After the execution of Jesus his disciples did not return to Galilee: they waited at Jerusalem for his second coming. They believed that he had died as a human sacrifice for the sins of the people, and that he would speedily return with an army of angels to establish the kingdom of God on earth. Already in his lifetime these simple creatures had begun to dispute about the dignities which they should hold at court, and Jesus, who was not less simple than themselves, had promised that they should sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel. He had assured them again and again, in the most positive language, that this event would take place in their own lifetime. "Verily, verily," he said, "there are some standing here who shall not taste of death till they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom." They therefore remained at Jerusalem and scrupulously followed his commands. They established a community of goods, or at least gave away their superfluities to the poorer members of the Church, and had charitable arrangements for relieving the sick. They admitted proselytes with the ceremony of baptism. At the evening repast which they held together they broke bread and drank wine in a certain solemn manner, as Jesus had been wont to do, and as they especially remembered he did at the Last Supper. But in all respects they were Jews, just as Jesus himself had been a Jew. They attended divine service in the temple; they offered up the customary sacrifices; they kept the Sabbath; they abstained from forbidden meats. They held merely the one dogma that Jesus was the Messiah, and that he would return in power and glory to judge the earth.
Jerusalem was frequented at the time of the pilgrimage by thousands of Jews from the great cities of Europe, North Africa, and Asia Minor. These pilgrims were of a very different class from the fishermen of Galilee. They were Jews in religion but they were scarcely Jews in nationality. They were members of great and flourishing municipalities; they enjoyed political liberty and civil rights. They prayed in Greek and read the Bible in a Greek translation. Their doctrine was tolerant and latitudinarian. At Alexandria there was a school of Jews who had mingled the metaphysics of Plato with their own theology. Many of these Greek Jews became converted, and it is to them that Jesus owes his reputation, Christianity its existence. The Palestine Jews desired to reserve the Gospel to the Jews. They had no taste or sympathy for the Gentiles, from whom they lived entirely apart, and who were associated in their minds with the abominations of idolatry, the payment of taxes, and the persecution of Antiochus. But these same Gentiles, these poor benighted Greeks and Romans, were the compatriots and fellow-citizens of the Hellenic Jews, who therefore entertained more liberal ideas upon the subject. Two parties accordingly arose—the conservative or Jewish party, who would receive no converts except according to the custom of the orthodox Jews in such cases, and the Greek party, who agitated for complete freedom from the law of Moses. The latter were headed by Paul, an enthusiastic and ambitious man who refused to place himself under the rule of the twelve apostles, but claimed a special revelation. A conference was held at Jerusalem, and a compromise was arranged to the effect that pagan converts should not be subjected to the rite of circumcision, but that they should abstain from pork and oysters and should eat no animals which had not been killed by the knife.
But the compromise did not last. The Church diverged in discipline and dogma more and more widely from its ancient form, till in the second century the Christians of Judea, who had faithfully followed the customs and tenets of the twelve apostles, were informed that they were heretics. During that interval a new religion had arisen. Christianity had conquered paganism, and paganism had corrupted Christianity. The legends which belonged to Osiris and Apollo had been applied to the life of Jesus. The single Deity of the Jews had been exchanged for the Trinity, which the Egyptians had invented and which Plato had idealised into a philosophic system. The man who had said "Why callest thou me good? There is none good but one, that is God," had now himself been made a god—or the third part of one. The Hebrew element, however, had not been entirely cast off. With some little inconsistency, the Jewish sacred books were said to be inspired, and nearly all the injunctions contained in them were disobeyed. It was heresy to deny that the Jews were the chosen people, and it was heresy to assert that the Jews would be saved.
The Christian religion was at first spread by Jews who, either as missionaries or in the course of their ordinary avocations, made the circuit of the Mediterranean world. In all large towns there was a Ghetto or Jews´ quarter, in which the traveller was received by the people of his own race. There was no regular clergy among the Jews, and it was their custom to allow, and even to invite, the stranger to preach in their synagogue. Doctrines were not strictly defined, and they listened without anger, and perhaps with some hope, to the statement that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, and that he would shortly return to establish his kingdom upon earth. But when these Christians began to preach that the eating of pork was not a deadly sin, and that God was better pleased with a sprinkle than a slash, they were speedily stigmatised as heretics, and all the Jewries in the world were closed against them.
