Christian Persecution Took Down Rome
Lessons learned from perseverance, Constantine & Constantinople
The goodness of Christian teachings attracted people to the new faith, prolonging their lives through better healthcare and by sustaining their procreation. The Roman state took a hit for being barbaric persecutors, serving only to attract attention to the appeal of Christianity.
We learn from history. It’s the one thing that doesn’t change. If little else can be agreed, most will agree that Jesus Christ was – and still is – a controversial historical figure. Persecuting Christians was the rule of the day. This is drawn from the most convincing evidence of a variety of sources (see “More Reading” below). Click map to enlarge for the Roman Empire in circa 300 A.D.
Christianity, the Roman Empire & Israel’s Place in It – Christianity began in Judae (Israel) with the birth of Jesus Christ in 1 A.D. and it spread through the eastern Middle East. Jesus was a Jew who taught God’s new covenant (New Testament). He was crucified by the Romans about 30 A.D. because His teachings and popularity posed a threat to the Roman state.
Roman religion was a variation of Greek mythology with gods residing over every undertaking. When Christianity hit the scene it was scattered and underestimated as an insignificant sect of the Jews. Christians believe Jesus Christ fulfilled the Jewish Torah’s (Old Testament) predictions of their promised Messiah (Savior). Constantine’s monumental influence on Christianity resulted in the first Christian church, the Roman Catholic Church.
I take exception to some representation made by this video but it’s a good foundation for how unlikely Christianity was to survive; and how Christianity overcame those odds. Constantine enters at minute 38:00. This depicts the development of Christianity, how Christians were socially misunderstood and how the faith flourished regardless of political persecutions under many Roman emperors leading up to Constantine.
Christianity Flourished Underground
Many Jews converted to Christianity. It was a faith open to all people regardless of religious beliefs or bloodline. Its teachings not only attracted people of various statures in life, it prolonged life through better healthcare and it sustained Christians’ procreation (summarized about minute 25:00).
Christianity flourished despite if not because of intense Roman oppression and horrific persecutions. Women played a particularly important role in protecting the survival of Christianity (about minute 21:00). Ironically the very nature of Roman persecutions intended to stifle Christianity brought more believers to it (minutes 17:28 and 25:00).
During the brief 50-years between 250-300 A.D. Christianity grew from about 1-million Christians in a population of 60-million to about 6-million Christians in roughly the same count 50-years later. Christians had become a power that could threaten the Roman state.
In 303 A.D. Roman Emperor Diocletian made a last effort to strike back at Christians and return Rome to its days of mythical gods and traditional religion. He demanded Christians adhere to the Roman tradition of sacrifice made to mythological gods. Roman sacrifices could be of incense, liquids, plants, or animals. It was a complex ritual performed in the presence of the community in front of the temple or in a private place in the house close to an alter.
Diocletian ordered all Christian writings and places of worship destroyed (minute 35:20). Christians lost their rights, they were imprisoned and many were tortured for not adhering to Roman laws. Being eaten by lions in the Coliseum or burning and crucifixion were common methods of death. Many Christians were imprisoned.
Some Christians gave in to the intimidation but it’s estimated about 5,000 died rather than betray their faith. Witnessing Christians’ willingness to die for their faith demonstrated impressive dedication. The Roman state took a hit for being barbaric persecutors of the devout, serving only to draw sympathy and attract attention to the appeal of Christianity.
Constantine The Great
I began this study with initial impressions of Constantine as a cruel Roman emperor. In further research I came to see him as a devout believer and benevolent servant of the Christian faith. Perhaps his conversion to Christianity changed him; perhaps initial impressions were tied to the era’s horrific persecutions of Christians or the bloody nature of Roman conquerers. The fact remains, some historical accounts are not kind to Constantine. I came to admire his devotion to Christianity.
Flavius Valerius Constantinus (Constantine) was born 280 A.D. He ruled from 324-337 after sharing a stint with Lucinius from 306-324. The Roman Empire’s successes had always hinged on their military might and knack for conquest. Their leaders’ names were made by winning wars.
