From Pagan Rome to Christendom
OF ANCIENT world empires none had more glory and power than Rome. At its peak it reached from Spain on the west to the Persian Gulf on the east, and from Egypt on the south to Britain on the north. Yet in time it declined and fell. Out of its ruins came Christendom.
Ancient Roman history may well be divided into three periods: the monarchy, from 753 to 509 B.C.E.; the so-called republic, from 509 to 27 B.C.E., and the empire, from 27 B.C.E. to 476 C.E.
From Romulus to Julius Caesar
According to Roman tradition, the first king of Rome was Romulus who began to rule in 753 B.C.E. After Romulus six more kings are said to have ruled. Then, in 509 B.C.E., the Romans overthrew their Etruscan king, an outsider, and established a so-called republic.
Once Rome had become strong enough to ward off enemy attacks its rulers engaged in wars of expansion. By 133 B.C.E. Rome had subdued Greece, Macedonia, Carthage (in North Africa) and the province of Asia.
Later Julius Caesar rose to power through the liberal use of his wealth, by his great military exploits abroad and through defeating rivals at home. He was the last strong man in the republic and wielded authority from 49 to 44 B.C.E.
From Augustus to Claudius
Julius Caesar was assassinated by suspicious and envious nobles. His death led to further wars of rivalry. The eventual victor was Octavian, the great-nephew and adopted son of Julius. In 30 B.C.E. Octavian subjugated Egypt. This marked the beginning of Rome as the sixth world power of Bible history. Secular historians, however, generally count the beginning of Rome as an empire from the year 27 B.C.E. In that year Octavian received the title “Caesar Augustus,” Augustus meaning “exalted, sacred.” Augustus ruled for some forty years, from 27 B.C.E. to 14 C.E. He was in power when King Herod ruled Palestine for Rome and Jesus was born in the Judean town of Bethlehem.—Matt. 2:1; Luke 2:1.
Augustus was followed by his adopted son, Tiberius Caesar, who ruled from 14 to 37 C.E. This period of rule included the three and a half years of Jesus’ earthly ministry. (Luke 3:1, 23) At that time the governor Pontius Pilate represented Rome in Judea (and Samaria) and the tetrarch Herod Antipas represented Rome in Galilee and Perea. During the closing years of Tiberius’ reign true Christianity began to be spread throughout the Roman Empire by believing Jews and Jewish proselytes returning to their homes from the feast of Pentecost at Jerusalem in 33 C.E.—Acts 2:5-11, 41, 42.
Tiberius adopted as his son Gaius, nicknamed Caligula. This adopted son became mad and was murdered by his palace guard after reigning four years. Succeeding him was Claudius (41-54 C.E.). He is mentioned at Acts 18:1, 2 as issuing a decree expelling the Jews from Rome. His fourth wife, Agrippina, who was also his niece, prevailed upon Claudius to name her son by a previous marriage as his heir instead of his own son Britannicus. She later poisoned Claudius, bringing her young son Nero to the throne.
From Nero to Trajan
Nero ruled from 54 to 68 C.E. While today there is some doubt that he set fire to Rome, he did use that conflagration as an excuse to persecute Christians. One of the methods reportedly used by Nero was to wrap Christians in garments covered with pitch, fasten them to poles and then set them afire to light up his gardens during the evening festivities. Quite likely the apostle Paul met martyrdom during Nero’s reign, about 66 C.E. That year also saw the fanatical Sicarii wipe out the Roman garrison on the Masada. This started the war between the Jews and the Romans, which was to end seven years later on the same spot.
The next three emperors (Galba, Otho, Vitellius) ruled six months, three months and about a year respectively, each in turn meeting a violent death. After these came Vespasian, who ruled for ten years, from 69 to 79 C.E. He had replaced Gallus as the leader of the Roman legions fighting against the Jews. When he was chosen as emperor he left his natural son Titus in charge. Vespasian was succeeded by Titus as emperor. During his two-year reign (79-81 C.E.) the famed Colosseum was completed. Mount Vesuvius also erupted at that time, destroying Pompeii as well as other cities.
