How Christianity Survived in Pagan Rome
By Gordon Robertson
The 700 Club
CBN.com The Da Vinci Code presents a fascinating, but fictional, history of Christianity. In the novel, the Roman Emperor Constantine allegedly conspired with the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325 to create a religion suited to the Empire’s interests. This “conspiracy,” otherwise known as basic Christian theology, survived for millennia until a murder in the Louvre Museum threatened to unravel the closely guarded “secret.”
The real history of Christianity in the Roman Empire is far more complex – and filled with enough flesh and blood to make it a better story than the one Dan Brown invented.
From the time of its founding, Rome considered itself to be religious. When its second king, Numa Pompilius took power in 716 B.C., he established the fear of the gods as one of the main principles governing city life. Citizens believed the fortunes of the city depended upon the favor of the gods. The brilliant orator Cicero declared in 45 B.C. that public piety was the most distinctive characteristic of the Roman. “If, moreover, we care to make a comparison between our own characteristics and those of foreign nations, while the latter will be found equal, or even superior to us in other respects, in religion, that is, in the worship of the gods, we shall be found to far excel them.”
By definition, being Roman equaled being pagan.
As first century Christians dispersed throughout the Mediterranean region, Romans heard about a new belief system dramatically different from their traditional religions. The God of the Christians did not require sacrifice; Jesus had already provided the ultimate sacrifice. Believers saw themselves as accepted by their God through faith alone. Christians taught scriptures like, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son,” “God is love,” and “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Such radical ideas made no sense to Romans. The newcomers refused to socialize at the public spectacles, refused to eat sacrificial meat, and even refused to worship in Roman temples. Christian beliefs clashed directly with the Roman system of civic and family piety through sacrifice. When people converted to Christianity, they stopped sacrificing to the gods entirely. As the number of Christians grew, Roman leaders blamed the cult of the Christians for any disaster or difficulty in the Empire, claiming that the gods were taking vengeance for the neglect of temple sacrifices.
When Rome burned in A.D. 64, Emperor Nero himself blamed the Christians. The Roman historian, Tacitus, recorded the cruelty these victims faced. “Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.”
From A.D. 81 to 96, Emperor Domitian continued the acts of Nero against the Christians. Domitian used the title “Lord and God,” which Christians refused to acknowledge. The infamous “test” of a Christian appeared during this time. Romans placed statues of the Emperor, and the Roman gods Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva before the suspected Christian. If the suspect denied the faith, officials required that he repeat a formulaic invocation of the gods, and then offer wine and incense to the Emperor’s statue. Lastly, the suspect was required to revile the name of Christ. Execution awaited anyone admitting to belief in Christianity or refusing any part of the test.
Following Domitian, Rome entered a relatively moderate age known as the period of the “Five Good Emperors,” lasting from A.D. 96 to 180. Christians endured persecution, although not on the scale known under Nero. However, even the last “Good Emperor,” Marcus Aurelius, ordered Christians tried and executed for their religion.
Over the next century, waves of persecution swept through the Empire, particularly during the reigns of Maximinus Thrax, Decius and Diocletian. Meanwhile, from A.D. 235 to 284, the Roman Empire nearly collapsed under pressure from internal strife for the throne, external threats from Goths, Vandals and Visigoths, and the devaluation of silver currency.
In A.D. 250, Decius issued an edict for the suppression of Christianity, requiring Bishops to sacrifice to the Emperor. Then, a disastrous plague ravaged the Empire from A.D. 251 to 266, claiming 5,000 lives a day. Echoing Nero, Romans again blamed Christians for provoking the wrath of the gods.
The terrors of the persecutions climaxed during the final years of Emperor Diocletian. Encouraged by his subordinate Galerius, Diocletian resolved in A.D. 302 “to tear down the churches to the foundations and to destroy the Sacred Scriptures by fire.” Then in 303, Diocletian issued edict after edict assaulting Christians: one law forbade Christians from holding government office and called for the destruction of sacred texts; yet another edict required church officials be imprisoned and tortured if they refused to make a sacrifice to the Emperor. Finally, Diocletian ordered all Christians in the Empire to be imprisoned and tortured until they sacrificed. Wholesale massacres of believers occurred, as frustrated jailers tried to rid their crowded prisons of Christians who refused to exchange their faith for freedom.
Amazingly, Christianity not only survived, but actually thrived under the constant threat of imprisonment, enforced servitude, confiscation of property, and martyrdom. As Tertullian, a Christian apologist and former pagan, wrote to the Roman leaders in A.D. 197, the more Christians were “mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed.” The believers’ refusal to renounce their faith during torment actually caused more Romans to inquire into Christian doctrine. Christian behavior under persecution preached a sermon far more effective than words.
