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02 May 2011

Beginning of the Dark Ages

It was in the 1st century CE that Christianity emerged in the shadow of the Roman Empire. The policy of the empire was that people should follow the religion of the state, publicly offer sacrifice and burn incense to Roman gods, as part of their allegiance. A new religion was therefore considered a threat to the power of the empire. Thus to resist or challenge the religion of the state led to the destruction and annihilation of a community.

To avoid that, early Christians relied on the policy of submission and non-violence retreating underground where they preached without provoking the authorities but eventually the authorities cracked down on them. When the policy of persecution was initiated, the Christian community faced it with courage. Their belief was so strong that they readily accepted death rather than accept a religion other than Christianity.

They were executed publicly, tortured, their bodies were mutilated or thrown before wild animals. All these punishments and persecution was endured by them with humility and submission. In some cases, the Roman investigators offered to free Christians if they abandoned their religion, but they chose to face death. They continued to steadily convert the people despite state hostility and gradually the number of their followers increased.

In 312 CE, when the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity for political gains, it significantly changed the character of the Christian community. As most of the soldiers in his army were Christian, he needed their loyalty to win battles against his rivals.

However, because of his conversion, a previously persecuted community now became a powerful institution of the state.
The Byzantine state made Christianity the state religion which subsequently left no space for other religions. Patronised by the state and its institutions, aggressive conversion began with the aim to wipe out all traces of paganism. In order to show his fidelity to the new faith, Constantine started building churches and allotted land to the Christians.

Patronised by the state, the clergy became influential and rich and now that the Church had acquired power and wealth, it adopted the policy of persecution against the pagans and heretics. Ironically, the Church now resorted to punishments which they had themselves experienced during the Roman period. Again victims were tortured, their bodies mutilated and thrown before wild animals or they were burnt at stake.

In 452 CE, a law was passed which allowed the state to confiscate the property of pagans and heretics. St. Augustine declared that heretics were the enemies of God and it was the responsibility of the church to bring them back to the true faith by using coercive means. Also, the heretics were socially boycotted by Christians and were not allowed to attend church services. As government servants, they were dismissed and their properties were confiscated.

The Church also turned its attention towards pagan philosophers and systematically eliminated them. Hypatia, a famous woman philosopher, respected for her knowledge and wisdom was stoned to death by the mob when a priest declared her infidel and condemned her to death. The last pagan philosopher of Alexandria left the city because of threats from the clergy. Other philosophers, having suffered enough religious extremism retired to the countryside or migrated to other countries.

As a result of this extremism the liberal traditions of the pre-Christian period came to an end. The Church in the eastern part of the Roman Empire supported by the state, established its hegemony and uprooted all non-Christian traditions. In the western part of the empire, the Pope became the spiritual and temporal leader and crushed all new emerging religious sects.
Eventually fanaticism and narrow mindedness prevailed and society plunged into what came to be known as the Dark Ages.

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