Roman Empire

ROMAN EMPIRE. 1. Territorial. Considered as a territorial phenomenon, the Roman Empire was the result of a process of expansion that began in the sixth and seventh centuries before Christ. The process was initiated by the pressure of a rapidly filling and not overfertile peninsula on a Latin-speaking community that occupied a strategically advantageous position on some low hills by the major ford over the Tiber. The main fortress and federation of this group of associated settlements was called Rome, probably an Etruscan name. The origin of the population was an amalgam of tribal elements welded into a dynamic unity by the pressure of the Etruscans to the north and the Italic hill-tribes of the hinterland. Casting off the domination of Etruria in 509 b.c., Rome early began the search for a stable frontier that was to form the guiding motive of her history. That quest took her step by step to the subjugation of the Italian peninsula and the domination of its peoples—the Etruscans, whose culture and empire, Asiatic in origin, opportunely decayed in the fourth century before Christ; the Italic tribes who occupied the highland spine of the peninsula with its associated plains; the Greeks, whose colonies, since the eighth century, had dotted the coastline from Cumae to Tarentum; and finally the Celtic Gauls of northern Italy and the Po Plain.

Italy was Roman to the Alps by the middle of the third century before Christ. This metropolitan empire was no sooner achieved than Rome clashed with Carthage, the great Phoenician commercial empire of the north African coast. The island of Sicily, half Greek, half Carthaginian, lay between the continents and became the scene of the first collision between two powers, for whom the Western Mediterranean was proving too small a common sphere. Sixty years of intermittent war followed, from which Rome emerged victorious with her first provinces, Sicily, Sardinia, and Spain. An overseas empire thus visibly began, but defense and security were still the motives as Rome moved into the sister peninsulas, first Spain and then Greece. Despite such later leaders as Caesar and Pompey, originally and generally Roman imperialism owed no inspiration to an Alexander seeking conquest for motives of personal glory and mysticism, no Sennacherib or Nebuchadnezzar systematically building empires and concentrating the world’s wealth in mighty capitals, no Cortes or Pizzaro in frank search of loot. Even in the second and first centuries before Christ, when the material advantages of the Empire were corrupting the Republic’s ruling class, expansion and conquest were still associated with the search for a defensible frontier and military security.

The eastward movement through Greece, Asia Minor, and the Middle East began because of Macedon’s support of Carthage in the Second Punic War. It continued in the clash with imperial Syria and found uneasy pause with Pompey’s pacification and organization of the eastern Mediterranean, completed in 63 b.c. The historic process of expansion was associated with the emergence of successive perils, and Rome’s attempts to meet them. The northward expansion through Gaul, which paused finally on the Rhine and the fortification lines of Northern Britain, was a process similarly motivated. If Pompey was the architect of the eastern Empire, Julius Caesar was the builder of the western. Although the personal ambitions of army commanders is an element the historian cannot discount, it remains a fact that it was the uneasy memory in Italy of barbarian inroads from the unpacified northern hinterlands that provided the stimulus for the conquest of Gaul and the associated islands across the English Channel.

By the beginning of the Christian era the Roman Empire was reaching the limits of its expansion. It was the policy of Augustus to consolidate, but that policy was based on a shrewd realization that the physical limit of Roman expansion was in sight. It is true that the stable frontier long sought for was still elusive. A major military disaster in a.d. 9 caused Augustus to choose the Rhine as a northern frontier. The Danube formed its logical eastward continuation. The Rhine-Danube line in general remained the limit of the Empire. Extensions beyond it were never completely integrated, and safer and more defensible alternatives were beyond physical reach. History was to demonstrate how difficult the Rhine-Danube line was to defend. Spain, Gaul, and Britain formed stable enough buttresses in the west, while the southern marches rested on the Sahara, a desert frontier, and strategically the most stable of all. The east was never totally secured, and some of the imagery of the Apocalypse reflects the fear felt in the Middle East of the archer cavalry from over the Euphrates.

The NT came into being, and the early church was established in an Empire that had organized and pacified a deep belt of territory around the Mediterranean basin and western Europe. That area owed its security to Rome, a security achieved against notable dangers and grave disadvantages and destined to endure for a vital three centuries. The same complex of territories owed to Rome a more stable government than much of it had ever known, and a community of life that went far to produce the fusion of Greece, Rome, and Palestine that formed the background and climate for the NT and subsequent Christendom.

2. Politically, the term Roman Empire must be distinguished from the Roman Republic. The Empire describes the system of rule and government known as the principate. The year 31 b.c., the date of the Battle of Actium, is arbitrarily chosen as the dividing line, when Republic became Empire. The observer of that day was conscious of no change or transition. Such an observer saw the passing of danger, and the prospect of peace after another violent bout of civil strife and constitutional crises. Octavian, Julius Caesar’s adoptive nephew, had defeated Antony. When the victor drew into his hands the powers of the republican magistrates and the ancient constitutional executives, adding the marks of prestige that accompanied the titles of “princeps,” “imperator,” and “Augustus,” no one at the time, who observed merely the surface of events, saw anything but a continuation and an intensification of a policy that for fifty years had made a mockery of constitutional government. Extraordinary commands and special powers had long since prepared the way for the autocracy that emerged full-fledged with Augustus.

The constitutional breakdown from which the principate arose can be traced back for over a century. The Senate had ruled Rome, more by prestige than by a clearly defined legal right to do so, in the great days of Rome’s struggle with Carthage. A tight oligarchy, the great families whose members gave Rome her generals and administrators, ruled with a strength and a decisiveness the times demanded, and the land had no reason to regret their leadership. Rome emerged from the wars with Carthage, shaken but victorious, at the beginning of the second century before Christ. At the end of that century the ills that broke the Republic and led to the principate were in full view. The Senate, whose leadership had sufficed for a compact city-state and for Italy, proved unequal to the task of governing an empire. Three problems were beyond their solution: the city mob, tool and instrument of a new breed of demagogues; the corruption arising from the temptations of rule in conquered lands; and the power of the generals. All three were problems of empire. The urban working class had been built out of a decayed farming class ruined by changes in Italian land utilization when vast amounts of capital from subjugated territories began to come in. The generals owed their power to the needs of distant defense and the military forces that new frontiers demanded. Commander and soldier alike had a vested interest in these new frontiers. Rome, throughout the next four centuries, was never to hear the last of it. The only answer would have been the creation of a strong, free middle class, which the early acceptance of Christianity would have provided. Julius Caesar was the most notable of the military dynasts, and he died under the daggers of a frustrated Senate because he drove too ruthlessly toward the autocratic solution of the Senate’s corruption and the Republic’s breakdown. His adoptive nephew, Octavius, was a more suitable person. By a mixture of good fortune, astute diplomacy, and a flair for picking colleagues, Octavius won power; but it was always power with a flavor of constitutional legality. Octavius, later called by the honorary title Augustus, was emperor only in the sense that, as supreme commander, he alone had the right to the title “imperator,” with which victorious generals had ever been saluted by their troops. To most men he was simply “princeps,” or “prince,” which meant simply “first citizen.” His varied powers, functions, and privileges nevertheless added up to autocracy. The system gave peace, and the world, especially the provinces, was prepared to barter a pretense of liberty for peace.

The Roman Empire, using the word in the political sense of the term, was the governmental framework of the Roman Peace, that era of centralized government that kept comparative peace in the Mediterranean world for significant centuries. No wonder the Eastern provinces, accustomed since ancient days to the deification of rulers, early established the custom of worshiping the emperor. The notion gained currency through the writings of poets such as Horace and Vergil, who genuinely believed in the divine call of Augustus and who, without a higher view of deity, saw no incongruity in ascribing divine attributes to a mere man of destiny. Such were the sinister beginnings of a cult that Rome chose as a cement of empire, and which led to the clash with the church, the early acceptance of which might have provided a more noble and effective bond.——EMB


The term.

The word “empire” requires definition, for it is used in two distinct senses, geographical and political, and both are applicable to the Roman Empire.

The geographical sense.

An empire is an aggregation of territories under a single absolute command. Until comparatively recently Great Britain held a world empire, and one of Disraeli’s dramatic political coups was to dub Queen Victoria the Empress of India. In the same context Rome ruled a ring of territories around the Mediterranean, a widening area of command and authority acquired by a long historical evolution which began when the Lat. tribes by the Tiber broke the encirclement of the hinterland hill tribes and continued to expand until Rome’s frontiers rested on Hadrian’s Wall in far Northumberland, on the long riverline of the Rhine and the Danube, on the Black Sea Coast of Asia Minor, on the Sahara, and on indeterminate eastern and northeastern lines which wavered with Rom. policy toward Parthia, and which, apart from the Arabian desert, found no clear-cut southeastern definition on the Red Sea coasts and in the valley of the Nile.

All this area had fallen under the Rom. imperium or command by the long process by which first the Republic, and then the Principate, probed for a stable frontier, a quest which was never ended, and which paused only when out-reaching power touched its limits. Those limits were on the longest river line in Europe, and were without sharp and secure finality around the whole arc of the Eastern provinces. The Empire was a hard won and not readily defensible mass of territory, destined to divide down its middle line and succumb, first in the W, and then in the E, to the pressures engendered in the more remote land masses of Europe and Asia, from whose tribal incursions Rome had sought for long and significant centuries to protect the culture and civilization of the Mediterranean. With the Roman Empire went the Roman Peace, coterminous and co-extensive. Within these frontiers the Church first found root and growth, and when the vast mass distintegrated, it proved to be the historical link which tied a crumbling world to its successor, the new Europe which arose when the torpor and confusion of the Dark Ages passed.

The political sense.

The term “empire” is used most commonly to distinguish the Republic from the Principate, the rule of the Senate from the rule of the constitutional autocrats called, from their exercise of supreme military command, imperators, whence the word “emperor.” The Roman Empire, in this sense of the word, is that period of Rom. history which begins with the final victory of Octavian in the Republic’s last civil war to the collapse of all Rom. authority, first in the W and then in the E, which saw the final termination of the great historical movement which began with the coherence of the tribes of the Lat. enclave around the fortified hills of the Lower Tiber River valley. The term imperator was not originally prominent among the various titles available to the ruler. Augustus, as the Senate, conferring an honorific title, called the victorious Octavian, preferred to be called princeps, or first citizen; hence, the preferable term Principate for the Empire politically considered.

The transition.

