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Christianization of ancient Rome

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Jean-Léon Gérôme, The Christian Martyrs' Last Prayer
Jean-Léon Gérôme, The Christian Martyrs' Last Prayer

The process of Christianization of the Roman Empire from the birth of Christ to 476 CE, was very important for the state. It is possible that Christianity largely destabilized Rome’s political life and led to its downfall. Christianity arose in the first half of the 1st century CE in the Roman province of Judea among the followers of Judaism, as a result of the activity of Jesus of Nazareth.

Christianity was very weak and strongly dependent on Judaism in the 1st century CE. As it is commonly known, this religion is entirely based on the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, who is to redeem the sins of all the people. His peaceful attitude, against all violence, provoked hostility and misunderstanding among the Jews. Jews, as they had been in the “Roman captivity” since the death of Herod the Great wanted to regain independence through the uprising. However, Christ’s views on discontinuation of all fights and love of one’s neighbour clearly violated Jewish values. Perceived as a “heretic and an inciter”, he was handed over to the Roman authorities, who forced by the aristocracy of Jerusalem, sentenced him to be crucified.

Herod the Great, , King of Judea. At the end of 40 BCE, he was appointed the king of Judea by the Roman Senate. In the conflict between Octavian and Antonius, he took the side of the latter, but after his defeat at Actium, he promised Octavian loyalty, and thus he confirmed his power.

Pontius Pilate personally was reluctant to such an idea to resolve the dispute, but the threat uprising prompted him to accept the proposal of Jewish authorities. The figure of Christ suffering on the cross found many followers initially mainly in the Jewish province itself. After the death of Jesus, Christ’s teachings were continued by his disciples, who were called the apostles. They spread the teaching of Christ and his legend by preaching the Gospel (meaning good news), or the resurrection of the Lord. With the spread of the faith in other regions, the followers of Jesus began to be called Christians.

The spread of new faith was initially associated with the existing Jewish diaspora. Suppression of two Jewish uprisings in the 1st and 2nd century CE led to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE by Titus, later a Roman emperor; division of the Jewish society and its migration and settlement throughout the world. This phenomenon contributed to the rising popularity of Christianity in the Roman Empire. The “churches” were completely autonomous in administrative terms, although the Jerusalem community, for understandable reasons, had priority among them. The only bond between the Churches was the universally accepted rite of baptism and the Eucharist. At first, Christianity did not find a large group of followers. The breakthrough came with the activity of Saint Paul of Tarsus. He claimed that anyone, not only a member of the Jewish community, could become a Christian. It meant a complete break with Judaism and independence of new religion. His travels in the years 45 – 54, allowed to gain a large group of followers, in Asia Minor and Greece. The first Christian communities outside Jerusalem were born, mainly in the cities of the East: Alexandria, Antiochia and Ephesus. Christianity was expanding more and more, even in the areas of the Apennine Peninsula.

Spread of Christianity in the Roman Empire.
Na licencji Creative Commons Uznanie autorstwa - Na tych samych warunkach 3.0.

During the reign of Nero, that is in the years 54-68 CE, there was a large sect of Jesus’ followers in Rome. The Romans were sceptical and hostile towards the new Christian religion. They noticed in it mainly a Jewish sect, and as a result, suspicions arose that Christians went through pagan rituals during their night meetings: killing children and drinking their blood. Christians often played the role of a scapegoat.

Persecution was aimed at defusing tensions threatening public order. People easily recognized Christians guilty of violations, which led to the anger of the gods and caused famine, floods, epidemics or other catastrophes. Persecution initially had a local character. Suspicion towards the new religion was provoked by Jews themselves who perceived Christians as intruders and traitors. With the outbreak of the Great Fire of Rome in 64 CE, there was religious repression directed mainly against Christians. Christians were murdered for the show, suffering cruel deaths, thrown into the arena full of wild animals, burned alive, or crossed. However, what is important to emphasize, the period of Nero’s reign was not really as cruel as it has been presented so far, especially if we compare it with the reign of eg. Domitian. It is also doubtful to say that Nero himself was the initiator of the idea of burning Rome. It is now assumed that Rome was destroyed mainly due to the poorly planned spatial economy. As a result, the fire spread easily around the city. However, it can not be denied that the Jews spread rumours about the Christian connections with the fire in the capital. This how repression and discrimination against the followers of Jesus Christ occurred in the Roman Empire. However, persecution lasted for a short time, being almost incidental. It was, however, a promise of many difficult years for Christians to come.

