Francis Gregory Fletcher
B.A., California State University, Sacramento 1995
M.A., California State University, Sacramento 1998
Submitted in partial satisfaction of
the requirements for the degree of
A Thesis
Francis Gregory Fletcher
Approved by:
__________________________________, Committee Chair
Dr. Jeffrey Brodd
__________________________________, Second Reader
Dr. David Bell
Student: Francis Gregory Fletcher
I certify that this student has met the requirements for format contained in the University format manual,
and that this thesis is suitable for shelving in the Library and credit is to be awarded for the thesis.
__________________________, Graduate Coordinator
Dr. Jeffrey Brodd
Department of Liberal Arts
Francis Gregory Fletcher
Statement of Problem
Christianity initially was met with critical scrutiny and hostile response yet endured and withstood this
reaction and, even more, attracted many converts and increased its popularity and influence.
Sources of Data
Numerous primary and secondary works, particularly focused on the social conditions of the early part of
Late Antiquity, were used.
Conclusions Reached
Christianity established itself in the Roman Empire by challenging its critics and, even more, by meeting
the material and spiritual needs of the inhabitants of the Empire.
_______________________, Committee Chair _______________
Dr. Jeffrey Brodd
To Janay, for your patience and support
To Belen, for the flags
O Gods dethroned and deceased, cast forth, wiped out in a day! – A.C. Swinburne
I have never made but one prayer to God, a very short one: "O Lord, make my enemies ridiculous." And
God granted it. – Voltaire
Roman Religion and Superstitio
Roman Perceptions
Intellectual Critics
Apollonius of Tyana
Background Conditions
Psychology and Reevaluation
Urban Movement
Christianity’s Response to People’s Basic Needs
Health Care
Christian Intellectuals and the Failure of Philosophy
Works Cited
Robin Lane Fox states, “The spread of Christianity, the conversions, the overachievement took
place in an era of persecution” (419). Christians were persecuted as early as 64 CE in particular areas
throughout the Roman Empire. Persecutions through the second century also were local affairs, not part of
any empire-wide agenda. By the mid third century, however, the processes and penalties in dealing with
Christians became an official concern and were applied across the Empire (Beard History 237-242). In late
249 CE, the emperor Trajan Decius, attempting to emphasize “the ties between the individual and the
Roman Empire,” issued a decree meant to establish a universal religion for Rome, a standard that
consequently identified “deviants” (such as Christians) and led to their punishment (Rives 152-153). Some
Christians, for instance, Bishop Fabian of Rome and Babylas of Antioch, were persecuted for failing to
sacrifice to the state gods (Frend 319). This persecution was followed by those initiated by the emperors
Valerian (257 CE) and Diocletian (302/303 CE), with growing hostility specifically targeting Christians.
Pierre Chuvin remarks that, by the time of Diocletian, Christians were too numerous to exterminate; at best,
Diocletian hoped to undermine their foundation (18).
Especially in the face of the hostility shown toward Christians, how did Christianity succeed in
becoming Rome’s state religion relatively quickly? The most obvious answer is, of course, Constantine’s
conversion. However, why was Christianity, in light of the recent persecutions, even an option for
Constantine and for the Empire’s inhabitants in general? Supposedly, Constantine initially worshipped the
sun god, Sol Invictus, but adopted Christianity as part of his religious beliefs after having a dream and
seeing a sign in the sky – though the “Constantinian question” has yet to be resolved satisfactorily among
scholars (Lenski 3-4). Given the diversity of gods and of religions in ancient Rome, how did Christianity
come to be significant enough for Constantine to recognize it and, consequently, to validate it, especially
since pagans still constituted the majority of the Empire’s population at least through 325 CE (Cameron
69)? What specifically was appealing about Christianity? And what were the typical pagan reactions and
responses? According to Peter Brown, the middle of the second century CE began “the ‘new mood’” that
“drove fissures across” the surface of traditional religion (World 51). While not the anxiety, as described
by E.R. Dodds, resulting from the “spiritual man” feeling “himself an alien and an exile” (20), this “new
mood” challenged the “subordinate gods of popular belief” and emphasized “the One God Himself, as a
figure of latent, unexpressed power” (World 52). This “new mood,” however, challenged not only
traditional beliefs about the divine but also traditional Roman values and practices, enabling Christianity to
respond to people’s primary needs, both physical and spiritual. By the third century, Christianity was well
established in the empire. And by the early fourth century, with Constantine’s influence, Christianity
received official recognition and toleration, with traditional paganism by the middle of the fourth century
having difficulty maintaining its popularity (Lee 168).
In discussing Christianity’s expansion, Henry Chadwick states, “It appeared as a long story of
strange coincidence in which human intentions played a subordinate role and where the eye of faith was
entitled to discern the tranquil operation of a wiser providence” (54). Chadwick, of course, recognizes the
complex unfolding of Christianity, detailing significant components contributing to Christianity’s growth.
Despite the tendency for some scholars to want to emphasize one feature or another, the success of
Christianity can only be understood adequately when we fully acknowledge the great variety of factors
contributing to the increased popularity of Christianity around the third century CE. Christianity, while
ultimately concerned with spiritual salvation, devoted much attention to the physical concerns of many
people neglected by the Empire and, consequently, attracted more converts and, subsequently, increased its
Overall, the Roman reactions to Christianity indicate a failure to recognize problems with the
Empire in meeting people’s basic needs; at the same time, Christianity’s radical response challenged an
impotent conservatism and led to Christianity’s eventual expansion.
This rise, however, was met with resistance, often hostile, and not simply from the rich and
powerful. Still, as Fox indicates, “Christians spread and increased: no other cult in the Empire grew at
anything like the same speed” (271). This growth perhaps can better be understood if we examine: (1) the
Roman reactions against Christianity, (2) the rivals with which Christianity competed for converts, and (3)
the specific factors associated with Christianity’s increased appeal that garnered more converts.
Considerations of the Roman reactions provides the social context in which Christians struggled to practice
their faith, emphasizing the opposition Christianity had to overcome to become a significant religious
alternative by the time of Constantine. Additionally, recognition of the more relevant rivals to Christianity
not only clarifies the challenges it had to confront but also highlights many of the benefits it had to offer.
These benefits factored considerably in Christianity’s drawing converts across the Empire. Most
significant in Christianity’s success in conversion include its inclusion of women, its response to basic
physical needs, its validation by miracles, its defense by its skilled converts, its response to philosophy, and
its stability through organization of the church – all of which attracted potential converts and, consequently,
augmented Christianity’s base and widened its influence.