It must not be supposed that the Rom. people at large saw, at the time of the Battle of Actium in 31 b.c., that decisive watershed in their history which historians find it convenient to mark today. The accumulation of power in the hands of one man, power constitutionally conferred, was no new phenomenon over the half century of tense and troubled politics which preceded the emergence of Augustus as the giver of peace and order. The strains and stresses, which the possession of provincial responsibility and the inexorable extension of territory that was regarded as necessary to security brought to bear upon Rome’s ruling class, were partial causes behind faction, division, and civil strife. Some mention has been made of this elsewhere (see Rome). Again and again, distracted and confused within, under the continual threat of revolt and a military coup, the ruling oligarchy had resorted to autocracy in their endeavor to retain control of the city, Italy, and the menaced provinces.

The great Pompey, for example, enjoyed two periods of extraordinary command in the sixties of the 1st cent. b.c. During the first he cleared the Eastern Mediterranean of the Cilician pirate fleets which, in the midst of Rome’s civil troubles, had gained control of the seaways, and had interrupted the food supplies on which the urban proletariat, a sinister force in Rome’s confused political situation, depended. During the second, Pompey pacified and organized the whole provincial complex of the E, a contribution to the future Roman Peace which it would be difficult to overestimate. Both of Pompey’s commands involved overriding authority and an adaptation of republican forms to monarchical rule which was the very pattern of the coming autocracy, Augustus’ clever solution to the problem of Rome’s anarchy.

Had Pompey not been a loyal and responsible servant of the Senate, he might easily have retained the powers conferred constitutionally upon him, and, using a devoted army, backed and financed by the immense resources of the E which he had organized, might have dictated his own terms to the helpless Senate. He might thus have arranged his own succession and have been marked by historians as the first of the “Emperors.” As it was, Pompey duly surrendered his military and legislative power, and the Senate, now visibly unable to manage the resurgent problems of power, blundered on toward civil war.

Julius Caesar was not as honorable a man as Pompey was. His rise to power followed directly that of Pompey. Twelve years after 62 b.c., when Pompey dutifully resigned his great power, Julius Caesar had become the problem to the Senate which they had long helplessly foreseen. He had beaten Gaul into submission, demonstrated Rom. power across the Channel, and presented a challenge to the divided oligarchy which they could only meet in their political bankruptcy by resorting to their old champion Pompey, the one man around whom some show of strength might rally, the one soldier able to meet the military genius of Caesar; hence the Civil War, described in a self-justifying book by Caesar himself. The decade is, thanks to Cicero’s speeches, letters, and the abundance of other material of historical worth, a well-documented period, and it is possible to follow week by week the events of portent and significance which saw the death throes of Republican Rome.

The Civil War, with Caesar and Pompey as the great opponents, was the Senate’s last attempt to control the military command. From the duel of the two dynasts, Caesar emerged as victor. The decisive battle was fought at Pharsalus on the Thessalian plain on 9 August 48 b.c. Pompey was murdered in Egypt before the year ended. By March, 45 b.c., Caesar’s swift decisive strength had broken up and subdued the remaining pockets of senatorial resistance. In Egypt, Queen Cleopatra, last of the great line of the Ptolemies, secured her personal fortunes by snaring Julius Caesar, the conqueror.

Caesar then turned his undoubted genius to the restoration of law and order in Rome, and peace throughout the Rom. world. His power was absolute and unchallenged, and he exercised it with firmness, clemency, and contempt for opposition, qualities which might have marked him as the first “emperor,” had he also possessed political subtlety, some measure of patience, and even a simulated show of respect for the discredited Republican regime. It is unwise to despise an enemy, however discredited, and the famous Ides of March in 44 b.c. saw Caesar fall under the daggers of a die-hard group of senatorial conspirators who had no alternative policy or program with which to replace his firm, efficient dictatorship. The Republic was dead, and no act of violence could bring the corpse to life, for all the magnificence of the eloquence with which Cicero, the great orator and political archaist, sought to stir it to movement and activity.

Nor had anyone remembered Caesar’s adoptive son and heir, a member of the gens Octavia, and after Caesar’s adoption called Octavianus Caesar, a lad of nineteen years who was studying in Greece. With sublime audacity young Octavian came to Italy and claimed his heritage. The young man had a flair for diplomacy, a genius for picking and choosing men to help him, and a sense of timing in political affairs which matched both qualities. Octavian, however, for all these personal advantages which were conspicuously lacking in the great and independent Julius, could hardly have achieved the astounding success which crowned his audacious venture, had not vast moral forces awaited his clever manipulation. Rome was not spared a second civil war, and Philippi, 42 b.c., followed Pharsalus of six years before as another decisive place and date in Rom. history. Allied with Antony, Caesar’s one-time lieutenant, Octavian broke the remaining forces of reaction.

The Mediterranean world, none the less, amid Rome’s preoccupation with civil strife, approached close to disaster. The Parthians, whose perennially hostile presence was the problem of Rome’s eastern frontier, were menacing Pal. and Egypt. Antony proceeded E to gain control of the threatened provinces, but proved to be no Caesar. The E was in turmoil when Cleopatra, one of the most dynamic women of that age, gained control of Antony, and with her schemes for an Eastern Roman Empire almost anticipated history by four centuries.

Octavian had chosen with his usual unerring deliberation to remain in Italy. He held there Rome’s true strength, and the challenge from Alexandria was one which Rome could not ignore. War came again, but was concluded at Actium in 31 b.c. when Octavian and his able commanders broke the power of those who challenged peace. Peace was all that a sadly tormented world asked, and Italy and all the provinces were ready to confer divine honors on the man whose genius had brought the boon it so desired. In 27 b.c. after a semblance of “restoring the Republic,” celebrated in coinage and inscr., Octavian received the title of Augustus. He succeeded where Julius had failed because he paid lip service to the forms of constitutional and Republican government. He called himself princeps, or “first citizen,” a popular sounding title which claimed little. He was imperator, by virtue of the fact that, like the President of the United States, he was in supreme command of all the troops. It was a title used only in rare military contexts. Concentrated in Augustus’ hands were also the old powers of the Republic. There were still consuls, but he was one of the two. He also held the “tribunician power,” that is, all the rights, privileges, and functions of the old plebeian magistrates, the “tribunes,” which had been once a bulwark of the dispossessed, but had found strange and potent misuse in the cent. of constitutional strife which had destroyed the Republic. When he would, he also assumed the power of the censors, those old custodians of honor and piety. But all these powers Augustus held, just as others had at times held them, by the Senate’s or the people’s gift. Elections of a sort were held. The Senate still functioned, and provincial administration was shared by the prince (i.e. the princeps) and the Senate, the former retaining command of all those frontier regions which required the presence of an army. Augustus could read history too well not to have marked the role which a cent. of commanders had played in Rom. revolution by the use of the military forces which they had bound to themselves by advantages conferred or by personal magnetism.


So it was that the first Rom. emperor who ordered “that all the world should be enrolled” (Luke 2:1) entered history. Those who blessed the peace he gave to a weary world were not aware that a sharp change had taken place. A leader, to be sure, had appeared and he was indeed one of the great men of all time, but his powers, autocratic in sum and total, bore ancient and familiar names. Only the farseeing knew that the old regime was dead, and, if they knew, grieved little for it. The new regime sought to revive the virtues of the old, just as it had remedied its vices. Augustus promoted religious revival. As far as legislation could effect that end, he sought to restore the old standards and old moralities. A great outburst of literary activity, some of it promoted effectively by Augustus’ “Minister without Portfolio,” Maecenas, gave Lat. letters their golden age. Augustus knew how to use the ability of great poets to establish his peace and add power and persuasion to his rehabilitation of law and order. The world at large, scarcely believing that an evil age of breakdown and war was ending, was willing to barter liberty for peace. No wonder that a highly sensitive spirit like Vergil the poet, looking back over the history of Rome, saw a mighty destiny working to a beneficent end which found final expression in the work and person of one man. He wove the thought into his epic poem, the Aeneid.

Augustus did much to establish the geographical boundaries of the Empire. His work is not well documented, but twenty years of planning and petty warfare were devoted to the security of the frontiers. He had no zest for conquest. Consolidation was his aim. Ambitious plans for the subjugation of Parthia, Julius’ unfinished project, were abandoned, and until the age of Trajan, who effected brief conquest, diplomacy was the attempted Rom. solution of the intractable problems of that troubled frontier. Galatia was made a province in 25 b.c., Judaea in a.d. 6. Spain was pacified, Gaul reorganized. The hill tribes of the northern Alpine areas, like those of Asia Minor, were brought laboriously under subjection. Rhaetia, Noricum, Pannonia, and Moesia were established along the Danube and Balkan frontiers, essential buffers against the tribal hinterlands of Europe. Disastrous defeat, and Varus’ loss of three legions in a.d. 9, caused Augustus to abandon what might have been the salutary establishment of a frontier on the Elbe, instead of along the nearer and longer line of the Rhine. All was a vast contribution to the peace of the Mediterranean. It is small wonder that, in the newly prosperous provinces, the imperial cult grew apace. (See Emperor Worship.)


(a.d. 14-37). By good fortune, the canny choice of loyal men, and perhaps the immense weight of popular desire for peace, Augustus had no trouble from one of Rome’s two unsolved or insoluble problems: the effective and permanent control of the army commanders, men whose abilities and eminence were necessary for the defense of long and menaced frontiers, but whose ambitions and independence were destined to play a disastrous part in four centuries of history.

The other problem was the succession. Augustus is a prime illustration of the decisive role of personality in the processes of history, and as the revered person of the man who founded the Roman Peace, moved toward old age and death, men wondered who would replace him. Tacitus captures the atmosphere of the occasion well in the opening chapters of his Annals. No one was better aware of the problem than Augustus himself, who, by misfortune, had no male offspring of his own. His efforts to secure the succession in the direct line of the Julian house were cruelly thwarted by the premature deaths of promising young men on whom he pinned his hopes: Marcellus, his nephew, subject of Vergil’s moving tribute (Aeneid 6. 882-886); Gaius and Lucius, his grandsons; and Drusus, his favorite stepson. Tiberius, his other stepson, was eventually left as the sole successor, but not until he had become an embittered man by the spectacle of Augustus’ visible attempts to find an alternative. Tiberius was fifty-six years of age when Augustus died in a.d. 14. He was a tried and able commander, but, a Claudian on his mother Livia’s side, possessed of all the notorious pride of that ancient and distinguished family, and rendered the more dour by the rejection from which he had suffered. Perhaps Augustus, so able a judge of human nature, had marked his innate sourness and suspicion and foreseen those defects which brought so much unpopularity to Tiberius during and after the twenty-three years of his principate.

