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Effect of the Roman Invasion on Religion

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Published: Tue, 19 Dec 2017

The Celtic Christianity.

Christianity probably came to Britain with the Roman legions, the spread of the faith being certainly helped by the infrastructure of the Roman Empire, resulting in the gradual conversion of the various Celtic people to the Christian faith. Thus a strong and lively Celtic church existed in Britain and Ireland before the Germanic invasions took place. We know that there were British bishops at church councils at Arles, 314 AD, and Rimini, 359 AD. There are records of the martyrdoms of Alban, Julius and Aaron. Such great numbers of Celts were converted that to be British and Celtic meant to be Christian. After the legions left there appear to have been some 150 years of warfare in Britain between the invading Anglo-Saxons and the original Celtic inhabitants. So when Augustine came from Rome in 596 he came into the conflict between the Anglo-Saxon conquerors and an indigenous church among a persecuted people. [literally from the site!]

The Celtic Christianity is the first form of Christianity that has been practiced in England and Ireland. (around 400 AD) In the 4th century, it really established itself by mixing the characteristic Celtic features with the religion. Once the Romans withdrew themselves, the Roman and Celtic Christianity started to evolve differently. In the 5th and 6th century a lot of Celts were converted because of missionaries. In Ireland, the Celtic Christianity is characterized by its cloisters.

Celtic Christianity is the earliest form of Christianity in Great Britain and Ireland. Christianity reached Britain in the 2nd century, during the Roman occupation. It was not until the second half of the 4th century that the characteristic Celtic elements were mixed properly with the rest of the church. After the Romans had withdrawn from Britain, the Roman and Celtic Christianity had been apart for almost 200 years and had the opportunity to develop separately.

The 5th and 6th century were marked by widespread conversions by the arrival of many missionaries. Ireland developed a church structure which was entirely based on monasteries. Because there existed no central authority of the Celtic church, there were many variations occurring in monastic rules and the rules of the liturgy. The Roman and the Celtic church met again in 597, when Augustine of Canterbury led a delegation of clergies to Britain. This meeting showed that there were many differences between the views of the two movements.

The big difference between the Roman Catholic and Celtic Christianity led to the Synod of Whitby in 664. The decisions that were taken, were detrimental to the Celts. The Irish monastic rules were replaced with the rules of the Benedictines and strict adherence to Catholic doctrine was enforced. The decree of Whitby had no immediate effect. Especially Devon, Cornwall and Scotland continued to protest against the new form of Christianity. This resulted in the presence of a Celtic monastery on Iona (Scotland) until the 13th century, which then was replaced by a Benedictine abbey. However, Christianity in Britain began to adapt increasingly to the Roman Catholicism. Despite this, Celtic Christianity was passed on orally and there have always remained elements of the former belief in British and Irish churches.

After the Reformation of the 16th century the Celtic tradition got offered more and more resistance. Reading the prayers out loud was discouraged and even forbidden, because it was thought that this was a pagan and polytheistic origin. In Scotland a combination of religious persecution and the highland clearances led to the weakening of the Celtic culture. But even this did not lead to the end of the Celtic Christianity. In the early 20th century Celtic prayers were collected in Gaelic and written down due to a resurgence of interest in Celtic literature. Partly because of this there was a growing interest in Celtic Christianity. People protested less against the tradition of “pagan” elements and more people began to appreciate the religion.

Instead of eliminating the ancient Celtic symbols from the religious life, the Christian missionaries took over many customs of the pagan faith. Some of these traditions are still clearly seen in the Christian faith, and not just in Great Britain and Ireland. The old gods were largely held in honour, only now they were depicted as saints. The most famous example is Brighid, who became a saint with the same name after the arrival of Christianity. Jesus, the son of God, took the place of the sun god Lugh. His symbol, the cross, was added to the solar disk and so was the symbol that we know today as the Celtic cross Iona.

Many sacred sites were converted to Christian places of significance. Lindisfarne, for example, was a place where the Celts worshiped their gods in the open air. On the island a church was built which became important later. The belief in the Otherworld, ensured that in almost the whole Christian world, the contact between people did not stop after death, but continued in the form of prayers and thoughts.

But of course there also are differences between the Celtic Christianity and Roman Catholicism. The Celtic Christian religion is based on smaller groups of believers than the Roman Catholics, who interpret their own religion. This is partly because of the division of Celtic society: the importance of a family or clan was much larger than the importance of a country or a king. Another reason is that they don’t care that much about exact rules but want to confess their faith in their own way.

The fact that Celtic Christianity is different to Roman Catholicism in several ways, is largely due to the language barrier and the remoteness of the area. One of the most known differences with the Roman Catholicism is the determination of the date of Easter. There are several ways to do this, and those ways have changed and refined through the centuries. After the establishment of the Celtic Church, there was a time where there was relatively little contact with the rest of Europe and when that contact was renewed, it appeared that the Roman Catholic Church had adopted a different system. Several Celtic parishes practiced this system, while others maintained the old system. There is a striking difference in the conception of the original sin. The Catholic saint Augustine argued that the original sin was caused by Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit in Paradise, and that this sin was transmitted to their offspring and therefore all people. To get rid of the original sin, people had to live by the Bible and fulfil God’s will. The Celtic monk Pelagius, however, claimed that this original sin did not exist and that a good and sinless life would be enough to go to heaven.

