Thursday, 13 August 2009

Was Christianity responsible?

There is a thread of thought going back to antiquity and revived by Nietzsche that blames Christianity for the fall of the Roman Empire. Christ and his followers are thus held responsible for replacing pagan virtues with ‘slave values’ of submission and pacifism.

In reality, and long before the triumph of Christianity, it was pagan Rome that strove to pacify its subjects and make them submissive. This was a deliberate and longstanding policy:

By humanitas the Romans meant two things: the adoption of the customs and the value system of the Roman people and material prosperity. The first was to be achieved by pacification, subjugation, and ‘Romanization’; the second was provided under the umbrella of the Pax Romana. By pacifying unruly elements, the Pax Romana allowed for their integration into civilization itself: it promised urbanization, cultural refinement, and in some instances, even enfranchisement. (Parchami, 2009, p. 28)

The Pax Romana did not mean peace with rival empires. Nor did it really mean peace within the empire. Indeed, it meant regular use of State violence—to quash revolts by slaves and the newly conquered and to protect life and property from brigands, bandits, pirates, and the like. Violence had become a state monopoly and anyone who transgressed this monopoly became an enemy of the State.

This ‘peace’ impressed Aristides, a 2nd-century pagan philosopher: “Now total security, universal and clear to all, has been given to the earth itself and those who inhabit it” (Parchami, 2009, p. 33). The Pax Romana didn’t simply benefit the elites by eliminating potential rivals. It benefited everyone by creating a more productive economy:

This security protected people—both their physical selves and their property—from external attack. Furthermore, the reduction of piracy and banditry meant more safety for travelers and for trade and commerce than at any previous time. Last, but not least, Roman rule prevented the eruption, into military conflict, of century-old disputes between the various provinces, or between disparate communities within a single province. (Parchami, 2009, p. 33)

These benefits came at the cost of a social contradiction. Although the use of violence was forbidden to the general population, it remained legitimate and even noble as a State prerogative. Initially, this situation seemed normal to everyone. It certainly served the purpose of the ruling elites, particularly during the early years of empire when their subjects were mostly ‘objects’—i.e., the spoils of recent conquests. Nor did the general population see anything unusual. After all, the Gods themselves behaved likewise.

In time, however, this contradiction lost its legitimacy. First, the conquered were assimilated into Roman society. Many became citizens and, as such, enjoyed certain rights and protections. Second, the State no longer had to use violence so often against its own subjects. Piracy largely disappeared following the battle of Actium in 31 BC. After the emperor Hadrian (117-138 AD), there were no new provinces to pacify and fewer rebellions in the older ones. The Pax Romana increasingly seemed irrevocable, as Plutarch noted in the first century:

The greatest blessings that cities can enjoy are peace, prosperity, populousness, and concord. As far as peace is concerned the people have no need of political activity, for all war, both Greek and foreign, has been banished and has disappeared from among us. (cited in Parchami, 2009, p. 30)

Third, a profound behavioral change was spreading through the general population. The ‘internal war’ against thugs and criminals was producing a new kind of Roman, one more submissive to authority and less willing to countenance violence. In fact, these new Romans were coming to see arrogant, violent conduct as inherently wrong. Yet such conduct characterized the Gods they were supposed to respect. Increasingly, people looked elsewhere for spiritual comfort.

Into this new behavioral landscape came Christianity. Indeed, one of the early Church fathers, Origen (185-254 AD), explicitly linked the success of his faith to the Pax Romana:

God was preparing the nations for his teaching, that they might be under one Roman Emperor, so that the unfriendly attitude of the nations to one another, caused by the existence of a large number of kingdoms, might not make it more difficult for Jesus’ apostles to do what he commanded them when he said, ‘Go and teach all nations’. It is quite clear that Jesus was born during the reign of Augustus, the one who reduced to uniformity, so to speak, the many kingdoms on earth so that he had a single empire. It would have hindered Jesus’ teaching from being spread through the whole world if there had been many kingdoms, not only for the reasons just stated, but also because men everywhere would have been compelled to do military service and to fight in defence of their own land. This used to happen before the times of Augustus and even earlier still when a war was necessary, such as that between the Peloponnesians and the Athenians, and similarly in the case of the other nations which fought one another. Accordingly, how could this teaching, which preaches peace and does not even allow men to take vengeance on their enemies, have had any success unless the international situation had everywhere been changed and a milder spirit prevailed at the advent of Jesus? [Against Celsus 2, 30]

For Eusebius (4th century), it “was not by mere human accident” but “of God’s arrangement” that the universal empire of peace came in time for the universal religion of peace (Mommsen, 1951, p. 361). Both sought to unite and pacify the world’s many peoples:

Two great powers sprang up fully as out of one stream and they gave peace to all and brought all together to a state of friendship: the Roman empire, which from that time appeared as one kingdom, and the power of the Saviour of all, whose aid was at once extended to and established with everyone. [Theophania 3,2 – cited in Mommsen (1951, pp. 361-362)]

