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International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
Roman Empire and Christianity
1. Roman Empire a Result of Social Conflict
2. Coming of Monarchy
(1) Exhaustion of Parties
(2) Inability of Either Aristocracy or Democracy to Hold Equilibrium
(4) Withdrawal from Public Life: Individualism
(7) Imperial Interests
(8) Influence of Orient
1. Pax Romana and the Unification of the World
4. Protection for Greek Culture
8. Pattern for a Universal Church
9. Roman Jurisprudence
10. Negative Preparation
1. Roman or State Religion
2. Non-Roman Religions - religiones licitae and religiones illicitae
(1) Judaism a religio licita
(2) Why Christianity Was Alone Proscribed
(3) Two Empires: Causes of Conflict
(a ) Confusion of Spiritual and Temporal
( b ) Unique Claims of Christianity
( 100 ) Novelty of Christianity
( d ) Intolerance and Exclusiveness of the Christian Religion and Christian Society
( e ) Obstinatio
(f ) Aggressiveness against Pagan Faith
( g ) Christianos ad leones: Public Calamities
( h ) Odium generis humani
(4) The Roman Empire Not the Only Disturbing Factor
1. Beginning of Christianity until Death of Nero, 68 AD
2. Flavian Period, 68-96 AD
3. The Antonine Period, 96-192 AD
4. Changing Dynasties, 192-284 AD
5. Diocletian until First General Edict of Toleration, 284-311 AD
6. First Edict of Toleration until Extinction of Western Empire, 311-476 AD
1. Negative Causes
2. Positive Causes
I. Outline of the Roman Empire.
1. Roman Empire a Result of Social Conflict:
The founding of the Roman empire was the grandest political achievement ever accomplished. The conquests of Alexander the Great, Charlemagne and Napoleon seem small compared with the durable structure reared by Julius and his successor, Augustus. In one sense Julius Caesar - the most wonderful man that Rome or any other country produced - was the founder of the empire , and Augustus the founder of the principate . But the Roman empire was the culmination of a long process of political, constitutional, and social growth which gives a lasting interest to Roman history. The Roman empire was the only possible solution of a 700 years' struggle, and Roman history is the story of the conflict of class with class, patrician against plebeian, populus against plebs , the antagonism of oligarchy and democracy, plutocracy against neglected masses. It is the account of the triumphant march of democracy and popular government against an exclusive governing caste. Against heavy odds the plebeians asserted their rights till they secured at least a measure of social, political and legal equality with their superiors (see ROME , I, 2-4). But in the long conflict both parties degenerated until neither militant democracy nor despotic oligarchy could hold the balance with justice. Democracy had won in the uphill fight, but lost itself and was obliged to accept a common master with aristocracy. It was of no small importance for Christianity that the Roman empire - practically synonymous with the orbis terrarum - had been converging both from internal and external causes toward a one-man government, the political counterpart of a universal religion with one God and Saviour.
(1) Julius Caesar.
For a couple of generations political leaders had foreseen the coming of supreme power and had tried to grasp it. But it was Julius Caesar who best succeeded in exploiting democracy for his own aggrandizement. He proved the potent factor of the first triumvirate (60 BC); his consulship (59) was truly kingly. In 49
Octavian (Augustus) proved the potent factor of the second triumvirate. The field of Actiuim on September 2,31 BC, decided the fate of the old Roman republic. The commonwealth sank in exhaustion after the protracted civil and internecine strife. It was a case of the survival of the fittest. It was a great crisis in human history, and a great man was at hand for the occasion. Octavian realized that supreme power was the only possible solution. On his return to Rome he began to do over again what Caesar had done - gather into his own hands the reins of government. He succeeded with more caution and shrewdness, and became the founder of the Roman empire , which formally began on January 16,27 BC, and was signalized by the bestowal of the title AUGUSTUS (which see). Under republican forms he ruled as emperor, controlling legislation, administration and the armies. His policy was on the whole adhered to by the Julio-Claudian line, the last of which was Nero (died 68 AD).
(3) Flavian Dynasty.
(4) Adoptive or Antonine Emperors.
The Antonine is another distinct era marked by humane government, recognition of the rights of the provinces and an enlargement of the ideas of universalism. Under Trajan the empire was extended; a series of frontier blockades was established - a confession that Rome could advance no farther. Under Hadrian a policy of retreat began; henceforth Rome is never again on the aggressive but always on the defensive against restless barbarians. Unmistakable signs of weakness and decay set in under Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius. This, the best and happiest period of Roman imperial government, was the beginning of the end. In this era we detect a growing centralization of authority; the senate practically becomes a tool of the emperor. A distinct civil service was established which culminated in bureaucracy under Hadrian.