Those strange religious and commercial communities, those landless colonies which an Oriental people had established all over the world, from the Rhone and the Rhine to the Oxus and Jaxartes—which corresponded regularly among themselves, and whose members recognised each other, wherever they might be and in whatever garb, by the solemn phrase, "Hear, Israel, there is one God!"—afforded a model for the Christian churches of the early days. The primitive Christians did not indeed live together in one quarter like the Jews, but they gathered together for purposes of worship and administration in set places at appointed times. They did not establish commercial relations with the Christians in other towns, but they kept up an active social correspondence, and hospitably entertained the foreign brother who brought letters of introduction as credentials of his creed. Travelling, though not always free from danger, was unobstructed in those days: coasters sailed frequently from port to port, and the large towns were connected by paved roads with a posting-house at every six-mile stage. All inn-keepers spoke Greek: it was not necessary to learn Latin even in order to reside at Rome.
And now we return to that magnificent city which was adorned with the spoils of a hundred lands, into which streamed all the wealth, the energy, and the ambition of East and West. Ostia-on-the-Sea, where the ancient citizens had boiled their salt.was now a great port in which the grain from Egypt and Carthage was stored up in huge buildings, and to which in the summer and autumn came ships from all parts of the world. The road to Rome was fifteen miles in length, and was lined with villas and with lofty tombs. Outside the city, on the neighbouring hills, were gardens open to the public; and from these hills were conducted streams, by subterranean pipes, into the town, where they were trained to run like rivulets, making everywhere a pleasant murmur, here and there reposing in artificial grottoes or dancing as fountains in the air. The streets were narrow, and the tall houses buried them in deep shade. They were lined with statues; there was a population of marble men. Flowers glittered on roofs and balconies. Vast palaces of green and white and golden tinted marble were surrounded by venerable trees. The Via Sacra was the Regent Street of Rome, and was bordered with stalls where the silks and spices of the East, the wool of Spain, the glass wares of Alexandria, the smoked fish of the Black Sea, the wines of the Greek isles, Cretan apples, Alpine cheese, the oysters of Britain, and the veined wood of the Atlas were exposed for sale. In that splendid thoroughfare a hundred languages might be heard at once, and as many costumes were displayed as if the universe had been invited to a fancy-dress ball. Sometimes a squadron of the Imperial Guard would ride by—flaxen-haired, blue-eyed Germans covered with shining steel. Then a procession of pale-faces, shaven Egyptian priests, bearing a statue of Isis and singing melancholy hymns. A Greek philosopher would next pass along with abstracted eyes and ragged cloak, followed by a boy with a pile of books. Men from the East might be seen with white turbans and flowing robes, or in sheep-skin mantles with high black caps; and perhaps beside them a tattooed Briton gaping at the shops. Then would come a palanquin with curtains half drawn, carried along at a swinging pace by sturdy Cappadocian slaves, and within it the fashionable lady with supercilious, half-closed eyes, holding a crystal ball between her hands to keep them cool. Next a senator in white and purple robe, receiving as he walked along the greetings and kisses of his friends and clients, not always of the cleanest kind.
So crowded were the streets that carriages were not allowed to pass through them in the day-time. The only vehicles that appeared were the carts employed in the public works; and as they came rolling and grinding along, bearing huge beams and blocks of stone, the driver cracked his whip and pushed people against the wall, and there was much squeezing and confusion, during which pickpockets, elegantly dressed, their hands covered with rings, were busy at their work, pretending to assist the ladies in the crowd. People from the country passed towards the market, their mules or asses laden with panniers in which purple grapes and golden fruits were piled up in profusion, and refreshed the eye, which was dazzled by the stony glare. Hawkers went about offering matches in exchange for broken glass, and the keepers of the cook-shops called out in cheerful tones, "Smoking sausages!" "Sweet boiled peas!" " Honey wine, O honey wine!" And then there was the crowd itself—the bright-eyed, dark-browed Roman people, who played in the shade at dice or mora like the old Egyptians; who lounged through the temples, which were also the museums, to look at the curiosities; or who stood in groups reading the advertisements on the walls, and the programmes which announced that on such and such a day there would be a grand performance in the circus and that all would be done in the best style. A blue awning, with white stars in imitation of the sky, would shade them from the sun; trees would be transplanted, and a forest would appear upon the stage; giraffes, zebras, elephants, lions, ostriches, stags, and wild boars would be hunted down and killed; armies of gladiators would contend; and by way of after-piece the arena would be filled with water, and a naval battle would be performed—ships, soldiers, wounds, agony, and death being admirably real.