Immediately after Augustus had established his sole rule, at the time of our Saviour’s appearance, the rule by the many became abolished among the Romans. And from that time to the present you cannot see, as before, cities at war with cities, nor nation fighting with nation, nor life being worn away in the confusion of everything. [Praeparatio Evangelica 1,4– cited in Mommsen (1951, pp. 361)]

This peace, however, was sustained by violent means—a flaw that Christian writers knew full well. Origen felt that the Empire’s enemies were better fought through prayer [Against Celsus 8, 73]. Arnobius of Sicca [4th century] thought it better to convert them:

[We] have learned from His teachings and His laws that evil should not be repaid with evil; that it is better to suffer wrong than be its cause, to pour forth one’s own blood rather than to stain our hands and conscience with the blood of another: the world, ungrateful as it is, has long had this benefit from Christ by whom the rage of madness has been softened and has begun to withhold hostile hands from the blood of fellow beings.

And if all without exception who understand that [they] are men, not through the form of their bodies but through the power of reason, would for a little while be willing to lend an ear to His wholesome and peaceful commandments, and would believe not in their own arrogance and swollen conceit but rather in His admonitions, the whole world, long since having diverted the use of iron to more gentle pursuits, would be passing its days in the most placid tranquillity and would come together in wholesome harmony, having kept the terms of treaties unbroken.
[Against the Pagans 1,6]

The 4th century gave Christians a chance to put their ideas into practice. In 313 AD, Christianity was placed on an equal standing with the old pagan religion. Then, gradually, it became the sole official religion.

This transitional period saw large numbers of barbarians enter the Empire. They were allowed in largely out of expediency: they helped meet the army’s manpower needs and it was considered preferable to have them as allies on the inside rather than as enemies on the outside. Although some feared the growing barbarian presence, these fears were calmed by Christian reassurances. In 417 AD, the theologian Orosius observed: “the barbarians [in Spain], having forsworn their swords, have turned to the plow, and now nurture the surviving Romans as allies and friends.” (cited in Mathisen, 2006, p. 33). But late pagan philosophers, like Themistius, were just as naïve. In 383 AD, he wrote that the Goths of Thrace “are now converting the iron from their swords and cuirasses into mattocks and scythes.”

Paganism lost all official status after one last clash with Christianity: the controversy over the Altar of Victory in Rome. ‘Victory’ was a Roman goddess and incense was burnt at her altar whenever the Senate met. She represented not so much a divine being as a divine principle: the imperative to fight and triumph over all enemies. The altar was first removed in the mid 4th century under Constantine but then replaced by Julian the Apostate. It was removed a second time in 382 AD. Pagan senators pleaded for its return, arguing that the altar had helped make Rome a great empire. Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, acknowledged that it might have once been useful. But the time had come to move on: “It is no disgrace to pass on to better things” [Epist. 18,7]. This argument was developed by Prudentius, who argued that pagan Romans did not fully understand why their empire had come into being:

Shall I tell you, Roman, what cause it was that so exalted your labours, what it was that nursed your glory to such a height of fame that it has put rein and bridle on the world? God, wishing to bring into partnership peoples of different speech and realms of discordant manners, determined that all the civilised world should be harnessed to one ruling power and bear gentle bonds in harmony under the yoke, so that love of their religion should hold men’s hearts in union; for no bond is made that is worthy of Christ unless unity of spirit leagues together the nations it associates. Only concord knows God; it alone worships the beneficent Father aright in peace. The untroubled harmony of human union wins his favour for the world; by division it drives Him away, with cruel warfare it makes Him wroth; it satisfies Him with the offering of peace and holds Him fast with quietness and brotherly love. [Against Symmachus 2, 583-597]

Prudentius represented the Empire as a woman, Roma, who announced that it was no longer necessary to fear conquest by barbarians:

Let those who din into my ears once more the story of past disasters and ancient sorrows observe that in your time I suffer such things no longer. No barbarian foe shatters my bars with his spear, nor with strange arms and dress and hair goes roving through my captured city, carrying off my young men to bondage across the Alps [Against Symmachus 2, 690-95]

The above words were written in 403 AD. Seven years later, Rome fell to the Visigoths, who plundered it for three days. The Empire imploded as one barbarian nation after another moved in. In 455, Rome was sacked a second time—the Vandals were allowed to enter unopposed after promising not to kill anyone. With the return of piracy and brigandage, trade sharply declined, as did food production and maintenance of roads, ports, and aqueducts. Neither life nor property was secure. It is estimated that this period saw Europe’s population shrink by about a third through war, famine, and plague. So ended the Pax Romana.


Did Christianity destroy the Empire? Or did this destruction result from the Empire’s policy of pacifying its subjects while more and more unpacified barbarians pressed on its frontiers? The answer probably lies somewhere in-between.

