Romans and the Spread of Religions

The fear felt by ancient Romans against Christians was validated given the threat to stability in the empire. While modern-day beliefs portray Judaeo-Christian beliefs as an inevitable triumph of religions, it may not have always seemed this way. A current take on religion, views I consider myself to align with, often views Christianity as an end-all truth. However, it is very conceivable from a purely objective point of view that the early practices of the religion may have been viewed as a dangerous cult by the Romans. 

An import aspect to considering whether this fear was valid is the longevity of the Roman Empire prior to the rise of Christianity. Rome was founded somewhere around 753 BC, centuries before Christian ideals began to take root. During this time the city and its people saw countless rises and falls of various leaders and groups of people trying to take power and claiming their ideas as righteous. These constant shifts in power are summarized as “In the militaristic empire that was Rome, generals gained power. At first Rome’s military leaders were constrained by the aristocratic Senate and the general assembly of Rome, but later they themselves began giving the orders. Eventually their struggles for power would lead to civil war and the end of the Republic” (Spodek 176). With these many fights for supremacy leading to bloodshed, it makes sense why Romans would be weary of another group rising up with many supporters of their beliefs. Another idea to consider is that many elements of Christianity occurred far from Rome and the Roman citizens would not have seen firsthand what the first Christians were preaching. To them these statements may have seemed radical and a threat to the stability of the Roman empire. Hesitant to accept such an extreme point of view at this time from people who were from a distant land, Romans would seem validated to try and stamp out what at first glance looks like another radical group. With such a large amount of support gained so quickly, the Romans could also be fearful of a military takeover. As seen in preceding years, strong military powers could go as far as to create a civil war. An example of this can be seen about one hundred years prior: “The generals began to compete among themselves for power. At the highest level, the struggle between the generals Lucius Sulla and Gaius Marius precipitated civil war in Rome. To fight against Mithridates VI, king of Pontus (r. 120–63 b.c.e.), the Senate called Sulla. Marius, however, arranged to have the command transferred to himself. In response, Sulla rallied soldiers loyal to him and invaded Rome, initiating the first civil war (83–82 b.c.e.)” (Spodek 175). This quick takeover of power led to a civil war in Rome and the rise of Christians may have been seen to have similar potential. Another principle to consider regarding the Romans’ uneasiness with the Judeo-Christians is the introduction of a monotheisic religion, a change from the traditional polytheisitic view of gods in Rome. For centuries the Romans believed in many gods having power over the mortal world, and the introduction of a single God would have been a strange and unfamiliar concept to them. This may have led to more resistance against Christianity in the first introduction to Rome. 

Given the history of Rome and the unfamiliarity with Judeo-Christian principles, their actions to try and stamp out the religion appear justified. Rather than risk more civil conflict, the group could have been put down quickly. Overall this example highlights the tendency of groups of people to fear that which they are not familiar with.

– Matt Benedettini

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