Within a few hundred years, the small, often hated religious movement calledChristianity became the dominant religion of Europe and the Western world.
By becomingthe state religion of the Roman Empire, Christianity became the largest and most influentialreligion in the world. Scholars still debate why and how this occurred, but it is clear that itwas one of the most important transformations in history.The Growth of Early ChristianityChristianity was spread through the Roman Empire by the earlyfollowers of Jesus.Although saints Peter and Paul are said to have established the church in Rome, most of theearly Christian communities were in the east: Alexandria in Egypt, as well as Antioch andJerusalem. Christianity gained adherents among bothJews and non-Jews, bringing themtogether with a message of unity before God.Because Christianity was so diffuse, and also illegal and therefore kept underground, itis hard to speak of a united “Christianity” in this period. A more accurate statementmight bethat there were “Christianities,” that is, various forms of Christianity, with different takes onthe religion and its message.
Gnostics, Montanists, Docetists, and others, debated about thetrue nature of Christ, salvation, and the life of a Christian. Still, several important Christianwriters, called Fathers of the Church—men such as Tertullian, Justin Martyr, Clement ofAlexandria, and Clement of Rome—helped define, in a broad sense, the doctrines ofChristianity as they would be recognized in the future. Their writings also helped swaypeople to adopt Christianity. They were mostly opposed by the Roman authorities, whosought to suppress Christianity.Why Were Christians Persecuted?The idea of a mystery religion that offered salvation to its initiates was not alien to theRomans. Several such religions, like the Cult of Isis andMithraism,were imported to theRoman world.
Most were tolerated, though some were suppressed—like the Cult ofBacchus, because it involved sexual rites.The Christian religion, however, was largely unacceptable to conservative Romans ofthe time. The Romans were a religious people, but many saw Christianity as a threat to theirreligious system. Unlike members of other new religions, Christians refused to sacrifice tothe gods, proclaiming instead that there was only one God. Pagan Romans were not onlyoffended by this, but also felt it threatened their society.
They believed that society wasprotected by thepax deorum: the peace, or agreement, with the gods. The gods protectedcities, towns, and empires in exchange for sacrifice and worship. Since Christians refused todo these things, the pagans believed that the Christians endangered themselves andeveryone around them.In addition, because Christians refused to worship or sacrifice to the emperor, theywere suspected of treason. Christians held that the emperor was only a man, and thatworship had to be reserved for God and Christ, but to pagans and representatives of theRoman state this seemedvery suspicious. This was not helped by the fact that ChristiansSaylor URL:www.saylor.org/courses/hist101/#6.
4.3The Saylor FoundationSaylor.orgPage2 of6gathered together for church services and excluded non-Christians from such services.These services seemed like secret meetings held by possible traitors.
Many rumors spreadabout Christians. They were accused, perhaps due to garbled understandings of theEucharist, of being cannibals. Early Christians celebrated theagape, a “love feast.” Whilesuch feasts celebrated brotherly and sisterly love among all members of the church, rumorsspread that the Christians were practicing open sex and incest.History of Persecutions of ChristiansNonetheless, most emperors preferred to turn a blind eye toward Christianity. IfChristians stirred up trouble, especially by publicly refusing to worship the gods, they wouldbe punished, but for the most part, emperors and their officials had much more importantmatters occupying their time.There were of course sporadic persecutions. The first took place very early on inRome, in 64 AD, when Emperor Nero cracked down on the Christians of the city.
He hadsome Christians thrown to the beasts, and he had others burned alive—some, supposedly,in his garden, to act as torches at night. But Nero seems to have been using the Christiansas scapegoats for the Great Fire of Rome, which consumed much of the city, and which thepopulace suspected Nero of having started.For the next century or so, persecutions of Christians were sporadic and fairly rare.When Pliny the Younger, a Roman author and magistrate, toured the eastern provinces forEmperor Trajan and asked how to deal with Christians, the emperor advised himnot to seekout Christians, but only to punish those who stand accused by their neighbors based on hardevidence. Some Christians were executed, but rooting out Christianity was not a majorconcern of the state. Some persecution also probably happened on the local level in times ofhardship or disaster, when the Christian refusal to sacrifice to the gods made them easyscapegoats.In the third century, as the Roman Empire entered a period of crisis, persecution ofChristians intensified. Barbarians broke through the borders of the empire, plague ravagedthe cities, and the Roman economy went into a sharp decline.
