Catholics are often asked why the Church honors and venerates the early Christians with such enthusiasm. After all, we hear, these people died almost 2,000 years ago. What can we possibly learn from them? Their lives have nothing to do with ours. The martyrs lived in very different times from our own; there is no point thinking there is anything in their lives that apply to our own. But apologists—and informed Catholics—know that we look to the early Christians for a host of reasons. One that is often overlooked is the way the Christians conquered the Roman Empire—conquest not by the sword, not by imperial decree, and not by stealing pagan rituals and making them our own. The Christians waged a war of love and won. That war has greater relevance to modern Catholics than we think.
The staggering rapidity of the Church’s spread across the Roman Empire is attributable to many things, but as Catholics we recognize that the principle reason was the fact of the Church’s existence because of Christ. The Church shall not fail in bringing the gospel to all nations. That the Roman world was ready for the Church at the moment in history when circumstances, society, and communication were suited to its spread points to the actions of Providence.
At the time of Christ’s birth, the Roman Empire stretched from the North Sea to the Sahara Desert and from the coast of Gaul to Arabia. Rome provided the entire Mediterranean with a unified government and culture that enjoyed a time of peace and prosperity unmatched in ancient times. The structure of the empire not only assisted an energetic creed like Christianity. The empire was divided into highly organized provinces under assorted imperial officials or loyal local kings and rulers who held together a vast number of people, languages, and religions. This common political system permitted the Romans to impose their culture upon highly differing regions, to varying degrees of success and lasting influence. Christian missionaries could enter nearly any city and find a large segment of the population with whom they could speak either in Latin or, more often, in koine, the common Greek, the lingua franca of the provinces.
The provincial governments also contributed to the establishment and maintenance of the famed Roman roads, which connected Rome to the most distant provinces in Germany, Asia Minor, and Syria, offering easy transportation (these are the very routes used to such brilliant effect by Paul) and swift communication. Once established in towns, the Church was able to make use of the roads and the excellent postal service to stay in touch with their neighboring communities and with the see of Rome. The long years of peace—though occasionally interrupted by revolts and strife—were called the Pax Augusta (the Augustan Peace, after Emperor Augustus, the first Roman emperor). The pacified state of the provinces permitted Christians to go anywhere without fear of war and brigandage.
The economy of the period was vibrant, as the best elements of the Pax Augusta came together to promote trade and commerce. The provinces traded with each other, and the empire traded for spices and silk from such far-flung lands as Persia, India, and even China. Industries promoted the growth of populations in large cities, offering a perfect base for evangelization by Christian preachers. Such was the success of the faith within the cities that Christianity was to be a largely urban creed for the first centuries, reaching out to the rural sections of the provinces only after its solidification of the religion in the metropolitan areas. The thriving economy also enabled the early Christians to aid poorer communities in need and to make its first efforts at charitable works that were to earn the admiration of the most impassioned enemies of the faith.
Decay and Despair
As important as the social, economic, and political factors were, spiritual and religious upheaval and dissatisfaction were found among many segments of the Roman population and the empire’s subjects. While peace may have been the order of the day, and most lived without fear of invasion and civil unrest, there was a darker reality of existence under Roman rule. The insidious presence of tax collectors in the provinces represented a remorseless and impersonal administration intent on squeezing every last ounce of tax from its subjects to maintain forts along the frontier, pay the troops, and run the central bureaucracy in far-away Rome. The pitiless system of justice imposed very harsh sentences. Two of the worst were crucifixion and exile to the iron, silver, and minerals mines. Few, if any, came back from servitude in the mining pits.
For the Romans themselves, much in society was seriously troubled, starting with Augustus’s successors. A sound Roman noted for his honor and stern moral probity, Augustus was followed in 14 A.D. by a series of eccentric and even demented emperors. Tiberius (r. 14–37), who reigned during Christ’s mission, Gaius Caligula (37–41), Claudius (41–54), and Nero (54–68) each presided over the rapid decay of Roman morality and sensibility. Nero launched the first persecution of Christians—scapegoats for the great fire in Rome in 64—and put Peter to death on Vatican Hill.
The masses were placated by the panem et circenses (“bread and circuses”). Extravagant gladiatorial competitions were staged in the amphitheaters, chariot races were held in the circuses, and parades of exotic animals were led through the Eternal City for the amusement of the crowds. There were city baths to visit—a status symbol of Roman culture in the larger towns and cities across the provinces—the great fora (including the Forum Romanum in Rome), inns, and shops offering the goods of the empire.
Still, there was little consolation to be found in daily living, and pessimism and quiet despair pervaded first-century Rome. The crowded, filthy streets and quarters did little to promote health and hygiene, and life was short. Most of the population lived in tenements called insulae, tall residential blocks that were susceptible to fire and were breeding places for disease. Abortion was a common practice; babies were often exposed to death for convenience; slaves lived in hopeless servitude and at the whims and caprices of their masters; men, women, and children died from starvation in the midst of plenty or from the lack of common charity.
Moral indignation was expressed in the works of the writers of the period, especially Tacitus (d. c. 120), the last of the great classical historians, who expounded upon the sad state of Roman society; Suetonius (d. after 103), whose biographies of the first twelve emperors are rife with the sordid and lurid details of their crimes and eccentricities; and Petronius (first century), an enigmatic writer whose chief work, the Satyricon—preserved only in fragments—is a record of the worst excesses of Roman behavior.
