ROMAN EMPIRE. The Roman Empire is the empire of Christian history, the societal matrix within which the Church first appeared and matured, and the government whose institutions Christianity took over and adapted to its own use in ways that still govern its life today. From the accession of Augustus Caesar (31 B.C.) to the death of Theodosius I (A.D. 395), the entire Mediterranean basin lived under one ruler, one government, and one law, the pax romana (q.v.), an achievement never since equaled. This unity in diversity provided the early Church with an earthly image of its own vocation to universality, the world as one city (cosmopolis), which deeply impressed the Church’s self-understanding and mission.
The political structure of the Empire, its division into “dioceses” and provinces, was mirrored in the Church’s development of primacy and the leading roles it bestowed on the patriarchates (qq.v.) and metropolitanates. The influence of the political capital and largest city, Rome, was reflected in the leadership exercised, as a matter of assumed right, by the Christian bishops of Rome in the early Christian centuries, a role later transferred-at least in part-to the new capital, Constantinople (q.v.). The function of the emperor as the focal point of unity in the pagan world and the embodiment of the state’s divinity, was carried over to the role of the Byzantine Basileus in the Christian Empire and Church, and still later-albeit in attenuated form-to the role of the tsars in the Orthodox oikoumene (q.v.). Clearly, there is much in this inheritance that must be reckoned as a permanent feature of the historical Church. Equally, however, it has given rise to problems that constitute the heart of the current difficulties confronting both the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Church (q.v.).