The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (2016)


The Road of Faiths

It was not only goods that flowed along the arteries that linked the Pacific, Central Asia, India, the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean in antiquity; so did ideas. And among the most powerful ideas were those that concerned the divine. Intellectual and religious exchange had always been animated across this region; now it became more complex and more competitive. Local cults and belief systems came into contact with well-established cosmologies. It made for a rich melting pot where ideas were borrowed, refined and repackaged.

After Alexander the Great’s campaigns had dragged Greek ideas east, it was not long before ideas flowed in the other direction. Buddhist concepts made rapid headway across Asia, especially after they had been championed by the Emperor Ashoka, who purportedly converted to Buddhism after reflecting on the horrific cost of the military campaigns that had created a great empire in India in the third century BC. Inscriptions from this time bear testimony to the many people now following Buddhist principles and practices as far away as Syria and perhaps beyond. The beliefs of a sect known as the Therapeutai that flourished in Alexandria in Egypt for centuries bear unmistakable similarities to Buddhism, including the use of allegorical scriptures, the devotion to enlightenment through prayer and detachment from the sense of the self in order to find inner calm.1

The ambiguities of the source material make it difficult to trace the spread of Buddhism with accuracy. Nevertheless, it is striking that there is an extensive contemporary literature that describes how the religion was carried out of the Indian subcontinent and introduced to new regions. Local rulers had to decide whether to tolerate its appearance, to stamp it out or to adopt and support it. One who did the latter was Menander, a Bactrian king in the first century BC, and descendant of one of Alexander the Great’s men. According to a text known as the Milindapañhā, the ruler was persuaded to follow a new spiritual path thanks to the intercession of an inspirational monk whose intelligence, compassion and humility stood in contrast to the superficiality of the contemporary world. It was enough, apparently, to convince the ruler to seek enlightenment through Buddhist teachings.2

The intellectual and theological spaces of the Silk Roads were crowded, as deities and cults, priests and local rulers jostled with each other. The stakes were high. This was a time when societies were highly receptive to explanations for everything from the mundane to the supernatural, and when faith offered solutions to a multitude of problems. The struggles between different faiths were highly political. In all these religions – whether they were Indic in origin like Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism, or those with roots in Persia such as Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism, or those from further west such as Judaism and Christianity, and, in due course, Islam – triumph on the battlefield or at the negotiating table went hand in hand with demonstrating cultural supremacy and divine benediction. The equation was as simple as it was powerful: a society protected and favoured by the right god, or gods, thrived; those promising false idols and empty promises suffered.

There were strong incentives, therefore, for rulers to invest in the right spiritual infrastructure, such as the building of lavish places of worship. This offered a lever over internal control, allowing leaders to form a mutually strengthening relationship with the priesthood who, across all the principal religions, wielded substantial moral authority and political power. This did not mean that rulers were passive, responding to doctrines laid out by an independent class (or in some cases caste). On the contrary, determined rulers could reinforce their authority and dominance by introducing new religious practices.

The Kushan Empire, which stretched from northern India to embrace most of Central Asia in the first centuries AD, offers a case in point. There, the kings patronised Buddhism, but they also forced its evolution. It was important for a ruling dynasty that was not native to the region to create a justification for their pre-eminence. To do so, ideas were blended together from a range of sources to form a lowest common denominator that would appeal to as many as possible. As a result, the Kushans sponsored the building of temples – devakula, or ‘temples of the divine family’ – which developed the concept that had already become established in this region, that rulers linked heaven and earth.3

Menander had earlier announced on his coinage that he was not only a temporal ruler but also a saviour – something so significant that it was noted in both Greek (soteros) and Indic script (tratasa) in bilingual legends on his coins.4 The Kushans went further, establishing a leadership cult that claimed a direct relation to the divine, and created distance between ruler and subject. An inscription found at Taxila in the Punjab records this perfectly. The ruler, it states boldly, was ‘Great king, king of kings and Son of God’.5 It was a phrase that has obvious echoes with the Old and the New Testaments – as does the concept of the ruler being a saviour and a gateway into the next life.6

In what was tantamount to a revolution in Buddhism around the first century AD, a transformation took place in the way that that faith shaped the daily life of its adherents. In their most basic, traditional form, the teachings of the Buddha were straightforward, advocating finding a path from suffering (Sanskrit: duh˙kha) that led to a state of peace (nirvāna), by means of following eight ‘noble paths’. The route to enlightenment did not involve third parties, nor did it involve the material or physical world in any meaningful way. The journey was one that was spiritual, metaphysical and individual.