Christians in the Roman army
The Bible does not state clearly: “You should serve in the army, ” but it does not say “You should not serve in the army”. Thus, this service is in accordance with the biblical point of view.

In addition to the repressions ordered by Nero in Rome, the initiative of persecution belonged to the lowest spheres for the first hundred years. The second wave of persecution is connected with Emperor Domitian (ruled 81-96 CE). During his reign, there was strong repression mainly under the pretext of “atheism” and not offering sacrifices to the Roman gods and not recognizing the emperor’s divinity. The people still perceived Christians as the murderers of children and magicians. At that time, however, the persecutions also included Jews, on whom the emperor focused more.
Acts of hostility against the Christians initiated by Jews were also widespread among the pagan people of the Empire, where persecution was approved and supported.

Conflict between Christians and Rome

  • Christians could not agree to acknowledge also Roman gods next to their only God, who was ultimately manifested in Jesus Christ. Thus, they could not offer them sacrifices and enter temples
  • Thus, they could not recognize the cult of the emperor and his divinity. For Christians, such worship was due only to the gods, and to demand it towards people was idolatry, which they could not accept.
  • The great reluctance towards Christians resulted from the quite strong isolation of the community from the pagan surroundings. For example, the Synod of Jerusalem in the 1st century CE forbade the consumption of blood, including the meat of dead animals. This meant that the Christians could not eat together with the pagans.
  • In the first two centuries, Christians were also reluctant to allow mixed marriages, and a fierce Christian moralist, Tertullian even said that intercourse with a pagan was equal to adultery.
  • Christians also refused to take any part in the administration of the Empire and its defence. They were pacifists, which was unacceptable for the Romans.

Terrorization of Christians diminished during the reign of Trajan (98-117 CE), as ordered to punish Christians only for not making the sacrifices. This did not mean, however, that Christians could feel safe. Christ’s followers were usually sent to quarries or works in mines as part of the sentence. Particularly strong persecution took place in Judea, governed by Pliny the Younger, who was constantly in touch with the emperor.

The official ordered the arrest of all those who indulged in “disastrous superstitions” and later approved the death sentences. He knew about who professes faith in Christ he from the letters sent to him by “disturbed” residents. When it turned out that there were more and more denunciations, and the Christians not only refused to give up their faith, in the end, but also did not want to offer sacrifices for Roman deities (this way their faith was tested). Pliny the Younger decided to seek advice from the ruler. He asked Trajan: “whether pardon is to be granted for repentance, or, if a man has once been a Christian, it does him no good to have ceased to be one; whether the name itself, even without offences, or only the offences associated with the name are to be punished”. The emperor, in response, informed the official that being a Christian itself is usually enough to condemn to death. It is worth mentioning, however, that Trajan did not order a mass search for Christians. In addition, he allowed the opening of the trial only when the denunciation was signed and in accordance with the procedures.

As it turns out, however, this situation was not convenient for Christians. In fact, Christianity was illegal, and even though the confessors were not always prosecuted and persecuted, it could always happen. Thus, the fate of Christians depended on the will of the rule, and the inhabitants themselves, who could reveal their dissatisfaction with Christian practices. It then led to mass persecution.

Reluctance towards Christians was additionally fueled by contemporary intellectuals. For instance, Nero’s decision to persecute was defended by Tacitus, who thought that the ruler was only cruel to excess. However, he did not refuse to blame Christ’s followers. A similar opinion belonged to Suetonius, who considered the decision to persecute as one of the better ones during Nero’s reign.

Emperor Hadrian, in turn, in a letter to consul Servian emphasized that Christians were “rebellious, deceitful, unjust people”. In turn “philosopher on the throne” as it is said about Marcus Aurelius despised them, claiming that their desire for martyrdom is stupid and religion itself incoherent and irrational. Moreover, during his reign, there was one of the greatest pogroms of Christians since Nero. At that time, in Lyon, Christians were accused of incest and cannibalism. In addition, they were even killed when they rejected their God and it was done with great cruelty. To top it all, their bodies were burned to prevent burial and resurrection.

