One of the most astounding developments in world history was that within five centuries after its inception, Christianity had won adherents throughout the Roman Empire, including the backing of the Roman state. Christianity started as an apparently unknown sect of Judaism. It survived persecution to become an important part of the Roman Empire. This paper looks at the growth and survival of Christianity from the first century to the fifth century during the evolution of the Roman Empire.
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The Scene of the Inception and Spread of Christianity
Christianity was born in the Mediterranean basin.1 It significantly influenced by the Greek and Roman traditions.2 At the time of the inception of Christianity, the Mediterranean basin was favorable for religious expansion.
Jesus Christ, the founder of Christianity, was born during the rule of Emperor Augustus, who had managed to conjure political unity under the Roman Empire. Working on the foundations set by Julius Cesar, Augustus managed to maintain peace in the Mediterranean basin. That peace fostered the growth of new religions. The roads, commerce and travel also facilitated the quick spread of Christianity.
Christianity also had an advantage over other religions since it employed Latin and Greek which were the main languages used in the Roman Empire. Another factor that facilitated the early spread of Christianity was the hunger for religion that characterized the populace in the Mediterranean basin. The creation of an all-inclusive Roman Empire caused a decay in cultures and a decline of local religious cults. Christianity promised high moral standards amidst rampant corruption and immorality.
First century Spread of Christianity
In the early years after its inception, Christianity drew most of its membership from Jews. Some of the early Christians believed that one of the missions of Jesus Christ was to relieve people from Jewish customs and obliterate the Jewish temple. One of these Christians, Steven, was condemned to death by stoning.
Steven’s death inspired the separation between Christianity and Judaism. Christians who fled the persecution influenced other converts in Antioch and Samaria. Paul, Peter, Apollos, and Barnabas championed the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire.3
During the first century, Christianity was mainly urban, growing from city to city through trade routes. Though it had spread to the countryside and the Asia Minor by the second century, Christianity was strongest in cities in which the Roman Empire was prominent.
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Second and Third Century Spread of Christianity
During the second century, Christians were found in all the provinces of the Roman Empire as well as in Mesopotamia. Christianity gathered momentum in the third century at a time when the Greco-Roman sphere was disintegrating. By the end of the third century, the eastern part of the Roman Empire was predominantly Christian.
Christianity also spread to the northern parts of Africa, especially around Carthage, where the earliest Christian Latin literature were produced. Italians lived in Carthage as immigrants after which the Roman Empire conquered and rebuilt Carthage as a Latin city.
Persistent Opposition and Persecution
In the first three centuries of growth, Christianity faced persistent and brutal persecution at the hands of Roman authorities. The persecution peaked in the early part of the fourth century. Buoyed by this opposition, Christianity grew further in the face of increased martyrdom.
During the inception of Christianity, the main persecutors were Judaists. Judaists felt threatened by the way that Christianity (viewed as a sect of Judaism) seemed to undermine Judaist laws and institutions. To avoid opposition and criticism, early Christians worshiped in secrecy. Many pagans also feared that neglecting the old gods who were responsible for the growth and strength of Rome would lead to disasters.
Christian churches were not legally authorized, and were deemed seditious and sacrilegious by the state. From the time of Nero and the fire of Rome in 64, persecution of Christian faithful was commonplace. However, persecution was not made a state policy until the mid-third century when Decius issued a decree banning public sacrifice to any deity besides the Roman gods. This decree was issued in an attempt to rescue the disintegrating Roman state.
The policy of Christian persecution was deepened by Emperor Valerian when he outlawed Christian congregation.4 Emperor Valerian, who was friendly to Christians at the beginning of his rule, sanctioned the persecution of many Christian bishops and leaders.
Christians received reprieve in 260 when Gallienus reinstated religious tolerance that paved way for a period of calm. However, in 303, Diocletian, who had been tolerant of Christians during the early years of his reign, commanded the destruction and confiscation of Christian religious vessels and texts.
Persecution was rampant in the eastern parts of the Roman Empire that were ruled by Diocletian and Galerius. However, in the parts ruled by Emperor Constantius such as Britain, Spain and Gaul, there was relative calm and Christians were not persecuted.
