Christianity and the Roman Empire: Thesis

Excerpt from Thesis :

Decius had come to the throne at a particularly crucial time. Rome had just celebrated its one thousandth year of rule in 247, but the Goths had attacked Rome in 248. Decius had forced the Goths out of the Danube provinces and in return had been hailed emperor by his troops (he would die fighting the Goths in June 251). In the midst of this crisis, Decius appealed to the gods of the empire for help in restoring it. Forces that interfered with a harmonious relationship between the Romans and the gods were to be eliminated. That meant the Christians. Although the persecution did not last long, it was the first general persecution of the Christians by Roman authorities and was to be repeated again under the Emperor Valerian in 257-260 and under Diocletian with the great persecution, which began on February 23, 303.

Doran 10-11)

Doran also point out that the persecution of the Christians and the effect it had on the empire was inclusive of religious and regional threats much greater than the Christians themselves, threats were constant and from many sources, not just the internal early Christian settlers. Again the history intermingling Roman history with Christian history is likely to blame for the emphasis of the Christian persecution, above all others in the resources.

We must not neglect the religious motives of the persecutors: The empire was constantly under threat in the latter part of the third century. Few emperors died peacefully; most died on the battlefield. In this atmosphere of crisis, the emperors asked for help from their traditional benefactors, the gods, and sought to remove anything or anyone who might displease them. But we should not overlook the fact that the persecutions were sporadic and provoked by some immediate crisis or that most Christians were not quite so uninvolved with worldly affairs.

Doran 11)

Here Doran attests to the fact that Christians where by no means universal in their rejection of traditional Roman values and affairs and that some early Christians were even soldiers in employ of the empire, presumably living by many of the traditional pagan standards of the soldiering classes.

Some Christians were Roman soldiers, even though that would have required them to participate in the pagan rituals soldiers normally performed and leading Christians such as Tertullian, Hippolytus of Rome, and Origen opposed Christian participation in military service. 3 the Christian art remaining from the third century combines religious themes with decorative schemes common to contemporary pagan work, as, for example, in the catacomb of Domitilla in Rome, where Christ is depicted, like Orpheus, amid animals. 4 Bishop Cyprian of Carthage in the mid-third century C.E. warned against priests combining their clerical office with secular affairs, acting as bailiffs on imperial or private estates, or functioning as trustees for family pension funds (Letter 1). In Caesarea a little earlier, the great theologian Origen had been no more flattering in his portraits of Christian audiences in his sermons: men concerned about business and how to make money, women gossiping so loudly nothing could be heard (Homilies on Exodus 13.3).We can sense this involvement with the world most clearly, perhaps, in the effect of the first official empirewide persecution of the Christians by the Emperor Decius. Many Christians lapsed and offered sacrifice, while others offered bribes to obtain certificates stating they had sacrificed. When Bishop Cyprian returned to his hometown after the persecution was over, he distinguished for penitential purposes between those who had actually lapsed and sacrificed and those who had only acquired a certificate (on the Lapsed 2728). Presumably the ability to bribe depended on wealth and rank.

Doran 11)

Looking at this historical trend in fact gives much insight into the potential for the influence of Christianity on the empire. Christians, for the most part likely involved themselves in all the same affairs and standards as non-Christian Romans, seeking influence, ambition and wealth just like any other member of the Roman society.

Christianity as Good and Rome as Evil

Another monumental trend in the history of these two movements, Roman and Christian is the idea that Christianity and the Roman Empire were in constant strife with the Christian rising on the side of good and Roman rising on the side of evil. This is likely the most modern of all historical constructs with regard to the influence Christianity had on the Roman Empire. Christians like all others were just as opportunistic as any other individual group in a relatively multi-cultural region.

We turn with relief from this sickening picture to view a better side of ancient society, and note the rise and spread of higher and purer moral ideas. The good and true found advocates and received expression even in this sinful age. The Graeco-Roman world was not as corrupt as the Roman Court, else it had been a cesspool of iniquity. There has never been a long truce in any period in the conflict of good and evil. We have already noted some powerful factors conducive to moral confusion. Without exaggeration, the period before and after the advent of Christianity was the greatest crisis in worldhistory. Old landmarks were swept away; a thousand interests demanded allegiance from men in a state of indecision.

Angus 51)

Angus, a historian who is slightly more contemporary than Gibbon, perpetuates the idea that Christians were in constant struggle against Rome and its ideals and standards, which were seen as evil, while Christian values were seen as the source of all that is good and light. "Depravity," as the Christians (or modern historians more commonly) like to attest was what worked for the Empire for more than a thousand years and Christianity was a new trend.

Turning Tides

Once the Christian Church began to influence the empire and in fact govern it to a large degree, in large part due to high officials and even emperors seeking allegiance with a powerful societal order the Christian movement really began to influence the Roman Empire in a substantial way. It is arguable that such influence occurred long after the Christian church was considered to in its "early" phase.

It became ominous for subsequent history that the first General Council of the Church was signalized by bitter excommunications and banishments. Christians, having acquired the art of disposing of hostile criticism by searching out and burning the objectionable books of their Pagan adversaries, learned to apply the same method to the works of such groups of Christians as were not in power or in favour for the time; when this method proved unsatisfactory, they found it expedient to burn their bodies. The chained skeleton 3 found in the Mithraic chapel at Sarrebourg testifies to the drastic means employed by Christians in making the truth conquer otherwise than by the methods taught and exemplified by the Founder. The stripping and torture to death with oyster-shells in a Christian church and the subsequent mangling of limb from limb of Hypatia, the noblest representative of Neo-Platonism of her day, by the violent Nitrian monks and servitors of a Christian bishop, and probably with his connivance, were symptomatic and prophetic of that intolerance and fanaticism which Christianity was to direct throughout the centuries upon its disobedient members and troublesome minorities until the day -- yet to dawn -- when a purer, more convincing because more spiritual, Christianity gains "the consent of happier generations, the applause of less superstitious ages."The empire was partially Christianized and the Church partially paganized. The imperialism of Rome rather than the freedom 1 and educational value of the Greek tradition generally triumphed with and after Constantine. With this nominal conversion of the empire, the new Roman power, based on a Semitic religion for which Greece had so largely won the victory, began that process whereby the Roman genius for order and organization in government acquired a vaster and more permanent dominion through religion than it had lost in the political and military fields. The bishops of Rome acquired a more lasting authority than that secured by their imperial predecessors and by the legions of Rome.

Angus 105-106)

Angus 105)

Decay" of the Roman Empire and its early connectivity to non-Christian ideals and faiths was not essentially prominent, until such time that the Christian movement became a much more official faith and standard for regional and monolithic governments.

As a phenomenon of decay of ancient civilization Rostovtzeff includes "the development of a new mentality among the masses." "It was the mentality of the lower classes, based exclusively on religion and not only indifferent but hostile to the intellectual achievements of the higher classes.... It is revealed by the spread among them of the various mystic religions, partly Oriental, partly Greek. The climax was reached in the triumph of Christianity" (Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire, p. 479).

Angus 114)

As Angus points out in his arguably…

Sources Used in Document:

Works Cited

Angus, S. The Environment of Early Christianity. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1919.

Angus, S. The Religious Quests of the Graeco-Roman World: A Study in the Historical Background of Early Christianity. New York: Biblo and Tannen, 1967.

Cosgrove, Peter. Impartial Stranger: History and Intertextuality in Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 1999.

Doran, Robert. Birth of a Worldview: Early Christianity in Its Jewish and Pagan Context. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995.

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