One of the oldest and most persistent views is that Christianity was the destroyer of the civilization within whose framework it grew up. That was, I suppose, the view of the Emperor Marcus, as far as he was aware of the presence of Christianity in his world. It was most emphatically and violently the view of his successor the Emperor Julian, and it was also the view of the English historian Gibbon, who recorded the decline and fall of the Roman Empire long after the event.
In the last chapter of Gibbon’s history there is one sentence in which he sums up the theme of the whole work. Looking back, he says: “I have described the triumph of barbarism and religion.” And, to understand his meaning, you have to turn from the middle of Chapter LXXI to the opening passage of Chapter I, that extraordinarily majestic description of the Roman Empire at peace in the age of the Antonines, in the second century after Christ. He starts you there, and at the end of the long story he says “I have described the triumph of barbarism and religion,” meaning that it was Christianity as well as barbarism which overthrew the civilization for which the Antonines stood.
One hesitates to question Gibbon’s authority, but I believe there is a fallacy in this view which vitiates the whole of it. Gibbon assumes that the Graeco-Roman civilization stood at its height in the age of the Antonines and that in tracing its decline from that moment he is tracing that decline from the beginning. Evidently, if you take that view, Christianity rises as the empire sinks, and the rise of Christianity is the fall of civilization. I think Gibbon’s initial error lies in supposing that the ancient civilization of the Graeco- Roman world began to decline in the second century after Christ and that the age of the Antonines was that civilization’s highest point. I think it really began to decline in the fifth century before Christ.