(5) Changing Dynasties, 193-284 AD.
On the death of Commodus, whose reign 180-93
(6) From Diocletian Until Partition.
In the next period absolute monarchy of pure oriental type was established by Diocletian, one of the ablest of Roman rulers. He inaugurated the principle of division and subdivision of imperial power. The inevitable separation of East and West, with the growing prominence of the East, becomes apparent. Rome and Italy are reduced to the rank of provinces, and new courts are opened by the two Augusti and two Caesars. Diocletian's division of power led to civil strife, until Constantine once more united the whole empire under his sway. The center of gravity now shifted from West to East by the foundation of Constantinople. The empire was again parceled out to the sons of Constantine, one of whom, Constantius, succeeded in again reuniting it (350 AD). In 364 it was again divided, Valentinian receiving the West and Valens the East.
(7) Final Partition.
On the death of Theodosius I (395), West and East fell to his sons Honorius and Arcadius, never again to be united. The western half rapidly degenerated before barbaric hordes and weakling rulers. The western provinces and Africa were overrun by conquering barbarians who set up independent kingdoms on Roman soil. Burgundians and Visigoths settled in Gaul; the latter established a kingdom in Spain. The Vandals under Genseric settled first in Southern Spain, then crossed to Africa and reduced it. Goths burst over Roman frontiers, settled in Illyria and invaded Italy. Alaric and his Goths spared Rome in 408 for a ransom; in 409 he appeared again and set up Attalus as king of the Romans, and finally in 410 he captured and sacked the city. It was again sacked by the Vandals under Genseric in 462, and, lastly, fell before Odoacer and his Germans in 476; he announced to the world that the empire of the West had ceased. The empire of the East continued at Constantinople the greatest political power through a chequred history down to the capture of the city in 1214 and its final capture by the Turks in 1453, when its spiritual and intellectual treasures were opened to western lands and proved of untold blessing in preparing the way for the Reformation of the 16th century. The East conquered the West intellectually and spiritually. In the East was born the religion of humanity.
2. Coming of the Monarchy:
(1) Exhaustion of Parties.
The Roman world had for two generations been steadily drifting toward monarchy, and at least one generation before the empire was set up clear minds saw the inevitable necessity of one-man government or supreme power, and each political leader made it his ambition to grasp it. The civil wars ceased for a century with the death of Antony. But the struggles of Tiberius Gracchus and Scipio Aemilianus, Caius Gracchus and Opimius, Drusus and Philippus, Marius and Sulla, Pompey and Caesar, and lastly Octavian and Antony had exhausted the state, and this exhaustion of political parties opened the way for monarchy. In fact it was a necessity for the welfare of the commonwealth that one should be elevated who could fairly hold the balance between oligarchy and the commons and duly recognize the claims of all parties. Even Cato Uticensis - the incarnation of republican ideas - admitted it would be better to choose a master than wait for a tyrant. The bloody wars could find no solution except the survival of the fittest. Moreover, the free political institutions of Rome had become useless and could no longer work under the armed oppression of factions. If any form of government, only supreme power would prove effectual amid an enfeebled, unpopular senate, corrupt and idle commons, and ambitious individuals.
(2) Inability of Either Aristocracy or Democracy to Hold Equilibrium.
Events had proved that a narrow exclusive aristocracy was incapable of good government because of its utterly selfish policy and disregard for the rights of all lower orders. It had learned to burke liberty by political murders. Neither was the heterogeneous population of later Rome disciplined to obey or to initiate just government when it had seized power. This anarchy within the body politic opened an easy way to usurpation by individuals. No republic and no form of free popular government could live under such conditions. Caesar said of the republic that it was "a name without any substance," and Curio declared it to be a "vain chimera." The law courts shared in the general corruption. The judicia became the bone of contention between the senate and the knights as the best instrument for party interests, and enabled the holders ( a ) to receive large bribes, ( b ) to protect their own order when guilty of the most flagrant injustice, and ( 100 ) to oppress other orders. Justice for all, and especially for conquered peoples, was impossible. Elective assemblies refused to perform their proper functions because of extravagant bribery or the presence of candidates in arms. In fact, the people were willing to forego the prerogative of election and accept candidates at the nomination of a despotic authority. The whole people had become incapable of self-government and were willing - almost glad - to be relieved of the necessity.