By 311, even the rulers of Rome recognized that the oppressive Diocletian edicts were encouraging Christian conversions rather than silencing the believers. Accordingly, after Diocletian, the three Regent Emperors, Galerius, Licinius, and Constantinus, gave up trying to stop the spread of Christianity. They jointly issued the “Edict of Galerius,” which granted Christians freedom of worship for the first time. In return, the Christians were required to pray for the Emperors and the Republic.
In 312, Galerius died, the Diocletian tetrarchy crumbled, and a scramble ensued for control. Maxentius, a general, contested Constantinus for the throne. Inevitably, war followed and the armies of Maxentius and Constantinus converged in Italy for battle.
Then something miraculous happened.
Constantinus, now known as Constantine the Great, had a vision. While marching with his troops, Constantine saw a cross of light with the words, In hoc signo vinces, (in this sign you shall conquer) in front of the sun. Later, he had a dream instructing him to use this sign as the standard in battle and on the shields of all his soldiers.
The subsequent Battle of Milvian Bridge on October 28, 312, was an incredible military victory. Outnumbered five to one, Constantine won and his chief rival for the throne, Maxentius, died.
The next year, Constantine and his Co-Emperor, Licinius, issued from Milan a joint “Edict of Tolerance” which granted freedom in the exercise of religion. In wording carefully chosen not to offend either Christians or pagans, the edict encouraged everyone to invoke “the deity enthroned in heaven” for favor and protection for the Emperors and their subjects. The Christians celebrated the release of prisoners, the rebuilding of churches and the restoration of property.
The Roman Emperor had become a Christian, although the depth of Constantine’s conversion is open to debate. After all, prior to his vision, Constantine had served as chief prelate of all pagan ceremonies in the Empire. After his conversion, Constantine continued to recognize the sun god, Sol Invictus, and even Christians in Rome were observed invoking the sun god on the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica. The image of Sol Invictus remained on Constantine’s official coins, and in 321, he decreed that dies Solis, the day of the sun, be the official day of rest for the Roman Empire. To this day, Christians still worship on “Sunday.”
Rather than converting to Christianity in the reign of Constantine, the Roman Empire added Jesus to the pantheon of gods in a profoundly polytheistic culture.
In addition to syncretism within the culture, the Christian church also wrestled with doctrinal controversy. Arius, a theologian from North Africa, proposed that Jesus was a created being of similar substance to God the Father, but not identical. Since this differed from the Gospel of John, (“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” ) a controversy erupted which pitted bishop against bishop.
Emperor Constantine thought he could bring order to this confusion. He summoned the presiding bishops and leaders of the Church to the first ecumenical council, the Council of Nicaea. The Council sought to agree on the meaning of the four gospels and the letters of the apostles, and thereby settle the Arian controversy. Considering that Nicaea was the first of seven ecumenical councils convened over a period of 450 years, the goal of unanimity proved elusive.
Yet historians agree that members of the Council of Nicaea and following councils worked to bring doctrinal order to the newly powerful Christian community. Contrary to The Da Vinci Code’s storyline, none of the Council members questioned Christ’s divinity. Many of them bore the scars of persecution on their bodies. Accounts of the meetings show broad agreement on the authority of the gospel record and the authority of the letters of the apostles. The Nicene Creed, which resulted from a Council vote, specifically referred to Jesus as “begotten, not made” in order to refute Arius and his supporters.
Did Constantine manipulate the Nicine Council to create a made-to-order religion? Did Constantine repress the role of women, rewrite Jesus’ personal life and convince the church leaders to cover it up? The answer is manifestly no.
Years later, Constantine sought to reinstate Arius into communion and ordered the Bishop of Constantinople, Alexander, to receive him. Conflicted, Alexander did not want to refuse Constantine or receive Arius back into communion. Alexander then shut himself up in a church and prayed that either he or Arius would be removed from the world before Arius was readmitted.
The day before the scheduled communion, Arius died grotesquely from a fatal bowel hemorrhage at the forum in Constantinople. The tale of the ugly, bloody scene flew rapidly among Christians who took it as a sign of God’s approval of the judgment of the Nicene Council.
Arius’ death did not end the controversy. Debates over Arianism raged for yet another century. Yet just one year later, Constantine and Bishop Alexander both died and the doctrinal controversy in the Church took a backseat to the question of succession.
Over the next two decades, Constantine’s three sons could not agree to share power, so they systematically killed any other claimants and ultimately, each other. Of Constantine’s male relatives, only Julian survived. Raised a Christian but educated by pagans, Julian has the unique title, “Julian the Apostate.” The British historian Edward Gibbon attributed Julian’s rebellion against Christianity to a deep hatred for the “Christian” murderers of his family. He left the Christian faith to be avowedly and passionately pagan.
