CHRISTIANITY IN THE ROMAN EMPIRE
Peter by Caravaggio Christianity emerged in the Roman Empire during a period of cultural conflict, economic dislocation, political change and migration from the countryside to the cities. Farming villages were being consolidated into large plantations causing a great deal of social dislocation as previously independent farmers were transformed into serflike tenant farmers.
While Roman authorities were promoting universal allegiance to an imperial power, early Christian missionaries provided al alternative of self-supporting communities whose aim was to create a kingdom of God.
Roman authorities for a time tolerated Christian sects and even protected St. Paul on one occasion when his life was in danger. Christians started to be persecuted when they refused to attend games (because they were held on the Sabbath), serve in the army and worship Roman gods. Subjects from all religions were expected to make sacrifices to the Roman gods and worship the Roman emperor as a god.
The ease of travel and the tolerance of new religions in the Roman Empire helped Christianity spread throughout the Middle East, Europe and northern Africa. Christianity end up preserving the legacy of Rome through its language, literature, scientific beliefs, architecture and laws.
Websites and Resources: Britannica on Christianity britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/115240/Christianity ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/christ.htm ; History of Christianity history-world.org/jesus_christ ; BBC on Christianity bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ;Wikipedia article on Christianity Wikipedia ; Historical Jesus Theories http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/theories.html ; Wikipedia article on Historical Jesus Wikipedia ; Britannica britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/303091/Jesus-Christ ; Early Christian Writing earlychristianwritings.com ;
Book: History of Christianity by Owen Chadwick; The Faith: A History of Christianity by Brian Moynahan
Persecution of Christians in Rome
Christian martyrs in the Colosseum Under Roman rule, Christians were denied business opportunities and status in society, prohibited from worshiping, attacked by mobs, persecuted, tortured and killed in organized campaigns by the Romans government. The Roman historian Tacitus accused them of "hatred of the human race." The Book of Revelation was written in response to the Roman persecutions.
Christians sometimes had their foreheads tattooed by Romans (some Christian slaves carried religion symbols to counteract images inscribed on them by their Roman masters) or were condemned to work in mines. In the worst cases, they were arrested and given the choice of recanting their faith or facing execution, with some being thrown to hungry lions in the Coliseum and other arenas.
Tacitus wrote Christians, "were nailed on crosses...sewn up in the skins of wild beasts, and exposed to the fury of dogs; others again, smeared over with combustible materials, were used as torches to illuminate the night."
Due to persecution, Christians met in secret primarily in the houses of wealthy members. This only seemed to raise the level of hostility against them. Because early Christians held services "behind closed doors" at night instead of during the day in open temples like the Roman they were accused of having orgies and engaging in cannibalism (partly from a misinterpretation of the practice of Communion).
Image of St. Paul in
Roman Christian catacomb The Romans demanded that their gods be worshipped, but at the same time they received the local gods. The reason the Jews and Christian were persecuted is that they presented a threat and refused to worship the Roman gods. Judaism and Christianity were not the only religions in the Roman empire. Mithraism, Manichaeism, Gnosticism and many others were practiced. There were lots of other strange religions around— Manichaeans, Donatist, Pelagians, Arians. Subjects from all religions were expected to make sacrifices to the Roman gods and worship the Roman emperor as a god.
Persecution of Christians and Roman Emperors
Nero began persecuting Christians on the grounds of disloyalty and blamed them for the great fire in Rome in A.D. 64, something which he was involved. Among those put to death under his rule, according to tradition, were the apostles Peter and Paul. Tacitus wrote that before the killing of Christians, Nero used them to amuse the people. Some were dressed in furs, to be killed by dogs. Others were crucified. Still others were set on fire . Although persecution was often cruel, the numbers have been wildly exaggerated. Most of the victims were bishops or other male leaders.
Peter, Paul, Simon Magus and Nero The height of the persecution of Christians was not during the reign of Nero, but much later. Domitian, Marcus Aurelius and Valerian all brutalized Christians after A.D. 150, when Christians held many high positions and presented a threat as "state within a state." In A.D. 202 the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus made baptism a criminal act. In A.D. 250 Emperor Decius increased the persecution of Christians.
Oppression of the Christians reached its peak under Emperor Diocletian, who ruled the Roman Empire in the early 300s and launched the “Great Persecution” in the year A.D. 284. It lasted until 311 and left 144,000 Egyptian Christians dead.
Believing that Christians profaned Roman pagan traditions, Diocletian ordered all Bibles burned and told priests to renounce their religion or face death. He prevented Christians from meeting together and holding government offices and denied them citizenship. A number of famous saints, including St. Nicholas, were persecuted and killed during his rule. Most of persecution was aimed at Christians in the East, where there were reports of Christians being stretched on racks and burned in public gatherings.
