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1975 seems light years away. In parts of the field of Byzantine studies, at any rate, the world has shifted, and perhaps most of all in that contested territory of early Byzantium, otherwise known as late antiquity. The first issue of Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies was published only four years after Peter Brown’s The World of Late Antiquity,1 and before the ‘explosion’ of late antiquity.2 This was also the start of another explosion: the emergence of late antique archaeology as a discipline, leading to its vast expansion and the enormous and ever-growing amount of material available today. For the first time, John Hayes's Late Roman Pottery (1972) enabled reliable dating criteria for the ceramic evidence that became the foundation of a new understanding of trade and economic life.3 The UNESCO Save Carthage campaign, a landmark in the reliable recording of excavations of the late antique period, began in the following year, and since then the growth in data has been exponential.
It is well known that the history of Byzantium does not fit comfortably with mainstream medieval history. This paper returns to the problem in the light of two recent, if opposing, historiographical trends: first, the emphasis on the Mediterranean as a unifying factor, and second, the turn towards the comparative history of western and eastern Eurasia. Neither emphasis accommodates Byzantium well, and it is argued that however difficult it may seem to some historians, any broad approach to medieval history will be inadequate if it does not make space for the history of Byzantium.
The publication in three volumes in the series Translated Texts for Historians of a complete English translation with notes of the materials relating to the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451) by Richard Price and Michael Gaddis is a major event. For the first time this priceless dossier becomes readily accessible, and in English translation. This means that professional historians, theologians and students alike can have to hand in convenient form a collection of material which is of the utmost importance for understanding both the history of the Church and the history of late antiquity. Its publication coincides with the appearance of other works by historians dealing with church councils, in particular Fergus Millar's Sather Lectures, published in 2006, and related articles by him. Several recent works on the role of bishops in late antiquity, as well as many publications on the separation of the miaphysites, or non-Chalcedonians, in the sixth century, and on questions of orthodoxy and heresy, also underline the centrality of the negotiations and rivalries surrounding the ‘ecumenical’ councils of the fourth century and later.
The Church began from a very early date to resolve internal disagreements by means of meetings whose proceedings were in one way or another recorded; the earliest example is of course the debate within the Church of Jerusalem in the first century. In the context of a growing new religion which felt its mission to be universal, once the decision to proselytize among the gentiles had been made, local meetings (‘synods’) were ways of establishing communion, imposing order and designating hierarchy.
Following in the tradition of Montesquieu and Gibbon, Wolfgang Liebeschuetz has recently again argued that one of the two most revolutionary aspects of Christianity in its history since Constantine has proved to be religious intolerance. The Byzantine state certainly made many efforts to enforce orthodoxy, and the question arises whether Byzantium was therefore a ‘persecuting society’, to use the now-familiar formulation of R. I. Moore. In a telling aside, Paul Magdalino asked in the course of an important discussion of eleventh- and twelfth-century Byzantium whether it became ‘even more of a persecuting society than before’ (my italics). Another strand of scholarship however has seen a contrast in this respect between western and eastern Europe, and several recent authors have argued for a comparative degree of toleration in Byzantium, or at least for a limitation on the possibilities of real repression. However this desire to find a degree of toleration and religious freedom in earlier societies clearly derives from our own contemporary concerns, and despite recent attempts to claim the Emperor Constantine as the defender of religious toleration, I agree with those who argue that it is misguided to look for an active conception of religious toleration in this period. This paper starts from the position that Constantine himself, and successive emperors after him, inherited an existing assumption that religious conformity was the business of the state, and looks at some of the less obvious ways by which the Byzantine state attempted to promote and enforce orthodoxy.
The reign of Constantine was momentous for Christianity. Before it, and indeed during Constantine's first years, Christians continued to suffer persecution; after it, all but one emperor followed Constantine's example in supporting Christianity. The term the 'peace of the church', used by Christians to denote the ending of persecution, is something of a misnomer in light of the violent quarrels which followed during the rest of the fourth century and after. The years 305-12 CE saw the breakdown of the tetrarchic system established by Diocletian under the pressure of individual ambition, of which Constantine was by nomeans innocent. Constantine is remembered for his alleged vision of a cross in the sky immediately before he went into battle against Maxentius. This version depends on the later and highly embellished story in Eusebius's De vita Constantini, which he claims came from the emperor himself.