Christianity of the fourth and fifth centuries took the carrot and stick approach of the Roman Empire, but applied it to more dogmatic ends. Rome was ruthless to its enemies, and yet a conquered people if they were willing to submit gained great prosperity and stability by becoming a part of the Empire. Within the Empire, there were profound moral and spiritual philosophies which were carryovers from the Hellenism of the Alexandrian Age. However, the Empire was built upon conquest and slavery.
Then Constantine legalized Christianity. Carrying on the moral tradition of Stoicism (Natural Law), Christians began to counter some of the atrocities of Roman culture, but not very quickly and adding some of their own atrocities in the process. In the immediate, all the Catholics did was exchange a Roman elite for a church orthodoxy elite, and the politics were no less treacherous. Still, many Christian preachers spoke of ideals that were very attractive to the common person (even though the church often didn’t live up to those ideals).
Christians turned out to be very bad administrators of the Roman Empire and they (along with destabilizing influx of Germans) helped run it into the ground, but for the common person life was in some ways easier with Roman authority waning. The Christians eventually replaced slavery with serfdom which was moderately better, and more importantly they ended the gladiatorial fights. In the Christianized Middle Ages, life was relatively good as long as you were cautiously submissive to those who ruled over you and never questioned orthodoxy. The intellectual, scientific, and religious greatness of Rome was gone, but the simple agrarian life of serfdom wasn’t too bad except for the constant warring of the fiefdoms.
Despite Christianity’s idealizations of God’s love and grace, the Catholic church was often more brutally intolerant than was the Pagan Roman Empire. For certain, the Pagan Romans never came close to persecuting Christians to the degree that the Catholic church did. The Catholic Church had less power than the Roman Empire and so they had to use what power they had more forcefully. A Roman citizen had great freedom, but absolute conformity was demanded of the Catholic. It wasn’t an age of morality…. not what we’d call morality in the modern world. Any means were considered justified if they served the ends demanded by the church. Many of the early church fathers admitted to and advocated lying and deceit if it would help to convert people and help maintain the authority of the church. Of course, lying and deceit were the least worse activities the church was involved with.
One seeming advantage of the Fall of the Roman Empire was the return to city-states. Greek thought arose out of city-states and out of that Hellenism was born. Later on in Europe, the Italian city-states for instance led to a renewed cultural creativity. Maybe imperialism is always untenable in the long run, but sadly when if fails it leads to truly oppressive regimes such as the Catholic church. The one truly good thing the Romans gave was systematization of Hellenistic philosophies. It was because Rome spread Hellenistic ideas so widely that the Catholic church wasn’t able to entirely wipe it all out.
The strange thing is that Hellenism survived in the Eastern Empire much longer. I’m not sure why that was. Was the Eastern Orthodox church less oppressive or just less powerful? What makes the Catholic church so unique in its early brutality? Greek thought arose out of a diversity of thinking. The Alexandrian Age brought that diversity into an even larger context of cultures. Even the Romans, despite their legalistic systematizing, encouraged great diversity in the early centuries of their rule. Why did that diversity start to wane and why did this encourage a social system like that of Catholicism in the fourth and fifth centuries? How could the greatness of a thousand years of Graeco-Roman brilliance fall under the ignorant tyranny of the early Catholic church?
The funny thing is that Christians were ruling the Empire when Rome was sacked and it was sacked by Christians. The Catholic church had started to get heavy-handed in its persecutions near the end of the fourth century. One of the heresies was Arianism. The German Visigoths had been converted to Arianism and they came in and kicked the Catholic Empire in the balls. When you think about it, the German Christians kept on causing problems for many centuries to come. Its interesting that Protestantism later arose where the heretical Christians last took refuge. And what is even more interesting is the era of the return of the popularity of heretical thought starting around the twelfth century which led to the Reformation and the Renaissance. Diversity and cultural creativity decreased as the power of Catholicism increased, and then diversity and cultural creativity increased as the power of Catholicism decreased.