Editors’ note:To contextualise these translations of Karlheinz Deschner’s encyclopaedic history of the Church in 10-volumes, Kriminalgeschichte des Christentums, read the abridged translationof Volume I.
The Catholic ‘children emperors’
‘These sovereigns followed the examples of the great Theodosius’. —Cardinal Hergenrother, Church Historian
‘The emperors were also pious Catholics’. —Peter Brown
‘The world is sinking’. —St Jerome
The division of the Empire: two forced Catholic states emerge
The year in which Augustine was named bishop (395), Emperor Theodosius I died in Milan. Clerical leaders had repeatedly incited him against the ‘pagans’, Jews and ‘heretics’, and saints Ambrose and Augustine had glorified him. Already in the 5th century, ecclesiastical circles gave the nickname of ‘the Great’ to this man who could pour blood like water. After his death, the Roman Empire was divided between his two sons. The Empire of the West disappeared in 476, while that of the East, as the Byzantine Empire, lasted until 1453.
From the times of this division, no other monarch ever brought the Empire under his command. In Constantinople, Arcadius (395-408), of seventeen years of age, ruled over the East, which remained a gigantic territory: all that would later be Romania, Serbia, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Greece, Asia Minor with the Crimean peninsula, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Lower Libya and Pentapolis. In Milan, Honorius (395-423), eleven years of age, ruled over the West, which was even larger and richer but politically not as important as the East.
Both ‘emperors’, taught by the Church and famous for their piety, continued the religious policies of their father. If Theodosius had fought alone against ‘heresy’—one of the main targets of his attacks—with more than twenty provisions, his sons and successors supported Catholicism with a multitude of new laws. They favoured the Catholic Church legally and financially; increased their possessions, dispensed the clergy from certain jobs, some taxes and military service. Thus the State of Catholic confession terrorised more and more those who had a different faith, although the adepts of Greco-Roman culture would continue to exist, even in high positions.
It is true that in primitive Christianity hatred of the mundane was widespread; that in the New Testament the State is called ‘great whore’ and ‘horror of the Earth’, and that the emperor was considered a servant of the devil. However, since Paul there was also a sector prone to the State, a sector that consciously adapted to the circumstances and that imposed itself, little by little.
In the East and in the West, the Christian government centres presented the same image: ceaseless palace intrigues, struggles for power, crises of ministers and murders. The Catholic ‘children emperors’—Arcadius, Honorius, later also Valentinian III and Theodosius II—lacked independence. They were crowned nullities unable to make decisions, surrounded by a swarm of greedy courtiers, high dignitaries, Germanic generals and, also, eunuchs.
And as often happens in times of ‘decadence’, we cannot overlook some of the women of the imperial house; behind them was an intriguing clergy. The bishops also continued to mingle in the affairs of the officials; already during the 4th century and still more in the 5th, they usurped their faculties. They managed above all to extend the scope of the ecclesiastical jurisdiction, the episcopalis audientia, the episcopale iudicium, the ‘arbitral functions’ of the bishops.