As the church grew in numbers through the fourth and early fifth centuries, so it grew in endowment and in its capacity to spend and to play a major role in urban life. As so often, the pace of change is rarely well documented and must have been very different in different cities. The Roman see was wealthy from an early date, and in the mid third century already supported 154 clergy and over 1500 widows and poor people; it was further enormously enriched by Constantine, who provided gifts worth over 400 pounds of gold a year. It is therefore no surprise that the luxurious lifestyle of Rome’s fourth-century bishops came in for severe censure from Ammianus.(70)
However, the wealth of the Roman see was very exceptional, and many churches remained poorly endowed into the fifth century and beyond. For instance, the fortunes of the needy North African bishopric of Thagaste were transformed in the early fifth century by a single windfall, the pious gifts of two visiting aristocrats, Melania and Pinianus; but Thagaste had to protect its benefactors carefully against the attempts of other jealous sees to milk them.(71) Even in a great city like Antioch, likely to attract imperial patronage, the church (if we are to believe John Chrysostom) was in the second half of the fourth century still not as well-endowed as some individual Antiochene families.
However, though there were yet wealthier landowners, the scale of operations that the Antiochene church was able to maintain shows beyond doubt that it had a very considerable income at its disposal and was spending it not only on its clergy but also on extensive poor-relief. In Chrysostom’s time it was apparently helping to support 3000 widows and virgins, as well as other members of the poor.(72) On a smaller scale, such charitable giving had clearly become the norm in the cities of the empire by the mid fourth century, since the pagan Julian paid Christianity the compliment of attempting to set up a rival pagan system of poor-relief(Jul. Ep. 22).
As the churches of the empire very gradually became established in power, status and wealth, so they increasingly attracted men of rank into the episcopate. When in 374 Ambrose, the son of a praetorian prefect and himself the governor of the province of Aemilia and Liguria, was selected as bishop of Milan, this was still an unusual development; but in the late fourth century and through the fifth, similar career patterns (from the high-ranking secular aristocracy straight into the episcopate) became increasingly common in east and west alike.
Gradually, too, as his flock and endowments grew and as emperors came to see their role increasingly in Christian terms, the power and influence of the bishop increased, and he became accepted as the defender and representative of his community When in 387 the people of Antioch faced the possibility of dreadful retribution, following a riot and the destruction of the imperial statues, it was the bishop and the monks, rather than the local curiales, who were most effective in obtaining imperial clemency.(73)
By about 400 we are beginning to see a world that will be familiar to historians for the whole Middle Ages (and indeed beyond), a world in which the cathedral and the lοcal saints were an established and central part of city life, and in which aristocratic bishops were either the most powerful and wealthy citizens, or were at least amongst the very top members of urban society. The creation of this new structure within the cities of the fourth century was to prove not only durable, but also, as it happens, fundamental to the very survival of towns in the difficult centuries ahead. For, as many of the structures of Roman power and Roman society disappeared between the fifth century and the seventh in a period of great political and economic upheaval, so the church remained remarkably resilient as an institution. It kept much of its wealth and it kept its urban roots; consequently, when other elements of society that helped sustain town life were either disappearing or were greatly attenuated, the urban church and the urban bishop often remained as solid foundations to the continuity of city life.