Besides, precedents for one-man government, or the concentration of supreme power in one hand, were not wanting, and had been rapidly multiplying in Roman history as it drew nearer to the end of the republic. Numerous protracted commands and special commissions had accustomed the state to the novelty of obedience without participation in administration. The 7 consulships of Marius, the 4 of Cinna, the 3 extraordinary commissions of Pompey and his sole consulship, the dictatorship of Sulla without time limit , the two 5-year-period military commands of Caesar, his repeated dictatorships the last of which was to extend for 10 years - all these were pointing directly toward Caesarism.
(4) Withdrawal from Public Life: Individualism.
On another side the way was opened to supreme power by the increasing tendency for some of the noblest and best minds to withdraw from public life to the seclusion of the heart life and thus leave the field open for demagogic ambition. After the conquests of Alexander the Great, philosophy abandoned the civic, political or city-state point of view and became moral and individual. Stoicism adopted the lofty spiritual teachings of Plato and combined them with the idea of the brotherhood of humanity. It also preached that man must work out his salvation, not in public political life, but in the secret agonies of his own soul. This religion took hold of the noblest Roman souls who were conscious of the weariness of life and felt the desire for spiritual fellowship and comfort. The pendulum in human systems of thought generally swings to the opposite extreme, and these serious souls abandoned public life for private speculation and meditation. Those who did remain at the helm of affairs - like the younger Cato - were often too much idealists, living in the past or in an ideal Platonic republic, and proved very unequal to the practical demagogues who lived much in the present with a keen eye to the future. Also a considerable number of the moderate party, who in better days would have furnished leaders to the state, disgusted with the universal corruption, saddened by the hopeless state of social strife and disquieted by uncertainty as to the issue of victory for either contending party, held aloof and must have wished for and welcomed a paramount authority to give stability to social life. Monarchy was in the air, as proved by the sentiments of the two pseudo-Sallustian letters, the author of which calls upon Caesar to restore government and reorganize the state, for if Rome perish the whole world must perish with her.
To another considerable class monarchy must have been welcome - the industrial and middle class who were striving for competence and were engaged in trade and commerce. Civil wars and the strife of parties must have greatly hindered their activity. They cast their lot neither with the optimates nor with the idle commonalty. They desired only a stable condition of government under which they could uninterruptedly carry on their trades.
Military conditions favored supreme power. Not only had the lengthened commands familiarized the general with his legions and given him time to seduce the soldiery to his own cause, but the soldiery too had been petted and spoiled like the spoon-fed populace. The old republican safeguards against ambition had been removed. The ranks of the armies had also been swollen with large numbers of provincials and non-Romans who had no special sentiment about republican forms. We have seen the military power growing more and more prominent. The only way of averting a military despotism supported and prompted by the soldiers was to set up a monarchy, holding all the military, legislative and administrative functions of the state in due proportion. This was superior to a merely nominal republic always cringing under fear of military leaders.
(7) Imperial Interests.
Lastly, the aggression and conquests of the republic had brought about a state of affairs demanding an empire. The East and the West had been subdued; many provinces and heterogeneous populations were living under the Roman eagle. These provinces could not permanently be plundered and oppressed as under the republican senate. The jus civile of Rome must learn also the jus naturale and jus gentium . An exclusive selfish senatorial clique was incapable of doing justice to the conquered peoples. One supreme ruler over all classes raised above personal ambition could best meet their grievances. The senate had ruled with a rod of iron; the provinces could not possibly be worse under any form of government. Besides, monarchy was more congenial to the provincials than a republic which they could not comprehend.
(8) Influence of Orient.
The Orientals had long been used to living under imperial and absolute forms of government and would welcome such a form among their new conquerors. Besides, residence in the Orient had affected Roman military leaders with the thirst after absolute power. And no other form was possible when the old city-state system broke down, and as yet federal government had not been dreamed of. Another consideration: the vast and dissimilar masses of population living within the Roman dominions could more easily be held together under a king or emperor than by a series of ever-changing administrations, just as the Austro-Hungarian and the British empires are probably held together better under the present monarchies than would be possible under a republican system. This survey may make clear the permanent interest in Roman history for all students of human history. The Roman empire was established indeed in the fullness of the times for its citizens and for Christianity.
II. Preparation of the Roman Empire for Christianity.
About the middle of the reign of Augustus a Jewish child was born who was destined to rule an empire more extensive and lasting than that of the Caesars. It is a striking fact that almost synchronous with the planting of the Roman empire Christianity appeared in the world. Although on a superficial glance the Roman empire may seem the greatest enemy of early Christianity, and at times a bitter persecutor, yet it was in many ways the grandest preparation and in some ways the best ally of Christianity. It ushered in politically the fullness of the times. The Caesars - whatever they may have been or done - prepared the way of the Lord. A brief account must here be given of some of the services which the Roman empire rendered to humanity and especially to the kingdom of God.