The earliest historical source mentioning Christians dates back to 143 CE from Fronto – a Roman writer, rhetorician and consul. His speech against Christians has survived, quoted in the dialogue “Octavius” by the writer Minucius Felix. Fronto, not even knowing the basics of Christian teaching, accuses Christians of incest, worshipping donkey’s head (onolatria) and ritual murders on infants. Gradual hostility toward Christians began to be manifested in executions. In 176 CE – as a result of Marcus Aurelius’ rescript forbidding practising new religions – about 50 followers of Jesus were executed in Lugdunum (Gaul).

However, what is characteristic of Christianity, despite the difficulties, the religion gradually expanded. They began to see the actual connection between Jesus, who redeemed the sins of people and the followers who were regularly repressed. The values of religion were noticed: the chance of moral renewal and choosing the right way of life. It was believed that through suffering and death in defence of Christian beliefs (Montanism), salvation would be achieved. Those are probable reasons for Christianity’s popularity and its rapid expansion.

Moreover, Christians’ martyrdom created the ideal of a martyr for the faith, a Christian hero, on whose grave the Eucharist was later celebrated. Their remains became relics and upraised the next persecuted. Anniversaries of their deaths were celebrated with great feasts (agape), liturgy or pilgrimages. Many martyrs can be mentioned: Polycarp of Smyrna in 156 CE, Perpetua in 203 CE or Felicitas and Pionius in 250 CE.

Jesus Christ (wall painting) from the 3rd century CE.

Persecution did not diminish or even increased the number of those who were being baptized. However, with the spread of Christianity also heresy spread, which forced Christian priests to create a close and central church structure able to have control over everything. The formation of the Church only increased repression, mainly due to its independence from the imperial power. Attention was also paid to Christians’ pacifism and their reluctance to military service. One of the main commandments saying not to kill your neighbour forced the Roman authorities to take steps to eliminate the problem and prevent the spread of religion among the soldiers. The people also paid attention to the independence of Christians and their lack of any involvement in state affairs. Christians created their own groups, which were not influenced by anyone but Christians themselves, thus creating a state within the state. This emphasized the unique cultural distinctiveness of Christians and their completely different attitude towards the Romans and other religions in Rome. One of the most effective ideas of abolishing Christians’ independence, according to Roman rulers, were the repressions that were to lead to the subjection of apolitical Christians. Repression appeared already in the 3rd century during the reign of the first emperor of the Severan dynasty, Septimius Severus (193-211 CE). Surprisingly, his predecessor – Commodus – known for his brutality, treated the Christians exceptionally gently. It probably resulted from the fact that his lover supported Christians.

Septimius Severus, initially tolerant, changed his attitude, mainly due to the fact that Christians did not respect religious celebrations recognized as national holidays. Severus’ persecution primarily affected Alexandria, Carthage and other cities of northern Africa. Septimius Severus also introduced, for the first time, a completely official, ban on converting pagans to Christianity and Judaism. This decision was supposed to protect the traditional Roman religion from spreading Christianity. The imperial edict did not penalize the religion itself, however, it prohibited the conversion of the “infidels”.

Another tormentor of the Christian community was the emperor Maximinus Thrax, appearing as the avenger of Alexander Severus murdered in 235 CE, the last member of the Severan family. He passed sentences on all Christian communities. However, he focused on the superiors as he found them guilty of teaching the gospel. In the end, several bishops were condemned, but the anti-church policy did not become popular. The exception was the bloody persecution in Cappadocia, which, however, was more a spurt of the local community.

It is impossible to hide that in the 3rd century CE Christianity was already well-rooted and stuck in the world of ancient Rome. Probably every attempt to take control of the Church was doomed to failure. In the middle of the 3rd century, when the Roman state fought numerous wars, both in Europe against the barbarian peoples and in the Middle East, there began to be strong tensions between the people and Christians. Moreover, Decius, who regarded Christians as the reason for Rome’s situation, took over the throne. He saw a threat in the spreading Christianity, which displaced the traditional Roman deities, the mainstay of order and culture. As a result, in 250 CE he issued the first edict affecting Christian world. The emperor ordered all the inhabitants of the Empire to offer sacrifices to the gods, which would automatically reveal all Christ’s followers”. People who had refused to do that were imprisoned, forced to convert to Roman faith, tortured and also killed. Naturally, this action managed to persuade some Christians to reject their God. However, with the end of persecution, they returned to Christ. Emperor Decius, who introduced this edict, counted on a stronger union of society and the subordination of independent Church. With the new rulers in the 3rd century, the internal situation of the state deteriorated, which led to greater repressions against Christians.