Chapter 1
In 1788, indignant at the French upper classes for their neglect and maltreatment of the middle and
lower classes, the abbé Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès in “What Is the Third Estate?” proclaimed that the Third
Estate is everything “but an everything that is fettered and oppressed” (96). Sieyès’ attack directed toward
the French aristocracy and clergy received approval and applause from his intended audience; quite
possibly, his words could easily have garnered similar sympathies in the marketplaces of third century CE
Rome during the emergence of Christianity. As Ramsay MacMullen states, “[T]he tendency of the
empire’s socioeconomic development over five centuries [beginning around the time of Cicero’s birth] can
be compressed into three words: fewer have more” (Social 38). Of course, this fact is not meant to imply
that conditions in both periods were completely the same and that the results of the French Revolution
would have been mirrored in Rome had a revolution, if even possible, occurred within the Empire; Fox
asserts, “Christianity had never preached an outright social revolution” (21). Nor does this claim imply that
history is best understood in Marxist terms of class antagonisms; although the Roman world “consisted of
only two classes, ‘the rich and the poor’” (MacMullen Social 97), the “variety within the population of
Rome . . . had no single axis between privilege and disadvantage” (Beard History 291). MacMullen
explains that the lower classes did not instigate revolution partly because they feared retaliation and failure
(Social 123); moreover, they typically accepted the status quo mainly because they were essentially
conservative: “People were too poor, they feared to pay too heavy a price, for experiment of any kind”
(Social 27). And although Christianity offered relief and provided shelter for the needy who were generally
neglected by the state, Christianity in its early stages did not seek to incite the masses as much as it sought
to deliver a truth developed from Hellenistic tradition of philosophy and rhetoric (Wilken Early 52-53), and
this truth was simply that the world needed to prepare for Jesus’ return (Frend Rise 134).
Although Christianity was not attempting to instigate a revolution, it nevertheless was regarded as
a religious threat, and since religion and politics in ancient Rome were not separate spheres, Christians, in
defying the religious practices and beliefs of the state, appeared to “Roman authorities as innovators and
revolutionaries” (Simon 386). Indeed, third century CE Rome was ready for something of a revolution, a
religious revolution to culminate in 313 CE with the so-called Edict of Milan, which proclaimed that
Constantine and Licinius, to quote Lactantius’ version, “have given to the said Christians the unrestricted
and unfettered right of practising their religio” (qtd. in Beard History 284). While Christians may have
viewed this proclamation as a victory since it legitimated their religion, it did not, as D.G. Kousoulas notes,
recognize Christianity as the official religion of Rome nor proclaim the Christian God as the only god
(263). Still, both this toleration of Christianity, regardless of Constantine’s true intentions (whatever they
might have been), and Constantine’s hugely generous support for it were unexpected and unprecedented:
“Constantine started a pattern of imperial intervention in favour of Christianity that finally helped
Christianity to triumph over paganism” (Beard History 369). Indeed, by the middle of the fourth century
CE, Christians probably constituted half of the Roman Empire’s population (Edwards 137). Though this
triumph was not immediate, this Christian dominance is not totally surprising – when viewed in hindsight.
The early part of Late Antiquity, roughly from the middle of the second century CE to the end of
the fourth century, was an ideal period for Christianity to establish itself. Brown declares, “The period
between about 170 and the conversion of the emperor Constantine to Christianity in 312 saw a vast and
anxious activity in religion” (World 50), and while this anxiety was not necessarily the spiritual insecurity
described by Dodds, it was a significant one in which people were sensitive to the problems of challenging
long held beliefs concerning the source of divine power (Making 21-22). R.T. Wallis states that, although
society in general, both the aristocracy and the masses, was “firmly centred in the material sphere,” during
this period philosophy and religion were concerned with an otherworldliness arising from a sensed anxiety
or insecurity, a feeling leading to both an increased interest in magic and a popularity of savior cults (7).
Brown argues that the third and fourth centuries CE are characterized less by spiritual crisis and more by
ambition (Making 34), an issue involving arguments over the legitimacy of power, such as by contrasting
saints with sorcerers (Making 21-22). For instance, early Christians, like Eusebius, were concerned with
defending Jesus against charges of sorcery (Brown Making 21). Although Christianity ultimately proved
most appealing religiously, its emergence and eventual acceptance involved hardships and definitely
encountered opposition. As Shirley Jackson Case remarks, “It would be a grave mistake to suppose that the
adherents of all other faiths were generally dissatisfied with their own religion” (6). Given the variety of a
number of cults and philosophies, Roman and foreign, how did Christianity come to dominate, especially
given the specific attacks, intellectual and physical, made against it?
In the end, Christianity withstood the criticism and persecution and focused on providing people
what they sought in matters physical and spiritual. Although Christianity was fundamentally focused on
people’s spiritual salvation, its recognition of people’s material needs factored significantly in its gaining
new adherents and increasing its popularity.
The typical resident of early third century CE Rome, whether a citizen from aristocratic stock or a
slave from foreign territory, would have been surprised to learn of Christianity’s eventual impact on the
Empire’s official religious policies and on Christianity’s domination of the western world; however, much
was already in place by the time of Constantine. As W.H.C. Frend states, “The conversion of Constantine
comes as the climax of a long historical process” (“Failure” 11). Understanding this process requires being
familiar with the conditions and the climate of Rome around the third century CE, recognizing in particular
some aspects of Roman religion. This period specifically proves significant as Christianity’s “expansion in
the third century was impressive, because it had been totally unexpected” (Brown World 65). In fact, by
contrasting traditional Roman religion with Christianity, we might be better able to comprehend
Christianity’s coming to be established.
Chapter 2
A. Roman Religion and Superstitio
Roman religion, because of its diversity, might appear difficult to describe, but it does have
distinct characteristics. The Romans “had no written works which established their tenets and doctrine, or
provided explanation . . . of their rituals or moral prescription for their adherents” (Beard History 284).
Furthermore, they were not necessarily concerned with converting other people to their religion(s); the
closest Romans came to preaching conversion was through the teaching of philosophy (Nock 14). Religion
was not understood by the ancient Romans in terms of doctrine (MacMullen Christianizing 8). Indeed, one
significant difference between Roman religion and Christianity is that Christianity rested on moral
absolutes, demanding “choice not tolerance” (MacMullen Christianizing 17). Roman religion, in contrast,
was related generally to political and individual usefulness (Wilken Christians 53-54), appeasing the gods
to garner their approval and, consequently, acquiring their assistance and protection – do ut des (I give in
order that you might give) (MacMullen Paganism). Roman religion was a cultus deorum, a cultivation of
the gods, that is, a concern for the gods demonstrated through ritual (Shelton 372). Roman religion was
essentially pragmatic, having to do little with faith and creeds and more with divination and ritual, seeking
to avoid angering the gods and to acquire their approval (Warrior 6). Roman religion “had no higher
purpose than to secure the material prosperity of the family, the gens, and the State” (Moore 167).
Certainly, then, a religion that was more centered around divergent and contradictory practices, at least on
the surface (for example, worshiping Egyptian gods in Rome), than around doctrine will presumably be
more difficult to categorize. However, by contrasting Roman religion with Christianity, we might better
understand what the Romans believed and practiced and, more specifically, why the Romans initially were
hostile to Christianity.