This period also saw a rapidturnover of emperors, as political instability, civil war, and bloody battles resulted in the deathof many emperors before they had a chance to rule for very long. Some of the short-livedemperors in this period were friendly toward Christianity. Philip the Arab, for example, seemsto have been interested in the religion and corresponded with Christian intellectuals. Hissuccessor, Decius, however, was far less tolerant. Blaming the catastrophes afflicting theempire on Christianity, Decius instituted the first empire-wide persecution of Christians. In250 AD, Decius required all citizens of the empire to sacrifice to the emperor, and receive acertificate to prove that they had done this.
Those without a certificate could be executed.Decius’ persecution was short lived, however, and failed to stamp out Christianity.The Crisis of the Third Century came to an end with the reign of Emperor Diocletian,who reorganized and strengthened the empire by creating thetetrarchy, a system of fourrulingemperors.
Diocletian and one of his tetrarchs, Galerius, agreed to persecuteChristians, because part of their project of reunifying the empire involved uniting all Romansbehind a shared belief in the old gods. This persecution—often called The GreatPersecution—began in 303 AD. Several thousand Christians were killed, including manySaylor URL:www.saylor.org/courses/hist101/#6.4.3The Saylor FoundationSaylor.
orgPage3 of6Christian leaders. This was one of the most trying times for Christianity, but the religion wasable to survive and eventually triumph.Reasons for Christianity’s GrowthSince Christians were increasingly persecuted by the state, and ostracized by theirpagan neighbors for not worshipping the gods, it is difficult to understand how the religionbecame dominant in the Roman Empire. There are a number of factors to account for thegrowing popularity of Christianity in the Roman Empire, though it is hard to tell which factorswere the most important. First, of course, is genuine faith and conviction. Many seem tohave been genuinely attracted to Christianity’s message of salvation, forgiveness, and eternallife.At the same time, the era of the early church, especially the third century, was a timeof chaos and upheaval.
The same events that led some to blame Christianity for disastermay have encouraged others to accept Christianity. As plague and barbarian invasionsmade life short and uncertain, the promises of Christianity may have seemed particularlyappealing. In addition, Christians seem to have taken better care of the sick, especiallyplague victims, whom others avoided out of concern for their own health. This altruism mayhave encouraged converts, especially among those who were successfully healed.Christians also showed great generosity to the poor, who were largely overlooked by theRoman state. Many of the poor probably became very loyal to Christianity because of thesupport they received from Christians.Indeed, the Christian message of faith, charity, and equality before God likelyappealed to the dispossessed in Roman society. The second-century pagan writer Celsuscriticized Christianity for being a religion of women, slaves, and children.
Women, inparticular, were given status in the early church that they did not usually enjoy in ancientsociety, and in many regards they were treated as equals of men. Women could serve asdeaconesses, and Christianity seems to have been particularly popular among women.Since women tended to do the majority of the child rearing in ancient households, thepopularity of Christianity among women may have led to it being passed on to futuregenerations.
Another important factor in the spread of Christianity may have been the persecutionsthemselves. Christians often made spectacles of their unwillingness to worship the gods inpublic trials, and used these events to voice Christian doctrine. When they were sentencedto be executed, the Christians faced their deaths with fearless resolve, which may haveprovided an example to the populace of the power of the faith and the conviction of itsadherents.One of the most famous accounts of martyrdom is that ofPerpetua, who was killed inthe late second century.
She was a young Roman noblewomen and nursing mother whowrote down an account of her arrest and imprisonment, which describes her father’s visits tothe prison and his pleas for her to renounce her faith so as to be spared, her dreams ofbattling the devil in the amphitheatre and winning a crown from God, and a vision of herdeceased brother in heaven. A final section, written by someone else, records how Perpetuaand her slave Felicity, who had also recently given birth, were thrown to the beasts, survived,and ultimately killed by the sword. Perpetua supposedly helped guide the trembling hand ofSaylor URL:www.saylor.org/courses/hist101/#6.4.