Saint Laurence in front of emperor Valerian. He died as a martyr in 258 CE.

Emperor Valerian I (253-260 BCE) led a hard and cruel policy against any signs of Christian rebellion, seeking to restore ancient rituals and religions. As a result, he considered the “disciples of Jesus” to be the greatest threat to the stability of the state, and thus he issued two edicts directly affecting this group. The first, announced in 257 CE, forbade Christians to gather in cemeteries and ordered to close the churches. The next edict (258 CE) required immediate death for anyone who did not make sacrifices to Roman gods (mainly clerics were intended to be punished). Particularly bloody persecution happened in Africa and Egypt, where murders took place on a huge scale. Only high-born Christians could count on a lighter sentence – exile. Valerian’s reign is considered one of the most tragic moments in the history of Christianity. After his death, the edicts were withdrawn by his son Gallienus, who believed that religious matters should be settled on an ideological basis. Thus, a 40-year truce between “pagan culture” and Christians came. Nevertheless, because of numerous denunciations, the Christian could still be sentenced to death.

The break-in repression could not last forever. It was known that sooner or later Christianity’s enemy would take over the throne. This figure was emperor Diocletian ruling in 284-305 CE. Diocletian began to describe himself as the “son of Jupiter, ” and similar divine status was given to the provincial governors. Divinity naturally required appropriate rituals, such as prostrating oneself. For Christians, such worship was due only to the gods, and to demand it for people was idolatry, which they could not agree to.

During this period a significant problem with recruitment appeared in the Roman army. The defence of the vast borders of the Roman Empire attacked practically from all sides, required a large and efficient army. However, it became increasingly difficult to find a recruit. The reason was simple, more and more soldiers quitted the army since they were professing Christian faith and became pacifist opposing any murder. In addition, there was also a large percentage of Christians among the society, and hence the number of soldiers capable of fighting decreased. Uncovering the borders guaranteed entering barbarian invasions. What was needed was a recipe for a military problem that would prevent the weakening of the state and its gradual demilitarization. As a result, emperor Diocletian issued a new edict in 299 CE. All soldiers and officials were ordered to make sacrifices to Roman gods under the threat of being removed from their positions. The refusal would entail the loss of state privileges or turning into slavery. Another edict issued in 303 CE ordered the destruction of Christian temples, confiscation and burning of holy books, severely punishing the gathering of Christians. During this period, the martyrdom of Christians, who strongly rebelled against the decisions of the central government, was also frequent. The emperor’s reign, however, did not end the series of problems that plagued the state. He also failed to finally deal with Christianity, thereby allowing its gradual spread. Diocletian’s abdication in 305 CE ends the period of Christians’ martyrdom.

Mother with Child (wall painting from the early catacombs)

Christianity at the beginning of the 4th century entered its golden age, gaining more rights. The process was initiated by Constantine the Great I (306-337 CE), who announced the Edict of Milan in 313 CE. On this basis, Christianity obtained rights equivalent to other religions. Constantine himself was the first Christian emperor, even though he was baptized only on his deathbed. For many years, the emperor supported the Christian religion and the Church. He gradually implemented the symbols associated with this religion, eg. he introduced the image of Christ on the army’s banners and coins, he built churches. From then on, the protector of the Christian faith was the emperor and the state. The final triumph of the Christian faith was the reign of Theodosius the Great (378 – 395 CE), who in 392 banned all forms of pagan worship, recognizing Christian religion as a national one.

For the ancient Romans, the letters XP were a sign of Christianity.
X P is a symbol from the first two letters of Christ’s name in the Greek alphabet.
X = chi, P = rho

Four centuries of continuous repression and murders on Christians have been completed with a full victory. Christianity, becoming a state confession in Rome, could expand to other regions, also beyond the territory of the Empire. The spread of faith among the barbarian tribes who took over the Roman territories, leading to the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 476 CE, guaranteed its future, dominant position in Europe and in the world.

  • Mary Beard, John North, Simon Price, Religie Rzymu, Oświęcim 2017
  • Jaczynowska Maria, Historia starożytna, 2008
  • Terlikowski Tomasz P., Wspólnota zbudowana na krwi, "Rzeczpospolita", 29-30 November 2014
  • Żuławski Stanisław, Pax Christiana. Od apokaliptycznych nadziei do sojuszu z Rzymem. Polityczna ewolucja chrześcijaństwa, Kraków 2016

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