Chapter 7 The Roman World

Section 5 The Crises of the Empire and the Rise of Christianity

The end of the reign of the Five Good Emperors showed signs of the troubles to come. Military difficulties began on the Danube frontier, as Germanic tribes began to press against the empire’s borders. Plague brought back by the army from the east ravaged the empire. In Rome itself, famine stalked the populace. Soon, the empire was best not only by challenges from outside, but by a growing rot within.

The Crisis of the 200s

When Marcus Aurelius decided on his successor in 180 A.D., he failed to show his usual wisdom and foresight. Although his four predecessors had all chosen their successors based on ability rather than ties of kinship, Marcus Aurelius decided on his weak, spoiled son Commodus. Commodus proved to be a disaster for the empire. According to Dio Cassius, a contemporary Greek historian, after Marcus Aurelius’s death the Roman Empire degenerated from “a kingdom of gold into one of iron and rust.”

            During most of the 200s, the empire experienced confusion, economic decline, civil wars, and increasing military pressure on the frontiers. Between 235 and 284, for example, 20 emperors reigned. All but one died violently. From 226 onwards, the eastern borders of the empire were threatened by the new Persian dynasty of the Sassanids. Replacing the weak Arsacids, the Sassanids challenged Roman control of the eastern provinces, adding a second front to the already restless western frontier, where Germanic tribes continued to test the empire’s defenses. From then on, military considerations became so increasingly important for the empire that ultimately it became a kind of military monarchy. The Emperor Septimius Severus, on his death bed in 211, had only one piece of advice for his successor: “Enrich the soldiers and scorn all other men.”  

Internal decline and reform. The growing insecurity of civil wars and barbarian invasions affected many aspects of Roman life. Brigandage and piracy reappeared and travel even within the bounds of the empire became hazardous. Merchants hesitated to send goods by land or by sea. It became difficult to collect taxes at a time when military needs required them in ever increasing amopunts. In 212, the Emperor Caracalla granted Roman citizenship to all free people of the empire. This was a logical conclusion to the movement of progressive inclusion of the inhabitants of the empire in the Roman identity, but it also had a more practical affect—only citizens paid inheritance taxes and the emperor needed more money.  

Inflation. As taxes rose, however, the value of money declined. Since Rome had ceased to expand, military conquests no longer brought in new sources of gold. Indeed, gold was actually disappearing from the empire as it was paid out to foreign merchants for the luxury goods of China and India. To maintain the money supply, emperors minted new coins containing copper and lead as well as gold. When people realized their coins had less gold in them, they refused to accept them at their face value and merchants raised their prices. The result was growing inflation in the empire. In some regions of the empire inflation became so severe that people stopped using money altogether and reverted to barter.

            These conditions caused important changes in the social order. The traditional hierarchy of authority, as well as the general values of imperial society, changed. The Senatorial elite, for example, lost its privileges and influence. Emperors filled the Senate with their own followers, especially men from the army. Roman society now divided between two orders: the honestiores, senators, knights, soldiers, and members of the city aristocracies who received legal privileges; and the humiliores, or everyone else in the population, who held an inferior position in society. Individual freedom and private initiative, whether in commerce or politics, were subordinated to the needs of the state.

Intellectual and emotional responses. The destruction of the old imperial order and prosperity generated an important psychological crisis in the Roman Empire. In an increasingly hostile world, many people took refuge in intellectual escapism, embracing either intellectual idealism, mysticism, or more personal forms of religion. The spiritual malaise that settled over the empire could not be solved by the Romans’ own cultural values. For all its achievements, the Pax Romana had presided over a cultural vacuum, while spirituality had in a sense atrophied. The old civic religion was unable to comfort people in this crisis since it cared little about emotions or inner feelings.

