On the conversion of the Empire

Teresa Morgan describes what changed for the church and for the culture when Christianity gained power.



Teresa Morgan describes what changed for the church and for the culture when Christianity gained power.


As Constantine’s interest in the church became more widely known and the church came to greater prominence, I suspect that, first of all, the biggest changes were for the church itself – and the really huge one, of course, was that the church could just come out from underground. Christians could start building physical churches and putting up grave monuments and generally marking their presence on the landscape. And of course Constantine himself also marked the landscape, he built not only lots of normal Roman public buildings but also a lot of churches, most famously in Rome, in Jerusalem, in Constantinople, his new city. So the physical, the geographical landscape, changed and became marked with Christianity.

Christian bishops and senior clergy began to wear purple, the imperial colour. They began to wear the clothes of Roman magistrates. So they began to see themselves as very establishment figures and dress like very establishment figures, and presumably be seen by their congregations as much more establishment figures. Even though clergy were exempted from holding city magistracies, the offices of the church in some ways were reimagined as equivalent to magistracies, as political offices. And so bishops must have become grander, I think, in the fourth century, and probably the hierarchy between bishops and their people got steeper and higher in the fourth century. 

So there were some really big changes for the churches. Changes in the wider society took longer to percolate through, I think. And a very good example is the keeping of Sunday. Constantine passed a law saying that from now on there would be a Sabbath. Sunday would be kept as a day of rest by law. What he probably meant by that was that no public business would be done on a Sunday – the law courts wouldn’t sit, the emperor wouldn’t dispense justice, the emperor wouldn’t do business on a Sunday, which was what had happened on festival days in the Roman Empire before it was Christian. But gradually the idea spread through society, that Sunday should be an actual day of rest. So by about a hundred years after Constantine we find even farmworkers and slaves are being given the day off on a Sunday. So that’s quite a big shift, the idea that everybody should have one day of rest in seven. But it takes time to percolate through society.

Alongside his privileging of the church, his support for the church, Constantine went on being in many ways a very typical Roman emperor, ruling through the laws and the bureaucracy of the Roman Empire very much as he found it. And he tweaked it a bit here and there, as all emperors did, but he ruled using it on the whole very much as he found it. But gradually through time, we also find that Christianity begins to affect the way that laws are made and the way that the duties of magistrates, for instance, are described. So if we look at the Theodosian code, the great Roman law code, which was put together a hundred years after Constantine, and in which many of the laws are made in the period between Constantine and the early fifth century, we find, for instance, a lot more talk about trust and good faith. So trust, faith, that great virtue which becomes central to Christianity as it was not to any earlier religion, begins to get into the law and into writing about magistracies too. So there’s much more emphasis in the Theodosian code on how important it is for magistrates to be trustworthy, and how important it is when they demit office to go on living in the area where they held office so that they can be held to account, so they can be found trustworthy.

So the language of Christianity – justice, loyalty, trustworthiness, hope – begins to get into the law, into the bones of the law and into the way that people think about how people should discharge their public office and gradually changes the culture, I think, changes the culture of the Empire over time.