1. Pax Romana and the Unification of the World:
The first universal blessing conferred by the empire was the famous pax Romana ("Roman peace"). The world had not been at peace since the days of Alexander the Great. The quarrels of the Diadochi, and the aggression of the Roman republic had kept the nations in a state of constant turmoil. A universal peace was first established with the beginning of the reign of Augustus and the closing of the temple of Janus. In all the countries round the Mediterranean and from distant Britain to the Euphrates the world was at rest. Rome had made an end of her own civil wars and had put a stop to wars among the nations. Though her wars were often iniquitous and unjustifiable, and she conquered like a barbarian, she ruled her conquests like a humane statesman. The quarrels of the Diadochi which caused so much turmoil in the East were ended, the territory of the Lagids; Attalids, Seleucids and Antigonids having passed under the sway of Rome. The empire united Greeks, Romans and Jews all under one government. Rome thus blended the nations and prepared them for Christianity. Now for the first time we may speak of the world as universal humanity, the orbis terrarum , ἡ οἰκουμένη ,
This state of affairs contributed largely to the spread of cosmopolitanism which had set in with the Macedonia conqueror. Under the Roman empire all national barriers were removed; the great cities
This cosmopolitanism gave great impetus to a corresponding eclecticism of thought. Nothing could have been more favorable to Christianity than this intermixture of all races and mutual exchange of thought. Each people discovered how much it had in common with its neighbors. From the days of the Diadochi, Stoicism had been preaching the gospel of a civic and ethical brotherhood of humanity. In the fusion of different philosophic systems the emphasis had shifted from the city-state or political or national to the moral and human point of view. All men were thus reduced to equality before the One; only virtue and vice were the differentiating factors. Men were akin with the divine - at least the wise and good - so that one poet could say, "We are His offspring."
Stoicism did a noble service in preparation for Christianity by preaching universalism along the path of individualism. It also furnished comfort and strength to countless thousands of weary human lives and ministered spiritual support and calm resignation at many a heathen deathbed. It may be declared to be the first system of religious thought - for it was a religion more than a philosophy - which made a serious study of the diseases of the human soul. We know of course its weakness and imperfections, that it was an aristocratic creed appealing only to the elect of mortals, that it had little message for the fallen and lower classes, that it was cold and stern, that it lacked - as Seneca felt - the inspiration of an ideal life. But with all its failures it proved a worthy pedagogue to a religion which brought a larger message than that of Greece. It afforded the spiritual and moral counterpart to the larger human society of which the Roman empire was the political and visible symbol. Hitherto a good citizen had been a good man. Now a good man is a good citizen, and that not of a narrow city-state, but of the world. Stoicism also proved tile interpreter and mouthpiece to the Roman empire of the higher moral and spiritual qualities of Greek civilization; it diffused the best convictions of Greece about God and man, selecting those elements that were universal and of lasting human value. See STOICS .
The mind of the Roman empire was further prepared for Christianity by the Jewish Diaspora. Greeks learned from Jews and Jews from Greeks and the Romans from both. The unification effected by Roman Law and administration greatly aided the Diaspora. Jewish settlements became still more numerous and powerful both in the East and West. Those Jews bringing from the homeland the spiritual monotheism of their race combined it with Greek philosophy which had been setting steadily for monotheism. With the Jews the exclusively national element was subordinated to the more human and universal, the ceremonial to the religious. They even adopted the world-language of that day
4. Protection for Greek Culture:
Another inestimable service rendered to humanity and Christianity was the protection which the Roman power afforded the Greek civilization. We must remember that the Romans were at first only conquering barbarians who had little respect for culture, but idealized power. Already they had wiped out two ancient and superior civilizations - that of Carthage without leaving a trace, and that of Etruria, traces of which have been discovered in modern times. It is hard to conceive what a scourge Rome would have proved to the world had she not fallen under the influence of the superior culture and philosophy of Greece. Had the Roman Mars not been educated by Pallas Athene the Romans would have proved Vandals and Tartars in blotting out civilization and arresting human progress. The Greeks, on the other hand, could conquer more by their preeminence in everything that pertains to the intellectual life of man than they could hold by the sword. A practical and political power was needed to protect Greek speculation. But the Romans after causing much devastation were gradually educated and civilized and have contributed to the uplifting and enlightenment of subsequent civilizations by both preserving and opening to the world the spiritual qualities of Greece. The kinship of man with the divine, learned from Socrates and Plato, went forth on its wide evangel. This Greek civilization, philosophy and theology trained many of the great theologians and leaders of the Christian church, so that Clement of Alexandria said that Greek philosophy and Jewish law had proved schoolmasters to bring the world to Christ. Paul, who prevented Christianity from remaining a Jewish sect and proclaimed its universalism, learned much from Greek - especially from Stoic - thought. It is also significant that the early Christian missionaries apparently went only where the Greek language was known, which was the case in all centers of Roman administration.