            As people looked for comfort, they soon turned to new philosophies and religions from the east. The philosophy of Plotinus (ca. 205-270 A.D.), which mixed Platonism with mysticism in a new system called Neo-Platonism, illustrated perfectly the intellectual mood of the times. Rationalism, the great intellectual achievement of the Greek world that Rome had embraced, lost its appeal in the prolonged crisis of the 3rd century. Plotinus urged people to find fulfillment not in this world, but in some transcendent world of the spirit. But Neoplatonic philosophy was the recourse of the intellectual elite, above all of the leisured classes of the empire. The mass of the people took refuge in more emotional movements.

            Magic, alchemy, the effort to transform common metals into gold, and astrology had always been part of popular culture in the ancient world. From the 3rd century onward, however, they became increasingly prevalent with the majority of the population as people sought some means to regain a sense of control over their lives. Magicians, astrologers, and exorcists, who offered to cast out evil spirits from peoples’ lives, particularly appealed to a population that had remained largely rural and untouched by urban Greco-Roman culture.

            The 3rd century also witnessed the resurgence of mystery cults, eastern religions that promised personal salvation while at the same time offering a sense of community and brotherhood among the members of the cult. Hellenistic cults experienced a tremendous surge of popularity, along with relatively new variations. Mithraism, for example, a cult that developed out of Zoroastrianism in Persia, became particularly popular among soldiers in the empire. It stressed masculine virtues of comradeship and bravery. Other popular cults were those of Isis, from Egypt, and Cybele, from Asia Minor, which both worshipped mother goddesses and welcomed all devotees, whether women or men, free or slave. Among these other sects, one in particular emerged as the most resilient and adaptable—a cult that had sprung from Judaism and that was called Christianity.

The Rise of Christianity

Roman Judea. As Rome had expanded into the Hellenistic kingdoms of the eastern Mediterranean world, one of the territories the empire had absorbed was that occupied by the Jews - the regions that had once comprised the ancient Hebrew kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Under the Persian Achaemenid empire, many Jews had returned from their exile in Babylon and rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem, the center of their religion and their sense of identity as a people. With the overthrow of the Persian Empire by Alexander the Great, however, things had begun to change. 

By the end of the 4th century BC, Jerusalem and its surrounding territories had become caught up in the great power rivalries of the Seleucid dynasty, based in Syria to the north, and the dynasty of the Ptolemies, based in Egypt to the south. According to one scholar, for example, "between 319 and 302 BCE, Jerusalem changed hands seven times."[4] As the two competing Hellenistic kingdoms fought over the region, life became increasingly insecure for the Jews. In addition to the physical challenge of being a battleground for contending armies, they also experienced increasing challenges to their traditional sense of religious and cultural identity from the forces of Hellenization.

As might be expected, as the local Jewish population tried to survive through this period of turmoil, some tried to insure their security by attaching themselves to one side or the other. As a result, two competing parties emerged among the Jews, one pro-Ptolemy and the other pro-Seleucid. The two factions soon fought each other as much as they fought the Ptolemies and the Seleucids. 

In 198 B.C., the Seleucid ruler Antiochus III finally defeated the Ptolemies and firmly established Seleucid control over Jerusalem and the surrounding Jewish territories. In the aftermath of this victory, Antiochus and his successors increasingly pursued deliberate policies of Hellenization in the region in the hope that cultural assimilation of the local population would strengthen their rule. Even before the victory over Egypt, Hellenistic practices and ideas had begun to infiltrate the Jewish population from Antioch, the Seleucid capital. The pro-Seleucid party in particular had begun to embrace the culture of their patrons during the long struggle against the Egyptians. Hellenization, however, involved ideas and practices that traditional Jewish authorities viewed as abominations. In addition to polytheism, for example, the Greeks glorified the beauty of the naked human form. The center of Greek social life was the gymnasium, where men gathered to exercise, bathe, discuss politics and philosophy and generally to socialize - usually in the nude. Traditional Jewish teaching, on the other hand, expressly condemned the public exposure of the human body and in certain cases even forbade it on pain of death. Even more challenging, as a part of the general Greek reverence for the human body, Hellenistic culture found the ancient Hebrew and Jewish practice of circumcision to be equally abominable - seeing it as an act of willful self-mutilation of what should be respected as a perfect form. (Ironically, Jewish tradition itself recognized the sacred nature of the physical form and also objected to other forms of 'mutilation' such as tattooing and piercing of body parts. Circumcision was a unique exception because it represented the 'sacrifice' by which the covenant between God and the People had been ratified.) 

