In the days of the Roman empire, it is certainly understandable why the rapid spread of Christianity was not viewed favorably by many Romans. Since the beginning of the empire, the Roman’s embraced polytheism. However, the rise of Christianity posed a great threat to the longstanding norm of polytheism that had been an established form of religion in the empire for so long.
By the polytheistic Roman religion, the more one gave to the gods, the more favorably one was believed to be viewed by the gods. This encouraged the social class barrier that was prominent between the rich and poor. Because slaves were unable to give as many sacrifices, they were not viewed as favorably as the rich. Additionally, this prevented poor people from being able to serve in religious positions of authority. This religion kept the empire stable by enforcing the separation between the rich and poor. However, Christianity differs greatly from the established Roman religion, thus it is no surprise that many viewed it as dangerous. Christianity allows for all to partake in it regardless of wealth, thus not only could slaves and the poor participate, but they were able to hold positions of power. This certainly would cause some concern amongst the Romans, as they may have feared a slave revolt due to their access to power through Christianity. Another alarming aspect of Christianity for the Romans was likely the practice of the Eucharist. While Christians view the Eucharist and the body and blood of Christ in the form of bread and wine, many Roman’s likely viewed Christians as cannibals, further promoting the idea that Christianity was a dangerous cult.
With Christianity rising at an incredible rate, some were taking action to prevent its spread. Pliny the Younger, in his letter to the Emperor Trajan, writes, “I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; 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 10.96-97). Pliny shows the urgency to put down Christianity, as he was ordering confessing Christians to be executed. Another alarming aspect of this for the Roman’s is that some Christian’s were so firm in their faith that they were willing to die in the name of Christ. This certainly would not help the Roman’s cause, as non believers would be much more likely to convert after seeing that some believed so strongly that they were willing to die for it.
Overall, I think the Roman’s had a right to view Christianity as a dangerous cult, but I think they did a poor job overall of investigating what Christians actually believe. It would not have taken much effort for them to figure out that Christians are not promoting slave revolt or cannibalism. Christianity threatened the longstanding cultural norms of polytheism, thus it is understandable that many Roman’s were alarmed at the rise of Christianity.
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