A final difference is the experience of God by the Celtic Christians. According to them, God is not separated from his creation and the major example of this is Jesus. Believers see the universe as a body, from which God is the head, and the cosmos the body. The cosmos can perform God’s will, just like the brain tells the fingers what to do. The head joins in the sorrow and the joy of the body. God is also seen as hermaphrodite: both male and female, while Roman Catholicism portrays God as male.

That the Catholic doctrine does this, can be explained by the concept of the original sin. Eve, Adam’s wife, was the first who tasted of the apple and she was the one who encouraged him to eat of the fruit. As Adam didn’t pluck the apple himself, but this was encouraged by Eve, she was more ‘sinful’ than her husband. Partly because of this idea, the role of the woman in the church was kept small. She couldn’t fulfil sacred tasks like priests and bishops did. The attitude of the Celtic Christianity was much milder towards women, such as that Irish women could be priests and there was no celibacy. Shortly after the ingestion of Ireland in 1172 the Irish Celtic church was placed under the Roman church and from then there were only men who performed the sacred tasks. The celibacy was introduced shortly after.

Constantine I (the Great).

Constantine the Great was the son of Constantius Chlorus and Helena, and was a Roman emperor from 306 until his death in 337 AD. He is best known for being the first Christian Roman emperor. He issued the Edict of Milan (313), which proclaimed religious toleration throughout the empire. As the heir when his father died, he soon took possession of Gaul, Spain and Britain. After some victories over Maxentius he also became the master of Italy. In 323 he killed his opponent Linius in battle, and became sole lord of the whole Roman World.

A lot of books have been written about the subject. An example of one of those is Constantine, the Miracle of the Flaming Cross by Frank G. Slaughter. According to the stories, Constantine saw a cross in the sky the night before his battle with Maxentius. Accompanied with it were the lines “By this thou shalt conquer.” Along with the supports of his mother Helena, this should have inspired Constantine to be converted to the Christian belief. The miracle has been defended by several Roman-Catholic historians, but it cannot stand the test of critical examination. It is possible that Constantine has seen something in the skies – Constantine was convinced Christianity was on the rise – but his conversion was more a change of policy than of character. He retained the office and title of Pontifex Maximus until the very last, a title which nowadays is reserved for the pope as it is represents the highest position in the Church. Furthermore, he wasn’t baptised until he felt he was about to die. This of course so that if there were a Heaven, he would go there, but he didn’t have to live a purely Christian life before that. Constantine kept Pagans in the highest positions in his surroundings, and forbade everything which might appear to be an attack of Christianity against Paganism. This is an example of the religious toleration in the Roman empire.

Constantine III (usurper) and the end of the Roman reign in Britain.

Flavius Claudius Constantinus (Constantine the third), is in Britain also known as Constantine II. He declared himself emperor of the Western Roman Empire in 407 AD and abdicated in 411. On the 31st of December 406 AD, Barbarian invaders attacked the Western Roman Empire near the Rhine. Along with the disunity of the Roman Empire and the tensions around Gaul, this was one of the factors that caused the Roman Western Empire to waver. At the same moment, the provinces in Britain were in revolt, which resulted in the rise of Constantine. Constantine crossed the English Channel, and assumingly took with him all of the British mobile troops. After several battles with Sarus, he secured the Rhine Frontier and positioned his troops on the passes that led from Gaul into Italy. Constantine’s movement to Gaul in 407 AD is often referred to as the Roman evacuation of Britain. The current Emperor Honorius in Ravenna (Italy) was having great difficulties maintaining his position. Mutinies from the Roman Army and the abandonment of the western army left Honorius with no significant military power. So when Constantine arrived in Ravenna to negotiate in 409 AD, Honorius eagerly accepted Constantine as his co-emperor. However, Constantine’s success didn’t last long. Later that year, the Barbarian invaders that had attacked before near the Rhine, reached Constantine’s garrisons near Gaul, broke through them and reached the Pyrenees. Meanwhile, general Gerontius rebelled and arrived in Hispania. Constantine was so occupied by these invasions, that he could not defend Britain against the Saxon pirates since he didn’t have any troops to spare. The Roman inhabitants of Britain, upset that Constantine could no longer defend them, rebelled and expelled his officers. This is the definite end of the Roman rule over Britain. Roman Britain split into separate kingdoms but the Romano-Celts continued to fight the Saxon raiders.

Roman civilisation slowly broke down: Roman towns continued to be inhabited until the mid-5th century, but then most were abandoned. In the 5th century Roman civilisation in the countryside faded away.

Julian the Apostate.