As more and more Jews actually began to absorb Hellenistic thought and practices, a virtual civil war divided the Jewish community as each side struggled for control of the nation as a whole. 


Judaism in the Hellenistic era. One of the most important areas in which Greek and eastern conceptions of religion and philosophy came together was in Judea, where many Jews had returned to Jerusalem under the Persian empire and rebuilt the Temple of Solomon. Like other elites in the Hellenistic world, the Jewish elite soon became fascinated by the Greek culture of the Seleucids and Ptolemies. As they began to accept Greek culture, however, Hellenized Jews also tried to transform the ancient Jewish religion. Under King Antiochus IV for example, they obtained the status of a Greek polis for Jerusalem and renamed it Antioch. According to the First Book of Maccabees, written about 100B.C.: 

“Lawless men arose in Israel and seduced many with their plea, “Come, let us make a covenant with the gentiles around us, because ever since we have kept ourselves separated from them we have suffered many evils”. . . . Thereupon they built a gymnasium in Jerusalem according to the customs of the gentiles. . . . They joined themselves to the gentiles and became willing slaves to evil-doing.”[1] 

Circumcision and celebration of the Sabbath were both prohibited, and even the Temple was for a time turned into a shrine to Zeus.

            Such actions soon brought a reaction from more conservative and traditional Jews. Eventually, the Jewish people rose in revolt and established a conservative Jewish kingdom under the Hasmonean (Maccabee) dynasty. As the Hasmonean kings expanded their realm, they forcefully converted surrounding peoples to Judaism. At the same time, however, Judaism itself became increasingly diversified.[2]As Judaic traditions mingled with influences from other religious traditions of the region, new doctrines concerning a final day of judgment, resurrection of either the body or the spirit, heaven and hell, and the coming of a Messiah, or “Annointed One” to save the Jewish people from their enemies, all became a part of the increasingly diverse body of Judaism.

The same situation continued for a time under Alexander, after his conquest of the Persian Empire. Under Alexander's successors, however, the territory of the Jews became a source of contention between the Hellenistic kingdoms of the Seleucids, with their capital in Antioch, and the Ptolemies, who ruled Egypt. of Judah, which had been re-established by Cyrus the Great at the time of the rise of the Persian Achaemenid Empire. Based around the re-built Temple in Jerusalem, the kingdom had been absorbed by Alexander and subsequently by the Hellenistic kingdoms that succeeded him. 

The cult of the Christians had begun among the Jews in Judea during the reign of the emperor Tiberius. Sometime during Tiberius’s reign, a rabbi, or Jewish teacher, named Jesus was denounced by the leaders of the Jewish Temple priesthood as a blasphemer and a danger to the community. Turned over to the Roman authorities, Jesus was eventually crucified and then buried. What followed the burial, however, became the subject of not only endless dispute between Jesus' followers and his critics, but also the beginning of a new religion.

            For most in the Jewish community, Jesus was an impostor who had not only claimed to be the Messiah, that is the redeemer chosen by God to liberate Israel from foreign rule, but even more seriously the son of God. Such claims not only threatened the traditional Jewish leadership, but also the stability of what had been a particularly unruly Roman province since 6 A.D. Both Romans and Jewish leaders could agree that Jesus was too great a nuisance to be tolerated.  

Jesus of Nazareth. In fact, we know little of Jesus' life. He wrote nothing that we know of, and apparently nothing was written about him during his lifetime. Our knowledge comes almost exclusively from the first four books of the New Testament of the Bible—the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

            According to these gospels, Jesus was born in Bethlehem, near Jerusalem, and grew up in the town of Nazareth. His family traced its roots to King David, the ancient king of Israel. Although he apparently learned the trade of carpentry, he was also a student of the writings of the Jewish prophets. In time he began to preach a message of religious renewal and warning. As he traveled through the villages of Judea, he gathered a small group of disciples, or followers. According to the Biblical account, he created a great deal of excitement by performing miracles of healing, and by defending the poor and the oppressed in Jewish society.

