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Christendom : the triumph of a religion, AD 300-1300
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PART ONE The Romanization of Christianity 1 'By This Conquer . . .' Early in the second decade of the fourth century ad, the Roman emperor Constantine was deeply embroiled in his own game of thrones. In the previous political generation, imperial power had been shared between four generals, two in the western half of the Empire and two in the east. Diocletian had come to sole power in ad 285, but by 293 had made himself head of an imperial college: the Tetrarchy ('rule of four'), comprising two senior Augusti (himself and Maximian) and two Caesars (Constantius Chlorus and Galerius). In 305, the two Augusti retired, the existing Caesars were promoted in their place, and two new junior colleagues (Severus in the west, Maximinus Daia in the east) appointed. It was supposed to be a better mechanism for handing over imperial power than dynastic succession, but quickly broke down into multiple civil wars. Constantius Chlorus died the year after his promotion, at which point his son Constantine declared himself the western Augustus in his father's place. Maximian's son Maxentius threw his hat into the imperial ring as well, and, to add to the confusion, Maximian himself came out of retirement. By 312, Severus and Maximian had been eliminated, and the struggle for power in the west came down to a straight ​shoot-​out between Constantine, who controlled Britain, Gaul and Spain, and Maxentius, ruler of Italy and North Africa. Vast as it was, the western Empire was never going to be big enough for both of them. Over the summer, Constantine gathered his armies and, ​Hannibal-​style, forced his way over the Alps. Then God intervened. What happened next detonated the first of three massive revolutions which would, between them, turn a small, Near Eastern mystery cult into the dominant religious structure of the European landmass, from where it subsequently spread worldwide in the era of European imperialism. The story was told, just after the emperor's death, by Constantine's biographer Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, who heard it from the man himself: About the time of the midday sun, when day was just turning, he [Constantine] said he saw with his own eyes, up in the sky and resting over the sun, a ​cross-​shaped trophy formed from light, and a text attached to it which said 'By this conquer'. Amazement at the spectacle seized both him and the whole company of soldiers which was then accompanying him on a campaign he was conducting somewhere, and witnessed the miracle. He was, he said, wondering to himself what the manifestation might mean; then, while he meditated and thought long and hard, night overtook him. Thereupon, as he slept, the Christ of God appeared to him with the sign which had appeared in the sky, and urged him to make himself a copy of the sign, and to use this as protection against the attacks of the enemy. The sign was the ​Chi-​Rho labarum, which the emperor employed on his military standards, and Constantine duly scored a stunning victory over Maxentius on 28 October 312 at the battle of the Milvian Bridge on the outskirts of Rome. A triumphant, thankful Constantine repaid his debt with rich gifts to the capital's Christian communities, and turned the barracks of Maxentius' elite cavalry corps into a huge church: St John's Lateran, the first headquarters of the medieval papacy. But this was only the beginning. Victory in the west was the precursor of still greater glory. By the end of 312, a parallel struggle for ​post-​Tetrarchic imperial power in the eastern half of the Empire had produced its own winner: Licinius (initially an appointee of Galerius, one of the original Tetrarchs). The two reigning ​Augusti - ​Constantine in the west and Licinius in the ​east - ​immediately declared undying love, alliance and endless ​co-​operation, but there was only ever going to be one outcome. It took over a decade but, after several separate rounds of conflict, Constantine finally eliminated his eastern rival in 324. Thanks to the vision that God had afforded him, the Christian Constantine remade the complexion of imperial politics, reuniting the entire Roman world under a single, unchallenged emperor for the first time since the ​mid-​third century. Eusebius' account of the crucial visionary experience has been repeated ​and - ​exquisitely (Plate 1) - ​illustrated countless times, but it's deeply problematic. And I don't just mean the fact that Constantine saw a vision in the sky. I've never experienced one myself, but many people, across the entirety of human history, have, and at least the subjective 'reality' of supernatural religious ​experience - ​however you might wish to explain ​it - ​is not something to be discounted a priori. But Constantine's story also poses problems of a much more mundane kind, because the emperor appears to have had several