Christianity in the Roman Empire

Introduction

There has always been a link between Rome and Christianity since the first Christians were Romans in the sense that they lived in the Roman Empire and had their culture and language heavily influenced by the dominant Roman culture.

However, in its early years, Christianity had negligible political power compared to the Roman Empire. Christians did not share in Roman religious practice because they thought that Romans worshiped idols; a practice prohibited in Christianity. This led to Christians being persecuted in the early years of the religion.

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Christianity prevailed politically in the fourth century when it took over the political institutions and laws of the Roman Empire. Henceforth, Christianity and the Roman Empire had an intricate and dynamic relationship which had important consequences for both.

This paper will discuss the role of Christianity in the Roman Empire with specific focus on the influence of Christianity on the politics of the time. The paper will begin by providing a brief history of religion in the Roman Empire and trace the rise of Christianity within the Empire.

Early Roman Empire Religion

The Roman Empire enjoyed significant cultural, economic, and military success starting from 200BC to 200AD. The subjects of the Empire enjoyed a high standard of living due to the accumulated wealth and the expansionary success of the Empire.

The Roman Empire incorporated many cultures and embraced a multitude of religions as a result of its expansionist politics. Roman popular religion was “pagan” in that they worshipped multiple gods, enacted rituals and engaged in animal sacrifice. In addition to this, the Roman emperors were to be worshipped as gods by all the subjects of the Empire.

In the early years, Roman authorities endorsed religious diversify and cults or religious organizations were allowed to operate as long as they did not cause public disorder. As a result of the polytheistic religion, Roman paganism was generally tolerant and the gods which individual citizens worshiped was of no particular concern since the god someone else worshiped was not viewed as a threat. Christianity joined the pool of religions that were already present in the Roman Empire.

Early Years of Christianity in the Roman Empire

Christianity began as a tiny religious splinter group that grew to become the dominant religion in the entire Roman Empire. Christianity was the religion started by Jesus Christ and to be a Christian simply meant to live by the teachings of Jesus. In the years following the crucifixion of Jesus, Christianity benefited from Roman tolerance for religious diversity.

Willems (1993) notes that because of this tolerance, there was no attempt to completely eliminate Christians in the early years of the religion. In its early years, Christianity was viewed with contempt since it was regarded as a sect which appealed primarily to slaves and women (Rietbergen, 1998).

Initial objection to Christianity was caused by a number of factors. To begin with, Christianity had its origins in the lowest strata and the followers practiced underground making it a secretive religion.

In addition to this, Christians refused to worship Roman deities or even the deified emperors. While the Roman authorities were at first not worried about the Christian sect, they began to persecute individual Christians as enemies of the state due to the tenets of the Christian faith, especially its abhorrence of emperor worship (Rietbergen, 1998).

Because of their loyalty to the one God, Christians refused to make sacrifices to the gods and emperor of the Roman Empire and for this, they were suspected of treason and suffered persecution. The refusal by Christians to take part in religious rituals which were mandated by law was therefore a major factor provoking persecution by Roman authorities.

After AD 250, the religion was made illegal and bloody, large-scale persecution of the followers took place. This persecution did not diminish the popularity of this new religion and instead, Christianity was able to grow considerably even under severe persecution from the government. However, the wide-scale persecution made public worship by Christians impossible and people were unwilling to publicly declare their faith for fear of repercussions.

Even with these difficulties, the religion was able to acquire a significant following. By the end of the first three centuries after the death of Christ, Christianity had developed significant influence and boasted of significant influence in the Roman Empire. This can be attributed to the fact that in the final centuries of the Roman Empire, the state was falling into chaos and people were turning to the teachings of the Christians in search of answers as life became increasingly difficult.

Dominance of Christianity in Rome

The union between church and state traces its origins to the reign of Emperor Constantine (Willems, 1993). Constantine became a supporter of Christianity owing to the increasing importance that the Christian minority were having in the Empire. Willems (1993) notes that it was in Constantine’s best political interests to gain the support of the church if he hoped to control the Empire.

As previously noted, in the first three centuries AD, Christians were at risk of execution for refusing to worship the gods of the empire. Constantine developed a policy of religions toleration which led to an end to the persecution that Christians had faced in the past centuries. The most important proclamation was what the “decree of Milan which was issued in AD 313 (Rietbergen, 1998).

The “Decree of Milan” was a series of orders addressed to important civil servants all over the Roman Empire which called for an end to Christian prosecution and demanded that the Christians be given the same freedom to practice their religion as other religions. Christianity was recognized as a licensed cult and its followers could now profess their faith without fear of persecution.

Constantine was therefore instrumental in the helping Christianity to become legally equal to other religions. He also actively promoted the adoption of Christianity by many Romans therefore increasing the following of the religion. These actions led the church to hail Constantine as the Champion of the Christian cause.

There is lack of consensus whether Constantine adopted Christianity as a result of political opportunity or out of a personal religious conviction. Regardless of the reason, Constantine’s conversion to Christianity heralded a new dawn for this previously disreputable religion.

