Christianity in the Roman Empire
College of the Desert
The topic of the following research paper will be to
illustrating the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire. The purpose of the
research will be to demonstrate the legacy of Christianity during the time
period. Utilizing primary and secondary sources, the researcher will prove that
religion impacted the society in various ways. Although primary sources are
limited, the researcher’s secondary sources will further prove the topic to be
true. Hopefully, the research will help further the discussion of Christianity
in the Roman Empire.
Every faith and religion has their own story that
tells how it has risen to its prominence, and Christianity is like the underdog
that rose from persecution to become the largest religion in the world.
Christians began to be persecuted by Emperor Nero of Rome in 64 AD, when a fire
broke out which destroyed a great deal of the city. During the time, rumors
spread that Emperor Nero was the one responsible for setting the fire
(Ermatinger, 2007). In order to divert attention away from the fire, Nero
ordered that the Christians be rounded up to be killed, many of which were
ripped apart by dogs or even burnt alive to be used as human torches. Christians
would continue to be persecuted over the next hundred years. Reasons for
attacking the Christians vary based on different viewpoints; some may say that
the pagans felt that their faith was attacked, or that they believed Christians
were insulting their faith. The Christians at the time were not willing to make
sacrifices to the Roman gods, which made the pagans particularly suspicious.
Their actions were seen as an insult to the gods, which could potentially
endanger the city in the eyes of the Romans. Christians’ refusal to make a
sacrifice was an act of treason and would ultimately lead to extreme
punishment. Christians were forced to put their faith to the test by swearing
to the emperor while nearly being put to death. A Christian bishop in the second
century named Polycarp was an example of martyrdom, which is a person who is
killed based on their religious beliefs (Benko 1986). Polycarp was urged to say
‘Caesar is lord’, in order for his life to be spared. However, Polycarp refused
to say so, and was eventually lit aflame and burned alive. During the third
century, the great empire of Rome was suffering in every way imaginable. The
city had no true leader; social relations were flipped upside down, and there
were threats of the empire being attacked (Gwynn 2015). Most importantly, the
economy of the state was in a downfall. Pagans saw it fit that there had to be
someone or something to blame, and the Christians were in a way the sacrificial
lamb about to be sent to the slaughter in order to try and restore peace.
Eventually, persecutions against the Christians
would die down to a minimal due to the fact that it was a time that the pagans
were being influenced from expansion from a wide range of cultures and
philosophies. The pagans’ faith was not based off a unified religion, but was
however a melting pot that incorporated other faiths so there was no clear forms
of religion (Stark 1997). In the midst of all the chaos, it is known that the
Christians were not the only faith to be persecuted by the Romans. Judaism
along with the cults of Bacchus and of Magna Mater was all heavily persecuted
by the Romans. Strangely enough, the Roman emperor Trajan saw that admitting to
belong to the Christian faith as an offence; he however believed that
ex-Christians whom turned away from their faith should not have to face any
sort of punishment (Morgan 2003).
Despite facing persecution, Christianity grew much
larger than other faiths due to the fact that Christianity was more open to
people from all walks of life. Emperor Constantine the Great of Rome was the
main reason that the empire had converted to Christianity (Ferguson, 2009).
Previously, emperors had their harsh views on the religion, and would never in
a lifetime conform to worship Jesus Christ. The Romans had no respect
whatsoever for Christianity, especially since it was a religion practiced among
slaves and warriors. Reason for Constantine’s conversion to Christianity was
because of a dream or vision he had, which Jesus Christ told him to fight under
Christian standards (Green 2010). After winning the fight, Constantine
reassured himself that Christianity would be his new faith. Constantine
eventually advocated that both Christians and pagans should be allowed to
practice their faith as they will. Property which was confiscated from the
Christians during persecution was given back along with certain types of
privileges. However, this did not mean that the entire empire was fully
converted to a Christian way of rule. Emperor Constantine even built a city
named after him, Constantinople, which Christians believed would be the new
capital for the newly Christian Empire. In the ‘Christian’ city, Constantine
set up pagan statues and temples. It seemed as though Constantine was unaware
of the insinuation that the Christian faith meant being devoted exclusively to
Christians at the time saw Constantine’s conversion
as a conclusive period of victory between good and evil, although it was far
from it. Over the next few centuries, Christianity gradually grew, and
Constantine only had one successor, Emperor Julian, whom tried to unite
paganism as the supreme religion of the empire although Christianity had seemed
to be the practice of the Roman Empire, it did not mean that paganism had yet
disappeared (Stark, 1997). Pagans had put the blame on the Christians for the
Sack of Rome in 410 AD, which was when the city was attacked by the Visigoths.
