions as impious and idolatrous. Naturally, this aroused resentment in the Pagan Romans, yet the Romans did not persecute the Jews. Thus, there must be another cause of the persecution of Christians. Gibbon argues that the Jews were a nation, and that the Christians were a sect. This is a very important distinction for Romans because they highly esteemed tradition and their ancestors. Because the Jews and their traditions were ancient and well-established, the Romans tolerated them. However, they regarded the Christians as apostates, and perceived the sect as a group that abandoned the beliefs of their family, city, and province. I do not agree with Gibbon’s argument. In my opinion, I believe that the difference between the treatment of Jews and the treatment of Christians is a result of the Christians practice of proselytizing. Whenever I see Jehovah Witnesses walking along the road, I shudder with indignity. The same feeling must have possessed the ancient Romans. Finally, the Christian notion of the Supreme Being as entirely spiritual and inscrutable is entirely dissimilar to the Pagan notion of corporeal gods. This distinction induced many Pagans to consider Christians to be atheists, an odious distinction during that era.

  • The Roman magistrates were motivated by the temperate policy of legislation, not by the furious zeal of bigots. We can naturally conclude then that: 1) A considerable time elapsed before they considered the new sectaries as deserving of the attention of the government; 2) In the conviction of any of their subjects, they ought to proceed with caution and reluctance; 3) They were moderate in their use of punishments; and 4) The afflicted Church enjoyed many intervals of peace and tranquility.
  • Early Christians were protected by obscurity and a close resemblance to Jews. As the Jews perceived the separation of the Christian sects from the laws of Moses, they attempted to eradicate the heretics by appealing to the Roman magistrates. However, once the Roman magistrates learned that the dispute arose from a difference of interpretation of Scripture, they deemed it unworthy of the majesty of Rome to hear such a case about the differences of a barbarous and superstitious people.
  • In the tenth year of the reign of Nero, the capital was afflicted by a fire which raged beyond the memory of former ages. The conflagration of Rome was the antecedent to a new and more beautiful Rome. Despite this success, Nero did not escape the suspicion of the people. Nero was already notorious as the assassin of his wife and mother, and therefore it was easy to blame him for the conflagration. It was rumored that Nero amused himself during the raging of the fire by playing his lyre and singing of the destruction of Troy. To divert suspicion, Nero sought and found a scapegoat, the Christians. He tortured, crucified, threw to the dogs, and burned Christians. The initial abhorrence for Christians was converted to pity by these cruel actions.
  • Nero did not choose to punish the Jews, though they were a likely scapegoat considering their abhorrence for Rome, because his wife, mistress, and favorite actor were Jews. Nero’s cruelty towards the Christians inclined succeeding emperors to spare the sect considered to be oppressed by a tyrant whose rage had been generally directed against virtue and innocence.
  • The Capitol of Rome was burned again during the civil war of 69 AD. After the war, the victorious emperor imposed a tax to restore the Capitol. The Christians were anxious about contributing to the construction of Pagan buildings,
  • The Emperor Domitian condemned and executed his Christian cousin, and banished his cousin’s Christian wife. The Christians branded the cruelty of Domitian with the name of the second persecution. But this persecution did not last long. Stephen, a freedman belonging to the Christian wife assassinated Domitian. The Senate condemned the memory of Domitian, rescinded his acts, and called all back from exile.
  • Pliny was an eminent statesman. When he accepted the government of the province of Bithyania, he wrote to the emperor Trajan, inquiring about Christianity, of which he was ignorant. Pliny’s ignorance demonstrates that there were no general laws or decrees of the senate in force against the Christians during that time.

History undertakes to record the transactions of the past for the instruction of future ages.

In part 2 of chapter 16, Gibbon explains that the early Christians were protected from persecution by their own obscurity. The small numbers of the faithful did not draw attention from the Roman government, nor did they pose a threat to the social order. Although the Romans did not persecute the Christians during its incipient stage, the Jews were desirous of eradicating the heretical group. However, when the Jews brought Christians before a Roman magistrate, and explained the offense committed by the Christians according to the Mosaic law, the Roman magistrates regarded the dispute as unworthy of the majesty of Rome. Thus, the Christians were protected from the Jews by the Romans.