different supernatural experiences, not all of which were Christian, at more or less the same time, and to have told different people different things about them. Apart from the combined vision/dream story told by Eusebius, three other variants survive. Writing about twenty years before Eusebius, the rhetor ​Lactantius - ​a distinguished ​university-​level teacher of the Latin language and literature, in which elite children of the western half of the Empire were all customarily educated (their eastern counterparts received an identical training in Greek) - ​who knew the emperor, and was tutor to his eldest son, Crispus, in the early 310s, reports that Constantine had a dream on the eve of the Milvian Bridge, in which he was told to 'mark the heavenly sign of God' on his soldiers' shields.3 The timing of the divine intervention is different in Lactantius' account, and there is no vision in the sky. Our second witness is another rhetor, this time from Gaul, who gave a formal speech on a ceremonial occasion to Constantine and his assembled court in 310, two years before Maxentius' defeat. In a passage, which must have had prior imperial approval, this speaker described another heavenly vision. Having turned off the main road to visit 'the most beautiful temple in the world . . . You saw, I believe, Constantine, your Apollo, accompanied by Victory, offering you laurel crowns, which brought an omen of thirty years [of life, or rule]. This time we have a vision, but of a different God (Apollo as the Sun God), and no dream. Last, but not least, in 321 a third rhetor, in another ​official - ​and hence imperially ​endorsed - ​oration, referred back to Constantine's victory over Maxentius. This speech mentions neither Divine visitation, nor any kind of cross in the sky. Instead, in the midst of battle, all of Constantine's troops are said to have been buoyed up by a vision of a heavenly army, led by the emperor's deified father, Constantius Chlorus, coming to his son's assistance. There have been many attempts to rationalize Constantine's multiple reported religious experiences. Most influential among recent efforts, Peter Weiss argued in 1993 that the visions of Apollo reported in 310 and Eusebius' cross in the sky referred to one and the same event, differently interpreted. Given that Apollo was, by this date, overwhelmingly represented as the Sun God, Weiss argued that what Constantine actually saw was a solar halo, which can take a kind of cross form, and that the emperor eventually came to understand this natural phenomenon as a message from the Christian God. This is obviously a possible way forward, and Lactantius' dream could then be reconciled with Eusebius' ​account - ​so long as you posit a delay of two years between initial vision and explanatory dream, whereas Eusebius clearly supposed that the dream occurred the following night. To my mind, however, all these reports need to be handled with a great deal more suspicion. It was standard practice for ancient rulers, who claimed to be appointed by Divine Power (as all Roman emperors, and Constantine in particular, did), to report suitable omens as confirmation of their special destiny to rule. The future emperor Claudius reportedly had ​the - ​no doubt ​unnerving - ​experience of an eagle landing on his shoulder when he first entered the forum as consul, while some mysterious force ejected anyone else who tried to sleep in the nursery of the first Roman emperor, Augustus. No historian worth his or her salt (not even Constantine) would dream of taking these earlier stories literally, and both the convenience and variety of the stories the first Christian emperor told about his personal encounter with the God of the New Testament suggest that we're again some way from factual reportage. The received image of a ​vision-​powered ​Constantine - ​forced, like Paul on the road to Damascus, into a complete and sudden Christian conversion by a direct personal experience of the ​Almighty - ​becomes still more problematic when set alongside how the emperor presented his evolving religious allegiance to the Empire's population at large, over the course of his long and brutally successful reign. The official religious ​self-​presentation of Constantine's regime went through four distinct phases. In his first years, Constantine styled himself a loyal adherent of the religious ideologies of Diocletian's imperial college, the Tetrarchy, to which his father had belonged. While all Roman emperors claimed to be appointed and supported by Divine power, the specific divinity in question could change, or at least be presented in different forms. Many ​third-​century emperors had portrayed their divine support as coming from the Sun God (Helios in Greek, Sol in Latin, or, more specifically, Apollo), understanding the pictorial image of the Sun as a manifestation of the supreme Divine principle which sustained the entire universe and all its intermediate spiritual powers. The Tetrarchs, however, reverted to a more traditionally Roman religious symbolism, presenting Jove (Jupiter) and Hercules as the divine supports of ​their - ​largely ​victorious - ​rule. Diocletian and Galerius added 'Jovius' - 'protected by Jove' - ​to their list of epithets, while Maximian and Constantius Chlorus adopted 'Herculius': 'protected by Hercules'. In his first years in power, Constantine issued coins which simply repeated his father's affiliation, styling himself 'Herculius'.7 This changed suddenly in 310. Just as the Gallic rhetor announced Constantine's vision of Apollo, the emperor broke with Tetrarchic religious ideologies. 