“The contagion of this superstition (Christianity) has spread not only to the cities, but also to the villages and even to the farms. It seems possible, however, that it can be arrested and cured.” –Pliny the Younger, Governor of the province of Bithynia-Pontus writing to the Emperor Trajan, Lettters X.96, 97, c. 111 AD
When Pliny the Younger, in 111AD, wrote Emperor Trajan a letter spelling out his concerns about the Christian community in his province and the steps he saw necessary to address the Christian menace, in hindsight it was all wishful thinking. Christianity, no matter the adversity, was destined to succeed. Part of its genuine appeal was its grass-roots approach in helping the poor, sick and hungry. For women and children, in particular, Christianity offered them a better life.
A few hundred years before Constantine had adopted the Christian faith and was baptised on his deathbed, Christianity had first spread from humble beginnings out of the Holy Land, into the East and to western Europe. St. Paul, in particular, was instrumental in preaching and transforming Christianity in its infant years. He dutifully documented the rise of the Christian faith, often instructing new Christians how to behave. In time, Christians had created an astonishing network of churches (mainly house churches) and continued to actively sort out new followers, not only from among the poor and the oppressed, but also from the middle classes and skilled workers. If it is to be believed, by 250 AD there were an estimated one million Christians in the Roman Empire and by 300 AD, that number had grown to over six million. Suddenly, it seemed that the Christian Church had become a force to be reckoned with. By the end of Constantine’s rule in 337AD, it is estimated that there were over twenty four million Christians in the Roman Empire. How can we explain this extraordinary boom ?
It is a complicated answer, but without a doubt, one of the most single decisive moments was in fact the rise of Constantine The Great. His joint statement together with Licinius in Milan 313 AD on religious tolerance placed Christianity on an equal footing with all other religions in the empire. By 324 AD, having established himself as sole ruler of the Roman Empire, the bishops of the Church, like a leech sucking blood, grabbed hold of its host- Constantine. The impact was immediately felt as the Emperor favored Christians in his administration and court. Furthermore, he boldly embarked on a building programme unprecedented in the empire, erecting church after church and bestowing legal rights and privileges to the Christians, which was something once unimaginable.
Certainly, all of the above helped the establishment and prosperity of the Church, however it wasn’t the only reasons why Christianity grew. Surely, Constantine and all those Christians who came before him must have been attracted by something more spiritual ? It came in the form of something new, that being Christ’s victory over death. The early Christians believed that Jesus rose from the dead after being crucified, offering Christians motivation that if they believed and adhere to the teachings of Christ, they too would rise again after death and attain the promise of salvation and eternal life in heaven. This belief alone set them apart from Judaism, polytheists and other cults. Was it not why Constantine was baptised on his deathbed ?
It drawback meant that they brought attention to themselves, in which, their beliefs inevitably clashed with Roman law. Christians refused to offer up prayers to the pagan gods of Rome, which was something that was required by all the subjects of the empire. This act of disobedience was a catalyst that set off a chain of prosecutions for the next three hundred years. Unlike Judaism which was exempt due to its long-standing ancient traditions, Christianity was seen as a breakaway cult “whose creed was new and therefore, in all likelihood, invalid ” and unworthy of exemption.
So began the long history of Christian prosecution dating back to the early founders of the Church. St. Peter was crucified upside down on a cross, St.Paul was beheaded in Rome during Nero’s reign and according to legend St. Ignatius of Antioch was martyred in the Colosseum, in Rome. The first truly organized prosecution of Christians came after the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD under the Emperor Nero. Looking for a scapegoat in the devastating aftermath of the fire, he found it in the Christians. He would blame them for the fire because of their apocalyptic belief that Rome and the world would end by fire. This led to an active and organised campaign against them. Large numbers of Christians were arrested and put to death.
The Christian Martyrs’ last prayer, by Jean-Leon Gerome, 1883.
The second and third centuries sporadically saw more of the same prosecutions, especially under the reign of Emperors Decius, Valerian and Diocletian. Christians were belittled, shamed, humiliated by having their hair shaved off, even stripped naked before they were thrashed and branded. In the extreme they were tortured, beheaded, crucified and even fed to lions and beasts as sport and entertainment. Astonishingly through it all most Christians simply refused to renounce their faith in Jesus Christ. Roman authorities were often stunned and bewildered. The option to be martyred rather than to give up one’s faith is illustrated in Christian legend throughout its history. Why ? Because the Christian god forbade them to worship other pagan gods. Christians had to stay true to God and honour and worship him alone. There was no better way to pay homage to him (other than martyrdom) but to break bread and drink wine at Mass, symbolizing the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, celebrating the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ at Easter time for early christians, as it is today, was essentially the basis of their faith.
Whatever the forces were that guided Christianity’s rise through to the beginning of the fourth century, its story would continue to evolve around one man. Constantine tried his best to encourage Christianity and in some ways this man even tried to shape it in his favor ? Ultimately, I believe he saw Christianity as an ally to the Roman Empire. Something that should be encouraged and openly celebrated for all that was good about it. In some ways, Constantine had also unwittingly set in motion a Christian revolution.
Christ as Emperor, wearing a military dress in this Ravenna mosaic. Is Christ the new ruler of the Roman empire ? Is it a vain attempt by Byzantine Emperors to link themselves with the divinity of Christ ? Some conspiracy theorists believe that the Christ figure in this mosaic is Emperor Constantine as Christ.
For all of Constantine’s efforts to bring the Church and its bishops together, it still occasionally managed to “shoot itself in the foot”. Bitter division from within would rear its ugly head from time to time. However there was also a lot of good that came out of the Constantinian era. For instance, the First Council of Nicaea in 325, settled many church matters from baptism, to setting the dates of Easter to the relationship of the Son and the Father. Laws, too, enacted by Constantine, including the abolishment of crucifixion in 337, were out of veneration for Jesus Christ. The regulation of laws in areas of marriage, celibacy and protection of the clergy was also of utmost important. Though, if there is one thing that the Christian Church had time to truly celebrate in its short history up til 337, it was that it was well on the road ahead to becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire. Apart from a small hiccup along the road under the last pagan Emperor Julian, the church would use its power to ultimately get all future Emperors to champion the cause of Christianity. First in line was Constantine’s son, Constantius II. He would turn his father’s Christian vision into a lasting reality.
The header image is of Saint Paul delivering his most dramatic speech, the Areopagus Sermon, in Athens, by Raphael, 1515.
Notes and Further Reading
Geoffrey Blainey, A Short history of Christianity, Viking, 2011.
Peter Brown, The World of Late Antiquity, Norton, 1989.
Michael Grant, The Emperor Constantine, Phoenix, 1993.
David Bentley Hart, The Story of Christianity, Quercus, 2007.
Judith Herrin, Byzantium: The Surprising life of a Medieval Empire, Princeton, 2009.
Selina O’Grady, And Man Created God, Atlantic Book, 2012.
Paul Stephenson, Constantine, Quercus, 2009.