Episode 30: God and the Gauls
Today’s episode is all about the history of Christianity in Gaul from 177 to the reign of Constantine. For a number of episodes Christianity has been an important segment of greater narratives, but now it is finally time that it got its own episode. It won’t be the last. Christianity will play a major role in French history from the late 3rd century into the 21st.
From the 1st century until the present Christianity rapidly went from a small collection of secretive devotees to being the largest religion in human history. In the 2nd century Christianity was widespread in the Eastern Roman Empire. By the 3rd century it was possibly the single largest religion, competing with Roman polytheism, Zoroastrianism, Manicheanism and a series of mystery cults. In Gaul, Christianity arrived relatively late. Our first record of it were the Lugdunum persecutions in 177. By the end of the 3rd century Christians were present in most major cities, but they couldn’t have been more than 10% of the population and were largely absent from the countryside. Even though Gallic Christians were a small minority until the late 4th or 5th centuries they had a pronounced impact on the development of their religion.
One quick note before we begin: much of our records come from church history. I intend on taking as neutral a position as possible; what you choose to believe is your own choice. I think that records of miracles and supernatural occurrences aren’t necessarily wrong but can be interpreted metaphorically. Much as the Bible has literal and metaphorical parts, so too does church history. I personally don’t think that Saint Denis picked up his own severed head and continued to preach the gospel around the Ile de France; I choose to interpret that to mean that his legacy and the words he spoke resonated with people beyond his death. If you want to believe that he literally preached the Gospel while holding his head around waist height like in his statues, that is entirely up to you.
We know very little about the earliest Christians in Gaul because in the 2nd to 3rd centuries Christianity was, at best, discouraged and at worst openly persecuted. Based on the fact that many early Gallic saints had Greek origins it is most likely that missionaries from Greater Greece, which included modern Greece and Western Anatolia, sailed to Massalia. From there they traveled along the southern coast or sailed up the Rhone river to the capital at Lugdunum, with some going all the way to Lutèce, or modern-day Paris.
The first Christian martyr in Gaul that we know of was a man named Pothinus. In the mid-2nd century Pothinus was living in Western Anatolia when Saint Polybius of Smyrna, Greece ordered him to go to Lugdunum to become their very first bishop. As the capital and by far largest city Lugdunum was the only city with a decently-sized Christian population, and other, smaller cities, such as Vienne, took their cue from it. At some point Pothinus arrived in Lugdunum and preached the Gospel. However, the Antonine Plague reached Gaul sometime in the late 160s or early 170s and killed off tens of thousands of Gauls living there within a few years. The local population was terrified, confused and angry about this unprecedented calamity and they blamed the Christians for angering the gods by refusing to sacrifice to them. Pothinus was taken to prison and beaten to death before he could be properly executed. According to church history forty-eight Christians were seized and when they refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods they were fed to wild beasts in the amphitheater. Of these forty-eight martyrs half were Greek while the other half were Gallo-Roman, further proving that enthusiastic Greek missionaries were travelling westward to spread their religion, though the Gauls were slow to adopt it.
Martyrs were incredibly important to early Christians since they created a history and an ideal for early Christians to strive for. Jesus’ act of death and removal to a higher plane was reenacted every time a martyr was killed. Furthermore they gave places and communities meaning. The church at Lugdunum could claim that their leader had died for the faith, which gave them spiritual authority within the Christian hierarchy alongside moral authority. Furthermore, as fragments of the martyrs were collected, called relics, pilgrims flocked to those places, which connected Christians with their fellow believers across a large area.
We can’t know what Gaul’s earliest relics were. It may have just been a feather quill belonging to Pothinus, or a shawl belonging to Blandina, one of the martyred slave girls. Christians kept these objects which became representations of the martyrs and their way of life. Much as Christ was part human and part divinity (a controversy we will get into more later), so too did the martyrs live as we did but the fact that they were willing to die for their faith meant that their simple actions carried a significance beyond the objects themselves. A quill was just a quill, but when one knows that every time Posthinus wrote a letter he was possibly condemning himself to death for spreading the faith, that quill takes on a whole new significance. Of course this was an age where secular and religious worlds weren’t divided so many people saw these objects not as mere representations of spiritual conduct, but believed the objects themselves had power and a connection to saints. We can’t know for sure what was symbolic and what was taken literally, but either way the effect of martyrs and their relics was powerful.
