History Lesson: Reformation vs Rome's Demise
What is the correlation between the Reformation and Constantine’s relocation of the capital of the Roman Empire? At first glance, nearly nothing. The two events occurred about a thousand years apart, and one centered around religion while the other sprouted from cultural and political affairs. Yet the two crises are far more similar than what meets the eye. In Rome, ineffective rulers forced the proceeding Roman emperors to make drastic changes in an attempt to save the empire. When that did not work, Constantine completely broke away from his Roman roots and attempted to start over at the ancient city of Byzantine. Europe underwent a similar process during the Reformation, with individual countries reforming the greatly-flawed church. When the church failed to properly mend their ways, people started breaking away from their Catholic upbringings. Though taking place in vastly different times, the European Reformation movements mirrored much of the same core ideas and causations as Rome’s decline and replacement.
One by one, the ideas and people holding the Roman world together collapsed. Rome's fall began with a string of power-hungry emperors. Like the clergymen in the years leading up to the Reformation, the top officials of Rome wanted nothing but absolute power. After inheriting the throne from his very successful father, teen emperor, Commodus threw away all the progress his father had made. The final straw came when he tried to declare himself a god. For the next one hundred years, civil war ruined the empire. Emperor after emperor assumed the throne and, was assassinated and replaced, restarting the cycle. Romans went from priding themselves as one of the most advanced and civilized nations in the world to being reduced to savages and barbarians. This chaotic state is yet another perfect example history provides for the wild extremes people would go to for power.
While clergymen in the Reformation did not necessarily start murdering everyone around them, scholars can see parallels between them and the Roman emperors. Priests, bishops, and other members of the church, like greedy the emperors of Rome, spoiled themselves with the riches that accompanied their job without actually serving the people. Just as Commodus and other emperors attempted, the church tried to declare themselves as a god or at least equal to God. Policies such as indulgences - confessing to God through priests - and excommunication - permanent banishment from heaven - are some of the ways the Church tried to make themselves equal to Him. Then, when some people started rebelling, comparable to people challenging the throne, the church, and its believers set out to kill the rebels. Soon, as an increasing number of people realized the church had done them an injustice, theologians and other literate scholars started to attempt to reform and improve the church.
Monks such as Martin Luther began a movement to reform the Catholic Church. After reading and studying the Bible, he deduced that the Catholic Church had taught numerous false practices for salvation. He and others like him started to openly preach against the church’s ideas such as indulgences and that salvation can only be gained through acts of genuine repentance. In his Ninety-Five Theses, which he allegedly posted right on the front doors of the Castle Church of Wittenberg, Martin Luther highlighted a few disputes between the Bible and Catholic teachings and proposed numerous amendments the Church should make. Such changes include the 37th point, “Any true Christian, whether living or dead, participates in all the blessings of Christ and the church; and this is granted him by God, even without indulgence letters.” While Luther’s efforts got him excommunicated and forced into hiding, his work inspired others to continue to try, mostly unsuccessfully, to right the wrongs of the Church.
For Rome, their revolutionary leader came in the form of Diocles. Born to a humble family, he rose through the ranks and quickly became a very popular commander of the cavalry. General Diocles took the throne in 284 AD and changed his name to Diocletian. The new emperor attempted to fix the mess of an empire his predecessors left him. Splitting it between two rulers, each known as an Augustus, made the vast stretch of land much more manageable and limited the power of each. Adding an additional two “vice-Auguti” or Caesars further reduced the chance of a single person seizing full control of the empire as well as having an organized plan for successors.
In 306 A.D., Diocletian he retired and forced Maximian, the other Augustus, to resign with him. As planned, their respective Caesars, Constantius, and Galerius, took their places and chose two new Caesars, Severus and Maximinus Daia. Troubles arose when Constantius died. His son, Constantine, and Maximian’s son, Maxentius were named Auguti along with Severus. Within a few years, Constantine, Maxentius, Severus, Licinius, Maximinus Daia, Galerius, and Domitius Alexander all claimed the role of Augustus. Naturally, this came with a free-for-all as the seven men battled for ultimate control.