Christianity assumed not only a position of favor with the state but it became the chosen instrument for political regeneration (Wolin, 2006). Both Christianity and the Roman Empire stood to benefit from the union between state and religion. For Christianity, having the state actively promoting the faith increased the reach of the religion significantly. For the state, Christianity offered a model that could be exploited for political ends.

Influence of Christianity on Politics

Christianity held the moral allegiance of the people and it was therefore an important force in controlling the conduct of the people. Clark (2004) observes that the teachings of the religion called for the abidance with a strict code of moral conduct for all followers. Christianity helped the Roman Empire to create good citizens who were integral to the success of the Empire. The Church articulated the responsibilities of the Christian citizenship.

Another important role that Christianity played is that it encouraged communal bonds. Christians formed communities bound to one another in which people could live in harmony and peace. The political system therefore worked through the church to maintain the morality of the masses. This was important since a disciplined nation was easier to rule compared with an unruly one.

Christianity acted as a unifying religion which suited the Roman Empire’s needs. Using this religion, Rome hoped to unite its most dangerous opponents and therefore ensured its continued prosperity. This unification was made possible by the universal appeal of Christianity was also helpful for the Roman Empire which was made up of diverse cultures and people of varying social standings.

Christianity was accommodative to all classes of people and its promise of eternal life and reward was for the rich, poor, aristocrats and slaves alike. Romans philosophers were impressed with Christian monotheism and the adherence to ancient laws by the followers.

Following the unification of church and state under Constantine, a vast number of Romans converted to Christianity. The civil law put in place promoted Christian values and there was a blurring in the distinction between the theological notions of sin and legal consequences of crime (Willems, 1993, p.11).

The Church taught that there existed Good and Evil ant that man could only escape his own inclination towards evil, and therefore injustice and misery by submitting to God. Submission to God required man to follow the teachings and rules of the Church which had been established on earth by Jesus (Rietbergen, 1998). The church and the state were inextricably linked and while the church expected the government to validate its doctrines, the government relied on the church to preach its politics on the pulpit.

Politicians need the backing of a significant portion of the population and Christianity provided the Roman Emperor Constantine with a much needed support-base as well as a platform from which he could reach his subjects. Constantine and the emperors who followed him promoted Christianity and therefore made it a partner in the controlling of the Roman Empire.

The privileges that the state afforded the church led to a vindication of imperial authority. While Christianity had previously been opposed to Roman rule, church leaders and their followers now acknowledged the divine right to rule of the Emperor.

Christian leaders took up some leadership roles in the Empire. The Christian bishops who were in essence supervisors were given a role in the local administration of law. A strong and unified church had tremendous political advantage as long as its loyalty to the Empire was unquestionable. The strong Christian attachment to the empire led to increased loyalty to the Emperor by the Christian subjects.

Wolin (2006) states that to early Christians, there was a major distinction between political and religious order in that the latter alone controlled the practices of redemption. Therefore, while the government provided peace and order and an environment which fostered prosperity, it did not advance the salvation of the believers.

This changed as the church gained more political power and therefore demonstrated that the power could promote the divine mission of the Church. An important development is that there was an equating of Roman law with God’s law. The state could in effect define church doctrine and people were obliged to follow it.

The Roman Empire was renowned for their military adventures which were characterized by repression and domination over conquered territories. Augustine (1631) defended the use of power through Christianity. He argued that unity was a desirable quality of society since it contributed to an environment of peace which made a Christian life possible.

Augustine endorsed the use of righteous persecution since according to him; power and love were not mutually inconsistent. Such a stance was supported by the Romans since they could make exercise great cruelty and punishment so long as it was motivated by a spirit of charity.

Christianity served to reinforce imperial authority since it treated the empire as an instrument of divine policy. It helped to strengthen political authority and hence increase the hold of the Roman Empire over its subjects. This is because the religion taught that the existing political order was from God and that it was for the good of the Christians.

This idea was especially emphasized by the apostle Paul who stated that Christians should be subject to the governing authorities. Wolin (2006) states that the Apostle Paul put up a strong case for political obedience by stating that “the powers that be are ordained of God… whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God” (p.89). Christians acknowledged the Roman state as the bearer of order in the world.

Those powers appointed in human society had the divine right to exercise authority over the lesser and to command their obedience. Augustine (1631) argued that the creation of the Roman monarch and of the advent of the pax Romana was not an act of man but rather willed by God. This notion that the Roman empire was founded by God and invested by him with a redemptive purpose for all humanity led to great allegiance being paid to the Roman Empire.

Christianity helped to develop a political consciousness that was mostly advantageous to the Roman Empire authority. This consciousness was emphasized by Augustine (1631) who viewed the Roman Empire authority as the vehicle for human fulfillment. If the Roman Empire could facilitate the Christian life, then politics was to be seen as a central aspect of Christian life.

