The consequences of Constantine

During his tenure as Roman emperor from 306 to 337, Constantine was responsible for two world-changing acts. First, he chose a location for a new capital city on the shores of the Bosphorus. The city carried his name for the next thousand years and more. Constantinople’s defensible position enabled it to withstand invasion from the huns, the muslim armies,the mongols and others. It was a centre of civilisation and stability. The city finally fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 and was renamed as Istanbul.

Bust_of_Constantine_I_from_York_YORYM_1998_23

Bust of Constantine found in York, northern England, the city where he was proclaimed Emperor in 306.

The second act had even more far-reaching consequences. He convened a gathering of christian bishops in the city of Nicaea in present-day Turkey in the year 325. The Council of Nicaea was tasked with finding a consensus view of christianity that would enable it to be adopted as the religion of the Roman Empire.

As one of the defining characteristics of christianity almost from the time of Jesus had been the argumentativeness of its followers, this promised to be as easy as herding cats. One area in which the christians had been united, however, was in their resistance to the Roman Empire with its propensity to deify its emperors. Christians were monotheistic. A Roman emperor could not be a god.

The council was a success in that it reached agreement. As with any successful conference, the delegates agreed a final wording to the conclusion of their discussions. It is still with us today and is known as the Nicene Creed.

Here is an English translation of the original version from that council:

“We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible.

“And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made both in heaven and on earth; who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man; he suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

“And in the Holy Ghost.

“But those who say: ‘There was a time when he was not;’ and ‘He was not before he was made;’ and ‘He was made out of nothing,’ or ‘He is of another substance’ or ‘essence,’ or ‘The Son of God is created,’ or ‘changeable,’ or ‘alterable’—they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.”

To reach a final wording involved massive compromises. For the moment, I will mention two of them.

The first compromise was to do with the divinity of the emperor. In order for christianity to be acceptable in the Roman empire the bishops had to decree that Jesus was divine. Before that time, for many christians Jesus was a human being like the rest of us. (Being christians and therefore disputatious, there was the complication of the virgin birth. But that was open to many interpretations, all of which were explored, vociferously.)

So the bishops made Jesus into an emperor. In the following years churches had images of all-powerful christ on his throne. They called him Christ pantokrator (‘pantokrator’ means ‘omnipotent’ in Greek).

Mosaico_di_cristo_in_trono_tra_gli_apostoli_e_le_ss._prudenziana_e_prassede,_410_dc_ca._01

This image of Jesus enthroned is from the church of Santa Pudendenzia in Rome, year 410.

But for me the tragedy is in the final paragraph of the original Nicene Creed (which has been cut out of the modern versions). People who disagreed with the wording as pronounced by those bishops were condemned. They became heretics.

Apart from the contradiction of the cruelty that was perpetrated in the name of a religion which exhorted people to love one another, this undermines something fundamental that was fresh and new and which arrived with christianity. It seems to me that Jesus introduced a sense of morality, a sense of right and wrong – and the individual human responsibility to look for that in oneself and act accordingly. Of course it led to arguments, centuries of them. This moral sense was something so new that it was very difficult for our species to assimilate.

But the Roman Empire did not handle ambiguity well. It wanted an official depiction of reality, an official storyline. And so, with the Council of Nicaea, two incompatible words were joined ever afterwards: christian orthodoxy.

The Orthodox, Apostolic Roman Catholic church, with the backing of the empire, gradually became the dominant version of christianity over the following centuries. It only expressed a segment of the spectrum of early christianity, albeit a magnificent one.

Followers of non-orthodox versions of christianity had to be careful. Some followers of the church at Alexandria in Egypt hid their treasured, non-orthodox texts in some pots which they buried in the sand, probably around the year 370. The pots were uncovered at Nag Hammadi in 1945.

Apocalypse of Peter

Part of the Apocalypse of Peter, one of the apocryphal texts from the Nag Hammadi Library.

Was Constantine bowing to the inevitable when he adopted christianity as the religion of the empire? It was certainly on an upward trajectory. What if he had not? Would it still be here today? Would the empire have come to an end sooner if he hadn’t adopted christianity? I really don’t know.

Bridging the gap, 540-760. Generations 428-439

Who carried the baton of learning between the end of the Academy in Athens (closed by the remorseless pressure of the Emperor Justinian around 530) and the founding of the House of Wisdom in Baghdad after 760? What happened to all the books, the scrolls, the papyri?