This was to change dramatically as new ways of reaching a higher state of consciousness emerged. What had been an intense internal journey, devoid of outside trappings and influences, was now supplemented by advice, help and locations designed to make the path to enlightenment and Buddhism itself more compelling. Stupas or shrines ostensibly linked to the Buddha were built, becoming points of pilgrimage, while texts setting out how to behave at such sites made the ideals behind Buddhism more real and more tangible. Bringing flowers or perfumes as an offering to a shrine would help achieve salvation, advised the Saddharmapundarīka, often known as the Lotus Sutra, that dates to this period. So too would hiring musicians to ‘beat drums, blow horns and conches, pan-pipes and flutes, play lutes and harps, gongs, guitars and cymbals’: this would enable the devotee to attain ‘buddhahood’.7 These were deliberate efforts to make Buddhism more visible – and audible – and to enable it to compete better in an increasingly noisy religious environment.

Another new idea was that of endowment – specifically endowments granted to new monasteries springing up across the routes fanning out from India into Central Asia. Donating money, jewels and other gifts became common practice, and with it the concept that donors would be ‘carried over the oceans of sufferings’ as a reward for their generosity.8 Indeed, the Lotus Sutra and other texts of this period went so far as to list which precious objects were most suitable as gifts; pearls, crystal, gold, silver, lapis lazuli, crystal, coral, diamonds and emeralds were all considered highly acceptable.9

Large-scale irrigation projects in the valleys of what are now Tajikistan and southern Uzbekistan built around the turn of the eras show that this period saw rising affluence and prosperity as well as increasingly vibrant cultural and commercial exchange.10 With wealthy local elites to turn to, it was not long before monastic centres became hives of activity and home to scholars who busied themselves compiling Buddhist texts, copying them and translating them into local languages, thereby making them available for wider and larger audiences. This too was part of the programme to spread the religion by making it more accessible. Commerce opened the door for faith to flow through.11

Around the first century AD, the spread of Buddhism from northern India along the trade routes taken by merchants, monks and travellers accelerated rapidly. To the south, in the Deccan plateau, scores of cave temples were built, with stupas dotting the landscape deep into the Indian subcontinent.12 To the north and east, Buddhism was transmitted with growing energy by the Sogdian merchants who played a vital role in linking China with the Indus valley. These were travelling merchants from the heart of Central Asia, classic middlemen whose own close-knit networks and efficient use of credit left them ideally positioned to dominate long-distance trade.13

The key to their commercial success was a dependable chain of stopping points. As more Sogdians became Buddhist, stupas were built alongside their principal routes, as can be seen in the Hunza valley of northern Pakistan: scores of passing Sogdians carved their names into rocks alongside images of the Buddha in hope that their long journeys would be fruitful and safe – poignant reminders of the traveller’s need for spiritual comfort when far from home.14

It was not just small-scale scratchings that testify to the energetic spread of Buddhism in this period. Kabul was ringed with forty monasteries, including one that a later visitor described with awe. Its beauty was comparable to that of springtime, he wrote. ‘The pavement was made of onyx, the walls of pure marble; the door was made from moulded gold, while the floor was solid silver; stars were represented everywhere one looked . . . in the hallway, there was a golden idol as beautiful as the moon, seated on a magnificent bejewelled throne.’15

Soon Buddhist ideas and practices were spreading east through the Pamir mountains and into China. By the start of the fourth century AD, there were sacred Buddhist sites all over Xinjiang province in north-western China – such as the spectacular complex of caves at Qyzyl in the Tarim basin that included halls for worship, places dedicated to meditation and extensive living quarters. Before long, western China was studded with places that were transformed into sacred spaces, at Kashgar, Kucha and Turfan for example.16 By the 460s, Buddhist thought, practices, art and imagery had become part of the mainstream in China, robustly competing with traditional Confucianism, a broad cosmology that was as much about personal ethics as about spiritual beliefs, but which had deep roots going back a millennium. This was helped by aggressive promotion from a new ruling dynasty who, as conquerors originally from the steppes, were outsiders. As with the Kushan before them, the Northern Wei had much to gain by promoting the new at the expense of the old, and championing concepts that underlined their legitimacy. Huge statues of the Buddha were erected at Pincheng and Luoyang, far into the east of the country, together with lavishly endowed monasteries and shrines. There was no mistaking the message: the Northern Wei had triumphed and they had done so because they were part of a divine cycle, not merely brute victors on the battlefield.17

