For first 300 years following the death of Jesus, Christianity grew, but Christians suffered persecution under the cruel Roman Empire. How did it then grow to become a dominant, global religion? What was the miraculous turning point for Christianity? The Ancient Romans worshipped a collection of gods, most borrowed from the Ancient Greeks – Zeus became Jupiter, Aphrodite became Venus, etc. Rome was full of pagan temples where the favor of the gods was sought through various rituals and festivals.
As Rome grew throughout the Mediterranean, it encountered new religions – tolerating a few, and persecuting most. Jews were victimized after the Roman conquest of Judea. Christianity was therefore born in the Roman Empire after Jesus of Nazareth was crucified in Jerusalem. His disciples, Peter and Paul in particular, then spread his new religion into the towns and villages of the vast Roman Empire.
At first, Romans ignored these ‘Christians’ as there were not that many. Over the next two hundred years though, Christianity grew and spread across the Mediterranean. When Germanic barbarians began to attack the empire from the north, many Romans blamed the Christians, saying they angered the gods by not worshiping them.
Roman emperors became increasingly intolerant of Christianity.
They saw the new religion as a threat to the Empire and took steps to stop its spread. Christians refused to serve in the Roman Army and worship the Emperor as a god. So Christians were arrested, beaten, and killed. Those willing to die rather than give up their beliefs became martyrs of the faith. Despite these persecutions, Christianity continued to grow.
The first empire-wide persecution was by the infamous Emperor Nero. Nero was already unpopular by the time of the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD. He supposedly had the fire started to make room for a new palace, then fiddled while Rome burned. Rumors spread that the Emperor was behind the fire, so Nero blamed the Christians! He had them arrested, tortured and executed. The terrible image comes to mind of Christians being fed to the lions in Rome’s Colosseum. Nero also had the Apostle Peter executed in Rome, crucifying him upside down on a cross.
Over the next 200 years, subsequent Roman Emperors attempted, yet failed, to destroy the growing Christian religion. So when and how did the winds change in favor of Christianity?
It began with the arrival of the Constantinian Dynasty. In 306 AD, Constantine I rose to ‘Emperor in the West’ upon the death of his father Constantius. At this time, the Roman Empire was split into Western and Eastern halves with ‘co-emperors.’ Constantine and his brother-in-law, Maxentius were bitter rivals for control and war eventually broke out. Before the two met in a fateful battle in 312 AD, Constantine is said to have had a vision of Christ in a dream the night before.
According to the priest Eusebius, Jesus appeared to the Emperor with a flaming cross in the sky.
He instructed Constantine to place this heavenly sign on his army’s battle standards. A vertical spear with a crossbar to form the shape of the cross, along with the chi-rho labaran, an early symbol of Christ’s name, the letter rho intersecting by chi at the center. Included on the banner were the words: In hoc signo vinces [In this sign, thou shalt conquer]. The next day, he had his soldiers paint a cross on all their shields. Armed with these holy symbols, Constantine crushed Maxentius in the Battle of Milvian Bridge in northern Rome, securing his place as sole western Emperor. Maxentius drowned in the Tiber River.
After his army won, Constantine believed that it was the Christian God who had helped him! Though previously a worshipper of Sol Invictus, the Sun God, he now zealously supported Jesus and Christianity. He declared that his victory was owed to the Christian God and changed imperial policy to advance the religion.
He gave money and land to the Christians and founded new churches throughout the Empire. He wrote to Christian bishops, telling them that he owed his success to their faith. Constantine eventually converted to the faith, becoming a Christian himself. He was baptized just before his death, as was the custom of the early Christians. To be ‘cleansed’ of sins just prior to death, rather than at birth.
At a meeting of bishops in Milan in 313 AD, Constantine issued the EDICT OF MILAN which granted legal status for Christianity and tolerance to all religions. This allowed Romans of all faiths to have religious freedom. Christians were now freely allowed to take part in Roman civic life. The Catholic Popes, then Pope Sylvester I, exiled by prior Emperors, were allowed back in Rome.
The Emperor of the East, Licinius, maintained support for traditional pagan customs, upholding the backing of his non-Christian majority. By 324 AD, this conflict and rivalry came to a head with another war. Constantine defeated the Emperor Licinius in at the Battle of Chrysopolis (in modern Istanbul). Licinius was captured and Constantine had him hanged.
With Constantine’s victory, he became the sole Roman Emperor and advanced Christianity.
He let Christians serve in the military and work in the government. Money was granted from the Imperial treasury for construction. New churches were built around the empire. This included a new Basilica in Rome, carefully built on Vaticanus Hill, on the site of Nero’s circus, where the Apostle Peter had been martyred by the Emperor.
When Constantine moved the Western Roman capital to Byzantium, he built the first Christian churches there. The Hagia Eirene and Hagia Sophia, were built on the sites of former pagan temples. Greek Byzantium was renamed Constantinople. His mother, Helena, embarked on a pilgrimage to Palestine. There she helped establish the Church of the Nativity at Bethlehem and Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. For this and other deeds she was later canonized a Saint.
In 325 AD, Constantine called the COUNCIL OF NICAEA, a gathering of 300 Christian bishops from across the empire. They met (in present day Turkey) to determine the formal—or orthodox—beliefs of Christianity. The result was the so called Nicene Creed, which laid out the agreed upon beliefs of Christianity. The Council of Nicaea discussed the state of the Christian church and developed important doctrines to counter pagan ‘heretical‘ ideas.
After Constantine’s death in 337 AD, his heirs mostly continued the advance of Christianity, with the Popes in Rome now allowed to head the church. During their reigns, many anti-Pagan laws were put into place, dealing with dissent often in a brutal Roman fashion. While Christianity grew naturally in popularity, it was also forcibly expanded upon the Empire’s population across the Mediterranean and west into what would become France, Spain and Britain.
ln 380 AD, Emperor Theodosius I made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.
An ardent Christian, he recognizing the amazing growth and power of the still young faith. Theodosius’ EDICT OF THESSALONICA was the final word on any controversies in the early church. For example, it set in stone the orthodoxy of the Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Those ‘madmen’ of the old pagan religions, who didn’t accept this were suppressed and of course, persecuted. Most other Christian sects were deemed heretical, lost their legal status, or were outlawed and had their properties confiscated.
So there you have it. By the beginning of the 5th century, after just 400 years, Christianity grew from a fledgling, persecuted religion into a power, on near equal terms with the Roman Emperors. All due to the legacies of Jesus of Nazareth, his fervent disciples, and Constantine the Great. The Roman Empire would soon decline, but the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches [which separated in 1054] would only rise from there. Christianity would slowly come to dominate the entire western world. It would spread across kingdoms in Europe and Russia, and into the American and African colonies of the Spanish, French, Dutch and British. Today it globally surpasses Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.