The state of the Roman empire linguistically was in the highest degree favorable to the spread of Christianity. The Greek republics by their enterprise, superior genius and commercial abilities extended their dialects over the Aegean Islands, the coasts of Asia Minor, Sicily and Magna Graecia. The preeminence of Attic culture and literature favored by the short-lived Athenian empire raised this dialect to a standard among the Greek peoples. But the other dialects long persisted. Out of this babel of Greek dialects there finally arose a normal
Though Latin was of course the official language of the conquerors, the decrees of governors generally appeared with a Greek translation, so that they might be "understanded of the people," and Greek overcame Latin, as English drove out the French of the Norman invaders. Latin poets and historians more than once complained that Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit ("conquered Greece vanquished its stern conqueror"). With the spread of Latin there were two world-languages side by side for the whole Roman empire, but Greek was prevailingly the language of the eastern half of the Roman empire which was the first soil for Christian churches and the first half of the empire to be Christianized. Later when Christianity was able to extend her activity to the West, she found Latin ready as the common means of intercourse. That Rome respected Greek is greatly to her credit and much to the advantage of Christianity. For Christianity, when it began to aim at universalism, dropped its native Aramaic. The gospel in order to become a world-evangel was translated into Greek. The early Christian missionaries did not learn the languages or patois of the Roman empire, but confined themselves to centers of Greek culture. Paul wrote in Greek to the church in Rome itself, of which Greek was the language. And while Christianity was spreading through the Greek East under the unification of Roman administration, the Romans were Romanizing and leveling the West for Latin Christianity (see LATIN ). In the West it may be noted that the first foothold of the Christian religion was in Greek - witness the church in Gaul.
In material ways too Rome opened the way for Christianity by building the great highways for the gospel. The great system of roads that knit then civilized world together served not only the legions and the imperial escorts, but were of equal service to the early missionaries, and when churches began to spring up over the empire, these roads greatly facilitated that church organization and brotherhood which strengthened the church to overcome the empire. With the dawn of the pax Romana all these roads became alive once more with a galaxy of caravans and traders. Commerce revived and was carried on under circumstances more favorable than any that obtained till the past century. Men exchanged not only material things, but also spiritual things. Many of these early traders and artisans were Christians, and while they bought and sold the things that perish, they did not lose an opportunity of spreading the gospel. For an empire which embraced the Mediterranean shores, the sea was an important means of intercommunication; and the Mediterranean routes were safer for commerce and travel at that period than during any previous one. Pompey the Great had driven the pirates off the sea, and with the fall of Sextus Pompey no hostile maritime forces remained. The ships which plied in countless numbers from point to point of this great inland sea offered splendid advantages and opportunity for early Christian missionary enthusiasm.
The large measure of freedom permitted by Roman authorities to the religions of all nations greatly favored the growth of infant Christianity. The Roman empire was never in principle a persecutor with a permanent court of inquisition. Strange cults from the East and Egypt flourished in the capital, and except when they became a danger to public morality or to the peace of society they were allowed to spread unchecked under the eyes of the police. See below on non-Roman religions.
8. Pattern for a Universal Church:
Further, the Roman empire afforded Christianity a material and outward symbol for its spiritual ambition. It enlarged the vision of the church. Only a citizen (Paul) of such a world-empire could dream of a religion for all humanity. If the Roman sword could so conquer and unify the orbis terrarum , the militant church should be provoked to attempt nothing less in the religious sphere. It also furnished many a suggestion to the early organizers of the new community, until the Christian church became the spiritual counterpart of the Roman empire. The Christians appropriated many a weapon from the arsenal of the enemy and learned from them aggressiveness, the value of thorough organization and of military methods.