Buddhism made sizeable inroads along the principal trading arteries to the west too. Clusters of caves dotted around the Persian Gulf, as well as large numbers of finds around Merv in modern Turkmenistan, and series of inscriptions deep inside Persia, attest to Buddhism’s ability to start competing with local beliefs.18 The rash of Buddhist loan-words in Parthian also bears witness to the intensification of the exchange of ideas in this period.19

The difference, however, was that the deepening of commercial exchange galvanised Persia in another direction as it experienced a renaissance that swept through the economy, politics and culture. As a distinctively Persian identity reasserted itself, Buddhists found themselves being persecuted rather than emulated. The ferocity of the attacks led to the shrines in the Gulf being abandoned, and the stupas that had presumably been set up along the land routes within Persian territory being destroyed.20

Religions rose and fell as they spread across Eurasia, fighting each other for audiences, loyalty and moral authority. Communication with the divine was more than a matter of seeking intervention in daily life: it became a matter of salvation or damnation. The jostling became violent. The first four centuries of the first millennium, which saw Christianity explode from a small base in Palestine to sweep through the Mediterranean and across Asia, were a maelstrom of faith wars.

The decisive moment came with the seizure of power by the Sasanian dynasty, who overthrew the ruling regime in Persia by fomenting revolt, murdering rivals and exploiting the confusion that followed military setbacks on the frontier with Rome – above all in the Caucasus.21 After taking power in 224 AD, Ardashīr I and his successors embarked on the full-scale transformation of the state. It involved the assertion of a strident identity that drew a line under recent history and sought to accentuate links with the great Persian Empire of antiquity.22

This was achieved by fusing the contemporary physical and symbolic landscape with that of the past. Key sites in ancient Iran, such as Persepolis, a capital of the Achaemenid Empire, and the necropolis Naksh-i Rustām, associated with the great Persian kings like Darius and Cyrus, were appropriated for cultural propaganda; new inscriptions, monumental architecture and rock relief carvings were ADded which sought to elide the present regime with glorious memories of the past.23 The coinage was overhauled: the Greek script and busts styled on Alexander the Great that had been in use for centuries were replaced by a new and distinctive royal profile on one side – facing the opposite direction – and a fire altar on the other.24 The latter was deliberately provocative, a statement of intent about a new identity and a new attitude to religion. So far as the limited source material for the period allows us to understand, rulers of this region had for centuries shown tolerance on matters of faith, allowing a considerable degree of coexistence.25

The rise of a new dynasty soon brought about a stiffening of attitudes, and the teachings of Zardusht (or Zarathushtra) were unambiguously promoted at the expense of other ideas. Known to the ancient Greeks as Zoroaster – the great Persian prophet who lived around 1000 BC if not earlier still – he taught that the universe was divided according to two principles, Ahura Mazda (Illuminating Wisdom) and its antithesis, Angra Mainyu (Hostile Spirit), which were in a constant state of conflict. It was important, therefore, to worship the former, which was responsible for good order. The division of the world into beneficent and malevolent forces extended into every aspect of life and even affected areas such as the categorisation of animals.26 Ritual purification was a vital element of Zoroastrian worship, above all through fire. Ahura Mazda, as the creed set out, could bring ‘goodness from evil, light from darkness’ and salvation from demons.27

This cosmology allowed the Sasanian rulers the opportunity to link their power with that of the golden days of ancient Persia when the great kings professed their devotion to Ahura Mazda.28 But it also provided a powerful moral framework for a period of military and economic expansion: the emphasis on constant struggle strengthened minds for battle, while the focus on order and discipline underscored administrative reforms that became the signature of an increasingly strident, resurgent state. Zoroastrianism had a robust set of beliefs that were entirely in line with a militaristic culture of imperial renewal.29

