The Fourth Century
The fourth century saw some of the most momentous events of the Church’s history, and also saw major changes in the Roman empire. And for the first time, the history of the Church and the history of the State came into intimate contact with each other, setting the stage for the Christendom that would characterise European civilisation until the Reformation.
Various estimates of the part that Christians made up of the population of the Roman empire have been made, but none of them are on a secure foundation. All we can say is that, despite periodic outbreaks of persecution, by the fourth century Christians had spread to all parts of the empire and were a significant part of the population, particularly in the towns and cities, and could be found in all walks of life. And the Church’s organisation under the hierarchy of patriarchs and bishops was well-established and effective along the lines that it would enjoy down to this day, despite occasional outbreaks of schism or heresy. Christianity had by now spread beyond the bounds of the empire to Persia, Armenia and Ethiopia, and to the Germanic tribes north of the Danube.
Politically the empire at the beginning of the century was organised under the Tetrarchy. Rule was shared by two Augusti, Maximian in the West and Diocletian in the East, each assisted by a Cæsar or junior emperor, Constantius in the West and Galerius in the East. Although there were emperors in East and West, it did not mean that the empire was divided—the emperors had a collective responsibility for the empire as a whole in addition to their specific jurisdictions. This system of government had resolved the crisis of the third century in the empire, restoring order of a sort, although it would shortly dissolve into civil war.
It is useful to remember the location of the imperial court, since it played an increasing role in the affairs of the church in this period. Up to the rededication of Byzantium as Constantinople in 330, the capital of the empire in the East was Nicomedia in Bithynia (modern Izmit in Turkey), on the Asiatic shore of the Bosphorus opposite Byzantium. Galerius ruled from there till 311, Maximinus to 313, Licinius to 324, and then Constantine until the capital was moved across the Bosphorus to its new site. The capital of the West was at Milan, where Maximian resided till 305, then Severus for barely a year, then Maxentius till his defeat by Constantine in 312. Constantine himself was resident at Trier in Gaul to 317, then at Sirmium in Illyricum (modern Sremska Mitrovica in Serbia) until his defeat of Licinius in 324.
For more on the Tetrarchy, see my blog post, In Hoc Signo Vinces, of 28 October 2012.