Chadwick remarks, in comparing the situation of early Christians with that of the Jews, “There
seemed no necessary reason why the Christians should not also achieve toleration” (25). However,
according to the Romans, the general problem with the Christians, at least initially, was their
unconventional behavior; they “avoided military service and civic office-holding, and refused to sacrifice
for the well-being of the emperor” (Beard History 226). In fact, the Romans, who were relatively tolerant
of foreign religions so long as the state religion was recognized and respected, by way, for example, of
traditional sacrifice, showed special antipathy toward Jews and Christians. As Fox explains, “Pagans had
been intolerant of the Jews and Christians whose religions tolerated no gods except their own” (23). In
fact, the early Christians were regarded as another troublesome Jewish sect, an association with Judaism
unbeneficial to Christianity given the volatile relationship between Romans and Jews in the first century
CE (Warrior 123), a time when Roman and Jewish relations were tense and, at times, turbulent (Goldberg
and Rayner 75). Quickly enough, however, Christianity garnered its own bad reputation among the
Romans. Their bad reputation, according to Tacitus, was sufficient for Nero to be able to use them as a
scapegoat and to blame them for the great fire in 64 CE that destroyed a large part of Rome (15:44). And
in 303 CE, The Great Persecution, initiated by Diocletian, resulted in the destruction of churches, the
burning of books, and, particularly led by Galerius, the killing of Christians (Frend 456-463). While
Romans were generally tolerant of other religions, Christianity provoked hostile reaction, especially since it
contrasted significantly with traditional Roman religion.
While we cannot necessarily turn to a specific source to understand what Roman religion as a
whole specifically entailed (like we can to understand Christian doctrine), we can still form general
conclusions about Roman religion around the third century CE (from the middle of the second century CE,
when Christians began attracting attention from educated Greeks and Romans [Wilken Christians 31], to
the middle of the fourth century CE) by studying the general social conditions of the times and by
examining the criticism against Christianity expressed by notable though admittedly not representative
figures, specifically Celsus, Porphyry, and Julian, all three, however, still relevant given the Christian
response provoked by their attacks on Christianity. With this approach, we can perhaps make concrete a
term as abstract as Roman religion and understand, as much as the investigation will allow, how
Christianity came to be adopted as the official religion toward the close of the Roman Empire in the west
despite being branded early as superstitio.
To understand the concept of superstitio, let us consider a famous incident: when Pliny the
Younger, in 112 CE somewhere between Amisus and Amastris, was faced with deciding the fate of
Christians accused of committing crimes, Pliny concluded that the evidence revealed that the Christians
were not guilty of committing any specific crime, yet they were still guilty of practicing superstitio (Ste.
Croix 30). In a letter to Trajan, Pliny, explaining the findings of his investigations regarding the practices
of the Christians, writes: “I have found nothing but a degenerate sort of cult carried to extravagant lengths”
(10:96). To deal with the troublesome Christians, Pliny simply tested the Christians at trial, ordering them
to demonstrate proper respect to the state gods and to renounce their god; those who would not comply
were executed (Wilken Christians 25). Seemingly, the problem with the Christians simply was that their
religious beliefs and practices were excessive: “their only crime was a depraved superstition” (Barnes 36).
One of the first Christian apologists, Justin Martyr, in the second century CE, states in his First Apology,
“[T]hough we say things similar to the Greeks, we alone are hated for the name of Christ and that, though
we do no wrong, we are put to death as criminals” (Beard Sourcebook 12). Athenagoras, writing in the late
second century CE in defense of Christianity, comments in his Legatio, “[T]he crowd is hostile toward us
only because of our name” (MacMullen Source 174). Of course, the issue was not so simple. For Romans,
the connotations associated with superstitio were serious.
Before we consider this seriousness, let us familiarize ourselves with a few terms. As Mary
Beard, John North, and Simon Price explain, “Religio regularly refers to the traditional honours paid to the
gods by the state. . . . Religio was displayed by individuals . . . primarily within the public context”
(History 216). Superstitio, in contrast, involved “excessive forms of behavior, that is ‘irregular’ religious
practices . . . and excessive commitment, an excessive commitment to the gods” (217). Superstitio,
according to Robert Wilken, suggested that such religions were “somewhat irrational, if not fanatical, or
exotic . . . and therefore incompatible with the high religious and ethical ideals of Rome” (“Social” 439).
Cicero regarded superstitio as “religio carried to extremes,” and Seneca saw it as “religio without
understanding” (Martin 128).
The dangers of superstitio were indeed serious given the popular ideas associated with the gods of
the state: “awareness of the gods’ potential anger, fear of it and a wish to ‘placate’ it and avert it by correct
performance” (Fox 230). Superstitio was regarded as an excessive form of devotion “motivated by an
inappropriate desire for knowledge” threatening the foundations of the state religion and of Rome itself
(Beard History 217). In a world where a variety of natural threats (such as earthquakes) and conventional
dangers (such as war) to human survival and stability were ever present and where the gods were believed
to have direct influence on individuals and communities, the Romans took seriously any disrespect shown
toward the gods, seeking to ensure pax deorum, a harmonious and peaceful relationship with the gods.
Proper respect involved proper devotion in the form of religious practices. Whenever a natural catastrophe
occurred, Christians were at times ruthlessly persecuted for angering the gods (Brown World 51). Pagans
would demand that Christians be arrested and punished when cities suffered from plagues and famines (Fox
426). Regarding Pliny’s situation, the Christians aroused public and official anger for obstinately refusing
to sacrifice to the gods (Wilken Christians 15).
Sacrifice was significant since it served as the means of communication between humans and gods
(Beard History 37). In fact, sacrifices played a significant part in festivals, celebrations motivated by an
“ordered piety,” which contrasted with superstitio (Fox 70). Neglecting to sacrifice was tantamount to
neglecting to worship the gods (Bradbury 339). And this neglect indicated a rejection of the traditional
gods, a form of superstitio (Martin 127). Because Christians denied the existence of other gods, they were
accused of being irreverent and atheistic, accusations provoking public attacks against them (MacMullen
Paganism 62). Thus, to avoid charges of atheism and superstitio, one demonstrated proper reverence for
the gods by performing proper sacrifices, acts which the Christians could not do without betraying their
beliefs. As Dodds relates, even something as trivial as offering to burn a few grains of incense to honor the
emperor was avoided by the Christians since “even the most formal concession to pagan cult” would result
in Christianity’s being usurped by official Roman religion as were other oriental religions (Dodds 113).
Christians could clear themselves of charges of practicing superstitio simply by countering the
superstitio with due reverence (Ste. Croix 29-31). And this point indicates the relevance of Pliny’s offering
the accused Christians a chance to save themselves by sacrificing to the state gods. This opportunity to
sacrifice to the gods was far from being a random test. Hubert McNeill Poteat argues that the Romans were
relatively tolerant toward other religious groups except when these other groups, like Christians as
perceived by the Romans, put the state in danger (134). Since superstitio was abhorred additionally
because it was perceived as politically threatening (Wilken Christians 131), proper sacrifice indicated
allegiance to Rome. Sacrifice meant much to the Romans: “Sacrifices and other religious rituals were
concerned with defining and establishing relationships of power” (Beard History 361), relationships crucial
to maintaining order and relative peace. In refusing to sacrifice to the Roman gods, Christians were in
effect perceived as undermining the foundations of society. The act of sacrifice indicated a fidelity to the
emperor and to Rome, a virtue underwritten by the fact that every “Roman citizen believed Rome’s
everlasting life and growth was fully guaranteed by the gods, who had patronized the birth of the city of
Rome” (Beard History 141). This loyalty, the Christians obstinately refused to swear (Janssen 153). Thus,
the failure to perform religious ceremonies properly was interpreted as an affront to the gods and as an
attack against the state (Janssen 136).