A well known Christian, Bishop Augustine of Hippo, replied to the serious
charge by the pagans by writing a lengthy response in his book, The City of God (Novak, 2001). Although paganism would never become
the imperial religion of Rome, it did however impose both a religious and
political challenge for the Christian church.
The legacy of Christianity of the Roman Empire has
had an everlasting affect that played a major role in spreading Christianity. It
is however unfortunate that persecution of the Christians in a way helped
expand the faith far beyond measure. Christians were the easiest to target due
to the fact that they were so distinct and different in their practice which
made persecution that much easier because if killed they believed in a life
after death in heaven (MacMullen, 2007). Rome then became the capital of the
Catholic Church which was a great influence in not just Rome but all of Europe
for the next two thousand years (Ando, 2006). Churches would warn the
Christians of any common danger which led to great communication between the
two and ultimately made the Christian bond stronger. In the third century,
there was roughly around 220,000 Christians in the Roman Empire, and by mid
fourth century, there was an estimated 6 million followers (Vaage, 2006). Now,
Christianity is the largest religions practiced by 1.4 billion people
worldwide. At the time, and even today, Christianity continued to grow based on
the fact that the faith was more open to people regardless of gender, race, or
economic stature. Rome was the center of the Catholic-Christian church, and was
even more stable than Jerusalem. Christmas was even originated in Rome, and
those who practiced the faith would have feasts to celebrate and honor Jesus
Christ’s birthday. As stated previously, Constantine played a crucial role in
Christianizing the Roman Empire. Under Constantine’s rule, pagan temples were
seized and their money was used to build churches, laws were even passed to
conform to the Christians’ ethics (Elsner, 1998). Previously, Christians would
only practice their faith privately in fear of persecution, but under
Constantine’s rule, they were more freely open to practice their faith as they
wished. Constantine felt that there needed to be more Christian churches built,
so he was on a mission to create churches spreading from Rome all the way to
Jerusalem. Under Constantine, Rome had reached its greatest size with more than
a million citizens. In a way, Constantine was similar to the Pope in the sense
that he called for the first ecumenical council to settle decisions over
documents. Constantine issued than any Christians whom drift away from the
official church doctrine would be called as a heathen. Those who did so would
also receive no support from the church, and were often punished for doing so.
The topic of the following research paper was to
illustrate the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire. The purpose of the
research was to demonstrate the legacy of Christianity during the time period.
Utilizing primary and secondary sources, the researcher has proven that
religion impacted the society in various ways. Although primary sources were
limited, the researcher’s secondary sources did further prove the topic to be
true. Hopefully, the research will help further the discussion of Christianity
in the Roman Empire.
Ando, C. (2006). Religion and law in
classical and christian Rome.
Benko, S. (1986). Pagan Rome and the
early Christians. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press.
Elsner, J. (1998). Imperial Rome and
Christian triumph: the art of the Roman Empire, AD 100-450. Oxford: Oxford
Ermatinger, J. W. (2007). Daily life
of Christians in ancient Rome. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.
Ferguson, E. (2009). Backgrounds of
early Christianity. Grand Rapids,
Galinsky, K. (2016). Memory in ancient
Rome and early Christianity. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Green, B. (2010). Christianity in
Ancient Rome: the first three centuries. London: T & T Clark
Gwynn, D. M. (2015). Christianity in
the later Roman empire: a sourcebook. London: Bloomsbury.
MacMullen, R. (1986). Christianizing
the Roman Empire (A.D. 100-400). New Haven: Yale.
Morgan, J. (2003). Constantine: ruler
of Christian Rome. New York: Rosen Pub. Group.
Novak, R. M. (2001). Christianity and
the Roman Empire: Background Texts. London: Continuum International Pub.
Stark, R. (1996). The rise of
Christianity: a sociologist reconsiders history. Princeton, NJ: Princeton
Stark, R. (1997). The rise of
Christianity: how the obscure, marginal Jesus movement became the dominant religious
force in the Western world in a few centuries. New York: HarperOne.
Tignor, R. L., Adelman, J., Aron, S., Brown, P., Elman, B.
A., Liu, X., . . . Tsin, M. T. (2014). Worlds
together, worlds apart. New York, NY:
W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Vaage, L. E. (2006). Religious
rivalries in the early Roman empire and the rise of Christianity. Waterloo,
Ont.: Wilfrid Laurier Univ. Press.