After Pothinus was executed a man named Irenæus took his place from 177-202 as the new bishop. Like his predecessor, Irenæus was from somewhere in the Greek-speaking East. On his way to Gaul, Irenæus delivered a message to the Pope concerning Montanists, who his church opposed. Montanism was a new branch of Christianity started by the prophet Montanus who claimed he had revelations that added to the existing Christian canon, something which itself wasn’t firmly established. But conservative Christians believed in books written by the original Apostles, whereas Montanism came much later and people were skeptical because here was someone claiming divine revelation who never personally met Jesus Christ.
Montanism wasn’t a big problem in Gaul, as it was largely confined to the east. I mention it because Irenæus had a history in persecuting religious dissent which did come into play against another heretical branch spreading through Gaul: Gnosticism, derived from the Greek ‘gnosis’ or ‘knowledge.’ Gnosticism downplayed the importance of Scripture and instead claimed that personal knowledge of God resulted in salvation. This personal knowledge was rooted in mysticism and personal experience rather than tradition or education. Gnosticism was condemned as heresy by most conservative Christian leaders but it was popular among Greco-Romans because of its philosophical bent. During his tenure as bishop of Lugdunum Irenæus tried to turn his Christian communities from Gnosticism towards a more orthodox outlook.
But Irenæus wasn’t just involved in persecution and he promoted tolerance when the situation called for it, most notably during the controversy of Quartodecimans. This controversy occurred when Eastern Christians celebrated Easter on different days than the Italian Christians. Pope Victor I in Rome was incensed that Eastern Christians had separate holy days and ordered a number of synods to be held on the issue. Many took place in the East, while in the west, synods at Rome and Lugdunum decided the matter. It was decided that Asian Christians should celebrate Easter on Sundays, but the Christians of western Anatolia, refused. Victor I wanted to excommunicate them, but Irenæus told him not to overreact, and Victor I relented, which turned out to be the right call because over time the Asian practice died out and Easter is held on Sundays.
When he wasn’t leading the Christian community in Gaul or deciding empire-wide theological matters Irenæus wrote numerous works in Greek, most of which are lost. Under him Lugdunum gained religious power and prestige, though the actual Christian population grew slowly. Legend holds he sent a mission to Augustodunum, or modern-day Autun before dying in the early 3rd century.
In 251 a new schism emerged known as Novatianism after its leader Novatian, a Roman priest. In 251 Pope Cornelius announced that the lapsi, those Christians who renounced their faith to avoid martyrdom, would be allowed back into the church. Novatian believed this was too lenient. Three Italian bishops agreed with him and elevated him to the Papacy making him one of the first anti-Popes. Vocius, the Bishop of Lugdunum, sided with Cornelius. Meanwhile in the recently-created bishopric of Arelate, the bishop sided with Novatian. Novatianism spread across the Roman world becoming quite popular and remained a point of controversy within Christianity. It’s unknown how widespread it was in Gaul but it was enough to strain relations between the Christian communities in Lugdunum and Arelate.
Between 250-251 Pope Fabian sent seven bishops to Gaul to convert the people to Christianity, known as the Seven Apostles to the Gauls. The apostles and their cities were: Saint Saturnin to Toulouse, Saint Trophimus to Arelate, Saint Paul to Narbonne, Austromoine to Clermont, Saint Martial to Limoges and most famously Saint Denis who was sent to Lutètia to convert the Parisii tribe.
