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The cultural and religious crisis through which the Roman Empire was passing in the fourth century is one of the most significant events in the history of the world. The old pagan culture came into collision with Christianity, which received official recognition during the reign of Constantine at the beginning of the fourth century and was declared the dominant State religion by Theodosius the Great at the end of that same century. It might have seemed at first that these two clashing elements, representing two diametrically opposed points of view, would never find a basis for mutual agreement.
But Christianity and pagan Hellenism did intermix gradually to form a Christian-Greco-Eastern culture subsequently known as Byzantine. Its center was the new capital of the Roman Empire, Constantinople. The person who was chiefly responsible for the many changes in the empire was Constantine the Great. During his reign Christianity stepped for the first time on the firm ground of official recognition. From this time forward the old pagan empire gradually changed into a Christian empire.
The conversion of nations or states to Christianity has usually taken place during the early stage of their historical existence when the past has created no firmly established traditions, but merely some crude and primitive customs and forms of government. In such cases the conversion has caused no great crisis in the life of the people. But this was not characteristic of the Roman Empire in the fourth century. It already possessed an old world culture and had developed forms of government perfect for that time. It had a great past and an extensive body of ideas which had been assimilated by the population. This empire, changing in the fourth century into a Christian state, entered upon an era during which its past was contradicted, at times completely denied; this was bound to lead to an extremely acute and difficult crisis.
Apparently the old pagan world, at least in the domain of religion, no longer satisfied national wants. New needs and new desires appeared, which only Christianity could satisfy.
When a moment of unusual importance is associated with some historical personage who happens to play a leading part in it, a whole literature about him is created which aims to evaluate his significance for the given period and attempts to penetrate into the innermost regions of his spiritual life. For the fourth century this important personage was Constantine the Great.
Constantine was born at the city of Naissus (Nish at present). On the side of his father, Constantius Chlorus, Constantine belonged probably to an Illyrian family. His mother, Helena, was a Christian who later became St. Helena. She made a pilgrimage to Palestine where, according to tradition, she found the true cross on which Christ was crucified. In 305, after Diocletian and Maximian had renounced their imperial rank according to the established agreement and had retired into private life, Galerius became the Augustus in the East, and Constantius, father of Constantine, assumed the title of Augustus in the West. In the following year Constantius died in Britain, and his legions proclaimed his son Constantine Augustus.
At this time a revolt broke out in Rome. The mutinous population and the army rejected Galerius and proclaimed as emperor Maxentius, the son of the Maximian who had resigned his imperial power. The aged Maximian joined his son and again assumed the imperial title. A period of civil war followed, during which both Maximian and Galerius died. Constantine then formed an alliance with one of the new Augusti, Licinius, and defeated Maxentius in a decisive battle near Rome in 312. Maxentius was drowned in the Tiber while trying to flee from the enemy (at Saxa Rubra near the Milvian bridge across the Tiber).
The two victorious emperors, Constantine and Licinius, met at Milan where, according to historical tradition, they proclaimed the famous Edict of Milan. The peaceful relations between the two emperors did not last very long, however. A struggle soon broke out between them, which ended in a complete victory for Constantine. Licinius was killed in 324 AD, and Constantine became the sole ruler of the Roman Empire.
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