ORB Online Encyclopedia

Overview of Late Antiquity--The Fourth Century

Section 1: The Urge for Unification

Steven Muhlberger

At the beginning of the fourth century, the failure of old political and ideological structures was evident to anyone who concerned themselves with such things. This realization sparked movements to restore the peace and unity of the good old days. Among them was the effort of various men, most notably Diocletian and Constantine, to rebuild the Roman empire on a sturdier, more centralized plan, and thus renew the ancient glory of the Roman name. East of the Euphrates river, in Iran and Iraq, the Sasanid rulers of Persia had overthrown a weak dynasty and hoped to construct a strong centralized monarchy. The glories of Persia destroyed by Alexander the Great -- a mere 700 years earlier! -- would be born again.

In both empires, vigorous centralizing monarchs sought divine approval and aid. Both Diocletian of Rome and several Persian kings believed that their peoples had become great in the past through strict adherence to the worship of ancestral deities, a worship that was now sadly corrupted by alien influences. They hoped to assure the supremacy of the Romans and the Persians within their empires by re-establishing the ancient cults, at least within the ruling group, and the suppressing the new religions that were increasingly popular.

Both efforts were partially successful. Both east and west of the Euphrates, stronger governments were set up and central control was largely restored. But Diocletian's religious policy was a bloody failure, and the Persian attempt to impose a revived Zoroastrianism as the state religion had a only a limited success. Christianity offered in the early years of the fourth century a tremendously attractive template for the creation of a righteous society on earth. The most vigorous organizations of the time were the Christian churches, especially those of the eastern Roman cities, who seized control of Greek-speaking society and converted the Roman emperors to their cause. Christianity also spread dramatically among non- Greek peoples: Armenians and Georgians in the Caucasus, Syriac-speakers in Iraq, Persians in Iran, Goths north of the Danube, the Hymarites of southern Arabia and the Axumites of Ethiopia, Coptic-speaking peasants in Egypt and Latin-speaking Romans in the western provinces were all affected by the Christian vision, and adapted it to their own purposes.

Many people were converted to Christianity in the fourth century, but the vision of a new, righteous society united by the name of Christ was not realized. Several different Christian societies were created. They were divided by language and by different interpretations of the Christian message. But within the Roman empire and in several areas outside it, Christianity moved in the fourth century from being an important minority ideology to setting the agenda for society at large.

Copyright (C) 1996, Steven Muhlberger. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

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