ORB Masthead with site navigation toolbar; see bottom 
of page for text version of toolbar

Encyclopedia | Library | Reference | Teaching | General | Links | About ORB | HOME


Yuri Koszarycz


How was this phenomenon to be understood? And how was it that the shift from the Semitic mentality and religious framework to one characterised by Platonic philosophy and Roman law was to be so complete? The Roman empire presented a fascinating mixture of diverse religious philosophies and beliefs. Rome itself became a centre for a variety of eccentric and extraordinary religious practices that had their origins in Egypt, Persia, Greece, Gaul, Africa and other far-flung outposts of the empire. The intellectual environment was open to all types of philosophies and religious experiences. The Roman Stoic, Seneca, (4 BC - 135 AD) believed that within each person a spark of the divine existed:

    God is near you, he is with you, he is within you. This is what I mean, Lucilius: a holy spirit indwells within us, one who marks our good and bad deeds, and is our guardian.... No man can be good without the help of God (Seneca, Epistles, 41, quoted in Chester Starr, 1965: 228).

New doctrines and new cults flourished and died within Rome with regularity. The Christian faith with its "redemption myths" and its crucified and resurrected carpenter-god was yet another contender for the beliefs of the populace. What was the specific "culture" or readiness within the framework of the empire that allowed Christianity not only to survive but to become pre-eminent?

Certainly, the message about Jesus found an acceptance among people who believed in the commerce of gods with mortals. Both the Greeks and the Romans were accustomed to deification of rulers and other outstanding personalities. We even have the incident recorded in Acts (14,8-13) of Paul and Barnabas being acclaimed as gods after the curing of the cripple at Lystra :

    And there sat a certain man at Lystra, impotent in his feet, being a cripple from his mother's womb, who never had walked. He heard Paul speak, who steadfastly beholding him, and perceiving that he had faith to be healed, said with a loud voice, "Stand upright on thy feet". And he leaped and walked. And when the people saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices, saying in the speech of Lycaonia, "The gods are come down to us in the likeness of men". And they called Barnabas, Jupiter; and Paul, Mercurius, because he was the chief speaker. Then the priest of Jupiter, which was before their city, brought oxen and garlands unto the gates, and would have done sacrifice with the people.

Alexander the Great was deified as the son of Ammon Zeus even while he still lived. It had been the custom since the time of the murder of Julius Caesar on the 15th March 44 BC for the Roman Senate to divinize the emperor. Special liturgical rituals with their distinctive priesthood were created in which the Roman populace would give the appropriate worship to the deified emperor. This tradition was to continue with other rulers : The Senate of Rome decreed that Augustus was Divi Filius - the Son of the Gods. Less "worthy" emperors used emperor worship as a mark of respect and allegiance demanded from civil subjects and military authorities. Those who refused to worship the emperor were branded and condemned as traitors and atheists and would be put to death. Gaius Caligula insisted that not only he be divinized (he substituted his head on statues of Olympian gods), but even his horse Incitatus was declared a god with its own priesthood and ritual. If you ever have the opportunity, I urge you to read Robert Greaves' excellent historical novels, I, Claudius and Claudius the God for a fascinating insight into the social, political, and religious culture of first century Rome. Later the emperor Domitian (81-96 A.D.) commanded that he was to be addressed by the title "Lord (Kyrios) and God". Suetonius, in his literary portrait of this emperor, states that Domitian insisted that governors commence their letters to him, "Our lord and our god commands." It became a rule that "no one should style him otherwise in writing or speaking" (Domit.XIII).

It was a curious blend that had occurred. Gentile believers in Jesus, enculturated within the worldview of ancient Greece and Rome, could not possibly see him as inferior in dignity or status to the Caesars. We find in the gospels the term Son of God (the imperial Divi Filius) conjoined with the Jewish royal title of Messiah. It is evident that the emerging Christian community would sooner or later experience internal conflict with regard to its own theology. It also becomes obvious, that many of the practices of the Cives Romanorum were considered totally unacceptable to the Christian community: it also afforded an appropriate excuse for the Roman authority to inaugurate waves of persecution against the `atheistic' Christians who were reputed to practise cannibalism and who refused to acknowledge the divinity of Caesar. In 64 AD a huge fire, raging for nine days, destroyed more than half of Rome. The historian Tacitus left this account of how the emperor Nero blamed the unpopular Christians for the fire:

    ... large numbers ... were condemned - not so much for incendiarism as for their anti-social tendencies. Their deaths were made farcical. Dressed in wild animals' skins, they were torn to pieces by dogs, or crucified, or made into torches to be ignited after dark....Nero provided his Gardens for the spectacle, and exhibited displays in the Circus... Despite their guilt as Christians, and the ruthless punishment it deserved, the victims were pitied. For it was felt they were being sacrificed to one man's brutality rather than to the national interest (Tacitus, Annals, 15:44, trans. Grant, 1959: 354).

This was also a most convenient way for the authorities to build up replet ed treasury funds, as all property and material possessions of the imprisoned and executed Christians were forfeited to the state. Besides Caesar-worship, Rome had its own city-gods which had to be venerated by loyal Roman citizens: again here, Christians found themselves at odds with the normal religious practices of their day. It quickly led to a ban on all Christian worship as being a harmful religion (religio illicita).

But it was not only the refusal to worship the emperor as a deity that led to brutal persecutions of the early Christian communities. Generally, Christians till the fourth century refused to do military service and this was seen as civil disloyalty to the State - a crime punishable by death. It was not until Augustine in the 4th century that the Church was to begin its abandonment of the pacifism preached by Jesus and practised by his followers for three centuries. The mechanisms of Realpolitik after 313 AD were to supplant the praxis of three centuries and the teachings of Jesus by a process of accomodation between Church and Empire allowing for the embryonic development of a Just War theory based on principles of natural justice. The reality was that in the first centuries, Christians took seriously the precept that one forgave even one's enemies and those that persecuted them. Tertullian (c. 160-22 AD), who is the first to mention the presence of Christians in the imperial army, also condemns them saying that "Christ in ungirding Peter, ungird every soldier". Hippolytus made it clear in his Canons that if a man served in the army of the Emperor, he should not be accepted as a Christian, and also that if a catechumen showed military aspirations then he should not be received into the fold of the Church.

It is obvious that this `obstinancy' could not be tolerated by Rome and persecutions were inevitable. Already in the second and third centuries the Church had to learn that the proclamation of the message of Jesus would be met with controversy and rejection from within and without. Yet it was at this time that the cultural heritage and character of the western Church in its external organization and also in its theological deliberations would begin to be forged.

Next | Index |

Encyclopedia | Library | Reference | Teaching | General | Links | About ORB | HOME

Copyright ©1999, Yuri Koszarycz. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents,including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.The contents of ORB are copyright © 1995-1999 Laura V. Blanchard and Carolyn Schriber except as otherwise indicated herein.