The first persecution of Christians occurred during the reign of Nero. In the tenth year of his reign, a great conflagration consumed Rome. The people suspected Nero of igniting the fire because of his notoriety gained from assassinating his wife and mother. To divert suspicion from himself, Nero sought and found a scapegoat in the Christian society. He tortured and burned Christians. However, the initial abhorrence most Romans felt towards Christians converted to pity after witnessing the cruelty that Nero imposed upon the sect. After Nero’s suicide, the succeeding emperors treated Christians with more moderation.

The second persecution of Christians was committed by the emperor Domitian. He executed his Christian cousin, and banished his cousin’s wife and myriad Christians. However, a freedman, belonging to the cousin’s wife, assassinated Domitian. Then, the senate condemned the memory of Domitian, rescinded his edicts, and recalled all Christians from banishment.

  • During the reign of Trajan, there was a “crime of Christianity,” under which a few Christians were convicted.
  • During the public games and festivals, the multitude was reminded of the Christian’s abhorrence for the gods and for Romans. This aroused animosity towards the Christians, the multitude often demanded that Christians be thrown to the lions, to which demand the magistrates often assented.
  • Punishment was not always the consequence of being convicted of the crime of Christianity. The Christian retained the right to life or death. If the Christian consented to cast a few grains of incense upon the altar, then the he was dismissed from the tribunal in safety with applause. It was esteemed the duty of a humane judge to reclaim the deluded enthusiasts rather than punish them. If argument could not persuade the offending Christian, then torture was employed.
  • Although some magistrates were inclined to cruelly persecute Christians because of avarice or personal resentment, the majority of the magistrates exercised their power like men of polished manners and liberal education. Whenever they were invested with discretionary power, they used it much less for the oppression than for the relief and benefit of the afflicted Church. The number of martyrs was very inconsiderable.
  • During this same period of persecution, Cyprian, the Bishop of Africa, possessed every quality which could engage the reverence of the faithful, and provoke the suspicions and resentment of Roman magistrates; yet Cyprian lived through the reign of four emperors before facing the necessity to retreat into hiding in order to preserve his life. The more rigid Christians censured Cyprian flight as cowardly, but Cyprian justified his action by explaining that he needed to reserve himself for the future exigencies of the Church, the example he sets for other bishops, and the divine admonitions he receives in visions. Furthermore, his best apology is found in the cheerful resolution with which he suffered death for the cause of religion about eight years after fleeing persecution.

The “crime of Christianity” existed during the reign of Trajan. However, there were not so many martyrs as Christians would have us believe. Gibbon writes that the Roman magistrates would often use their discretion for the benefit and relief of the accused Christians rather than for punishment. Gibbon also cites another historian named Origen, who explicitly asserts that the number of Christian martyrs during this time of the Roman Empire was very inconsiderable. Finally, the life of Cyprian corroborates this testimony. Cyprian was a prominent bishop of Africa, possessing all the attributes which would provoke the suspicions and resentment of Roman officials, yet he survived the reign of four Roman Emperors unscathed. He once faced persecution, but chose to hide in obscurity. Many Christians censured his behavior as cowardly, but Cyprian justified his flight as necessary so that he could address the future exigencies of the Church, set an example for other bishops, and proclaim the divine admonitions which he received in visions. Finally, his best apology is found in his death for the cause of religion about eight years after his flight from persecution.

