Christianity Under the Roman Empire


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Description
There is no way to sum up the Christian experience under the Roman Empire. It moved from anonymity to tolerance to persecution to legalisation to established status to persecutor. Another complication is that the progress of Christianity in the Western and Eastern Empires was very different. It is best to divide the period into long centuries:

First Century (33-96AD) The Empire had only come into being in 27BC and this was its early golden period. Christianity was too small to have much impact on the Empire, although Emperor Nero did persecute the Christians in Rome, during which St Peter probably met his martyrdom. Christians were still seen as Jews and persecuted as such by Emperor Domitian. There is little evidence for the nature of Christianity at this time outside the (largely Jewish Christian) New Testament texts.
Second Century (97-192AD) This is the period of the Flavian Dynasty, when the Roman Empire experienced stable government, relative peace on its borders and cultural development. Christianity is still relatively small, but faces both internal strife with "heretics" and persecution from local governors. This is the period when Christian theology begins to flower. It also sees Christianity become almost exclusively Gentile. Christianity is strongest in the East, but there are strong Western pockets in Rome and North Africa.
Third Century (192-311AD) The collapse of the Flavian Dynasty led to a period of unstable government, revolt and constant war on the Eastern borders, with many provinces falling temporarily out of Roman control. In the middle of this century Emperor Decius launches the first Empire-wide persecution of Christianity (249-251), targeting the bishops. This is later (257-258) reinstated by Emperor Valerian and extended to all Christians of noble birth. The worst persecution (303-311) came under Emperors Diocletian and Galerius, when Christian adherence became a capital offence. This was a period of spectacular Christian growth in Asia Minor (Turkey) and North Africa, although Western Europe remained largely pagan.
Fourth Century (312-395) this century opens with Emperor Constantine declaring Christianity legal and ended with Emperor Theodosius declaring it the religion of the Empire (despite the West remaining largely pagan outside Italy, Spain and North Africa). This is the period of church councils called by Emperors to settle disputes over the Trinity.
Fifth Century (395-475) Christianity lasted as the Roman Imperial religion for less than a century. The Western Empire was in a state of collapse throughout the period, Rome was sacked twice and the Western Empire came to an end in 475, It was at the time of this Western turbulence that the Christological debates were settled by church councils.
Byzantine Empire (475-1453) the Roman Empire survived in the East for nearly another millennium until it was finally vanquished by the Turkish Empire. This led to the consolidation of the Eastern Orthodox tradition.

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Source Texts
Texts in Latin

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Other Resources


Stuart Hall, Doctrine and Practice in the Early Church, SPCK
Alistair Kee, 1982, Constantine Versus Christ, SCM



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Links

Chronology of the Roman Empire 

End of the Western Empire

Illustrated History of the Roman Empire

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