The Sasanians expanded aggressively under Ardashīr I and his son Shāpūr I, bringing oasis towns, communication routes and whole regions under direct control, or forcing them into client status. Important towns such as Sistan, Merv and Balkh were taken in a series of campaigns that began in the 220s, while a significant part of the Kushan territories became vassal states, administered by Sasanian officials who took the title kushānshāh (ruler of the Kushans).30 A triumphant inscription at Naksh-i Rustām sets out the scale of the achievement, noting how Shāpūr’s realm had extended deep into the east, running as far as Peshawar and ‘up to the boundaries’ of Kashgar and Tashkent.31

Adherents of Zoroastrianism positioned themselves close to the centre of power when the Sasanians took the throne and did much to concentrate administrative control in their hands at the expense of all other religious minorities.32 This was now projected into the new regions controlled by the Persian rulers. Inscriptions commissioned by the chief priest, Kirdīr, in the middle of the third century AD celebrated the expansion of Zoroastrianism. The religion and its priests had come to be esteemed and honoured far and wide, while ‘many fires and priestly colleges’ had flourished in lands that had been conquered from the Romans. A great deal of hard work was required to spread the faith, the inscription pointedly remarks, but as Kirdīr modestly put it, ‘I underwent much toil and trouble for the good of the yazads [divine powers] and the rulers, and for the good of my own soul.’33

The promotion of Zoroastrianism was accompanied by the suppression of local cults and rival cosmologies, which were dismissed as evil doctrines. Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Manichaeans and others were persecuted; places of worship were ransacked, with ‘idols destroyed, the sanctuaries of demons demolished and transformed into temples for the gods’.34 The expansion of the Persian state was accompanied by a stern enforcement of values and beliefs that were presented as both traditional and essential for political and military success. Those who offered different explanations or competing values were hunted down and in many cases killed – such as Mani, a charismatic third-century prophet whose blend of ideas, drawing on a pot-pourri of sources from east and west, had once been championed by Shāpūr I; his teachings were now condemned as subversive, intoxicating and dangerous and his followers were mercilessly hunted down.35

Among those singled out for harsh treatment, and explicitly mentioned by Kirdīr in his list of those targeted, were nasraye and kristyone – that is to say ‘Nazarenes’ and ‘Christians’. While there has been much scholarly debate about which groups are meant by these two terms, it is now accepted that the former refers to the native population of the Sasanian Empire who had become Christian, while the latter refers to the Christians who were deported east in large numbers by Shāpūr I following the occupation of Roman Syria that took local and central authorities by surprise.36 One of the reasons why Zoroastrianism became so embedded in the consciousness and identity of third-century Persia was as a reaction to the inroads being made by Christianity, which had started to spread alarmingly along the trade routes – just as Buddhism had done in the east. The dramatic radicalisation of Zoroastrian philosophy precisely around this time was accelerated by a hostile reaction to the Christian thought and ideas brought by merchants and by prisoners resettled in Persian territory after being deported from Syria.37

Christianity has long been associated with the Mediterranean and western Europe. In part, this has been due to the location of the leadership of the church, with the senior figures of the Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox churches based in Rome, Canterbury and Constantinople (modern Istanbul) respectively. But in fact every aspect of early Christianity was Asian. Its geographic focal point, of course, was Jerusalem, together with the other sites related to Jesus’ birth, life and crucifixion; its original language was Aramaic, a member of the Semitic group of tongues native to the Near East; its theological backdrop and spiritual canvas was Judaism, formed in Israel and during the exile in Egypt and Babylon; its stories were shaped by the deserts, floods, droughts and famines that were unfamiliar in Europe.38

Historical accounts of the expansion of Christianity across the Mediterranean region are well established, but its early progress was far more spectacular and more promising in the east than it was in the Mediterranean basin, where it spread along the sea lanes.39 To start with, the Roman authorities left Christians alone, bemused more than anything else by the passion of its early adherents. Pliny the Younger, for example, wrote to the Emperor Trajan in the second century to ask for advice about what to do with the Christians who were brought before him in Asia Minor. ‘I have never taken part in trials of Christians,’ he wrote. ‘I therefore do not know what type of punishment is appropriate, nor how far to look into their activities.’ He had some of them executed, ‘for I had no doubt that whatever it is that they believe, their stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy should certainly be punished’.40 The reply from the Emperor advised tolerance: do not search for Christians, he said, but if they are denounced, deal with them on a case-by-case basis, ‘for it is not possible to set out a set rule that would apply regardless of circumstance’. But on no account act on rumour or anonymous accusation; to do otherwise, he wrote loftily, would be ‘out of keeping with the spirit of our age’.41