Flavius Claudius Julianus, also known as Julian the Apostate, was the last ruler of the Constantinian Dynasty, as well as the last non-Christian Roman Emperor. His goal was to bring back the ancient Roman values in the Empire. Julian was the half-brother of Constantine I. He was a successful army leader, even though he had received no military education whatsoever. With the deaths of Constantine I, Constantine II and Constans, Constantius II was left the sole remaining emperor of the Roman Empire. In  355 AD, Julian was made Caesar of the west, as Constantius II felt he needed a permanent representative in Gaul. However, Julian did not agree with the role Constantius had in mind for him. Constantius had thought of Julian more as a figurehead rather than an active ruler, but Julian took every opportunity to participate in the events in Gaul. Constantius attempted to keep some control over Julian, by removing one of Julian’s important advisors Salutius. This was the beginning of a series of struggles between Constantius and Julian. It almost resulted in a civil war, which was only avoided by the death of Constantius in 361. Constantius II recognized Julian as his rightful successor in his last will.

Julian’s last Christian deed was the burial of Constantius in the Church of Apostles, next to Constantine I. Julian´s personal belief was both pagan and philosophical. Though he received a Christian upbringing, Julian preferred the ancient gods with their leader Zeus above the Christian monotheistic view. Once he became the sole emperor, Julian started a religious reformation. He approved the restoration of Hellenic paganism above Christianity as the state religion. His laws were targeted at the wealthy and educated Christians. He did not aim on destroying Christianity as a whole, but tried to drive it out of the classes that came into contact with governing the empire. He restored pagan temples, removed some of the privileges Christian bishops had received from Constantine and reversed many more favors.

On the 4th of February 362 AD, Julian declared another edict. This edict was supposed to guarantee freedom of religion. All religions were equal before the law, and the Roman State  was not allowed to constrain a particular religion. This might not seem to be a direct attack against Christianity, but it´s purpose was to restore and increase the toleration of paganism.

Since the past had learned that the persecution of Christians only led to a strengthening Christianity, most of Julian´s actions were intended to unable Christians to organize any resistance against the re-establishment of paganism.

In the School Edict, Julian demanded that all public teachers were to be approved by the emperor. This would enable Julian to prevent that Christian teachers could use pagan texts for reading purposes rather than studying the religion. In the Tolerance edict (362) Julian ordered the reopening of some pagan temples, the redeeming of temple properties and so on. Remarkably, Julian also ordered a Jewish temple to be rebuild, probably as an attempt to foster any religion but Christianity. However, the rebuilding failed. This has been prescribed to the Galilee Earthquake of 363, but some Christians say it was divine intervention.

Julian wanted to make sure that he could count on the support of the entire Roman Empire. To gain this support, he felt that he had to prove himself, and he thought the Persian Campaign was the perfect occasion to do this. However, things did not go as he pictured it, and he had to withdraw his forces. During the withdrawal, Julian’s forces were attacked several times by Sassanid forces. In one of these attacks on the 26th of June 363, Julian was wounded. He was treated by his personal physician, but on the third day he died as a result of his injuries. Some historians claimed Julian was killed by a Christian saint, while others reported that one of his own men, a Christian soldier, had thrown the spear that ultimately resulted in Julian’s death. It is said that Julian´s last words were Vicisti, Galilaee (“You have won, Galilean”), supposedly expressing his recognition that, with his death, Christianity would become the Empire’s state religion.

Was Julian right with his prediction?

We can say Julian was right. As from Jovian, Christianity remained the dominant religion in the empire. Jovian was Julian’s successor. He was one of Julian’s guard, and though his election was surprising, he had a great influence on the re-establishment of Christianity. Although his reign only lasted 8 months, he revoked all the edicts Julian had issued against Christianity. However, he did not stop there. By September 363, the situation in the empire had totally changed: One could receive the death penalty for worshipping the ancestral gods, and later for participating in either public or private pagan ceremonies. Jovian’s successor Valentinian is often considered to be the last great emperor. He was the last emperor to have total control over the empire, and according to historians there has been a visible period of improvement under his reign. Valentinian was only slightly more tolerant against other religions, allowing just a few types of rituals, but prohibiting the practicing of magic.

Importance of Roman Emperors and division within Christianity

Though Britain was one of the farthest provinces of the Roman Empire, the Roman rule had a great influence on life in Britain. All the Edicts issued by the emperors were of course to be applied in Britain. Great Britain originally can be seen as a mainly pagan country, but in time this changed. Not only did this happen because of the Irish missionaries, but as well because of the attitude of the emperor. If the emperor was a strict Christian, there was a big chance that people converted themselves to Christianity. This was especially the case under the rule of Jovian and Valentinian, who were strong opponents of Paganism. Because Britain was so far away from the rest of the Roman Empire, Christianity had the possibility to develop itself differently here than in the rest of Europe. This resulted in the Celtic Christianity. This differed from the Roman Christianity in a few ways, such as the calculation of Eastern and the penitentials. There were more forms of Christianity that have been practiced over time. It was not anything extraordinary if the two sons of an emperor had a different belief. This was the case with the sons of Constantine the Great (see figure 1) and in a intensified way with Julian who was a pagan, and his brothers who were Christians. This made it possible that though both emperors or groups of people were Christian, they fought each other and tried to convert other to their particular form of Christianity. Some examples of oppositions were Catholicism vs. The Orthodox Church, (Semi-)Arianism vs Nicene Creed and so on.


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