Christianity Pagan Romans
In what ways can Christianity be said to have made a transition from superstition to religion in the later Roman Empire?
In contrast to the monotheistic belief systems of Jews and Christians, Roman religion – or paganism – was based on a belief in many different gods governing every aspect of life. There was no “single belief system, sacred text or ethical code, and therefore no concept of orthodoxy, heresy or unbelief in the Christian sense,” (Huskinson, 2004, p.15)
The Romans evidently believed that their relationship with their gods was a strongly contractual one: their well-being depended on their constant veneration of the gods. Rituals and temples were dedicated to them, as was much of literature and art. At every stage of life the gods were honoured with rites of passage and animal sacrifice played an important part in this contractual relationship. Pagan religion, it seems, unified communities through the cult of public worship of local gods and the emperor.
The totality of official pagan religious belief and practice – the public worship, the rites of passage, the rituals – amounted to what the Romans described as ‘religio’. Deviant beliefs and practices, on the other hand, were regarded as ‘superstitio’. This wasthe term applied to “a set of transgressive religious stereotypes (from horrendous witches to monstrous Christians) against whom they waged war,” (Beard, M., North, J., Price, S., 2004 p.50).
The evidence of how “monstrous” Christians were seen to be is sporadic and somewhat contradictory. It seems that after Emperor Nero’s death in 68 CE, Christians were not actively sought out until the third century. In the interim period, there were intermittent, local persecutions and we can only speculate that the impetus for these was prejudice and personal grievances against members of a strange religious sect.
Surviving evidence includes the correspondence between Pliny, governor of Bythinia-Pontus, and Emperor Trajan who ruled from 98-117 CE and whose “official policy made Christianity a criminal offence,” (Chidester, 2001, p. 83). Seeking guidance on how to deal with Christians, Pliny described how Christians would meet in private for worship and how he had found nothing to suggest that they were guilty of anything more than “depraved and excessive superstition,” (Pliny, 2004, p. 47). Given the importance of “highly visible temple-based worship,” (Study Guide 1, p.33), it is hardly surprising that private, communal worship aroused suspicion. Christians did not participate in the public worship of pagan gods or of the emperor. Furthermore, their ‘Messiah’ had been found guilty of sedition and executed. All things considered, Christianity was probably seen as much a political threat as dangerous in the sense of angering the pagan gods.
In spite of this, Trajan’s response to Pliny indicates that any threat posed by Christianity was not deemed so serious as to merit the active persecution of them. He specified that anonymous charges against Christians were unacceptable and the accused were allowed to demonstrate their innocence by worshipping and offering sacrifices to Roman gods. While noting the lack of corroborative evidence, Huskinson comments that surviving historical documents indicate that magistrates were “patient, even reluctant to send Christians to their death,” (Huskinson, 2004, p.22). Similarly, Chidester says that, “In many cases Roman governors pleaded with Christians to perform these simple acts and set themselves free,” (Chidester, 2001 p.82). This policy appears to have persisted throughout the second century.
In the third century, however, there were attempts to make provincial administration more systematic and active in its approach to dealing with criminals and those considered sacrilegious. Appropriate penalties for Christians were set out in Ulpian’s treatise, ‘On the functions of the Provincial Governor’ (Beard, M., North, J., Price, S., 2004 p.59). The period between 235 CE and 284 CE saw a number of crises that threatened the future of the empire. Firm measures were needed to ensure its survival – including a series of empire-wide persecutions of Christians.
In 250 CE, the emperor Decius initiated a persecution that was, arguably, intended to halt the decline in pagan religion but which tested Christians by demanding that the entire population offer an oath of allegiance to the empire and sacrifice to the gods (Chidester, 2001, p.94). Beard et al suggest that the act of sacrifice was seen by the authorities as more important than the question of which god the sacrifice was intended to please, “…it would seem that local gods were as acceptable as specifically Roman ones,” (Beard, M., North, J., Price, S., 2004 p.53). This perhaps indicates that unifying the empire while, at the same time, enhancing the isolation of Christians were the main objectives, rather than merely pleasing the gods.
That the authorities were feeling increasingly threatened by the growing power and organisation of the Christian churches is suggested by the Valerian edicts of 257 CE and 258 CE, which had clergy exiled or executed (Beard, M., North, J., Price, S., 2004 p.61).