Not long after this exchange, however, attitudes hardened, reflecting the deepening penetration of Christianity throughout Roman society. The imperial military in particular began to view the new religion, with its subversive attitudes to sin, sex, death and life in general, as a threat to traditional martial values.42 From the second century, rounds of brutal persecution saw Christians murdered in their thousands, often as part of public entertainment. A rich corpus of texts commemorating the martyrs who lost their lives because of their faith grew up as a result.43 Early Christians had to battle against prejudice, bringing anguished cries from writers such as Tertullian (c. 160–225 AD), whose appeals have been compared by one distinguished scholar to Shakespeare’s Shylock: we Christians ‘live beside you, share your food, your dress, your customs, the same necessities of life as you do’, he implored.44 Just because we do not attend Roman religious ceremonies, he wrote, does not mean that we are not human beings. ‘Have we different teeth, or organs of incestuous lust?’45

Christianity first spread east via the Jewish communities who had lived in Mesopotamia since the Babylonian exile.46 They received reports of Jesus’ life and death not in Greek translations, as almost all converts did in the west, but in Aramaic, the language of the disciples and of Jesus himself. Just as in the Mediterranean, traders were instrumental in the evangelising process in the east – with the town of Edessa, modern Urfa in south-eastern Turkey, becoming particularly prominent because of its position as a crossroads for routes running north–south and east–west.47

Evangelists soon reached the Caucasus, where burial practices and inscriptions in Georgia reveal the existence of a substantial population of Jews who converted.48 Not long afterwards, there were Christian communities dotted around the Persian Gulf. Sixty tombs close to Bahrain cut into coral banks show how far the religion had reached by the start of the third century.49 A text known as The Book of the Laws of the Countries, written around the same time, reports that Christians were to be found all over Persia and as far east as territory controlled by the Kushans – in other words, into what is now Afghanistan.50

The dissemination of the religion was encouraged by the large-scale deportations of Christians from Persia during Shāpūr I’s reign in the third century. Among the exiles were high-profile figures such as Demetrius, the bishop of Antioch, who was transported to Beth Lapat, modern Gundeshāpūr in south-west Iran, where he assembled his fellow Christians around him and established a new bishopric.51 There were some Christians of high status in Persia, such as a Roman named Candida who was a favoured concubine at the court until her refusal to abandon her faith led to her martyrdom, according to a Christian account warning of the bloodthirstiness of the Shah and those around him.52

These stirring stories fall into a category of literature seeking to establish the superiority of Christian customs and beliefs over traditional practices. Sources are scant, but we can get a sense of the propaganda battles being fought at the time. Unlike the other inhabitants of Persia, wrote one author, the ‘disciples of Christ’ in Asia ‘do not practise the condemnable habits of these pagan peoples’. This was to be welcomed, noted another writer, as a sign of how Christians improved standards in Persia and elsewhere in the east; ‘Persians who have become His disciples no longer marry their mothers,’ while those on the steppes no longer ‘feed on human flesh, because of Christ’s word which has come to them’. Such developments ought to be warmly welcomed, he wrote.53

It was the growing penetration and visibility of Christians in Persia in the middle of the third century that caused the Zoroastrian priesthood to react with increasing violence, echoing the response in the Roman Empire.54 But as Kirdīr’s inscription testifies, attitudes in Persia were starting to harden not just to Christianity but to other faiths too. Stamping out alternative cosmologies went hand in hand with the fervent Zoroastrianism that characterised the resurgence of Persia. A state religion was starting to emerge, one that identified Zoroastrian values as synonymous with Persian and provided what has been called ‘a supporting pillar of Sasanian kingship’.55

A series of chain reactions had been set in motion, whereby competition for resources and military confrontation prompted the development of sophisticated belief systems that not only made sense of victories and success, but directly undermined those of neighbouring rivals. In the case of Persia, this meant an increasingly strident and self-confident priesthood whose role extended deep into the sphere of politics – as the inscriptions make clear.

This inevitably had consequences, especially when it was exported into border regions or newly conquered territories. Setting up the fire temples of which Kirdīr was so proud not only risked antagonising local populations but also enforced doctrine and faith by force. Zoroastrianism became synonymous with Persia. It did not take much for this religion to be seen as a tool of occupation rather than a form of spiritual liberation. It was no coincidence, then, that some began to look to Christianity precisely as an antidote to the heavy-handed promotion of beliefs from the Persian centre.

