With Constantine the Great the Christian religion ascended the throne of the empire. He was followed by a succession of Christian Emperors, interrupted only by Julian – who however, could do but little for the prostrate ancient faith. The Roman Empire embraced the whole civilized earth, from the Western Ocean to the Tigris – from the interior of Africa, to the Danube (Pannonia, Dacia). Christianity soon spread through the length and breadth of this enormous realm. Rome had long ceased to be the exclusive residence of the Emperors. Many of Constantine’s predecessors had resided in Milan or other places; and he himself established a second court in the ancient Byzantium, which received the name of Constantinople. From the first its population consisted chiefly of Christians, and Constantine lavished every appliance to render this new abode equal in splendor to the old. The empire still remained in its integrity till Theodosius the Great made permanent a separation that had been only occasional, and divided it between his two sons. The reign of Theodosius displayed the last faint glimmer of that splendor which had glorified the Roman world. Under him the pagan temples were shut, the sacrifices and ceremonies abolished, and paganism itself forbidden: gradually however it entirely vanished of itself. The heathen orators of the time cannot sufficiently express their wonder and astonishment at the monstrous contrast between the days of their forefathers and their own. “Our Temples have become Tombs. The places which were formerly adorned with the holy statues of the Gods are now covered with sacred bones (relics of the Martyrs); men who have suffered a shameful death for their crimes, whose bodies are covered with stripes, and whose heads have been embalmed, are the object of veneration.” All that was contemned is exalted; all that was formerly revered, is trodden in the dust. The last of the pagans express this enormous contrast with profound lamentation. The Roman Empire was divided between the two sons of Theodosius. The elder, Arcadius, received the Eastern Empire: – Ancient Greece, with Thrace, Asia Minor, Syria, Egypt; the younger, Honorius, the Western: – Italy, Africa, Spain, Gaul, Britain. Immediately after the death of Theodosius, confusion entered, and the Roman provinces were overwhelmed by alien peoples. Already, under the Emperor Valens, the Visigoths, pressed by the Huns, had solicited a domicile on the hither side of the Danube. This was granted them, on the condition that they should defend the border provinces of the empire. But maltreatment roused them to revolt. Valens was beaten and fell on the field. The later emperors paid court to the leader of these Goths. Alaric, the bold Gothic Chief, turned his arms against Italy. Stilicho, the general and minister of Honorius, stayed his course, A.D. 403, by the battle of Pollentia, as at a later date he also routed Radagaisus, leader of the Alans, Suevi, and others. Alaric now attacked Gaul and Spain, and on the fall of Stilicho returned to Italy. Rome was stormed and plundered by him A.D. 410. Afterwards Attila advanced on it with the terrible might of the Huns – one of those purely Oriental phenomena, which, like a mere storm-torrent, rise to a furious height and bear down everything in their course, but in a brief space are so completely spent, that nothing is seen of them but the traces they have left in the ruins which they have occasioned. Attila pressed into Gaul, where, A.D. 451, a vigorous resistance was offered him by Ætius, near Chalons on the Marne. Victory remained doubtful. Attila subsequently marched upon Italy and died in the year 453. Soon afterwards however Rome was taken and plundered by the Vandals under Genseric. Finally, the dignity of the Western Emperors became a farce, and their empty title was abolished by Odoacer, King of the Heruli.
The Eastern Empire long survived, and in the West a new Christian population was formed from the invading barbarian hordes. Christianity had at first kept aloof from the state, and the development which it experienced related to doctrine, internal organization, discipline, etc. But now it had become dominant: it was now a political power, a political motive. We now see Christianity under two forms: on the one side barbarian nations whose culture was yet to begin, who have to acquire the very rudiments of science, law, and polity; on other side civilized peoples in possession of Greek science and a highly refined Oriental culture. Municipal legislation among them was complete – having reached the highest perfection through the labors of the great Roman jurisconsults; so that the corpus juris compiled at the instance of the Emperor Justinian, still excites the admiration of the world. Here the Christian religion is placed in the midst of a developed civilization, which did not proceed from it. There, on the contrary, the process of culture has its very first step still to take, and that within the sphere of Christianity. These two empires, therefore, present a most remarkable contrast, in which we have before our eyes a grand example of the necessity of a people’s having its culture developed in the spirit of the Christian religion. The history of the highly civilized Eastern Empire – where as we might suppose, the Spirit of Christianity could be taken up in its truth and purity – exhibits to us a millennial series of uninterrupted crimes, weaknesses, basenesses and want of principle; a most repulsive and consequently a most uninteresting picture. It is evident here, how Christianity may be abstract, and how as such it is powerless, on account of its very purity and intrinsic spirituality. It may even be entirely separated from the World, as e.g. in Monasticism – which originated in Egypt. It is a common notion and saying, in reference to the power of