  • The proconsul of Africa summoned Cyprian to his council-chamber. He informed Cyprian that he had received an Imperial mandate commanding all who abandoned the Roman religion to immediately return to the practice of the ceremonies of their ancestors. Cyprian replied that he was a bishop of the Christian church, and devoted to the worship of the true and only deity.
  • The proconsul banished Cyprian to Curubis, where Cyprian enjoyed the conveniences of life and the consciousness of virtue.
  • Exactly one year after Cyprian’s first apprehension, the new pronconsul received a warrant for the execution of all Christian teachers. The frailty of nature tempted him to flee, but he soon recovered fortitude and patiently waited for the ministers of death. Two soldiers brought him before the proconsul, who condemned Cyprian to death after Cyprian declined to sacrifice to the gods of Rome.
  • Cyprian was beheaded with one stroke, and not subjected to torture.
  • Cyprian had to decide between being a martyr or an apostate. Even if Cyprian employed the Christian profession to indulge his avarice or ambition, we still must suppose that he would have chosen to expose himself to death rather than the abhorrence of both his Christian brethren and Gentiles, who would consider him to be a dishonorable coward. If he truly believed in the truth of the Christian doctrines, then he must have regarded the crown of martyrdom as an object of desire rather than terror.
  • The honors which Rome and Athens bestowed on those citizens who had fallen in the cause of their country were cold and unmeaning demonstrations of respect when compared to the ardent devotion and gratitude which the primitive church expressed to the victorious champions of faith. Distinctions like these betray the inconsiderable number of Christian martyrs.
  • The fervor of the first Christians compelled them to desire martyrdom. Ignatius, whilst his Roman captors drove him to Rome to be thrown to the lions, exhorted the Romans not to intercede on his behalf when he arrived in Rome. He asserted that he would provoke and irritate the wild beasts which would be employed as the instruments of his death. Philosophers perceived the zeal of Christians, but regarded it with much less respect than astonishment. They treated such an eagerness to die as the strange result of obstinate despair, of stupid insensibility, or of superstitious frenzy. The intrepid constancy of the faithful persuaded many Gentiles to convert. The blood of martyrs was the seed of the Church.
  • This fever of the mind eventually gave way to the more natural fears of the human heart, the love of life, the apprehensions of pain, and the horror of dissolution. There were three methods of escaping the flames of persecution:
  • 1) A Roman magistrate notified the party who had been accused of the crime of Christianity. The accused would then be allowed time to settle his domestic affairs and flee to some distant province, thus preserving his life and honor.
  • 2) Some avaricious magistrates would accept certificates, bought by opulent Christians, which attested that the accused had complied with the laws, and sacrificed to the Roman deities.
  • 3) There were a great number of Christians who simply renounced the faith, and sacrificed to the Roman gods. These Christians would often regret their submission, and seek to return into the fold. They met with various successes.
  •  The moments of extraordinary rigor were compensated by a far longer interval of peace and tranquility. The indifference of some princes, and the indulgence of others, permitted the Christians to enjoy a public and actual toleration, though not legal.

Some stories are related of the courage of martyrs, who actually performed what Ignatius had intended; who exasperated the fury of the lions, pressed the executioner to hasten his office, cheerfully leaped into the fires which were kindled to consume them, and discovered a sensation of joy and pleasure in the midst of the most exquisite tortures.

In part 4 of chapter 16, Gibbon describes the martyrdom of Cyprian. When the Roman magistrate informed Cyprian that he had received a mandate ordering the execution of all Christian teachers, the natural human fear of death tempted Cyprian to flee. However, his fortitude soon returned to him, and he patiently awaited the executioners. Two soldiers escorted Cyprian to the council. Cyprian declined to sacrifice to the Roman deities, and obstinately refused to renounce Christianity. The magistrate reluctantly condemned Cyprian to death. He ordered the executioner not to torture Cyprian, but to swiftly kill Cyprian with one stroke of his sword.

Cyprian, like many other members of the early Christian societies, was eager to die, and fervently sought martyrdom. This fever of the mind was perceived by Roman philosophers, but they regarded this enthusiasm with less admiration and respect than astonishment. They considered the religious fervor to be a result of obstinate despair, of stupid insensibility, or of superstitious frenzy.

Eventually, the intrepid constancy gave way to the more natural fears of the human heart, the love of life, the apprehension of pain, and the horror of dissolution. No longer eager to die, the Christians had three alternatives to avoid the flames of persecution. They could either flee before appearing before a council, buy a certificate which attested that they had complied with the Roman laws and sacrificed to the gods, or they could renounce their faith and sacrifice to the gods during the council proceedings.

Although martyrs reinforced the devotion of Christians, and inspired Gentiles to convert, the number of martyrs is greatly exaggerated according to Gibbon. He writes that the numbers are inconsiderable, and that the infrequent moments of rigor were compensated by a far longer interval of peace and security. Christians enjoyed a public and actual tolerance, though not legal.

