Today, the role of leaders and their influence on the moral tone and direction of a nation is front page news and part of national conversations. This is not new and questions about the role of national leadership and its connection to the gospel have also been very prominent in the past. However, during the first three centuries of Christian history, the Christian community had very little influence in the corridors of power and was subject to periods of murderous persecution.
Its very origins had been in the actions of a person who had suffered a humiliating death at the hands of influential elites and many of its earliest members came from the most marginalized sections of society.
Indeed, Paul wrote tellingly: “Few of you were wise by human standards, few were mighty, few were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to confound the wise; God has chosen what is weak in the world to confound the strong; God has chosen what is low and despised in the world, the things that are not, to bring to nothing those that are” (1 Corinthians 1:26-8 NRSV).
This began to change in the fourth century when the Roman Empire officially became Christian. From this period, rulers’ attitudes towards the faith played an increasing role in the spread of Christianity, and this had both positive and negative effects. The positive included ending persecution and supporting Christian communities. The negative included the co-opting of – what had once been – a radical, counter-cultural community as an arm of the state. The mixed impact of that is still with us.
We often associate this with the changes that took place within the Roman Empire and then spread as (so-called) barbarian successor states to Rome, Western Europe, converted and their kings and queens adopted ( then supported) the Christian faith. In fact, early Christian missionaries often deliberately targeted the royal courts of these kingdoms, due to their success working with Roman imperial authorities after the empire’s conversion to the faith.
However, this process did not stop there and it did not start there. In the east, the expansion of the faith beyond the borders of the Roman Empire had occurred much earlier, and there too it had involved the actions of rulers who converted.
Armenia shows the way
While most people have heard of Roman Emperor Constantine the Great (ruling 306-37), the ruler of the Kingdom of Armenia converted long before the official conversion of the Roman Empire.
In the Roman Empire, Constantine the Great’s Edict of Milan (313) ended the persecution of Christians and decriminalized Christian worship. This edict effectively made the empire officially neutral with respect to religious worship and did not make Christianity the official imperial religion. This did not happen until the Edict of Thessalonica of 380. Between 313 and 380 the faith’s profile, status and influence grew and accelerated, but it was not the official state religion only decades after the reign of Constantine.
This place in history belongs to Armenia – located in the south of the great Caucasus mountain range. While the extent of this kingdom has fluctuated greatly over time, at its height, Armenian territory stretched from the central-southern Black Sea coast to the Caspian Sea; and from the Mediterranean to Lake Urmia in present-day Iran.
Here the key figure was Tiridates III (king 298-c. 330). In 301, he proclaimed Christianity as the state religion of Armenia, making the Armenian Kingdom the first state to officially embrace Christianity.
Tiridates III was the son of Khosrov II of Armenia, who was assassinated in 252. Armenia was located in a disputed border area between the Roman Empire and the Parthian (then Sasanian) Empire located in modern Iran. Khosrov had been assassinated by a Parthian agent. Following this, the baby Tiridates was sent to Rome where he was under imperial protection (and patronage) and was educated in the Roman way.
When Tiridates became king, he continued the state’s traditional Zoroastrian faith. However, this changed drastically in 301 when he converted to Christianity. The reasons for this are shrouded in legend. One account, based on Agathangelos’ fifth-century work, “The History of the Armenians”, involves the testimony to the king of the son of his father’s assassin.
This man, according to the story, had converted to Christianity and was remorseful about his father’s deed. Her prayers cured the king when he fell ill. The same tradition weaves into a love interest, with Tiridates attracted to a beautiful Christian woman who had fled the persecution of Christians occurring in the Roman Empire under Emperor Diocletian (ruled 284-305).
Modern historians have suggested that this decision may have been partly motivated by opposition to the Sasanian Empire and as a means of challenging their rulers and differentiating Armenia from the Sasanian regime and its influence. Whatever the truth, this was the beginning of the Armenian Apostolic Church, part of the Eastern Orthodox Church and one of the oldest Christian institutions in the world.
Aksum Africa Tracking
After Armenia, the next kingdom to convert was in Africa. Christianity was not brought to Ethiopia by European missionaries (unlike many other African countries) at much later periods in history. Instead, King Ezana II (possibly ruling 320s-360s), King of Aksum (or Axum) converted to Christianity around 340 and the country has since adopted a form of Orthodox Christianity as its religion .
While that was four decades later than Armenia, it still took about forty years before the Roman Empire officially became Christian. It should be noted that there are different timelines regarding this king and this event.
Tradition states that this conversion occurred through Ezana’s Greek slave teacher, Frumentius. Frumentius hailed from the Phoenician city of Tire (in modern Lebanon) and was enslaved while traveling along the Red Sea coast. He became counselor at the court of Axum and, as such, tutor to Ezana, when he was crown prince.
Ezana bore the royal title of “King of Saba and Salhen, Himyar and Dhu-Raydan” (regions of Yemen over which the kings of Aksum claimed the right to rule). Aksum was located in the northern highlands of Ethiopia in the modern regions of Eritrea and Tigray.
The origins of the Kingdom of Aksum are mysterious, but some evidence suggests that migrants from the Kingdom of Sheba – across the Red Sea in the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula – may have migrated into the region in the first millennium BC. Our era.
This movement seems to have influenced the culture of Aksum and was reflected in the expansive royal titles of its rulers. During Ezana’s time, the kingdom dominated much of the Red Sea coast of what is now Djibouti and Somalia.
The kingdom was strategically positioned at an advantageous location, at the crossroads of trade routes that ran from the East African coast to the interior of the continent. He exported gold and ivory, as well as turtle shells, rhino horns, frankincense, myrrh, emeralds, salt, and slaves.
Alongside Constantine the Great of Rome and Tiridates of Armenia, King Ezana was one of the first rulers to convert to Christianity and he clearly marked this on his coinage. Ezana signaled his newfound faith through the crosses he ordered to appear on Aksumite coins (mostly gold or silver).
The cross’s association with imperial rule made it politically, as well as religiously, highly palatable to rulers who lived beyond the empire’s borders (or who were its successors when it collapsed in West), when they converted to Christianity. When the cross appeared on Aksum coins, it was the first time the Christian cross had appeared on coinage. Africa has led the way in this area.
Aksumite rulers also promoted Christianity through military force. In the sixth century, King Kaleb sent an army across the Red Sea to subdue the Yemenis. They became his vassals for several decades. This action was supported by the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine) in retaliation for Yemen’s persecution of Christians. It’s a glimpse of how conversion could impact foreign policy – even military action – as well as faith.
The royal conversion was very important to defend and spread the faith. It was also complicated and controversial in some of its effects, as time would reveal. As a result, a marginalized faith quickly became the faith of choice for rulers in many nations after the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West. This was to have far-reaching consequences for the future of Christianity in these emerging nations, which still influence culture and politics in the 21st century.
Martyn Whittock is an Evangelical historian and a licensed lay minister in the Church of England. Author or co-author of fifty-four books, his work covers a wide range of historical and theological themes. Additionally, as a commentator and columnist, he has written for several print and online news platforms; has been interviewed on radio and television exploring the interplay of faith and politics; appeared on Sky News to discuss political events in the United States; and was recently interviewed about the war in Ukraine, including its religious dimensions. His most recent books include: The Secret History of Soviet Russia’s Police State (2020), Daughters of Eve (2021), Jesus the Unauthorized Biography (2021), The End Times, Again? (2021) and The Story of the Cross (2021). He is also interested in early medieval society, having written several books on this period of history.