After Jesus of Nazareth’s death, circa AD 0, everyone persecuted Christians. They were regarded as “New Jews” and were hated across the civilized world, better known as, “The Roman Empire.” (Kupstas) For 300 years after, Jesus’ followers were persecuted until Emperor Constantine made Christianity legal. Fortunately for the Christians, the real persecution did not begin until about AD 250 when Emperor Decius enacted a public sacrifice requirement. Though this was bad, the emperor after him, Diocletian, from 284 to 305, issued a series of edicts in direct attack of the Christians. After him came Constantine, who transitioned the Empire from paganism to Christianity. After Constantine came Thelodosius who made Christianity the official religion in 394. The transition from paganism to Christianity between AD 200 to AD 400 was the final dramatic series of events before the Roman Empire crumbled.
In AD 248, Decius of Danube was appointed by Emperor Philip to restore order to the Danube region, which was under attack by Goths, and Roman troops were in revolt. Decius successfully restored order to the region and then, under the full support of his army, marched to Italy to challenge Philip. Decius was defeated outside of Verona, in northern Italy. Soon after, he also killed the sons of Philip and scared the hell out of the Senate and they appointed him Emperor. Unfortunately for Decius, the Empire was in disarray. It suffered form “political instability, military and economic crisis, and the social upheavals in the Roman Empire during the third century,” not to mention “Gothic invasions in the Balkans and the Sassanian Persians in the East.” In an attempt to restore order and pride to the Empire, he required all Roman citizens to make a public sacrifice to the gods and himself. Anyone who refused to do so was punished by arrest, incarceration, or capital punishment. This began the persecution of the Christians on a large scale. Christians “had always been victims of urban riots,” but most persecutions were “spontaneous and local.” However, the Christians were used as scapegoats since their conception, as was shown by Emperor Nero in AD 64 when he blamed them for the fires in Rome. However, until Decius began his widespread persecution, Christians were a minor problem. Around the mid third century, Christians were becoming more powerful by gaining strength in the upper class, not just the lower class that it was formed in. As a result, many of the upper class Christians, including the Bishops of Rome, Jerusalem, and Antioch, were killed. There was a good chance that Decius could have destroyed all Christianity if it wasn’t for Kniva, King of the Goths. Decius was trounced at Beroea in his native Danube. By 251, persecution of Christians had slowed down due to Decius concentration on his army. By midsummer of that year, Decius became the first Roman Emperor to die in battle by foreign invaders. This ended the widespread persecution of the Christians for fifty-two years. (“Emperor Decius”)
From 251 to 284, the Roman Empire had many emperors struggling for power. Diocletian, the head of the Roman army, was made Emperor by his troops after Numerian was assassinated. Carinus, another general, challenged Diocletian for the crown. Carinus’ troops turned on him, and eventually killed him, paving the way for Diocletian’s throne. In 285, Diocletian was the Emperor of the Roman Empire. (“Emperor Diocletian”)
The first thing Diocletian wanted to accomplish was to restructure the wreck that had become the Empire. Diocletian knew it this was too large a task to tackle on his own, and created a tertarchy. “His first co-emperor was Maximan, whom he regarded as a faithful friend and military leader.” (“Emperor Diocletian”) He did not want to make the mistake made by previous emperors, specifically appointing untrustworthy people to high positions, and suffer their same fates. After he established a stable political system, he began to systematically begin social, economic, military, and religious reforms. (“Emperor Diocletian”)
Diocletian, and the entire Empire for that matter, regarded Christians as the source of all problems. However, since the Christians were both in hiding and gaining in numbers, he needed to remain furtive in dealing with his reforms. He reduced a soldier’s term of service to twenty years, restored coinage, and upped taxes on property and individuals. He also began to build new buildings and other structures, symbolic to a New Rome that would stand strong. As he enacted religious reforms, he slowly enacted anti-Christian laws. (Roman) In 303, he began to issue many edicts intend on decimated and destroying the Christian religion. These edicts required all Christian churches and documents to be burned, as well as the execution of all Christians, regardless of social status. In 305 Diocletian gave up the throne and retired to an island off the coast of Italy. (Emperor Diocletian)
From 306 to 312 there were many rulers all across the world. Each controlled his own segment of the Empire. One of these generals was named Constantine. (A History 198-200) Constantine was born in 280 to a pagan father and a Christian mother, and was known to be a drunk and a psychopath. (Turner) In 312 Constantine led his troops to battle at Milvan Bridge outside of Rome against Maxentius, the only man that stood between Constantine and Rome. Before the battle occurred, Constantine had a vision from God, who told him to put the symbol of Christ (the Greek letters chi and rho) along with the words, “in hoc signo vices,” which translates, “In this sign: conquer.” According to legend, Maxentius saw this sign on Constantine’s shield and helmet and threw Maxentius, fully armed, off of Milvan Bridge. Maxentius drowned in the river and Constantine acquired the crown. (“In this sign…”) However, the “sign from God” was most likely a rainbow and Constantine was probably intoxicated at the time. The sign itself is not important: the fact that Constantine believed it to be true is important.
