Outline the Roman Empire’s attitude to Christianity Essay
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Q: Outline the Roman Empire’s attitude to Christianity until the end of the first century.
The Christian church from its outset has faced many challenges as a result of external influences; one of the most important of these influences was the persecution of the Christian people by the Roman Empire. From the year 64AD onwards the church was persecuted by the Roman authorities in an intermittent and sporadic manner, not on account of their beliefs, but was a result of chance and circumstance.
Christianity was born out of Judaism and appeared as an entity after the death of Christ. Of course Jews of the time felt threatened by the emergence of Christianity as a faith, and so the earliest persecutions of Christians occurred at the hands of Jewish Sadducees, who branded Christians ‘blasphemous’.
Indeed it is clear that the Jews played a part in persecution of Christians as late on as AD156 in the persecution of Polycarp. The persecution of Christians in the first century by Jews however were minimal in comparison to the much more widespread and systematic persecutions by the Roman authorities from the year AD64 onwards. Before this date Christians were accepted as a national sect of Judaism, and therefore they enjoyed the status of ‘religio licita’- a lawful or tolerated faith. The Roman Empire even protected many Christians against Jewish attack in the early years. This all changed however in the year 64AD, during the reign of the emperor Nero.
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64AD was by general concurrence of early Christians, the beginning of imperial repression of Christianity. This fact was supported by early Christian writers such as Tertullian, Eusebius and Sulpicus Severus. This date coincides with the fire of Rome, a devastating blaze which destroyed almost half of the city.
The pagan writer Tacitus reports to us in 115 of the fact that Despite Nero’s efforts the accusation that the fire was ordered could not be quashed. The mounting suspicion had a disastrous effect on Nero’s popularity (which had been very high before then), so Nero set about searching for a scapegoat. Christians were perfect candidates for a number of reasons; they were a relatively new group that were small in number and there was already an air of suspicion surrounding allegations of anti social behaviour. However the actual circumstances may have been more complex than will never be understood by ourselves, as banks points out:
‘The reasons behind the persecution of Christians included religious,
political and social factors which were so inter-related and inter-dependant
that it would be historically misleading to separate them out as isolated
There are however some other opposing views on the exact circumstances of the fire of Rome. Critics such as Frend have argued that it is possible that Nero originally put blame on the Jewish community, who in turn blamed Christianity. Yet other critics have also suggested that the fire may well have been started by Christian extremists, anxious to fulfil apocalyptic prophecies.
The first persecuted Christians were charged with arson and as Tacitus tells us, immense in number, this charge apparently changed to a charge of ‘hatred for the human race’. This in itself indicates the immense suspicion of the Roman population towards Christianity and the ability of Roman authorities to exploit this. Wand indicates to us the state of Roman perceptions of Christianity after Nero’s reign:
‘By the end of the reign of Nero the state had settled down to an attitude of
suspicion towards the church.’
The persecutions themselves were reported to be gruesome and perverse in nature by Tacitus among others. They were deliberately devised to create amusement for the public as well as humiliate the incumbent. Accounts included victims being covered with the hides of dogs and beasts and set upon by dogs, being crucified and being used as streetlights to ‘illuminate the darkness’. Even Tacitus the most ardent of anti Christian writers, could not help but feel pity for them.
There is much dispute over the impact that Nero’s persecution had on the Christian church. Some feel that it represents the beginning of Christianity’s status as an illegal religion, and that it set the precedent for a further 2 centuries of imperial persecution. What is certain is that the church lost many of its influential early leaders during Nero’s reign, including St Peter and St Paul as reported by Eusebius. Some commentators believe that without the writings of early evangelists, the Christian faith may have disappeared altogether. After Nero’s removal from office there was a period of considerable civil unrest within the Roman Empire, and therefore Christians were not seen as an important priority.
It was not until the reign of Domitian that persecution of Christians began in earnest. This time though the persecutions were different in nature in that he did not search out the Christian community as a group but sought out individuals by stealth. Domitian is described by Bernard as:
“A jealous man who went in fear of his life. He kept power
(like Stalin in Russia) by a series of sudden blows against
those who he felt were plotting against him.”
There is evidence to suggest during the end of his reign Domitian began to fervently persecute the Christian community as a whole. Showing the mans deep paranoia and distorted frame of mind. The ancient writer Suetonius writes of the Gladiator Glabrio who was executed by Domitian on Christian charges, although the real reason was the Emperors apparent jealousy of his abilities, underlining the unstable nature of Domitian’s personality.
It is widely regarded by many critics such as Banks that a possible source of conflict between Domitian and the Christian church was his enthusiasm for the imperial cult, and therefore he persecuted them because of their refusal to accord him divine honours. However it still remains in dispute whether Domitian persecuted Christians at all. The early church writer Dio Cassius, wrote from Bythinia, a strong Christian province and yet he never mentions any of Domitian’s victims as Christians. Furthermore, Pliny, a lawyer working in Rome at the time of Domitian’s reign tells Trajan many years later that he had never been involved in a Christian trial. This indicates at least that Domitian’s persecution was not exactly widespread or for reaching, if it existed at all.
There is little doubt of the immense impact the early persecutions had on the growth of the Christian church. While some argue that it has helped the church in its growth, others claim that it has actually hindered the churches growth. Tertullian observes ‘the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church’. I believe that because of the limited nature of early persecutions they did not seriously slow down the expansion of Christianity. What is certain though is that the persecutions at the hands of Nero and Domitian set a precedent for future Christian persecution.