How the ‘Jesus cult’ Captured the Roman State

Louise Adena, Dickson College, 2008



Christianity became the official Roman religion by the end of the 4th Century AD. It had emerged as a dominant faith because it was able to evolve to suit the needs and expectations of an evolving Roman society. It embraced all people, gave hope to the powerless, appealed to the poor, offered a personal relationship with a single God and finally, promised an attractive afterlife to faithful adherents. This dominance of Christianity in the Roman Empire was in contrast to its early days, when it was regarded as a threat and Christians were heavily persecuted. Despite persecutions, the Christians continued to practice their faith whilst still gaining adherents. Meanwhile, other Roman faiths were in decline because they were less appealing to the masses. The Edict of Milan in 313 A.D. legalised Christianity (The Edict of Milan, Internet Medieval Sourcebook). Under Emperor Theodosius, Christianity became the only legal religion within the Roman Empire by the end of the 4th Century.

The early Roman Empire practiced many faiths and worshipped multiple Gods from around Europe and the Mediterranean. The Romans, vast expansionists, were exposed to multiple religions which they adopted into their own polytheistic faith (Anderson, 2005). Thus the Roman faith was a collaboration of multiple faiths, rather then a single and defined religion (Davies, 1997). However, the Roman’s tolerance of other faiths required other cultures to also adopt their Gods (Sansel, 2008). By the 1st Century, an occupant within the Empire was also required to worship their Emperor (Williams, 1994). However, this caused conflict with monotheistic religions such as Christianity and Judaism, as they worshiped and believed in one singular God.

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Mithras performing the tauroctony.
The Romans, despite seemingly tolerant of other religions still discriminated, and segregated many people from religious ceremonies and even faiths (Boyce, 2001). For example, Mithraism, a popular religion in the 1st - 4th Centuries AD, was considered a secret military cult (Beck, 2004). Thus, women, slaves, the lower classes or non-Roman citizens were banned from worship. Recent historical evidence has suggested that the exclusions of some groups varied depending on the region Mithraism was practiced in (Jonathan, 2000). However, Christianity preached equality and worship to all people. Furthermore, this preaching undermined the Roman social structure which divided people into classes and gender. Mithraism, despite its growing popularity within the army, was unable to compete with Christianity, which had mass appeal and made no exclusions from worship (Boyce, 2001). Eventually, Mithraism became a minority faith, worshipped by few, before crumbling under the mass spread of the Christian faith at the end of the 4th Century AD (Beck, 2004).

Christianity began to spread over the Roman Empire during the 1st Century AD, heavily aided by the Pax Romana, a time in the 1st and 2nd Centuries AD when Rome was relatively peaceful and minimal expansion was occurring (Sansel, 2008). Christianity spread across the lower classes and slaves because it promoted equality. The Roman’s initial hostility towards Christianity was sparked by the core Christian belief, that there is only one singular God, thus undermining the Roman Pantheon of Gods. The refusal to acknowledge this pantheon was seen as a threat to Roman authority (Williams, 1994). This created hostilities between polytheistic Romans, and the monotheistic Christians. The Christians began meeting in secret; in catacombs, sewers and caves which led to the popular spread of rumours that they practiced child sacrifice, cannibalism and sexual depravity, all of which were socially deplorable and associated with the lowest members of society.

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The Roman Empire in 125 A.D.
Despite these claims, Christianity gradually grew in popularity due to five major factors (Davies, 1997). Christianity was one of the few religions which welcomed the majority of adherents regardless of class, wealth, gender, age or nationality (Hollister, 2002). Mithraism, for example, excluded women, whereas Christianity allowed mutual gender worship. As many women were unable to participate in religious festivities of other religions, Christianity was widely embraced by the 4th Century. Also, Christianity was not restricted to the military, allowing more members of society to become adherents (Cobb, 2003). Overall, Christianity appealed to the general population rather then small segregated groups, thus, allowing more adherents; resulting in Christianity’s dominance over the Roman Empire by the end of the 4th Century AD.

By securing the lower classes and slaves as adherents, Christianity was able to overwhelm the other religions and eventually become the state religion of the Empire because the majority of the population no longer responded to previous Roman faiths. The political power previously held in other faiths was undermined, and thus, in order to retain power, the wealthier and more powerful citizens converted to Christianity. Christianity appealed to the poorer members of society who were often unable to afford the extravagance which other religions demanded, thereby concentrating those religions amongst the wealthiest members of society (Brown, 2003). However, in Christianity the lower classes were equals to their wealthy counterparts, judged by God for their actions, rather than their wealth (Jones, 2004). This allowed Christianity to rise through Roman society during the 2nd and 3rd Centuries as the lower classes welcomed a faith that required belief rather then wealth. This also prevented a hierarchy within the faith, thus, encouraging the poorer members of society to practice the Christian faith (Hollister, 2002). The majority of the occupants of the Roman Empire were slaves and the lower classes; by embracing Christianity they were granted rights which were usually segregated from them due to class differences (Bennett, 2002). Christianity appealed more to the lower classes, and thus, the majority of the population.