Each of these saints is associated with martyrdom and miracles, though I’ll confine myself to Saint Denis and Saint Saturnin. My Latin isn’t the best, so I don’t know how to pronounce his original name, but it is something like modern Denis, taken from the Greek god Dionysus, implying that he was either from Greece or the descendent of Greek missionaries to Gaul.
Denis was a prolific preacher who converted numerous Gauls, much to the annoyance of the populace. During the reign of the virulently anti-Christian emperor Decian, the Parisii seized him and took him to the highest hill in the surrounding countryside, known as Mont Martis, the Hill of Mars, or as its called in French today, ‘Montmartre.’ There they beheaded him with a sword. According to Catholic canon, Denis then picked up his own head and continued to preach the gospel. He did eventually die from his beheading though and local Christians built the Basilica of Saint-Denis north of Lutètia. Due to the importance of Paris and the basilica, Saint Denis became one of the two patron saints of France, the other being Joan of Arc, though she wasn’t canonized until 1920.
Perhaps the second most famous of the Seven Apostles to the Gauls was Saint Saturnin who went to what is today Toulouse. According to church canon, the pagans claimed that Saturnin’s preaching insulted the gods causing their oracles to fall silent. They seized him and demanded he sacrifice to the gods. When he refused, they tied him to a bull which dragged him through Toulouse until he died. Today, the road the bull took is known as the rue du Taur, the bull road.
When Diocletian and his hand-picked subordinate emperors came to power he reorganized the empire and made Trier the capital of the northwestern dioceses. This, combined with Lugdunum’s collapsing population meant that the bishops of Lugdunum declined in power, though they retained their prestige.
Diocletian wanted to return the Roman Empire to its traditional polytheism in part due to his own piety and in part because he used the state religion to promote himself as Jupiter’s counterpart on Earth. When Christians refused to sacrifice to the gods he began the Great Persecution in 303, which started by removing Christians from public office and ended with massacres across the East. Blood poured like rivers in the streets of the Eastern Roman Empire, though in Gaul very little changed. The Roman Caesar in charge of Gaul, Constantius, removed some Christians from high offices and burned a few churches to appease Diocletian but otherwise ignored orders to humiliate, impoverish and kill Christians. His son Constantine’s propaganda later claimed this was because he was Christian but that probably wasn’t the case. Instead, Constantius probably left the Christian community alone because Gaul had been thoroughly ravaged from barbarian incursions for decades and Christians were a relatively small population so he didn’t view them as a threat.
In 313, ten years after the Great Persecution began, Constantine marched into Mediolanum as the victorious Augustus of the West and issued his famous Edict, known anachronistically as the Edict of Milan. This edict granted tolerance for Christians across the Roman Empire, though persecutions continued in the East until Constantine defeated his rival Licinius and seized sole power over the whole of Rome. Additionally it restored church properties and gave churches legal rights.
It’s unknown when Constantine became a Christian, if he ever did. Constantine adopted whatever beliefs suited him best as he moved from Roman polytheism to inaugurating a new cult of Apollo, to Sol Invictus and finally settling on Christianity. As his own theological outlook evolved he decided that polytheism led to chaos. Just as there should be one singular ruler, he believed there should also be one singular god.
After centuries of persecution many Christians looked at Constantine as their hero and divinely-appointed protector, and he is known to history as Constantine the Great. Even as Constantine support Christians they supported him. Every church displayed Constantine’s image as God’s chosen. Furthermore, Constantine styled himself as a ‘sort of bishop’ who called synods and ecumenical councils to determine religious matters as he wanted to create a uniform Christianity across the empire.
The first and one of the most important of these was the Synod of Arelate (Arles) in 314. Constantine assembled Christian bishops from across the Western Empire to settle a matter of theological disputes. The most divisive issue was Donatism. The Donatists were people from North Africa who believed that only pure priests could administer sacraments and those that committed sin could not be intermediaries with God. Naturally, the Donatists viewed non-Donatists as heretical, leading to a schism. The bishops at Arelate ruled against the Donatists, at which point Constantine seized their churches and gave them to a group that would become known as Catholic Christians. During this synod a number of other matters were decided. The bishops decided that conscientious objectors would be excommunicated; something which was incredibly important to the emperor because it meant all Christian men were expected to fight for him if conscripted. In exchange, Constantine allowed them to condemn chariot races, gladiatorial fights, and other frivolities that they considered to be sin.