Different Christians responded differently to persecution. While some recanted their faith in fear of torture and possible death, others carried on with their faith and willingly died for their beliefs. The apparent courage of the martyrs encouraged some pagans to convert to Christianity, thereby inspiring growth of Christianity indirectly.
The Fourth Century: Constantine Espouses Christianity
Christianity witnessed considerable growth under the rule of Emperor Constantine. An unforeseen decision by Constantine in 312 during the battle of the Milvian Bridge marked a significant point in the history of Christianity.5 Constantine instructed his men to wear Christian symbols on their shields for protection.
He dedicated his victory to the alliance he had formed with the ‘god of the Christians.’ Constantine restored Christian property that had been confiscated and dedicated part of public funds to the development of churches. Constantine also played a significant role in influencing Licinius to adopt religious tolerance towards Christians.6
Licinius and Constantine created a favorable environment for the growth of Christianity through the construction of basilicas and tax concessions. Other advantages associated with being a Christian under Constantine led to massive conversions. However, Licinius was less dedicated to the plan of religious tolerance and started to discriminate against Christians in 320. Consequently, Constantine declared and won a battle against Licinius in 324 near Byzantium.
Privileges bestowed on the Christian Church under Constantine were evident in the construction of the first church buildings in Rome such as the St John Lateran church. Constantine embarked on a quest to establish Byzantium as a Christian-based capital of the Roman Empire where pagan sacrifice was outlawed. During his rule, Constantine and the Christian church faced several challenges such as the one involving Donatus at Carthage. Another problem involved an Alexandrian priest called Arius.
Sixty five years after an altercation concerning the Nicene Creed, a cleric known as Ambrose faced off with emperor Theodosius in Milan.7 The confrontation, which led to a public repentance by Theodosius, inspired fresh optimism from orthodox Christians. In 381, emperor Theodosius IX made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. The fourth century also witnessed the confirmation of the canon of the New Testament in 397.
The Fifth Century
The fifth century witnessed a change of events in the history of the church as the Roman Empire came under constant barbarian attacks.8 After the sacking of the city of Rome, St Augustine was inspired to write the city of God in which he depicted the ongoing conflict as a war between sin and salvation.
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The fifth century was also marked by the spread of Nestorianism in the eastern faction of the Christian church. Nestorians sought to distinguish between the human and divine essences of Jesus Christ. There was also a problem concerning the growing powers of the bishop of Rome while the emperor’s powers were on a steady decline. In 452, for instance, Pope Leo I managed to save the city of Rome from the hands of Attila the Hun and subsequently claimed the position of Apostle Peter’s successor.
During the initial five centuries of the history of Christianity, the Church metamorphosed from a secret organization to a publicly influential player in the politics of the Roman Empire. Though persecutions played an important role in the growth of the church, the most pivotal role was played by Emperor Constantine. The growth of the church during these five centuries laid the foundations for the universalization of Christianity.
Goffart, Walter. Barbarian Tides: The Migration Age and the Later Roman Empire. Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.
González, Justo. Church History: An Essential Guide. USA: Abingdon Press, 2010.
Markus, Robert. Christianity and the Secular. USA: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006.
Moorhead, John. The Roman Empire Divided 400-700. Harlow, England: Longman, 2001.
Potter, David. The Roman Empire at Bay, AD 180–395. USA: Routledge, 2004.
Salzman, Michele. The Making of a Christian Aristocracy: Social and Religious Change in the Western Roman Empire. USA: Harvard University Press, 2002.
Southern, Patricia. The Roman Empire from Severus to Constantine. New York: Routledge, 2003.
1 Justo González, Church History: An Essential Guide (USA: Abingdon Press, 2010), 32.
2 Robert Markus, Christianity and the Secular (USA: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006), 10.
3 Michele Salzman, The Making of a Christian Aristocracy: Social and Religious Change in the Western Roman Empire (USA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 22.
4 Patricia Southern, The Roman Empire from Severus to Constantine (New York: Routledge, 2003), 78.
5 David Potter, The Roman Empire at Bay, AD 180–395 (USA: Routledge, 2004), 365.
6 John Moorhead, The Roman Empire Divided 400-700 (Harlow, England Longman, 2001), 34.
7 Salzman, The Making, 178.
8 Walter Goffart, Barbarian Tides: The Migration Age and the Later Roman Empire (Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), 22.