So passed the Roman street-life day, and with the first hours of darkness the noise and the turmoil did not cease; for then the travelling carriages rattled towards the gates, and carts filled with dung—the only export of the city. The music of serenades rose softly in the air, and sounds of laughter from the tavern. The night watch made their rounds, their armour rattling as they passed. Lights were extinguished, householders put up their shutters, to which bells were fastened—for burglaries frequently occurred. And then for a time the city would be almost still. Dogs, hated by the Romans, prowled about sniffing for their food. Men or prey from the Pontine Marshes crept stealthily along the black side of the street signalling to one another with sharp whistles or hissing sounds. Sometimes torches would flash against the walls as a knot of young gallants reeled home from a debauch, breaking the noses of the street statues on their way. And at such an hour there were men and women who stole forth from their various houses, and with mantles covering their faces hastened to a lonely spot in the suburbs, and entered the mouth of a dark cave. They passed through long galleries, moist with damp and odorous of death—for coffins were ranged on either side in tiers one above the other. But soon sweet music sounded from the depths of the abyss; an open chamber came to view, and a tomb covered with flowers, laid out with a repast, encircled by men and women who were apparelled in white robes, and who sang a psalm of joy. It was in the catacombs of Rome, where the dead had been buried in the ancient times, that the Christians met to discourse on the progress of the faith; to recount the trials which they suffered in their homes; to confess to one another their sins and doubts, their carnal presumption, or their lack of faith; and also to relate their sweet visions of the night, the answers to their earnest prayers. They listened to the exhortations of their elders, and perhaps to a letter from one of the apostles. They then supped together as Jesus had supped with his disciples, and kissed one another when the love feast was concluded. At these meetings there was no distinction of rank; the high-born lady embraced the slave whom she had once scarcely regarded as a man. Humility and submission were the cardinal virtues of the early Christians; slavery had not been forbidden by the apostles because it was the doctrine of Jesus that those who were lowest in this world would be highest in the next, his theory of heaven being earth turned upside down. Slavery therefore was esteemed a state of grace, and some Christians appear to have rejected the freeman´s cap on religious grounds, for Paul exhorts such persons to become free if they can—advice which slaves do not usually require.
As time passed on, the belief of the first Christians that the end of the world was near at hand became fainter and gradually died away. It was then declared that God had favoured the earth with a respite of one thousand years. In the meantime the gospel or good tidings which the Christians announced was this. There was one God, the Creator of the world. He had long been angry with men because they were what he had made them. But he sent his only begotten son into a corner of Syria, and because his son had been murdered his wrath had been partly appeased. He would not torture to eternity all the souls that he had made; he would spare at least one in every million that were born. Peace unto earth and goodwill unto men if they would act in a certain manner; if not, fire and brimstone and the noisome pit. He was the emperor of heaven, the tyrant of the skies; the pagan gods were rebels, with whom he was at war, although he was all-powerful, and whom he allowed to seduce the souls of men although he was all-merciful. Those who joined the army of the cross might entertain some hopes of being saved; those who followed the faith of their fathers would follow their fathers to hell-fire. This creed with the early Christians was not a matter of half-belief and metaphysical debate, as it is at the present day, when Catholics and Protestants discuss hell-fire with courtesy and comfort over filberts and port wine. To those credulous and imaginative minds God was a live king, hell a place in which real bodies were burnt with real flames, which was filled with the sickening stench of roasted flesh, which resounded with agonising shrieks. They saw their fathers and mothers, their sisters and their dearest friends, hurrying onward to that fearful pit unconscious of danger, laughing and singing, lured on by the fiends whom they called the gods. They felt as we should feel were we to see a blind man walking towards a river bank. Who would have the heart to turn aside and say it was the business of the police to interfere? But what was death, a mere momentary pain, compared with tortures that would have no end? Who that could hope to save a soul by tears and supplications would remain quiescent as men do now, shrugging their shoulders and saying that it is not good taste to argue on religion, and that conversion is the office of the clergy? The Christians of that period felt more and did more than those of the present day, not because they were better men but because they believed more; and they believed more because they knew less. Doubt is the offspring of knowledge: the savage never doubts at all.