As Dale B. Martin asserts, in “Latin sources . . . superstitio regularly carries connotations of
political danger” (131). The particular danger involved prioritizing the individual over the state,
demonstrating defiance toward the empire and opposition to the common good (Janssen 132), or, in other
words, “saving the individual at the cost of the commonwealth” (Janssen 150). MacMullen remarks that
Christianity distinguished itself by its “inherent” antagonism, “antagonism of God toward all other
supernatural powers, of God toward every man or woman who refused allegiance, and . . . of those who
granted their allegiance toward all the remaining stubborn unbelievers” (Christianizing 19). While Romans
generally tolerated other foreign religions, Romans were frustrated and angered by “the excessive
contumacia of the Christians in refusing to sacrify to the Roman gods or the emperor” (Janssen 132). The
Romans, in fact, were especially shocked by the Christian teaching of a new kingdom, an idea that hinted at
political subversion. The Romans clearly (clearly to us, at least) misunderstood the Christians. Justin
Martyr remarks, “You, having heard that we expect a kingdom, have formed the uncritical impression that
we mean a kingdom in the human sense” (qtd. in Nock 228). Being largely unfamiliar with Christian
belief, the Romans, understandably, were angry to hear that their empire would be usurped by a foreign god
worshipped by some insignificant followers. In brief, the Romans were critical of Christianity for more
reasons than that it was new and foreign.
B. Roman Perceptions
Needless to say, Christians angered pagans even more, not just for being stubborn but also for
being “evasive” (Fox 422). In fact, Christians were infamous for their anti-social behavior, so much so that
they garnered a reputation for being misanthropic (MacMullen Paganism 40). Tacitus, writing around the
time of Pliny the Younger, asserts that Christians were executed for their anti-social behavior (Wilken
Christians 49). Regarding the fire of 64 CE, Tacitus, in The Annals, comments on the Christians: “an
immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind.
Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths” (3:14). This brand of superstitio contrasted with Roman
pietas, “loyalty and obedience to the customs and traditions of Rome” (Wilken Christians 56). Other
religions co-existed relatively well with each other and with the official state religion, but Christians were
largely critical of other religious groups (including Judaism, as Suetonius reported in the first century
[Chadwick 21]), and this antagonism – towards the gods and, therefore, toward the state – “was surely the
heart of its unique offence” (Ste. Croix 33). The Christian Minucius Felix presents in Octavius, a dialogue
composed around 200 CE, some of the perspectives of critics of Christianity: “They despise our temples as
being no more than sepulchers, they spit after our gods, they sneer at our rites” (8:4). Regardless of
whether these accusations were accurate, they were widely believed.
Christians were not only accused of threatening society at large but also blamed for dividing
families. Since Christianity demanded total fidelity to God, many people at times found themselves at odds
with their non-Christian family members, for example, wives against husbands, daughters against fathers
(Dodds 115-116). Such divisiveness caused alarm since the Roman family was central to the Roman
Empire politically, militarily, economically, sentimentally (Dixon 30). Wilken declares that becoming a
Christian meant “abandoning a way of life that had been practiced for generations, even centuries, and
rending the social fabric that bound family and neighborhood and city” (Early 2). Basically, sabotaging the
family structure was interpreted as destabilizing the state, a serious act since seeking “to undermine the
authority of masters over slaves, and paterfamilias over his household was about the most subversive attack
that could be made on established society” (Frend Rise 179). Consequently, the Roman government,
although generally suspicious of other foreign religions, treated Christianity much more harshly than it did
other perceived superstitio primarily because Christianity distinguished itself from the other religions by
“its intolerance of the outside world,” defying social traditions and values (Ste. Croix 65). Christians, in
effect, demonstrated a lack of allegiance to Rome (Poteat “Rome” 134) – and consequently made
themselves enemies of Rome.
Stephen Benko remarks that, given the Romans’ relative toleration of other religions, “they,
therefore, found the Christians’ exclusive claims to truth disconcerting” (59). MacMullen emphasizes the
point: “Christianity did present a kind of polarization to its audience at various points in what may be called
pagan theology – a polarization that pricked or alarmed the observer” (Christianizing 19). No doubt,
Christians’ claim to exclusive possession of truth aggravated the relationship between them and the
Romans. Christians deliberately distinguished themselves from their Roman neighbors, though trying to
avoid drawing too much attention and keeping to themselves, not establishing “distinctive and recognizable
‘churches’ in Rome until at least the third century” (Beard History 267). Christians, of course, avoided
attention for practical reasons, given the animosity shown toward them (MacMullen Christianizing 35).
Nevertheless, the Christians’ aloofness exacerbated Roman hostility, and rumors about the Christians made
the pagans suspicious of them and their beliefs and practices.
Pliny was familiar enough with Christians to know that they were regarded as troublemakers, yet
he was confused enough to be uncertain about how to handle them since, again, what he found was that
Christians were guilty of failing to respect the official Roman gods. However, not long after Pliny’s time,
Christians were associated with “clandestine rites involving promiscuous intercourse and ritual meals in
which human flesh was eaten, the so-called Thystean banquets . . . and Oedipean unions,” and by the late
second century, these rumors were familiar to Romans (Wilken Christians 17), establishing the scandalous
and decadent nature of the Christians (though by the mid-third century, these rumors were discredited by
Christian writers like Origen [Beard History 226], and they were not really taken seriously by “betterinformed Greek pagan authors” and by “the ruling classes” [Fox 427]). And although the more intellectual
critics like Celsus and Porphyry tended generally to overlook these rumors in their attacks on Christianity,
the popular reaction consisted mainly of invectives reigniting and, thus, perpetuating the rumors (Dodds
Indeed, Christians’ anti-social tendencies contributed to their receiving criticism and suffering
persecution. As Chadwick remarks, “The enemies that they [Christians] had to conquer were prejudice and
misinformation” (55). While the Romans regarded the Christians as a threat to the social order and the
traditional culture, Romans were even more suspicious of Christians for their supposed libertinism. These
rumors about repulsive Christian rituals circulated and intensified Roman antipathy toward Christianity.
Minucius Felix summarizes the reputation of the Christians among pagans:
They have collected from the lowest possible dregs of society the more ignorant fools together
with gullible women (readily persuaded, as is their weak sex); they have thus formed a rabble of
blasphemous conspirators, who with nocturnal assemblies, periodic fasts, and inhuman feasts seal
their pact not with some religious ritual but with desecrating profanation. (8:4)
This characterization of Christians, reinforced by their perceived anti-social beliefs and practices, was
enough to validate the Romans’ repugnance toward Christianity.
