Paganism to Christianity in Ancient Rome
Hello World! So if you are coming to Rome – and please do – there are so many amazing sites and monuments to see that it can be almost overwhelming. But on most bucket lists are two sites not to be missed. The Vatican for the Christian history and art and the Colosseum for the violent Pagan stuff . . . right??? Well yes and no . . . can we just put those two into boxes as though they were not linked? I think there are some questions to be answered!
How, when and why did the Roman pagans become Christian? Who were the early Christians in Rome? Was this the start of the Holy Roman Empire? What was the overlap of the two religions and the process? What does Constantine the Great have to do with it?
So I am going to try and unpick this particular knot. Let us go back more than two thousand years and imagine being a part of the Roman Empire. It stretched from England to the Sahara and from Portugal to Syria. And the religion was Paganism. Was it a religion? Or a word that could bundle together the worship of many gods for many peoples? Well they did seem to have a god for everything?
Jupiter – thunder and lightning Mars – war Aphrodite – love Bacchus – wine and feasting
And the list goes on …….
Today we call it mythology, a story passed down by word of mouth from generation to generation. Greek, Roman, Norse mythology . . . . legend, something not to be believed as truth. But, consider, Myth is only myth when looked on from the outside, inside this was the true religion. A matter of life and death! And the Romans were eclectic . . many religions were welcomed as new countries were incorporated into the Empire. Isis from Egypt, Cybele from Asia Minor, Mithras from the East . . .many monuments to incorporated foreign deities remain today.
Christianity in the Roman Empire
So what was so different about Christianity?
Put it into context – it was during the reign of the first Roman Emperor Augustus that Jesus was born in a stable in Bethlehem. It was during the reign of the second Emperor Tiberius that Jesus was crucified. Do you think the average Roman had any idea how momentous this was? Just another holy man in a far flung province refusing to follow the proper Roman laws and creating dissent. And executed for it – quite correct. No idea of BC and AD – that would not be established until the sixth century!
But, of course that was not the end of Christianity, just the beginning. The disciples continued to spread the word and roughly 30 years after Jesus was crucified, St Peter and St Paul were in Rome. Why? Why Rome? It was the largest city in the world – where would you go to convert someone to Christianity? The next door village or the largest city in the world?
But the next question is why would anyone abandon their religion practised for hundreds of years to convert to this new fangled Christianity? Ha ha well Paganism was all about the moment . . sacrificing and bargaining with the Gods for an immediate and good outcome. A successful battle, a successful marriage, a successful birth. No concept of salvation – when you died you all went to the same place – Hades – across the river Styx – saint or sinner.
Then along comes a message of all people being equal in the eyes of God and a wonderful afterlife to look forward to, however miserable your life was on Earth. So naturally the first converts were slaves and women, the most disadvantaged members of society – what?!?!?! I am as important as my master in this religion? Count me in!
Also, for almost a thousand years the Romans had been on the rise. Conquering nations, expanding hugely and bringing home immense wealth. The great legitimiser in Ancient Rome was victory in battle. It proved that the Gods were with you and they were the right Gods. Get it? Got it.
But then along comes the crisis of the third century AD. Have you heard of this crisis? Do not worry – hardly anyone has. Overlooked by many historians because it was so damned confusing. The army spread too thinly and the Empire split into 4 with quasi rulers being accepted by the people because they were actually there! Emperors came and went with bewildering rapidity and to top it all there was an utterly devastating plague.
Enter Constantine the Great
So Romans – do you still think your Gods are supporting you? Have you considered this new salvation thing? So although still underground, masters started to join their slaves, husbands started to join their wives, mostly in private houses with space for Christian worship. Always under the threat or the reality of persecution. And then, for the early Christians, a miracle happened!
Along comes Constantine the Great! (obviously not called the Great at the time!) Born in what today we call Serbia, he was the son of one of the tetrachs, the Emperor Constantius Chlorus, so as a young man he already had experience of the military and social issues of this divided Empire. After the death of his father in York he would go on to show what he had obviously been planning for a long time.
In 312AD Constantine defeated his rival for power Maxentius at the battle of the Milvian Bridge and went on to make Christianity legal. In 313 AD he issued the edict of Milan banning the persecution of Christians and he continued a hands on approach in the expansion of the church throughout his reign. He organised the ecumenical council at Nicea that resulted in the Nicene creed that is still used in Catholic masses today!
But why? There is the often repeated story that he had a vision before the battle telling him to hold aloft the cross of Christianity. But Constantine was nothing if not smart, savvy, and he wanted to recreate one unified Empire. Christianity was a religion that crossed borders, a way to unify the people. For example, if you lived in the countryside and worshipped your local forest deity you have no identification with worshippers of Cybele. But get one unifying religion ….. Just a thought.
But how to achieve this huge change. Firstly Constantine was a great general and won many battles – remember the great legitimiser? Victory in battle? So how could people say he was worshipping the wrong God when he kept winning? Secondly, he was the Emperor and by sheer force of will brought the numbers of Christians up. You want a promotion? You want a tax break? Which religion are you supporting? By the end of his reign it is thought that maybe 50 percent of the population were at least nominally Christian.
By the end of the 4th Century the critical mass of Christians allowed Emperor Theodosius to make Christianity the official religion of the empire in 380AD.
And the answer to the Holy Roman Empire question, well that was not going to happen until 800AD when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne on Christmas day in St Peters basilica, forming a mutually useful political alliance, more than 300 years after the Western Roman Empire collapsed.
So to conclude, I really want to say that I am not a theologian and not favouring either religion. There is so much more to say on this topic. I hope I have at least highlighted the sociopolitical circumstances at the time that allowed it to happen. Who knows, in a different Universe we may still be worshipping Antinous . . young lover of the Emperor Hadrian who in the second century AD had roughly the same number of followers as Jesus!
But what is important is that the birth of Christianity was running in parallel with the birth of the Roman Empire and so today we still have the incredible wealth of both temples and churches to admire.
See you soon in Rome.