At the Heart of a History Giant

The birth of human civilization and its phases across the past millennia would be hollow without the reign of the Roman Empire. The empire’s breadth across time and its depth in terms of culture and human civilization are eternally told and written. It has been the subject of scholarly publications, debates, and works of art – paintings, sculptures, and even the contemporary filmmaking. Every aspect of the Roman era, the interrelationship between and among the ‘actors’ within the Empire – generals, court officials, the emperors, their government systems, cultural norms and standards – have influenced their neighboring nations and the world for the next generations.

One of the gifts of the Roman people to the world is the birth of Christianity, the faith and belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ. Today’s denomination with the most number of members, Christianity was founded in the 1st century in Jerusalem, one of the provinces then of Rome. At that time, many believers were persecuted during the reign of several emperors, as the dominant faith was paganism. During the 4th century though, Christianity is at its way to becoming accepted as a major denomination in Rome. The Roman Empire then had four major sovereigns: two superior, who were titled Augustus – Maximianus Herculius and Diocletian; and two inferior (Caesars) – Galerius Maximianus and Constantius Chlorus. From these sovereigns an emperor, who will usher in a new era of monotheistic faith, which is Christianity, will emerge. It was Constantinus Chlorus that fathered a son, who will then became known as “Constantine the Great”.

Flavius Valerius Constantinus, or Constantine the Great, is said to be converted to Christianity in the course of a war against co-emperor, named Maxentius, and his brother-in-law. Before the decisive Milvian Bridge battle, Constantine knew that there was a need in divine providence. During his prayers for the God’s assistance, he was sent a vision of light in the form of a cross at midday, and it had the inscription “in this sign you will be victorious” (“in hoc signo vinces”). His vision was reaffirmed that night. In this way, God had told him that this sign would protect him in all the battles. Therefore, the Constantine’s conversion to Christianity was immediately carried out, and he ordered that the symbol of the God – his Savior – was used to represent the army. Constantine won the Milvian Bridge battle and proceeded to wear the Christ’s symbol against every enemy he faced.

It was debated if the sign Constantine saw was genuine or not, but nobody can prove it now; but what makes it important is that it enabled the faith to be transferred to generations upon generations even after the Roman era. The faith that provided people with ‘hope’ – a strong virtue – and belief in a merciful God, which was against all the other faiths at that time as it was of the pagan gods, which were fierce and cruel to punish. It magnified the symbol of hope among humans that there is one being all-knowing and all-powerful, yet loving and just. Hope brought about by Christianity made a different way of the diversion, which was in stark contrast to the emerging chaos at Rome, when generals and those in power hungered for more and created further anarchy in the Empire.

As it is in all things, there is the other side of the coin: Christianity has also been debated on. It was stated that most of people had been attracted to the God and Church only due to the money and those favored positions which were available from Constantine the Great, and not from piety. From Christianity, the Church was founded. It is the Roman Catholic Church that is built today in heart of Rome – St. Peter’s Church. Though, the founding of the church was also identified as one of the many possible sources of the beginnings of the decline of Rome. Ferguson (2006) mentioned, that “…the fall of Roman imperial power have ranged from notions of immorality and decadence, either due to too much ‘paganism’, loose morals too much Christianity, climatic changes, and even declining elite fertility levels”. Ferguson went on to list 13 major reasons/ trends believed to cause the fall of Rome, some are the following:

  1. The ambitions of some generals to have themselves proclaimed the emperor;
  2. Growing split between the eastern and western empires;
  3. The unwillingness of the general population to be conscripted into the army;
  4. The pagan and Christian milieus of the 4th and 5th century would encourage a policy of political non –involvement among the Roman elite.

The above factors were some of the basis/ theories that scholars argued to have affected the fall of the Roman Empire. It was all about the hunger for power from the generals to the people from the church that ultimately led to the widening gap between the eastern and western empires. History may have witnessed the political fall of Rome, but its influence through its government systems and culture reverberates across the ages that followed it. At its heart is the power given to nations to hope for what is eternally good, to continue to have faith in the power, mercifulness, love and goodness of a greater Being that is enjoined to find in the Christendom.