In that age the Christians believed much, and their lives were rendered beautiful by sympathy and love. The dark, deep river did not exist—it was only a fancy of the brain: yet the impulse was not less real. The heart-throb, the imploring cry, the swift leap, the trembling hand out-reached to save; the transport of delight, the ecstasy of tears, the sweet, calm joy that a man had been wrested from the jaws of death—are these less beautiful, are these less real, because it afterwards appeared that the man had been in no danger after all?
In that age every Christian was a missionary. The soldiers sought to win recruits for the heavenly host; the prisoner of war discoursed to his Persian jailer; the slave girl whispered the gospel in the ears of her mistress as she built up the mass of towered hair; there stood men in cloak and beard at street corners who, when the people, according to the manners of the day, invited them to speak, preached not the doctrines of the Painted Porch but the words of a new and strange philosophy; the young wife threw her arms round her husband´s neck and made him agree to be baptised, that their souls might not be parted after death. How awful were the threats of the heavenly despot; how sweet were the promises of a life beyond the grave! The man who strove to obey the law which was written on his heart, yet often fell for want of support, was now promised a rich reward if he would persevere. The disconsolate woman whose age of beauty and triumph had passed away was taught that if she became a Christian her body in all the splendour of its youth would rise again. The poor slave who sickened from weariness of a life in which there was for him no hope, received the assurance of another life in which he would find luxury and pleasure when death released him from his woe.
Ah, sweet fallacious hopes of a barbarous and poetic age! Illusion still cherished, for mankind is yet in its romantic youth! How easy it would be to endure without repining the toils and troubles of this miserable life if indeed we could believe that when its brief period was past we should be united to those whom we have loved, to those whom death has snatched away; or whom fate has parted from us by barriers cold and deep and hopeless as the grave. If we could believe this the shortness of life would comfort us—how quickly the time flies by!—and we should welcome death. But we do not believe it, and so we cling to our tortured lives, dreading the dark nothingness, dreading the dispersal of our elements into cold, unconscious space. As drops in the ocean of water, as atoms in the ocean of air, as sparks in the ocean of fire within the earth, our minds do their appointed work and serve to build up the strength and beauty of the one great human mind which grows from century to century and from age to age, and is perhaps itself a mere molecule within some higher mind.
Soon it was whispered that there was in Rome a secret society which worshipped an unknown god. Its members wore no garlands on their brows; they never entered the temples; they were governed by laws which strange and fearful oaths bound them ever to obey; their speech was not as the speech of ordinary men; they buried instead of burning the bodies of the dead; they married, they educated their children after a manner of their own. The politicians who regarded the established Church as essential to the safety of the state became alarmed. Secret societies were forbidden by law, and here was a society in which the tutelary gods of Rome were denounced as rebels and usurpers. The Christians, it is true, preached passive obedience and the divine right of kings, but they proclaimed that all men were equal before God—a dangerous doctrine in a community where more than half the men were slaves. The idle and superstitious lazzaroni did not love the gods, but they believed in them, and they feared lest the "atheists," as they called the Christians, would provoke the vengeance of the whole divine federation against the city, and that all would be involved in the common ruin. Soon there came a time when every public calamity—an epidemic, a fire, a famine, or a flood—was ascribed to the anger of the offended gods. And then arose imperial edicts, popular commotions, and the terrible street-cry of Christiani ad leones!
