Religion, decline and fall

In the penultimate article in his series on the Roman empire, Chris Gray examines the rise of christianity, the loss of the west and the transition to feudalism

On the face of it, it seems strange that an aspiring emperor should have chosen as his guardian deity the god of the christians - worshipped by a minority of the empire’s population. We cannot ultimately unravel with any sense of success the reasons why Constantine made this particular choice: all we can do is suggest reasons why he might have been impelled to do so, in the context of the development of religious ideas in the empire and the political circumstances at that time.

We need a review, then, of the empire’s multifarious religions at the beginning of the 4th century of the christian era.

Indo-European religion

The ancestral Roman religion was descended from an Indo-European religion whose existence can be traced back from what we know of the religions of ancient India, Iran, Greece, Rome and the Teutonic and Celtic peoples - with various others thrown in. The American scholar, Garrett Olmsted, has investigated the pantheons of these peoples, tracing the schema illustrated in Fig 1 in the case of Greece and Rome.1

Olmsted’s precise classification is no doubt controversial, especially given the presence of two figures - Romulus and Numa - who are more commonly thought of as the first and second kings of Rome. But it brings out a feature of what christians have traditionally called ‘paganism’, which is that the gods and goddesses operated a division of labour. None of them were omnipotent, but they each had their special sphere. Consequently it was possible for humans to choose their own personal god or goddess, one to whom they were specially devoted and who was especially devoted to them, as they thought.

The classification also allowed for the acknowledgement of further gods outside the original schema. Paul of Tarsus came across an altar at Athens dedicated “to the unknown god”: he therefore took the trouble to explain to the Athenians exactly who this god was: “Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you” (Acts xvii, 23).

The difference was that for the Athenians an “unknown god” was one who could simply be added to the pantheon: for adherents of one of the so-called ‘Abrahamic’ religions (Judaism, christianity or islam) such a god could brook no rival.

Religions in the Roman empire

As far as the Roman state was concerned, from the earliest historical times the chief deities who presided over the city were Jupiter, Juno and Minerva.2 Into this system it was quite easy to fit the imperial cult. The adulation of an autocratic ruler as a divine personage was characteristic of eastern monarchies such as Persia or Egypt, but the Romans did not find it entirely out of place. There was, after all, no absolute barrier between the human condition and divinity.

Even in his own lifetime Julius Caesar was honoured in ways that Suetonius describes as “too great for a mortal man”3 - including temples, altars, statues among those of the gods, a special priest, an additional college of the Luperci (priests of the Lycean Pan), and the substitution of ‘Julius’ for the name of the fifth month, Quintilis. On his death Caesar was proclaimed a god by order of the Senate. Cicero objected, but the motion was carried.

Augustus became the focus of an analogous personality cult: the Senate announced his apotheosis on the day after his funeral.4 Already while he was alive sacrifices were being offered to his genius or guardian spirit.5 As the empire became an established entity, it became customary likewise to offer sacrifices to the ‘Juno’ of the empress. Strictly speaking, divine honours were not paid at Rome to a living emperor, but, especially in the later imperial period, the degree of adulation accorded a living monarch was not far short of ascription of divinity. Unsatisfactory emperors were not elevated on their demise in the earlier stages, but such were the political stakes that there was always the temptation to make such a move, as in Septimius Severus’s insistence that the unspeakable Commodus be accorded divine status.

During the course of Roman history various foreign cults were adopted either officially or as a result of popular initiatives. In 204BCE, when Hannibal was threatening the cities of Italy, the Romans, ostensibly in accordance with a Sibylline prophecy, embraced the cult of the Phrygian goddess, Cybele, a deity variously identified by the Romans with their own goddesses, Maia, Ops, Tellus and Ceres. In the imperial period the worship of the Egyptian goddess, Isis, also became popular (see Apuleius’s novel The golden ass). The Persian god, Mithras, became the focus of an original Roman cult, which lasted till its suppression in the christian period. The dispersal of Jews in the empire introduced the Romans to the distinctive set of beliefs centring on the god, Yahweh; the association of this religion with opposition to Roman rule made for friction, but a modus vivendi was eventually achieved; by contrast Druidism, also with an anti-Roman focus, was firmly suppressed.