When Julian was 20 years old, his pagan teachers initiated him into the mysteries of Eleusis. Although the exact nature of the Eleusian mysteries is unknown, the ceremony likely contained a “sacred marriage” similar to the description of the subterranean fertility rite in The Da Vinci Code. Eleusian rites, through rituals and sacrifices, sought to bring initiates into the manifest presence of the gods. The initiates wanted divine possession.
Julian seemed to enjoy the mystery religions of paganism; he went through the mysteries of Mithras, a cult popular with Roman soldiers, in which secret ceremonies were held in underground caverns. He wrote hymns to Sol Invictus and sacrificed so many bulls that a popular saying of the day was that no cattle would be left in the Empire if Julian were successful in the war against the Persians. Julian also revered the mother goddess Cybele and wrote a hymn to her. The mysteries of Cybele were some of the most bizarre in the pagan world. In fits of trance fervor, Cybele’s priests would fully emasculate themselves and afterwards, don female clothes and offer themselves as prostitutes at the temple. This is how the Romans observed the “sacred feminine.”
These initiations and his ascetic life prepared Julian for frequent and familiar visits by celestial powers. His friend, the orator Libanius, claimed that Julian lived in perpetual relation with gods and goddesses. They descended to earth to converse with him; they disturbed his sleep by touching his hand or hair; they warned him of impending danger; and they guided him in every action of his life. He knew them so well that he could readily distinguish “the voice of Jupiter from that of Minerva and the form of Apollo from the figure of Hercules.”
Rather than overtly persecuting Christians or forcing conversions to paganism, Julian came up with unique and ingenious ways to stop Christianity and advance the ancient traditions of paganism. His treatise, Against the Galilaeans, tried to prove that Christians were innovators who could not be believed since they did not adhere to the ancient ways. He had learned the Bible in his youth and flavored his arguments against Jesus with Old Testament scriptures.
Julian ordered the rebuilding of pagan temples, prohibited Christians from serving in the Emperor’s bodyguard, and removed Christian officials from government. On June 17, 362, Julian issued his infamous “school law,” which effectively excluded Christians from teaching.
Julian also tried to reform paganism along the lines of Christian charity. Christians had earned a good reputation for taking care of orphans, widows, and the poor, as well as tending the sick in times of plague. Julian tried to convince pagans to do the same and offered money to groups who would engage in pagan charity.
Julian’s most innovative approach to disproving Christianity was to attempt to rebuild the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. In A.D. 70, the Roman general Titus had dramatically fulfilled the prophecy of Jesus that the Temple would be destroyed, and not one stone would be left on top of another. In 363, Julian ordered the Temple to be rebuilt to encourage the rise of Judaism in opposition to Christianity.
Ammianus Marcellinus, a friend of Julian and a pagan historian, recorded the end of this venture:
“Julian thought to rebuild at an extravagant expense the proud Temple once at Jerusalem, and committed this task to Alypius of Antioch. Alypius set vigorously to work, and was seconded by the governor of the province; when fearful balls of fire, breaking out near the foundations, continued their attacks, till the workmen, after repeated scorchings, could approach no more: and he gave up the attempt.”
The Christians of the day naturally took this to be divine intervention and claimed that many in Jerusalem converted as a result.
Even by Roman standards, Julian’s reign was short; he died in 363 supposedly saying “Thou hast conquered, O Galilean” on his deathbed. The Emperors who followed, Jovian, Valentinian, Valens, and Gratian, all tried to strike a balance between paganism and Christianity. Each one retained the title of Pontifex Maximus and continued the religion of Sol Invictus. Change came when Theodosius became Emperor in 378. Upon his baptism in 380, Theodosius turned the churches of Constantinople to the Nicene Creed. Theodosius declared that only Nicene Christianity would be practiced throughout the Roman Empire.
A series of Theodosian decrees followed, prohibiting blood sacrifice, closing temples, outlawing idolatry, extinguishing the “eternal fire” in the temple of Vesta, outlawing witchcraft and divination, removing the Altar of Victory from the Senate in Rome, and canceling the Olympic Games. Finally, in 392, Theodosius authorized the destruction of the spectacular temple of Serapis in Alexandria. This feat prompted similar temple destructions throughout the empire.
At this point, Christianity, specifically Nicene Christianity, had triumphed as the official religion of the Roman Empire.
In the Western Roman Empire, the triumph was short-lived. In 410, Alaric the Visigoth sacked Rome. In the aftermath, pagans once again blamed Christians for the disaster. Saint Augustine devoted the first ten chapters of his masterwork, The City of God, to refuting the claims of pagans that the gods were angry.
