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Growth of Early Christianity in Rome

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  • 0:02 Early Christianity in Rome
  • 0:42 Persecution & Toleration
  • 2:56 Acceptance & Popularity
  • 4:13 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the experiences of early Christians under the Roman Empire, from their early periods of toleration and persecution to the conversion of Emperor Constantine.

Early Christianity in Rome

Have you ever had something grow far behind your wildest expectations? Perhaps a tomato plant in your garden grew quickly and gave you bushels of tomatoes, or perhaps you started a local campaign for a cause that was picked up by local or national media. Well, perhaps nothing has grown as quickly or as large in the history of humankind as the religion Christianity.

Today, Christianity is the largest religion in the world, and it's the most followed religion in some of the richest and most powerful countries in the world, such as the United States. In this lesson, we'll explore Christianity in its infancy, when it was under the thumb of the most powerful state of its day, the Roman Empire.

Persecution and Toleration

So important to the modern world is Christianity that we even tell time by it; the approximate birth of its icon, Jesus Christ, is considered year 0 of the current era. As such, Christianity began to be an issue for Roman authorities in the middle of the first century A.D., a few decades after the crucifixion of Jesus. For example, reports of civil unrest in Rome's Jewish population, fueled by disputes over the teachings of Jesus Christ, led the Roman emperor Claudius to expel all Jews from the city around 50 A.D.

During the first and second centuries, Christianity was a small and secretive religious cult whose monotheistic beliefs were unique in the polytheistic Roman world. Their uniqueness also made them targets and frequent scapegoats. For example, during the reign of Nero, Rome experienced an enormous fire, which consumed large portions of the city. Emperor Nero blamed the fire on the city's Christians, and the widespread persecution, torture, and murder of Christians ensued. Christians' suitability as scapegoats in Roman culture came largely because of their atypical religious beliefs. Their refusal to sacrifice to the various Roman gods or recognize the divinity some Roman Emperors claimed made Roman authorities suspicious of the cult.

However, persecution and suppression were not the only experience of early Christians in Rome. Indeed, Christianity was often tolerated in the Roman world. In fact, Christianity was only one of dozens of religious sects and cults that operated within the bounds of the Empire; Roman authorities could hardly suppress them all, nor was that what they necessarily wanted.

Instead, persecution of Christians often coincided with periods of economic or political distress when emperors or authorities needed someone to blame for the Empire's problems. Considering this, it comes as little surprise that some of the largest and most violent campaigns against Christians came during the tumultuous third century A.D. when Roman power was waning and political instability was rampant. The Emperor Diocletian at the end of the third century conducted a particularly brutal repression of Christianity, which some Christians still refer to as the Great Persecution.

Acceptance and Popularity

Considering this, it might come as a huge shock to hear that Christianity's greatest triumph in the Roman world came shortly after the Great Persecution, when the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to the religious cult! The conversion was a shock to the Roman world and was greeted by Christians across the Roman world as the triumph of the one, true Christian god over the old gods of the Roman Empire. Constantine was fascinated with the religion ever since he had learned about it, and the story goes that he decided to convert after receiving a Christian vision the night before a battle, instructing him to fight in the name of Christ and adorn his soldiers' shields with Christian symbols.

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