Finally a certain offshoot of Judaism, known as christianity from the identification of Jesus with the Jewish messiah (in Greek ho christos, ‘the anointed one’) also began to spread within the empire’s territories. This movement originated as a revolutionary version of Judaism, but was transformed into a religion of accommodation with “the powers that be”6 not long after the crucifixion of its founder. Paul of Tarsus, who was to a large extent responsible for the version of christianity that spread within the Roman empire, also managed to metamorphose Jesus from a historical Jew into a type of sacrificial god on the model of Atthis, Adonis and similar eastern heroes -

“That we may go at last to heaven
Saved by his precious blood.”

Christianity as a result became yet another ‘mystery cult’ circulating in the Roman empire, albeit one of a somewhat unusual and intolerant kind by comparison with the existing religious set-up.

Christianity and the Roman state

There was, indeed, a glaring contradiction between the demands of the Roman state and the christian religion, even following Paul’s success in decoupling it from its Jewish associations.

As HA Drake has written, “In ancient [Roman] thinking, the state itself was, at least theoretically, a religious institution, intended first and foremost to maintain the goodwill of the gods. Public officials whom we think of as secular simply because they were not priests all had duties that we would categorise as religious.”7

The consequence of this was that anything likely to interfere with the desired relationship with the gods was severely disapproved of. The christian stance was, if anything, even more intransigent, since the traditional gods were seen by christians as ‘demons’, ministers of Satan, agents whose actions were designed to lead humans away from the true god. This position tended to make it difficult for christians to attend public gatherings and functions which involved sacrifices to the established gods - even buying meat from a butcher was a risky business because the butcher might have bought it as a recently sacrificed animal.8

As time wore on, however, the Romans began to appreciate the positive sides of the strange new religion. Non-christians were impressed with the way in which the christians bore their persecutions with fortitude and by the upright lives that they led. They were also struck by the way in which the christian communities supported their members and by their level of organisation. This came out clearly in the reign of the emperor known to the English-speaking world as Julian the Apostate (reigned 361-63CE), who rejected the attempts to make him a christian and became a devoted follower of the traditional philosophers of Greece and Rome and the gods associated with them. He nonetheless expressed great admiration for the christian churches and their organisational abilities:

“Following Maximin’s lead he appointed civic and provincial high priests. Several of his letters survive which give the pagan clergy instructions and advice: they are to lead exemplary and sober lives, never attending the theatre or the games; they are to maintain their dignity in face of the provincial governors; above all, they are to copy the christians by organising charity for the poor and strangers. Julian provided foodstuffs for the purpose from the imperial granaries.”9

It was still necessary to resolve the contradiction. Matters reached crisis point at a sacrifice attended by Diocletianus and Galerius, at which the entrails of the sacrificial animals were judged hideously unpropitious - the reason alleged being that certain christians in the military ranks present had obstructed the gods by crossing themselves in repudiation of them. Accordingly an empire-wide persecution began in 302, which did not finally end until 313; but it failed. If HA Drake is right, the reason for this failure was that the mass of the population did not feel that the christians were such a threat to the welfare of Rome as the authorities claimed.10

Clearly it was necessary to find some other solution. As Drake puts it, “The problem … was to find an alternative source of legitimacy, now that the Senate could no longer keep the armies in check.”11

Bound up with this was the need for a formula that would unify the empire, expressed in a search for some divine power that would encompass this. Such would appear to have been the background to Constantine’s decision to align with the christians. (He was not alone in this: his rivals, Maxentius and Licinius, moved in the same direction).

