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Victim or aggressor – Christianity in ancient Rome

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Tombstone of a certain Licinia Amias
One of the oldest examples of Christian symbolism in Rome: the tombstone of a certain Licinia Amias. The stele dates from the very beginning of the 3rd century CE. and combines pagan and Christian elements. On the one hand, we have the letters MD which refer to "Diis Manibus" - good spirits of the dead (and therefore an element of traditional pagan beliefs) and early Christian symbols - a fish and an anchor. The stele shows how much cultural codes were mixed at that time - the old ones had not yet been abandoned and were seamlessly combined with the new ones. The stele is in the museum at the Baths of Diocletian in Rome | Photo: Michał Kubicz

In the popular consciousness, there are only two facts in the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity: first, the persecution of Christians (especially during the reign of Nero in the 1st century CE and Diocletian in the early 4th century), and then the adoption of Christianity by Constantine the Great, who made the whole the empire had converted to a new faith. The triumph of Christianity seems as sudden as it is obvious and historically just.

And yet the ancient reality is fascinating and complicated, and most importantly – stubbornly eludes any simplification. Although the baptism of Constantine is a highly symbolic event, it was neither the date of the end of pagan Rome nor the beginning of Christian Rome. Both realities – pagan and Christian – coexisted long before the reign of Constantine the Great and long after him.

In the first century, Christianity only very slowly gained its first foothold in Rome (the city). In the second century, there were probably more Christians, but they were still only a margin of the religious capital of the Empire. It should be assumed that even if there were any representatives of the upper classes among Christians, they were sporadic cases.

In the traditional Roman mentality, religion (both native and foreign cults) has always occupied an important place. It was the so-called “religion”. But the same Romans fought very hard against everything they considered superstition – various strange “shamanic” practices, witchcraft, sorcery, etc. It was the so-called “superstitio”. In this early period, Christianity was regarded as such superstition, tolerated at best, and sometimes actively suppressed (why the Romans misunderstood the message of the Christian faith is a topic for another discussion). The situation slowly began to change only in the 3rd century CE, when the followers of Christianity were increasing and their perception by the rest of society changed. Can it be expressed in numbers? Unfortunately, there is no reliable data to determine the increase in the number of Christian communities. It is worth noting, however, that in the 3rd century the new faith ceased to be the domain of the lower social strata, and slowly began to enter the minds of the elites. Then the first senators declaring themselves to be Christians appeared, but they were still quite few. Even at the beginning of the fourth century, the success of Christianity in Rome itself seemed unlikely. The persecution initiated by the emperor Diocletian in 303 suggests that the followers of Christ were still a definite minority, otherwise the scale of persecution would be socially unacceptable.

When Constantine the Great, after his victory over Maxentius in the Battle of the Milvian Bridge (312), seized power over Rome, he opened a new chapter in Christianity. But between the persecution under Diocletian and the acceptance of Christianity by Constantine, i.e. for only 9 years, was there any spectacular increase in the number of Christians? Unlikely. Constantine declared support for the Christian communities, but the religious landscape of Rome remained unchanged. Yet something has changed: the status of the new religion. It was no longer “superstitio” – superstition. Now it has become a full-fledged cult (“religion”) on a par with other cults practiced in Rome and throughout the state. Perhaps even more – Constantine granted the Christian communities and clergy certain privileges that were not something common to the Roman state.

Did Constantine think of making Christianity the sole religion of Rome? I don’t think so. Previously, it had already happened that a given ruler showed particular attachment to a certain cult and favored its followers, and yet it did not cause a significant change in Roman society. An example is the emperor Elagabalus or the introduction of the cult of Sol Invictus by Aurelian. Rather, it seems to me that, like his predecessors, Constantine intended only to place a new creed alongside existing ones, not to replace them. How do you know that? In his time, there were no significant actions that would undermine the importance of pagan cults. Moreover, Constantine still held the position of pontifex maximus (although he did not personally sacrifice, but appointed a deputy for this purpose) and consulted the haruspices who examined the entrails of sacrificial animals. Constantine also did not close any pagan temple in Rome, and he built churches only on the outskirts of the city or even outside its walls. In his time, Rome was still a city with a thoroughly pagan image. It is known that at the beginning of the 4th century, there were only 75 Christian clergymen in the entire city of then about a million inhabitants. For comparison, in the Archdiocese of Warsaw (1,425,000 believers) in 2017 there were 1,256 clergy. This gives some idea of ​​the still relatively small extent of the new faith in Rome.

