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The Spread and Triumph of Christianity

In three centuries, Christianity developed from a small sect of a numerically insignificant old religion to the dominant intellectual, social, and cultural force of the Mediterranean world. It did so despite official repression and stiff competition from other systems of belief. Against these foes Christianity deployed a strong sense of community, outstanding intellectual rigor, and an unwillingness to accept anything but total conquest of the world it encountered. Bishops, hermits, and other Christian leaders attracted awe and respect from inside and outside their communities, and even bloody persecution created martyrs who evoked curiosity at the very least. The Christians' fortunes changed dramatically during the reign of Constantine (r. 306-337), who in 313 replaced persecution with legal equality. Christian leaders attained legal authority in their communities, supplementing what they had accomplished with their charisma. But Christians had to contend with the problem of being accepted in a world whose temptations they were supposed to avoid.

The Transformation of The Roman Empire

Long dismissed as solely a period of transition and collapse, Late Antiquity (roughly 300-700) has recently become an era which has attracted great interest among scholars stressing the distinctiveness of these centuries that were neither classical nor medieval. Late Antiquity began with the reign of two powerful emperors, Diocletian (r. 284-305) and Constantine (r. 306-337), who stabilized the Roman Empire and reshaped it in a bureaucratic and militarized direction. Constantine’s conversion to Christianity began the process which fully Christianized the Roman world by the year 400. Other achievements of these two emperors, such as rule by tetrarchy and the founding of Constantinople, set the Eastern and Western Empires upon divergent paths. After Constantine’s death the entire Empire would come under the rule of a single emperor only once more. The richer Eastern Empire thrived and reached an apex of power under Justinian (r. 527-565), the greatest ruler of Late Antiquity, who tried to reconquer the western Mediterranean, a goal his successors abandoned. Greek replaced Latin as the language of culture and the Eastern Roman Empire slowly became the Byzantine Empire, while in the Latin-speaking West, barbarian kingdoms emerged as powerful political entities.

Islam and the Arabs

Although the Arabs had been attested since the Romans first visited the Middle East, most of their contemporaries easily dismissed them as an insignificant people given to raiding and feuding with each other. A book and an idea changed all this and galvanized them into a people that would change the world. In 610 an Arab named Muhammad began to tell people about the divine revelations he was receiving in a cave near his native town of Mecca. The messages formed the Qur'an, which Muslims believe is the Word of God. With the Qu'ran came the idea that all who accepted Islam formed a single community, the Umma, irrespective of family, locality, or nationality. By the time of Muhammad's death in 632, his followers had come to dominate Arabia. Muhammad's successors, the caliphs, led further conquests: Syria, Persia, Egypt, North Africa, and Spain were all under Muslim rule.

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