Constantine had changed the Roman Empire in many ways. He ended the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. He changed the laws to make them more acceptable to Christians. He even moved the capital of the Roman Empire away from Rome to the new city of Constantinople. In doing all of this, Constantine was trying to save the Roman Empire from destruction. Rome had been facing many very big problems for a long time. Its many wars and the size of its territory led to economic problems. The people of Rome had gotten used to living happy, easy lives and were unwilling to face hardship and suffer to keep their Empire alive. While Constantine’s reforms brought a new life to the Roman Empire, even he was unable to prevent its eventual destruction.
The Roman Empire went through a short period of new energy after Constantine. The people of the Roman Empire united around their new religion, Christianity. By the year 400, Emperor Theodosius had declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire and ordered the last few temples dedicated to the Roman gods to close their doors forever. Some of these temples were destroyed. Others were converted into Christian churches. Still others were closed up and forgotten about for hundreds of years.
The Romans also tried to solve their problems by dividing their Empire into two. There would be one emperor in the East in Constantinople and another in the West in Rome. They hoped that by doing this it would be easier for each emperor to rule over his territory and defend it from barbarian attacks. Unfortunately, this division of the Empire probably made the Empire weaker. While much of the wealth and military might of the Roman Empire came to be centered in the East in Constantinople, the Western Roman Empire grew poorer and weaker.
The last Roman Emperor in the West was a young boy, Romulus Augustus. He was six years old when he became Roman Emperor, leading the people of Rome to call him Romulus Augustulus, which means “Little Emperor.” He was unable to lead the Romans and defend the Italian peninsula from the barbarian armies coming in from the northern part of Europe. The adults around him were busy fighting each other for power and were too afraid and weak to lead the fight against the barbarians. As a result, the barbarians finally conquered the city of Rome and the rest of the Italian peninsula, the old heart of the Roman Empire.
At first, the barbarians who came in from the northern part of Europe to conquer the Italian peninsula pretended that Romulus was still in charge. Finally, in 476, the barbarian king Odoacer, who was actually in charge in Italy, decided to stop pretending. He sent Romulus away to live in a castle and declared that there was no longer any Roman emperor. Instead, Odoacer called himself “King of Italy.” The Western Roman Empire had finally fallen. The result of the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 was the beginning of the 1000 year period we call the Middle Ages.
1. What year did the Roman Empire fall?
2. Who was the last Roman Emperor?
3. What is the name of the 1000 year period which followed the fall of the Roman Empire?
As Christianity continued to grow, the Roman government continued to persecute Christians. The last and worst of the persecutions of Christians in the Roman Empire came in the third century. The Roman Empire suffered a series of military defeats by barbarians. There were also internal conflicts between powerful people who wanted to become emperor. In addition, a terrible plague had swept through parts of the empire and killed many people. Many Romans blamed the Christians for the wars, civil wars, diseases, and money problems of the empire. They believed that because the Christians refused to worship the Roman gods the gods had become angry with the empire and were punishing them.
As a result, the Roman emperors Decius and Diocletian each tried to wipe out Christianity entirely. In 250, Decius issued a law that said every Roman citizen must appear before a local government official and offer a sacrifice to the gods. Once a person did this, they would be given a certificate to carry with them. If they were stopped by the police and did not have this certificate they could be arrested and even put to death. After Decius’s death, Diocletian continued the persecution of Christians by ordering every Christian church in the empire destroyed and by burning copies of the Christians’ holy books.
There were other men in powerful positions, however, who were more kind to the Christians. One of these was Constantine, who was one of a group of men who were fighting each other to become emperor. While the others persecuted Christians, Constantine was more tolerant of them. In fact, his own mother, Helena, was a Christian. Although Constantine treated the Christians kindly, he did not decide to become one until a remarkable event the night before an important battle.
