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  1. Search form
  2. Constantine the Great and Christianity - Wikipedia
  3. Rome and Christianity
  4. Quick Facts

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By its end, Christians or nominal Christians indisputably constituted a majority in the empire. Apart from the small and ethnically circumscribed exception of the Jews, the ancient world had never known an exclusivist faith, so the rapid success of early Christianity is a historical anomaly. That a world religion should have emerged from an oriental cult in a tiny and peculiar corner of Roman Palestine is nothing short of extraordinary.

Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew, though an eccentric one, and here the concern is not what the historical Jesus did or did not believe. We know that he was executed for disturbing the Roman peace during the reign of the emperor Tiberius, and that some of his followers then decided that Jesus was not merely another regular prophet, common in the region. Rather, he was the son of the one true god, and he had died to bring salvation to those who would follow him.

Paul ignored the hardscrabble villages of the Galilee region, looking instead to the cities full of Greeks and Greek-speaking Jews all around the eastern Mediterranean littoral. He travelled to the Levant, Asia Minor and mainland Greece, where he delivered his famous address to the Corinthians. Some scholars now believe that Paul might have gone to Spain, not just talked about wanting to go. The fact that he was a Roman citizen meant that, unlike Jesus, he could neither be handed over to the Jewish authorities for judgment nor summarily executed by an angry Roman governor.

Paul was a Christian, perhaps indeed the first Christian, but he was also a Roman. That was new. As a religion, Judaism was ethnic, which gave Jews some privileged exemptions unavailable to any other Roman subjects, but it also meant they were perpetually aliens.

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Constantine the Great and Christianity - Wikipedia

In contrast, Christianity was not ethnic. In the socially stratified world of antiquity, the egalitarianism of Christianity was unusual and, to many, appealing. Miracles and the immanence of the supernatural abounded in the Roman world. Powerful miracles were powerfully persuasive.

It used to be said that women, slaves and the working classes took to Christianity first but, in fact, the miracle stories and the promises of salvation attracted a wide cross-section of society. Christianity offered eternal life in exchange for belief — no complex initiation rituals, no hieratic pyramid of occult revelation. In a cosmopolitan Roman empire, where cities sucked in expendable labour from the countryside, and where artisans and craftsmen had to travel a very long way from home, that kind of community could not be taken for granted or created casually. Christians would and did look after one another, sometimes exclusively so.

Good Christians were expected to shun these celebrations, the festivals and ceremonies their fellow townsfolk kept at the centre of their social lives. That made Christians very strange. Technically, for a time, Christianity was illegal its god had been nailed to a cross like a common bandit after all. The Jews had kept themselves separate for as long as anyone could remember, but Greeks and Romans were used to that.

Jewish communities were concentrated, nowhere large, and they were exempt from mandatory participation in a public cult. Around the Mediterranean, people could look at Jews with a sort of tolerant, if uncomprehending, disdain. But Greeks and Romans sitting out the traditional cult of their own cities made no sense. Were these monotheist Christians pretty much the same as atheists, refusing to give the divine its due? What exactly did they get up to in their exclusive meetings? Were they cannibals? Probably it was all just another eccentric. The world of ancient Rome, after all, was one in which initiates of one cult bathed in the spurting blood of a freshly slaughtered bull.

Those of another passed the night in temples awaiting divine revelation and sleeping with the sacred priestesses. Of course, the eccentricity of neighbours begins to look more sinister when life gets difficult and livelihoods grow tenuous. A Christian exclusivity that was also status-blind could look suspicious — so there were occasional pogroms, though surprisingly few: the pornographic violence of martyrologies, the tormented saints of a million works of Catholic art, were the loving harvest of later centuries, not any ancient reality. Like all empires, the Roman state hated disorder more than anything, and violence that disturbed the public peace was not encouraged.