9. Roman Jurisprudence:
Roman law in its origins was characterized by the narrowest exclusiveness, and the first formal Roman code was on Greek patterns, yet the Romans here as in so many other respects improved upon what they had borrowed and became masters of jurisprudence in the antique world. As their empire and conceptions expanded, they remodeled their laws to embrace all their subjects. One of the greatest boons conferred by Rome upon the antique world was a uniform system of good laws - the source of much of our European jurisprudence. The Roman law played an equally important role with the Jewish in molding and disciplining for Christianity. It taught men to obey and to respect authority, and proved an effective leveling and civilizing power in the empire. The universal law of Rome was the pedagogue for the universal law of the gospel. See
10. Negative Preparation:
The Romans could offer their subjects good laws, uniform government and military protection, but not a satisfactory religion. A universal empire called for a universal religion, which Christianity alone could offer. Finally, not only by what Rome had accomplished but by what she proved incapable of accomplishing, the way of the Lord was made ready and a people prepared for His coming. It was a terrible crisis in the civilization and religion of antiquity. The old national religions and systems of belief had proved unable to soothe increasing imperious moral and spiritual demands of man's nature. A moral bankruptcy was immanent. The old Roman religion of abstract virtues had gone down in formalism; it was too cold for human hearts. Man could no longer find the field of his moral activity in the religion of the state; he was no longer merely an atom in society performing religious rites, not for his own soul, but for the good of the commonwealth. Personality had been slowly emerging, and the new schools of philosophy called man away from the state to seek peace with God in the solitude of his own soul first of all. But even the best of these schools found the crying need of a positive, not a negative religion, the need for a perfect ideal life as a dynamic over ordinary human lives. Thus was felt an imperious demand for a new revelation, for a fresh vision or knowledge of God. In earlier days men had believed that God had revealed Himself to primitive wise men or heroes of their race, and that subsequent generations must accept with faith what these earlier seers, who stood nearer God, as Cicero said, had been pleased to teach of the divine. But soon this stock of knowledge became exhausted. Plato, after soaring to the highest point of poetic and philosophic thought about the divine, admitted the need of a demon or superman to tell us the secrets of eternity. With the early Roman empire began a period of tremendous religious unrest. Men tried philosophy, magic, astrology, foreign rites, to find a sure place of rest. This accounts for the rapid and extensive diffusion of oriental mysteries which promised to the initiated communion with God here, a "better hope" in death, and satisfied the craving for immortality beyond time. These were the more serious souls who would gladly accept the consolations of Jesus. Others, losing all faith in any form of religion, gave themselves up to blank despair and accepted Epicureanism with its gospel of annihilation and its carpe diem morals. This system had a terrible fascination for those who had lost themselves; it is presented in its most attractive form in the verses of Lucretius - the Omar Khayyam of Latin literature. Others again, unable to find God, surrendered themselves to cheerless skepticism. The sore need of the new gospel of life and immortality will be borne in upon the mind of those who read the Greek and Roman sepulchral inscriptions. And even Seneca, who was almost a Christian in some respects, speaks of immortality as a "beautiful dream" ( bellum somnium ), though tribulation later gave a clearer vision of the "city of God." Servius Sulpicius, writing to Cicero a letter of consolation on the death of his much-missed Tullia, had only a sad "if" to offer about the future (Cic. Fam. iv. 5). Nowhere does the unbelief and pessimism of pre-Christian days among the higher classes strike one more forcibly than in the famous discussion recorded by Sallust ( Bel. Cat . 51 f) as to the punishment of the Catilinarian conspirators. Caesar, who held the Roman high-priesthood and the highest authority on the religion of the state, proposes life imprisonment, as death would only bring annihilation and rest to these villains - no hereafter, no reward or punishment ( eam cuncta mortalium mala dissolvere; ultra neque curae neque gaudio locum esse ). Cato next speaks - the most religious man of his generation - in terms which cast no rebuke upon Caesar's Epicureanism and materialism (ibid., 52). Cicero ( In Cat . iv. 4) is content to leave immortality an open question. The philosophers of Athens mocked Paul on Mars' Hill when he spoke of a resurrection. Such was the attitude of the educated classes of the Greek-Roman world at the dawn of Christianity, though it cannot be denied that there was also a strong desire for continued existence. The other classes were either perfunctorily performing the rites of a dead national religion or wereseeking, some, excitement or aesthetic worship or even scope for their baser passions, some, peace and promise for the future, in the eastern mysteries. The distinction between moral and physical evil was coming to the surface, and hence, a consciousness of sin. Religion and ethics had not yet been united. "The throne of the human mind" was declared vacant, and Christianity was at hand as the best claimant. In fact, the Greek-Roman mind had been expanding to receive the pure teachings of Jesus.