Wave after wave of barbarian invasions reduced Roman civilization to rubble in the fourth and fifth centuries. Yet, in the middle of all this destruction, Christianity spread through the work of transplanted Roman believers. In the fourth century, Ulfilas of Asia Minor was taken captive by raiders from above the Danube, and then became the “Apostle to the Goths.” Nino, a slave woman from Cappadocia, converted the Queen and King of Georgia. Stranded as youths in Ethiopia, Frumentius and his brother, Aedesius, brought the Gospel to the royal palace. Frumentius ultimately became the bishop of Ethiopia and baptized the king.
Far to the north, Roman troops abandoned their garrisons in Britain, leaving a Christian boy named Patrick vulnerable to Irish raiders. After six years in slavery to a Druid, Patrick escaped back to Britain, trained for ministry, then returned to successfully evangelize Ireland. Decades later, Columba and the monks of Iona brought Christianity to Scotland and then back again to Europe.
In spite of hardship, persecution, slavery, torture, imprisonment and even death, Christians not only survived, but thrived. How did Christianity survive in pagan Rome? The answer is quite simple. In the first century, the apostle Paul predicted the ultimate success of Christians in his letter to the Romans:
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, ‘For Your sake we are killed all day long; We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.’ Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.”
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1. Livy 1.19.
2. Cicero, De Natura Deorum 2.8.
3. John 3:16, 1 John 4:16, Romans 5:8
4. Tacitus, Annales 15.44.
5. Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. VIII, ii.
6. Eusebius, Martyrs of Palestine III,.i.
7 Tertullian, Apologeticum, 50.
“But go zealously on, good presidents, you will stand higher with the people if you sacrifice the Christians at their wish, kill us, torture us, condemn us, grind us to dust; your injustice is the proof that we are innocent. Therefore God suffers that we thus suffer; for but very lately, in condemning a Christian woman to the leno rather than to the leo you made confession that a taint on our purity is considered among us something more terrible than any punishment and any death. Nor does your cruelty, however exquisite, avail you; it is rather a temptation to us. The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed. Many of your writers exhort to the courageous bearing of pain and death, as Cicero in the Tusculans, as Seneca in his Chances, as Diogenes, Pyrrhus, Callinicus; and yet their words do not find so many disciples as Christians do, teachers not by words, but by their deeds. That very obstinacy you rail against is the preceptress. For who that contemplates it, is not excited to inquire what is at the bottom of it? who, after inquiry, does not embrace our doctrines? and when he has embraced them, desires not to suffer that he may become partaker of the fullness of God's grace, that he may obtain from God complete forgiveness, by giving in exchange his blood? For that secures the remission of all offences. On this account it is that we return thanks on the very spot for your sentences. As the divine and human are ever opposed to each other, when we are condemned by you, we are acquitted by the Highest.”
8. According to Leo the Great, Pope from A.D. 440 to 461, this custom of prayer to the sun on the steps of St. Peter’s continued even a century later.
9. John 1:1
10. After almost 1,700 years, the Nicene Creed continues to be the most widely accepted formulation of the Christian faith. The Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Coptic, Assyrian, and the vast majority of Protestant Churches use it to this day.
11. Letter from Athanasius to Serapion, Bishop of Thmuis, published in Nicene & Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 2, Phillip Schaff, ed.
12. Socrates Scholasticus, Historia Ecclesiastica I.38.
13. Gibbon, Edward. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, I.22. “A part of the letter was afterwards read, in which the emperor [Constantius] arraigned the ingratitude of Julian, whom he had invested with the honours of the purple; whom he had educated with so much care and tenderness; whom he had preserved in his infancy, when he was left a helpless orphan. ‘An orphan!’ interrupted Julian, who justified his cause by indulging his passions, ‘does the assassin of my family reproach me that I was left an orphan? He urges me to revenge those injuries which I have long studied to forget.’"
14. Gregory Nazianzen, the bishop of Constantinople at the time, reported that Julian was successful in summoning fiery apparitions during his initiation at Eleusis. Frightened, Julian made the sign of the cross and the apparitions disappeared. Christians believed that the demons were driven away. Julian’s pagan guides told him that the gods were indignant that he would use a Christian sign in their presence.
15. Julian was probably a vegetarian and many of his contemporaries complained about the scarcity of food at his table. He fasted often, maintained all-night vigils, slept on a wooden pallet, and remained celibate until marriage.
16. Gibbon, op. cit.
17. Matthew 24:1-2; Mark 13:1-2; Luke 21:5-6. For an account of Titus, see also Tactius, Fragment 2.
18. Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestae Book 23.
19. Theodoret, Historia Ecclesiastica III.20.
20. Romans 8:35-39; Psalms 44:22.
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