It was no doubt Tiberius’ defects of character which led him to place such misguided trust in Aelius Seianus, the prefect of the Praetorian Guard, the Emperor’s Household Corps, and to whose influence and ascendancy during Tiberius’ absence from Rome, some of the tyrannous acts of the reign may be ascribed. It was Tiberius’ suspicious nature which betrayed him into the too common use of “delation”—treason trials, reminiscent of those of some modern autocracies, and based on the evidence of common informers (delatores). This became a practice loathed by its perennial victims, the old senatorial aristocracy, and later resorted to by every weak or suspicious emperor, notably Domitian. It was Tiberius’ misfortune that Tacitus, one of the most powerful writers of Rome, was a chronicler for his reign. Modern historians, emancipating themselves from the long influence of the mordant Tacitus, have done more justice to Tiberius’ real abilities.

Tacitus wrote in Rome as a Rom. senator, and it is a little difficult when reading him to remember that, over Tiberius’ considerable reign, the frontiers still endured as Augustus had fixed them, and that even the Parthians were held in check. The organization of Cappadocia into a province was the only innovation Tiberius made to the Augustan system. Portents, however, were gathering. Senatorial administration was clearly more subject to the will of the princeps; Seianus showed what a local military commander could do, and the possibilities of personal tyranny were obvious.


(a.d. 37-41). The young madman who followed Tiberius, mercifully assassinated before he provoked a Jewish revolt, underlined the latter lesson. Hereditary succession invariably produces sooner or later the incompetent, the foolish, or the bad. It produced all these qualities in the person of Gaius, nicknamed Caligula, or “Little Boots,” by the troops on the Rhine who had known him as the son of the popular Germanicus.


(a.d. 41-54). It was a sinister fact that, when Gaius fell under the sword of an officer of the Praetorian Guard, the same military group drew from obscurity Gaius’ uncle, Claudius, a man of fifty years, who, like Tiberius, had suffered a lifetime of rejection and humiliation. He suffered from some form of cerebral palsy, which at times made him physically repulsive, but like many victims of a spastic condition was none the less an able man, certainly the most learned man ever to hold the Principate. Enforced withdrawal from society had driven Claudius to low companions and to study. The influences of both were apparent in his reign. Claudius sensibly developed the imperial civil service, using the abilities of the freedman class. Pallas and Narcissus, and Pallas’ brother Felix, were his appointments, and the personal faults and vices of these men were not an indictment of the fundamental good sense of Claudius’ governmental innovations. He sought also salutarily to extend the Rom. franchise. He embarked on a vigorous frontier policy, and the two Mauretanias in a.d. 42, Britain and Lycia in a.d. 43, and Thrace in a.d. 46, were added to the Empire. Claudius died by poison, on the threshold of premature dotage, at the hands of his evil wife Agrippina, who was anxious to secure the succession for Nero, her son by an earlier marriage. Claudius’ death was concealed until the Praetorian Guard, firm in the hands of Afranius Burrus, Agrippina’s nominee, and conciliated by the now customary donation, brought Nero to power at the immature age of seventeen.


(a.d. 54-68). It was Nero’s youth and his artistic and hedonistic preoccupations which left the bluff Burrus, and the famous philosopher Seneca, Nero’s tutor, free to manage the world’s affairs for five years which, as the quinquennium Neronis, became a proverb for happy conditions in the provinces. The young prince deserved no credit. Agrippina had cleared the way for Nero with murder and intrigue. Her plotting continued. Unpitied victims were Pallas and Narcissus, but Seneca and Burrus became frightened when the ambitions of Agrippina took a wider reach. How far they sanctioned Nero’s turning on the woman who had helped him to power can never be known, but the end was matricide. Nero was clearly beyond control, and the tool of the unscrupulous. Burrus died, and Seneca was ultimately driven to suicide, but the details of a lamentable reign, which included the first persecution of the Christians, need not be followed. There was deterioration around the frontiers. Only the able Corbulo held the security of the Parthian frontier, while the equally able Suetonius subdued Britain aflame with Boudicca’s revolt, in which London and Colchester were burned and the new province all but lost. In a.d. 66 the long threat of the Jewish rebellion became a reality. Vindex rebelled in Gaul, and Galba in Spain, grim portents of the tragic year 69. Universal hatred surrounded Nero in Rome. The Julio-Claudian house, in short, came to an end amid turmoil on the frontiers, disaffection in the armed forces, and the first major threat to the Roman Peace. The wonder is that so much of Augustus’ work, and Claudius’ wise innovations survived.

The year of the four emperors

(a.d. 69). The Christians who had survived Nero’s purge, and who now labored under legal proscription, could have seen in the horrors of this year of anarchy a divine judgment. The wonder was that Rome again survived. The Beast was wounded to death, and “his deadly wound was healed,” and “all the world wondered after the beast” (Rev 13:3, KJV). Vindex had demonstrated the disaffection in Gaul, and when Galba, the aristocratic governor of Spain, made common cause with the Gallic rebel, the legions on the Rhine became aware of their insecurity, crushed Vindex and tried to set up their commander Verginius Rufus as emperor. The “secret of empire,” as Tacitus put it, was out. It was that “an emperor can be made elsewhere than in Rome.” It was never to be forgotten. The Praetorian Guard declared for Galba. Nero fled, and died a suicide in a Rom. suburb.

A year of complex civil war followed. By January 15 Galba was dead, killed by the praetorians who had declared for him. Otho, another Spanish governor, and first husband of Poppaea, Nero’s wife, knew how to court the household troops and was set up as emperor. The Rhine legions set up Vitellius, and marched on Italy. It was the opportunity of the Ger. tribes, but was never taken. The “beast” was to survive. By April 17, Otho was dead and Vitellius supreme, but the Eastern provinces proclaimed Vespasian, the able general who was in the midst of fighting down the ghastly and expensive Jewish rebellion. Vespasian sent his able deputy, Mucianus, to Italy at the head of a legionary force, retaining enough strength in Pal. to hold the turbulent forces loose there. In a battle near Cremona, where Otho had been beaten by Vitellius and driven to Nero’s resort of suicide, the Syrian legions triumphed. Before the year’s end, Vitellius was destroyed, and by right of survival Vespasian became the ruler of Rome. The Flavian dynasty was born, and endured for a generation. The continuing strength or good fortune of Rome was demonstrated by the fact that, through such civil turmoil, the frontiers held and the Jewish war continued. The Apocalypse quoted popular amazement. Men were saying: “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” (Rev 13:4).


(a.d. 69-79). Vespasian was a rough and able soldier. It was the achievement of his decade of rule that peace and prosperity were restored to the troubled frontiers, the finances of the realm brought to order, and the essential character of the principate retained. Like many a soldier, Vespasian was a born organizer, and his careful restoration on the frontiers, esp. in Britain, were to stand Rome in good stead for many years. It is to Vespasian’s credit and later to Trajan’s, that the first serious barbarian challenge was postponed for a cent. When Vespasian died, Agricola was feeling his way toward a frontier on the Tyne, Parthia was screened by new defenses, and Pal. left devastated by atrocious war. In Rome there was something like an Augustan Age in new building. Vespasian’s decade is not a well documented age.


Vespasian’s popular son, the able young soldier who had finished the Jewish war when his father was called to the duties of the principate in Rome, ruled for less than three years after Vespasian’s death (a.d. 79-81), and left the high office because of his premature death at the age of forty years, to the execrable Domitian, his younger brother. Pompeii, buried by Vesuvius in August 79, is a tremendous document of Titus’ Italy.


(a.d. 81-96). Domitian was thirty years of age when he unexpectedly succeeded to the principate. His personal history bore some resemblance to that of Tiberius, a fact which he recognized, for Tiberius’ memoirs were Domitian’s favorite reading. Vespasian and Titus, both capable soldiers, had held the younger brother of their house in some contempt. His awareness of that fact did not improve his personality, or enhance his fitness to rule. Domitian, suspicious, cruel, and by nature tyrannical, filled his reign with treason trials, political murder, and persecution. Senators suffered along with Christians. Tacitus, enraged and embittered by the decimation of his class in this unhappy fifteen years, turned with hatred on Tiberius, whose concept of princely power provided the hated Domitian with so many precedents. The gentle Pliny, as well as the bitter Juvenal, agreed with Tacitus in their estimate of Domitian’s evil principate and of the Reign of Terror which finally brought him down. With Domitian’s death in a.d. 96, which must have nearly coincided with that of John, last survivor of the apostolate, the NT cent., which began with Augustus’ census (perhaps 5 b.c.), ended. This article need not follow its history much further.

Five good emperors.

Nerva (a.d. 96-98), Trajan (a.d. 98-117), Hadrian (a.d. 117-138), Antoninus Pius (a.d. 138-161), and Marcus Aurelius (a.d. 161-180) cover almost a cent., the “Indian Summer,” as Toynbee has called it, of Rom. greatness. Gibbon regarded this era as the happiest known to man. The famous passage in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (V. I, ch. 1, par. 1) runs: “In the second century of the Christian era the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilised portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valour. The gentle but powerful influence of laws and manners, had gradually cemented the union of the provinces....The image of a free constitution was preserved with decent reverence....During a happy period of more than fourscore years the public administration was conducted by the virtue and abilities of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the two Antonines. It is the design of this and the two succeeding chapters to describe the prosperous condition of their empire; and afterwards, from the death of Marcus Antoninus to deduce the most important circumstances of its decline and fall, a revolution which will ever be remembered and still is felt by the nations of the earth.”

Over this period urbanization proceeded apace; the warrior prince Trajan extended the frontiers to their widest yet; Hadrian, most traveled of all the emperors, consolidated them. The great wall across Britain is the lasting monument to his work. Portents, however, gathered, and the philosopher ruler Marcus Aurelius was hard pressed to beat back a Teutonic incursion into the Danubian provinces.

Hadrian’s principate saw the second rebellion of the Jews, and the virtual destruction of the Jews as a nation. Those who seek information on the collapse and recovery of Rome’s power, which covered the years 180 to 330, the final eclipse of the W, the transfer of power to Byzantium or Constantinople, and the thousand years of the Eastern Empire should seek the information in the comprehensive works listed below.


J. B. Bury, A History of the Roman Empire from its Foundation to the Death of Marcus Aurelius (1896); S. Dill, Roman Society from Nero to Marcus Aurelius (1905); H. S. Jones, Companion to Roman History (1912); CAH, X-XII (1923-1939); CAH, I, II (1924, 1926): A. H. M. Jones, The Cities of the Eastern Roman Provinces (1937); G. H. Stevenson, Roman Provincial Administration to the Age of the Antonines (Blackwell, 1939); M. Cary, A History of Rome Down to the Reign of Constantine (1954); E. Gibbon, edited by J. B. Bury, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1958); J. B. Bury, The History of the Later Roman Empire (1958); J. Wells and R. H. Barrow, A Short History of the Roman Empire to the Death of Marcus Aurelius (1958); E. M. Blaiklock, The Century of the New Testament (1962).