  • During the reign of Severus, Christians began to erect and consecrate convenient edifices for religious worship. Previously they had worshipped in private houses and sequestered places. Some of the eminent persons of the sect were admitted into the palace as philosophers and priests. The succeeding emperor, Alexander, erected statues of Abraham and Christ in a domestic chapel as respectable sages who had instructed mankind in the various modes of addressing their homage to the supreme and universal deity. However, the succeeding emperor, Maximin, inhumanly discharged his fury upon all the favorites of his predecessor, which included a great number of Christians. However, this was not persecution in the strict sense because Maximin brutalized them because of their association with Alexander, not because of their religion.
  • Decius revived the persecution of Christians, not because he was intemperate and cruel, but because he wished to restore the purity of Roman manners. He considered Christianity to be a criminal superstition. The emperor Gallienus wrote an edict to the Christian bishops, allowing them the freedom to practice their religion. The Christians enjoyed nearly 40 years of prosperity, which was far more dangerous to their virtue than the severest trials of persecution.
  • Paul of Samosata was a corrupt and lascivious bishop of Antioch. His pride and luxury rendered the faith odious in the consideration of Gentiles. Paul indulged himself very freely in the pleasures of the table, and had two beautiful female companions to entertain his moments of leisure.
  • If Paul had preserved the purity of the faith, he would likely have been admitted to the ranks of saints and martyrs. However, he obstinately maintained a disagreeable opinion regarding the Trinity, which excited the zeal and indignation of the Eastern churches. 70 to 80 bishops degraded Paul from his episcopal position, and appointed a successor. This occurrence produced schism in the Christian community. The two rival parties applied epithets of heresy to each other. They pleaded their case before Roman magistrates. These cases demonstrate that the property, privileges, and policy of the Christians were acknowledged by the magistrates, if not by the law of Rome.
  • Christians enjoyed an increasing liberty under Diocletian. The emperor often appointed Christians to powerful positions of the State. Furthermore, his wife and daughter favored the religion. However, envy, malice and fraud infiltrated every congregation as Christians were permitted to erect more prominent and lavish edifices of religious worship.
  • Notwithstanding this security, an attentive observer might discern that the Pagans were becoming exasperated and incensed at the rashness of the sect, which presumed their countrymen of error, and to devote their ancestors to eternal misery.

In part 5 of chapter 16, Gibbon relates the successive intervals of peace and persecution experienced by the early Christians. During the intervals of peace and toleration, Christian virtues were tested, and often the vices of greed, malice, and envy conquered the members of the sect. Despite the increasing liberty bestowed upon the Christians to freely practice their religion, an attentive observer would perceive the growing Pagan resentment of the new sect, which had condemned their ancestors to eternal torment, and presumed their countrymen of error.