3The Saylor FoundationSaylor.orgPage4 of6the executioner to her own neck. This vivid display of her contempt for death and herexpectation of eternal reward would not only have affected those watching at theamphitheatre—it was also spread in written form for potential converts to read and to becomeinspired.Constantine and ChristianityDespite its growing popularity, Christianity may never have become the dominantreligion of the Roman Empire had it not eventually found imperial support. Under EmperorConstantine the Great, Christianity went from a persecuted faith to the most important religionin the Roman Empire. Constantine’s support for Christianity was slow in its development,and far from a predictable occurrence.
Constantine came to power when a series of civil wars at the beginning of the fourthcentury destroyed the tetrarchy established by Diocletian. The system fell apart as each ofthe four emperors battled the others for control. In the western half of the empire,Constantine battled a rival, Maxentius, for Rome. In 312 AD, shortly before Constantine’sarmy marched against the much larger force of Maxentius, Constantine supposedly had avision. He is said to have seen a cross in the sky, and a message written out:In Hoc SignoVinces, “In this sign, you will conquer.
” Later, he had a dream in which he was told to put thelabarum (orChi Rho,an overlapping XP, which were the first two letters of Christ’s name inGreek) on the shields of his soldiers. He did so, and his soldiers triumphed againstMaxentius in a battle at the Milvian Bridgeoutside Rome.Believing that he had been helped by the intervention of Christ, in 313 AD Constantinemet with Licinius—the eastern emperor—at Milan, and there they issued the Edict of Milan.The Edict of Milan made Christianity legal, removed all restrictions on Christian worship, andreturned all property confiscated from the Church during the Great Persecution. Liciniuseventually reneged on the Edict of Milan as he came into conflict with Constantine overcontrol of the empire. In another war, Constantine defeatedLicinius, which reaffirmed hisbelief that the Christian God was on his side, and allowed him to legalize Christianitythroughout the empire. He built a new capital city in the east, Constantinople, filled withchurches and dedicated to the Christian God.Scholars continue to debate the extent and nature of Constantine’s Christianity.
Asemperor, he legalized Christianity, he sponsored the construction of new churches, promotedChristians to high offices in the government, and gave special rights, suchas tax exemptions,to the Christian clergy. At the same time, however, he issued coins with images of pagangods, and the statue of him at Constantinople depicted him as the sun god. It seems thatConstantine’s Christianity changed over the course of his life as he became moreknowledgeable about the religion. His mother Helena may have been a Christian since hewas a child, and therefore imparted information on the faith to Constantine. However, evenafter his vision at the Milvian Bridge, Constantinemay have wanted to worship Christ alongwith other gods. To someone brought up in the world of traditional Roman religion, Christcould be worshipped equally with the other gods, or the Christian god could even beconsidered the supreme God, while the other gods would still have been worshipped aslesser gods. Nonetheless, it seems that Constantine, as time went on, took a stricter andSaylor URL:www.saylor.
org/courses/hist101/#6.4.3The Saylor FoundationSaylor.orgPage5 of6stricter view that there was but one God, the Christian God.
Eventually he patronized onlyChristianity.But even as Constantine legalized and sponsored Christianity, he faced difficulties. Aswe know, in the period of the early church there was no singular Christianity, but severalChristianities with different beliefs and traditions. As Constantine tried to create a universal,empire-wide church, he found that there was a great deal of debate over Christian beliefs. InAfrica, for example, a group of Christians called the Donatists split off from the main churchbecause many of the bishops had denied their faith during the Great Persecution, and theDonatists refused to follow the lapsed clergy. They would clash with the official church inAfrica for decades to come.More serious was a doctrinal dispute that started in Egypt, but soon spread far andwide. The dispute was over the true nature of Christ.
The bishop of Alexandria had said thatChrist was God, while one of his priests, named Arius, disagreed, claiming that Christ wassimilar to but different from God, and that Christ was a creation of God. Priests and bishopsdebated the issue, and soon laypeople became involved as well. Riots and street fightingbroke out in several cities over what became known as the Arian Controversy (after the priestArius). In 325 AD, Constantine called the First Ecumenical Council, an empire-wide meetingof bishops, to resolve the issue. Constantine presided over the council, calling himself thebishop of all things outside the church. This council took place in the city of Nicaea, anddeclared that the doctrine of Arius wasa heresy. Nicene Christianity, as defined at thecouncil, held that Christ and God were equal and of the same substance.