The precise circumstances of how and when rulers in the Caucasus adopted Christianity are not entirely clear. Accounts of the conversion of the Armenian King Tiridates III at the start of the fourth century were written some time later – and owe something to the desire to tell a good story as well as to the Christian bias of their authors.56 But, according to tradition, Tiridates converted after turning into a pig and roaming naked in fields before being healed by St Gregory, who had been thrown into a snake-infested pit for refusing to worship an Armenian goddess. Gregory healed Tiridates by causing his snout, tusks and skin to fall off before baptising the grateful monarch in the Euphrates.57

Tiridates was not the only important political figure to embrace Christianity in this period, for in the early fourth century Constantine, one of the most influential figures in Rome, also converted. The decisive moment came during a tempestuous civil war when Constantine took on his rival Maxentius at Milvian Bridge in central Italy in 312 AD. Shortly before the battle, the former supposedly gazed into the sky and saw ‘a cross-shaped light’ above the sun, together with Greek words declaring ‘by this sign, you will conquer’. The full meaning of this became clear to him after he had a dream in which an apparition of Jesus Christ explained to him that the sign of the cross would help him defeat all his rivals. This, at any rate, was how some liked to describe what had happened.58

Christian accounts leave little doubt about the limitless enthusiasm with which the Emperor personally oversaw the enforcement of Christianity at the expense of all other religions. We learn from one author, for example, that the new city of Constantinople was not ‘polluted by altars, Grecian temples or pagan sacrifices’, but enriched by ‘splendid houses of prayer in which God promised to bless the efforts of the Emperor’.59 Another writer states that famous centres for cults were shut down by the Emperor, while oracles and divination, staple features of Roman theology, were banned. The customary sacrifice made before official business could take place was likewise outlawed, while pagan statues were pulled down and legislated against.60 There was little room for equivocation in the story told by authors with vested interests to show Constantine as single-minded promoter of his new beliefs.

In fact, Constantine’s motivations for conversion were certainly more complex than the accounts written during his lifetime or shortly afterwards like to suggest. For one thing, taking on the Christian faith adopted by large numbers in the military was shrewd politics; for another, monuments, coins and inscriptions from around the empire which depict Constantine as a staunch supporter of the cult of the Undefeated Sun (or Sol Invictus) suggest that his epiphany was perhaps more tentative than the breathless eulogies make out. Moreover, despite assertions to the contrary, the empire did not change character overnight, for leading figures in Rome, Constantinople and elsewhere continued following their traditional beliefs long after the Emperor’s revelation and the enthusiastic way he set about supporting his new faith.61

Nevertheless, Constantine’s acceptance of Christianity clearly brought about a sea change in the Roman Empire. The persecutions that had peaked during the reign of Diocletian just a decade or so earlier came to an end. Gladiator fights, long the staple of Roman entertainment, were abolished as a result of Christian revulsion at displays that so devalued the sanctity of life. ‘Bloody spectacles displease us,’ reads an extract of a law passed in 325 and recorded in a later compilation of imperial legislation. ‘We [therefore] wholly forbid the existence of gladiators.’ Those who had previously been sent into the arena as punishment for crimes they had committed or beliefs they refused to abandon were henceforth to be sent to ‘serve in the mines, so that they will assume the penalty for their crimes without shedding their blood’.62

As resources were lavished on supporting Christianity across the empire, Jerusalem was singled out for massive building works, complete with extravagant endowments. If Rome and Constantinople were administrative centres of the empire, Jerusalem was to be its spiritual heart. Parts of the city were flattened and soil dug out from beneath pagan temples was dumped as far away as possible, ‘stained as it was by devil worship’. Excavations now revealed one holy place after another, including the cave where Jesus had been laid to rest, which was renovated and, ‘like our Saviour, restored to life’.63

Constantine took charge of these works himself, directing what materials should be used in the construction of a church on the site of the Holy Sepulchre. The Emperor had been willing to delegate the choice of fabrics and the adornment of the walls to an appointee, but he wanted to be involved in the type of marble to be used, and in the selection of columns. ‘I should like to know your opinion’, he wrote to Macarius, the bishop of Jerusalem, ‘whether the ceiling should be panelled or decorated in another style of some kind. If it is panelled, it might also be decorated with gold.’ Such choices, he went on, required his personal approval.64

Constantine’s celebrated conversion marked the start of a new chapter in the history of the Roman Empire. Although Christianity was not made a state religion, the easing of restrictions and punishments opened the floodgates for the new faith. This was good news for Christians and Christianity in the west, but it led to disaster for Christianity in the east. Although to start with Constantine was a tactful convert, issuing coins bearing distinctly pagan images and erecting a statue of himself as Helios-Apollo in his new city, he soon became more strident.65 Before long, he was portraying himself as the protector of Christians wherever they were – including outside the Roman Empire.

