Christianity and the Roman Empire Religion played a key role in the daily life and social system of Ancient Rome. Religion included the worship of many gods and more gods were often adopted from conquered areas. Because most religions were polytheist at the time, the Romans rarely disallowed a cult from a conquered region to continue. A few cults ran into controversy and opposition from citizens or government, such as the cult of Dues Sol Invoices, and that of Isis.
Romans were also not keen on monotheistic religion which explains their separation from the Jews. But above all other religions, the Romans disagreed with, persecuted and were threatened most by Christianity. The introduction of Christianity to the Roman Empire challenged a key cohesive element of Roman custom and culture religion and ultimately contributed to the Empire’s disintegration. Christianity first appeared in the Western reaches of the empire, in the province of Judea.
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Although its beginnings were in a remote fringe province, the ideology began, spread and grew to be a formidable institution under Roman rule. There seems to e little report of the original disputes with Jesus Christ himself, however there is documentation of later reports of the spread of Christianity. By the 2nd century Christianity claimed almost 50,000 followers (as can be estimated). However the Romans knew little of the movement .
One of the first documentations we have comes from Plink, when he is Governor of a province in modern day Turkeys; It is correspondence between him and Emperor Trojan, requesting advice for the issue of this new Christian cult which has been a disturbance to locals “They [the Christians] also declared that the sum total of their guilt or error amounted to no more than this; they had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately among themselves in honor of Christ as if to a god, and also to bind themselves by oath…
After this ceremony it has been their custom to disperse and reassemble later to take food of an ordinary, harmless kind; but they had in fact given up this practice since my edict, issued on your instructions which banned all hetaeras (political clubs)”3 The Emperor then responded stating that if the Christians admitted their religion ND then would make one sacrifice or admit the existence of the Roman gods they were to be freed with no further persecution, however if they were stubborn and refused, they were punished.
At this time Plink believed Christianity to be a superstition, and Greek philosophers criticized Jesus as being a sorcerer. It is hard to tell if their perceptions were the norm, as when the Christians began growing and having power over most of the world, they destroyed much information criticizing theme. Christianity spread rapidly and came to the heart of the empire: Rome itself. Many say that the reason Christianity spread so fast was that it was a religion for poor men and slaves.
Christianity offered a personal relationship with God, rather than being mediated by priests It also offered salvation, sharing that life on earth was not as important as what waited for individuals who had been of good hearth. There also was the aspect that it was welcoming to women, allowing them more leadership rights as priests. Christianity offered guidance and salvation freely appealed to ignorant and vulnerable often poor. It succeeded because cults failed to meet personal moral and spiritual needs.
In reality it was not Just the poor; Christianity appealed to anyone who wanted their abilities recognized no matter how wealthy they were. Roman identity did not always allow this and you must earn your way up whereas Christianity equalized all. This was unsettling to Romans. Though Christianity may have been perceived as a lower class religion, there is no way it would have grown to such numbers or such power without the aristocracy’s. It is known of course that noble Romans were Christian. Even before Constantine there must have been a few Christian nobles in the Roman empire, though they were quiet about it.
There must have been a reason this religion spread to the noble classes, yet unfortunately there has not been an in depth study about this to date. With this spread Romans became very suspicious about the Christian cult. In fact in DAD, the Senate decreed it a “strange and unlawful. They did not like the idea of monotheism, believing to favor one God so highly above others would anger them. The idea of polytheism also supported the Roman Empire, as by worshipping the gods an individual in turn worshipped the emperor in a way and believed the signs of priests and words to the emperors to be directly from the Gods.
Christians also refused to pledge allegiance to the emperor believing their allegiance could only be sworn to God and Jesus. Audiophiles of Antioch described it as such “The emperor, given authority by God, must be honored with a proper respect, but he must not be adored. You see, he is not God; he is a man whom God has placed in that office not to be adored, but in order that he exercise Justice on earth… As the emperor may not tolerate that his title be taken over by those subject to him, so no one may be adored, save God”14.