This is a large gap, of over 200 years. So far as I have been able to establish, at least in part it was the scholars of the church of the East in the Sasanian Empire. Known by Constantinople as the Nestorian church, it was the largest christian church in terms of geographical extent until the journeys by the Spanish and Portuguese explorers in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It sent missions to India and China. Six hundred years later, Genghis Khan’s wife was a follower of the church of the East. It had schools in Nisibis (in present-day Turkey) and Gundeshapur, also spelt Gondi-Sapor, in present-day Iran. Almost nothing is written or known about them. What follows is the story as I have been able to piece it together.

The Roman emperor Justinian was a driven man. As well as recovering the provinces in north Africa from the Vandals and devastating large tracts of Italy, one of his first acts was to set up a commission to codify Roman law. This law was then used as a cudgel. The neoplatonic academy in Athens was notified first that divination was not permitted (presumably meaning Astrology and the study of the heavens). More decisively, in 529, a new law required that only those of the orthodox faith were permitted to teach or receive a stipend. Anyone who donated to or supported the academy was henceforth deemed to be breaking the law.

mosaic of Justinian I (Ravenna)

mosaic of Justinian I (Ravenna)

This is from a mosaic at the church of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy, after his military campaign there.

This law was aimed at everyone who did not subscribe to the official Roman version of christianity: the orthodox church. There were many non-orthodox versions of christianity, as well as the church of the East. The new law applied to them as well as the Jews, Mithraists, and all  the rest of the panoply of belief systems that prevailed at the time. Government in the empire was devolved to local councils, who were responsible for implementing the law. Orthodox bishops had influence upon local government: they were exempt from taxes and were prosperous. The academy of Athens, that traced its inheritance (with some gaps) back to the time of Plato and Socrates, had no chance.

The scholars packed up and took their scrolls and papyri to the Sasanian Empire where the atmosphere was more open-minded and accepting of non-christian scholars, particularly the city of Nisibis. Nisibis housed a theological college of the church of the East, which had been re-founded in 489 after a previous Roman emperor had closed the school of Edessa just over the border in the Roman empire, on the grounds that it was espousing the wrong version of christianity. The languages were Greek and Syriac. It also housed a large jewish community. The scholars and teachers translated the classical Greek texts into Syriac, and looked to reconcile the works of Aristotle in particular with the old and new testaments of the bible. Their approach was literal and grammatical, in contrast to the allegorical approach of their rivals in Alexandria. This would suggest that, despite the destruction of the library of Alexandria, the tradition of scholarship continued there too. (The leader of the Athens school at the time of its closure, a man called Damascius, is said to have ended up in Alexandria.) However, the church in Alexandria adhered to another non-orthodox view of christianity, and so suffered at the hands of Constantinople.

The exiles from Athens were also invited to Gundeshapur, of which there is hardly a trace left. It was about four hundred miles east of the Sasanian capital Ctesiphon, near the ancient city of Susa. The tradition tells that whereas theological studies were centred in Nisibis, Gundeshapur was the location for secular studies. There was a teaching hospital, ‘bimaristan’ in Persian. Astronomy was studied. At Gundeshapur the translations were from Greek and Syriac into Pahlavi, the Persian language. As India is not too far away (comparatively speaking) and there were cultural links, I would expect that Indian mathematicians also visited. This was the high point of the Gupta Empire in India, and its mathematicians were renowned.

Some of the classical texts were taken to Constantinople, where they were safeguarded by civil servants. However, I can find no evidence that they were studied and commented on. The only use for them in subsequent centuries that I have come across was as a diplomatic gift. A copy of Ptolemy’s Almagest was presented to the court of the caliph in Baghdad at the end of the eighth century, and in the fifteenth Plato’s Timaeus, among other texts, made its way to Florence.

The evidence suggests that it was the Syriac-speaking scholars of the church of the East who transcribed and translated the texts. They studied them, valued them and pondered their meaning. And that is why, when the House of Wisdom was founded in Baghdad in the eighth century, the first translations of the classical Greek texts were from Syriac into Arabic. The head of the church of the East at the time, the katholikos Timothy, was a learned and influential figure in Baghdad.

middle-east-late-antiquity

This is a bit of a sketchy story. An important link in the chain of human learning has hardly been investigated, so far as I can tell.