The Roman Empire had a mission to unite the whole human race under one from of authority and since this assist in converting the world to Christ, the Empire had Christian sanction. Augustine declared that those in authority have the power to command their subjects to do things which might be contrary to customs or constitutions. He states that it is lawful for a king in the city he reigns over to command that which never any prince before him has (p.129).

Christianity assisted the Roman Empire to continue with its expansionist ambitions. Once it had become the state religion in Rome, Christianity created the conditions for a fanatical use of political and military force to obtain uniformity in the realm and to resolve conflicts by force.

Augustine of Hippo elaborated a theory of Just War which was an effort to control, tame, and use violence constructively (Coward & Smith, 2004). Augustine stated that if unjust conditions exist, then peace can be achieved through war. The Roman Empire was therefore justified in its use of violent upheaval to restore peace to its integrity.

Christianity seemed to imbue life with a meaning and purpose beyond the simple material things of everyday reality. The Roman Empire was rife with social inequality with the gap between the rich and the poor very wide. Christian teachings offered relief for the poor and advocated for contentment.

The religion did not call for a revolution or social upheaval but rather emphasized on a sense of spiritual equality for all people (Augustine, 1631). Roman rulers were able to pacify their subjects by use of religious literature. Christianity teaches that human beings should bear with their suffering on earth for they have rewards that await them in heaven. Clark (2004) states that Christianity diverted the attention of the masses from their present suffering to happiness in heaven.

Christianity enabled the Roman Empire to maintain control of the people in the face of calamities since they would be urged in such moments to seek the divine will of God. The Church issued treatise which reminded the subjects of the Roman Empire of the special role given to the empire by God. Such treatises warned those undermining it and threatened them with eternal damnation (Coward & Smith, 2004).

While Christianity was a religion of peace, it also allowed politicians to engage in warfare. Coward and Smith (2001) document that the use of “pax” which was a political and military attempt to avoid war through domination. In such a context, the absence of war came about as a result of the overwhelming imbalance of power between Rome and its rivals which made the thoughts of violent confrontation unreasonable. Since the teachings of Christ emphasized peace, Christians supported this deterrence measure by the Roman Empire.

Christianity made it possible for the Roman Empire to justify its Authoritarian rule. While early Christian communities were initially democratic in nature, the union of church and state led to the establishment of a hierarch. The power resided at the top of the ecclesiastical hierarchy with the faithful being required to pray, pay and obey.

The Christian holy book, the bible, acted as a guide to the conduct of the followers of the faith in the Empire. The 10 commandments as articulated in the Old Testament acted as a source of Ethics in the Empire. Political leaders were guardians of the Decalogue (Ten Commandments) and they could evoke laws from the bible to justify their actions or to make people act in a manner that was beneficial to the Empire.

The Decline of Roman Empire

Christianity temporarily helped to reunite the once warring West and East Roman empire. However, the empire became permanent divided and the western empire collapsed in the fifth century as a result of foreign invasion. Rome’s decline was caused by centuries of civil war, corruption in politics and economic difficulties suffered by the Empire’s subjects. All this was compounded by the infiltration of Germanic peoples into Rome frontiers in the fourth and fifth centuries.

The Battle of Adrianople in 378 AD where the Visigoths revolted against the Romans signaled the start of the end of the Roman Empire. The battle resulted in the defeat of the mighty Roman army to barbarian hordes. The old Roman Empire in the west was therefore disintegrated.

However, Roman civilization did not disappear and the organization of the Empire was preserved through the structure of the Roman Catholic Church and Roman law continued to form the basis for the Church’s law. As such, despite the collapse of Rome it still regained its status as the center of western Christianity and it continues to do this to date since Rome is the spiritual center of Catholicism.

Conclusion

This paper set out to discuss the influence of Christianity in the politics of the Roman Empire. The paper has shown that at the start, Roman popular religion was “pagan” and people were allowed to worship any god. Christianity which began as a small sect was outlawed since it did not permit the worship of the Emperor.

During this period, the Christian Church remained pure and free from political influence until Constantine’s era. After this, it became a predominant force in Roman politics. This paper has suggested that it was political necessity that led to the rise of Christianity as the official Roman religion.

As has been documented, Christianity played an important role in Roman Politics since it enabled political traditions to be legitimized by reference to religion. The paper has demonstrated how the idea of God as expressed through the Christian faith had a profound impact on political ideas in the Roman Empire. While the Roman Empire collapsed, the influence of Christianity on Rome continued persevered to the 21st century.

References

Augustine, A. (1631). St. Augustine’s Confessions. T.E. Page & W.H. Rouse (Eds.), The Loeb Classical Library. London: William Heinemann.

Clark, G. (2004). Christianity and Roman Society. Oxford: Cambridge University Press.

Coward, H.G. & Smith, G.S. (2004). Religion and Peace building. Boston: SUNY Press.

Rietbergen, J.P. (1998). Europe: A Cultural History. NY: Routledge.

Willems, K.E. (1993). Constantine and Christianity: the formation of the Christian State Church. London: The Concord Review.

Wolin, S.S. (2006). Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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