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Imperial Ideology: The Idea of the Universal Christian Empire in Late Antiquity
By Christopher Records
Lethbridge Undergraduate Research Journal, Vol.3:1 (2008)
Abstract: This paper examines the evolution of Christian universalist ideologies from the year 300 AD to about 800 AD, with a focus on their development in the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire. It traces how the interaction of ideology with political reality- imperial decline, internal ideological and ecclesiastical disunity, and other challenges- resulted in the eventual development of other universalist ideologies at the dawn of the medieval period, among them the idea of Latin Christendom and the Byzantine commonwealth idea.
Introduction: The ideology of the universal Christian Empire was an important force in the political, military, and religious affairs and thought of late Rome and early Byzantium. From its origins under Eusebius Pamphilius of Caesarea and Constantine the Great in the early 4 th century to the loss of Byzantium’s easternmost provinces to the Arabs in the 7th and 8th centuries, the ideology would lie at the core of the Christian Roman identity in late antiquity.
Nevertheless, the idea’s theoretical implications were very different from the practical political capabilities and realities of the Roman and Byzantine states in the time period. The assertion of universal Roman rule conflicted with the practical limitations of Roman and Byzantine economic, political, and military power. This problem, and the existence of large Christian communities outside the Empire, along with imperial decline and territorial loss necessitated an eventual transformation of the idea of universal Christian Oikoumene that would result in the formulation of the “commonwealth” idea as a more practical alternative.
In the West, however, the tension between the theoretical supremacy of the emperor within the universal Christian Empire and the actual political and ecclesiastical independence of the see of Rome would result in a rejection of the traditional notion of the universal Christian Empire in the West that would ultimately lead to the formation of the idea of a Latin Christendom under the ultimate authority of the papacy.
This paper will chart the evolution of the ideology throughout late antiquity. It will also describe how and to what degree the ideology influenced the “thought world” of the Byzantine church, state, and society in general. It will trace how the interaction of ideology with political reality – imperial decline, internal ideological and ecclesiastical disunity, and other challenges – resulted in the eventual development of other universalist ideologies at the dawn of the medieval period, among them the idea of Latin Christendom and the Byzantine commonwealth idea.