Domitian, the brother of Titus, repeatedly plotted against him. It may well be that he caused the death of Titus. Domitian then ruled from 81 to 96 C.E., and revived the official persecution of Christians. He is said to have been the first emperor to command that during his own lifetime he be worshiped as Dominus et Deus (Lord and God). According to tradition, toward the end of Domitian’s reign the apostle John was banished to the Isle of Patmos, John there receiving the Revelation.
Domitian was followed by Nerva, who ruled but a year and a half. He was one of the better emperors of Rome and incurred the hostility of many because of his just policies. He repealed the law Domitian had enacted against the Christians. But, because of the animosity of the pagan religionists to the Christian evangel, this did not in itself cause all persecution of Christians to cease. Then, too, Christians were unpopular because they were so different. They refused to worship the emperor, to mix in politics, and to go to war. Their way of life and their evangelizing zeal caused them to be viewed as opponents of Judaism and a threat to all who profited from pagan religions.—Acts 8:1; 9:1, 2; 12:1-5; 18:12-17; 19:23-41.
Trajan (98-117 C.E.), who followed Nerva, continued Nerva’s wise and just policies, and so did his successor Hadrian (117-138 C.E.). Hadrian is reported to have been one of the most able emperors Rome ever had. He instituted an apparently just system of taxation and greatly ameliorated the lot of slaves. He issued an edict forbidding Roman officials to pay any attention to the public denunciations directed against Christians. This edict stated it to be his pleasure that no Christians should be put to death except such as had been legitimately accused and convicted of some crime.
It is noteworthy that the Roman emperors who ruled best also were generally the most tolerant of Christians.
The Persecutors Marcus Aurelius and Diocletian
The following reign, that of Antoninus Pius (138-161 C.E.), the adopted son of Hadrian, quite likely was the most peaceful of all. Marcus Aurelius ruled next (161 to 180 C.E.).a During this period, the second century C.E., Rome saw its greatest expansion—covering an area of three and a half million square miles and boasting a population of some 55 million people. However, Aurelius’ rule was marred by floods, fires, earthquakes, plagues of insects, insurrections, wars of conquest and persecution of Christians. Soldiers returning from his military campaigns brought with them a deadly plague that killed many throughout the empire.
Marcus Aurelius was an ardent religionist. When passing through Greece he had himself initiated in the Eleusinian mysteries. At the age of eight he was a Salian priest. In the last reliefs of his triumphs he was still shown as a priest at the sacrificial altar. Considering his religious fervor, one can appreciate why he was a persecutor of Christians throughout his reign.
Aurelius was also a man of military prowess. He himself led his soldiers into battle, years at a time.
His “Meditations” were supposed to have been a guide for his son Commodus. But Commodus, who ruled from 180 to 192 C.E., turned out to be one of the sorriest of all Roman emperors. He was contemptuous, tyrannical, bloodthirsty, extravagant and so vain in his physical prowess that he commanded that he be worshiped as the Roman Hercules. Several of his intended victims, however, made sure that he died first.
With Commodus the Roman Empire entered its period of decline. His assassination did not end bad government but was followed by a century of anarchy and confusion. During one sixty-seven-year period, of twenty-nine emperors and claimants to the throne, all but four died by violence. Also during these years Christians were bitterly persecuted by Decius (249-251 C.E.) and Valerian (253-260 C.E.). These persecutions ended with the death of the emperors that instituted them.
Diocletian (284-305 C.E.) made a desperate attempt to restore the empire to its former glory and power by despotic means. He wore a royal diadem and borrowed from the East elaborate court ceremonies to give him a mysterious sanctity in the eyes of the people. Toward the end of his reign he began the terrible persecutions of Christians that lasted for some ten years (303-313 C.E.), the persecutions being continued by his successors.
Constantine Makes Roman Empire “Christian”
For some twenty years thereafter, rivals of Diocletian waded through seas of blood in their battles for supremacy. Finally in 324 C.E., Constantine “the Great,” upon becoming undisputed ruler, set about to reunite the empire. (Diocletian had divided it, he ruling the East, and Maximian the West.) To achieve his ends, Constantine gave “‘barbarian’ kings to the beasts, along with their followers by the thousand,” and found reason to kill one of his wives and one of his sons.
According to a myth or legend, Constantine, while engaged in one of his wars for supremacy, had a vision or dream in which he saw the sign of a cross with the words, “by this sign thou shalt conquer.” This is said to have inspired him to success. He moved the capital of the Empire from Rome to Byzantium and renamed it Constantinople (City of Constantine). He professed conversion to Christianity but was baptized only when on his deathbed.