Victims of Roman Persecution
Faithful Unto Death by Herbert Schmalz (1897) St. Peter, St. Paul and St. James were among the first martyrs and saints. They were all said to have died violent deaths. St. James was one of Christ's 12 apostles. According to legend he sailed to Spain to preach the Gospel and then returned to Jerusalem, where he was beheaded in 44 AD. for preaching and converting on the orders of Herod Agrippa and was thought to have been buried in Jerusalem. Because St. James was the first apostle to be martyred after Christ's crucifixion, many consider him the most senior and most important of all the martyred disciple-saints of the Roman Catholic Church.
According to the traditional story, in 67 A.D. St. Peter was hung upside down and beheaded at the Circus Maximus during a wave of brutal anti-Christian persecution under Emperor Nero, after the burning of Rome. His brutal treatment was partly of the result of his request not to be crucified, because he didn’t consider himself worthy of the treatment of Jesus. After Peter died, it is said, his body was taken to a burial ground, situated where St. Peter's cathedral now stands. His body was entombed and later secretly worshiped.
It is not exactly clear what happened to St. Paul but it is believed that he was martyred in A.D. 64, the year that Nero blamed the great fire of Rome on the Jews. Before he was killed St. Paul invoked his right as a Roman citizen to be beheaded. His wish was granted. According to some, Paul was martyred at the site occupied by the Monastery of the Three Fountains in Rome. The Cathedral of St. John Lateran, the oldest Christian basilica in Rome, founded by Constantine on A.D. 314, contains reliquaries said to hold the heads of St. Paul and St. Peter and the chopped off finger doubting Thomas stuck in Jesus' wound.
The first saints were martyrs who were believed to have died for their faith and were immediately whisked off to heaven. Local congregation began venerating them. Pilgrims visited their burial sites and groups or towns adopted them as patron saints and prayed to them for help and miracles. Later saints included "confessors,” people who lived heroic lives but were not killed for their beliefs.
Christianity Takes Hold in Rome
Worship in the Catacombs of Saint Calixtus Despite the persecutions, Christianity managed to grow. Because Christianity was more open to people from all walks of life, it won more converts than Judaism. It also capitalized on discontent in the Roman Empire. Public distaste of emperor worship led to a deep interest across the Roman Empire in Christianity as well mystical cults from Greece and the Middle East.
Persecution helped strengthen Christianity by encouraging communication between churches to warn them of a common danger, by inspiring members to emulate the courage of the martyrs, and by fostering a bonding within and among Christian communities.
As time went on Rome became the center of the Catholic-Christian church. It was more centrally located and stable than Jerusalem. Christmas was invented in Rome, where celebrations—that grew out feasts for the Persian sun-god Mithras— honoring Christ's birthday date back to the forth century.
By the beginning of the A.D. 3rd century, there were about 220,000 Christians in the Roman Empire. At the beginning of the 4th century it had an estimated 6 million followers. After Diocletian abdicated in A.D. 305, Galerius became the leader in the East. In A.D. 311, he issued an edict permitting Christians to worship as they pleased.
Constantine the Great (A.D. 312-37)
Constantine the Great (born A.D. 280, ruled 312-37) combined Christianity, Roman law and Greek culture and Christianized the Roman Empire. He founded the great city of Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) at the Roman city of Byzantium. He slowly reunified the Roman Empire under a single rule, proclaimed a policy of toleration towards Christians, who had been brutally suppressed under the previous Roman Emperors Diocletian and Galerius.
Constantine I ruled jointly with Licinius (ruled A.D. 306-324) and as the sole ruler (ruled A.D. 324-337). He came to power after a victory in a Roman civil war and considered himself to be a successor of the "good emperors" of the second century. However he ruled as a despot, surrounding himself with pomp and spending a lot of money on military campaigns and monuments.
Constantine did make some reforms and was a great patron of the arts. He admitted bishops to his council and adopted Christian teachings on the treatment of slaves and prisoners. He changed the way the army was structured, shrinking the infantry and enlarging the cavalry, which some scholars claim changed the army as a whole and paved the way for the demise of Rome.
Book: Constantine the Great by Michael Grant
Constantine’s Early Life
Flavius Vakerus Constantinus was born in the Roman province of Mossia (later Serbia). His father Constantinus was a member of an important Roman family. His mother Helen was the daughter of tavern-inn owner. In A.D. 293, during the Tetrarchy (ruled A.D. 284-305), when the Roman Empire was split into four parts, Diocletian made Constantinus the emperor of Gaul and Britain. Young Constantine was kept in the court of Galerius, the eastern emperor, as a virtual prisoner.
