1902 Encyclopedia > Christianity > Social Influence of Early Christianity

(Part 17)

The Social Influence of Early Christianity

But when more Christianity entered into· the Roman empire, and when it at last had made head against paganism, the imperial law found an ally in Christian ethics which it had been without during the reign of paganism, and discovered, too, a higher sanction for its precepts than mere economic interests. From the time of Constantine onwards the influence of Christianity on Roman law is remarkable, and always on the side of morality in the highest sense of the term. We find from the Acts of the Apostles that the first organization of Christians was for the better distribution of charity to those in need of it, and one of the earliest results of the political triumph of Christianity in the empire was the promulgation of laws ensuring the protection of the feeble and the helpless. The nineteen years of civil war which preceded the final victory of Constantine had produced the usual scenes of misery, and great numbers of orphan children were thrown upon the world without protection. The influence of the celebrated Lactantius, to whose care Constantine had committed the education of his son Crispus, was able to secure the publication of a law declaring that the emperor was the father of all these children, and that the expense of their upbringing was to be defrayed by the state. At the same time the exposure for sale of unfortunate children was sternly forbidden, and those who so exposed them were condemned to the amphitheatre. The condition of slaves was also greatly ameliorated by the new spirit of Christianity which was then working in society. Slavery was not abolished, but various laws were made restricting the power of slave-holders. The master was deprived of the arbitrary power of life and death. It was ordained that when royal estates were divided the families of slaves of the soil were not to be separated. New laws breathing a more Christian spirit regulated the relation of the sexes. Divorce was made a much more difficult matter. The laws against rape and seduction were made more severe, and adultery became a capital offence. The nameless crime, which was the disgrace of Greek and Roman civilization, was made punishable by death. The making of eunuchs was forbidden, and it was enacted that slaves who had suffered this mutilation might claim their freedom. But the silent revolution which Christianity wrought in social morality cannot be measured by legislation. It is to be traced in a purer literature, a higher moral life, a better public spirit, and, above all, in the establishment of buildings for the reception of strangers (xenones [Gk.]), alms-houses for the poor (ptochotropheia [Gk.]), hospitals and orphan houses for the sick and the forsaken, and houses of refuge for the support of helpless old men and women. All these were due to the church, and the bishops vied with each other in the proper exercise of a munificent charity. One of the most celebrated of these establishments was the Basilias of Basil of Caesarea, where strangers were hospitably entertained, and medical attendance and nursing were provided for those sick of whatever disease. In the Basilias everything was on the most magnificent scale. The physicians of the establishment resided within the walls, and workshops were provided for all the artizans and labourers whose services were needed. The presence of such institutions, and the Christian charity to which they bore witness, must have had a wonderfully restorative influence on the corrupt pagan society in which they were set up. Law and religion became allied, not opposing forces.

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