The Growth of Christianity in the Roman Empire

The Rome of today is no longer the centre of a great empire. It is still globally important though, with more than one billion people looking to it as the centre of the Roman Catholic faith.

The city of empire and the city of faith are linked.

Distant view of the Vatican City from Rome

Photo by Sébastien Bertrand via Wikimedia Commons

Rome’s eventual adoption of Christianity, after centuries of indifference and periodic persecution, gave the new faith enormous reach. St Peter was killed in Nero’s great persecution following the fire of 64 AD; but by 319 AD, Emperor Constantine was building the church that was to become St Peter’s Basilica over his grave.

Religion in Rome

Roman religious sacrifice at pagan temple

Photo by Matthias Kabel via Wikimedia Commons

Since its foundation Rome was  a deeply religious society and religious and political office often went hand in hand. Julius Caesar was Pontifex Maximums, the highest priest, before he was elected as Consul, the highest Republican political role.

The Romans worshipped a large collection of gods, some of them borrowed from the Ancient Greeks, and their capital was full of temples where by sacrifice, ritual and festival the favour of these deities was sought.

Julius Caesar approached god-like status at the height of his powers and was deified after his death. His successor Augustus encouraged this practice. And although this apotheosis to divine status happened after death, the Emperor became a god to many Romans, an idea Christians were to later find highly offensive.

As Rome grew it encountered new religions, tolerating most and incorporating some into Roman life. Some, however, were singled out for persecution, usually for their ‘un-Roman’ nature. The cult of Bacchus, a Roman incarnation of the Greek god of wine, was repressed for its supposed orgies; and the Celtic Druids were all but wiped out by the Roman military, reportedly for their human sacrifices. Jews were also persecuted, particularly after Rome’s long and bloody conquest of Judea.

Christianity in the Empire

Nero's persecution of Christians

Christianity was born in the Roman Empire. Jesus Christ was executed by Roman authorities in Jerusalem, a city in a Roman province.

His disciples set about spreading the word of this new religion with remarkable success in the crowded cities of the Empire.

Early persecutions of Christians were probably carried out at the whim of provincial governors and there was also occasional mob violence. Christians’ refusal to sacrifice to Roman gods could be seen as a cause of bad luck for a community, who might petition for official action.

The first – and most famous – great persecution was the work of Emperor Nero. Nero was already unpopular by the time of the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD. With rumours that the Emperor himself was behind the fire circulating, Nero picked on a convenient scapegoat and many Christians were arrested and executed.

It wasn’t until the reign of the Emperor Decius in 250 AD that Christians were again put under Empire-wide official sanction. Decius ordered every inhabitant of the Empire to make a sacrifice in front of Roman officials. The edict may not have had specific anti-Christian intent, but many Christians did refuse to go through the ritual and were tortured and killed as a result. The law was repealed in 261 AD.

Diocletian, the head of the four-man Tetrarch, instituted similar persecutions in a series of edicts from 303 AD, calls that were enforced in the Eastern Empire with particular enthusiasm.

The ‘Conversion’

christianity in the roman empire

16th century depiction of Constantine the Great’s conversion at the Milvian Bridge

The apparent ‘conversion’ to Christianity of Constantine, Diocletian’s immediate successor in the Western Empire, is seen as the great turning point for Christianity in the Empire.

Persecution had ended before Constantine’s reported miraculous vision and adoption of the cross at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 AD. He did, however, issue the Edict of Milan in 313, allowing Christians and Romans of all faiths ‘liberty to follow that mode of religion which to each of them appeared best.’ Christians were allowed to take part in Roman civic life and Constantine’s new eastern capital, Constantinople, contained Christian churches alongside pagan temples.

The extent of Constantine’s conversion is still not clear. He gave money and land to the Christians and founded churches himself, but also patronised other religions. He wrote to Christians to tell them that he owed his success to their faith, but he remained Pontifex Maximus until his death. His deathbed baptism by Pope Sylvester is only recorded by Christian writers long after the event.

Official Religion

Photo by Andreas Tille via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Andreas Tille via Wikimedia Commons

After Constantine, Emperors either tolerated or embraced Christianity, which continued to grow in popularity, until in 380 AD Emperor Theodosius I made it the official state religion of the Roman Empire.

Theodosius’ Edict of Thessalonica was designed as the final word on controversies within the early church. He – along with his joint rulers Gratian, and Valentinian II – set in stone the idea of an equal Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Those ‘foolish madmen’ who did not accept this new orthodoxy – as many Christians didn’t – were to be punished as the Emperor saw fit.

The old pagan religions were now suppressed and sometimes persecuted.

Rome was in decline, but becoming part of its fabric was still a massive boost for this growing religion, now called the Catholic Church. Many of the Barbarians who are credited with ending the Empire in fact wanted nothing more than to be Roman, which increasingly came to mean converting to Christianity.

While the Emperors of Rome would have their day, some of the Empire’s strengths were to survive in a church led by the Bishop of Rome.

Colin Ricketts studied history at the University of Birmingham, graduating in 1992. He's a qualified librarian, a former journalist and currently a freelance writer and editor.