Just as the Church fought to retain control over the sects of Protestantism, all seven contenders for the throne clashed for full authority over all departments of the Roman Empire. Diocletian watched hopelessly as his attempts to save the empire crumbled to dust. After numerous alliances, betrayals, and Constantine’s legendary vision of a cross in the sky, Constantius’ son emerged as the new dictator of the Roman world.
Though as emperor of Rome, Diocletian had far more power than any of the reformers, both parties had acknowledged the evident corruption in the leaders of their communities. They had also attempted to fix those problems but to no avail. Their successors, however, built upon the foundation they had set and used their policies to guide them when they separated from the root of the evil.
In the Church, the separation came as a retaliation against the Catholics who were unwilling to even entertain the idea of change and their practices. Since decades of attempts to reform the church came with no sufficient answer, groups of people, such as William Farrell, started to preach for others to leave the Catholic church altogether. In the new denominations, collectively known as Protestantism, most of the theological beliefs remained loyal to initial Catholic ones. Among the primary modifications was cutting out the “middle-man” from the connection between man and God. Instead of people being forced to speak to God through a priest, they talked to Him directly. People also, thanks to the printing press, had more regular access to the Bible. While both sides still prosecuted the other for heresy, people finally had the chance to read the Bible, study His words, and come to their own conclusions as to who, the Catholics or the reformers, best represented the Gospel.
Constantine wanted to give the Roman world a fresh start. Centuries of appalling leadership had led to debt, insane taxes, and poor living conditions. He confronted the location of the capital. Although the grand city had seen immense wealth and importance before, Constantine believed those times had ended. Other cities, such as Alexandria, Antioch, and Pergamum had far more importance than Rome as well as rich culture and the most up-to-date libraries. On other hand, the East offered a chance for greater wealth and more resources. His choice of an ancient city called Byzantium made perfect sense; its position on seven hills, overseeing a peninsula, meant that, in battle, they had the high ground advantage as well as the ability to funnel any naval attack through narrow straits. Byzantium also had also port access and sat right on the intersection of trade routes from Europe to Asia. With all those advantages in mind, Constantine finalized his shift to Byzantium and renamed the city New Rome.
Constantine funded the construction of pagan temples, statues of the great Roman emperors, Christian churches, and, being an egotistical emperor, more statues of himself. His next major triumph for New Rome was starting a massive project to rebuild and improve upon preexisting buildings and structures. Binbirderek Cistern, a large reservoir, stored water for his people during times of intense droughts. Just like how Protestantism kept many Catholic ideas, the architecture in Constantinople still kept a Romanesque taste with a slight modernized twist. For example, some of the first baths he built, the Baths of Constantine, replicated imperial baths back in Rome while the newly Christianized churches donned domed roofs, a style rarely used in Roman pagan temples. Fortifying walls were also made from a slightly thicker brick. Although the heart of the nation physically moved, much of its culture and architecture remained unchanged much.
Though Constantine did issue the Edict of Milan to stop the prosecution of Christians, he never fully endorsed Christianity. In fact, not until his deathbed did he finally get baptized. Emperors after him had a few short disagreements before Christianity finally became the official religion. One of Constantine's nephews, Julian attempted, unsuccessfully to stamp out Christianity. Twenty-eight years after his death, Theodosius the Great finally reversed Julian’s efforts by banning paganism and declared Christianity as the official religion.
Constantinople did not expand as Italian predecessors did. Instead, they stayed at home and developed stunning architecture and became far wealthier than Rome through an old source of revenue, trade. As it expanded, Rome had depended on constant looting and slavery for money, but When it stopped, it could not keep up with rising costs. Constantinople returned the empire to its trading roots and reset the nation’s leadership. While the Western half of the empire fell in the late 400s, the Eastern part lived on for another few centuries.
Both the relocation of the Roman capital and Reformation could be broken up into three main parts; bad leadership followed by a failed attempt to fix the problem before finally spliting. Rome had had great success, but as time went on, its failing government made it liable to collapse. Constantinople did not have strong ties to Roman culture, allowing Constantine and rulers after him to freely branch away from the dying Roman world and save what was left of it. Reformers did not have the power to enforce their policies onto others, but their sermons touched the public who joined the movement they started. However, the church remained unmoved so the reformers, along with their followers, left the church to start corrected versions of Catholicism.