November 24, 2014. During the Fall 2014 semester, I covered much
of this material in a lecture *before* the first midterm. The
notes here overlap with material I talk about in History 121. The
November 25 lecture will deal first with the Soldier Emperors, then go
back to talk about some of the material here. The notes here
overlap with the Diocletian/Constantine material at the next link.]
CHRISTIANITY IN THE ROMAN EMPIRE
I tell the students in my History 121 class that the eclipse
(disappearance) of Roman paganism and the triumph of Christianity. This
change is, in many ways, one of the greatest surprises in all of
history. In my Early Church class, I talk in some detail about
this change, one of the important changes in human history--a change
that, ultimately, affects every aspect of life in the Roman
Empire. Because this change is so important, I need (in this
class) to summarize the growth of Christianity before it makes much
sense to talk about the events of the reign of Diocletian and what
happens afterwards in the 4th, 5th, and 6th centuries.
Many are the forms of divine intervention; many things
beyond expectation do the gods fulfill. That which was expected
has not been accomplished; for that which was unexpected has god found
a way. Such was the end of this story. --Euripides
Paganism is the term we use for the old polytheistic Roman religion,
the religion associated with the worship of Jupiter, Juno, Mars, etc.
Certainly it is in many ways surprising that this religion would
disappear. Paganism had many strengths, strengths that make it
surprising people would ever abandon it.
Strengths of Paganism
Paganism is the term we use for the old
religion, the religion associated with the worship of Jupiter, Juno,
Mars, etc. Certainly it is in many ways surprising that this
disappear. Paganism had many strengths, strengths that make it
surprising the Romans would ever abandon it.
First of all, Paganism had going for it its antiquity, the fact that it
had been around for so long. Antiquity is a good thing in a religion:
the longer a religion has been around, the more likely people are to
believe that it is true. For the Romans in particularly,
antiquity was valued. The Romans believe in the Mores Maiorum,
the ways of the ancestors, and the worship of Jupiter, Juno and the
rest was part of that ancestral tradition. “Gimme that old time
religion, gimme that old time religion, give me that old time religion,
it’s good enough for me.” Well, for the Romans, paganism was that
old-time religion. It was good enough for their fathers—and it
should have been good enough for them.
A second strength of paganism was its tolerance. Paganism was
eclectic and syncretistic. Eclecticism comes from a Greek work which
means to choose. An eclectic religion is one where people can
pick and choose from a great variety of traditions. Syncretism
involves an emphasis on similarities rather than differences. The
Romans worshipped Jupiter, Juno, and Mars. When they encountered
people who didn’t worship those gods, they didn’t emphasize the
differences. Instead, they just argued that these peoples
worshipped the same gods, but called them by different names. The
Greek Zeus? That’s our Jupiter. The Greek Hera?
That’s our Juno. The Greek Ares? That’s our Mars.
The result of all this is that, like Hinduism, Roman paganism had a
remarkable ability to absorb new religious impulses and add them to the
mix. There was something for just about every taste within the
A good example is Pagan attitudes toward sex. Temple prostitution was
accepted within the pagan tradition. On the other hand, suppose you are
totally turned off by sex. Well, you can join the cult of Attis
and Cybele where men go through a ceremony in which they are castrated,
giving up sex altogether. Whatever you are looking for, you can find
within the pagan tradition.
Another strength of paganism was its tie to the political system. Men
like Julius Caesar had gained prominence and popularity in part through
their service as aediles (religious officials) or, in Caesar’s case, as
Pontifex Maximus, the high priest of the Roman religion. When
Augustus establishes the emperor cult, the tie between politics and
religion is even closer. To question the religious tradition
means to question also the emperor and becomes close to treason.
But the greatest strength of paganism was its hold on people’s
imaginations. Paganism permeated every aspect of Roman society:
the arts, literature, etc. One out of every three days on the
Roman calendar was a religious celebration of one sort or
another. And there were all sorts of incentives to
participate. At a pagan sacrifice, the wealthier members of
society would provide a sacrificial animal. But the meat from
that animal might be shared among all those attending the sacrifice. A
free steak dinner! Who wants to turn that down?