In 305, Constantine escaped the court of Galerius and joined his father, who died a year later, making Constantine the emperor. For five years Constantine ruled peacefully over Gaul.
Constantine appears to have murdered his father in law, wife and son. He is said to have killed his wife by locking her in a steam bath, after he suspected that she had been unfaithful.
Constantine Becomes a Christian and Conquers Rome
Dream of the cross In 310, Constantine decided he was going to take Rome. He lead a small army to the Alps for an important battle outside Rome on the Tiber River against his rival Maxentius, the emperor of Rome. According to the historian Eusebius, while on his way to the battle, Constantine had a vision while staring up at the sky. He reportedly saw a flaming cross above the sun with the words " In hoc signo vinces " ("in this sign you will conquer"). The words " In hoc signo vinces " are featured on the label of Pall Mall cigarettes.
That night Constantine dreamed that Jesus told him to take the cross as his standard. Constantine ordered that new standards be made up, emblazoned with the cross. The next morning at the Battle of Milvian Bridge, on October 28, 312 he scored a victory against great odds against Maxentius, whose forces were swept into the Tiber, where Maxentius drowned.
Constantine attributed his military victory to the Christian faith and entered Rome with Maxentius’s head on a pike. He erected the triumphal Arch of Constantine in Rome and took control of the western half of the Roman Empire. Maxentius had been the strongest member of the Tetrarchy. By 323, Constantine had unified the Roman Empire and brought it under his control by defeating another rival, the eastern co-emperor Licinius.
The Arch of Constantine (between the Colosseum and Palantine Hill) is the largest of ancient Rome's arches. Situated within the same traffic circle that contains the Colosseum, the 66-foot-high arch is one of the best preserved ancient Roman monuments in Rome. Resembling a decorated version of Paris's Arc de Triumph, it was built to honor Constantine's victory over his rival Maxentinus a the Battle of Milvian Bridge in A.D. 315.
Constantine Christianizes the Roman Empire
Raphael's Constantine at Milvian Bridge Constantine was accepted as a Christian after the Battle of Milvian Bridge and is regarded as the first Christian emperor. He wasn’t baptized, however, until he was on his deathbed and called for a priest, shouting “Let there be no ambiguity.” In March 313, Constantine issued his famous Edict of Milan which gave every person the right to practice any religion they wanted. With the edict Constantine formally recognized Christianity and put an end to the persecution of Christians.
In 324, Constantine made Christianity the state religion: stating there was "No distinction between realm of Caesar and the realm of God." Under Constantine, pagan temples were expropriated, their treasuries were used to build churches and support clergy, and laws were adjusted for Christian ethics.
Before Constantine’s time Christians practiced their faith in private. Under Constantine, suddenly they could practice their faith openly. Constantine went on a church building spree, constructing churches from Jerusalem to Rome. His grandest church was the original St. Peters which was destroyed by fire.
Constantine Moves the Roman Capital to Constantinople
Raphael's Baptism of Constantine In A.D. 330, Constantine moved the main capital of the Roman empire from Rome to Byzantium, a former Greek city on the Bosporus. With the move from Rome to Byzantium (later Constantinople and Istanbul) the pagan Roman empire was transformed into the Christian Byzantine empire.
Byzantium was chosen as the capital of the Roman Empire because of its easily defended position, it nearness to the unstable borders along the Danube and the Middle East, and it strategic position on the major Oriental and Black Sea trade routes.
Constantine wanted to call the city New Rome but it became known as Constantinople (“the City of Constantine”). At considerable expense, Constantine began the process of transforming Constantinople into an imperial capital by building impressive buildings and monuments. The process was continued after his death by the Byzantine Emperors.
Ironically, Rome reached its greatest size under the reign of Constantine (A.D. 306-337), when it was a vast cosmopolitan walled city with more than one million people, including a variety of ethnic groups from the far corners of the empire. When Constantinople became the capital Rome itself began to decline. A sub-emperor remained in Rome for another century or so.
Christianity Advances Under Constantine
Bulgarian icon of
Constantine and Helena Constantine became like a Pope. He called the first general ecumenical council, in Nicaea in A.D. 325, to settle questions of doctrine. The most important decision was the adoption of Nicene creed: the assertion that the denial of Christ’s divinity was a heresy. This became the basis of all church doctrine from that time forward. Anyone who departed from the creed was branded a heretic. See Christianity
St. Helena, the mother of Constantine, became one of the most cherished saints in the Greek Orthodox church. On her first pilgrimage to the Holy Land she came back with the True Cross, Christ's crown of thorns and the lance used to pierce his skin before his crucifixion. And if that wasn't enough she identified Christ's tomb, which had been covered over by a temple dedicated to Aphrodite. The site is now occupied by the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.☼
Under Constantine, Christians who deviated from official church doctrine were branded as heretics and were given no support, were punished with penalties and were ordered to stop meeting.
