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Christianity: A Scary Subject for the Romans

The Romans did have reason to be afraid of early Christianity when it sprung up from the eastern parts of the empire. At the time of Christianities rise in the Roman empire, the thought of there being only one God was preposterous to the average Roman. The government had reason to believe that a change to the status quo would cause a legitimate threat to the empire and the values it had been accustomed to.

Religion in the Roman empire was almost exclusively polytheistic. Both the original religion found in Rome and most of the religions practiced by the conquered people contained multiple gods. Although the religions were not the same they could be related somewhat and the differences would be thought of as a difference of opinions and not too much to overcome. The Jews and Christians, on the other hand, were a different story. Their beliefs held that there was only one God and that to believe in any other gods was a sin.  Pliny said of the Christians who refused to denounce their religion “Those who persisted I ordered executed. For I had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished.” (Pliny, Letters 10.96) Christians refused to accept the Roman belief that there were many gods. The Romans saw this as a form of resistance that was not acceptable to their imperial form of government.

In the eyes of the Romans, Christians were an extremist offshoot of Judaism that was not well understood and was even more rebellious than the original Jews. Christians practiced a form of worship known as communion where they ate bread and drank wine that was supposed to symbolize the flesh and blood of their holy figure Jesus Christ. The Romans did not understand that the symbolic blood and flesh were edible food and drink. Rumors spread across the empire that Christians were cannibals whose religion required them to consume other humans. Another custom that made the Christians looked down upon by the common Roman was that they called fellow Christians “brother” or “sister” even if they were not related. Christians would call their spouses their brother or sister in Christ and people thought that meant that Christians would marry their relatives. 

Another reason the Romans feared the Christians was that they were spreading throughout the empire so quickly. Christianity required very little from its members. Its doctrine had emphasized that everyone could be saved if they accepted Christ in their lives. This appealed to the poor because in Roman religion the gods would be good to you only if you sacrificed to them, and most of the poor were unable to perform these sacrifices. Roman citizens were converting in great numbers to Christianity and if not combated could upset the established religious and cultural norms.

Today Christianity has become the mainstream religion in the West and it is difficult to see it as something to be feared. However, the early Christians were a strange new group that was not necessarily bad but disrupted the established order. Christianity in the Roman Empire was a misunderstood and rebellious religion that rightfully caused fear in the Romans.

-Seth Hanson

Word Count: 531

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