Weaknesses of Pagan Rome
Nevertheless, there were some real weaknesses in Roman society,
weaknesses great enough that it is perhaps not so surprising that the
Romans would consider changing something even as fundamental as
Rome faced political problems. For over four centuries, Rome had
been a Republic. The Roman people elected their own leaders and
made there own laws. By the time of Augustus, the Republic had
come to an end, and there was among some Romans a feeling that
something had gone drastically wrong with their society when Romans
could no longer maintain their Republican form of government. And
while the imperial system wasn’t bad under men like Augustus, when you
had a Caligula or a Nero on the throne—well, obviously something had
gone wrong. Making matters worse was the periodic instability of
the imperial system. After Nero’s death, there were four emperors
in the space of a year: civil war and assassination a real
problem. Later, things would get even worse. Between 235
and 284 AD there were 26 emperors—only one of whom died a natural
death. Civil war, invasion, usurpers—no wonder the Romans were
looking for answers.
In addition, Rome faced the problem of ethical breakdown. The
Romans had once been among the most moral of all people. But, by
the time of Augustus, Roman morality was a thing of the past. This is
particularly clear when it came to sexual morality. One Roman writer
says that, in an earlier period of history, there was a two hundred
year period where he couldn’t find record of a single divorce. By
his own day, however, he wrote that people getting married expected to
divorce—and to remarry, and to divorce, and to remarry and to
divorce. And even when they were married, they didn’t pay much
attention to marital fidelity.
Now marriage breakdown is a sign of moral breakdown in general. A
fundamental principal of morality is the Golden Rule, do unto others as
you would have them do unto you. Suppose one doesn't follow this
rule in married life, that one treats the people one should love most
(wife, husband, and kids) with utter disrespect for their feelings. The
principle established is that my own desires are more important than
anything else—and it’s almost certain that, if one doesn't treat one's
family well, one won't treat others appropriately either. And
it’s no wonder that marital breakdown in Rome is paralleled by a
breakdown in political morality (bribery and corruption everywhere) and
economic immorality (vast fortunes made by exploiting others).
In addition to all this, Pagan religion itself had some growing
weaknesses. By associating their gods with those of the Greeks,
the Romans ended up absorbing Greek attitudes toward the gods.
While the original Jupiter had been the embodiment of noble principles,
the Greek Zeus was quite different—a god who spent his time cuckolding
mortal men, and who (if the myths could be believed) actually raped his
mother. Hardly the kind of god worthy of worship!
Further, the Romans inherited both Greek skepticism, a tendency to
doubt the gods even existed—and Greek fear of the supernatural.
Many Romans were (as the Apostle Paul noted) “deisidaimoneros”—too
fearful of demons.
But the greatest problem of all for the Roman people was simple that so
many of them were unhappy. A society based on slave labor meant
that many millions suffered harshly under the master's whip. It
also meant that, for many free-born Romans, there weren’t enough
jobs. As many as 1 out of every three Romans was on the
equivalent of welfare. Not having a meaningful job is
Roman leaders adopted an inadequate solution, the policy of bread and
circuses. Give the people enough to eat, and lots of
entertainment, and hope that that is enough.
Well, it wasn’t. Entertainments got more an more violent.
At first, a pair of gladiators fighting to the death was enough
amusement. But, by the time of Augustus, a *real* show might have
1000 pairs of gladiators!
The high rate of suicide is one clue as to the deep unhappiness of many
Romans. Also an indicator, the high rate of infanticide.
The most important sacrifice people make to keep their society going is
the sacrifice involved in the bearing and raising of children.
The fact that many Romans would no longer make this sacrifice shows a
society no longer providing emotional fulfillment, no longer convincing
people that it is a society worth making sacrifices for.
Christianity as a problem
So, with all this, was Christianity the obvious solution? Not at
all. At first, it looked like Christianity was just adding to the
problems of Rome.
Christians were thought to be a political problem. The wouldn't
swear an oath of allegiance to the emperor as a god, the equivalent of
not saying the flag salute. To a people worried about political
stability and sometimes invasion from without, Christian failure to
support the emperors divinity meant political disunity and potential
Likewise, Christians were believed to be horribly immoral people.
Pagans believed Christians practiced incest and cannibalism. They
also believed that Christians were atheists and haters of mankind.
Would you visit a church where, if rumor was to be believed, people
practiced cannibalism and incest? Where atheism and hatred
flourished? In view of such commonly held beliefs about
Christianity, it’s surprising people looked twice at this new faith.
Persecution of Christians
Also making the survival and eventual triumph of Christianity
surprising is the intense persecution of Christians.
Imperial persecution of Christians began with the emperor Nero.
Nero, who had been blamed for starting the fire that destroyed much of
Rome, needed a scapegoat. He blamed the Christians for the fire,
and began punishing them as if they really were responsible. He
killed most of the leaders (including Peter and Paul) and put the
Christian to horribly cruel deaths.