Additional Material



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

(3) Precedents

(4) Withdrawal from Public Life: Individualism

(5) Industrial

(6) Military

(7) Imperial Interests

(8) Influence of Orient


1. Pax Romana and the Unification of the World

2. Cosmopolitanism

3. Eclecticism

4. Protection for Greek Culture

5. Linguistically

6. Materially

7. Tolerance

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

(c) 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 BC he crossed the Rubicon and declared war upon his country, but in the same year was appointed Dictator and thus made his enemies the enemies of his country. He vanquished the Pompeians--senatorial and republican--at Pharsalia in 48 BC, Thapsus in 46 BC, and Munda in 45 BC. Between 46 and the Ides of March 44 no emperor before Diocletian was more imperial. He was recognized officially as "demigod"; temples were dedicated to his "clemency." He encouraged the people to abdicate to him their privileges of self-government and right of election, became chief (princeps) of the senate and high priest (pontifex maximus), so that he could manipulate even the will of the gods to his own purposes. His plans were equally great and beneficent. He saw the necessity of blending the heterogeneous populations into one people and extending Roman citizenship. His outlook was larger and more favorable to the coming of Christianity than that of his successor, Augustus. The latter learned from the fate of Caesar that he had advanced too rapidly along the imperial path. It taught Augustus caution.

(2) Augustus.

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.

In 68 AD a new "secret of empire" was discovered, namely, that the principate was not hereditary in one line and that emperors could be nominated by the armies. After the bloody civil wars of 68, "the year of the four emperors," Vespasian founded the IInd Dynasty, and dynastic succession was for the present again adopted. With the Flavians begins a new epoch in Roman history of pronounced importance for Christianity. The exclusive Roman ideas are on the wane. Vespasian was of plebeian and Sabine rank and thus non-Roman, the first of many non-Roman emperors. His ideas were provincial rather than Roman, and favorable to the amalgamation of classes, and the leveling process now steadily setting in. Though he accepted the Augustan "diarchy," he began to curtail the powers of the senate. His son Titus died young (79-81). Domitian’s reign marks a new epoch in imperialism: his autocratic spirit stands half-way between the Augustan principate and the absolute monarchy of Diocletian. Domitian, the last of the "twelve Caesars" (Suetonius), was assassinated September 18, 96 AD. The soldiers amid civil war had elected the last dynasty. This time the senate asserted itself and nominated a brief series of emperors--on the whole the best that wore the purple.

(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 AD stands by itself, the empire was put up for sale by the soldiery and knocked down to the highest bidder. The military basis of the empire was emphasized--which was indeed essential in this period of barbaric aggressiveness to postpone the fall of the empire until its providential mission was accomplished. A rapid succession of rulers follows, almost each new ruler bringing a new dynasty. Those disintegrating forces set in which developed so rapidly from the reign of Diocletian. The pax Romana had passed; civil commotion accentuated the dangers from invading barbarians. Plague and famine depopulated rich provinces. Rome itself drops into the background and the provincial spirit asserts itself proportionally. The year 212 AD is memorable for the edict of Caracalla converting all the free population into Roman citizens.

(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

(c) 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.

(3) Precedents.

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.

(5) Industrial.

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.

(6) Military.

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, he oikoumene (Lu 2:1), the genus humanum. These terms represented humanity as living under a uniform system of government. All were members of one earthly state; the Roman empire was their communis omnium patria.

2. Cosmopolitanism:

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--Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, etc.--became meeting-places of all races and languages. The Romans were everywhere carrying their laws and civilization; Greeks settled in thousands at all important centers as professors, merchants, physicians, or acrobats; Orientals were to be found in large numbers with their gods and mysteries in Rome, "the epitome of the world." In the Roman armies soldiers from all quarters of the empire became companions. And many thousands of slaves of fine education and high culture contributed much to cosmopolitanism. Being in many cases far superior in culture to their masters, they became their teachers. And in every city of importance, East or West, large bodies of the Jewish Diaspora were settled.

3. Eclecticism:

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--Greek--and had their sacred Scriptures translated into this language in which they carried on an active proselytism. The Roman spirit was at first essentially narrow and exclusive. But even the Romans soon fell beneath the spell of this cosmopolitanism and eclecticism. As their conquests increased, their mind was correspondingly widened. They adopted the policy of Alexander--sparing the gods of the conquered and admitting them into the responsibility of guarding Rome; they assimilated them with their own Pantheon or identified them with Roman gods. In this way naturally the religious ideas of conquered races more highly civilized than the conquerors laid hold on Roman minds.

See Dispersion.

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.

5. Linguistically:

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 koine or "common language." By the conquests of Alexander and the Hellenistic sympathies of the Diadochi this common Greek language became the lingua franca of antiquity. Greek was known in Northern India, at the Parthian court, and on the distant shores of the Euxine (Black Sea). The native land of the gospel was surrounded on all sides by Greek civilization. Greek culture and language penetrated into the midst of the obstinate home-keeping Palestinian Jews. Though Greek was not the mother-tongue of our Lord, He understood Greek and apparently could speak it when occasion required--Aramaic being the language of His heart and of His public teachings. The history of the Maccabean struggle affords ample evidence of the extent to Which Greek culture, and with it the Greek language, were familiar to the Jews. There were in later days Hellenistic bodies of devout Jews in Jerusalem itself. Greek was recognized by the Jews as the universal language: the inscription on the wall of the outer temple court forbidding Gentiles under pain of death to enter was in Greek. The koine became the language even of religion--where a foreign tongue is least likely to be used--of the large Jewish Diaspora. They perceived the advantages of Greek as the language of commerce--the Jews’ occupation--of culture and of proselytizing. They threw open their sacred Scriptures in the Septuagint and other versions to the Greek-Roman world, adapting the translation in many respects to the requirements of Greek readers. "The Bible whose God was Yahweh was the Bible of one people: the Bible whose God was (kurios, "Lord") was the Bible of humanity." When the Romans came upon the scene, they found this language so widely known and so deeply rooted they could not hope to supplant it. Indeed they did not try--except in Sicily and Magna Graecia--to suppress Greek, but rather gladly accepted it as the one common means of intercourse among the peoples of their eastern dominions.

See Language of the New Testament.

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.

6. Materially:

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.

7. Tolerance:

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 Roman Law.

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. li 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|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

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 BC during a famine a temple was built to the Greek trinity Demeter, Dionysus, and Persephone, under the Latin names of Ceres, Liber, and Libera--the beginning of distrust in the primitive Roman numina and of that practice, so oft repeated in Roman history, of introducing new and foreign gods at periods of great distress. In 433 Apollo came from the same region. Mercury and Asclepius followed in 293 BC, and in 249 BC Dis and Proserpina were brought from Tarentum. Other non-Roman modes of approach to deity were introduced. Rome had been in this period very broad-minded in her policy of meeting the growing religious needs of her community, but she had not so far gone beyond Italy. A taste had also developed for dramatic and more aesthetic forms of worship. The period of the Second Punic War was a crisis in Roman religious life, and the faith of the Romans waned before growing unbelief. Both the educated classes and the populace abandoned the old Roman religion, the former sank into skepticism, the latter into superstition; the former put philosophy in the place of religion, the latter the more sensuous cults of the Orient. The Romans went abroad again to borrow deities--this time to Greece, Asia and Egypt. Greek deities were introduced wholesale, and readily assimilated to or identified with Roman deities (see ROME, III, 1). In 191 BC Hebe entered as Juventas, in 179 Artemis as Diana, in 138 Ares as Mars. But the home of religion--the Orient--proved more helpful. In 204 BC Cybele was introduced from Pessinus to Rome, known also as the Great Mother (magna mater)--a fatal and final blow to old Roman religion and an impetus to the wilder and more orgiastic cults and mysterious glamor which captivated the common mind. Bacchus with his gross immorality soon followed. Sulla introduced Ma from Phrygia as the counterpart of the Roman Bellona, and Egypt gave Isis. In the wars of Pompey against the pirates Mithra was brought to Rome--the greatest rival of Christianity. Religion now began to pass into the hands of politicians and at the close of the republic was almost entirely in their hands. Worship degenerated into formalism, and formalism culminated in disuse. Under the empire philosophic systems continued still more to replace religion, and oriental rites spread apace. The religious revival of Augustus was an effort to breathe life into the dry bones. His plan was only partly religious, and partly political--to establish an imperial and popular religion of which he was the head and centering round his person. He discovered the necessity of an imperial religion. In the East kings had long before been regarded as divine by their subjects. Alexander the Great, like a wise politician, intended to use this as one bond of union for his wide dominions. The same habit extended among the Diadochian kings, especially in Egypt and Syria. When Augustus had brought peace to the world, the Orient was ready to hail him as a god. Out of this was evolved the cult of the reigning emperor and of Roma personified. This worship gave religious unity to the empire, while at the same time magnifying the emperor. But the effort was in vain: the old Roman religion was dead, and the spiritual needs of the empire continued to be met more and more by philosophy and the mysteries which promised immortality. The cult of the Genius of the emperor soon lost all reality. Vespasian himself on his deathbed jested at the idea of his becoming a god. The emperor-worship declined steadily, and in the 3rd and 4th centuries oriental worships were supreme. The religion of the Roman empire soon became of that cosmopolitan and eclectic type so characteristic of the new era.

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 AD they were allowed freely to send their yearly contribution to the temple; they were even allowed self-governing privileges and legislative powers among themselves, and thus formed an exclusive community in the midst of Roman society. Even the disastrous war of 68-70 AD and the fall of Jerusalem did not bring persecution upon the Jew, though most of these self-governing and self-legislating powers were withdrawn and the Jews were compelled to pay a poll-tax to the temple of the Capitoline Jupiter. Still their religion remained licensed, tolerated, protected. They were excused from duties impossible for their religion, such as military service. This tolerance of the Jewish religion was of incalculable importance to infant Christianity which at first professed to be no more than a reformed and expanded Judaism.

(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 Parousia of their Lord, were themselves misled into thinking of the new society as a kingdom soon to be set up upon the earth with Christ as king. Gradually, of course, Christians became enlightened upon this point, but the harm had been done. Both the Rein empire and Christianity were aiming at a social organization to embrace the genus humanum. But though these two empires were so alike in several points and the one had done so much to prepare the way for the other, yet the contrast was too great to allow conciliation. Christianity would not lose the atom in the mass; it aimed at universalism along the path of individualism--giving new value to human personality.