In the following years, little changed, although, of course, thanks to state money and official support officially declared by the imperial family, the Christian circles quickly gained influence, and the pagan ones – gave way to them. It must have been a fascinating time in Roman history – two worlds, two realities coexisting. It was a period of shaky balance between the “old” and the “new”. This can be seen on the example of art, especially on the bas-reliefs of sarcophagi, where elements characteristic of paganism are seamlessly combined with Christian symbolism. Someone may be surprised by such a mix of symbolism, but at that time Christianity had not yet developed its own fixed iconography in art, so for obvious reasons, fixed pagan patterns were used. But this is not the only reason: another is the fact that the pagan religion was so deeply intertwined with the Roman statehood that abandoning its symbolism by people adopting Christianity was not possible overnight – after all, everything that decided that “Rome was Rome, and the Romans the Romans” was somehow associated with the cults of ancient gods – from the beginnings of the city (the role of Venus and Mars), through making state decisions (auspices and examining the will of the gods), chariot races (religious setting), games (derived from ancient funeral rituals), triumphal symbolism (giving the spoils of war to Jupiter on the Capitol), imperial cult (rituals towards the emperor’s house chelars), to widely understood folk rituals dating back to agricultural times. How were the Romans of that time supposed to renounce all this in an instant by being baptized? How were they to reject everything that made them Romans? Hence the coexistence of both worlds, which accompanied the Romans for a very long time…

The balance of the Christian and pagan worlds did not mean friendship. On the contrary – during this period of coexistence, both circles accused each other of professing harmful “superstition”. But the scales quickly tipped in favor of the Christians. Over the course of the 4th century, the influence of pagan circles decreased significantly, and the legislation of successive emperors systematically limited pagan practices, which, although still continued, were increasingly unwelcome by the authorities. Gradually, Constantine’s successors withdrew the funding of pagan cults, removed pagan symbolism from public places (an example of the statue of Victoria removed from the Curia building), and finally banned the practice of old cults, and closed temples.

But even this definitive end of paganism did not come suddenly – the old cults died out slowly. Already in the middle of the 4th century, the rituals of the Arwal brothers ceased, but pagan priest-senators are still known at the end of the 4th century! Even in the fifth century, there was a festival in honor of Osiris! Even at the beginning of the 5th century, in the face of the sack of Rome by the barbarians, the old rites were performed! However, this does not change the general fact that over the course of one century, that is, basically during the lifetime of ONE GENERATION, the religion whose adherents were persecuted became dominant and went on the offensive itself, persecuting the old cults! The roles turned diametrically… In the end, Christianity triumphed and completely supplanted previous beliefs.

ONE GENERATION witnessed the old and the new at the same time.

And here I return to the question posed at the beginning. Victim or aggressor? I don’t want to get into a religious debate because I don’t know anything about it, but I have an observation. In terms of expansion, Christianity has shown energy previously unknown. In the face of this vitality, the old pagan religion turned out to be completely defenseless. Why did this happen? I think it was one very important thing. Well, in the ancient world, religion, even the official (state) one, was open to other religions. In the ancient Roman world, the temple of Jupiter could stand next to the synagogue on one side, and right next to the slightly more hidden mithraeum, and it didn’t offend anyone. Processions of Isis worshipers passed through the city alongside processions in honor of Venus. Although the Romans had their own pantheon of deities, they were surprisingly easy to adopt and accept other cults. Of course, their tolerance was not absolute: as I mentioned – they suppressed the “superstitio” (to which Christianity was also included for quite a long time), and periodically also cults that, in their opinion, threatened the state order (e.g. during the Republic – the cult of Bacchus). But once a denomination gained its approval, it coexisted with others. Different cults competed with each other, but in this “religious market” there was room for every faith. Meanwhile, Christianity was different – when it gained a certificate of approval from the authorities during the reign of Constantine, it made perfect use of its 5 minutes. In retrospect, it can be said that as soon as Christianity got the state’s corrective license and ceased to be considered a “superstitio”, it did not join the game on an equal footing with other religions respected by the state under the existing rules, it only knocked over the table at which other religions were playing. It introduced its own rules, according to which there was no place for other faiths. A trace of this is the imperial correspondence, in which officials appeal to the emperors to guarantee mutual respect for religions, and the reply of the bishops, who categorically protest to the emperor: there should be only one religion, and the others should be eradicated.

Why was this a feature of Christianity at that time? I don’t know. Perhaps it was a way of the Christian clergy’s collective abreaction for the persecution from the times of Diocletian, probably still alive in the minds of the hierarchs for many decades? Be that as it may, I do not think that by announcing that “under the sign of the cross” he had won the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, Constantine the Great was aware that he had unleashed forces that were to definitively change the image of the Roman Empire, not only religiously, but also culturally, socially and politically.

The pagan cults lost. Why? Maybe because they were not prepared to play on the rules imposed by Christianity when it became their equal partner? Maybe because the monopoly of one religion was previously unknown in the ancient world (apart from Judaism, which was not as expansive as Christianity) and no one expected that Christians would impose a vision of one state cult on everyone?

One thing is certain: the same laws that govern species in nature can be applied to religion – the weaker obey the stronger. Here, the pagan cults’ unpreparedness to confront a dynamic and expansive adversary took revenge on them cruelly.

Author: Michał Kubicz - sekrety Rzymu (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)

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