Constantine’s father, Constantinus, was from an important Roman family. His mother was the daughter of a tavern-inn owner. When the Roman Empire was split into four parts in 293 A.D. Diocletian made Constantine’s father the emperor of Gaul and Britain. Constantine married Fausta, the daughter of Maximian who was another trusted officer and friend of Diocletian.
In 305 A.D. Diocletian stepped down and Constantine, despite being senior in rank, found himself a virtual prisoner of Galerius who’d served Diocletian well during his reign of Christian persecution. In 306 an overly confident Galerius let Constantine return to his father on a campaign to Britain. When his father died that same year the troops hailed Constantine as the new Augustus of Rome.
Galerius refused to accept Constantine’s new status but he faced strong support for Constantine as the son of Constantinus and because his wife’s father was the influential Maximian who’d returned to power in Rome. Galerius was forced to acknowledge Constantine as the new Augustus. While still residing in Constantine’s court Maximian turned against him in favor of his own son, Maxentius.
Some accounts describe Constantine as an autocratic ruler, a tyrant of absolute power who spent an abundance of money on military campaigns and who surrounded himself with pompous splendor. It was suggested that Constantine murdered his father-in-law (as well as his wife and son). Other accounts say his father-in-law, Maximian, committed suicide when Constantine revolted against him with no mentions of his wife and son.
At a conference of all ceasers and Augusti in 308 A.D. they demanded Constantine relinquish his title but he refused. About 310 A.D. Constantine decided to take Rome. He led a small army to the Alps for an important battle outside of Rome on the Tiber River, against his rival Maxentius, emperor of Rome from 278-312.
According to Roman historian Eusebius (263-339 A.D.), Constantine had a vision while staring up at the sky the day before his Tiber River battle. He reportedly saw a flaming cross above the sun with the words “In hoc signo vinces” (“in this sign you will conquer“). The video depicts this at about minute 38:55.
Constantine gave credit for his Alps’ military success to the Christian faith and is said to have entered Rome with Maxentius’s head on a pike. About 315 A.D. just outside the Roman Coliseum where hundreds of Christians lost their lives Constantine erected the triumphal “Arch of Constantine” and took control of the western half of the Roman Empire (about video minute 38:35).
Constantine inscribed his Arch with the third line of it reading “instinctu divinitatis,” meaning “to the inspiration of a divinity.” Christians were sure which ‘divinity’ Constantine meant and that led to free confidence in spreading their faith. Constantine’s embracement of Christianity had begun its launch into the official religion of the Roman Empire. [Click images to enlarge.]
Christianity under Constantine peaked with sweeping changes pulsating throughout the Roman Empire. He gave tax exemptions to Christian clergy and major amounts of land and money were given to the church. Christianity gained both physical and financial power. Under Constantine’s rule the church also became more efficient and centralized and his organizational skills ensured doctrinal decisions were reconciled.
Constantine’s bishops organized the new covenant texts and he relied on historians of the day to advise him which books were appropriate to become a part of the testaments and which were set aside. He is also given credit for distributing the first 50-copies of the New Testament. Universal enforcement of church decisions began with Constantine when he gave powers to and for the first time officially recognized Rome’s bishop.
[Abbreviated Rendering]: In 331 C.E. the Roman Emperor Constantine sent a letter, the text of which has survived, to Bishop Eusebius asking him to arrange for the production of fifty bibles. Books were to be skillfully executed copies of “the divine scriptures.” Eusebius was an advisor and confidant of the Emperor, widely regarded as the principal architect of the political philosophy of Constantine’s reconstituted empire. He knew Constantine was concerned about the unity of the church and the unity of the state. The inclusiveness of Athanasius‘* list has the look of political accommodation, resolving disagreement about the canonical status of Hebrews and Revelation by including both. Their publication was palpable evidence of the unity of the church and hence the unity of the empire. (*Athanasius was a theologian, ecclesiastical statesman & Egyptian leader.)