Constantine had been battling against a man named Maxentius for control of the Italian peninsula. Finally, the two men marched their armies out for one great final battle near the Tiber River, at a placed called the Milvian Bridge. The night before the battle, Constantine later told others, he looked into the sky and saw the shape of a cross. He then heard a voice say to him from the sky, “In hoc signo vinces,” which in Latin means, “By this sign, you will conquer.” Constantine immediately ordered his soldiers to paint the symbol of Christianity on their shields and on the banners they carried into battle. The next day, October 28, 312 AD, Constantine marched into battle against Maxentius and was victorious. Maxientius himself fell from the bridge during the battle and drowned in the Tiber River.
The next day, Constantine entered Rome and was greeted by cheering crowds. It was tradition for a conquering emperor to parade through the city to the temple of Jupiter. There, the conquering emperor was expected to dismount from his chariot and go into the temple to offer sacrifices to thank the king of the Roman gods for victory. Constantine shocked the people of Rome, however, by riding past the temple of Jupiter without even so much as looking toward it. Constantine was now emperor of the Roman Empire and had decided to become a Christian. He would be the first Christian Roman emperor.
The following year, in 313 AD, Constantine issued a new law called the Edict of Milan. This new law not only ended the persecution of Christians everywhere in the Roman Empire, it ordered that any churches that had been burned had to be rebuilt using the money of the Roman government and any property taken from the Christians had to be given back to them.
While Constantine did not outlaw the worship of the Roman gods, he did pass laws that showed favoritism to Christians. Now that Constantine was in charge, a person had to be a Christian to be promoted to the highest positions in government. Many who had formerly hated Christianity decided to become Christians.
Constantine also passed laws that made the empire more Christian in other ways. He outlawed practices that Christians did not like, such as using crucifixion to execute Christians. He also passed laws that made life easier for poor people, slaves, and women. In 324, Constantine even moved the capital of the Roman Empire away from the city of Rome to a new city named after himself, Constantinople. While Rome was a city filled with temples to the Roman gods, Constantinople was a city filled with Christian churches. Constantine was trying to remake the Roman Empire as a Christian empire.
After Constantine’s death in 336, there would only be one more emperor who was not a Christian. Julian, who was Constantine’s nephew, reigned as emperor for only two years. He was raised as a Christian but returned to worshipping the old Roman gods. Julian tried to bring back to old Roman religious beliefs, but it did not work. By the end of the fourth century, almost everyone in the Roman Empire had become a Christian. At the beginning of the fourth century, only about 1 in every 10 people in the Roman Empire was a Christian. At the beginning of the fifth century just 100 years later, only about 1 in every 10 people was not a Christian.
- Who was the first Christian Roman emperor?
- What did Constantine say he saw and heard the night before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge?
- What was the name of the law Constantine passed which ended the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire?
Polycarp of Smyrna was an early Christian bishop who was martyred, which means killed for his religious beliefs, in 155 AD. A Christian who witnessed the martyrdom of Polycarp wrote about it shortly after he died. The writings about the deaths of martyrs like Polycarp became very popular reading among early Christians remained popular reading for Christians for over a thousand years. Below is one section of the writing about Polycarp’s martyrdom. Polycarp has just been arrested and brought into the arena. Standing in front of the crowds there, he is questioned by a member of the Roman government.
Now when Polycarp entered into the arena there came a voice from heaven: “Be strong, Polycarp, and play the man.” And no one saw the speaker, but our friends who were there heard the voice. And next he was brought forward, and there was a great uproar of those who heard that Polycarp had been arrested. Therefore when he was brought forward the Pro-Consul asked him if he were Polycarp, and when he admitted it he tried to persuade him to deny, saying: “Respect your age,” and so forth, as they are accustomed to say: “Swear by the genius of Caesar, repent, say: `Away with the Atheists'”; but Polycarp, with a stern countenance looked on all the crowd of lawless heathen in the arena, and waving his hand at them, he groaned and looked up to heaven and said: “Away with the Atheists.” But when the Pro-Consul pressed him and said: “Take the oath and I let you go, revile Christ,” Polycarp said: “For eighty and six years have I been his servant, and he has done me no wrong, and how can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”
But when he persisted again, and said: “Swear by the genius of Caesar,” he answered him: “If you vainly suppose that I will swear by the genius of Caesar, as you say, and pretend that you are ignorant who I am, listen plainly: I am a Christian. And if you wish to learn the doctrine of Christianity fix a day and listen.” The Pro-Consul said: “Persuade the people.” And Polycarp said: “You I should have held worthy of discussion, for we have been taught to render honor, as is meet, if it hurt us not, to princes and authorities appointed by God. But as for those, I do not count them worthy that a defense should be made to them.”