But the persecutions thus provoked were fitful and brief, and served only to fan the flame. For to those who believed in heaven—not as men now believe, with a slight tincture of perhaps unconscious doubt, but as men believe in things which they see and hear and feel and know—death was merely a surgical operation with the absolute certainty of consequent release from pain and of entrance into unutterable bliss. The Christians therefore encountered it with joy, and the sight of their cheerful countenances as they were being led to execution induced many to inquire what this belief might be which could thus rob death of its dreadfulness and its despair.
But the great moralists and thinkers of the empire looked coldly down upon this new religion. In their pure and noble writings they either allude to Christianity with scorn or do not allude to it at all. This circumstance has occasioned much surprise: it can, however, be easily explained. The success of Christianity among the people, and its want of success among the philosophers, were due to the same cause—the superstition of the Christian teachers.
Among the missionaries of the present day there are many men who in earnestness and self-devotion are not inferior to those of the apostolic times. Yet they almost invariably fail—they are too enlightened for their congregations. With respect to their own religion, indeed, that charge cannot be justly brought against them. Set them talking on the forbidden apple, Noah´s ark, the sun standing still to facilitate murder, the donkey preaching to its master, the whale swallowing and ejecting Jonah, the miraculous conception, the water turned to wine, the fig-tree withered by a curse, and they will reason like children, or in other words they will not reason at all; they will merely repeat what they have been taught by their mammas. But when they discourse to the savage concerning his belief they use the logic of Voltaire, and deride witches and men possessed in a style which Jesus and the twelve apostles, the fathers of the Church, the popes of the Middle Ages, and Martin Luther himself would have accounted blasphemous and contrary to Scripture. Now it is impossible to persuade an adult savage that his gods do not exist, and he considers those who deny their existence to be ignorant foreigners unacquainted with the divine constitution of his country. Hence he laughs in his sleeve at all that the missionaries say. But the primitive Christians believed in gods and goddesses, satyrs and nymphs, as implicitly as the pagans themselves. They did not deny and they did not disbelieve the miracles performed in pagan temples. They allowed that the gods had great power upon earth, but asserted that they would have it only for a time; that it ceased beyond the grave; that they were rebels, and that God was the rightful king. Here then were two classes of men whose intellects were precisely on the same level. Each had a theory, and the Christian theory was the better of the two. It had definite promises and threats, and without being too high for the vulgar comprehension, it reduced the scheme of the universe to order and harmony, resembling that of the great empire under which they lived.
But to the philosophers of that period it was merely a new and noisy form of superstition. Experience has amply proved that minds of the highest order are sometimes unable to shake off the ideas which they imbibed when they were children; but to those of whom we speak Christianity was offered when their powers of reflection were matured, and it was naturally rejected with contempt. They knew that the pagan gods did not exist. Was it likely that they would sit at the feet of those who still believed in them? They had long ago abandoned the religious legends of their own country; they had shaken off the spell which Homer with his splendid poetry had laid upon their minds. Was it likely that they would believe in the old Arab traditions, or in these tales of a god who took upon him the semblance of a Jew, and suffered death upon the gallows for the redemption of mankind? They had obtained by means of intellectual research a partial perception of the great truth that events result from secondary laws. Was it likely that they would join a crew of devotees who prayed to God to make the wind blow this way or that way, to give them a dinner, or to cure them of a pain? When the Tiber overflowed its banks the pagans declared that it was owing to the wrath of the gods against the Christians: the Christians retorted that it was owing to the wrath of God against the idolaters. To a man like Pliny, who studied the phenomena with his notebook in his hand, where was the difference between the two?