'Herculius' disappeared from his coinage, which was now emblazoned with sol invictus  : 'the unconquered sun'. The third phase began in 312. It was in this period that Lactantius wrote about the emperor's dream of the Christian God. Constantine also showered favours on the Christian communities under his control, distributing cash and inaugurating some substantial ​church-​building programmes. In surviving letters to North African Churchmen (in modern Tunisia, Libya and Algeria), he also stated that he and they shared the same religious affiliation, while a small number of early inscriptions and special coin medallions carried the ​Chi-​Rho monogram. The latter were very few, however, and were vastly outnumbered by coin types that continued to celebrate sol invictus. This studied avoidance of the obviously Christian in most public contexts is equally marked in the triumphal arch that Constantine erected in Rome to celebrate his victory over Maxentius (it still stands, next to the Colosseum). This is striking for its highly traditional portrayals of the emperor and of the divine power which had brought him victory, carrying not the slightest hint of any Christian affiliation whatsoever. The same ambiguity also jumps out from a new law passed by Constantine in this same phase, making Sunday a day of rest. This sounds like a Christian move, celebrating the day of the week on which Christ rose from the dead, but the law studiously refers to it only as 'the day of the Sun'. The first official spokesmen to celebrate the emperor's great victory over Maxentius in public, likewise, maintained the ambiguity, referring only to the support that Constantine had received from an unspecified 'highest divinity'. This term had gradually come into use in some ​non-​Christian circles over the third century as another designation for the same underlying divine principle as sol invictus. Only from 324, in its fourth and final phase, did Constantine's regime declare itself unambiguously Christian. Sol invictus coins continued, but the Christian cross also became a common motif on his coinage, and, by this date, Christians had already themselves been making an iconographic equation between Christ and the Sun God, understanding the sun, like ​third-​century pagan emperors, as the symbol of supreme, divine power: this time the God of the Old and New Testaments. In a whole series of public statements, likewise, Constantine now made his Christianity known to anyone who cared to listen. And to coincide with the twentieth-anniversary celebrations of his original accession to the purple, he called a summit meeting of representatives of every Christian community that then ​existed - ​both inside the Empire and ​beyond - ​which met at Nicaea (Iznik in modern Turkey) in 325, the year after his final victory over Licinius. There, Constantine publicly confirmed the strength of his Christian loyalties, not only by the care and attention he lavished upon the many bishops who came but by attending some of the sessions in person.11 But if there can be not the slightest doubt of the former Tetrarch and solar monotheist's Christian allegiance by the ​mid-​320s, how exactly should we understand the personal religious journey that had brought him to this point, given all the different things he had been saying about it in the intervening twenty years since he first came to power? The Road to Nicaea Many different psychological readings of the emperor's evolving religious loyalties have been offered over the years. They began in antiquity. A hostile pagan tradition claimed that Constantine turned to Christianity because it was the only religion which would forgive him for the execution of his eldest son, Crispus, and second wife Fausta. This satisfactorily vitriolic denigration of Constantine's motives also tied in with ​long-​standing pagan critiques that Christianity's willingness to forgive sins removed necessary moral imperative from human action. But the timing is wrong. The emperor's Christianity had been aired unambiguously two years before Crispus' and Fausta's deaths in 326.12 More modern attempts have ranged from the ​patronizing - ​Constantine was a 'rough soldier' who failed to grasp that it wasn't possible for him simultaneously to profess Christian and ​non-​Christian solar monotheist ​affiliations - ​to the more sophisticated. Some have argued that he