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History of the Christian Church, Volume III: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 311-600.
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§ 24. Byzantine Court Christianity.


The unnatural confusion of Christianity with the world culminated in the imperial court of Constantinople, which, it is true, never violated moral decency so grossly as the court of a Nero or a Domitian, but in vain pomp and prodigality far outdid the courts of the better heathen emperors, and degenerated into complete oriental despotism. The household of Constantius, according to the description of Libanius,230230   Lib., Epitaph. Julian. embraced no less than a thousand barbers, a thousand cup bearers, a thousand cooks, and so many eunuchs, that they could be compared only to the insects of a summer day. This boundless luxury was for a time suppressed by the pagan Julian, who delighted in stoical and cynical severity, and was fond of displaying it; but under his Christian successors the same prodigality returned; especially under Theodosius and his sons. These emperors, who prohibited idolatry upon pain of death, called their laws, edicts, and palaces “divine,” bore themselves as gods upon earth, and, on the rare occasions when they showed themselves to the people, unfurled an incredible magnificence and empty splendor.

“When Arcadius,” to borrow a graphic description from a modern historian, “condescended to reveal to the public the majesty of the sovereign, he was preceded by a vast multitude of attendants, dukes, tribunes, civil and military officers, their horses glittering with golden ornaments, with shields of gold set with precious stones, and golden lances. They proclaimed the coming of the emperor, and commanded the ignoble crowd to clear the streets before him. The emperor stood or reclined on a gorgeous chariot, surrounded by his immediate attendants, distinguished by shields with golden bosses set round with golden eyes, and drawn by white mules with gilded trappings; the chariot was set with precious stones, and golden fans vibrated with the movement, and cooled the air. The multitude contemplated at a distance the snow-white cushions, the silken carpets, with dragons inwoven upon them in rich colors. Those who were fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of the emperor, beheld his ears loaded with golden rings, his arms with golden chains, his diadem set with gems of all hues, his purple robes, which, with the diadem, were reserved for the emperor, in all their sutures embroidered with precious stones. The wondering people, on their return to their homes, could talk of nothing but the splendor of the spectacle: the robes, the mules, the carpets, the size and splendor of the jewels. On his return to the palace, the emperor walked on gold; ships were employed with the express purpose of bringing gold dust from remote provinces, which was strewn by the officious care of a host of attendants, so that the emperor rarely set his foot on the bare pavement.”231231   Milman: Hist. of Ancient Christianity, p. 440 (Am. ed.). Comp. the sketch of the court of Arcadius, which Montfaucon, in a treatise in the last volume of his Opera Chrys., and Müller: De genio, moribus, et luxu aevi Theodosiani, Copenh. 1798, have drawn, chiefly from the works of Chrysostom.

The Christianity of the Byzantine court lived in the atmosphere of intrigue, dissimulation, and flattery. Even the court divines and bishops could hardly escape the contamination, though their high office, with its sacred functions, was certainly a protecting wall around them. One of these bishops congratulated Constantine, at the celebration of the third decennium of his reign (the tricennalia), that he had been appointed by God ruler over all in this world, and would reign with the Son of God in the other! This blasphemous flattery was too much even for the vain emperor, and he exhorted the bishop rather to pray God that he might be worthy to be one of his servants in this world and the next.232232   Euseb. Vit. Const. iv. 48. Even the church historian and bishop Eusebius, who elsewhere knew well enough how to value the higher blessings, and lamented the indescribable hypocrisy of the sham Christianity around the emperor,233233   V. Const. iv. 54. suffered himself to be so far blinded by the splendor of the imperial favor, as to see in a banquet, which Constantine gave in his palace to the bishops at the close of the council of Nice, in honor of his twenty years’ reign (the vicennalia), an emblem of the glorious reign of Christ upon the earth!234234   V. Const. iii. 15, where Eusebius, at the close of this imperio-episcopal banquet, “which transcended all description,” says: Χριστοῦ βασιλείας ἔδοξεν ἄν τις φαντασιοῦσθαι εἰκόνα, ὄναρ τ ̓ εῖναι ἀλλ ̓ οὐχ ὕπερ τὸ γινόμενον.

And these were bishops, of whom many still bore in their body the marks of the Diocletian persecution. So rapidly had changed the spirit of the age. While, on the other hand, the well-known firmness of Ambrose with Theodosius, and the life of Chrysostom, afford delightful proof that there were not wanting, even in this age, bishops of Christian earnestness and courage to rebuke the sins of crowned heads.



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