Romans also found the idea that Christians did not make sacrifices to e very disturbing, especially when combined with the fact that they would gather to “drink the blood and body of Christ”1 5. Sacrifice was the norm throughout polytheism and the fact that Christians refused sacrifice of any kind, to any god or even for luck, disturbed many citizens. The Christians saw it as because if they sacrificed it would be worshipping a false idol. Christianity wanted “celibacy, frugality, self-restraint, and time for prayer and reflection. ” These were very non-Roman things.
Christianity had to convince dying a virgin was a triumph where Romans believed a woman who died childless and unmarried a tragedy. Romans looked for prosperity, generosity and simplicity, where Christianity at the time looked to isolation and often self- harm. A look into Roman life will show that the connection between their gods and their government was very close. They measured the two side by side which explains why they took so much offense at the Christians refusal to worship and sacrifice This idea was one of the main ways Christianity influenced the fall of the empire, but this will be discussed later..
Romans found the Christians to be suspicious and were often worried they were plotting against the empire. This was because their meetings were often and secretive, somewhat more of a political gathering than a cult. Plink describes them as hetaeras, meaning a political group, for the reason that Christians were more like communities, they gathered together, helped one another out, and did daily activities together, creating a greater sense of belonging. In Roman religions Just because individuals may not have similar interests in gods, they would not congregate and act so closely as a subculture.
What the Romans could not fathom and what seemed to anger them the most was the idea of a loving Goods. The concept that a God loved everyone even those who might not worship him to the fullest, and that he was forgiving was way beyond the Romans. The Roman way of life accepted that gods could be angered and that to keep them happy offerings must be made, but their gods still did not love every individual in the way Christians described. Demands and returns were not new ideas but love for a god and love with moral goodness to ones neighbors was completely revolutionary.
With a little psychology it could be noted that the Romans, were so were used to passionate and angry gods, as well as constant violence between war ND games, felt somewhat confused and threatened by the idea of a calm and loving The Romans reacted with wariness of the Christian cult and with almost constant persecution. Though of course interactions with the Christians varied emperor to emperor, it was most often persecution, and blame for anything wrong in the empire. Surprisingly this constant persecution did not hinder the religious cult, but rather it returned stronger time and again.
Some may wonder why there was this violent reaction to Christians yet the Jewish cult remained quiet. This is because early in the empire, laws had been set which indeed Jews from spreading their religion and gave them set areas in which to worship. In this way they never out right offended nor got in the way of polytheistic religions. Jews also tended to be less stubborn understanding to keep up respect to the emperor. Judaism was an exclusive religion which was not open for Just anyone and became difficult to Join.
As Christianity began to grow, changing the way the Empire functioned, it began to threaten the structure of the entire empire, in turn presaging its demise. The final push was Constantine succession as emperor and his Edict of Milan. After this Christians were allowed to worship freely, and became the obviously favored cult. Before this point, religion was what held the people and the emperor together. They worshipped their gods for personal reasons but also because it contributed to the bettering of the empire.
When the emperor in a way stated this did not matter as much, and in a way told them their gods were a lie, the complete structure of Roman life fell apart. Constantine was the first push that allowed to Church to change into the power we know today. Constantine allowed the political and material support that the hurt needed. Constantine, though not directly, influenced his successors to persecute other cults. Constantine gave many legal positions, such as governing areas and managing grain supplies to Christian clergy or members, further increasing their power.
Some have said that Constantine was a sign to the commencing of the Kingdom of Goods. The post-Constantine Christian Church was blamed by citizens of the empire for diverting funds to support the church rather than citizens, and for inflicting harm on Jews and infidels as well as for attacking sexual guilt. It is true that beginning with Constantine a partnership was made between the head of the church and the state treasury so they were able to take funds when “needed”26.