  • Maximian and Galerius entertained the most implacable aversion for the name and religion of the Christians. They owed their greatness to their swords; they were not educated, and retained the superstitions of the peasants and soldiers. However, their sentiments towards Christians are justified when one considers that the sect of enthusiasts held principles that were repugnant to the public safety, and therefore ought to be considered a threat to the empire.
  • Diocletian and Galerius met in the palace of Nicomedia one winter to discuss the fate of Christianity. Diocletian expostulated with Galerius on the danger and cruelty of shedding Christian blood. However, Galerius and council members persuaded Diocletian that the destruction of the Christians was necessary. Gibbon writes that it is not within our power to relate the manners of persuasion, but conjectures that Galerius and the council members cogently presented the Christians as a distinct republic, which must be quashed before it obtains a military force.
  • Galerius proposed that every person who refused to offer sacrifice should immediately be burnt alive. Diocletian, still averse to shedding blood, moderated Galerius’ fury. They concluded to publish an edict that Christian churches would be demolished, and the punishment of death was denounced on all who should presume to hold any secret assemblies for the purpose of religious worship. The same edict also commissioned the confiscation of all Christian property. Christians were also put out of the protection of the law. Romans could bring cases against Christians, but Christians could not complain of any injury which they suffered.
  • Soon after the edict was published, a Christian tore it down, and with the strongest invectives, denounced the edict was impious and expressed his contempt and abhorrence for such tyrannical governors. His executioners, wishing to revenge the personal insult that had been offered to the emperors, exhausted every refinement of cruelty, but were unable to alter his steady and insulting smile which in his dying agonies he still preserved in his countenance. He was slowly roasted to death.
  • Within 15 days after the edict was published, the bed chamber of Diocletian was twice aflame. Suspicion fell on the Christians.
  • Every mode of torture was put into practice, and the court as well as the city was polluted with many bloody executions. Notwithstanding these cruelties, the arsonists remained unknown. Therefore, we must either admire the resolution of the sufferers to divulge nothing, or conclude that the Christians were innocent of the fire.
  • Some slight resistance in Syria, though they were suppressed almost as soon as they arose, gave the enemies of the church occasion to plausibly insinuate that the Christians had renounced their ostentatious professions of passive and unlimited obedience.
  • The resentment, or the fears, of Diocletian at length transported him beyond the bounds of moderation. In a series of edicts, he declared his intention to abolish the name of Christianity. One edict commissioned the imprisonment of all persons of the ecclesiastical order. A second ordered the magistrates to employ every method of severity to reclaim them from their odious superstition. A third edict applied the previous two to the whole body of Christianity.
  • Heavy penalties were imposed upon those who protected Christians from the just wrath of the gods and emperors. Nevertheless, many virtuous and courageous Pagans endeavored to save Christians from the flames of persecution, demonstrating that the rage of superstition had not entirely extinguished the sentiments of nature and humanity.

He was burnt, or rather roasted, by a slow fire; and his executioners, zealous to revenge the personal insult which had been offered to the emperors, exhausted every refinement of cruelty, without being able to subdue his patience, or to alter the steady and insulting smile which in his dying agonies he still preserved in his countenance.

In part 6 of chapter 16, Gibbon describes the actions of two emperors who entertained a tremendous abhorrence for Christians. Diocletian and Galerius held a council in Nicomedia during winter to discuss the fate of Christianity. Galerius desired to burn all Christians. Diocletian feared the retaliation and pity that such bloody deeds might provoke. He moderated Galerius’ fury, and both concluded to publish edicts that commissioned the confiscation of all Christian property, withdrew the protection of the law from Christians, and ordered the destruction of all edifices used for the purpose of religious worship. At length, the fear that the Christians might rebel and pose a significant threat to the empire caused Diocletian to publish an edict that all Christians were to be imprisoned, tortured until they converted, or killed. He wished to abolish the name of Christianity from the earth. Heavy punishments were imposed upon those who protected Christians from the just indignation of the gods and emperors. However, many courageous and virtuous Pagans protected Christians from the flames of persecution despite the rigorous law. These valorous actions demonstrate that the rage of superstition does not utterly suppress the natural sentiments of nature and humanity. This passage reminded me of the courageous acts of some Germans taken during the Nazi regime’s attempt to exterminate the Jews. There are many accounts of Germans hiding Jews from Nazi officials, risking their own lives by committing this unlawful, yet humane deed.