III. Attitude of the Roman Empire to Religions.
1. Roman or State Religion:
The history of Roman religion reveals a continuous penetration of Italian, Etruscan, Greek, Egyptian and oriental worship and rites, until the old Roman religion became almost unrecognizable, and even the antiquarian learning of a Varro could scarcely discover the original meaning or use of many Roman deities. The Roman elements or modes of worship progressively retreated until they and the foreign rites with which they were overlaid gave way before the might of Christianity. As Rome expanded, her religious demands increased. During the regal period Roman religion was that of a simple agricultural community. In the period between the Regifugium and the Second Punic War Roman religion became more complicated and the Roman Pantheon was largely increased by importations from Etruria, Latium and Magna Graecia. The mysterious religion of Etruria first impressed the Roman mind, and from this quarter probably came the Trinity of the Capitol (Jupiter, Juno, Minerva) previously introduced into Etruria from Greek sources, thus showing that the Romans were not the first in Italy to be influenced by the religion of Greece. New modes of worship, non-Roman in spirit, also came in from the Etruscans and foreign elements of Greek mythology. Latium also made its contribution, the worship of Diana coming from Aricia and also a Latin Jupiter. Two Latin cults penetrated even within the Roman pomoerium - that of Hercules and Castor, with deities of Greek origin. The Greek settlements in Southern Italy (Magna Graecia) were generous in their contributions and opened the way for the later invasion of Greek deities. The Sibylline Books were early imported from Cumae as sacred scriptures for the Romans. In 493
2. Non-Roman Religions: Religiones Licitae and Religiones Illicitae:
The non-Roman religions were divided into religiones licitae ("licensed worships") and religiones illicitae ("unlicensed"). The Romans at different times, on account of earthquakes, pestilences, famine or military disasters, introduced non-Roman cults as means of appeasing the numina . This generally meant that the cults in question could be performed with impunity by their foreign adherents. It legalized the collegia necessary for these worships from which Roman citizens were by law excluded. But, generally speaking, any people settling at Rome was permitted the liberty of its own native worship in so far as the exercise of it did not interfere with the peace of the state or corrupt the morals of society. On one occasion (186 BC), by a decree of the senate, a severe inquisition was instituted against the Bacchanalian rites which had caused flagrant immorality among the adherents. But Rome was never a systematic persecutor. These foreign rites and superstitions, though often forbidden and their professed adherents driven from the city, always returned stronger than ever. Roman citizens soon discovered the fascination of oriental and Greek mysteries, and devoted themselves to foreign gods while maintaining the necessary formalism toward the religion of the state. Very often too Roman citizens would be presidents of these religious brotherhoods. It should not be forgotten that the original moral elements had fallen out of Roman religion, and that it had become simply a political and military religion for the welfare of the state, not for the salvation of the individual. The individual must conform to certain prescribed rites in order to avert calamity from the state. This done, the state demanded no more, and left him a large measure of freedom in seeking excitement or aesthetic pleasure in the warm and more social foreign mysteries. Thus, while the Romans retained the distinction of religiones licitae and illicitae , they seldom used severity against the latter. Many unlicensed cults were never disturbed. In fact, the very idea of empire rendered toleration of non-Roman religions a necessity. Practically, though not theoretically, the empire abandoned the idea of religiones illicitae , while it retained it upon the statute-book to use in case of such an emergency as the Christian religion involved. Not only the government was tolerant, but the different varieties of religions were tolerant and on good terms with each other. The same man might be initiated into the mysteries of half a dozen divinities. The same man might even be priest of two or more gods. Some had not the slightest objection to worshipping Christ along with Mithra, Isis and Adonis. Men were growing conscious of the oneness of the divine, and credited their neighbors with worshipping the One Unknown under different names and forms. Hadrian is said to have meditated the erection of temples throughout the empire to the Unknown God.
(1) Judaism a "Religio Licita."
An interesting and, for the history of Christianity, important example of a religio licita is Judaism. No more exclusive and obstinate people could have been found upon whom to bestow the favor. Yet from the days of Julius Caesar the imperial policy toward the Jew and his religion was uniformly favorable, with the brief exception of the mad attempt of Gaius. The government often protected them against the hatred of the populace. Up to 70
(2) Why Christianity Was Alone Proscribed.