Religion, abstractly considered, over the hearts of men, that if Christian love were universal, private and political life would both be perfect, and the state of mankind would be thoroughly righteous and moral. Such representations may be a pious wish, but do not possess truth; for religion is something internal, having to do with conscience alone. To it all the passions and desires are opposed, and in order that heart, will, intelligence may become true, they must be thoroughly educated; Right must become Custom – Habit; practical activity must be elevated to rational action; the State must have a rational organ-ization, and then at length does the will of individuals become a truly righteous one. Light shining in darkness may perhaps give color, but not a picture animated by Spirit. The Byzantine Empire is a grand example of how the Christian religion may maintain an abstract character among a cultivated people, if the whole organization of the State and of the Laws is not reconstructed in harmony with its principle. At Byzantium Christianity had fallen into the hands of the dregs of the population – the lawless mob. Popular license on the one side and courtly baseness on the other side, take refuge under the sanction of religion, and degrade the latter to a disgusting object. In regard to religion, two interests obtained prominence: first, the settlement of doctrine; and secondly, the appointment to ecclesiastical offices. The settlement of doctrine pertained to the Councils and Church authorities; but the principle of Christianity is Freedom – subjective insight. These matters therefore, were special subjects of contention for the populace; violent civil wars arose, and everywhere might be witnessed scenes of murder, conflagration and pillage, perpetrated in the cause of Christian dogmas. A famous schism e.g. occurred in reference to the dogma of the Trisagion. The words read: “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord God of Zebaoth.” To this, one party, in honor of Christ, added – “who was crucified for us.” Another party rejected the addition, and sanguinary struggles ensued. In the contest on the question whether Christ were omoousios or omoiousios – that is of the same or of similar nature with God – the one letter i cost many thousands their lives. Especially notorious are the contentions about Images, in which it often happened, that the Emperor declared for the images and the Patriarch against, or conversely. Streams of blood flowed as the result. Gregory Nazianzen says somewhere: “This city (Constantinople) is full of handicraftsmen and slaves, who are all profound theologians, and preach in their workshops and in the streets. If you want a man to change a piece of silver, he instructs you in what consists the distinction between the Father and the Son: if you ask the price of a loaf of bread, you receive for answer – that the Son is inferior to the Father; and if you ask, whether the bread is ready, the rejoinder is that the genesis of the Son was from Nothing.” The Idea of Spirit contained in this doctrine was thus treated in an utterly unspiritual manner. The appointment to the Patriarchate at Constantinople, Antioch and Alexandria, and the jealousy and ambition of the Patriarchs likewise occasioned many intestine struggles. To all these religious contentions was added the interest in the gladiators and their combats, and in the parties of the blue and green color, which likewise occasioned the bloodiest encounters; a sign of the most fearful degradation, as proving that all feeling for what is serious and elevated is lost, and that the delirium of religious passion is quite consistent with an appetite for gross and barbarous spectacles.
The chief points in the Christian religion were at last, by degrees, established by the Councils. The Christians of the Byzantine Empire remained sunk in the dream of superstition – persisting in blind obedience to the Patriarchs and the priesthood. Image-Worship, to which we alluded above, occasioned the most violent struggles and storms. The brave Emperor Leo the Isaurian in particular, persecuted images with the greatest obstinacy, and in the year 754, Image-Worship was declared by a Council to be an invention of the devil. Nevertheless, in the year 787 the Empress Irene had it restored under the authority of a Nicene Council, and the Empress Theodora definitively established it – proceeding against its enemies with energetic rigor. The iconoclastic Patriarch received two hundred blows, the bishops trembled, the monks exulted, and the memory of this orthodox proceeding was celebrated by an annual ecclesiastical festival. The West, on the contrary, repudiated Image-Worship as late as the year 794, in the Council held at Frankfort; and, though retaining the images, blamed most severely the superstition of the Greeks. Not till the later Middle Ages did Image-Worship meet with universal adoption as the result of quiet and slow advances.
The Byzantine Empire was thus distracted by passions of all kinds within, and pressed by the barbarians – to whom the Emperors could offer but feeble resistance – without. The realm was in a condition of perpetual insecurity. Its general aspect presents a disgusting picture of imbecility; wretched, nay, insane passions, stifle the growth of all that is noble in thoughts, deeds, and persons. Rebellion on the part of generals, depositions of the Emperors by their means or through the intrigues of the courtiers, assassination or poisoning of the Emperors by their own wives and sons, women surrendering themselves to lusts and abominations of all kinds – such are the scenes which History here brings before us; till at last – about the middle of the fifteenth century (A.D. 1453) – the rotten edifice of the Eastern Empire crumbled in pieces before the might of the vigorous Turks.