To the Roman peasant, the world around simply abounds with gods, spirits and omens. A multitude of festivals were held to appease the gods.
Rome’s Relationship with the early Christians The Roman authorities hesitated for a long time over how to deal with this new cult. They largely appreciated this new religion as subversive and potentially dangerous.
For Christianity, with its insistence on only one god, seemed to threaten the principle of religious toleration which had guaranteed (religious) peace for so long among the people of the empire.
Most of all Christianity clashed with the official state religion of the empire, for Christians refused to perform Caesar worship. This, in the Roman mindset, demonstrated their disloyalty to their rulers.
Persecution of the Christians began with Nero’s bloody repression of AD 64. This was only a rash an sporadic repression, though it is perhaps the one which remains the most infamous of them all.
The first real recognition of Christianity, other than Nero’s slaughter, was an inquiry by emperor Domitian who supposedly, upon hearing that the Christians refused to perform Caesar worship, sent investigators to Galilee to inquire on his family, about fifty years after the crucifixion.
They found some poor smallholders, including the great-nephew of Jesus, interrogated them and then released them without charge.
The fact however that the Roman emperor should take interest in this sect proves that by this time the Christians no longer merely represented an obscure little sect.
Towards the end of the first century the Christians appeared to sever all their ties with Judaism and established itself independently.
Though with this separation from Judaism, Christianity emerged as a largely unknown religion to the Roman authorities. And Roman ignorance of this new cult bred suspicion. Rumors abounded about secretive Christian rituals; rumors of child sacrifice, incest and cannibalism.
Major revolts of the Jews in Judea in the early second century led to great resentment of the Jews and of the Christians, who were still largely understood by the Romans to be a Jewish sect. The repressions which followed for both Christians and Jews were severe.
During the second century AD Christians were persecuted for their beliefs largely because these did not allow them to give the statutory reverence to the images of the gods and of the emperor. Also their act of worship transgressed the edict of Trajan, forbidding meetings of secret societies. To the government, it was civil disobedience. The Christians themselves meanwhile thought such edicts suppressed their freedom of worship. However, despite such differences, with emperor Trajan a period of toleration appeared to set in.
Pliny the Younger, as governor of Nithynia in AD 111, was so exercised by the troubles with the Christians that he wrote to Trajan asking for guidance on how to deal with them. Trajan, displaying considerable wisdom, replied:
‘ The actions you have taken, my dear Pliny, in investigating the cases of those brought before you as Christians, are correct. It is impossible to lay down a general rule which can apply to particular cases. Do not go looking for Christians. If they are brought before you and the charge is proven, they must be punished, provided that if someone denies they are Christian and gives proof of it, by offering reverence to our gods, they shall be acquitted on the grounds of repentance even if they have previously incurred suspicion. Anonymous written accusations shall be disregarded as evidence. They set a bad example which is contrary to the spirit of our times.‘ Christians were not actively sought out by a network of spies. Under his successor Hadrian which policy seemed to continue.
Also the fact hat Hadrian actively persecuted the Jews, but not the Christians shows that by that time the Romans were drawing a clear distinction between the two religions.
The great persecutions of AD 165-180 under Marcus Aurelius included the terrible acts committed upon the Christians of Lyons in AD 177. This period, far more than Nero’s earlier rage, was which defined the Christian understanding of martyrdom.
Christianity is often portrayed as the religion of the poor and the slaves. This is not necessarily a true picture. From the beginning there appeared to have been wealthy and influential figures who at least sympathised with the Christians, even members of court.
And it appeared that Christianity maintained its appeal to such highly connected persons. Marcia, the concubine of the emperor Commodus, for example used her influence to achieve the release of Christian prisoners from the mines.
The Great Persecution – AD 303 Christianity generally grew and established some roots across the empire in the years following the persecution by Marcus Aurelius, and especially prospered from about AD 260 onwards, enjoying widespread toleration by the Roman authorities.