(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; polu plethos Clem. Rom.; Cor 1 6).

(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.

(e) Obstinatio:

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 psile parataxis, "sheer obstinacy," and Aristides apparently refers to Christianity as authadeia, stubbornness.

See Persecution, sec. 18.

(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 majestas. They held in contempt the doctrine that the greatness of Rome was due to her reverence for the gods; the Christians were atheists from the pagan point of view. And as religion was a political concern for the welfare of the state, atheism was likely to call down the wrath of divinity to the subversion of the state.

(g) Christianos ad leones: Public Calamities:

Very soon when disasters began to fall thickly upon the Roman empire, the blame was laid upon the Christians. In early days Rome had often sought to appease the gods by introducing external cults; at other times oriental cults were expelled in the interests of public morality. Now in times of disaster Christians became the scapegoats. If famine, drought, pestilence, earthquake or any other public calamity threatened, the cry was raised "the Christians to the lions" (see Nero; Persecution, sec. 12). This view of Christianity as subversive of the empire survived the fall of Rome before Alaric. The heathen forgot--as the apologists showed--that Rome had been visited by the greatest calamities before the Christian era and that the Christians were the most self-sacrificing in periods of public distress, lending succor to pagan and Christian alike.

(h) Odium generis humani:

All prejudices against Christianity were summed up in odium generis humani, "hatred for the human race" or society, which was reciprocated by "hatred of the human race toward them." The Christians were bitterly hated, not only by the populace, but by the upper educated classes. Most of the early adherents belonged to the slave, freedman and artisan classes, "not many wise, not many noble." Few were Roman citizens. We have mentioned the crimes which popular prejudice attributed to this hated sect. They were in mockery styled Christiani by the Antiochians (a name which they at first resented), and Nazarenes by the Jews. No nicknames were too vile to attach to them--Asinarii (the sect that worshipped the ass’s head), Sarmenticii or Semaxii. Roman writers cannot find epithets strong enough. Tacitus reckons the Christian faith among the "atrocious and abominable things" (atrocia aut pudenda) which flooded Rome, and further designates it superstitio exitiabilis ("baneful superstition," Ann. xv.44), Suetonius (Ner. 16) as novel and maletic (novae ac maleficae), and the gentle Pliny (Ep. 97) as vile and indecent (prava immodica). Well might Justus say the Christians were "hated and reviled by the whole human race." This opprobrium was accentuated by the attacks of philosophy upon Christianity. When the attention of philosophers was drawn to the new religion, it was only to scorn it. This attitude of heathen philosophy is best understood in reading Celsus and the Christian apologists.

(4) The Roman Empire Not the Only Disturbing Factor.

Philosophy long maintained its aloofness from the religion of a crucified Galilean: the "wise" were the last to enter the kingdom of God. When later Christianity had established itself as a permanent force in human thought, philosophy deigned to consider its claims. But it was too late; the new faith was already on the offensive. Philosophy discovered its own weakness and began to reform itself by aiming at being both a philosophy and a religion. This is particularly the case in neo-Platonism (in Plotinus) in which reason breaks down before revelation and mysticism. Another force disturbing the peace of the Christian church was the enemy within the fold. Large numbers of heathen had entered the ecclesia bringing with them their oriental or Greek ideas, just as Jewish Christians brought their Judaism with them. This led to grave heresies, each system of thought distorting in its own way the orthodox faith. Later another ally joined the forces against Christianity--reformed paganism led by an injured priesthood. At first the cause of Christianity was greatly aided by the fact that there was no exclusive and jealous priesthood at the head of the Greek-Roman religion, as in the Jewish and oriental religions. There was thus no dogma and no class interested in maintaining a dogma. Religious persecution is invariably instituted by the priesthood, but in the Roman world it was not till late in the day when the temples and sacrifices were falling into desuetude that we find a priesthood as a body in opposition. Thus the Roman imperial power stood not alone in antagonism to Christianity, but was abetted and often provoked to action by

(a) popular hate,

(b) philosophy,

(c) pagan priesthood,

(d) heresies within the church.

IV. Relations between the Roman Empire and Christianity.

We have here to explain how the attitude of the Roman empire, at first friendly or indifferent, developed into one of fierce conflict, the different stages in the policy--if we can speak of any uniform policy--of the Roman government toward Christianity, the charges or mode of procedure on which Christians were condemned, and when and how the profession of Christianity (nomen ipsum) became a crime. We shall see the Roman empire progressively weakening and Christianity gaining ground. For the sake of clearness we shall divide the Roman empire into six periods, the first from the commencement of the Christian era till the last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.

1. Beginning of Christianity until Death of Nero, 68 AD:

At first the presence of the Christian faith was unknown to Roman authorities. It appeared first merely as a reformed and more spiritual Judaism; its earliest preachers and adherents alike never dreamed of severing from the synagogue. Christians were only another of the Jewish sects to which a Jew might belong while adhering to Mosaism and Judaism. But soon this friendly relation became strained on account of the expanding views of some of the Christian preachers, and from the introduction of Gentile proselytes. The first persecutions for the infant church came entirely from exclusive Judaism, and it was the Jews who first accused Christians before the Roman courts. Even so, the Roman government not only refused to turn persecutor, but even protected the new faith both against Jewish accusations and against the violence of the populace (Ac 21:31 f). And the Christian missionaries--especially Paul--soon recognized in the Roman empire an ally and a power for good. Writing to the Romans Paul counsels them to submit in obedience to the powers that be, as "ordained of God." His favorable impression must have been greatly enhanced by his mild captivity at Rome and his acquittal by Nero on the first trial. The Roman soldiers had come to his rescue in Jerusalem to save his life from the fanaticism of his own coreligionists. Toward the accusations of the Jews against their rivals the Romans were either indifferent, as Gallio the proconsul of Achaia, who "cared for none of those things" (Ac 18:12 ), or recognized the innocence of the accused, as did both Felix (Ac 24:1 ) and Porcius Festus (Ac 25:14 ). Thus the Romans persisted in looking upon Christians as a sect of the Jews. But the Jews took another step in formulating a charge of disloyalty (begun before Pilate) against the new sect as acting "contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, one Jesus" (Ac 17:7; compare Ac 25:8). Christianity was disowned thus early by Judaism and cast upon its own resources. The increasing numbers of Christians would confirm to the Roman government the independence of Christianity. And the trial of a Roman citizen, Paul, at Rome would further enlighten the authorities.

The first heathen persecution of Christianity resulted from no definite policy, no apprehension of danger to the body politic, and no definite charges, but from an accidental spark which kindled the conflagration of Rome (July, 64 AD). Up to this time no emperor had taken much notice of Christianity. It was only in the middle of the reign of Augustus that Jesus was born. In the reign of Tiberius belong Jesus’ public ministry, crucifixion and resurrection; but his reign closed too early (37 AD) to allow any prominence to the new faith, though this emperor was credited with proposing to the senate a decree to receive Christ into the Roman pantheon--legend of course. Under the brief principate of the mad Gaius (37-41 AD) the "new way" was not yet divorced from the parent faith. Gaius caused a diversion in favor of the Christians by his persecution of the Jews and the command to set up his own statue in the temple. In the next reign (Claudius, 41-54 AD) the Jews were again harshly treated, and thousands were banished from Rome (Judaeos impulsore Chresto assidue tumultuantes Roma expulit: Suet. Claud. 25). Some would see in this an action against the Christians by interpreting the words as meaning riots between Jews and Christians, in consequence of which some Christians were banished as Jews, but Dio Cassius (lx.6) implies that it was a police regulation to restrain the spread of Jewish worship. It was in the reign of Nero, after the fire of 64 AD, that the first hostile step was taken by the government against the Christians, earliest account of which is given by Tacitus (Ann. xv.44). Nero’s reckless career had given rise to the rumor that he was the incendiary, that he wished to see the old city burned in order to rebuild it on more magnificent plans. See Nero. Though he did everything possible to arrest the flames, even exposing his own life, took every means of alleviating the destitution of the sufferers, and ordered such religious rites as might appease the wrath of the gods, the suspicion still clung to him.

"Accordingly in order to dissipate the rumor, he put forward as guilty (subdidit reos) and inflicted the most cruel punishments on those who were hated for their abominations (flagitia) and called Christians by the populace. The originator of that name, Christus, had been executed by the procurator Pontius Pilatus in the reign of Tiberius, and the baneful superstition (exitiabilis superstitio) put down for the time being broke out again, not only throughout Judea, the home of this evil, but also in the City (Rome) where all atrocious and shameful (atrocia aut pudenda) things converge and are welcomed. Those therefore who confessed (i.e. to being Christians) were first arrested, and then by the information gained from them a large number (multitudo ingens) were implicated (coniuncti is the manuscript reading, not conuicti), not so much on the charge of incendiarism as for hatred of mankind (odio humani generis). The victims perished amid mockery (text here uncertain); some clothed in the skins of wild beasts were torn to pieces by dogs; others impaled on crosses in order to be set on fire to afford light by night after daylight had died. .... Whence (after these cruelties) commiseration began to be felt for them, though guilty and deserving the severest penalties (quamquam adversus sontes et novissima exempla meritos), for men felt their destruction was not from considerations of public welfare but to gratify the cruelty of one person (Nero)."

This passage--the earliest classical account of the crucifixion and the only mention of Pilate in a heathen author--offers some difficulties which require to be glanced at. It is held by some that Tacitus contradicts himself by writing subdidit reos at the beginning and sontes at the end, but sontes does not mean guilty of incendiarism, but guilty from the point of view of the populace and deserving severe punishment for other supposed flagitia, not for arson. It is thus quite clear that Tacitus regards the Christians as innocent, though he had not the slightest kindly feeling toward them. Qui fatebantur means most naturally, "those who confessed to being Christians," though Arnold argues that confiteri or profiteri would be the correct word for professing a religion. But this would contradict both the sense and the other evidences of the context; for if fatebantur could mean "confessed to arson," then the whole body of Christians should have been arrested, and, further, this would have diverted suspicion from Nero, which was not the case according to Tacitus. Some Christians boldly asserted their religion, others no doubt, as in Bithynia, recanted before tribulation. By indicio eorum Ramsay (Christianity in the Roman Empire, 233) understands "on the information elicited at their trial," i.e. from information gathered by the inquisitors in the course of the proceedings. This incidental information implicated a large number of others, hence Ramsay prefers the manuscript reading coniuncti to the correction conuicti. This is in order to explain the difficulty seemingly raised, namely, that the noblest Christians who boldly confessed their Christianity would seek to implicate brethren. But it is not impossible that some of these bold spirits did condescend to give the names of their coreligionists to the Roman courts. Hence, Hardy (Christianity and the Roman Government, 67) prefers the more usual rendering of indicio eorum as "on information received from them." This may have occurred either

(1) through torture, or

(2) for promised immunity, or

(3) on account of local jealousies.