And the Pro-Consul said: “I have wild beasts. I will deliver you to them, unless you repent.” And he said: “Call for them, for repentance from better to worse is not allowed us; but it is good to change from evil to righteousness.” And he said again to him: “I will cause you to be consumed by fire, if you despise the beasts, unless you repent.” But Polycarp said: “You threaten with the fire that burns for a time, and is quickly quenched, for you do not know the fire which awaits the wicked in the judgment to come and in everlasting punishment. But why are you waiting? Come, do what you will.”
In the beginning of the second century, Christianity found itself in a state of crisis. Christian believers, who all together are called “the Church,” found themselves threatened both from the outside as well as from the inside. From the outside, Christians were threatened by the Roman government and others who were very hostile to the message of Christianity. Inside of the Church, there were people who were beginning to teach different things from what the apostles had taught and were dividing Christians into different groups. The last of the apostles died at the end of the first century, so there was no longer anyone around who had known Jesus himself. A new generation of Christians began to take the positions of leadership in the Church to help it through this troubling time. These people are called the bishops, the apologists, and the martyrs.
The greatest problem facing the Church from inside Christianity was the rise of a variety of groups who had different beliefs and practices than other Christians did. The early Christians used the word “heresy” to refer to ideas that were different from those taught by the rest of the Church.
The Church needed leaders to decide what should and should not be believed by Christians, so they turned to their bishops. The word bishop comes from a Greek word that means “overseer” or “supervisor.” It was the job of the bishops to oversee and supervise the Church. The first bishops, Christians believed, had been chosen by the apostles. These bishops then chose other outstanding Christians to be new bishops. Each city had its own bishop to lead the church in that city. Some bishops of very large and important cities, such Alexandria in Egypt, Antioch in Asia Minor, and Jerusalem, were looked to as leaders even by other bishops. The bishop of Rome, the capital city of the Roman Empire, was especially important.
From the outside, the Church faced the threat of persecution by Roman authorities. Most upper-class Roman men did not like the message of Christianity. They thought it was dangerous for the Christians to tell women, slaves, and poor people that they were equal to rich men. They also thought the Christians were wrong not to worship the Roman gods. They believed the Roman gods would get angry with the people of Rome and punish them. Many Christians were tortured or even put to death by the Romans. A person who dies for their religious beliefs is called a martyr.
The first Roman emperor to persecute Christians was Nero. When a fire in Rome destroyed much the city, Nero blamed the Christians for setting the fire. He ordered Christians throughout the city of Rome put to death. Among the Christians martyred by orders from Nero were the leader of the apostles, Peter, and the apostle who wrote most of the New Testament, Paul. In fact, all of the apostles except John were eventually martyred. Later Roman emperors continued to persecute the Christians for almost 300 years.
Christians who were very educated tried to reason with the powerful Romans who were persecuting Christians by explaining Christian beliefs to them. These people, called apologists, wrote letters and books telling the Romans what Christians believed and trying to persuade them that Christianity was not dangerous to the Roman Empire. The Romans told many rumors about Christians doing bad things. The apologists tried to show why these rumors were wrong.
While most Romans thought the Christians were crazy for choosing to die rather than worship the Roman gods, many Romans were very impressed by how willing Christians were to suffer for their faith and become martyrs. By being willing to die for their beliefs, the Christians convinced many Romans to decide to become Christians as well. Through their work the bishops and the apologists defended the Church against those attacked it from outside as well as those on the inside who wanted beliefs to change. As a result, the Christian Church grew and became stronger even during these tough times.
- What two threats were Christians facing from the inside and outside?
- What is a bishop?
- What is a martyr?
- What is an apologist?
Heresy – beliefs that are different from the accepted opinions of the Church
Persecution – mistreating someone because of their religious beliefs