As the letters of the emperor Trajan make crystal clear, Christians were not to be sought out or persecuted unless they made themselves a conspicuous nuisance, at which point they had no one but themselves to blame for their fates. One would have been hard-pressed to find even a modest town without a Christian household or three. From a fringe movement, Christianity had become a central fact of urban life. The last dynasty to have any real claim to legitimacy was that of Septimius Severus who reigned Its last scion was murdered in a mutiny in For 50 years thereafter, no emperor could make any lasting claim to the throne.

Religion in Rome

In , he ordered every inhabitant of the empire to sacrifice to the gods of the state, and to prove it by producing the same sort of certificate that local magistrates issued to document the payment of annual taxes. Decius might not have actually meant to target Christians specifically, but his edict could not help but have that effect. Forbidden to worship any god but their own, many Christians refused to sacrifice. For their obduracy, some were executed. When Decius was killed on the battlefield in , Christians rejoiced that their god had protected them. Imperial fortunes did not improve.


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Many wondered why Valerian singled them out: the Roman senate went so far as to query whether the emperor really meant what he appeared to mean with his edict. He did. More martyrdoms followed, but then, in , Valerian was taken prisoner on the battlefield by the Persian king, going on to die in captivity. His son and successor Gallienus immediately ended persecution and restored the legal rights of Christian churches. That legal measure demonstrates something significant. Churches had become prosperous, socially integrated corporate entities, able to possess and dispose of property.

Christianity was no longer a clandestine and minority religion. The years between and offered little reprieve to those who wanted to become emperor and govern, but they did amount to the first golden age for Roman Christians. By the s, there were Christians in the senate, at court, and even in the families of emperors. Some of these theological works focus on detailing heresies — wrong beliefs — of which there was already a rich variety.

Because Christianity centred so much on beliefs rather than ritual behaviours, the policing of what did and did not constitute true and acceptable belief has always preoccupied Christian theologians and been a central dynamic in Christian politics. Held in the obscure Andalusian town of Elvira, the council shows us a world in which the gathered church leaders found it necessary to legislate against a large number of mundane activities that they determined were prejudicial to Christian wellbeing.

There, Constantine was educated in Latin and Greek.

Rome and Christianity

He likely also witnessed the persecution of Christians. Constantine then joined his father on a military campaign and fought alongside him in Britain.


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The next year, Constantius died at Eboracum now York. Constantine was declared emperor by his troops. To make the designation official, he began to fight for power. During a period of civil war, Constantine defended his position against different Roman factions, including Maxentius, Maximian's son. Accounts of Constantine's life state that, following a vision, he had ordered a Christian symbol to be painted on his soldiers' shields.

Under this emblem, Constantine was successful in battle and entered Rome. Constantine now became the Western Roman emperor.

Quick Facts

He soon used his power to address the status of Christians, issuing the Edict of Milan in This proclamation legalized Christianity and allowed for freedom of worship throughout the empire. For a time, Constantine stood by as others ruled the Eastern Roman Empire. In , Licinius, who had been sharing power with Maximinus, became the only Eastern emperor.

In , Constantine defeated Licinius and took control of a reunited empire. After this triumph, Constantine founded the city of Constantinople on the site of Byzantium. Constantine continued to proclaim his adherence to Christianity, and his reign established influence over religious conflicts within the church. Not wanting questions about the divine nature of Christ to sow discord, Constantine summoned church officials to the Council of Nicaea in Out of this came the Nicene Creed, which affirmed that Jesus was a divine being.

While in power, Constantine issued reforms intended to strengthen his regime. One such reform was a reorganization of the army, which helped Constantine when he faced tribes such as the Visigoths and the Sarmatians. Constantine was in Helenopolis, planning a campaign against Persia, when he fell ill. He set out to return to Constantinople, but grew worse and was forced to halt his journey. He had delayed his baptism—a common practice at the time—but now underwent the rite.

Constantine died on May 22, , in Ancyrona, near Nicomedia, Bithynia modern day?


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