Constantine becomes key benefactor and allows the head Bishop (Caecilian) to take large sums of money from finance minister in order to pay for any expenses of the clergy. It was said that a priest was not allowed to participate in trade, nor the lending of funds. Clergy were to live as the aristocracy, not getting caught up in the life of a merchant; rather they would let business come to themed. Clergy were also exempt from taxes. Exempting Clergy from taxes was a bad idea, as it would cause a lot of the empire’s money to go into funding the Church rather than holding the empire together or expand.
The exemption caused an unbalance in the empire as way to many people jumped to Join clergy for financial reasons. The emphasis on sexual guilt broke down much of the empire’s identity as the Romans were a very sexual people, their humor always included sex, there was a large prostitution population; it is not hard to tell through factual art history that the Romans were surrounded by sex. By denouncing his and making them all feel bad about it, it ruined a key element in their life. Not all downfall of the empire came from Constantine; it was also his successors that furthered the push for Christianity.
As Edward Gibbons states in the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, it was under Theodosius I that Christianity gained its most power, and shut down remaining pagan cults. Theodosius I in 391 made it illegal for sacrifice or visits to temples, saying it offended human law. Also those who did not worship Christianity “correctly’ for example, worshiped Easter on the wrong day, were harshly punished. With Theodosius so began church as an institution, “bishops chosen for political contacts, emperors interfering in theology and church government, and massive administration loads for church leaders”29.
At the beginning Church leaders hoped the empire and church would combine, becoming a Christian empire, but soon realized followers were spread outside the land and it was too difficult to hold together such a large area based solely on ideology. Further ways that Christianity broke down Roman identity and by doing so, the empire was through the contrast of religious society. As previously mentioned, the Romans society was tightly knit with their religion. Roman religion was ordered b loyalty, military and social status, reflecting the actual society’s.
It held together the social order by saying Just “the gods made it so”. It was so entwined that any religious holidays actually became civil celebrations, with everyone coming together (that is, other than the Christians)32. In fact over time the term piety began to mean not simply loyalty, but respect for the city customs, and obedience for the city. The city of Rome became a religious icon; this can be further backed up in art where the tit gets portrayed as a woman beside victory. The Romans were proud of their religion and believed it set them apart from all others (no mention of the Greeks. Because of this, once Christianity took over, there was no longer that strong pride behind the city, and there was no more worshipping of the city. This was a blow to the Roman collective identity, and it strongly influenced the breakup of an entire empirical identity. Constantine and his family were so strongly attached to Christianity, and the citizens of Rome were so greatly attached to their emperor that hen Constantine made the switch of religions, Rome and what it meant to be Roman, changed.
During the early Christian emperors, paganism was still allowed, but it was not as strong after this introduction and acknowledgement of a monotheistic religion. Under Connotations there was a stronger desire to combine Church and State fully. Connotations believed by centralizing the government they would have a stranger imperial administration. Citizens who would not listen to the Emperor would listen to the Church, those who did not listen to the Church would listen to the Emperor. There have been arguments that Christianity broke down the Empire to create a more impressive State.
This is used by Cicerone’s definition of state which is a gathering of people brought together by a consent of laws and community of interests. Before Christianity there were so many different cultures and provinces that they only came together under the idea of Rome as a city and their Roman society. Once Christianity came into play, Rome was broken down and the glue that held this large empire together fell apart. However as time went on Christianity being a community f interests and a consent of laws that agreed with the Bible’s teachings, became a better state’s.
Christianity long and ever-changing history has influenced and affected many cultures including that of the ancient Roman Empire. Starting from the streets of remote Judea, Christianity grew and grew to take over the Roman Empire. By taking advantage of Roman pagan religions weaknesses, such as ignoring personal needs and lack of a personal good valued God, and turning them into strengths, Christianity was able to appeal to all and become the most widespread religion of the time. However Christianity values were so different from those of the pagan Empire’s that it broke down Roman citizens’ sense of identity.