In the Greek world Christianity became a system of metaphysics as abstract and abstruse as any son of Hellas could desire. But in the Latin world it was never the religion of a scholar and a gentleman. It was the creed of the uneducated people, who flung themselves into it with passion. It was something which belonged to them and to them alone. They were not acquainted with Cicero or Seneca: they had never tasted intellectual delights, for the philosophers scorned to instruct the vulgar crowd. And now the vulgar crowd found teachers who interpreted to them the Jewish books, who composed for them a magnificent literature of sermons and epistles and controversial treatises, a literature of enthusiasts and martyrs written in blood and fire. The people had no share in the politics of the empire, but now they had politics of their own. The lower orders were enfranchised; women and slaves were not excluded. The barbers gossiped theologically. Children played at church in the streets. The Christians were no longer citizens of Rome. God was their emperor, heaven was their fatherland. They despised the pleasures of this life; they were as emigrants gathered on the shore waiting for a wind to waft them to another world. They rendered unto Caesar the things that were Caesar´s, for so it was written they should do. They honoured the king, for such had been the teaching of St. Paul. They regarded the emperor as God´s vice-regent upon earth, and disobeyed him only when his commands were contrary to those of God. But this limitation, which it was the business of the bishops to define, made the Christians a dangerous party in the state. The Emperor Constantine, whose title was unsound, entered into alliance with this powerful corporation. He made Christianity the religion of the state and the bishops peers of the realm.
In the days of tribulation it had often been predicted that when the empire became Christian war would cease, and men would dwell in brotherhood together. The Christian religion united the slave and his master at the same table and in the same embrace. On the pavement of the basilica men of all races and of all ranks knelt side by side. If any one were in sickness and affliction it was sufficient for him to declare himself a Christian: money was at once pressed into his hands: compassionate matrons hastened to his bedside. Even at the time when the pagans regarded the new sect with most abhorrence they were forced to exclaim, "See how these Christians love one another!" It was reasonable to suppose that the victory of this religion would be the victory of love and peace. But what was the actual result? Shortly after the establishment of Christianity as a state religion there was uproar and dissension in every city of the Empire; then savage persecutions and bloody wars, until a pagan historian could observe to the polished and intellectual coterie for whom alone he wrote that now the hatred of the Christians against one another surpassed the fury of savage beasts against man.
It is evident that the virtues exhibited by those who gallantly fight against desperate odds for an idea will not be invariably displayed by those who when the idea is realised enjoy the spoil. It is evident that bishops who possess large incomes and great authority will not always possess the same qualities of mind as those spiritual peers who had no distinction to expect except that of being burnt alive. In all great movements of the mind there can be but one heroic age, and the heroic age of Christianity was past. The Church became the state concubine; Christianity lost its democratic character. The bishops who should have been the tribunes of the people became the creatures of the Crown. Their lives were not always of the most creditable kind, but their virtues were perhaps more injurious to society than their vices. The mischief was done not so much by those who intrigued for places and rioted on tithes at Constantinople as by those who, often with the best intentions, endeavoured to make all men think alike "according to the law."
It was the Christian theory that God was a king, and that he enacted laws for the government of men on earth. Those laws were contained in the Jewish books, but some of them had been repealed and some of them were exceedingly obscure. Some were to be understood in a literal sense, others were only metaphorical. Many cases might arise to which no text or precept could be with any degree of certainty applied. What then was to be done? How was God´s will to be ascertained? The early Christians were taught that by means of prayer and faith their questions would be answered, their difficulties would be solved. They must pray earnestly to God for help: and the ideas which came into their heads after prayer would be emanations from the Holy Ghost.
In the first age of Christianity the Church was a republic. There was no distinction between clergymen and laymen. Each member of the congregation had a right to preach, and each consulted God on his own account. The spiritus privatus everywhere prevailed. A committee of presbyters or elders, with a bishop or chairman, administered the affairs of the community.
The second period was marked by an important change. The bishop and presbyters, though still elected by the congregation, had begun to monopolise the pulpit; the distinction of clergy and laity was already made. The bishops of various churches met together at councils or synods to discuss questions of discipline and dogma, and to pass laws, but they went as representatives of their respective congregations.