Minucius Felix relays a rumor adding to the accusation of Christian libertinism: Christians would
gather for a banquet, a feast arranged for a diverse group, and after eating, someone would toss food to a
dog tied to a candlestick, which would topple and leave the Christians in darkness free to fornicate with
anyone and everyone, including children and family members – “all equally being guilty of incest, some by
deed, but everyone by complicity” (9:7). And Lollianus, in the second century CE, reports of ritual murder
committed by Christians, who would kill a boy, remove his heart, roast it, and serve it to be eaten (Wilken
Christians 18). Additionally, the Christian practice of the holy kiss, based on God’s love of humans in an
intimate way and God’s gift to humans with the breath of life, contributed to rumors of incest and
infidelity, particularly since the kiss was a mouth-to-mouth kiss (Benko 86). While the rumors that such
kissing led to licentiousness were most likely just rumors, such rumors still added to Christian infamy.
Though pagans knew little about early Christianity, what they typically heard about Christian practices and
beliefs was sufficient to cause the Christians to be the objects of scorn and persecution.
These immoralities were recognized as instances of superstitio, regardless of whether they were
believed to be true or not, and “their absence did not weaken the classification of Christianity as
‘superstitious’” (Beard History 225). The Romans regarded Christianity as superstitio for more significant
reasons: being new, promoting isolationism, disrespecting Roman gods, undermining Roman culture.
Nevertheless, despite the rumors of practicing immoralities and the reputation for threatening social
upheaval, Christianity, obviously, survived its criticisms and persecutions. But overcoming these
objections was far from easy, especially given the direct attacks against Christian beliefs made by
formidably intelligent foes like Celsus, Porphyry, and Julian.
C. Intellectual Critics
Around the third century CE, the Romans, on the whole, viewed Christianity with suspicion;
nevertheless, at the time, Christianity increased its members, with roughly 220,000 members in the Empire
at the beginning of the third century and increasing to over six million by the beginning of the fourth
century (Stark Rise 7). However, around 150 CE, when Christians constituted roughly .07% of the
population, Christianity already started receiving denigration from astute thinkers like Galen, Marcus
Aurelius, and especially Celsus; the attacks continued into the third century from Porphyry, and into the
fourth century with Julian. Indeed, that Roman intellectuals even devoted time to denounce Christianity
indicates the popularity of the religion at the time. Celsus and Porphyry in particular stand as Goliaths to
Christianity before Constantine validated it, as did Julian afterward.
We know little about Celsus, but his attack on Christianity written around 170 CE provoked
Origen to respond in eight books; what remains of Origen’s original work largely are fragments found in
Origen’s Contra Celsum (Wilken Christians 94). Porphyry is better known even though his Kata
Christianōn, probably composed in the late third century CE, was burned by Constantine. Nevertheless,
Porphyry’s attacks were serious enough that numerous Christian thinkers, including Eusebius and
Augustine generations later, were still responding to Porphyry’s arguments (Wilken Christians 126-127);
Apollinarius’ response consisted of thirty books (Wilken Christians 134). After Constantine, Julian figures
most prominently as one of the last defenders of the old order. Julian’s Against the Galileans no longer
exists, but fragments remain, found in Cyril’s response, Contra Julian. Julian’s attack is especially
interesting since he was provided a Christian education by Eusebius and deliberately rejected Christianity
and embraced the traditional pagan gods (Wilken Christians 166-171).
The attacks on Christianity by these three thinkers are various, yet they can be classified under a
few general criticisms. Celsus, Porphyry, and Julian ridicule Christianity (1) for being non-intellectual, (2)
for having no tradition and no unified beliefs, (3) for being unethical and disrespectful to the divinity, and
(4) for undermining society.
The general charge that Christianity is non-intellectual can be illustrated from a few remarks made
by Celsus, Porphyry, and Julian. Celsus claims that Christians avoid debate and explanations: “[T]he
Christian teachers do not want to give or to receive reasons for what they believe” (Hoffman 54). Faith, not
reason, was promoted by Christians to be the foundations for their beliefs; for philosophers like Celsus,
such a foundation proved to be poor, especially since the philosopher’s god was rational. Moreover,
Porphyry states that Pauline teachings “are not the teachings of a healthy mind. . . . The words indeed
suggest someone who is mentally feeble and deficient in reasoning power” (Hoffman 59). Given Paul’s
importance to Christianity, that his mind appears feeble reflects poorly on the tenets and adherents of
Christianity. Moreover, Julian contends that Christians “seduce people into thinking <their> gruesome
story is the truth by appealing to the part of the soul that loves what is simple and childish” (Hoffman 91).
Julian implies that Christianity, being un-philosophical, could only appeal to the simple-minded who were
easily manipulated by specious arguments and seduced by magic. Celsus states that Christians “claim to
get some sort of power from pronouncing the names of demons or saying incantations, always
incorporating the name of Jesus in a formula” (Hoffman 53-54). And Porphyry, critical of Christians’
claim to be immune to poisons simply by believing, challenges those who wish to be church leaders to
drink poison first (Hoffman 50). As a good summary of these criticisms, Julian exclaims, “[B]ut if any one
should take the trouble to examine your religion, he will find it a wicked combination of Jewish
recklessness and Greek vulgarity” (Hoffman 123). In brief, these criticisms reinforce Christianity’s being
Moreover, what these general remarks indicate is that Christianity had no intellectual foundation. As
superstitio was associated with irrational actions based on irrational ideas, Christianity was attacked for its
excessiveness. Galen, while generally impressed by the Christians’ way of life, “wondered how Christians
could be successful in leading men and women to lives of virtue when their philosophy was so deficient”
(Wilken Christians 83). Marcus Aurelius, similarly, believed Christian martyrdom to be motivated not by
self-discipline nor by authentic knowledge of the divine but by “mere obstinacy based on irrational ideas”
(Wilken Christians 82). No doubt, Stoics like Marcus Aurelius were not troubled by suicide and death; in
fact, death bravely faced was a Stoic ideal. However, with Christianity, a double-standard applied. Martin
states, “The same act of piety performed by a philosopher may be religio, but superstitio, when performed
by those without philosophical understanding” (128). Clearly, the accusers set the standards.