  • Diocletian had no sooner published his edicts against the Christians than he divested himself of the Imperial purple. Ten years after the publishing of those edicts, the Christians attained their final peace under Constantine.
  • Constantius, who was Constantine’s father, was averse to the oppression of any of his subjects. The principal offices in his palace were exercised by Christians. Though he could not openly reject the edicts whilst he remained in the subordinate station of Caesar, he endeavored to alleviate the sufferings which he pitied and abhorred. He reluctantly consented to the ruin of churches, but protected the Christians themselves from the fury of the populace, and from the rigor of the laws.
  • When Constantius ascended to the supreme dignity of Emperor, he established a system of toleration. His son, who was named Constantine, succeeded his father upon death, and immediately declared himself the protector of the church. Constantine was the first emperor who professed and established the Christian religion. The account of his conversion will be presented in another chapter.
  • Under the reign of Maxentius, the churches of Italy and Africa enjoyed a period of peace.
  • In the East, Galerius finally gave over his desire to extirpate Christians. After 6 years of persecution, frequent disappointments of his ambitions, and salutary reflections which a lingering distemper suggest to the mind convinced Galerius that the most violent efforts of tyranny are insufficient to remove the religious prejudices of a whole people, or utterly destroy them.
  • Thus, Galerius published an edict that established toleration for the Christian religion and rescinded the previous severe edicts. Gibbon writes that we usually should not search for the character or motives of princes within the language of their edicts, but as this edict was the act of a dying emperor, we might presume that Galerius had some remorse for his past severity.
  • Maximin, who ruled in the Eastern Empire, assented to Galerius’ death-bed edict, but at length resumed his persecution of the Christians.
  • The civil war Maximin undertook against Licinius resulted in Maximin’s death and the deliverance of the church from the last and most implacable of her enemies.
  • Gibbon writes that he has refrained from describing the particular sufferings and deaths of Christian martyrs because he does not know how much of his source material he should believe. Even the gravest of ecclesiastical historians, the writing of whom Gibbon has read, admits that he has written his accounts of Christian martyrs so as to contribute to the glory of religion, and has removed all that would contribute to the disgrace of it.
  • Two circumstances corroborate Gibbon’s opinion that the general treatment of Christians was less intolerable than many believe: 1) The confessors who were condemned to work in the mines were permitted to build chapel and freely profess their religion; and 2) The bishops were obliged to check the zeal of the Christians who voluntarily threw themselves into the hands of the magistrates.
  • After the church was granted freedom from persecution, the liberated prisoners often magnified the merit of their respective sufferings. The church encouraged this behavior because it glorified them as well.

The frequent disappointments of his ambitious views, the experience of six years of persecution, and the salutary reflections which a lingering and painful distemper suggested to the mind of Galerius, at length convinced him that the most violent efforts of despotism are insufficient to extirpate a whole people, or to subdue their religious prejudices.

In part 7 of chapter 16, Gibbon describes Galerius’ death-bed decision to rescind his severe edicts against the Christians. Six years of persecution, frequent disappointments of his ambition, and salutary reflections which distemper suggests to the mind convinced Galerius that even the most violent efforts of tyranny are insufficient to extirpate a whole people and their superstitious prejudices. In my opinion, Galerius felt genuine contrition for his past misdeeds, and desired to atone for them.

  • From the history of Eusebius, Gibbon concludes that no more than 92 Christians in Palestine became martyrs following the edicts of Diocletian. Because Palestine is 1/16 of the Roman Empire, Gibbon calculates that around 1500 Christians became martyrs during the examined time. Dividing 1500 by the ten years of persecution results in 150 martyrs per year.
  • Gibbon concludes this chapter with a melancholy truth that obtrudes itself upon the reluctant mind; that the Christians, in their intestine dissensions, have inflicted far greater severities upon each other than they experienced at the hands of the infidels. The Church of Rome defended assaults from reformers from the 12th to 16th century by violent means, such as war, massacres, and the institution of the Holy Office which proscribed and excommunicated many people. As the reformers were animated by the love of civil and religious freedom, the Catholic princes enforced by fire and sword the terrors of spiritual censures. In the Netherlands alone, more than one hundred thousand of the subjects of Charles V are said to have been executed.
  • Gibbon writes that we are obliged to accept that the number of Protestants who were executed in a single province during a single reign far exceeded that of primitive martyrs in the Roman Empire during the time of three centuries.

In the final part of chapter 16, Gibbon estimates the total number of Christian martyrs during the ten years after the edicts of Diocletian to be 1500. He proceeds to conclude that Christians, in their internal dissensions, have inflicted far greater severities upon each other than they experienced at the hands of the Roman Pagans. For example, Gibbon cites the historian Grotius, and asserts that more than one hundred thousand subjects of Charles V suffered execution in the Netherlands. According to Gibbon, we are obliged to accept that the number of Protestants who were executed in a single province during a single reign far exceeded the number of primitive Roman martyrs during three centuries of persecution.

Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

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2 thoughts on “GIBBON: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire [Ch. 15-16]”

  1. Subsequent lesser historians have always thought it modern to disparage Gibbons Great Work, but he was a master of the written word
    with a lucid eye and an enlightened mind.
    His work is still relevant today.

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