Nero, of course, was something of a madman, as were several of the
early persecutors. But good emperors and good officials
persecuted the Christians too. An example is the emperor Trajan
and Pliny, who served under Trajan as governor of Bithynia. Both
these men were competent leaders, and both had the interests of the
Roman people at heart. But though they know that none of the
rumors about Christians were true, they still persecuted them.
Pliny’s letter to Trajan (read in class) helps us make some
guesses. First of all, people are complaining about the
Christians. Those in the religion business found the competition
from Christianity hitting them where it hurt—right in the
pocketbook—and they ran crying to Pliny to do something about the harm
Christianity was doing to business. Further, the Christians were
simply stubborn: not willing to do what Pliny so reasonably asked them
Nevertheless, such persecution wasn’t likely to mean the end of
Christianity. Trajan and the good emperors weren’t seeking
Christians out: they just dealt with them appropriately if someone else
The situation for Christians worsened in the 3rd century. Political
instability, outside invasion, and a devastating plague had the Romans
more worried than ever that their society was falling apart. And who
was to blame? The Christians. Many Romans felt that the
gods were angry because so many people had quit worshipping them.
Bring back that old time religion, and thing would be good again.
One who felt that way was the emperor Decius. Around 250 AD,
Decius makes the first systematic attempt to rid the whole empire of
Christianity. And now the Christians would have been in
trouble—except that Decius had too much else on his plate. He has
neither the time nor the resources to make a thorough end of
But things change again for the Christians with the rise of Diocletian.
Diocletian was an exceptionally capable leader, and in many ways he
earned the title he claimed for himself, “restorer of the world.”
Diocletian took power in Rome after another series of usurpations,
mutinous armies, and assassinations. At first, he seemed like
just one more soldier emperor, no more likely to succeed than any of
his predecessors. But Diocletian was determined to preserve his
life, to preserve his power, and to restore peace and security to the
He came up with a brilliant way to do this. The problem for
previous emperors stemmed in large part from the necessity of fighting
on several fronts at the same time. The Rhine, Danube, and the
Euphrates all had to be well supplied with troops. But a general sent
out with enough force to deal with the problems in these areas was very
likely to succumb to the temptation of instead making his own bid for
power. An emperor could, of course, lead the troops himself…but
not in all three places at once!
So what do you do? Well, what if the man sent out cannot possibly
be made emperor? That might work, yes? But what kind of
person can't you make into an emperor? Well, what about someone
who is emperor already!!!
What Diocletian does is to divide the empire into two parts. He
chooses a co-emperor (an Augustus) to rule with him, Maximius.
Later, he adds two junior emperors (Caesars), Constantius and Galerius.
This is a more than decent solution to the problem. The Allemani are
beaten (note my use of passive voice for historical cheating—I forget
who is responsible for the victory, and I'm too lazy to look it up)
while Galerius pacifies the Goths and Diocletian inflicts a major
defeat on the Parthians.
Also, there is an obvious potential solution to the succession problem
here, a system sort of like that of the Five Good Emperors. When
an Augustus retires, his Caesar moves up, and chooses a new Caesar.
Political stability. Economic recovery. Hope for the
future…and just one more little problem to solve: the Christians.
In 303 AD (almost 20 years into his reign), Diocletian’s Caesar,
Galerius, convinced him that it was time to deal with one more serious
threat to the stability of the empire. Time to get the gods back
on their side, and deal, once and for all with the Christians. At
first, Diocletian ordered the churches destroyed, the scriptures
burned, and the exclusion of Christians from all offices and
This was not enough: he now ordered the leaders to be imprisoned and
compelled with every type of torture to sacrifice to the emperor as a
god. Still not enough. So Diocletian set out to get all the
Christians, rich and poor, young and old, male and female. Refuse
to sacrifice, and you’re imprisoned, tortured, and eventually dead.
And now the Christians were in real trouble. They had been
persecuted before, but never by a ruler with the ability to devote full
attention to the job. Diocletian (and even more Galerius) were
also doing there best to restore pagan worship, building temples,
planting groves, and sending pagan priests everywhere.
Not long after beginning this great persecution and trying to bring
back that old time religion of Rome, Diocletian decided to retire, and
to force his co-Augustus also into retirement. The new leaders:
Augusti: Constantius, Galerius
Caesars: Severus, Maximinus
This was as smooth a transition as possible. Diocletian had done
it! Stability. Peace. Prosperity. And those
pesky Christians would be gone soon as well.
But the best laid plans of mice and men gain oft aglay.
Constantius dies unexpectedly in 306 AD, and now there's a question:
who should take his place. Severus? Well, Constantius
soldiers say no: they want Constantine, the son of Constantius.