But with the reign of Diocletian things would change. Towards the end of his long reign, Diocletian became ever more concerned about the high positions held by many Christians in Roman society and, particularly, the army.
On a visit to the Oracle of Apollo at Didyma near Miletus, he was advised by the pagan oracle to halt the rise of the Christians.
And so on 23 February AD 303, on the Roman day of the gods of boundaries, the terminalia, Diocletian enacted what was to become perhaps the greatest persecution of Christians under Roman rule.
Diocletian and, perhaps all the more viciously, his Caesar Galerius launched a serious purge against the sect which they saw as becoming far too powerful and hence, too dangerous.
In Rome, Syria, Egypt and Asia Minor (Turkey) the Christians suffered most. However, in the west, beyond the immediate grasp of the two persecutors things were far less ferocious.
Constantine the Great – Christianization of the Empire The key moment in the establishment if Christianity as the predominant religion of the Roman empire, happened in AD 312 when emperor Constantine on the eve before battle against the rival emperor Maxentius had a vision of the sign of Christ (the so called chi-rho symbol) in a dream.
And Constantine was to have the symbol inscribed on his helmet and ordered all his soldiers (or at least those of his bodyguard) to point it on their shields.
It was after the crushing victory he inflicted on his opponent against overwhelming odds that Constantine declared he owed his victory to the god of the Christians.
However, Constantine’s claim to conversion is not without controversy. There are many who see in his conversion rather the political realization of the potential power of Christianity instead of any celestial vision.
Constantine had inherited a very tolerant attitude towards Christians from his father, but for the years of his rule previous to that fateful night in AD 312 there was no definite indication of any gradual conversion towards the Christian faith. Although he did already have Christian bishops in his royal entourage before AD 312.
But however truthful his conversion might have been, it should change the fate of Christianity for good. In meetings with his rival emperor Licinius, Constantine secured religious tolerance towards Christians all over the empire.
Until AD 324 Constantine appeared to on purposely blur the distinction of which god it was he followed, the Christian god or pagan sun god Sol. Perhaps at this time he truly hadn’t made up his mind yet.
Perhaps it was just that he felt his power was not yet established enough to confront the pagan majority of the empire with a Christian ruler.
However, substantial gestures were made toward the Christians very soon after the fateful Battle of the Milvian Bridge in AD 312. Already in AD 313 tax exemptions were granted to Christian clergy and money was granted to rebuild the major churches in Rome.
Also in AD 314 Constantine already engaged in a major meeting of bishops at Milan to deal with problems befalling the church in the ‘Donatist schism’.
But once Constantine had defeated his last rival emperor Licinius in AD 324, the last of Constantine’s restraint disappeared and a Christian emperor (or at least one who championed the Christian cause) ruled over the entire empire.
He built a vast new basilica church on the Vatican hill, where reputedly St Peter had been martyred. Other great churches were built by Constantine, such as the great St John Lateran in Rome or the reconstruction of the great church of Nicomedia which had been destroyed by Diocletian.
Apart from building great monuments to Christianity, Constantine now also became openly hostile toward the pagans. Even pagan sacrifice itself was forbidden. Pagan temples (except those of the previous official Roman state cult) had their treasures confiscated. These treasures were largely given to the Christian churches instead.
Some cults which were deemed sexually immoral by Christian standards were forbidden and their temples were razed.
Gruesomely brutal laws were introduced to enforce Christian sexual morality. Constantine was evidently not an emperor who had decided to gradually educate the people of his empire to this new religion.
Far more the empire was shocked into a new religious order.
But in the same year as Constantine achieved supremacy over the empire (and effectively over the Christian church) the Christian faith itself suffered a grave crisis. Arianism, a heresy which challenged the church’s view of God (the father) and Jesus (the son), was creating a serious divide in the church.Constantine called the famous Council of Nicaea which decided the definition of the Christian deity as the Holy Trinity, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.
