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Text 2. Rome and the Christians


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The Christians did not act like other Romans, and this made some Romans suspicious. Christians kept to themselves – almost like a secret club. Since they did not worship Roman gods, Christians no longer went to public festivals or took part in the life of their communities.

Christianity was a new invention, so Romans saw Christians as troublemakers.

Some Christian ideas, too, seemed shocking. Wealth and private property, for example, were very important measures of status in the Roman social hierarchy. Yet the Christians taught that money and earthly pleasures were not important at all, and that property should be shared.

The Romans considered their government and their religion to be closely linked, while the Christians saw religion and government as separate. Also, Romans believed that their gods protected them and their empire. Romans feared the failure of Christians to honor Roman gods would harm the empire.

For the most part, the Roman state ignored the early Christians.

Before A.D. 64, most of the persecution suffered by the Christians came at the hands of other Jews. The Roman government would not get involved in these conflicts.

The Romans generally did not try to change the differing religious beliefs of the people in the empire. And Christians leaders such as Paul taught Christians to obey Roman laws.

By A.D. 100, Roman law stated that anyone who admitted to being a Christian must be killed. However, this policy was seldom enforced. In general, the Roman emperor let officials in the provinces decide how Christians should be treated. But these officials were often unsure as to what to do. In fact, written records indicate that many Roman officials had little experience in dealing with Christians.

Romans did not generally seek out Christians for punishment. In fact, Christian settlements existed in North Africa for 100 years before the first Christian was executed.

Still, Christians were at times treated cruelly.

By the early 200s, the Roman Empire was facing serious problems. Many Romans believed their troubles were a sign that the gods were angry. So in A.D. 250, Emperor Decius ordered all citizens to worship the Roman gods and make public sacrifices.

Decius believed that these offerings would please the gods and ease the troubles in the empire. The Christians, however, refused to follow his orders. Decius then ordered his soldiers to execute all Christians who refused.

Some Christians chose death. These martyrs,people who chose to die rather than give up their religious beliefs, became important symbols for the church. Their courage inspired other Christians and created new converts.

The most violent and systematic persecution of Christians started around A.D. 300 during the reign of the emperor Diocletian.

The wave of persecution that had begun under Diocletian and continued until A.D. 311. The next year, however, a new emperor came to power and the official Roman position toward Christianity began to change.

In A.D. 312, Rome witnessed a struggle for power. One army leader fighting to become emperor was named Constantine.

According to Christian historians, before Constantine went into battle, he saw a vision of a cross with the sun behind it. Although Constantine was not a Christian, the vision convinced him that his men would win if they fought under the sign of Christ. He ordered his soldiers to paint a Christian symbol called a chi-rho on their shields.

Constantine’s men won the battle, and that year Constantine became emperor. At the beginning of his rule, perhaps as little as 10 per cent of the empire’s population was Christian. But with support, Christianity became the main religion in the Roman Empire.

Constantine was not baptized a Christian until shortly before his death in A.D. 337. Nevertheless, he promoted Christianity throughout his reign. In A.D. 313, he issued an order that allowed Romans the freedom to follow any religion they wanted to. This act ended the official persecution of Christians. He also contributed vast sums of money to repair churches that had been damaged earlier. He even gave church leaders money to build new churches.

Constantine took an active interest in the operations of the Christian church. He held meetings with church leaders to settle disputes among Christian leaders.

In earlier times Christians had believed that religion and government should be separate. Now, Constantine’s decisions on behalf of the church had the power of the Roman Empire behind them. He even persecuted church members who opposed his views. Constantine feared that conflicts about worship would displease God and bring misfortune to the empire. Just as earlier emperors persecuted Christians for fear of displeasing Roman gods, Constantine now persecuted Romans for fear of displeasing the Christian god.

Constantine’s interest in Christianity helped to strengthen the religion. At the same time, the relationship between Constantine and the church brought up an issue that is still the subject of debate today – how much the church should be separated form the state.


By the end of the A.D. 300s, church leaders felt powerful enough to give orders to emperors – or even to punish them. For example, in A.D. 390, Christian leaders punished Emperor Theodosius for ordering the massacre of a rebellious village. Bishop Ambrose of Milan threatened Theodosius with excommunication, or banning from the church, until he repented of his actions.

The fact that a Roman emperor would consider excommunication a punishment shows how powerful the church had become.

Just as Roman leaders had persecuted Christians when they were in power, now some fanatical Christians persecuted pagans, people who were neither Christians nor Jews. These Christians burned pagan temples. Then, in A.D. 391, Theodosius outlawed all pagan religions.

The tables were turned. Now Christians forced their views on the pagans. In response, the pagans begged the Christians not to punish them for their beliefs. This was the same plea that the early Christians had once made to the pagans. This pattern – majority forcing its views on the minority – has been repeated throughout history.

By the end of the A.D. 300s, the new faith had become a well-organized and powerful community with churches, priests, and bishops throughout the empire. In fact, Christianity was gaining power and members as the Roman Empire was declining.

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