Constantinus won the final power struggle and established his rule, but he was careful not to impose christianity on the population in a situation where its declared adherents still made up only about 20% of the total. In the new set-up the bishops came to take over the position previously held by the Senate as chief agents and upholders of imperial power. But the first christian emperor tried independently to promote a form of empire-wide religious unity to which christians and non-christians equally could subscribe.

It was in this spirit that he explained to a group of bishops that he wished to be the “bishop of those outside” (episkopos ton ektos).12 Eusebius of Caesarea, who wrote an influential history of the christian church to the year 323, has the emperor ordering the destruction of temples and the outlawing of non-christian sacrifices, but he only gives three examples of temple closure, and two of these may have been for reasons not connected with the promotion of the christian religion.13 In his ‘Edict to the eastern provincials’ Constantinus asserts: “What each man has adopted as his persuasion, let him do no harm with to another.”14

There were certain limits to his tolerance: he ordered the burning of an important anti-christian tract15 and he was ready to use the state power to enforce catholic orthodoxy against what was deemed heretical. This was unfortunate, since, as Drake points out, “the unintended consequence of his decision was to erode the long-held christian principle that belief should not be coerced, to restore the idea of the state as a means to create unity of belief.”16

Nevertheless, the major steps in the suppression of ‘paganism’ were taken by subsequent emperors at the end of the 4th century in the period following Julianus’s attempt as emperor to revive the traditional Graeco-Roman religion.

What difference did christianity make? There was not much change in the institution of slavery. In 325 Constantinus ordered an official to stop the break-up of slave families on imperial estates in Sardinia which he had transferred to private ownership, but there was no move to outlaw the institution as such.17 As a result the adoption of christianity as the state religion was a ‘political revolution’ rather than the emergence of a different ‘mode of production’.

Certain changes obviously followed from adherence to christian belief: eg, the abolition of death by crucifixion, the outlawing of concubinage, designation of Sundays as holidays. Possibly the most moving innovation was the edict of 316 which banned branding on the face “because man is made in god’s image”. Gladiatorial combats were banned in 325. The marriage laws were brought into conformity with christian principles - eg, Augustus’s penalisation of celibacy was abolished. The ridiculous equation of the emperor with divinity was overturned.

One possibly unintended consequence of christianisation - although it is clearly implied by St Paul’s assertion that in christianity “there is neither bond nor free” (Galatians iii,28) - was the sudden eruption of theological interest among members of the subordinate classes, a sort of ‘displacement’ of political activity. This is recorded by Gregory of Nyssa in his report of a visit to Constantinople, where, he tells us:

“If you ask about your change, the shopkeeper philosophises to you about the begotten and unbegotten; if you enquire the price of a loaf, the reply is, ‘The father is greater and the son inferior’; and if you say, ‘Is the bath ready?’ the attendant affirms that the son is of nothing.’18

The loss of the west

Ever since Gibbon’s monumental Decline and fall - the first volume was originally published in 1766 - European scholars have debated the reasons for the collapse of the western Roman empire in the 5th century CE. Clearly this was the end result of various processes and related factors, and we can only note these here briefly.

Some have already been touched upon, such as the continuous Persian threat from the 3rd century onwards, which obliged the Romans to station large numbers of troops in the east, increasing the exposure of the long northern Rhine-Danube frontier; likewise the inability of the imperial political system to deal adequately with conflicts inside the ruling circles and between different military units. There were indeed also clearly limits to agricultural productivity and taxable capacity, which meant that attempts to surmount such problems often increased the strains to which the politico-economic system was subject.

What cannot be ignored, however, is the impact of the barbarian world as a whole upon the empire, an impact which exacerbated its military and political problems. Here the key actors are a people we have not so far met - the Huns.