Old Gods, New Cults
For those who found these struggles too much to bear, suicide was an accepted practice, but a less drastic solution was to turn to philosophy or the wide range of religions, gods, magic, astrology, and mystery-enshrouded cults that grew in the cities and towns.
The Roman Empire did not have one all-encompassing religion. Rather, there were a host of competing faiths and cults. The closest they came to a state-sponsored, empire-wide creed was the Imperial Cult, organized worship that venerated the emperor and the state. The imperial rulers were considered divine. This deliberate policy was especially useful in the eastern part of the empire, where ruler-worship had long been a part of life. While intended to consolidate the prestige and power of Rome and to reduce local gods and dynasties, the Imperial Cult was so obviously a political institution that it had little religious meaning, although its social value and adherence were considerable.
Throughout the provinces, though, old gods and belief systems lived on. In Rome, despite Augustus’s his efforts at a genuine religious revival, the ancient Roman religion had ceased to offer any spiritual comfort—despite the legacy of temple sacrifices and the presence of mammoth temples in the Eternal City. Roman religion was so entwined with the regime of the emperors that its spiritual authority had been irreparably undermined by indifference and cynicism. Why, a Roman might ask, should he offer sacrifices to a divine emperor who had only recently been assassinated or whose perversions and dementia were so obvious? It was hardly surprising that much of the population turned to other systems of belief and philosophy for peace of mind and fulfillment.
The intellectual population often looked for consolation in the pursuit of philosophy. Among the most popular of the period were the Cynics, Stoics, and Epicureans. Naturally, the retreat into the philosophical life was an activity reserved for the upper classes, who could afford its demands on time and who had the education needed to appreciate its nuances. For the rest, the desperate search for contentment led to shallow cults and obsessions with fortune-telling, astrology, and secret mysteries.
Romans had always been receptive to the arrival of new gods. Only rarely, as with the shocking rites of the Phrygian priests of the goddess Cybele—who prayed themselves into frenzy and then castrated themselves before the gathered faithful—were laws promulgated forbidding certain sects or cults to propagate in the city. Such was the enthusiasm with which the Romans embraced any new god that many Romans worshiped at the shrine of the unknown god in order to ensure they had not missed someone important. It was to this unnamed god that Paul referred when he spoke to the Greek philosophers in Athens (Acts 17:22–23).
Despite the disapproval of Roman traditionalists, the cults flourished, most notably those from the East, including the cults of Mithras, Isis, Cybele, and Osiris. Ultimately, they won lasting support among only certain groups. Mithras, for example, was largely a cult for Roman soldiers. The cults, of course, were fleeting efforts at happiness, and Romans moved from one to the next.
A Stark Contrast
The Christian faith, though, was something truly unique in the experience of the ancient world. Catholics who encounter claims that Christianity was simply a cult that attracted a very large following can point out decisive differences between Christianity and the cults:
- The Church was not rooted in legends and myths imported from the East.
- The Church was founded by a living historical person who had been known personally by many leaders of the first century.
- It did not require the extreme rituals and secret rites like those practiced by the cults of Cybele and Mithras. The former cult lured its devotees into mysteries steeped in sex magic and mysteries of the flesh, and the latter demanded that an initiate perform a mock human sacrifice or ritual murder.
- The Christian faith asked of its faithful a deep and abiding morality, self-control, and personal responsibility with a call to personal salvation and repentance that stood in stark contrast to the loose morality of the times.
See the Christians
The world was remarkably prepared—socially, politically, intellectually, and spiritually—for the teachings of Christianity, but the growth of the Church across the Roman Empire can be attributed, above all, to the Christians themselves. Each Christian considered himself to be a member of a body of believers acting with zeal and sincerity, which was ever an encouragement to tell others of the new life they had found for themselves. Their ardor found its fullest expression in the fact that they were willing to suffer arrest, humiliation, torture, and even death for their beliefs. This inner resolve was not lost upon the population at large or the magistrates and officials charged with carrying out their imprisonment and executions.
Another influence was the conviction on the part of Christians that theirs was the one, true religion, a faith that would not and could not permit interest in the old pagan rites or cults. This infuriated the cults and the Roman conservatives who saw the refusal of the Christians to offer sacrifices to the gods and take part in the Imperial Cult as treasonous. But the rigorous self-discipline of the Christians heightened their appeal to those citizens who wandered from cult to cult.
The Christians also possessed a strong sense of unity. Their devotion extended not only to their own leaders but to the wider community of the faithful across the Church. Most notably, there was fidelity and genuine regard for the see of Rome, where, as all knew, Peter had been crucified.
The final major factor in the Church’s rapid expansion was the clear Christian example of humanity, decency, morality, and charity. The Christians cared not only for their own but for any who came to them for aid. Houses were opened to the poor, food was distributed, and, when possible, money was gathered for the needy churches in other regions. Paul mentions such a charity drive in Romans (15:26–27). From these earliest days, the Church acquired its well-deserved reputation for charitable labors.
Even during the time of the persecutions, there is a nearly unbroken record of Christians manifesting the best of human behavior, the brilliant radiance of kindness in a world where such concern was largely unknown.
For Catholics living in a modern world that increasingly resembles ancient Rome, we need look no further than the first Christians for our role models. By our commitment, our zeal, our unity, and our love, we, too, can conquer our increasingly pagan world. Authentic Christianity—preached by the apostles, lived by the faithful, and demonstrated at every opportunity by the early Christians—had a secret weapon used to great effect by the Christians against the hard Roman government. Ours can be the same: the love of Christ, summed up in the oft-heard declaration “See the Christians and how they love one another.”