The early Christian communities were not perfect; party strife often ran high as at Corinth. And in a church like that of Rome composed of Jewish and pagan elements and undoubtedly more cosmopolitan than Corinth, a bitter sectarian spirit is easy to understand. This as a probable explanation is much strengthened and rendered almost certain by the words of Clement of Rome, who, writing to the church at Corinth (chapter vi) from Rome only a generation after the persecution, and thus familiar with the internal history of the Roman ecclesia, twice asserts that a (polu plethos = Tac. multitudo ingens) of the Roman Christians suffered (dia zelos), "through jealousy or strife." The most natural and obvious meaning is "mutual or sectarian jealousy." But those who do not like this fact explain it as "by the jealousy of the Jews." Nothing is more easily refuted, for had it been the jealousy of the Jews Clement would not have hesitated one moment to say so. Those who are familiar with the Christian literature of that age know that the Christians were none too sensitive toward Jewish feelings. But the very fact that it was not the Jews made Clement rather modestly omit details the memory of which was probably still bearing fruit, even in his day. Once more correpti, usually rendered "arrested," is taken by Hardy as "put upon their trial." He argues that this is more in accord with Tacitean usage. A "huge multitude" need not cause us to distrust Tacitus. It is a relative term; it was a considerable number to be so inhumanly butchered. There is some hesitation as to whether odio humani generis is objective or subjective genitive: "hatred of the Christians toward the human race" or "hatred of the human race toward the Christians." Grammatically of course it may be either, but that it is the former there can be no doubt: it was of the nature of a charge against Christians (Ramsay).

See Persecution.

Some have impugned the veracity of Tacitus in this very important passage, asserting that he had read back the feelings and state of affairs of his own day (half a century later) into this early Neronian period. This early appearance of Christianity as a distinct religion and its "huge multitude" seem impossible to some. Schiller has accordingly suggested that it was the Jews who as a body at Rome were persecuted, that the Christians being not yet distinct from Jews shared in the persecutions and suffered, not as Christians, but as Jews. But Tacitus is too trustworthy a historian to be guilty of such a confusion; besides, as proconsul in Asia he must have been more or less familiar with the origin of the Christian party. Also Poppea was at this time mistress of Nero’s affections and sufficiently influential with him to stay such a cruel persecution against those to whom she had a leaning and who claimed her as proselyte. Again, the Jewish faith was certe licita and a recognized worship of the empire.

The next question is, Why were the Christians alone selected for persecution? That they were so singled out we know, but exactly for what reason is hard to say with certainty. A number of reasons no doubt contributed.

(1) Farrar (Early Days chapter iv) sees "in the proselytism of Poppea, guided by Jewish malice, the only adequate explanation of the first Christian persecution," and Lightfoot is of the same opinion, but this by itself is inadequate, though the Jews would be glad of an opportunity of taking revenge on their aggressive opponents.

(2) Christians had already become in the eyes of the Roman authorities a distinct sect, either from the reports of the eastern provincial governors, where Christianity was making most headway, or from the attention attracted by Paul’s first trial. They were thus the newest religious sect, and as such would serve as victims to appease deity and the populace.

(3) Even if ingens multitudo be rhetorical, the Christians were no doubt considerably numerous in Rome. Their aggressiveness and active proselytism made their numbers even more formidable.

(4) They were uncompromising in their expression of their beliefs; they looked for a consummation of the earth by fire and were also eagerly expecting the Parousia of their king to reconstitute society. These tenets together with their calm faith amid the despair of others would easily cast suspicion upon them.

(5) For whatever reason, they had earned the opprobrium of the populace. "The hatred for the Jews passed over to hatred for the Christians" (Mommsen). A people whom the populace so detested must have fallen under the surveillance of the city police administration.

(6) A large proportion of the Christian community at Rome would be non-Roman and so deserve no recognition of Roman privileges.

These reasons together may or may not explain the singling-out of the Christians. At any rate they were chosen as scapegoats to serve Nero and his minion Tigellinus. The origin of the first persecution was thus purely accidental--in order to remove suspicion from Nero. It was not owing to any already formulated policy, neither through apprehension of any danger to the state, nor because the Christians were guilty of any crimes, though it gave an opportunity of investigation and accumulation of evidence. But accidental as this persecution was in origin, its consequences were of far reaching importance. There are three principal views as to the date of the policy of proscription of the new faith by the Roman government:

(1) the old view that persecution for the name, i.e. for the mere profession of Christianity, began under Trajan in 112 AD--a view now almost universally abandoned;

(2) that of Ramsay (Christianity in the Roman Empire, 242 ff, and three articles in The Expositor, 1893), who holds that this development from punishment for definite crimes (flagitia) to proscription "for the name" took place between 68 and 96 AD, and

(3) that of Hardy (Christianity and the Roman Government, 77), Mommsen (Expos, 1893, 1-7) and Sanday (ibid., 1894, 406 ff)--and adopted by the writer of this article--that the trial of the Christians under Nero resulted in the declaration of the mere profession of Christianity as a crime punishable by death.

Tacitus apparently represents the persecution of the Christians as accidental and isolated and of brief duration (in the place cited), while Suetonius (Ner. 16) mentions the punishment of Christians in a list of permanent police regulations for the maintenance of good order, into which it would be inconsistent to introduce an isolated case of procedure against the "baneful superstition" (Ramsay, op. cit., p. 230). But these two accounts are not contradictory, Tacitus giving the initial stage and Suetonius "a brief statement of the permanent administrative principle into which Nero’s action ultimately resolved itself" (ibid., 232). Nero’s police administration, then, pursued as a permanent policy what was begun merely to avert suspicion from Nero. But as yet, according to Ramsay, Christians were not condemned as Christians, but on account of certain flagitia attaching to the profession and because the Roman police authorities had learned enough about the Christians to regard them as hostile to society. A trial still must be held and condemnation pronounced "in respect not of the name but of serious offenses naturally connected with the name," namely, first incendiarism, which broke down, and secondly hostility to civilized society and charges of magic. The others agree so far with Ramsay as describing the first stages, but assert that odium humani generis was not of the nature of a definite charge, but disaffection to the social and political arrangements of the empire. At the outset a trial was needed, but soon as a consequence the trial could be dispensed with, the Christians being "recognized as a society whose principle might be summarized as odium generis humani." A trial became unnecessary; the religion itself involved the crimes, and as a religion it was henceforth proscribed. The surveillance over them and their punishment was left to the police administration which could step in at any time with severe measures or remain remiss, according as exigencies demanded. Christianity was henceforth a religio illicita. The Roman government was never a systematic persecutor. The persecution or non-persecution of Christianity depended henceforth on the mood of the reigning emperor, the character of his administration, the activity of provincial governors, the state of popular feeling against the new faith, and other local circumstances. There is no early evidence that the Neronian persecution extended beyond Rome, though of course the "example set by the emperor necessarily guided the action of all Roman officials." The stormy close of Nero’s reign and the tumultuous days till the accession of Vespasian created a diversion in favor of Christianity. Orosius (Hist. vii.7) is too late an authority for a general persecution (per omnes provincias pari persecutione excruciari imperavit; ipsum nomen exstirpare conatus ....). Besides, Paul after his acquittal seems to have prosecuted his missionary activity without any extraordinary hindrances, till he came to Rome the second time. This Neronian persecution is important for the history of Christianity: Nero commenced the principle of punishing Christians, and thus made a precedent for future rulers. Trouble first began in the world-capital; the next stage will be found in the East; and another in Africa and the West. But as yet persecution was only local. Nero was the first of the Roman persecutors who, like Herod Agrippa, came to a miserable end--a fact much dwelt upon by Lactantius and other Christian writers.

2. Flavian Period, 68-96 AD:

In the Flavian period no uniform imperial policy against Christianity can be discovered. According to Ramsay the Flavians developed the practice set by Nero from punishment of Christians for definite crimes to proscription of the name. But, as we have seen, the Neronian persecution settled the future attitude of the Roman state toward the new faith. The Flavians could not avoid following the precedent set by Nero. Christianity was spreading--especially in the East and at Rome. We have no account of any persecution under Vespasian (though Hilary erroneously speaks of him as a persecutor along with Nero and Decius) and Titus, but it does not follow that none such took place. As the whole matter was left to the police administration, severity would be spasmodic and called forth by local circumstances. The fall of Jerusalem must have had profound influence both on Judaism and on Christianity. For the former it did what the fall of Rome under Goths, Vandals, and Germans did for the old Roman religion--it weakened the idea of a national God bound up with a political religion. The cleft between Judaism and its rival would now become greater. Christianity was relieved from the overpowering influence of a national center, and those Jews who now recognized the futility of political dreams would more readily join the Christian faith. Not only the distinction but the opposition and hostility would now be more apparent to outsiders, though Vespasian imposed the poll-tax on Jewish Christians and Jews alike. No memory of harshness against Christianity under Vespasian has survived. Ramsay (op. cit., 257) would interpret a mutilated passage of Suetonius (Vesp. 15) as implying Vespasian’s reluctance to carry out justa supplicia against Christians.

Titus, "the darling of the human race," is not recorded as a persecutor, but his opinion of Judaism and Christianity as stated in the council of war before Jerusalem in 70 AD and recorded by Sulpicius Severus (Chron. ii.30, 6) is interesting as an approval of the policy adopted by Nero. Severus’ authority is undoubtedly Tacitus (Bernays and Mommsen). The authenticity of the speech as contradicting the account of Josephus has been impugned; at any rate it represents the point of view of Tacitus. Titus then advocates the destruction of the temple in order that the religion of the Jews and the Christians may be more thoroughly extirpated (quo plenius Judeorum et Christianorum religio tolleretur), since these religions though opposed to each other were of the same origin, the Christians having sprung from the Jews. If the root was removed the stem would readily perish (radice sublata, stirpem facile perituram). We know, however, of no active measures of Titus against either party, his short reign perhaps allowing no time for such.

