Christianity in ancient Rome

THE sudden transformation of an obscure and persecuted sect into a dominant power diverting the course of moral development into entirely new channels is a phenomenon so remarkable in its effects that much needless ingenuity has been expended in seeking to explain what was in fact an almost inevitable development.

Three lines have been followed. It has been maintained that the pagan philosophies had already been so much modified by the incorporation of Christian doctrines that acceptance of Christianity became easy; that the world was convinced by the overwhelming evidence of the miraculous origin of the new religion; and that nothing short of Divine interposition can account for an event so marvellous. Every one of these three contentions must be rejected.

First: There is not so much as a hint in any pagan writer or philosopher that he was influenced by or even acquainted with the doctrines of a religion which is mentioned, if at all, only with scorn. Moreover, so far as characteristically Christian morals find a place in the pagan teaching, they are to be found there at a period antecedent to the birth of Christianity.

Secondly: While the miracles of Christianity won easy credence, it was not upon that ground that the creed was accepted. Miracles were the common property of all religions. The Fathers of the Church never thought of challenging the authenticity of pagan thaumaturgists' miracles or the utterances of pagan prophets and Sibyls. Miracles were accepted as a matter of course, with no more searching examination of evidence than the most ordinary phenomena.

Thirdly: The triumph of Christianity is quite simply explicable without resort to any supernatural agency. Religion, philosophy and morals were all in a state of disintegration, in need of a new co-ordination which was provided by the new religion in a most convincing and attractive form, and with a sanction of an unprecedented and most impressive order--that of exclusive salvation. It emphasised the amiable virtues most readily appreciated in a society which had wholly lost its original military character, while its votaries had presented innumerable examples, under persecution, of the highest heroism.

The Christian Society had moreover attained such a degree of disciplined organization that its annihilation was at the beginning of the fourth century the only alternative to its final complete domination; and the result was decisively assured by the failure of the great persecutions under Decius, Diocletian and Galerius.

THAT Christianity survived the persecutions is evidence of the intense vitality of the faith, but the fact calls for no supernatural explanation. The Roman empire tolerated all religions, subject to the due performance of rites demanded by the state religion. That proviso was resisted only by the Jews and the Christians, who were regarded as a Jewish sect. The Jews, an exclusive and not at all a proselytizing body, were officially released from the otherwise universal obligation; the Christians, essentially a missionary body, were not. To the state authorities the Christians appeared to form a secret society possibly treasonable and immoral, and as such they were also the objects of popular suspicion and dislike.

But it was only at intervals that the imperial authority took active measures for their suppression, though local authorities were frequently incited to enforce the penal laws against them by popular hostility. There were only two general persecutions, brief but terrible, in the first century under Nero and Domitian; for the next century and a half the persecutions were only sporadic.

Thus, by the time of Decius, who opened the era of terrific suppressions, the sect had become so extended, so powerful and so highly organized, that its extirpation was the only alternative to its decisive domination.

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