In the third period the change was more important still. The congregation might now be appropriately termed a flock; the spiritus privatus was extinct; the priests were possessed of traditions which they did not impart to the laymen; the Water of Life was kept in a sealed vessel; there was no salvation outside the Church: no man could have God for a father unless he had also the Church for a mother, as even Bossuet long afterwards declared; ex-communication was a sentence of eternal death. Henceforth disputes were only between bishops and bishops, the laymen following their spiritual leaders and often using material weapons on their behalf. In the synods the bishops now met as princes of their congregations, and under the influence of the Holy Ghost (spiritu sancto suggerente) issued imperial decrees. The penalties inflicted were of the most terrible nature to those who believed that hell-fire and purgatory were at the disposal of the priesthood, while those who entertained doubts upon the subject allowed themselves to be cursed and damned with equanimity. But when the Church became united with the state the secular arm was at its disposal, and was vigorously used.
The bishops were all of them ignorant and superstitious men, but they could not all of them think alike. And as if to ensure dissent they proceeded to define that which had never existed, and which if it had existed could never be defined. They described the topography of heaven. They dissected the godhead and expounded the miraculous conception, giving lectures on celestial impregnations and miraculous obstetrics. They not only said that 3 was 1, and that 1 was 3: they professed to explain how that curious arithmetical combination had been brought about. The indivisible had been divided and yet was not divided: it was divisible and yet it was indivisible; black was white and white was black, and yet there were not two colours, but one colour; and whoever did not believe it would be damned. In the midst of all this subtle stuff, the dregs and rinsings of the Platonic school, Arius thundered out the common-sense but heretical assertion that the Father had existed before the Son. Two great parties were at once formed. A council of bishops was convened at Nicaea to consult the Holy Ghost. The chair was taken by a man who wore a wig of many colours and a silken robe embroidered with golden thread. This was Constantine the great, patron of Christianity, Nero of the Bosphorus, murderer of his wife and son. The discussion was noisy and abusive, and the Arians lost the day. Yet the matter did not end there. Constantius took up the Arian side. Arian missionaries converted the Vandals and the Goths. Other emperors took up the Catholics, and they converted the Franks. The court was divided by spiritual eunuchs and theological intrigues: the provinces were laid waste by theological wars which lasted three hundred years. What a world of woe and desolation, what a deluge of blood, because the Greeks had a taste for metaphysics!
The Arian difference did not stand alone; every province had its own schism. Caste sympathy induced the emperors to protect the pagan aristocracy from the fury of the bishops, but the heretics belonged chiefly to the subject nationalities. The Nestorians were men of the Semitic race, the Jacobites were Egyptians, the Donatists were Berbers. Of such a nature was the treatment which these people received that they were ready at any time to join the enemies of the empire, whoever they might be. Difference of nationality occasioned difference in mode of thought. Difference in mode of thought occasioned difference in religious creed. Difference in religious creed occasioned controversy, riots and persecution. Persecution intensified distinctions of nationality. Such then was the state of religion in the Grecian world. In the West the Church, overwhelmed by the barbarians, was displaying virtues in adversity, and was laying the foundations of a majestic kingdom. But as for the East, Christianity had lived in vain. In Constantinople and in Greece it had done no good. In Asia, Barbary, and Egypt it had done harm. Its peace was apathy: its activity was war. Instead of healing the old wounds of conquest it opened them afresh. It was not enough that the peasants of the ancient race, once masters of the soil, should be crushed with taxes; a new instrument of torture was invented; their priests were taken from them; their altars were overthrown. But the day of vengeance was at hand. Soon they would enjoy, under rulers of a different religion but of the same race, that freedom of conscience which a Christian government refused.
The Byzantine empire in the seventh century included Greece and the islands, with a part of Italy. In Asia and Africa its possessions were those of the Turkish Empire before the cession of Algiers. There was a Greek viceroy of Egypt: there were Greek governors in Egypt and Asia Minor, Carthage, and Cyrene. The capital was fed with Egyptian corn and enriched by silken manufactures—for two Nestorian monks had brought the eggs of the silkworm from China in hollow canes. These eggs had been hatched under lukewarm dung, and the culture of the cocoon had been established for the first time on European soil. The eastern boundary of the empire was sometimes the Tigris, sometimes the Euphrates; the land of Mesopotamia, which lay between the rivers, was the subject of continual war between the Byzantines and the Persians.