But part of the reason that Christianity appeared irrational is that it lacked a long history and unified
supporters. Celsus, attacking Christians’ claim to being monotheists, remarks that Christians “worship a
man who appeared only recently” (Hoffman 116); he adds, “Christians utterly detest each other . . . [They]
cannot come to any sort of agreement in their teaching” (Hoffman 91). Based on a reverence for tradition,
Celsus delivers his attack, criticizing Christians for worshiping a recently arrived god whose teachings are
not even fully accepted and exactly and consistently interpreted by his followers. Such a religion,
consequently, has no validity. Porphyry observes that the “evangelists were fiction writers – not observers
or eye witnesses to the life of Jesus. Each of the four contradicts the other” (Hoffman 32). W. Den Boer
argues that Porphyry’s training in history and philology partly contributed to his criticisms against
Christianity; given the natural errors occurring in documentation, translation, and dissemination,
Christians’ claims to authenticity were suspect. Porphyry “could not recognize the sanctity and infallibility
of writings that had been subjected to remaniements of that kind” (201). Julian declares that “this Jesus . . .
has scarcely been known for three hundred years. And during his lifetime, he accomplished nothing worth
mention” (Hoffman 116). Julian observes that Christians “think it courageous and high-minded to destroy
the law completely, if it suits you, and to create a revised truth that men will find attractive” (Hoffman
133). With typical Roman pragmatism, Julian complains about the uselessness of Christianity since it has
established nothing outstanding. Even more, Christianity lacks consistency, a virtue related to social
stability, which Christianity threatened. For the philosopher, such issues were real problems since a proper
understanding of the divinity was crucial for maintaining the social order and promoting public morality
(Martin 55).
Improper views about the gods could lead to improper practices, acts that could arouse the anger of
the gods. One type of improper view concerned beliefs about the nature of the divinity. Christianity,
according to its critics, held improper and illogical assumptions about the divine, beliefs considered
unethical and impious. Celsus states that Christianity shows too much concern for sinners and ignores the
righteous: “Why was their Christ not sent to those who had not sinned – Is it any disgrace not to have
sinned?” (Hoffman 74). Celsus’ point is that the Christians indirectly promote sin and neglect virtue in
stating that God seeks sinners and offers them comfort and, thus, ignores the good that men do. Porphyry
argues that God established natural law and would, nay, could not change or undermine it: “It is
preposterous to think that when the whole [race] is destroyed there follows a resurrection” (Hoffman 90).
The thinking behind this critique is that God betrays imperfection in making changes; even more, the order
of the universe, established by God, would be disrupted were Christian beliefs about resurrection true.
Furthermore, Julian, demonstrating the ridiculousness of Christianity, remarks, “A garden was planted by
God, and Adam was made, and afterward, for the sake of Adam, woman was created. . . . And yet, she was
no help at all” (Hoffman 94). While Julian’s criticism appears pedantic and petty, it is, from a traditional
and intellectual Roman perspective, nevertheless serious. Since Christians believed their sacred writings to
be inspired by God, then the various ideas, presumably, could not be illogical or contradictory; such
problems would reflect poorly on the divinity. For the pagan philosophers, God was intellectually, morally,
and ontologically perfect. Any belief implying God to be any less was considered impious, and impiety
was akin to superstitio and atheism, both enough to provoke divine anger against humans.
The Romans believed that placating the gods maintained relative peace and order. The Romans were
careful to identify potential threats to the foundations of society. As already noted, Christianity was
recognized as being subversive, even if that was not a deliberate intent. Celsus argues, “If everyone were to
adopt the Christian’s attitude . . . there would be no rule of law: the legitimate authority would be
abandoned” (Hoffman 124). This charge stems from the Christians’ rejection of Judaism, specifically the
laws and rituals. In effect, Christianity could not claim to be emerging from the Judaic tradition if it
rejected its standards. Even more, the divinity would not establish laws for one people in one place and
different laws for other people in another place; otherwise, the god would be acting arbitrarily, a
characteristic contradicting the concept of divine perfection. Porphyry states that the Christians “would
bring us a society without law. They would teach us to have no fear of the gods” (Hoffman 81). Porphyry,
arguing like Celsus, adds that Christians lack proper fear of other gods, an implication of atheism. And
Julian contends that practicing Christian charity removes the foundation for society: “For when all men
obey your command [to sell all of one’s property], there will be no one left to buy anything; . . . what city,
what nation, what family would survive?” (Hoffman 144). For Julian, Christianity displayed no proper
respect for custom and tradition and, therefore, had no merit (Wilken Christians 176).
This criticism returns us to the earlier discussion of Christianity as superstitio; according to the
Romans, Christian practices were excessive and their beliefs too extreme. Martin, however, contends that
superstitio “became a vice invented and controlled by the philosophical class” (77). That superstitio serves
to contrast with religio reveals the general nature of Roman religious beliefs around the third century CE.
The official state religion, as defended by the intellectually elite, supported and protected the status quo by
promoting a reverence for tradition and denouncing other religious beliefs for being irrational. As Brown
remarks, the philosopher “was the representative of a prestigious counterculture within the elite, and . . .
originally addressed his elevating message to members of that elite” and “had never seriously considered
addressing the masses” (Late 12-13). However, as MacMullen indicates, the study of philosophy, in the
third and fourth centuries CE, became a “pursuit and discovery of god” (Christianizing 69). Ferguson
remarks that, for many Greco-Romans, particularly for philosophers, religion was philosophy (320). But
the philosophy of the time was far from being inclusive, much more from being comprehensible to and
practical for the average person. Additionally, though philosophers were trying to establish a clear and
consistent theology, they were, besides comprising a very small minority, “peripheral figures on the
political scene in late antiquity” – recluses and disinterested advisors to the wealthy powerful (Brown
Power 4). Roman religion in early Late Antiquity was basically reduced to spectacle (ludi scaenici and
ludi circenses [Warrior 72]), politics, and philosophy, little of which satisfied any spiritual longings or
physical needs of the masses.
Chapter 3
A. Apollonius of Tyana
Traditional Roman religion in the first century CE, however, was the object of an attempted
reform by a charismatic personality: Apollonius of Tyana. Jesus and the Apostles were not the only
wonderworkers during the first century CE. Apollonius mirrored Jesus as a theios anēr, a divine man, who
lived as an ascetic and a social reformer (Ferguson 384-385); in fact, Apollonius was promoted by the
Neopythagorean School to serve as a rival to Jesus (Wallis 32). In his lifetime, Apollonius was immensely
popular as a philosopher in the Greco-Roman world, dedicating a good portion of his life to reforming
aspects of traditional religion (Mead 18), denouncing animal sacrifice and chastising corrupt priests (Frend
275). Two centuries later, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius even dedicated a temple to Apollonius after
seeing him in a dream (Mead 19). Born in Cappadocia, Apollonius had traveled widely, and with his
studies in Pythagorean philosophy and Indian mysticism, he taught at Aigai and advised cities and cults,
managing to avoid offending traditional oracles (Fox 253). In Asia Minor, he spent time at the temple of
Asclepius, healing the sick and interpreting dreams, and he also, according to his biographer, Flavius
Philostratus, performed miracles (Mead 43, 55-56). Apollonius shared significant similarities with Jesus:
having a marvelous birth, drawing disciples, traveling as a teacher, performing miracles, and disappearing
at his trial (Ferguson 385-386). Apollonius was very much interested in religious reform, promoting ethics
and morality and criticizing traditional state religion for various abuses against the powerless; Frend
contends that, had more attention been given to Apollonius’ ethical reforms and less to his esoteric ideas,
“paganism might have withstood the pressures of the next fifty years, and the victory of Christianity have
been less convincing” (275-276). In any case, Apollonius’ mission and popularity indicate that something
was amiss in the first century CE, something which Christianity had perceived and to which it responded.