was really a ​non-​Christian solar monotheist all the way through the 310s, although recent discoveries of early uses of the ​Chi-​Rho symbol show this to be incorrect; others that, like some modern religious converts, what was at the time a slow process of conversion was later understood by the emperor as a sudden 'event'.13 Any of these might be correct, but they all share the assumption that the emperor's personal religious beliefs ran in tandem with the evolving public religious stance of his regime. In my view, however, this assumption is methodologically unsustainable, because it ignores one key piece of the Constantinian jigsaw. The start of each new religious phase of Constantine's regime coincided with one of the emperor's major military successes. Once this fact, and its deeper significance, has been properly recognized, it requires us to rewrite all existing accounts of Constantine's personal religious history. Excerpted from Christendom: The Triumph of a Religion, AD 300-1300 by Peter Heather All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.
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Library Journal Review
There currently exists an abundance of historical works chronicling the history of Christianity. Authors like Owen and Henry Chadwick, Jaroslav Pelikan, Justo Gonzalez, and Kenneth Latourette immediately come to mind. Heather's (medieval history, King's Coll., London; Rome Resurgent) work differentiates itself in a subtle way: it frames itself as a history of Christendom, which is both a geographical and a political entity, constellated in various ways and at various times around the Roman pope. His chronological period is European history from the conversion of Constantine in the early fourth century to the baptism of a Lithuanian grand duke in 1250, thereby completing Latin Christianity's hold on Europe. His argument is that papal religious authority was relatively weak during this time, with a monolithic Christian culture taking centuries to emerge. Triumphalist Christian claims wither away when one recognizes that centuries of forced conversion by secular authorities better explain the rise of political Christendom. VERDICT Well-researched with extensive footnotes and bibliography. For history buffs who can't get enough of this stuff.--Sandra Collins
Publishers Weekly Review
In this sweeping, ambitious history, Heather (The Fall of the Roman Empire), a history professor at King's College London, surveys 1,000 years of European Christianity in exacting detail. He argues Christianity's rise wasn't inevitable, and that instead a complex series of historical accidents, religious innovations, and political maneuvers led to its eventual status as the continent's dominant religion. Heather chronicles events preceding the "first confessional Christian state" in fourth-century Rome through the 13th-century "climax of European Christianization," spotlighting how, for instance, the 391 CE destruction of the Serapeum, a pagan temple in Alexandria, signaled a shift from Roman paganism to Christianity at elite levels of society, and how the religious influence of Medieval figures such as Hildegard of Bingen--who experienced visions and founded her own monastic houses--was legitimated by the papacy so that the church might benefit from the grassroots enthusiasm she sparked. A particularly enlightening chapter chronicles the conversion of peoples in northwest Europe and illuminates missionaries' strategies for cultivating relationships with members of different strata of society, from kings to trade workers. Heather draws on careful scholarship to give due to the nuances of Christianity's spread, and constructs a narrative that's packed with specifics yet readable. History buffs should take note. (Apr.)
Booklist Review
In standard histories of Europe, Roman emperor Constantine's issuance of the Edict of Milan in 313 CE marks the end of government persecution of Christianity and the religion's ultimate triumph. British historian Heather (Rome Resurgent, 2018) finds the church's story much more nuanced. Rather than Christianity dominating imperial Rome, he contends, Roman culture imposed itself on Christianity, using its governance techniques to turn the tiny Jesus Movement into the religion of the European continent. Early church councils applied Roman law and philosophy to their often fractious disputes and used religion as a governing force. Christianity, which had been a somewhat inconsequential urban phenomenon in the Mediterranean part of the Roman empire, grew into a continent-wide force. With Charlemagne's ascent among Northern European tribes, Christian faith became political Christendom. The emperor diminished, only to reappear as the pope. By the thirteenth century, civil penalties could be imposed on anyone deemed heretical by the imperially dominant Roman church. Students of the ancient world will find refreshing new perspectives on post-Roman Empire European history that challenge the received wisdom.