It is Domitian who stands out prominently as the persecutor of this period, as Nero of the first period. His procedure against Christians was not an isolated act, but part of a general policy under which others suffered. His reign was a return to ancient principles. He attempted to reform morals, suppress luxury and vice, banish immoral oriental rites, actors, astrologers and philosophers. It was in his attempt to revive the national religion that he came in conflict with the universal religion. His own cousin, Flavius Clemens, was condemned apparently for Christianity (atheism), and his wife, Domitilla, was banished. The profession of Christianity was not sufficient for the condemnation of Roman citizens of high standing; hence the charges of atheism or majestas were put forward. Refusal to comply with the religion of the national gods could be brought under the latter. But for ordinary Roman citizens and for provincials the profession of Christianity merited death. No definite edict or general proscription was enacted; only the principle instituted by Nero was allowed to be carried out. There was, as Mommsen remarks, a standing proscription of Christians as of brigands, but harsh procedure against both was spasmodic and depended on the caprice or character of provincial governors. Domitian took one definite step against Christianity in establishing an easy test by which to detect those who were Christians and so facilitate inquiries. This test was the demand to worship the Genius of the emperor. This too was only part of Domitian’s general policy of asserting his own dominus et deus title and emphasizing the imperial cult as a bond of political union. The Apocalypse reflects the sufferings of the church in this reign.

3. The Antonine Period, 96-192 AD:

(1) Nerva and Trajan.

On the death of Domitian peace was restored to the Christian church which lasted throughout the brief reign of Nerva (96-98) and the first 13 years of Trajan. It is a curious fact that some of the best of the Roman emperors (Trajan, Marcus Aurelius, Decius and Diocletian) were harsh to the Christians, while some of the worst (as Commodus, Caracalla, Heliogabalus) left them in peace (see Persecution, 17). Christianity had been rapidly spreading in the interval of tranquillity. Pliny became governor of Bithynia in 111 AD and found, especially in the eastern part of his province, the temples almost deserted. Some Christians were brought before him and on established precedents were ordered to be executed for their religion. But Pliny soon discovered that many of both sexes and all ages, provincials and Roman citizens, were involved. The Roman citizens he sent to Rome for trial; but being of a humane disposition he shrank from carrying out the wholesale execution required by a consistent policy.

He wrote to Trajan telling him what he had already done, rather covertly suggesting tolerant measures. Should no distinction be made between old and young? Should pardon not be extended to those who recanted and worshipped the emperor’s image and cursed Christ? Should mere profession (nomen ipsum) be a capital offense if no crimes could be proven, or should the crimes rather be punished that were associated with the faith (an flagitia cohaerentia nomini)? He then explains his procedure: he gave those who were accused an abundant opportunity of recanting; those who persisted in this faith were executed. He considered their "stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy" (pertinaciam certe et inflexibilem obstinationem) as in itself deserving punishment. But the administration having once interfered found plenty to do. An anonymous list of many names was handed in, most of whom, however, denied being Christians. Informers then put forward others who likewise denied belonging to the faith. Pliny was convinced their meetings were harmless, and on examination of two deaconesses under torture discovered nothing but a perverse extravagant superstition (sup. pravam immodicam). Trajan replied that no universal and definite rule could be laid down, apparently confirming the correctness of Pliny’s action and perhaps disappointing Pliny in not yielding to his humane suggestions. Nevertheless, the emperor made three important concessions: (1) the Christians were not to be sought out by the police authorities, but if they were accused and convicted they must be punished; (2) anonymous information against them was not to be accepted; (3) even those suspected of flagitia in the past were to be pardoned on proving they were not Christians or on renouncing Christianity. Some regard this rescript of Trajan as the first official and legal authorization to proscribe Christianity; but we have already seen that Christianity as such was proscribed as a result of the Neronian investigations. Besides, there is not the slightest trace of any new principle of severity, either in the letters of Pliny or in the rescript of Trajan. The persecution of Christianity had been "permanent" like that of highwaymen, but not systematic or general. Neither was Trajan’s rescript an edict of toleration, though on the whole it was favorable to the Christians in minimizing the dangers to which they were exposed. The question was as yet purely one of administration.

Trajan initiated no procedure against Christians--in fact rather discouraged any, asking his lieutenant to close his eyes to offenders--and Pliny consulted him in the hope of obtaining milder treatment for the Christians by putting in question form what he really wished to be approved. Trajan’s rescript "marks the end of the old system of uncompromising hostility."

See Persecution, 15.

(2) Hadrian.

The reign of Hadrian (117-38) was a period of toleration for the Christians. He was no bigot, but tolerant and eclective, inquiring into all religions and initiated into several mysteries and willing to leave religion an open question. In Asia, where Christianity was making most progress, a state of terrorism was imminent if delatores were encouraged against Christians making a profession of delatio (giving information). As we saw in the letter of Pliny, even non-Christians were accused, and any professing Christian could be threatened by these informers in order to secure a bribe for proceeding no farther. Licinius Silvanus Granianus, like Pliny, found himself involved in difficulties and wrote to Hadrian for advice. Hadrian’s rescript in reply is addressed to Granianus’ successor, Minucius Fundanus, the proconsul of Asia, about 124 AD. The genuineness of this important document, though impugned by Overbeck, Keim and Lipsius, is vouched for by Mommsen, Hardy, Lightfoot and Ramsay. Indeed, it is much easier accounted for as authentic than as a forgery, for who but the broad-minded Hadrian could have written such a rescript? Apparently the questions put by the proconsul must have been of a similar nature to those extant of Pliny. The answer of Hadrian is a decided step in favor of Christianity and goes beyond that of Trajan:

(1) information is not to be passed over (a) lest the innocent suffer (as was the case under Pliny), and (b) lest informers should make a trade of lodging accusations;

(2) provincials accusing Christians must give proof that the accused have committed something illegal;

(3) mere petitions and acclamations against the Christians are not to be admitted;

(4) a prosecutor on failing to make good his case is to be punished.

These terms would greatly increase the risk for informers and lessen the dangers for Christians. That the name is a crime is not admitted, neither is this established principle rescinded. It is quite possible that Hadrian’s rescript "gave a certain stimulus toward the employment of the more definite and regular legal procedure."

(3) Antoninus Pius (138-161).

The liberal policy of Trajan and Hadrian was continued by Antoninus, though persecution occurred in his reign in which Ptolemeus and Lucius were executed at Rome and Polycarp at Smyrna. But he decidedly confirmed Hadrian’s policy of protecting the Christians uncondemned against mob violence in his letters to Larissae, Athens, Thessalonica and to "all the Hellenes." As at Smyrna, his "rescript was in advance of public feeling," and so was disregarded. Anonymous delation was also repressed.

(4) Marcus Aurelius (161-80).

Under Aurelius a strong reaction set in affecting the Christians, caused partly by the frontier disasters and devastating pestilence and partly by Aurelius’ policy of returning to ancient principles and reviving the Roman national religion. In this reign we find persecution extending to the West (Gaul) and to Africa--a step toward the general persecutions of the next century. Though no actual change was made by Aurelius, the leniency of the last three reigns is absent. No general edict or definite rescript of persecution was issued; the numerous martyrdoms recorded in this reign are partly due to the fuller accounts and the rise of a Christian literature. Christianity in itself still constituted a crime, and the obstinacy (parataxis) of Christians in itself deserved punishment. Aurelius seems to have actually rebuked the severity of the Roman governor at Lugdunum, and to have further discouraged the trade of informers against Christians. Tertullian actually styles him as debellator Christianorum ("protector of Christians"). We find as yet therefore no systematic or serious attempt to extirpate the new faith. The central government "was all this time without a permanent or steady policy toward the Christians. It had not yet made up its mind" (Hardy).

Under the rule of Commodus (180-192) Christians gain enjoyed a respite. The net result of the collisions between the new faith and the government in this period is somewhat differently estimated by Ramsay and by Hardy. The latter thinks (Christianity and Roman Government, 156 f) that Ramsay "has to some extent antedated the existence of anything like a policy of proscription," due to antedating the time when Christianity was regarded as a serious political danger. Hardy thinks that the Christian organization was never suspected as more than an abstract danger during the first two centuries. Had Rome taken the view that Christianity in its organization was a real danger and an imperium in imperio, she must have started a systematic exterminating policy during a period when Christianity could have least withstood it. When the empire did--as in the 3rd century--apprehend the practical danger and took the severest general measures, Christianity was already too strong to be harmed, and we shall find the empire henceforth each time worsted and finally offering terms.

4. Changing Dynasties, 192-284 AD:

In the next period the insecurity of the throne, when in less than 100 years about a score of candidates wore the purple and almost each new emperor began a new dynasty, enabled Christianity to spread practically untroubled. Further diversions in its favor were created by those fierce barbarian wars and by the necessity of renewed vigilance at the frontier posts. The Christians’ aloofness from political strife and their acquiescence in each new dynasty brought them generally into no collision with new rulers. Further, the fact that many of these emperors were non-Roman provincials, or foreigners who had no special attachment to the old Roman faith, and were eclectic in their religious views, was of much importance to the new eastern faith. Moreover, some of the emperors proved not only not hostile to Christianity, but positively friendly. In this period we find no severe (except perhaps that of Decius) and certainly no protracted persecution. The Christian church herself was organized on the principle of the imperial government, and made herself thus strong and united, so that when the storm did come she remained unshaken. In 202 Severus started a cruel persecution in Africa and Egypt, but peace was restored by the savage Caracalla (lacte Christiano educatus: Tert.). Heliogabalus assisted Christianity indirectly (1) by the degradation of Roman religion, and (2) by tolerance. According to one writer he proposed to fuse Christianity, Judaism and Samaritanism into one religion. Alexander Severus was equally tolerant and syncretic, setting up in his private chapel images of Orpheus, Apollonius, Abraham, and Christ, and engraving the golden rule on his palace walls and public buildings. He was even credited with the intention of erecting a temple to Christ. Local persecution broke out under Maximin the Thracian. The first general persecution was that of Decius, in which two features deserve notice: (1) that death was not the immediate result of Christian profession, but every means was employed to induce Christians to recant; (2) Roman authorities already cognizant of the dangers of Christian organization directed their efforts especially against the officers of the church. Gallus continued this policy, and Valerian, after first stopping persecution, tried to check the spread of the worship by banishing bishops and closing churches, and later enacted the death penalty. Gallienus promulgated what was virtually the first edict of toleration, forbade persecution and restored the Christian endowments. Christianity now entered upon a period of 40 years’ tranquillity: as outward dangers decreased, less desirable converts came within her gates and her adherents were overtaken in a flood of worldliness, stayed only by the persecution of Diocletian.