  • Rowan Walters

    It seems likely that this is almost certainly not how the rise of Christianity in Rome really happened, since there is compelling evidence that all the surviving primary source material supporting the Christian narrative was substantially altered by the church from the 4th century onwards – the ludicrously improbable “Testimonium” of Josephus being the most obvious example of forgery and interpolation.
    And considering the extreme and repressive measures undertaken by Christians of the 4th and 5th century to eradicate all “heathen” libraries, it is improbable that any such works would have survived unaltered anyway, especially in view of the policy of Eusebius of Caesarea, who argued that lying was entirely justified in advancing the interests of the church.

    By the time he defeated and murdered the eastern emperor Licinius to rule over a unified empire, Constantine faced a critical problem: the state had been bankrupted by years of civil war, the treasury was empty, he desperately needed funds to pay his armies and the empire had been in a state of worsening economic crisis since the reign of Diocletian, who tried (in vain) to bring about stability by introducing price controls on basic commodities and by introducing a kind of intrinsically worthless “fiat” currency to replace the already devalued precious metal coinage.

    The great temples however, possessed phenomenal wealth and largely functioned as the equivalent of investment banks of the Roman world – the larger temples were so rich they were regularly solicited by city states, kings and tyrants for loans to raise armies and finance wars.

    Thus, the primary motive for Constantine’s support for Christianity was to enable him to seize the astronomical wealth of the temples – something that no previous ruler had ever dared to do – so it was necessary to concoct a religious pretext to rationalise and justify this theft of the sacred wealth of the gods.

    People were offered a wide range of incentives, perquisites and bribes to abandon the old religions and newly converted Christians received tax exemptions, preferential treatment in all services provided by the state including employment in the army and civil service, discounted real estate, access to subsidised transport and accommodation when travelling and countless other measures intended to promote the newly manufactured religion.

    Ammianus Marcelinus and the Emperor Julian (sole survivor of the massacre of Constantine’s family after his death by his three sons and heirs, who later went to war against each other) among others provide enlightening first-hand accounts of the character of these new Christians whom they describe as charlatans motivated primarily by greed and the opportunities for self-enrichment provided by the Christian Church.

    The new Christian Church, as designed by Eusebius and the Council of Nicaea was a centralised empire-wide monolithic religion with regional hierarchies which promoted the notions of obedience to the emperor and justified his autocratic rule as the will of God.

    It is also curious to note that although he had inherited a bankrupt empire, immediately after embracing Chritianty and plundering the temples, Constantine suddenly acquired the wealth to embark on a massive program of public works, including the construction of a new capital – Constantinpole – on the site of the Greek city of Byzantium.

    Of course Eusebius was diligent in his retrospective fabrication of a pedigree and history for the new religion and actually encouraged his clergy to lie in order to advance its interests while hordes of fanatical monks – who were so intolerant, violent and fanatical as to make the Taliban look like Girl Scouts, set out to destroy all the great libraries and other repositories of “heathen” knowledge.

    The account above is a reflection of the sanitised fiction concocted by Eusebius in the 4th century, and one of the world’s major famous Biblical scholars Constantin von Tischendorf once noted, “we must frankly admit that we have no source of information with respect to the life of Jesus other than ecclesiastic writings put together during the latter part of the fourth century”.

    And it is also interesting to note how significantly the actual text of the Bible has changed over the years: the oldest known Bible (the Codex Sinaiticus) describes Jesus’ death on a “stauros” (a stake) and not a cross, and it contains no mention of either a virgin birth or of a resurrection, since these details were added later, yet is still baffling why the gospels contain four contradictory and conflicting versions of the resurrection (each takes place at a different time of day, before different witnesses and in the presence of different numbers of angels).

    Historians independent of the church nowadays tend to agree that the traditional account of Christianity originating as a grass roots movement which snowballed in popularity to eventually win the support of the sadist and serial murderer Constantine (who had his own wife and first born son murdered in gruesome manner) is largely a fiction, as is the myth of persecution. Ironically there appears to have been a rebel or slave movement in first century Rome with a very similar name led by someone called “Chrestus” (a common slave name), but that is hardly remarkable except that it provides a basis for retrospective fabrication and interpolation by the later Christian scribes who – having destroyed the libraries – held what were thought to be the only surviving manuscripts of authors like Tacitus, Suetonius and Josephus – at least until some unaltered originals of Josephus and other key documents were found to have survived in Persian and later Arab libraries, and it is these that prove the extent to which the documents held by Christians had been deliberately tampered with.

    In reality it seems that Christianity as we know it was probably invented and introduced in the 4th century by the emperor Constantine, primarily in order to secure for himself the greatest repository of wealth in the ancient world at that time.
    Most of what is presently accepted as historical fact with regard to Christianity in the Roman world is false, and the hysterical accounts of the alleged “martyrdoms” that were invented to amaze the simple minded reflect the sheer dishonesty that religious fanatics will embrace in works whose sole purpose is to promote their own brand of religion.