            Jesus apparently had no intention of creating a new religion or even breaking with Jewish tradition. Rather, he and his followers saw him as a reformer whose coming had been prophesied by the Hebrew prophets. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus said “Don’t misunderstand why I have come—it isn’t to cancel the laws of Moses and the warnings of the prophets. No, I come to fulfill them, and to make them all come true.” Judaism, he taught, had become too bogged down in legalism and meaningless ritual. The spirit of the Mosaic law, Jesus insisted, was more important than the letter of the law. At the heart of this law, he argued, was a universal message of love and brotherhood.

            Jesus laid down two primary rules for his followers: they must love God above all else: and they must love others as they loved themselves. In addition, he emphasized the values of humility and charity. These Christian ideals were perhaps best expressed in the Sermon on the Mount, as described in the Gospels: 

“Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn: for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek: for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness: for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful: for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart: for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers: for they will be called sons of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness: for theirs is the       kingdom of heaven.”  

According to the Gospels, which reflected the beliefs of the Christian community of the late 100s A.D., after being crucified Jesus rose from the dead, spent another 40 days teaching his disciples on earth, and then ascended bodily into Heaven. His followers believed that the resurrection and ascension proved that Jesus was the Messiah and the son of God, indeed, they believed he was God himself come to earth as a man in order to redeem the sins of humanity. They called him Jesus Christ, after the Greek word for Messiah—Christos.  

Early Christian doctrine. The resurrection became the central message of Christianity. Through the death of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who had died for the sins of humanity, Christians taught, all people could achieve redemption and salvation, the promise of everlasting life with Christ in Heaven. Jesus' disciples soon set out to spread this message.

            At first, however, the disciples worked mainly in the Jewish communities of Palestine. They too were persecuted by the Jewish authorities, and some were actually killed. With the promise of everlasting life, however, such deaths were seen by the early christians as martyrdom, a voluntary suffering of death for the sake of the faith; such examples only inspired others to be strong in their own faith. As martyrs calmly confronted death, even many non-believers were impressed by their conviction that they would be resurrected and achieve immortality as Jesus had promised. Still, had it not been for the work of a Hellenized Jew named Saul of Tarsus, Christianity might have remained a sect of Judaism. 

Saint Paul. Born in the town of Tarsus, as a young man Saul actually worked for the Jewish leadership persecuting Christians. During a trip to Damascus, however, he apparently had a conversion experience and actually became a Christian himself. Taking the name of Paul, he convinced the original disciples of Jesus in Jerusalem that Christ had given him a special mission to convert not fellow Jews but the non-Jews, or gentiles. With this mission in mind, Paul soon transformed Christianity into a universal religion with a message that transcended any particular people. Paul’s Epistles, or Letters, to the Christian churches he helped establish throughout the eastern Mediterranean, and even in Rome itself, later became an important part of the New Testament, those writings which early Christians eventually accepted as inspired by God for the teaching of the faith.

            Finding that Mosaic regulations such as circumcision and food prohibitions were hindering missionary work among non-Jews, Paul eventually dispensed with them as requirements for Christians. In their place he emphasized certain new doctrines that distinguished Christianity from Judaism. Above all perhaps, Paul established the doctrine of original sin—the idea that since Adam and Eve had first disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden, all human beings were born sinful. It had been to redeem this sin that God had come to earth as Jesus. This he had done by dying on the cross, acting as the ultimate sacrifice to bring human beings back into a state of grace, or communication with God. Since human beings were too full of sin to be an acceptable sacrifice, only a sinless person could do so for them— this became known as the doctrine of the vicarious atonement. Paul emphasized the uselessness of human beings trying to achieve their own salvation alone—their only hope, he taught, was Jesus. Nor were human beings deserving of salvation. It was only God’s grace, or love, that saved them, even though they were unworthy.  