Diocletian became Emperor in 284 CE and his reign brought an end to the long period of turmoil as he introduced reforms that helped to stabilise the empire. Diocletian tried more forcefully than ever before to impose pagan state religion. (Audio CD1, Track 3) He also initiated the last persecution of Christians beginning in 303 CE.
Some Christians had always responded to the experience of persecution with voluntary martyrdom and the Diocletian persecutions were no exception. A number of accounts of martyrdom survive. Some of these are from Christian sources such as the Carthage-born apologist, Tertullian and some from the martyrs themselves such as Vibia Perpetua (Chidester, 2001, p.85). These accounts, writes Huskinson, emphasise the martyrs’ commitment and courage,” (Huskinson, 2002, p. 22). It seems likely that many Christians would find the various stories of the martyrs inspirational and that the phenomenon of martyrdom would have had the effect of strengthening the Christian church.
That Diocletian felt it necessary to introduce a series of increasingly severe anti-Christian measures, while stressing the importance of ancestral Roman virtues (Beard, M., North, J., Price, S., 2004 p.62) again suggests a fear of the increasing power – and, perhaps, numbers – of Christians. Although it is believed that Christians were probably no more than five per cent of the population (Chidester, 2001 p. 99), and mainly living in the major cities, in some parts of the empire their presence was felt more keenly than their numbers would have suggested. Huskinson, in her case study North Africa in the early third century, writes that, according to Tertullian, “people complained that Christians were everywhere, in town and country and at every social level,” (Huskinson, 2002, p. 21).
During the fourth century, the balance of power finally shifted in favour of the Christians. This was heavily assisted by the first Christian emperor, Constantine, who became established as Emperor of the West in 312, after defeating his rival at Milvian Bridge. The Christian scholar, Eusebius, claimed that Constantine himself ascribed his conversion to a particular vision he’d had the night before his battle at Milvian Bridge (Eusebius quoted in Chidester, 2001, p.100). Whatever the reason for his conversion, it was probably sincere. As long as Christianity was a minority religion, there was nothing to be gained from converting for anything other than spiritual reasons. Averil Cameron argues that surviving evidence in the form of letters and speeches from Constantine point to a genuine spiritual commitment on his behalf. Significantly, Cameron also mentions that Constantine’s rivals for power had been “flirting with Christianity,” (Audio CD1, Track 4). This indicates that Christianity was gaining respectability and moving away from superstitio. Indeed, Constantine quickly ensured the Christian religion acquired legal status by issuing the Edict of Milan in 313 CE.
Over the next two decades, Constantine initiated measures that would consolidate Christianity as both a political and religious force in the empire. He forged alliances with clergy and introduced legislation affording them privileges such as exemption from public service (Study Guide 1, p.67). In 325 CE he convoked the first Council of Nicaea hoping to attain consensus over doctrinal questions and a uniform system of belief and practice to be shared by all Christians. He also oversaw the construction of churches and sacred sites in the ‘holy land’, sometimes desecrating pagan sacred sites in the process. This new emphasis on the importance of sacred places is described by Chidester as “a lasting legacy of the Christian empire,” (Chidester, 2001 p.113) – for this is what the Roman Empire was to become over the course of the fourth century.
While it is impossible to know how far Christianity extended its reach beyond the major cities and wealthier sections of Roman society – certainly paganism is believed to have continued for several centuries more – the fact that all but one of the emperors to come after Constantine were Christians is significant. During the course of the fourth century, the status of Christianity progressed from being the preferred religion under Constantine to being the official religion of the empire – a position consolidated in 381 CE when Theodosius issued an edict making Christianity the only legal form of worship (Chidester, 2001 p.156). Once persecuted, now persecutors, Christianity had completed the transition from superstitio to religio.
Religion in History: Study Guide 1, Milton Keynes, The Open University.
Religion in History, Audio CD1 Introduction to Religious History
Huskinson, J.A.R. (2004) ‘Pagan and Christian in the third to fifth centuries’, in J. Wolffe (ed.) Religion in History: Conflict, Conversion and Coexistence, Manchester, Manchester University Press/Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 13-41.
Chidester, D. (2001) ‘Christianity: A Global History’, Harmondsworth, Penguin
Beard, M., North, J., Price, S., (2004), ‘The Boundaries of Roman Religion’, in Religion in History: Study Guide 1, pp 49-64.
Pliny and Trajan, ‘How to deal with Christians’, in Religion in History: Study Guide 1, pp 47-48.