The question next arises: If such was the universally mild and tolerant policy of the empire to find room for all gods and cults, and to respect the beliefs of all the subject peoples, how comes the anomaly that Christianity alone was proscribed and persecuted? Christianity was indeed a religio illicita , not having been accepted by the government as a religio licita , like Judaism. But this is no answer. There were other unlicensed religions which grew apace in the empire. Neither was it simply because Christianity was aggressive and given to proselytism and dared to appear even in the imperial household: Mithraism and Isism were militant and aggressive, and yet were tolerated. Nor was it simply because of popular hatred, for the Christian was not hated above the Jew. Other reasons must explain the anomaly.
(3) Two Empires: Causes of Conflict.
The fact was that two empires were born about the same time so like and yet so unlike as to render a conflict and struggle to the death inevitable. The Christians were unequivocal in asserting that the society for which they were waiting and laboring was a "kingdom."
(a) Confusion of Spiritual and Temporal:
They thought not merely in national or racial but in ecumenical terms. The Romans could not understand a kingdom of God upon earth, but confused Christian ambition with political. It was soon discovered that Christianity came not to save but to destroy and disintegrate the empire. Early Christian enthusiasm made the term "kingdom" very provoking to pagan patriotism, for many, looking for the
(b) Unique Claims of Christianity:
It seemed also to provoke Roman pride by its absurd claims. It preached that the world was to be destroyed by fire to make way for new heavens and a new earth, that the Eternal City (Rome) was doomed to fall, that a king would come from heaven whom Christians were to obey, that amid the coming desolations the Christians should remain tranquil.
(c) Novelty of Christianity:
Again after Christianity came from underneath the aegis of Judaism, it must have taken the government somewhat by surprise as a new and unlicensed religion which had grown strong under a misnomer. It was the newest and latest religion of the empire; it came suddenly, as it were, upon the stage with no past. It was not apparent to the Roman mind that Christianity had been spreading for a generation under the tolerance granted to Judaism ( sub umbraculo licitae Judeorum religionis: Tert.), the latter of which was "protected by its antiquity," as Tacitus said. The Romans were of a conservative nature and disliked innovations. The greatest statesman of the Augustan era, Maecenas, advised the emperor to extend no tolerance to new religions as subversive of monarchy (Dio Cassius lii. 36). A new faith appearing suddenly with a large clientele might be dangerous to the public peace ( multitude ingens: Tac. Ann. xv. 44; πολὺ πλῆθος ,
(d) Intolerance and Exclusiveness of the Christian Religion and Christian Society:
In one marked way Christians contravcned the tolerant eclective spirit of the empire - the intolerance and absoluteness of their religion and the exclusiveness of their society. All other religions of the empire admitted compromise and eclecticism, were willing to dwell rather on the points of contact with their neighbors than on the contrast. But Christianity admitted no compromise, was intolerant to all other systems. It must be admitted that in this way it was rather unfair to other cults which offered comfort and spiritual support to thousands of the human race before the dawn of Christianity. But we shall not blame, when we recognize that for its own life and mission it was necessary to show itself at first intolerant. Many heathen would gladly accept Christ along with Mithra and Isis and Serapis. But Christianity demanded complete separation. The Jesus cult could tolerate no rival: it claimed to be absolute, and worshippers of Jesus must be separate from the world. The Christian church was absolute in its demands; would not rank with, but above, all worships. This spirit was of course at enmity with that of the day which enabled rival cults to co-exist with the greatest indifference. Add to this the exclusive state of Christian society. No pious heathen who had purified his soul by asceticism and the sacraments of antiquity could be admitted into membership unless he renounced things dear to him and of some spiritual value. In every detail of public life this exclusive spirit made itself felt. Christians met at night and held secret assemblies in which they were reputed to perpetrate the most scandalous crimes. Thyestean banquets, Oedipean incest, child murder, were among the charges provoked by their exclusiveness.
Add to this also the sullen obstinacy with which Christians met the demands of imperial power - a feature very offensive to Rein governors. Their religion would be left them undisturbed if they would only render formal obedience to the religion of the state. Roman clemency and respect for law were baffled before Christian obstinacy. The martyr's courage appeared as sheer fanaticism. The pious Aurelius refers but once to Christianity, and in the words ψιλὴ παράταξις ,
(f) Aggressiveness against Pagan Faith:But the Christians were not content with an uncompromising withdrawal from the practices of heathen worship: they also actively assailed the pagan cult. To the Christians they became doctrines of demons. The imperial cult and worship of the Genius of the emperor were very unholy in their sight. Hence, they fell under the charges of disloyalty to the emperor and might be proved guilty of
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Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. Entry for 'Roman Empire and Christianity'. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/isb/r/roman-empire-and-christianity.html. 1915.