The Huns significantly improved the bow used by the nomads of the Steppe, giving it increased hitting power.19 This gave them a military edge over the other nomads and neighbouring peoples and enabled them to expand westwards. The Goths, on the receiving end of this Hun pressure, began moving towards the Danube frontier with the Roman Empire, hoping to be let in or break in. In 378 they defeated the Eastern Roman emperor Valens after Roman frontier officials had badly mishandled their application for admittance into the empire. In 395 a group of Huns penetrated into Asia Minor and threatened Antioch. The empire used Gothic troops against them, and when these Goths thought they had been insufficiently rewarded for their efforts they staged a revolt in 399 that became alarmingly successful before it was dealt with.

With the advent of the 5th century CE the incursions continued. For example, a force of Goths under Radagaisus invaded Italy in 405: Stilicho, the Vandal leader in charge of military defences in the west, defeated them, but seemingly at the cost of denuding the Rhine frontier of troops.20 Hence a combined force of Burgundians, Alamanni, Vandals, Alans and Suevi was able to cross the Rhine in late 406 and fan out in many directions. All these attacks were the result of Hun pressure. The effect was devastating - on a wide geographical canvas, as the invaders swept into Gaul and then on into Spain.

Meanwhile another concentration of Goths overran the Balkans between 395 and 397, reaching Athens before turning north into Epirus. This force was led by Alaric. Finding himself shut out of the east, he turned west and invaded Italy. Checked by an army under Stilicho, the Goths withdrew into Noricum (modern Austria) in 407. Then the western emperor, Honorius, moved against Stilicho, having him executed. Wives and children of barbarian soldiers in Stilicho’s army were also killed in a pogrom in Rome.

Alaric returned swiftly, laid siege to Rome, set up a new emperor (Attalus), discovered his protégé was incompetent, put him under arrest and attempted to negotiate a new agreement with Honorius. He moved with his troops to Ravenna (where Honorius was) to confirm this, but then found himself under attack. He promptly returned to Rome and sacked it (August 24-27 410). But this did not solve the political problem either, as Alaric’s Goths still had no permanent home: Alaric marched into Calabria and was trying to get his force into Sicily when he died.21

The Goths under Alaric’s brother-in-law, Athaulf, moved north again into southern Gaul and eventually came to an agreement with the emperor Honorius, under which they were allowed to settle in Aquitaine as independent allies (foederati) in 417. In this geographical location they could be useful to the Roman state fighting against other menaces such as the Alans and Suevi in Spain.

But the western Romans were not out of the wood yet: indeed the situation became even worse. The Vandals under their king, Gaiseric, having emerged as the dominant power in Spain, proceeded to cross into north Africa in 429. Another 10 years and they were in possession of the whole littoral as far as Carthage, and as such in control of the richest part of Roman Africa, with the power to curtail grain supplies to the city of Rome. They also cut off the flow of taxes to the western treasury from there, thus adding to the state’s financial problems. A move against them became imperative, but it could not be staged, because at this point the Huns, who had already begun moving directly against the empire, returned to the attack.

Attila and his brother, Bleda, became joint rulers of the Hun confederacy some time in the 430s; they exacted a treaty which increased the annual Roman subsidy from 350 pounds of gold to 700. The Huns discovered how to lay siege to towns and succeeded in increasing the annual tribute to over 1,000 pounds. Round about 445 Attila got rid of Bleda, and then went to work with a vengeance, winning two resounding victories; in 447 the annual tribute stood at 2,100 pounds of gold - with a further 6,000 still owing in arrears.22 But Constantinople, with its formidable defensive walls (strengthened in 413), remained impregnable. Also Attila was not able to cross into Asia Minor, where he would have had many rich Roman provinces at his mercy.

Having drained the eastern half of the empire of as much wealth as possible, Attila was forced to turn west. He invaded Gaul, and suffered his first defeat in 451 at the hands of the Roman general, Aetius, who had spent some time living with the Huns as a hostage - he kept his eyes open. Attila invaded Italy the following year, but ran out of food supplies and found his forces threatened with disease: pope Leo, who visited him, claimed divine intervention as the cause of this retreat. Not long afterwards Attila died, and the Hun empire broke up, as its subject peoples rebelled.