The most important meeting of church figures during Constantine’s lifetime was the Council of Nicaea, held in 325 in Anatolia. This conference codified Christian beliefs. Most importantly it declared Arianism a heresy. Arianism was an Egyptian belief that Jesus Christ was literally born from the Father and therefore he was subordinate to God the Father, rather than being equally divine.
At this point it is worth reconsidering the role of Constantine and his relation to early Christianity. Christians throughout time have generally viewed Constantine as a heroic figure who ended the persecution of Christians by the Roman state. Very often popular knowledge of history is oversimplified but I would argue that this belief is outrightly wrong. Far from ending Christian persecutions, some of the greatest persecutions of Christians occurred during Constantine’s reign, and he created the state apparatus for continual persecution into the medieval period. Constantine gave bishops a measure of power within cities to punish heretics and control the population as long as they did administrative duties for him. Furthermore, Constantine made local officials enforce synodal decisions as law, so that by the early 4th century bishops were often the leaders of secular governments within Gallic cities. Constantine burned heretical books, exiled non-conformist priests and seized heretical properties to distribute to sects he favored. Retrospectively, modern Christians regard Constantine as a hero, but that is because the Christianity he favored became modern Christianity, while those he opposed were persecuted, some to the point of extinction as he wanted to create a uniform imperial religion.
Christianity flourished under Constantine’s patronage. At the same time Constantine forbid select pagan practices such as animal sacrifices and holy prostitutes. As silver devalued Constantine used every pretext to seize gold from pagans. Cities constructed basilicas, which were long, impressive Roman-style buildings for Christian meetings. Christians ran carehouses and ministered to the poor, endearing them to the lower classes. Unlike many other religions, Christianity believed in a universal god who appealed to all races, origins, and loved men and women, which meant it had broad appeal. Finally, Christians believed in redemption, which appealed to the Roman infamia. Under Roman law, prostitutes, athletes, actors and other infamous persons were infamous their entire lives, but the Christian message of redemption gave them hope.
In 380 Emperor Theodosius I issued the Edict of Thessalonica, making Christianity the state religion of the empire. Yet, by the end of the 4th century probably less than half of all Gauls were Christian. Christians clustered in cities whereas country-dwellers remained pagan. Incidentally, the very word ‘pagan’ comes from the Latin for ‘country-dweller’ because people in the countryside clung to their native beliefs long after the cities converted to Christianity. Without state support the imperial religious orders fell apart, but individuals retained their beliefs in the Gallo-Roman religion.
Christianity came late to Gaul, and took a long time to take root, but the early Gallic Christians were as devout as any other community throughout the empire. Their devotion and acceptance of martyrdom created a rich history and gave their leaders a measure of authority within the early church. Under Constantine at the Synod of Arelate, Gallic Christians helped shape early Christianity, and over the next 1,700 years France will become a cornerstone of the Catholic faith.
Next time, we’ll follow Constantine’s successors as they try to hold the empire together, even as intrigue and invasion threaten its collapse. Just another day in the Late Roman Empire.
– The Empire of the Tetrarchs: Imperial Pronouncements and Government AD 284-324, by Simon Corcoran
– The Roman Empire in Late Antiquity: A Political and Military History by Hugh Elton. 2018.
– Mary T. Boatwright, , Daniel J. Gargola,, and Richard J. A. Talbert, Romans : From Village to Empire2004
A Companion to the Roman Empire, Ed. David S Potter, 2006
Daily Life in Late Antiquity, Kristina Sessa, 2018
Slavery in the Late Roman World, AD 275–425 by Kyle Harper, 2011
A History of Gaul by Gregory of Tours
Church History by Eusebius
The Catholic Encyclopedia