5. Diocletian until First General Edict of Toleration, 284-311 AD:

Like some other persecutors, Diocletian was one of the ablest Roman rulers. He was not disposed to proceed against the Christians, but was finally driven to harsh measures by his son-in-law Galerius. The first edict, February 24, 303, was not intended to exterminate Christianity, but to check its growth and weaken its political influence, and was directed principally against Bibles, Christian assemblies and churches. The second was against church organization. A third granted freedom to those who recanted, but sought to compel the submission of recalcitrants by tortures--a partial confession of failure on the part of the imperial government. Bloodshed was avoided and the death penalty omitted. But a fourth edict issued by Maximin prescribed the death penalty and required the act of sacrifice to the gods. In the same year (304) Diocletian, convinced of the uselessness of these measures, stayed the death penalty. The change of policy on the part of the emperor and his abdication next year were virtually a confession that the Galilean had conquered. After the persecution had raged 8 years (or 10, if we include local persecutions after 311), Galerius, overtaken by a loathsome disease, issued from Nicomedia with Constantine and Licinius the first general edict of toleration, April 30, 311. Christianity had thus in this period proved a state within a state; it was finally acknowledged as a religio licita, though not yet on equality with paganism.

6. First Edict of Toleration until Fall of Western Empire, 311-476 AD:

In the next period the first religious wars began, and Christianity was first placed on an equal footing with its rival, then above it, and finally it became the state religion of both West and East. As soon as Christianity had gained tolerance it immediately became an intolerant, bitter persecutor, both of its old rival and of heresy. Constantine, having defeated Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge (October 27, 312), became sole ruler of the West, and, in conjunction with his eastern colleague Licinius, issued the famous edict of toleration from Milan, March 30, 313, by which all religions were granted equal tolerance, and Christianity was thus placed on an equal footing with heathenism. Constantine’s favors toward the Christian faith were largely political; he wished simply to be on the winning side. With each fresh success he inclined more toward Christianity, though his whole life was a compromise. His dream was to weld pagan and Christian into one society under the same laws; he in no way prohibited paganism. With the rounding of Constantinople Christianity became practically the state religion--an alliance with baneful consequences for Christianity. It now began to stifle the liberty of conscience for which it had suffered so much, and orthodoxy began its long reign of intolerance. The sons of Constantine inherited their father’s cruel nature with his nominal Christianity. Constantine had left the old and the new religions on equal footing: his sons began the work of exterminating paganism by violence. Constantius when sole emperor, inheriting none of his father’s compromise or caution, and prompted by women and bishops, published edicts demanding the closing of the temples and prohibiting sacrifices. Wise provincial administrators hesitated to carry out these premature measures. Christianity was now in the ascendancy and on the aggressive. It not only persecuted paganism, but the dominant Christian party proscribed its rival--this time heterodoxy banishing orthodoxy. The violence and intolerance of the sons of Constantine justified the mild reaction under Julian the Apostate--the most humane member of the Constantine family. He made a "romantic" effort to reestablish the old religion, and while proclaiming tolerance for Christianity, he endeavored to weaken it by heaping ridicule upon its doctrines, rescinding the privileges of the clergy, prohibiting the church from receiving many bequests, removing Christians from public positions and forbidding the teaching of classics in Christian schools lest Christian tongues should become better fitted to meet heathen arguments, and lastly by adding renewed splendor to pagan service as a counter-attraction. But the moral power of Christianity triumphed. Dying on a battle-field, where he fought the Persians, he is said (but not on good authority) to have exclaimed, "Thou hast conquered, O Galilean" (nenikekas Galilaie). For a brief period after his death there was religious neutrality. Gratian--at the instigation of Ambrose--departed from this neutrality, removed the statue of Victory from the senate-house, refused the title and robes of pontifex maximus, prohibited bloody sacrifices, and dealt a severe blow to the old faith by withdrawing some of the treasury grants, thereby making it dependent on the voluntary system. Theodosius I, or the Great, adopted a strenuous religious policy against both heresy and paganism. His intolerance must be attributed to Ambrose--a bigot in whose eyes Jews, heretics and pagans alike had no rights. Systematic proscription of paganism began. In 381 Theodosius denied the right of making a will to apostates from Christianity, in 383 the right of inheritance, in 391 heathen public worship was interdicted, in 392 several acts of both private and public heathen worship were forbidden, and greater penalties were attached to the performance of sacrifice. Christian vandalism became rampant; all kinds of violence and confiscation were resorted to, monks or priests often leading the populace. For the present the West did not suffer so severely from fanatic iconoclasm. Under the sons of Theodosius the suppression of paganism was steadily pursued. Honorius in the West excluded (408 AD) pagans from civil and military offices; in a later edict (423) the very existence of paganism is doubted (paganos .... quamquam iam nullos esse credamus). That heathenism was still an attraction is proved by the repeated laws against apostasy. Under Valentinian III (423-55) and Theodosius II, laws were enacted for the destruction of temples or their conversion into Christian churches. In the western empire heathenism was persecuted till the end, and its final overthrow was hastened by the extinction of the western empire (476). In the East Justinian closed the heathen schools of philosophy at Athens (529 AD), and in a despotic spirit prohibited even heathen worship in private under pain of death.

V. Victory of Christianity and Conversion of the Roman Empire.

Christianity was now acknowledged as the religion of both East and West. It had also grown strong enough to convert the barbarians who overran the West. It restrained and educated them under the lead of the papacy, so that its conquests now extended beyond the Roman empire.

Merivale (preface to Conversion of Roman Empire) attributes the conversion of the Roman empire to four causes: (1) the external evidence of apparent fulfillment of prophecy and the evidence of miracles, (2) internal evidence as satisfying the spiritual wants of the empire and offering a Redeemer, (3) the example of the pure lives and heroic deaths of the early Christians, and (4) the success which attended the Christian cause under Constantine. Gibbon (chapter xv of Decline and Fall) seeks to account for the phenomenal success of Christianity in the empire by (1) the zeal and enthusiasm of the early Christians, (2) the belief of Christianity in immortality with both future rewards and future retributions, (3) miracles, (4) the high ethical code and pure morals of professing Christians, and (5) strong ecclesiastical organization on imperial patterns. But neither of these lists of causes seems to account satisfactorily for the progress and success of the religion of Jesus.

1. Negative Causes:

This was due in the first place to negative causes--the moral and spiritual bankruptcy of the antique world, the internal rottenness and decay of heathen systems. All ancient national religions had failed and were abandoned alike by philosophers and the masses, and no universal religion for humanity was offered except by Christianity. Worship had degenerated into pure formalism which brought no comfort to the heart. An imperious demand for revelation was felt which no philosophy or natural religion could satisfy.

2. Positive Causes:

But it was to positive causes chiefly that the success of the new religion was due, among which were the zeal, enthusiasm, and moral earnestness of the Christian faith. Its sterling qualities were best shown in persecution and the heroic deaths of its adherents. Paganism, even with the alliance of the civil power and the prestige of its romantic past, could not withstand persecution. And when heathenism was thrown back on the voluntary system, it could not prosper as Christianity did with its ideals of self-sacrifice. The earnestness of early Christianity was raised to its highest power by its belief in a near second coming of the Lord and the end of the aeon. The means of propagation greatly helped the spread of Christianity, the principal means being the exemplary lives of its professors. It opposed moral and spiritual power to political. Besides, Christianity when once studied by the thinkers of the ancient world was found to be in accord with the highest principles of reason and Nature. But "the chief cause of its success was the congruity of its teaching with the spiritual nature of mankind" (Lecky). There was a deepseated earnestness in a large section of the ancient world to Whom Christianity offered the peace, comfort and strength desired. It was possessed also of an immense advantage over all competing religions of the Roman empire in being adapted to all classes and conditions and to all changes. There was nothing local or national about it; it gave the grandest expression to the contemporary ideal of brotherhood. Its respect for woman and its attraction for this sex gained it many converts who brought honor to it; in this respect it was far superior to its greatest rival, Mithraism. In an age of vast social change and much social distress it appealed to the suffering by its active self-denial for the happiness of others. As an ethical code it was equal and superior to the noblest contemporary systems. One incalculable advantage it could show above all religions and philosophies--the charm and power of an ideal perfect life, in which the highest manhood was held forth as an incentive to nobler living. The person of Jesus was an ideal and moral dynamic for both philosopher and the common man, far above any abstract virtue. "It was because it was true to the moral sentiments of the age, because it represented faithfully the supreme type of excellence to which men were then tending, because it corresponded with their religious wants, aims and emotions, because the whole spiritual being could then expand and expatiate under its influence that it planted its roots so deeply in the hearts of men" (Lecky, Hist of European Morals, chapter iii). Add to all this the favorable circumstances mentioned under "Preparation for Christianity," above (II), and we can understand how the Roman empire became the kingdom of Christ.


Ancient sources include Tacitus, Suetonius, Josephus, Pliny’s Letters, x.97-98 (in Hardy’s edition), Dio Cassius (in Xiphilin), the apologists, Church Fathers, Inscriptions, etc.

Modern sources are too numerous to mention in full, but those most helpful to the student are: Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; Merivale, Hist of the Romans under the Empire; The Fall of the Roman Republic, 1856; Conversion of the Roman Empire, 1865; Milman, Hist of Christianity; Hist of Latin Christianity; Ramsay, The Church in the Roman Empire; The Expositor, IV, viii, pp. 8 ff, 110 ff, 282 ff; E. G. Hardy, Christianity and the Roman Government, 1894; D. Duff, The Early Church: a Hist of Christianity in the First Six Centuries, Edinburgh, 1891; J. J. Blunt, A Hist of the Christian Church during the First Three Centuries, 1861; Harnack, Mission and Expansion of Christianity, 1907; Mommsen, "Der Religionsfrevel nach rom. Recht," in Hist. Zeit, 1890, LXIV (important); Provinces of the Roman Empire; The Expositor, 1893, pp. 6 ff; G. Boissier, La religion romaine d’Auguste aux Antonins; La fin du paganisme; Wissowa, Religion u. Kultus der Romer; Gerb. Uhlhorn, Conflict of Christianity with Heathenism, English translation by Smyth and Ropes, 1879; B. Aube, Histoire des persecutions de l’eglise jusqu’a la fin des Antonins, 1875; Schaff, Hist of the Christian Church (with useful bibliographies of both ancient and modern authorities); Orr, Neglected Factors in Early Church Hist; Keim, Ro u. Christentum; Deissmann, Light from the Ancient East, English translation, London, 1910; Wendland, Die hellenistischromische Kultur2, 1912; F. Overbeck, "Gesetze der rom. Kaiser gegen die Christen," in his Studien, 1875; C. F. Arnold, Die Neronische Christenverfolgung; Stud. zur Gesch. der Plinianischen Christenverfolgung; Westcott, "The Two Empires," in commentary to Epistles. of John, 250-82; Friedlander, Sittengeschichte Roms; Lightfoot, Apostolic Fathers; Lecky, Hist of European Morals, chapter iii. "The Conversion of Rome."

S. Angus