Still the underlying problems of the west remained. What to do about the Vandals? How to reconcile the conflicting interests, Roman and barbarian, and, if possible, reduce invading barbarian numbers? Above all, how to get money for the government?

With eastern help, a last-ditch effort was made to smash the Vandal power in 468. The plan was for a seaborne invasion force to take Carthage, but the Vandals succeeded in destroying the invasion fleet. It was game, set and match, as the Roman treasury was now empty - not just the western, but the eastern as well.

It seems an open and shut case: the prime causes of the western empire’s demise were external. In fact, however, things were not so simple, as even the latest historians, Heather and Ward-Perkins, acknowledge in their accounts.23 We saw in reviewing the slave revolts of the late republic that what prevented them from succeeding was the strength of the state machine; conversely the weakness of the state in the late 4th and early 5th centuries gave the subordinate classes a chance to rebel.

This emerged not in the west, but in the east, as early as the Gothic revolt, led by Trebigild in 399, where the Goths were joined by large numbers of slaves.24 Similarly, when Alaric’s Goths camped outside Rome in 409, slaves swelled the ranks.25 Last but not least, the chaos in Gaul and Spain was deepened by movements of slaves and oppressed peasants called in the sources Bagaudae (or Bacaudae). One of their strongholds was the so-called tractus Armoricanus (between the Loire and the Seine), where a revolt broke out in 407, lasting till 417. Similar revolts occurred in 435-37 and 442 and as late as the 450s.

Quite clearly these movements were a far from negligible factor in the western empire’s demise.26 Behind this, if Perry Anderson is right, we see the hand of the senatorial aristocracy in the west, who, despite losing a great deal of political power in the course of the “military anarchy” of the 3rd century and Diocletianus’s reforms at its end, had increased their economic clout.

Anderson notes that “with the death of Valentinian in 375, the senatorial plutocracy increasingly recaptured the imperial office itself from the army, and with blind patrician egoism progressively ran down the whole defence apparatus which had been the special care of the military rulers of the empire since Diocletian.”27

If Attila it was who demanded the gold; it was the western senators who delivered it up.

Transition to feudalism

The movements of the subordinate classes in Gaul and Spain in the 5th century BCE were not the direct initiators of a new mode of production in the west. The key factor here was the Germanic invaders: these newcomers were not seeking to overthrow the Roman empire to such an end; they were only in search of a piece of the action on their own account. This explains why, even if it was a lower orders movement, the Bagaudae of Armorica supported Aetius against the Huns.

What we find in the western Roman economy is the presence of growth points for feudalism - features which ensured that when the dust had settled the western European successor states would eventually foster the growth of a new mode of production, one which finally found its classic form in the crusader kingdom of Jerusalem in the 12th century CE.

The most prominent was the so-called ‘colonate’, agricultural tenants having a dependant relationship with the traditional aristocracy. Such tenants offered an alternative to the more unreliable slave system, in which the supply of slaves was problematic, especially after Augustus decided that further to expand the empire was to incur increasing military risk. Already in the 1st century BCE the great landowners were leasing land to free peasants for a consideration - one such was Julius Caesar’s opponent, Domitius Ahenobarbus.28

One side effect here was a possible improvement in the conditions of the slaves, which can be seen if we compare the book on agriculture written by Cato (early 2nd century BCE) with that of his successors, Varro (1st century BCE) and Columella (1st century CE). Slave estates continued in Italy, Spain and Gaul, but alongside them we find increasing numbers of coloni (tenants), whose economic and juridical position approximated more and more to that of the slave population. Thanks mostly to Diocletianus, who was insistent that everyone should follow their ancestral profession, such tenants became increasingly tied to the soil, with the landowner involved responsible for paying their taxes.