The Spread of Christianity

The spread of Christianity was also served by a progressive decline in the vitality of Hellenism. Stressing the intellect and self-reliance, Greco-Roman thought did not provide for the emotional needs of the people. This aspect was to become crucial in the eventual triumph of Christianity  in the 3rd century, and even in the first two centuries A.D. it attracted many new followers. Similarly, the Christian message of love on earth and eternal life after death regardless of social position or wealth appealed to the poor, the oppressed, and the enslaved. All were welcomed and many were attracted by the sense of community the new cult offered. At the same time, the emphasis on Jesus as the savior removed the need for elaborate self-discipline, such as that taught by the Stoics, with their similar philosophy of universal brotherhood.

            The Roman tradition of religious toleration and the climate of peace and stability in the early years of the empire also contributed to the spread of Christianity. Missionaries , for example, benefited from the easy communications within the empire. Moreover, during the first several centuries after Jesus’ life, outright persecution by Roman officials was rare. Most emperors were indifferent to the new religion, although some saw the Christian refusal to worship the state gods in addition to their own as a potential threat to civic order. Christians might become the objects of scapegoating, as the Emperor Nero did when he tried to deflect criticism from himself for the burning of Rome and laid the blame on Christians instead. More usual, however, was the attitude displayed by the Emperor Trajan in a letter of instructions to Pliny, the governor of Bythinia-Pontus in 111-113:  

“They [the Christians] are not to be sought out; or if they are denounced and proved guilty [of refusing to offer sacrifices to the state gods], they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it —that is, by worshipping our gods—even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance. But anonymously posted accusations ought to have no place in any prosecution. For this is both a dangerous kind of precedent and out of keeping with [the spirit of] our age.” 

Christianity and Greek philosophy. Christianity, a religion that had its roots in the religious traditions of southwest Asia, was based on revelation and faith. Such roots were largely alien to Greek philosophy, which instead emphasized reason. Some early Christian thinkers wanted to keep the two traditions completely separate. Tertullian, for example, declared: “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem, the Academy with the Church? . . . With our faith, we desire no further belief.” But many Christians thought otherwise, and tried to reconcile the Christian ethical creed with the categories of Greek philosophy and Greek rationalism. In doing so, they transformed Jesus' teaching into a theology, or methodical formulation of knowledge about the nature of God, his laws, and his requirements of human beings. This process of transformation and amalgamation of Jewish religious traditions with Greek philosophical traditions is often called the Hellenization of Christianity.

            The process of Hellenization in Christianity was facilitated by the nature of two of the most popular philosophies of the time: Stoicism and Platonism. The Stoic teaching that all people are fundamentally equal because they share the universal spark of Divine Reason, the Logos, could be formulated in Christian terms—that they are all united in Christ. Even the language of Greek philosophy was borrowed by some Christian writers, as in the opening passage of the Gospel of John: “In the Beginning was the Word [Logos in the original Greek], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

            For Christians, the Word referred to Jesus. For Stoics on the other hand, the use of the term Logos in this context made equally good sense. Similarly, Stoic ethics that stressed moderation, self-control, and brotherhood could just as easily be seen in Christian revelation. In Platonism too, which drew a distinction between a world perceived by the physical senses and a higher order open only to the intellect, or spirit, Christian thinkers often found a congenial vehicle for expressing Christian beliefs. The perfect and universal forms, which Plato had maintained were the true goals of knowledge and the source of ethical standards, were held by Christians to exist in God’s mind.

            The Hellenization of Christianity had two great advantages that contributed to the new faith’s ability to adapt to changing circumstances and so survive. For one thing, it made it easier for Stoics and Platonists to accept Christianity. Perhaps even more importantly, it allowed Christians to combine the strengths to be gained from religious faith and spiritual comfort with those to be derived from the Greek tradition of rational thought. With both strands embedded in it, the new faith would appeal to a vast range of people under many diverse circumstances.