B. Neoplatonism
Further attempts to reform traditional Roman religion in the third and fourth centuries CE were made
by representatives of Neoplatonism, “the last form of spiritual Greek religion” based on Hellenistic
philosophy (Ferguson 391). Toward the end of the second century CE, Neoplatonism increased in
popularity (Wallis 36), particularly as Stoicism, previously the most popular philosophy, became diluted as
mainstream society made Stoicism commonplace (Ferguson 368); in fact, Neoplatonism often attacked
Christianity, for it recognized this upstart religion as a serious rival (Most 316). With Neoplatonism’s
stressing intellectual and moral discipline and philosophical contemplation and questioning physical reality
(in the tradition of Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus) so as to arrive at truth, the philosophy of Late Antiquity
indeed was limited to a very few (Wilken Early 8). Neoplatonist Plotinus believes that the “soul’s
purification is accomplished primarily through philosophy,” and his student Porphyry observes that
philosophy, as “necessary for the soul’s final salvation . . . [,] was too difficult for the average man”
(Wallis 3). For example, Neoplatonism promoted the idea of God as the One that was the “only true
Existent” yet could only be understood in terms of negative theology (Wallis 115). The One as God was
distant, impersonal, and unmoving. Plotinus argues that trying to understand the One is nearly impossible
using language and other human constructs; indeed, attempting to define the One as, say, the creator of the
universe is a vain task since the “One has no need of its products and would not care if it had no products at
all” (Wallis 64).
These characteristics, while reasonable in the realm of philosophy, were not so appealing to many
seeking a god who could offer humans health and happiness and hope, all of which early Christianity
offered in a physical and spiritual sense (for example, feeding the poor and teaching the way to eternal
salvation). Philosophy in general was of little concern and of little use to the masses, who were barely
affected by it (if they could even understand it – at least three-quarters of the population was illiterate
[MacMullen Christianizing 21]), particularly since it required a philosophical education which few people
had opportunity (that is, wealth, access, and time) to acquire (Martin 168). While mainly philosophical,
Neoplatonism still promoted the performance of some rituals though, as Wallis indicates, the later
Neoplatonists’ “failure in competition with Christianity” involved defending rites “no longer of more than
antiquarian interest” (107-108). Indeed, Neoplatonists were aware of Christianity as a rival, attacking a
variety of Christian beliefs (for example, that God could suffer) and even offering its own sacred book, the
Chaldaean Oracles, “a collection of turgid and obscure hexameter oracles composed or collected during
the reign of Marcus Aurelius by a certain Julian and his son” (Wallis 105). In the end, however,
Neoplatonism failed to overcome the popularity of Christianity even though Neoplatonism “as a
metaphysical system . . . had enormous influence on Christian thought,” for example, on the ideas of the
Cappadocians and on St. Augustine (Ferguson 391). Poteat asserts that Roman philosophy, while offering
nothing novel, achieved at least one significant result, making philosophy more practical than Greek
philosophy was, serving to provide a “realistic approach to the problems of human existence”
(“Reflections” 516); Poteat adds that “the best of Roman philosophy” was “incorporated into Christian
philosophy” (522).
Largely, Neoplatonism’s failure to contend with Christianity as the Roman religion involved
Neoplatonism’s really being more concerned with explaining in philosophical abstractions the origin of
divinity and less concerned with satisfying people’s physical and spiritual needs – though this point is not
meant to imply that Neoplatonism was not religious. While, as Dodds maintains, Neoplatonism, to be able
to contend with the increased popularity of Christianity, had to become more like a religion in clarifying
belief and practice (123), Neoplatonism ultimately appealed mainly to a limited intellectual minority. As
Dodds relates, referring to Origen’s distinction between Christianity and Neoplatonism, “Plato is read only
by the learned – Christianity . . . is Platonism for the many” (120). Christian thinkers and missionaries
addressed its message to the masses, ignoring social boundaries and traditions; Brown states that
Christianity defied the “culture of governing classes and claimed to have brought, instead, simple words,
endowed with divine authority, to the masses of the empire” (Power 74). In contrast, Neoplatonism,
stressing intellectual development to contemplate truth and, thus, to connect with and to return to the One,
attempted to reconcile traditional mythology with its philosophy, inadvertently stripping the Greco-Roman
gods of any personalities, in effect, neutralizing traditional Roman religion. Wallis argues, “[I]n seeking to
establish traditional worship on a philosophical basis the post-Iamblicheans ironically ensured the triumph
of Christianity” (137). In allegorizing traditional mythology, the philosophers unwittingly not only
undermined the gods for the masses but also offended traditionalists (Martin 164); their attempts to reform
traditional religion failed to win enough converts, even among the minor population of wealthy and
educated citizens (Martin 91).
C. Savior-Cults
Neoplatonism represents a philosophical rival to Christianity. Savior-cults, in contrast, represent a
religious rival to Christianity. While Roman philosophy tended to focus more on ethics and, in the case of
Neoplatonism, epistemology and metaphysics, savior-cults sought to offer opportunities for people to
establish direct connection with the divine (Moore 166). These new savior-cults included the cult of
Magna Mater, of Isis and of Mithras. Though they are at times labeled savior-cults, no clear evidence
suggests that these religions were concerned with salvation (Beard History 247). These religions are
sometimes called Eastern cults (due to the pioneering work of Franz Cumont) because they supposedly
came from places like Persia, despite originating from Greek initiation cults, and were at other times called
mysteries, the term mystikos being related to the concepts of secret (though not all secret practices like
magic were considered mysteries) and initiation (Burkert 7-8). According to Walter Burkert, mysteries
were “initiation ceremonies, cults in which admission and participation depend upon some personal ritual
to be performed on the initiand” (8). The Roman idea of do ut des contributed to these mysteries’ being
somewhat of a religious option; people who in the main were sacrificing to gods so as to receive protection
or fortune from these gods were consequently attracted to gods who did reciprocate (Burkert 12-15). In
general, these mysteries were connected to “the practice of making vows, ‘votive religion,’” by people
anxious about the future (Burkert 12-13). During the Imperial period, the emperor “was seen as the
principal source of innovation and took the lead in promoting new cults” (Beard History 252), for example,
Caligula perhaps being responsible for granting the cult of Isis official status (250). These religions were
typically adopted by the state during some disaster (such as a plague or war – Magna Mater, for example,
was officially incorporated into the Roman pantheon in 204 BCE to respond to the threat of Hannibal) and
were often initially resisted and suppressed by the state and then adapted to complement traditional Roman
religion (Warrior 80), for example, depicting Magna Mater more as Greek rather than as Asiatic (84).
Generally, though these religions were regarded with suspicion for being foreign, they were, after initial
reluctance, tolerated since the worship of the gods associated with the religions did not conflict with but
rather supplemented official state religious practices (Fox 88).