It can be argued that all State societies are prone to catastrophic collapse, since they are structured around a single center of authority. As long as this central authority is maintained, the State can repress individual and communal violence, thus permitting a higher level of economic activity and ultimately a larger population. This repression in turn alters the mix of behavioral genotypes: predispositions to violence being selected out and predispositions to submission and passivity being selected in. If and when central authority falters, there will be a corresponding resurgence of non-State violence. On the one hand, the State can no longer restrain violent predispositions that have not yet been fully removed from the population. On the other, the State can no longer keep out non-pacified populations that enter from areas beyond its control. This new social environment reduces economic output, thus worsening the initial instability and creating a downward spiral that may spin out of control.

Nonetheless, when Roman central authority faltered in the fifth century it did so as never before. Earlier, in the third century, Rome had faced a similar crisis: civil war, foreign invasion, return of brigandage, and steep economic decline. Yet the Empire fought its way back and reasserted central authority. There was no such response in the fifth century. Instead, the crisis was met with a strange mixture of complacency and willful naiveté.

We cannot understand this change without considering the ideology that now shaped the Roman worldview, i.e., all humans share the same potential for peaceful and submissive behavior. This was largely true among the pacified populations inside the Roman Empire. Outside, it was largely false. Tragically so.


Arnobius of Sicca (1949) Arnobius of Sicca. The Case against the Pagans, transl. G.E. McGracken, Ancient Christian Writers No. 7, New York: Newman Press.

Mathisen, R.W. (2006). Violent behavior and the construction of barbarian identity in Late Antiquity, in: Drake, H.A. (ed.) Violence in Late Antiquity. Perceptions and Practices, pp. 27-35, Burlington (Vermont) and Aldershot: Absgate.

Mommsen, T.E. (1951). St. Augustine and the Christian idea of progress: The background of the City of God, Journal of the History of Ideas, 12, 346-374.

Origen. (1965). Origen: Contra Celsum, transl. H. Chadwick, London: Cambridge University Press.

Parchami, A. (2009). Hegemonic Peace and Empire. The Pax Romana, Britannica and Americana, Routledge.

Prudentius. (1953). Prudentius, Vol. II, transl. H.J. Thomson, Loeb Classical Library, London: William Heinemann.


Vertumne said...

Today Westerners face the same issue, with Christianism replaced by Human Rights and German barbarians replaced by people from Third-world countries (especially muslim ones). We think that everybody wishes a secular society with low interpersonal violence, a society that respects everybody. However, Al-Qaeda quote "we love death more than you love life" is really clear about islamic intentions.

harpend said...

Nice job. Your views are not very far from Gregory Clark's. Any ideas about why the industrial revolution didn't start then instead of 800 years later?

Henry Harpending

Peter Frost said...


This is almost an inevitable outcome of mature pacified societies. We come to think that peace and order are just part of the natural state of things. If people don't act peacefully and orderly it's because they have not been allowed to develop normally to their full potential (because of lack of opportunity, poor education, poverty, etc.)


In England, the Industrial Revolution (which began in the 1600s during its initial phase) was the culmination of behavioral evolution that began at least 600 years earlier (after the Norman conquest) when the State established an effective judiciary and effectively monopolized the use of violence.

The Roman Empire existed within a shorter time frame. Even if it had lasted longer, I'm not sure that an industrial revolution would have occurred. For one thing, the Romans were constrained by proportionately higher expenditures on defense, which in turn led to high rates of taxation and, ultimately, State controls to ensure that taxable citizens continue to engage in taxable activity.

For another thing, the Roman Empire was much more open than England to gene flow from outside, notably the influx of northern barbarians and also inflows from the Arabian peninsula and sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in the eastern provinces. This inflow would have dampened any gene-based behavioral evolution within the empire.

Tod said...

The Christian late Roman elite's attitude to the barbarian influx may have owed something to a perception that barbarians would lack the ability to compete for resources at the elite's level; the Christian attitude to Jews became very negative as Jewish success in the late Roman Empire increased.

The Norman conquest saw a massive amount of downward mobility as the former ruling class suffered expropriation and was pauperized. That may have kick started genetic change in the lower classes. Also England was less top heavy as the (Norman) ruling class after the Conquest was tiny compared to what it had been before.

Anonymous said...

Related post Was Roman Britain multiracial?

P.J.S. said...

Sorry for bringing this many months old post to life again. I recently discovered this blog and have been reading through most of the posts, including old ones such as this, with great interest, and this one in particular prompts me to ask a question, which I can only hope will be noticed despite the old age of the original post.

The analogy between the old roman empire and modern western europe seems, to me, to have one big flaw, and that is the malthusian dynamics involved. There were pressure on the Roman borders, because, in Roman times, there were no contraceptives. Today, we are witnessing falling birth rates throughout the world, including the middle east. I think the great western complacency is due to the assumption there will never again be violent competition over resources; only economic. Whether this is true or not we can not know - but no doubt this belief is sourced in the reduction in human conflict brought about by economic growth.