The Changes in Christianity Under Roman Ruler and After the Fall of the Great Roman Empire

HST 354U

Christianity in the Roman Empire began as a very small minority compared to the overwhelming majority of Romans who believed in polytheism; they worshiped such gods as Jupiter, Mercury, Neptune, Venus, and many more. Like most civilizations with a large majority believing in one belief, their polytheistic religion was intertwined in their society. Emperors of Rome would hold gladiator competitions, sacrifices, ceremonies, ritual meals, and have several temples and market places built all in dedication to their gods. As Christianity first began to emerge in the eastern part of the empire most Romans looked at this new religion with bewilderment; they couldn’t believe that anyone could believe in just one god, and they also thought it to be even more strange that it was derived from Judaism, which they of coarse thought as strange as well along with being rebellious. To most Romans during this period they didn’t feel threatened by Christianity or an addition of just one more god, but thought of it more or less as a cult, and something that they just couldn’t understand. To add on to the majority opinion of Christianity as being a cult, Christians would gather and worship out of sight of the public eye in secret locations.

What really began the conflict between the traditional Roman polytheism and Christianity was that most Christians wouldn’t participate in the Roman events. By not participating in ritual meals or gladiator matches this made them stick out even more, and the polytheist began to resent this. Polytheistic resentment grew as the Christian religion slowly grew at first. Polytheists soon began to feel threatened by this new and expanding religion and saw Christianity as a threat to traditional Roman beliefs and everything that made Rome what it was (great). Much of the credit to the rise of Christianity can be given to Paul. Much like many other Christian’s at this time he was persecuted. He was imprisoned for his relentless efforts to spread the word of Jesus Christ. Much of his work in New Testament was written while imprisoned in Rome. Christianity first began to grow in the eastern part of the empire, in the city of Rome itself, and in areas of southeast Gaul or present day France. With the help of the epistle Paul and others like him Christianity expanded to rural areas of the empire and along trade routes. Small Christian communities began to appear as far as in regions in and near India. With the number of Christians growing the number of people who didn’t participate in traditional Roman events grew as well along with the disturbance that the polytheists felt. This disturbance and anger would be shown through acts of persecution which often lead to the deaths of many Christian martyrs. Even some of the rulers such as Diocletian made efforts to rid the empire of Christianity, which was fed by the desire to make the empire great again. The idea was that Rome became as great as it was because of the beliefs that much of the people had. Christianity had an entirely different set of beliefs which contradicted the traditional values of Rome.

One of the great questions of history as Chris Wickham puts it “how can it be that a religion whose foundation texts include the injunction to love one’s enemies and “turn the other cheek”, whose central figure relied on the pastoral imagery of the shepherd and his flock, and who himself characterized as a sacrificial lamb… How did lambs become lions?” Even though Christians were the ones who were persecuted first by the pagans, many scholars would suggest that the Roman paganism was too tolerant. That there basis for persecution against the Christians in the beginning was only because these Christians presented an entirely different and foreign set of beliefs and ideals that contradicted everything that had made Rome what it was. It was also easier for polytheists of Rome to persecute a much smaller minority that it was to a larger growing, soon to be the majority.

Many would suggest that the beginning of Christian coercion began with the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine I. Constantine I