'Hidden history' is fun, but sometimes deadly serious

Bronze of Constantine’s head, Capitoline Museum, Rome. (Author photo)

In my last two books,  JULIA PRIMA and EXSILIUM, I’ve taken a risk. A big risk. I’ve highlighted a very different side to the early Christians, one which many people may not have heard of. The late 4th century was a massive turning point, yet it’s pretty well ignored, even hidden. And it’s very unfashionable amongst publishers who commission Roman historical fiction. They can’t get enough of G. Julius Caesar, Mark Anthony, Hannibal and Vespasian. Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii are pretty popular as well along with ‘bad boys’ Nero, Caligula and Elagabalus.

I love all these stories, especially when they are written by some of my dear and much respected writing friends and colleagues. Most are an automatic buy as I know they will tell me an engaging and well-written story.

But… (You knew that was coming…)

Vast areas of the Roman period are neglected

From the founding (allegedly) by a pair of scruffs called Romulus and Remus on the official date of 21 April 753 BC until the last titular Roman emperor, a young boy called Romulus Augustulus, knelt before the barbarian warlord Odoacer in 476 AD, there were 1229 years of Ancient Rome. Surely other things happened during that period?

Of course, there are honourable exceptions such as Ursula K LeGuin’s Lavinia  where Aeneas, the last hero of Troy, alights on the Italian coast supposedly in the 12th century BC, and Elisabeth Storrs‘ A Tale of Ancient Rome trilogy starting in 406 BC. I must mention Gordon Doherty’s gritty hero, Pavo, fighting his way through the late 4th century AD in a whole series of novels.

So what am I uncovering?

Up until recently, the conventional story of Christianity was the beastly Romans persecuting the poor Christians, but due to the grace of the new eastern religion centred on a humble but charismatic carpenter, the Christian religion ‘won’. The Roman Empire became officially Christianised, starting with Emperor Constantine, and put the whole weight of the Roman state behind that decision. This narrative has been the accepted one as Christianity became the default, sometimes compulsory, religion in the West until the late 20th century. As Christianity spread rapidly in the 4th century, supported as the sole official state religion of the empire, all other religions were suppressed by the Roman authorities, violently where necessary.

The enforcement of Christianity

Edicts were issued during the 390s forbidding ‘pagan’ sacrifice – even a pinch of incense dropped on a private altar – and any worship of ‘pagan’ idols. Traditional temples were closed, the Vestal Virgins’ fire – a symbol for a thousand years – extinguished and their order disbanded. Denunciation of pagans was encouraged, temples destroyed and mob violence against people, statues of the gods and former religious buildings broke out in many places, especially in the eastern provinces.

No person could hope for advancement in any public office, civil or military, unless they were demonstrably Christian. But not everybody wanted to accept the new, exclusive religion. We can deduce this from the repeated issuing of edicts against paganism throughout the following decades in response to people still worshipping other gods rather than the Christian one.

Traditional Roman religion (Author photo in British Museum)

Previously in Rome…

In the past, Rome had absorbed most other religions such as the cults of Isis and Mithras as well as local centres of worship even at the edges of empire with the proviso that the Roman state was not disrespected. When Roman emperors were deified, then a small reverence to them was expected; most worshippers of other cults and religions had complied. The problem had arisen during the first to third centuries when other religions such as Judaism and Christianity required absolute exclusivity. This brought them into direct confrontation with the Roman state on the basis of treason. But from Constantine’s reign, the situation was reversed.

A complex and neglected part of history

This reversal and the enforcement of conversion, whether physical or societal, is well-enough documented, but was probably not a story that previous centuries’ church authorities would liked to have highlighted in any way. The norm was to be a Christian and unthinkable not to be. And different forms within the religion – Arian, Donatist, Coptic, Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, not to mention countless sects – polarised continents, countries and families. Internal wars of religion, coupled with politics, racked Europe for centuries.

So the story of state ordered compulsory Christianity at the end of the 4th century slipped out of notice and became ‘hidden history’ for the majority of people. Peter Heather’s wonderful book Christendom: The Triumph of a Religion, AD 300-1300 and The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World by Catherine Nixey are the two texts to read to discover all about it.


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO, CARINA (novella), PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA, NEXUS (novella), INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO,  and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. Double Identity, a contemporary conspiracy, starts a new series of thrillers. JULIA PRIMA,  Roma Nova story set in the late 4th century, starts the Foundation stories. The sequel, EXSILIUM, is now out.

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