In the 330s, rumour spread that Constantine was preparing an attack on Persia, exploiting an opening presented by a disaffected brother of the Shah who had sought sanctuary at the Roman imperial court. Persian nerves must have jangled when a letter was received from Constantine announcing that he was delighted to have learnt that ‘the finest provinces of Persia are filled with those men on whose behalf alone I am at present speaking; I mean the Christians’. He had a specific message for the Persian ruler Shāpūr II: ‘I commend these persons to you for your protection . . . cherish them with your customary humanity and kindness; for by this proof of faith you will secure an immeasurable benefit both to yourself and us.’66 This might have been meant as gentle advice, but it sounded like a threat: not long beforehand, Rome had rolled its eastern frontier deep into Persian territory, and immediately set about a programme of fortification and road-building to secure these gains.67

When the ruler of Georgia, another Caucasian kingdom of commercial and strategic value, experienced an epiphany that was only marginally less colourful than Constantine’s (the king literally saw the light after being engulfed by darkness while hunting), anxiety turned to panic.68 With Constantine absent on the Danube frontier, Shāpūr II launched a surprise attack into the Caucasus, deposing one of the local rulers and installing his own nominee in his place. Constantine responded immediately and dramatically: he assembled an enormous army and, ordering his bishops to accompany the forthcoming expedition, arranged for a replica to be made of the Tabernacle, the structure used to house the Ark of the Covenant. He then announced that he wished to undertake a punitive attack on Persia and be baptised in the River Jordan.69

The scale of Constantine’s ambition knew no bounds. He minted coins in advance, giving his half-nephew a new royal title: ruler of Persia.70 Excitement spread quickly among Christians in the east, captured in a letter written by Aphrahat, head of an important monastery near Mosul: ‘Goodness has come to the people of God.’ This was the moment that he had been waiting for: Christ’s kingdom on earth was about to be established once and for all. ‘Be certain,’ he concluded, ‘the beast will be killed at its preordained time.’71

As the Persians prepared to mount fierce resistance, they had a huge stroke of luck: before the expedition could get going, Constantine fell ill and died. Shāpūr II proceeded to unleash hell on the local Christian population in Persia as a reprisal for Constantine’s aggression. Egged on by the Zoroastrian authorities, the Shah ‘thirsted for the blood of the saints’.72 Martyrs were made by the dozen: one manuscript from Edessa at the start of the fifth century records the execution of no fewer than sixteen bishops as well as fifty priests in this period.73 Christians were now regarded as an advance guard, a fifth column that would open Persia to the Roman Empire in the west. Leading bishops were accused of making the Shah’s ‘followers and people rebel against [his] Majesty and become slaves of the emperor who shares their faith’.74

This bloodbath was a direct result of the enthusiastic adoption of Christianity in Rome. The persecutions unleashed by the Shah stemmed from the fact that Constantine had elided the promotion of the Roman Empire with that of Christianity. The Emperor’s grand statements may have impressed and inspired men like Aphrahat, but they were immensely challenging for the leadership in Persia. Roman identity had been clear-cut before Constantine’s conversion. But now the Emperor – and his successors – was willing to talk of protecting not only Rome and its citizens, but Christians in general too. It was a convenient ace to play, not least at home where the rhetoric was bound to go down well with bishops and the faithful. For those living beyond the empire’s borders, however, it was potentially disastrous – as Shāpūr’s victims found.

It is ironic, therefore, that while Constantine is famous for being the Emperor who laid the basis for the Christianisation of Europe, it is never noted that there was a price to pay for his embrace of a new faith: it spectacularly compromised Christianity’s future in the east. The question was whether the teachings of Jesus Christ that had taken hold deep in Asia would be able to survive a determined challenge.