The so-called “Edict of Milan,” by which Constantine and his coruler Licinius were supposed to have granted Christians freedom of religion, was nothing more than a letter which Licinius addressed “to some government official in the East, commanding him to see that the edict of Galerius was carried out in a thorough manner.” Galerius had been the one to influence Diocletian to persecute the Christians. Just before his death, however, Galerius saw either the injustice or the futility of it all and he (Galerius) issued the edict granting freedom of religion.
Disappointed that professed Christians were divided doctrinally, Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea with the hope of unifying them. He himself presided. Noting that the majority favored the doctrine of the Trinity, as expounded by Athanasius, he ruled it to be the law of the Empire. Constantine then banished Arius and those who believed as he did. (Arius held that Jesus Christ was no part of a coequal trinity but had been created by God and was subordinate to Him.)
Constantine made Roman Catholicism the religion of the Roman Empire and persecuted those who disagreed with it. Says Jesuit theologian McKenzie in his book The Roman Catholic Church (1969), “I understand Roman Catholicism to begin with the conversion of Constantine.” The Church, instead of being persecuted, became the persecutor. Concerning this a modern historian writes:
“The fourth century was a period of astounding growth of the Christian Church. The century opened with the persecution of the Christians, still a small minority of the population, by a pagan emperor. At its close, Christianity was the sole official religion of the empire, . . . protected by a Christian emperor who issued persecuting laws against . . . all who departed in any way from the accepted doctrines of the state church.
“But this rapid growth was not all pure gain to the church. The influx of great numbers of the indifferent or self-seeking inevitably lowered the general average of morality and religious zeal in the church, while at the same time introducing non-Christian elements into its doctrine and practice.”—A Survey of European Civilization, Ferguson & Bruun.
After Constantine to the End of the Empire
After the death of Constantine in 337 C.E., there followed a period of much internal strife as the Roman Empire continued to decline. Roman emperor Julian (361-363 C.E.) turned against the religion that had been forced upon him and sought to reestablish paganism as the state religion. Before his death he had to admit his failure. But, as far as his principles were concerned, they appear to have been superior to those of many who professed to be Christian emperors. During the rule of Emperor Theodosius (379-395 C.E.) Roman Catholicism was made the state religion and all others were outlawed.
As secular administrations grew weaker due to moral decay and “barbarian” invasions, the Roman bishops kept exercising more and more power. Thus after Alaric, the Gothic king, sacked Rome in 410 C.E., Innocent I, bishop of Rome, took the lead in the reconstruction of the city. At the same time he insisted that all Western bishops recognize him as head in matters of worship.
Leo I went even further in this direction. He might be said to have been the first real pope, for Emperor Valentinian III conferred upon him jurisdiction over all bishops in the Western Empire.
In 476 C.E., King Odoacer (Odovakar), a general of German descent, deposed the Roman emperor Romulus Augustulus and left the throne vacant. Thus after five hundred years the ancient Roman Empire came to an end; that is, as far as its Western wing or segment was concerned.
Rome was the most powerful of the ancient world empires. It was also the most widespread. In the Bible it is pictured as a “beast, fearsome and terrible and unusually strong. And it had teeth of iron, big ones.” (Dan. 7:4-14; 2:36-44) Why, then, did it weaken and fall? One historian described its decline as “the greatest problem in history.”
The decline and fall of Rome, however, presents no problem to persons familiar with Bible principles. Jesus said that a “house divided against itself will not stand.” (Matt. 12:25) Certainly divisiveness and internal conflicts hastened the decline and fall of that empire. The Bible also says that “whatever a man is sowing, this he will also reap.”—Gal. 6:7.
To quote N. F. Cantor’s Medieval History: “There were some very ugly sides to the life of the Roman world, which classicists usually prefer to ignore: an enormous slave population, vast urban slums and terrible poverty, the widespread practice of homosexuality.” To these must also be added gross licentiousness and avarice; voluptuous feasting, wanton cruelty, revolting religious practices and glaring political corruption. Is it any wonder, then, that Rome came to its end?
a During the years 161 to 169 Marcus Aurelius shared “imperial powers in full equality” with Lucius Aurelius Verus.