1902 Encyclopedia > Christianity > Roman Treatment of Christianity

(Part 11)

Roman Treatment of Christianity

The uniform policy of Rome was to respect the laws and the religion of the conquered peoples who came under her dominion. The Roman system of jurisprudence, it is true, was extended to all parts of the empire, and capital offences were generally tried according to Roman law before Roman tribunals; but, generally speaking, conquered nations lived under their own laws and were allowed to practise their own religions. By this wise policy Rome not only avoided stirring up religious wars, but contrived to be the religious and legal as well as political centre of all the conquered tribes. In one way only was the religion of the conquered interfered with, when the worship of the emperor was forced upon all his subjects. Whatever motives of policy urged this haughty indifference to all creeds, and this easy toleration of every form of pagan faith, they were, in reality founded on an intense belief in the eternity and almost divinity of Rome itself. Rome had remained for ages and seemed likely to endure the Eternal City, and when all other feelings of reverence had fled, the heart of the genuine Roman was full of awe for the majesty and might of perenduring Rome. It was no mere servile adulation which led to the deification of the emperors. The emperor was God, and divine honours were paid to him because he was the visible symbol of imperial Rome making manifest its power and permanence. And it was a real feeling of worship that raised in every house the altar to the divus imperator, and spread over the whole of the Roman empire, jostling aside its myriad creeds, the one faith in Rome, in its power, its eternity, and its mysterious strength. It was in this way that paganism and Rome became almost synonymous, and that Christianity and Rome were foes from the first.

Rome never treated Christianity as other religions were treated. Gibbon tells us that the Romans were already somewhat intolerant of Judaism and extended their intolerance to the new Jewish sect, somewhat more intractable than their neighbours, which Christians were supposed to be. He also shows that Christians who had neither temples nor synagogues were supposed to be atheists, and so beyond the pale of toleration, and that the secret assemblies of Christians were supposed to have a hostile political meaning. But something more is required to explain the uncompromising hostility of Rome, especially when we find that latterly that hostility was strongest under the greatest and noblest emperors. Since Roman toleration was founded on public policy, there was an end of it with regard to a religion which was of no use in curbing a conquered people. The Christian religion was nova and illicita; it was not a national religion nor a recognized faith, and was a new and unaccountable phenomenon which might be, and most probably was, fraught with danger to the sacred state. We find, too, in many of Rome's ablest statesmen a strange instinctive dread of Christianity. They made inquiries about it and were watchful of it, and yet could get no real insight into it. They could not help noticing how in spite of edicts and persecutions Christianity was rapidly increasing; they saw how, with a daring which to them was simply inexplicable, it was nothing loath to match itself against the power of Rome. To the ears of these dark and jealous emperors came tidings of Christianity copying the jurisdiction of Rome in its ecclesiastical divisions of the land, of its success in the large towns in the empire, of its entrance into the army. They saw, too, what Constantine was the first to make use of, that Christianity acted in such a way upon the physical frame that Christian soldiers were stronger and braver than their fellows, and man for man and battalion for battalion were more than a match for the pagans. Above all, they heard rumours of a new kingdom which the Christians were to establish, of confidently expressed hopes that the kingdom would soon come, and of openly asserted resolutions and prophecies that it would be established on the ruins of Rome itself. And, on the side of the Christians, Tertullian was ready to boast that in a few years the Christian empire had more extensive boundaries than the Roman, and that Christian soldiers had penetrated and triumphed in regions where the Roman arms were unknown or defied. Christian martyrs marching to the arena confidently predicted the speedy overthrown of the cruel paganism which sent them there. As the struggle deepened, too, there entered a distinctly new element on the Christian side and the contest became not merely one of the true religion against a false paganism and a pagan and persecuting state; it became a battle between two kingdoms. The Christian bishop and the Roman governor were two rival authorities, viceroys in two warring empires; and the saints would inherit the earth, when the church ruled instead of Rome as the mistress of the world. During the long struggle between Rome and Christianity we see this subtle influence entering into and withering the true spiritual conception of the kingdom of God, until at last it is almost transformed into an earthly empire. St Augustine has seized on and represented this idea with sublime dramatic power in his Civitas Dei in peregrinatione per terras, where the Civitas Dei, or the church, is set over against the Civitas Terrena, or state and where the kingdom of God, however grandly pictured; is almost as material, earthly, and sensible as the empire of pagan Rome. From this fatal influence have come all the attempts to realize the universality and catholicity of the church in a purely external or visible way, and the failure to understand how Christianity may be all-embracing without visibly covering and controlling the earth.

In her contest with Rome Christianity succeeded in realizing and giving expression to her claim to universal dominion, but in Rome's overthrow she inflicted an almost fatal wound on herself when she was unconsciously induced to take the government of a pagan empire as her model for the organization of a spiritual kingdom.

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