Already under Hadrianus the lower orders tend to be grouped together for juridical purposes, designated as humiliores (literally ‘more humble persons’) subject to more stringent punishments than the socially superior honestiores (‘more upright persons’). It was not a shortage of labour per se which gave rise to these changes, but rather the presence of an alternative labour supply, which enabled the landowners to circumvent the limits imposed by the slave system.29

If Anderson is right, these developments were geographically eastern in origin: “the patrocinium was in origin a phenomenon common to Syria and Egypt, where it usually betokened the granting of a military official’s protection to villages against abuses by petty agents of the state. But it was in Italy, Gaul and Spain that it came to mean the surrender by the peasant of his lands to a landlord patron, who then granted them back as a temporary tenancy (the so-called precario). This type of patronage never became so widespread in the east, where free villages often retained their own autonomous councils and their independence as rural communities longer than did the municipal cities themselves.”30

Under these conditions former slaves and subject tenants eventually came to form a serf class … in the west. In the east the state machine survived, blocking the emergence of classic feudalism.


1. G Olmsted The gods of the Celts and Indo-Europeans Innsbruck 1994, pp87-102, 179-80.
2. See J Scheid An introduction to Roman religion Edinburgh 2003, p8.
3. ampliora etiam humano fastigio - Suetonius Julius LXXVI.
4. J Scheid An introduction to Roman religion Edinburgh 2003, p160.
5. Ibid p162.
6. St Paul, ‘Epistle to the Romans’, xiii,1.
7. HA Drake Constantine and the bishops Baltimore 2000, pp16-17.
8. Ibid pp91-92.
9. AHM Jones The decline of the ancient world Longmans 1966, p60.
10. See HA Drake Constantine and the bishops Baltimore 2000, pp141-53, especially pp150-51.
11. Ibid p125.
12. See ibid p71.
13. Ibid p402.
14. Quoted in ibid pp302-03.
15. Ibid p145.
16. Ibid p439.
17. See the Theodosian code li, 25, 1 and Moses Finley Ancient slavery and modern ideology London 1963, p76.
18. Quoted by HA Drake Constantine and the bishops Baltimore 2000, p289.
19. See P Heather The fall of the Roman empire: a new history London 2005, pp154-58.
20. See T Jones and A Ereira Terry Jones’s barbarians London 2006, pp124-32.
21. See B Ward-Perkins The fall of Rome Oxford 2005, p39.
22. Ibid p59.
23. B Ward-Perkins The fall of Rome Oxford 2005, p43; and P Heather The fall of the Roman empire: a new history London 2005, index, under ‘Bagaudae’.
24. W Liebeschuetz Barbarians and bishops Oxford 1990, p38.
25. P Heather The fall of the Roman empire: a new history London 2005, p224.
26. The best introduction to the Bagaudae is still EA Thompson, ‘Peasant revolts in late Roman Gaul and Spain’ Past and Present No2, November 1952, pp11-23.
27. P Anderson Passages from antiquity to feudalism London 1974, p102. On the army, see W Liebeschuetz Barbarians and bishops Oxford 1990, p25.
28. HH Scullard From the Gracchi to Nero London 1982, p173.
29. See J Banaji Agrarian change in late antiquity Oxford 2001, pp206-07.
30. P Anderson Passages from antiquity to feudalism London 1974, p98.

Figure 1: Greek and Roman gods

Type of deity Greece Rome
Sky father (progenitor of gods) Ouranos, Kronos Jupiter
Upper realm controller by night Zeus Mars
Youthful saviour champion Hermes Romulus
Upper realm controller by day Apollo Numa
Middle realm (land and sea) controller Poseidon Neptune
Lower realm controller Hades Dis
Earth mother goddess Gaia Tellus
Daughters of Mother Earth and Father Sky associated with:
Upper realm Hera Juno
Middle realm Hestia Vesta
Lower realm Demeter Ceres