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Christianity and the Roman Empire - Part One

Posted February 8th, 2017 at 12:27 PM by Valens
Updated January 25th, 2018 at 01:47 AM by Valens


There has rarely been a question so popular and controversial among historians, researchers, philosophers and theologians, as the relationship between the Roman state and Christianity. Without doubt, the very importance of the matter for the world history makes it a heated, and sometimes even divisive subject among both scholars and laymen.
This blog post will provide my personal perspective on this particularly complex topic. It is not my aim to make it a scholarly work, rather a collection of my thoughts and conclusions, and in part, a summary of my convictions regarding the link between the Roman state and Christianity.
It is also my aim to explore this vast topic in a series of blog posts, starting with the short summary of the role of the Roman religion during the Republican era, the Principate and continuing with the period when Christianity had become a prominent religion in the Roman Empire. The later parts will try to examine the complex relation between the Church and the State in the centuries following Constantine's acceptance of Christianity, as well as the position of the Church in the Romano-Germanic West and the Greek East in the V and VI century.

Religion in the Roman world

The Romans, being a part of the wider Classical civilization that had developed in the Mediterranean basin, practiced a religion deeply rooted in ancestor worship. Originally, traditional Roman religion differed significantly from Greek and later Hellenistic syncretic religious cults that spread across the Eastern Mediterranean and areas of Middle East ruled by Successor Kingdoms following Alexander's conquests.
The Romans shared a religion similar to other ancient Italic peoples, especially Etruscans, from whom they had adopted many cultural patterns. Lares - Roman guardian deities, had a significant place in the Roman religion and their role had been closely intertwined with domestic, ancestral family cults practiced among the Romans.
One of the most important aspect of Roman religion was the role of the Lares as household deities. Traditionally, each Roman home had its own Lares - who acted as protectors and benefactors of the Roman family.
As the Roman religion developed, so did its relation with the Roman state. Under the Republic, the role of ancestor worship, for example, became very important in public and political life of the Roman elites. It had been a Roman custom to organize funerary games and processions in the honor of the deceased ancestors, and the practice of gladiatorial combat had developed as a part of elaborate funerary processions.
During the middle period of the Republic, prominent Roman families organized gladitorial combat as a mean of celebrating their departed relatives, while boosting their family prestige and displaying their wealth at the same time.
Along with the personal and social impact of religion in the days of the Roman Republic, there was always a political component. The very foundings of Rome are deeply rooted in the mythology of the Classical world. It becomes apparent from the works of great Roman writers such as Livius and Vergil.
In Vergil's epic work, The Aeneid, composed as a part of Augustus' attempt to revive the idea of traditional Roman religion and put it into the context of his newly achieved supremacy over the Roman state, it is evident that the beginnings of Rome are heavily linked with probably the most defining event in all of Ancient history - the Trojan War.
Here, the Romans trace their origins back to the legendary hero Aeneas, who escapes Troy together with a handful of exiles and starts a perilous journey across the seas.
Destiny plays an important role in the subsequent events, as Vergil makes it clear that Rome is predetermined to rise and avenge the destruction of Troy, and achieve supremacy over the whole Mediterranean civilization.
From the very beginning of Aeneas' journey, the Gods play a defining role in the fortunes of the exiles from Troy. Later, the special relationship between Rome and the Gods is one of the enduring themes of Vergil's work.
It is of great importance to understand the nature of the special bond between the Roman state and the Gods, that was of great importance to the Romans.
For it was of essential importance to the Romans to maintain a kind of cosmical order, in which the Roman state and Roman Gods were in harmony. This harmony, in turn, was achieved through sacrifices, as well as other rites, central to the Roman religion, and which assured that Rome would continue to enjoy divine support. To a superstitious and deeply traditional Roman mind, severing the link between the Roman state and the Gods meant the disruption of cosmical balance, the result of which is a calamity to the people and the state. Almost all aspects of public worship were linked with the notion of maintaining the balance between the Roman state and the Gods. Something which a modern man would undoubtedly consider to be superstitious and even absurd, presented a central point of practicing traditional Roman religion.
One of the best examples of the unique relation between the Roman state and the Gods is the role of Vestal virgins in the Roman religion. The Vestal Vergins not only embodied the purity of the Roman state and its link with the Gods, they represented the well-being of the state and were essential to maintaining the security of Rome. From this reason, harsh punishments were inflicted upon those who would tarnish the sanctity of the Vestal order, by failing to observe its sacred rules. One of the more famous things now known about the Vestals is that those who violated the sacred rules of their order were buried alive. This is partly incorrect, as the Vestals found guilty of being unchaste were entombed outside the sacred boundaries of the city - the Pomerium. Usually, the offending Vestal would be stripped of her attire, placed in funerary robes and carried to the tomb in a procession. The Vestals were never executed, but left in their tomb with an offering of food and water.
The offences of the Vestals were so grave in the eyes of the Romans, because they directly threatened the well-being and prosperity of the Roman state. If the Vestals were not true to their duties, the Goddess could withdraw her protection to the city, resulting in calamities for the people.
The Roman harbored almost paranoid fear of upsetting the Gods and the established balance in nature, a fear which stemmed from a deeply conservative and traditional worldview.
A good indicator of this often rigid commitment to tradition and the established order is that the Romans, unlike Greeks, did not produce uniquely revolutionary ideas in philosophy, art, architecture or religion, but build on the traditions established by others - including their rivals - and adapted them to a uniquely Roman mindset.

Always in search for omens, the Romans were careful not to disrupt the existing order in the world, and is partly due to this reason that at a later stage of their history, when Rome had expanded across the Mediterranean, that the Romans sought to preserve local customs, Gods and social hierarchy of the peoples they had conquered.
Yet, the Roman religion itself was subjected to changes. As the Roman Republic acquired new territories, it gradually expanded out of the confines of Italy, getting in touch with the Hellenistic world and its culture. By the time of the Late Republic, social and political climate had changed. During these tumultuous times, when the Republic was embroiled in a number of conflicts with other peoples around the Mediterranean, Rome was brought under the increasing cultural influence of the Hellenistic world.
It would be incorrect to either overestimate or undercut the extend of this influence. As open as the Romans were to outside influences, they always sought to preserve their traditional values, even when this became increasingly hard to achieve. During the Augustian era, Rome came under strong Hellenistic influence in art and literature. At the same time, Augustus tried to re-introduce traditional Roman values, that were undermined by long years of crisis in the I century before Christ. Augustus re-inforced the link between the Roman state and the Gods, placing himself and his family in the center of this relation.
One of the central themes in Augustian propaganda was the notion that Augustus had restored order and brought peace to the Roman world, while restoring traditional Roman republican values. The Principate era saw a period of political stability, however, social and political developments during this period have caused a slow but steady change in the very fabric of the Roman state.
No longer one of the city states vying for supremacy in Central Italy, or even a Republic with an Empire, Rome was now a power that had incorporated the whole classical Mediterranean civilization, and expanded out of its confines towards Germanic and Celtic areas of Europe. Thus, Roman society had begun a slow but steady transformation, which would eventually leave great influence on the traditional Roman religion.

End of Part One

The next part will examine the changes in the Roman world during the III century, the impact of Eastern mystery cults on Roman religion, and the relationship between the Roman state and foreign religions.
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