Constantine converted to Christianity after the battle, but he did not want to reveal it to the Empire because he was afraid he would be overthrown. In 313 he issued the Edict of Milan, which made Christianity legal. (Art History) From 312 to 320 he kept his pagan high priest title of “Pontifex Maximus” and made Christianity legal, although paganism was still the official religion. From 320 to 330 he began to attack paganism and also build up Christianity. He combined pagan and Christian holidays; for example, Christmas (December 25) is the pagan holiday for the Sun god. It is insinuated that Easter and lent also fall on pagan holy days. Finally, beginning in 330, Constantine began to destroy paganism. He completely abandoned paganism, including things as “trivial” as taking pagan gods off of the faces of coins. He built churches while, at the same time, his mother was on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Her pilgrimage brought about many more like it for the next 2000 years. He built the largest Christian church on the planet: The St. Peter Basilica in Vatican City. (St. Peter) The city Istanbul was renamed Constantinople in honor or Constantine, and became the capital of the Christian Empire. (Christianity) Unfortunately, not all of Constantine’s laws to help Christians were beneficial to the Roman Empire. (Constantine)
Constantine established Sunday as an Imperial holiday. He also removed all treasure from pagan temples, built Christian churches, funded clergymen, and exempted The Church from taxes. His most drastic, and eventually the worst, decision made was the integration of Church and State. In 324, Constantine attacked his co-emperor and best friend Licinius because of his tolerance of paganism. (Constantine) He called 300 bishops to Nicea, outside Constantinople, and drafted the Creed of Nicea. This would later become the Nicene Creed. (Nicene)
After Constantine’s death in 337, many rulers followed. In 394, Christianity became the official religion of the Empire. (Christianity) In the following century, Rome was sacked twice. The Eastern Empire fell in the early 400s, and the entire empire crumbled in 476 when Romulus Augustus was overthrown. (Christianity) This was the end of the Roman Empire.
“Art History: Senior Seminar.” 14 March 2001. http://www2.students.sbc.edu/hill00/seniorseminar/summary4.html
“Christianity.” 15 March 2001. http://campus.northpark.edu/history/WebChron/Mediterranean/Christianity.html
“Constantine Converts to Christianity.” 15 March 2001. http://campus.northpark.edu/history/WebChron/Mediterranean/ConstantineConverts.html
“In this sign…” 27 March 2001. http://www.theologyonline.com/biblicalcoins/Bag55.htm
Kupstas, Katheryn. Personal interview. 14 March 2001.
McKay, John P., Bennett D. Hill, and John Buckler. A History of Western Society: Volume I – From Antiquity to the Enlightenment. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1995: 198 – 200.
“Nicene Creed.” 14 March 2001. http://www.horeb.pcusa.org/nicene/
“Roman and Pre-Roman Timeline.” 14 March 2001. http://www.montacute.net/histrenact/roman/timeline.htm
“St. Peter Basilica, Vatican.” 17 March 2001. http://seby.terrashare.com/italy/italy5.htm
“The Emperor Decius: 249 – 251.” 15 March 2001. http://campus.northpark.edu/history//WebChron/mediterranean/Decius.html
“The Emperor Diocletian: 284 – 305.” 15 March 2001. http://campus.northpark.edu/history/WebChron/Mediterranean/Diocletian.html
Turner, John. Personal interview. 14 March 2001.
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