In addition, Christianity also provided hope to the powerless and poor, who became the main adherents in the earliest practice of the Christian faith. Early persecutions showed the defiance of Christians, refusing to denounce their faith, even when faced with death. Christianity was one of the first religions in Europe to appeal to the lower classes (Hollister, 2002). The majority of the population lived in squalor, and Christianity provided them with hope for the future. The attraction of Christianity amongst the lower classes was largely seen in martyrdom.

Furthermore, Christianity offered a personal relationship with a single God, who cared and listened to people (Bennett, 2002). In other religions, Gods were often seen as toying with humans for their own amusement such as the Greek Pantheon of Gods. Also, other religions portrayed Gods as belittling humans, and treating them as inferior where as Christianity embraced all people and treated them as equals (Brown, 2003). As the Roman Empire evolved, a demand increased for an evolving religion. Christianity allowed every adherent to have a personal role in their faith, and as a result, a personal relationship with God. Christianity appealed to the majority of the population because the figurehead was one singular God who represented all aspects of life as well as responding to the individual (Davies, 1997). This relationship was particularly valued amongst the lower classes and slaves who relied on a higher power to give them faith and guidance.

Finally, one of the main appeals of Christianity was that it offered life after death, a welcoming prospect for the poorer members of society, such as slaves. This promise was met by thousands of converted adherents, who wished to have life after death. Christianity pledged heaven for ‘faithful’ Christians and hell for less worthy adherents or non-believers (Jonathan, 2003). This promise led to conversion of many slaves as they wished to be rewarded in the afterlife for their worship or from fear of damnation.

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Emperor Constantine
In 313AD, Christianity was legalised within the Roman Empire under the Edict of Milan. The Edict was signed by both Emperor Constantine and Emperor Licinius, uniting the West and Eastern Roman Empires (Davies, 1997). The Edict’s main role was to prevent the persecutions of the Christians, which had emerged under Emperor Nero in the 1st Century AD. This was achieved by legalizing Christianity. "It was a decisive step from hostile neutrality to friendly neutrality and protection, and prepared the way for the legal recognition of Christianity, as the religion of the empire..." (Schaff, 1881). By 315AD however, Christians had begun to persecute members from other religions, such as the Jews, or non-conformist Christians.For the first time in history, Christianity was a dominant and legal faith, and thus, Christians were able to persecute members from smaller religious minority groups (Sansel, 2008).

In 390AD, under Emperor Theodosius (247-395AD), Christianity legally became the Roman state religion, which has continued its legacy into the modern era (Ferguson, 2005). Christianity was hailed as the only legal religion, classifying the previous Roman religions as illegal practices (Brown, 2003). During the reign of Theodosius, Jews and other religions continued to be heavily persecuted because they refused to acknowledge the Christian dominance and legal authority over their faiths. Conversion was often forced, however, many adherents converted by choice, intrigued by Christianity’s promises and evolving beliefs (Davies, 1997). Under Theodosius, the Roman Empire was united as one, combining both the East and West under one Emperor (Jones, 2004). Theodosius’ control over the entire empire enabled the shift from multiple faiths, to one legalised practice, Christianity (Cobb, 2003). By the 4th Century, Christianity’s dominance was able to squash other faiths, whilst still growing in popularity. Within five hundred years Christianity had come full circle, from a hated and persecuted religion to the legalised state religion and most influential faith in Europe.

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Theodosius the Great
The occupants of the Roman Empire saw the rise of Christianity by the end of the 4th Century AD because Christianity appealed to the majority of the empire. The Roman Empire, before the 1st Century, saw religion as a collaboration of other faiths from varied cultures around its borders. Mithraism, a thriving faith within the military was eventually squashed by Christianity despite being an illegal and persecuted faith. Christianity had many appealing factors which resulted in its widespread popularity. By the 4th Century, Christianity was legalised under the Edict of Milan, becoming one of the dominant faiths within the Empire. The end of the 4th Century saw Christianity become the only legal religion within the Empire. Christianity was able to capture the Roman state by the end of the 4th Century because it introduced a singular faith to a declining empire which needed to be united under one faith to continue the grandeur of the Roman legacy.


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