Far from establishing an effective equality among the citizens, the Roman Empire, flinging wide the portals of the commonwealth, created a profound distinction between the honestiores (people of good standing and wealth) and the humiliores or tenuiores (the poor). While the political equality of all was proclaimed, inequality was introduced into the law, especially the penal law. Poverty rendered the title of Roman citizen almost illusory, and the great mass of the population was poor. The error of Greece, disdain for the workman and peasant, had not disappeared. At the outset, Christianity did nothing for the peasant; it even injured the rural population by instituting the episcopate, in the influence and benefits of which the towns alone shared. But it had a bearing of the first importance on the rehabilitation of the worker. One of the counsels given to the artisan by the Church was to pursue his trade with zest and application. The name of operarius was restored to honour; in their epitaphs the Christian workman and working woman were praised for having laboured well.
The workman honestly making his livelihood day by day, such indeed was the Christian ideal. For the primitive Church avarice was the supreme crime, and yet most often avarice was simple economy. Almsgiving was deemed a strict duty. Judaism had already made it an injunction. In the Psalms and prophetical books, the Ebion is the friend of God, and to give to the Ebion is to give to God. Almsgiving in Hebrew is a synonym of justice (sedaka). It was necessary to put a check on the eagerness of the pious to justify themselves in this manner; one of the precepts of Ouscha forbade them to give to the poor more than a fifth part of their means. Christianity, which was in its origin a society of Ebionim, fully accepted the idea that the rich man, if he fails to give away his superfluous wealth, is holding back the property of others. God gives his whole creation to all men. 'Imitate the equality of God, and none shall be poor,' we read in a text which once on a time was held to be sacred. The Church itself became a charitable institution. The love-feasts and the distributions made of surplus offerings served to feed travellers and the poor.
All along the line it was the rich man who was sacrificed. Few wealthy persons entered the Church, and their position therein was of the most difficult nature. The poor, proud of the Gospel promise, treated them with an air that might well seem arrogant. The rich man had to seek forgiveness for his fortune as a derogation to spirit of Christianity. Strictly speaking, the kingdom of God was closed to him, unless he purified his wealth with almsgiving, or expiated it by martyrdom. He was regarded as an egoist, who thrived by the sweat of others. Community of goods, if it had ever existed, did so no longer; what was called 'the apostolic life,' that is to say, the ideal of the primitive Church of Jerusalem, was a dream lost in the distant past; but the believer's property was only half his own. He had little hold on it, and in reality the Church participated in it as much as he did.
It was in the fourth century that the struggle grew great and infuriated. The wealthy classes, nearly all of whom were attached to the old worship, fought vigorously, but the poor won the day. In the East, where the action of Christianity was much more comprehensive, or rather less thwarted, than in the West, there were scarce any rich men left after the middle of the fifth century. Syria, and more especially Egypt, became countries of an entirely ecclesiastical and monastic cast. The church and the monastery—that is to say, the two forms of community—were the sole wealthy bodies. The Arab invaders, when they hurled themselves on these countries, found, after some battles on the frontier, that they had no more to do than drive a flock of sheep. Once their liberty of worship was assured, the Christians of the East were ready to submit to all tyrannies. In the West, the Teutonic invasions and other causes prevented the complete triumph of poverty. But human life was suspended for a thousand years. Industries on a large scale became impossible; by reason of the erroneous ideas current on usury, all banking and insurance business was put under a ban. The Jew alone could manipulate money; he was forced to grow rich, and then he was reproached for the fortune to which he had been condemned. Here was Christianity's greatest error. It did much worse than say to the poor: 'Enrich yourselves at the expense of the rich;' it said: 'Riches are nothing.' It cut away the very root of capital, it prohibited that most legitimate thing, interest on money, and, with the air of guaranteeing the rich man his wealth, it deprived him of its fruits, rendered it unproductive. The fatal terror diffused throughout the whole of mediaeval society by the alleged crime of usury, was the obstacle which, for more than ten centuries, hampered the progress of civilisation.
The total amount of industry in the world considerably diminished. Countries like Syria, where comfort brings less enjoyment than it costs trouble, and where, accordingly, slavery is a condition of material civilisation, were lowered a step in the human ladder. The ruins of antiquity remained as vestiges of a world vanished and misunderstood.