And, from retirement, Maximian pipes up with his own candidate:
Maxentius. Eventually, there are six Augusti fighting for two
spots…and Rome is at war with itself again….and with the Christians.
Galerius, despite the difficulties of the civil war (which should have
been his main priority) decided to step up the persecution of the
Christians. Eusebius of Caesarea, who was fortunate enough to
survive this bloody time, left us an account of some of those things
the Christians suffered:
1 It would be impossible to describe the outrages and tortures which
the martyrs in Thebais endured. They were scraped over the entire body
with shells instead of hooks until they died. Women were bound by one
foot and raised aloft in the air by machines, and with their bodies
altogether bare and uncovered, presented to all beholders this most
shameful, cruel, and inhuman spectacle.
2 Others being bound to the branches and trunks of trees perished. For
they drew the stoutest branches together with machines, and bound the
limbs of the martyrs to them; and then, allowing the branches to assume
their natural position, they tore asunder instantly the limbs of those
for whom they contrived this.
3 All these things were done, not for a few days or a short time, but
for a long series of years. Sometimes more than ten, at other times
above twenty were put to death. Again not less than thirty, then about
sixty, and yet again a hundred men with young children and women, were
slain in one day, being condemned to various and diverse torments.
4 We, also being on the spot ourselves, have observed large crowds in
one day; some suffering decapitation, others torture by fire; so that
the murderous sword was blunted, and becoming weak, was broken, and the
very executioners grew weary and relieved each other. And we beheld the
most wonderful ardor, and the truly divine energy and zeal of those who
believed in the Christ of God. For as soon as sentence was pronounced
against the first, one after another rushed to the judgment seat, and
confessed themselves Christians. And regarding with indifference the
terrible things and the multiform tortures, they declared themselves
boldly and undauntedly for the religion of the God of the universe. And
they received the final sentence of death with joy and laughter and
cheerfulness; so that they sang and offered up hymns and thanksgivings
to the God of the universe till their very last breath.
These indeed were wonderful; but yet more wonderful were those who,
being distinguished for wealth, noble birth, and honor, and for
learning and philosophy, held everything secondary to the true religion
and to faith in our Saviour and Lord Jesus Christ.
It seemed that, no matter what Galerius did, the Christians just
wouldn't give up.
Why not? Because, as much as some hated Christianity, many Romans
began to see Christianity as, not only a solution, but *the* solution
to the problems Rome faced.
The Gospel—Good News
Now if you are going to get people to change their religion, you better
have something pretty good to offer in its place. And the
Christians felt that they did, something so good they called in
“euangellion,” “the good news.” We usually translate the word as
The Gospel was good news first of all to the Jews. Now not all
Jews, of course, accepted the Christian message. But many Jews
did. Why did they accept the new religion? Well, because it
didn’t seem like a new religion at all. Instead, it seemed the
fulfillment of what they had believed for centuries. The Jews had
been waiting for a Messiah for hundreds of years, and Jesus in many
ways seemed to fill the bill, measuring up to what had been prophesied
in Isaiah, Daniel, Micah, Jeremiah, etc.
Also, Christianity offered as escape from the burden of the law.
There are some 613 commandments in the Old Testament. That seems
like a lot, but most are easy to keep, e.g., thou shalt not seethe a
calf in its mother's milk. But these laws had been gradually
extended by the Pharisees until they were very, very hard to
keep. Jesus taught that it wasn’t the external stuff that
counted, but what was in the heart. This, of course, is what the
prophet Isaiah had said more than seven centuries earlier. Thus, in
some ways, Christ's teaching seemed to be returning to the true
principles of Judaism.
The Christian message was also good news to slaves. In the
church, slave were received as equals, and slaves could and did rise to
high position within the church.
Likewise many philosophers found the Christian message far more in tune
with their beliefs than traditional paganism. Platonists like the
idea of future judgment and a world more important than this physical
world. Stoics found Christian ethical standards to be very
similar to their own.
Women also found Christianity appealing. Women played a prominent
role in Christianity right from the beginning (e.g., Mary the mother of
Jesus), and, of all the world's major religions, none gives so
prominent a place to women and to women's concerns.
But, beyond this, there is a wide general appeal of Christianity.
Christianity, for instance, offered a solution to the problem of
A good example of Christianity's recipe for marriage is Paul's letter
to the Ephesians. Paul tells women to be “subject” to their
husbands, and he tells husbands to love their wives as much as Christ
loved the church. The word “subject” is (in
Greek)”upotasso.” It is, in some ways, best understood as a
military term. “Tasso” is the word we get tactics from.
Women are being told to treat their husband like Roman soldiers treated
their commanders. What does this mean? Well, Roman soldiers
loved their commanders, each unit bragging that its commander was the
best. And this is the kind of thing that men want out of
marriage: a wife who is proud of her husband, who praises him and
supports him. And as to women, what they want out of marriage is
the reassurance that they are loved. If a man assures his wife
that she is loved, and a woman supports her husband as a really great
guy—well, 90% of the time, that marriage is going exactly in the right
There is more to it than that, but what is *very* clear is that the
Christian recipe for marriage worked! And in a society where
marital breakdown was a real issue, that was important.
Also important was the way Christianity dealt with ethical
problems. Jesus set very high ethical standards (e.g., the
standards set in the Sermon on the Mount). Note that Jesus raises
the ethical bar, making the standards higher. But he doesn't
follow the Pharisees. Instead of making the “outward” standards
higher, Jesus concentrates on heart attitudes.
The problem is that these standards seem to high. Who is never
angry? What man can honestly claim that he has never looked at a
woman to lust after her?
But here, too, Christianity has an important answer.
One of the great strengths of Christianity is that it is the religion
of the 2nd chance, the “mulligan” religion, the “do-over”
religion. One sees this over and over again in the New
Testament. The Gospel of John talks about being “born again,”
getting an entirely fresh start. The woman taken in adultery
isn't condemned, but she gets a fresh start too. And then there's
the Prodigal Son who, much to his surprise, finds his father waiting
with open arms. No need to sleep with the pigs! The fatted
In a world filled with people who felt like failure, a religion that
promised a fresh start—well, it’s hard to beat that.
And, above all, Christianity offered love. Greek has three
different words for love. The highest of these loves is agape, a
selfless, all-encompassing sort of love. The Gospel message promises
everyone this kind of love. “For God so loved the world that he
gave his only begotten son that whosoever believeth in him should not
perish but have everlasting life.”
People want to be loved and, no matter what Maslow says, this may just
be the most fundamental element in the ‘hierarchy of needs.” For
the Christians, it certainly was. The love of God was more
important than life itself, and many of them gave their lives out of
love of their God and so that other might experience this love.
“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church,” said
Tertullian. And so it was: persecution usually backfired.
As Christians died for their faith, more an more Romans began to
believe that they had to have something worth dying for. And
among those who came to believe this…
Well, here’s the first part of the great surprise.
The Great Surprise
It’s AD 311. A sick Galerius is on what he suspects is his death
bed. But he still has time to issue one of the strangest decrees
in history, the Edict of Toleration (read in class).
It didn’t do Galerius any good…at least not in this life, and Galerius
death made the political situation in Rome even more confused.
And then we get the beginning of another great turning point for Rome.
One of the contenders for Augustus in the West, Constantine, was headed
toward a decisive battle—and he knew it. On the eve of the
battle, he supposedly had a dream instructing him to put the chi/rho
symbol on his banners. And then, before the battle itself, he
looked up to the sun for a sign. Well, he got his sign…and perhaps a
voice as well, “in this, conquer.”
What’s it mean? Well, your guess is as good as mine, and probably
better, but Constantine thought these things were signs of favor from
the Christian God. And since that god had favored him, he was
determined to return the compliment.
He, and his partner in the east Licinius, issue the Edict of Milan
(313), a decree favoring the Christians (read in class).
Constantine soon went beyond the Milan edict with…
--Money to Christian clergy
--Laws against those trying to turn people away from the church
--The exemption of Christian clergy from taxes
--The forbidding of soothsaying in private (though public soothsaying
--Sunday set aside as a day of rest (for everyone except farmers)
Thus in less than ten years, Christianity had emerged from the greatest
of all persecutions as the religion most favored by the Roman state!
“Many are the forms of divine intervention,” said Euripides, “many
things beyond expectation do the gods fulfill. That which was
expected hasn't been accomplished; for that which was unexpected ha god
found away. Such was the end of this story.”
Could anyone living in the time of Augustus have predicted this?
Could anyone have known that, within a relatively short time paganism
would be replaced by a new religion?
Yes. Someone did. To paraphrase a famous poem, he was a poor man
from a poor country, a man who never traveled far from where he was
born, who never held political office, who commanded no armies, and
wrote no books—who never did any of those things one usually associates
with greatness. And yet he was a man who changed the world more
than any individual who has ever lived and who quite clearly knew he
was changing the world. A man who told his followers, “Go ye unto
all the world and preach the gospel to every living creature.”
That man, of course, Jesus of Nazareth. Is it surprising that
people would follow him, or is it not?