Had Christianity previously been unclear about its message then the Council of Nicaea (together with a later council at Constantinople in 381 AD) created a clearly defined core belief. However, the nature of its creation – a council – and the diplomatically sensitive way in defining the formula, to many suggests the creed of the Holy Trinity to be rather a political construct between theologians and politicians rather than anything achieved by divine inspiration.
It is hence often sought that the Council of Nicaea represents the Christian church becoming a more worldly institution, moving away from its innocent beginnings in its ascent to power.
The Christian church continued to grow and rise in importance under Constantine. Within his reign the cost of the church already became larger than the cost of the entire imperial civil service.
As for emperor Constantine; he bowed out in the same fashion in which he had lived, leaving it still unclear to historians today, if he truly had completely converted to Christianity, or not.
He was baptized on his deathbed. It was not an unusual practice for Christians of the day to leave their baptism for such a time. However, it still fails to answer completely to what point this was due to conviction and not for political purposes, considering the succession of his sons.
Christian Heresy One of the primary problems of early Christianity was that of heresy.
Heresy as generally defined as a departure from the traditional Christian beliefs; the creation of new ideas, rituals and forms of worship within the Christian church. This was especially dangerous to a faith in which for a long time the rules as to what was the proper Christian belief remained very vague and open to interpretation.
The result of the definition of heresy was often bloody slaughter. Religious suppression against heretics became to any account just as brutal as some of the excesses of Roman emperors in suppressing the Christians.
Julian the Apostate If Constantine’s conversion of the empire had been harsh, it was irreversible.
When in AD 361 Julian ascended to the throne and officially renounced Christianity, he could do little to change the religious make-up of an empire in which Christianity by then dominated.
Had under Constantine and his sons being a Christian almost been a prerequisite for receiving any official position, then the entire working of the empire by now had been turned over to Christians.
It is unclear to what point the population had converted to Christianity (though the numbers will have been rising quickly), but it is clear that the institutions of empire must by the time Julian came to power have been dominated by Christians.
Hence a reversal was impossible, unless a pagan emperor of the drive and ruthlessness of Constantine would have emerged. Julian the Apostate was no such man. Far more does history paint him as a gentle intellectual, who simply tolerated Christianity in spite of his disagreement with it.
Christian teachers lost their jobs, as Julian argued that it made little sense for them to teach pagan texts of which they did not approve. Also some of the financial privileges which the church had enjoyed were now refused. But by no means could this have been seen as a renewal of Christian persecution.
In fact in the east of the empire Christian mobs ran riot and vandalized the pagan temples which Julian had re-instated.
Was Julian not a violent man of the likes of Constantine, then his response to these Christian outrages were never felt, as he already died in AD 363.
If his reign had a been a brief setback for Christianity, it had only provided further proof that Christianity was here to stay.
The Power of the Church With the death of Julian the Apostate matters quickly returned to normal for the Christian church as it resumed its role as the religion of the power.
In AD 380 emperor Theodosius took the final step and made Christianity the official religion of state.
Severe punishments were introduced for people who disagreed with the official version of Christianity.
Furthermore, becoming a member of the clergy became a possible career for the educated classes, for the bishops were gaining ever more influence.
At the great council of Constantinople a further decision was reached which placed the bishopric of Rome above that of Constantinople.
This in effect confirmed the church’s more political outlook, as until the prestige of the bishoprics had been ranked according to the church’s apostolic history. And for that particular time preference for the bishop of Rome evidently appeared to be greater than for the bishop of Constantinople.
In AD 390, a massacre in Thessalonica revealed the new order to the world. After a massacre of some seven thousand people, the emperor Theodosius was excommunicated and required to do penance for this crime. This did not mean that now the church was the highest authority in the empire, but it proved that now the church felt sufficiently confident to challenge the emperor himself on matters of moral authority.
Edited from source.