After Constantine died in 337, the Roman Empire was divided up among his sons. Christianity spread gradually but inexorably through the Roman Empire and beyond its borders. Paganism was banned at the end of 4th century and restrictions were placed on Judaism. The power and the wealth of the church grew quickly with the help of faithful Christians who donated their land and other possessions. By the beginning of the 6th century Christianity had 34 million followers. They made up half of the Roman Empire.
First Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325
Constantine's conversion In A.D., 325, the Council of Nicaea, held in Nicaea (present-day Iznik In Turkey), inaugurating the ecumenical movement. Called by Constantine to combat heresy and settle questions of doctrine, it attracted thousands of priests, 318 bishops, two papal lieutenants and the Roman Emperor Constantine himself. The attendees discussed the Holy trinity and the eventual linkage of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, argued whether Jesus was truly divine or just a prophet (he was judged divine), and decided that Easter would be celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox.
The early councils were shaped largely by Christian scholars from Alexandria and their views were in line with modern Coptic doctrine that the God and Christ are of the same essence and that Christ’s divinity and humanity are unified.
Constantine made a grand entrance at the council. According to one witness he “proceeded through the midst of the assembly” and acted like a Pope. The greatest debate was between Arius, a priest from Alexandria, who argued that Christ was not the equal of God but was created by him, and Athanasius, the leader of the bishops to the west, who claimed that the Father and Son, where distinct, but hatched from the same substances and thus were equal. Arus’s argument was rejected in part because it opened to the door to polytheism and a doctrine was codified that stated Christ was “begotten not made” and that God and Christ were “of the same stuff.”
The Council of Nicaea gave us the Roman version of Christianity rather the Nestorian. The most important decision was the rejection of Arius’s arguments and the adoption of Nicene creed: the assertions that Christ’s divinity, the Virgin Birth and the Holy Trinity were truths and the denial of Christ’s divinity was a heresy. This became the basis of all church doctrine from that time forward. Anyone who departed from the creed was branded a heretic.
Constitutum Constantini (Donation of Constantine) and Its Unraveling as Forgery
Constantine and Pope Sylvester I The Pope's authority over all of Europe is based the Constitutum Constantini (the Donation of Constantine), a 3,000-word documented purportedly written by Constantine between A.D. 315 and 325 that legalized Christianity and gave the See of Rome and the pope spiritual power over the entire world in addition to political power over Europe. The document was not made public until the ninth century when it was used as evidence in dogma debates when the Christian church split into the Catholic church and Eastern Orthodox Church.
In the A.D. 8th century Pope Stephen II and the military leader Pepin (king of the Franks and father of Charlemagne) gained control of huge chunk of land in central Italy, that included Rome and Ravenna, by using the Constitutum Constantini . The chunk of land, known as the Patrimony of St. Peter, was ruled by the popes for most of the next 11 centuries.
The Constitutum Constantini (the Donation of Constantine) was later revealed to be, in the words of Voltaire, the "boldest and the most magnificent forgery." One of the documents flaws was that it gave Rome authority in New Rome (Constantinople) at least a decade before the city was founded.
Constantine Byzantine mosaic In 1440,the Constitutum Constantini was labeled a fake by Lorenzo Valla who was called into settle a dispute between King Alfonos and Pope Eugenius IV over who had secular authority over Italy. Valla showed the Constitutum Constantini was a fake. An authority on Latin, Valla pointed out that a diadem in Constantine's time was not a gold crown as the the Constitutum Constantini claimed but was coarse cloth and the word "tiara" was not even in use at the time the document was said to have been written. A number of other words in it were not used in Constantine's time.
Valla was later convicted of heresy for pointing out the "Apostle's Creed" could not have been composed by the Twelve Apostles. He was convicted on eight counts and probably would have been burned at the stake were it not for his patron King Alfonso. Valla's criticism of the Bible itself were not well received either.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum
Text Sources: World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Symbols of Catholicism by Dom Robert Le Gall, Abbot of Kergonan (Barnes & Noble, 2000); Encyclopedia of the World Cultures edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Most of the information about Greco-Roman science, geography, medicine, time, sculpture and drama was taken from "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. Most of the information about Greek everyday life was taken from a book entitled "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum [||].
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated January 2012