Kirkus Review
Sweeping exploration of how the Christian Europe of the late Middle Ages came to be. In his latest book, Heather, chair of medieval history at King's College, London, takes readers on a wide-ranging journey through eight centuries and across the length and breadth of Europe (and beyond) to understand the rise of Christendom, which the author defines as "that part of the world where official Christianity exercised a dominant hold on the totality of the population." By the 12th and 13th centuries, this "dominant hold" was certainly in place across the continent, but just how that situation arose over centuries has not always been properly explained by historians. In this fresh, prodigiously researched approach, the author uses relatively newly found sources to delineate the development of these historical progressions. First, Heather acknowledges Christianity's failures in the course of its expansions. Second, he explores the diversity of Christian thought and practice through these years. Finally, he examines the reasons why people made the religious choices that they did. Heather divides the book into three eras: imperial Christianity under the influence of late Rome; post-imperial Christianity, when society reordered itself in the wake of the fall of Rome's influence; and a new imperial Christianity under the Carolingians. Throughout, the author finds ways to turn conventional wisdom on its head--e.g., "At least as important…as the Christianization of the Roman Empire--a traditional topic of historical analysis--was the Romanization of Christianity." Heather introduces a host of little-known characters who played an outsized role in Christianity's spread, including Ulfilas, "the Apostle of the Goths," who crafted a Gothic language translation of the Bible while also diplomatically assisting in the weakening of the western Roman empire. "From the time of Constantine onwards," writes the author in conclusion, "the Christianization of Europe was closely linked to the exercise of power at every level." A worthwhile undertaking for serious students of medieval Europe and/or Christian history. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
A major reinterpretation of the religious superstate that came to define both Europe and Christianity itself, by one of our foremost medieval historians.

In the fourth century AD, a new faith grew out of Palestine, overwhelming the paganism of Rome and resoundingly defeating a host of other rival belief systems. Almost a thousand years later, all of Europe was controlled by Christian rulers, and the religion, ingrained within culture and society, exercised a monolithic hold over its population. But how did a small sect of isolated and intensely committed congregations become a mass movement centrally directed from Rome? As Peter Heather shows in this illuminating new history, there was nothing inevitable about Christendom's rise and eventual dominance.

From Constantine the Great's pivotal conversion to Christianity to the crisis that followed the collapse of the Roman empire--which left the religion teetering on the edge of extinction--to the astonishing revolution of the eleventh century and beyond, out of which the Papacy emerged as the head of a vast international corporation, Heather traces Christendom's chameleonlike capacity for self-reinvention, as it not only defined a fledgling religion but transformed it into an institution that wielded effective authority across virtually all of the disparate peoples of medieval Europe.

Authoritative, vivid, and filled with new insights, this is an unparalleled history of early Christianity.
Table of Contents
List of Illustrations and Photo Acknowledgementsvii
List of Mapsxi
Part 1The Romanization of Christianity
1'By This Conquer …'3
2Conversion in a Christian Empire60
3The Altar of Victory107
Part 2The Fall of Roman Christianity
4Nicaea and the Fall of the West155
5Islam and the Fall of the East194
6'Not Angels': Conversion in North-western Europe235
7Latin Christianity Restructured296
8Culture and Society in the Post-Roman West331
Part 3Christian Empire Renewed
9Christian Expansion in a Second Age of Empire367
10Charlemagne's City of God408
11Popes and Emperors438
12'God Wills It'473
13The Economy of Salvation507
14Christendom and Coercion556
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