World History 1 117 - 7.4.3 Christianity

Religious experiences in Rome were varied and diverse. In the first century CE, Christians joined this landscape, but their relationship with traditional Roman religion was often strained. Christians themselves did not form a cohesive group at first, but their general unwillingness to adhere to some aspects of traditional rituals often set them apart from mainstream religion.

Christians generally disapproved of animal sacrifice and worship of the emperor. Instead, their customs focused on prayer and meetings in house churches (proper churches and basilicas appeared in Rome only in the late third and fourth centuries). The emphasis on gathering for worship was important to the formation of a communal identity. Christians also participated in communal feasting, addressed each other as “brother” and “sister,” and adopted the practice of baptism. This initiation practice varied across the empire, but it focused on cleansing of the spirit and was performed by those in the church’s hierarchy, namely bishops or deacons.

Less concerned with the possible threat Christian beliefs might pose to traditional religion, Roman officials often viewed the new faith’s practices as a challenge to their worldly authority instead. For example, they characterized Christians as “atheists” because of their refusal to perform animal sacrifice, and a period of persecution singled this group out for punishment. The earliest record of such violence was made during the reign of Nero, when the emperor chose to punish Christians for a fire in the city of Rome in 64 CE. Over the next two centuries, local authorities grappled with what to do with Christian groups. For example, the letters of Pliny the Younger, a provincial governor in Asia Minor in the early second century, ask the emperor Trajan for advice about local Christians. Pliny writes that he has arrested and questioned those he suspects of being Christian; Trajan responds by telling him not to seek out the Christians actively but to punish those who have been caught and who do not renounce their faith.

Later, the persecution of Christians was formalized. The Edict of Caracalla in 212 extended citizenship across the empire but seems to have made everyone responsible for making sacrifices on behalf of the Roman state. The emperor Decius called for universal sacrifice in 250. As a result, it became a crime for Christians across the empire not to sacrifice to the emperor, with torture and death as likely punishments. Finally, persecution under the emperor Diocletian in 303–311 focused on destroying churches in favor of restoring traditional Roman cults.

The reign of the emperor Constantine ended this period of persecution. Following a civil war, Constantine attributed his victory in 312 to the Christian God, claiming to have had a vision of a cross (a symbol of Christianity) in the sky. The Edict of Milan he issued in 313 outlined a policy of religious toleration in which Christianity was no longer illegal and most traditional Roman religious practices could continue. Constantine also christened Constantinople as a new capital of the empire, decorating the city with images of himself and religious iconography.

In Their Own Words

The Martyrdom of Perpetua

The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity is a third-century diary begun by Perpetua, a Christian noblewoman, and completed after her death. Perpetua and her fellow Christians are sentenced to die during the games in Carthage, in celebration of the emperor Septimius Severus’s son Geta in 203. After surviving the arena, Perpetua wills her own death at the hands of the executioner as an act of martyrdom.

Perpetua was first thrown, and fell upon her loins. And when she had sat upright, her robe being rent at the side, she drew it over to cover her thigh, mindful rather of modesty than of pain. Next, looking for a pin, she likewise pinned up her disheveled hair; for it was not meet that a martyr should suffer with hair disheveled, lest she should seem to grieve in her glory. So she stood up; and when she saw Felicity smitten down, she went up and gave her hand and raised her up. And both of them stood up together and the (hardness of the people being now subdued) were called back to the Gate of Life. There Perpetua being received by one named Rusticus, then a catechumen [a recent convert to Christianity], who stood close at her side, and as now awakening from sleep (so much was she in the Spirit and in ecstasy) began first to look about her; and then (which amazed all there), When, forsooth, she asked, are we to be thrown to the cow? And when she heard that this had been done already, she would not believe till she perceived some marks of mauling on her body and on her dress. Thereupon she called her brother to her, and that catechumen, and spoke to them, saying: Stand fast in the faith, and love you all one another; and be not offended because of our passion. . . .

And when the people besought that they should be brought forward, that when the sword pierced through their bodies their eyes might be joined thereto as witnesses to the slaughter, they rose of themselves and moved, whither the people willed them, first kissing one another, that they might accomplish their martyrdom with the rites of peace. . . . Perpetua, that she might have some taste of pain, was pierced between the bones and shrieked out; and when the swordsman’s hand wandered still (for he was a novice), herself set it upon her own neck. Perchance so great a woman could not else have been slain (being feared of the unclean spirit) had she not herself so willed it.

—Perpetua, The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity

  • How would you characterize the martyrdom of Perpetua? Why?
  • What aspects of early Christian identity can you identify in the actions and words of the Christian martyrs?
This lesson has no exercises.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax