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B - 10 : Christianity and Inflation

Over the last few days, we have seen how Christianity slowly spread through the Roman empire. In 313 AD Emperor Constantine the Great declared official tolerance for Christians in his Edict of Milan. According to some estimates, Christians made up only 10% of Rome’s population in 300 AB. 80 years later, Christianity was Rome’s official state religion. How did this happen?

Helena, Constantine’s Christian mother

Certainly, Constantine’s mother Helena, a devout Christian early on, had a big influence. She would later pilgrim to Palestine and order the building of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on the site where Jesus was crucified. She also brought the Holy Stairs from Pompeius’ palace in Jerusalem to Rome (they are still there in the Lateran church).

Contemporary marble bust of Constantine the Great

But equally important was the miserable state of Rome’s finances by the time Constantine ascended to the throne. The empire was basically bankrupt due to centuries of overspending. The Roman budget had three main drivers: the Roman Army, the grain supply and the Emperor’s Houshold (palaces and staff).

Since Augustus, the Roman army had almost doubled from 250’000 to 400’000 effectives. However, by 400 AD only 100’000 were actually fighting troups. 300’000 were administrative staff. The fighting strength had dropped from 150’000 to 100’000 legionnaires. The army had become expensive but lost effectiveness.

To finance their constant overspending, Roman Emperors started to dilute the currency. By 300 AD the denerius had no silver left. It was a pure copper currency.

Price inflation during the Roman Empire

The currency dilution led to rampant inflation which was visible in the price of wheat (there are only few goods with complete price data). The dilution of the denarius also caused a big problem for the Roman Treasury. Roman soldiers wanted to be paid in precious metals, specifically the 40’000 Gothic warriors which formed the core of Constantine’s army - yes the same guys who 150 years later invaded and toppled the western part of the empire when the then emporer failed to pay.

Gothic cavalery and infantry 350 AD

Constantine thus had every reason to align himself with the Christian population which was concentrated in Rome’s richest agricultural provinces and important towns. His alignment allowed him to raise funds from this community. It also open the door to go after other religion’s wealth. Anyone who wanted to settle in Constantinopel, the emperor’s new capital, had to convert to Christianity. Thus temples had to close. Their treasures were transferred to the Imperial Treasury. Closing temples became a large source of income for Roman Emperors. By 380 AD, when Christianity became the official state religion, the treasures in all temples were seized. Since early Christian churches were a modest affairs, the gold, silver and precious stones sll ended up in the Imperial Treasury. The Roman Empire would last another 100 years. Then it definitely run out of funds

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