Constantine is described as becoming Pope-like and calling the first general ecumenical (worldwide) council in 325 A.D. to settle questions of church doctrine. The most important decision attributed to them is claimed the adoption of Nicene creed: The assertion that denial of Christ’s divinity was heresy and is said to have become the basis of all church doctrine from that time forward. Anyone who departed from the creed was branded a heretic. Commonly accepted events of this Council are held as misconceptions by some:
[Abbreviated Rendering] Constantine did not define the canon of the New Testament at the first Council of Nicaea in 325AD – in fact, the Council did not make mention of the Biblical canon. It was already defined by common use by the early 2nd century in the form in which it is still found in Catholic Bibles. Another little known fact is the Emperor Constantine had no voting power at the council – he was there merely as an observer. The full texts of the 20 Canons issued by the Council survive, as well as ancient summaries of the texts, and the famous Nicene Creed.
“And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16: 18-19)
Eusebius of Caesarea, a bishop and historian of the Council of Nicaea; and Augustine, a bishop and theologian, are said to have preserved successors of the Rome bishop:
Eusebius (260-339), The History of the Church, Book 3, 324 AD
“After the martyrdom of Paul and Peter, the first man to be appointed Bishop of Rome was Linus. … Linus, who is mentioned in the Second Epistle to Timothy as being with Paul in Rome, as stated above was the first after Peter to be appointed Bishop of Rome. Clement again, who became the third Bishop of Rome … to Miltiades.”
Augustine (354-430), Letters, No. 53, 400 AD
“For, to Peter succeeded Linus, to Linus, Clement, to Clement Anacletus, to Anacletus Evaristus, … to Siricius Anastasius.”
The ‘City of Constantine,’ Constantinople
By 323 A.D. Constantine had unified the Roman Empire and brought it under his control by defeating his eastern co-emperor and rival, Licinius. The once imperial capital of the Eastern Roman Empire was Byzantium, named after its legendary King Byzas with settlers going back to the Greek city-state of Megara around 667 B.C.
About 330 A.D. Constantine changed the name of Byzantium to “Constantinople,” meaning “City of Constantine.” Today the city is called Istanbul, a name it has maintained since its change in 1923.
[Abbreviated Rendering: Click to enlarge image.] “Stanbulin,” (Greek for “to the city”) once commonly found on road signs to the capital, was punned by devout Turks into Islambol, where “Islam abounds.” The names Islambol and Konstantiniye were used interchangeably in Ottoman documents up until the empire’s demise in 1923. Westerners continued to refer to the city as Constantinople well into the 20th century. In the 19th century, however, the city’s large foreign expatriate community took to calling the old city Stamboul. Western accounts of the old city during this period make regular references to the name.
According to a popular story for many years, the Byzantines did not refer to the city by its actual name, but, because of it size, simply as ‘Polis’ (the City), and when they wanted to say ‘to the City’, they said ‘eist enpolin’ (is-tin-polin), which was the (possible) origin of the name ‘Istanbul’. Recent research has shown that the name ‘Istanbul’ was used if not during the Byzantine period, at least during the 11th century and that the Turks knew the city by this name.
About the same time that Constantine changed the city’s name German tribes began invading across Europe. Europe plunged into the “Dark Ages” causing economic and political turmoil. Language barriers of the less expressive, dying Latin language and the more creative, predominant Greek led to the West’s eventual religious estrangement from the East. By the 11th century this resulted in “The Great Schism,” a separation between Constantine’s Western Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orhtodox.
Constantine died in 337 A.D. and realizing he was on his deathbed he asked to be baptized. After Constantine died the Roman Empire was divided up among his sons and Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire and beyond.
Paganism was banned at the end of 4th century and restrictions were placed on Judaism. The power and the wealth of the church grew quickly with the help of faithful Christians who donated their land and other possessions. By the beginning of the 6th century Christianity had 34 million followers and they made up half of the Roman Empire.
First Article in this Series: Christianity, the Roman Empire & Israel’s Place in It
More Reading: YouTube, Map of Roman Empire, God’s Word First, Constantine The Great, Facts And Details, About.com, Rome Tour Guide, Arch of Constantine, Encyclopedia, Britannica I, Encyclppedia Britannina II, Catholic Apologetics, Wikia.com, Got Questions.org, Nestorian.org, Sephardic Studies/Instanbul, Westar Institute, Misconceptions of the Bible, The Ecumenical Council at Nicaea