Christianity in The Roman Empire
The Spread of Christianity
In many ways the spread of Christianity through the Roman Empire is a testimony to the truth of the message and the work of the living resurrected Lord. Thousands of slaves, criminals and traitors were crucified and have been forgotten into history. However, the crucifixion of one unknown man in the far eastern corner of the vast roman empire went on to completely transform the entire shape of the known world and would continue to do so for all history.
The Apostles began to preach that Jesus of Nazareth had risen from the dead. They claimed He was alive and the one and only true living God. Pilate reported to Emperor Tiberius on this matter who took it before the senate who decreed that faith in the Risen Christ as a God was not authorized by the Roman Empire and as such illegal. At this stage Christianity was still largely unknown and although outlawed was not actively pursued or persecuted against and it remained this way throughout Tiberius’s reign. So the message of the Jesus Christ continued to be passionately preached by its followers, none more than St. Paul. He travelled tirelessly throughout the empire taking full advantage of the excellent network of roads and shipping routes plus his roman citizenship to allow the message to spread quickly over thousands of miles.
Covering great distances and preaching to many people is not enough to spread the faith. What truly captured the people was the heart piercing message that was both unique and radicle. Firstly all were included as equal children of God; this gave a meaning to the lives of the slaves (the slaves numbered 8 million) and a voice to women. The poor and rich were to be seen as equal and reward in Heaven depended on the goodness of your heart and extent of your devotion. Not your wealth or what you could afford to sacrifice or if you were free or slave. It was a refreshing wind that blew into peoples lives, they could escape the struggle and injustice of this life knowing that in fact there was much meaning to there lives. The orphan, widow and cripple could all belong and were free from social isolation.
Secondly this was a time when plagues and infections could spread quickly killing thousands. Often the first people to leave the dying would be the doctors. Without any effective treatments they knew staying in places of epidemics would only put themselves at risk. But the Christians would come and care for these people. Those who had no doctor had the care and compassion of Christians. Look at this account from Dionysius of Alexandria in 260 AD.
“Most of the Christians in our city showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of others. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending their every need, helping and comforting them — and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pain.”
Thirdly it was a time of loose morals; people had tolerance of all sexual behavior with little condemnation. Christianity seemed to offer a discipline that could have been seen as restrictive but was welcomed as liberating. It taught family values and people remarked on just how different a Christian appeared, such as this account from a letter to Diogntus in the 2nd century.
They marry, as do all others; they have children; but they do not commit infanticide. They invite strangers to their table, but not into their bed ... they obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death ... to sum it up: As the soul is in the body, so Christians are in the world. The soul is dispersed through all the members of the body, and Christians are scattered through all the cities of the world ... the invisible soul is guarded by the visible body, and Christians are known indeed to be in the world, but their godliness remains invisible.
Such a force of goodness was impossible to stop, and in the first centuries Christianity grew at a rate of 40 percent per decade (1,000 Christians by 40 AD and 7,500 by 100AD). It kept growing year by year and as its popularity grew the Romans started to feel threatened and the persecutions intensified yet despite the killing of hundreds of thousands the church hit 6 million people by the reign of Diocletian in 284 AD (10 percent of the known world).
From the years 303 – 311 were the fiercest and most intense persecutions targeted at eliminating Christianity yet by 350AD the church had its biggest explosion to 33 million (50 percent). Emperor Constantine’s reign signified an end to roman persecution and he had chosen to become baptized himself just before his death, but by then the Christian population had grown to become the majority religion any way.
This was all despite the terrible fear that comes with being a Christian, you had to gather in secret, always watching your back for if anyone found out you were a Christian you could be beaten or have your livelihood destroyed. Arrest would lead to torture and a terrible death either by crucifixion, beating, beheading or even in the coliseum where death would come by either a wild beast or boiling tar.
So it can be seen that persecution only served to fortify the Christian faith. It deepened the spiritual aspect as all followers turned to Christ Himself for support.
Emperor Nero (54AD) was the first era of persecutions, Nero was well known for his cruelty and paranoia that ended with him killing own brother, mother and wives. In 64 AD he falsely blamed the Christians for a great fire in Rome and began a mass killing of Christians mainly in Rome. It was under Nero that both St Peter and St Paul were martyred in Rome. This became the first of ten eras of mass persecution of Christians from 64 AD – 311AD under the following Emperors: Domitian, Trajan, Marcus Aurelius, Septimius Severus, Maximinus, Decius, Valerian, Aurelian, and Diocletian.
The final era of persecution is well recognised as the most cruel and severe under the reign of Diocletian. Rising from the son of slaves to become a solider he quickly distinguished himself as a great solider to the point where he became commander of the entire army, with the popularity of the army and the Emperors sons murdered it was his throne to claim. He came to power in 284 AD and was slow to become a persecutor of Christians. This was due to the vast task of upholding such a vast empire that spanned 66 million people over 2 million square miles. He divided the empire into east and west, taking control of the east himself and his loyal but brutal military general and friend Maximianus controlling the west.
Although his name is associated with the worst persecutions the fact remains that for the majority (first 19 years) of his reign the Christians enjoyed relative peace. It was his second in command Galerius and his co-ruler Maximianus who had a deep and personal hatred for the Christians and introduced Diocletian to the idea of persecuting the Christians.
In 302AD they passed laws ordering the destruction of churches and Christian scriptures. It was illegal for Christians to gather for worship. In 303AD the next edict came ordering all bishops, priests and deacons to be arrested and must offer sacrifices to Roman Gods and those refusing would be tortured and executed. These edicts were carried were enforced relentlessly with entire towns being wiped out, Egypt and Alexandria suffered its worst persecution during this period. The following account is from Eusebius talking of what he saw in Alexandria:
I myself saw some of these mass executions by decapitation or fire, a slaughter that dulled the murderous axe until it wore out and broke in pieces, while the executioners grew so tired that they had to work in shifts. But I also observed a marvelous eagerness and a divine power and enthusiasm in those who placed their faith in Christ: as soon as the first was sentenced, others would jump up on the tribunal in front of the judge and confess themselves Christians. Heedless of torture in its terrifying forms but boldly proclaiming their devotion to the God of the universe, they received the final sentence of death with joy, laughter, and gladness, singing hymns of thanksgiving to God until their last breath.
Wonderful as these were, even more admirable were those distinguished for their wealth, birth and reputation, as well as for learning and philosophy, who yet put everything second to true piety and faith in Jesus Christ. One such was Philoromus, an important officer in the imperial administration at Alexandria, who daily conducted judicial investigations and had a military bodyguard befitting his Roman rank. Another was Phileas, Bishop of Thmuis, as famed for his command of philosophy. A host of relatives and friends begged them, as did high-ranking officials, and even the judge himself urged them to have mercy on themselves and spare their wives and children. Yet all this pressure was not enough for them to favor the love of life over our Savior’s warning about confessing or denying him. So with a brave and philosophic determination-or rather with a reverent and God-loving spirit-they stood firm against all the judge’s threats and insults, and both were beheaded
In 305AD Diocletian abdicated but Galerius and Maximian continued to maintain the severe persecution up until 312 AD when Constantine took command of the empire, who started as a sympathiser and finally himself became a Christian.