This was declaredthe orthodox, or true, belief.Constantine died in 337 AD. He was only officially baptized on his deathbed. Thiswas probably because he waited to be baptized until the last minute so that as many sins aspossible would be wiped clean.
After his death, he was buried at the Church of the HolyApostles in Constantinople, and in his tomb he was represented as the Thirteenth Apostle.Christianity and the Empire after ConstantineChristianity continued to spread within the Roman Empire after the death ofConstantine, but it still faced difficulty and conflict. Though the Council of Nicaea wassupposed to solve the Arian Controversy, the theological debates continued. Arianismremained a powerful force within the Roman Empire until the end of the fourth century, in partbecause several of Constantine’s successors, including his son Constantius II, supportedArianism.Constantine’s nephew, Julian, succeeded Constantius II.
He was secretly a pagan,and hostile toward Christianity. Once he became emperor, he made his pagan beliefs publicand tried to return the empire to paganism. His attempt was short lived, however, as he waskilled in battle and replaced by a Christian general. There would never be another paganemperor. Christianity slowly became the dominant religion and cultural force in the RomanEmpire.
In 379 AD, Emperor Valens, an Arian, was killed in battle against invading Goths, andhe was succeeded by Theodosius, a Roman general. Theodosius was a firm believer in theCouncil of Nicaea, and he set out on a policy of spreading Nicene Christianity throughout theempire. He cracked down on Arianism,and passed severe laws against all Christian sectsSaylor URL:www.saylor.org/courses/hist101/#6.4.3The Saylor FoundationSaylor.orgPage6 of6he deemed heretical.
He made Nicene Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.He also closed pagan temples, and passed laws against celebrating pagan rites (thoughmany of these pagan rites may already have become relics of the past). By the time ofEmperor Theodosius’ death in 395, Christianity had truly triumphed, and the Roman Empire,once hostile towards the religion, had become a thoroughly Christian state.
Even as theRoman Empire collapsed, its Christian legacy would live on, as Christianity remained centralto European culture.Summary:?Christianity spread throughout the Roman world, especially the easternMediterranean, in the years after the death of Christ.BecauseChristian communitieswere spread out, in sporadic contact, and forced underground by the Roman state,many forms of Christianity flourished in different areas.?The Romans persecuted Christianity because they felt that the Christians endangeredtheir cities and the whole Roman state by refusing to give the gods their sacrifices.They also feared that the Christians were traitors, since they did not worship theemperor and met in secret.There were also a variety of rumors about strangeChristian behavior.
?Besides the persecution of Christians in Rome by Nero in 64 AD, the Roman stateonly persecuted Christians sporadically for a long time.By the third century, asdisasters befell the empire and Christians were blamed for not sacrificing to the gods,persecutions became harsher and more common, until they reached a height with TheGreat Persecution,under Diocletian.?Despitethe persecution, many found the Christian message appealing.To some, itoffered hope in a bleak and violent time, and Christian charity may have caused othersto embrace the religion.Christianity seems to have appealed especially to the poorand women, and was also spread through the spectacle of martyrdom.
?Emperor Constantine, after a dream and a vision before the Battle of Milvian Bridge,slowly adopted Christianity.He legalized the faith with the Edict of Milan, issued in313 AD, and patronized the religion, sponsoring the construction of churches,promoting Christians to high offices in the government, and giving special rights, suchas tax exemptions, to the Christian clergy.?Constantine’s efforts to create a universal church were hampered by disagreementsover Christian belief. He tried to settle the most severe disagreement, the ArianControversy, at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, which created a definition of NiceneChristianity, but the controversy continued to rage for the rest of the century.?Christianity became more established within the Roman Empire after the death ofConstantine, and under Emperor Theodosius I, Nicene Christianity became the officialreligion of the Roman Empire, while Arianism, other heresies, and paganism weresuppressed