While the origins of the cults of Magna Mater and of Isis can be traced to periods centuries prior to
the emergence of Christianity, they were most popular during the first few centuries CE (Burkert 2), a
period which Henry C. Boren calls the “flood tide of religious change in Rome” (143). Many of these
cults’ members were foreigners, slaves and freedmen (Moore 174), people typically unrecognized in the
Roman society. The individual, lost in the great Empire and wearied from war and disasters, felt estranged
from the official state gods; some sought philosophy for answers, but more people found what they were
seeking through these religions (Moore 170-171). Traditional Roman religion, tending to be more public
than personal, failed to provide intimate relationships with the gods for many people in the early periods of
the Empire (Moore 173). In contrast, mysteries focused on establishing individual affinities with the divine
rather than relying on “some national or civic group . . . to obtain the help of the tutelary god” (Case 8).
These religions were appealing for a variety of reasons: they were not limited to the city of Rome, used a
more complex “symbolic system than traditional cults” (for example, Mithraism with its connection to
astrology), and presented its members alternatives to traditional religion (Beard History 278). As Nock
relates, explaining these religions’ general appeal, they “were presented in such a way as to have the merit
of novelty without the defect of being too strange” (65). Most significantly, people were drawn to these
religions because they offered their members “an immediate encounter with the divine” (Burkert 90).
These religions initially were established across the Empire by travelers, merchants, and soldiers and
offered immigrants and, later, locals a sense of community (Brown World 63), drawing the devout and the
wealthy with dances and hymns and banquets (MacMullen Paganism 23-24, 39). While anyone generally
could worship the gods associated with these mysteries, initiation into these savior-cults provided the
reassurance of the benefits associated with these religions (Fox 97).
These mysteries shared some similar features with Christianity, specifically in that they offered cures
and purification (Burkert 15-16). The cult of Isis in particular was famous for healing, having a temple
within the sanctuary of Asclepius in Athens (Burkert 15) – in fact, “a bitter struggle had to be waged before
the Greco-Roman world at last accepted Jesus instead of Isis” (Avalos 51). The cult of Isis and of Magna
Mater promoted the idea of a new life, but this new life presumably was located in this world, not some
otherworld (Burkert 18), the cult of Isis in particular focusing more on extending this life rather than on
explaining the afterlife (Beard History 290). And this opportunity, in the case of the cult of Magna Mater,
involved a purification ritual known as the taurobolium, a secret rite culminating in being showered by
bull’s blood (Burkert 6); this ritual was meant to increase the power of the one undergoing it or of the
emperor, if it were being done in dedication to him, the person or emperor being reborn for twenty years or,
in at least one case, for eternity (Ferguson 285-6). The cult of Mithras, however, supposedly presented
ideas of purification and salvation though little exists of evidence revealing much about this religion
(Burkert 27-28). As MacMullen remarks, “If it was in the promise of immortality that the secret of
Mithra’s appeal lay, those who had attained it were not thought to be in any hurry to take up their claim”
(Paganism 125). In fact, while more Romans in the first few centuries CE, as compared to those living
previously, were concerned about some life beyond that of the physical world, the concept of an afterlife
was still, for pagans in general, rather ambiguous, Romans’ fear of the gods’ anger in this world being
greater than their fear of punishments beyond the grave; certainly nothing in traditional Roman religion or
any of these newer religions compared to the orthodoxy of Christianity concerning the afterlife (Fox 9798).
While the mysteries appeared as alternatives to the state religion, overall, they differed mainly in
degree, not in kind (Fox 36). Nothing clearly indicates that these mysteries were a sign that people were
seeking spiritual fulfillment; quite possibly, any supposed spiritual longings fulfilled by these mysteries
could actually be a product of these religions rather than the cause for these cults’ initial attraction (Beard
History 301). Moreover, as Burkert asserts, “Ancient mysteries were a personal, but not necessarily a
spiritual, form of religion” (87). If nothing else, the mysteries satisfied a practical need to assuage fears of
death and of the afterlife (Burkert 23). Nevertheless, that they found adherents in the first place, especially
among those raised in the Roman tradition, indicates some level of dissatisfaction with the official religious
practices and beliefs (Mead 9).
Ultimately, Christianity proved to be more appealing and more popular than these savior-cults, even
converting some of the members of these cults (Case 14). The essence of these mysteries – that they were
secretive – made them naturally more exclusive. The cult of Mithras, for example, served as a club for
men, mainly soldiers and officials living in the frontiers (Ferguson 290), and the cult of Isis, while popular
throughout the empire, had three different classes of worshippers, two of which were reserved for initiates
(273). Furthermore, initiation into these cults was expensive, a “privilege available for those . . . who could
afford it” (Nock 56-57). While Christianity welcomed practically everyone in society and, even more
significant, focused on conversion as one of its goals (a characteristic, incidentally, distinguishing
Christianity from Judaism), these mysteries generally stressed “withholding central revelation,” a trait
which made them “attractive, but kept them in seclusion” (Burkert 45-46). Christianity achieved more
success in becoming popular because, as Chadwick explains, Christianity “answered best to the empire’s
need for a universal religion with which it could identify itself” (72). Nock asserts, “It was left for
Christianity to democratize mystery” (57). In the end, with the general decline of paganism toward the end
of the fifth century also went these mysteries; their lack of organization, in contrast to what Christianity
developed earlier when it was the object of persecution, prevented these savior-cults from forming “selfsufficient sects” (Burkert 53).
Chapter 4
A. Background Conditions
The general draw of savior-cults indicates some sort of dissatisfaction with the official state
religion, but the appeal of savior-cults was limited, especially when compared to what Christianity offered.
Christianity presented a variety of attractive features – in particular, health care for all regardless of rank
and title (MacMullen Christianizing 51) – that acquired for itself converts and, subsequently, relative
power and prestige for the early church. Although theological, moral, soteriological, and eschatological
issues played their parts in the mission of the early church, for initial converts, church doctrine, as
MacMullen contends, probably played a lesser part than did practical matters in drawing people. Social
factors (such as the church’s feeding the hungry and burying the dead) certainly were instrumental in
Christianity’s gaining adherents. People were drawn to the church because it met many of their basic
needs. Indeed, practical considerations mattered more to most people than spiritual concerns. As Bryan
Ward-Perkins asserts, “[M]ost people . . . spent the majority of their lives firmly in the material world,
affected less by religious change than by their standard of living” (172). And the standard of living among
the masses in the Empire was extremely low, yet people accepted their conditions, particularly because they
“had in fact little chance to learn any other” (MacMullen Social 123).
The official Roman religion served to preserve tradition, and tradition maintained clear boundaries
between the extremely wealthy, who comprised a very small fraction of the Roman world, and the poor,
who formed the extremely wide base of the population pyramid and who were often neglected or mocked
or despised (MacMullen Social 111). And while many of the poor hated the wealthy (119), they did not
unite and revolt basically because they were, obviously, poor, weak, fearful, and conservative by nature
(123). Even had they possessed enough strength to initiate change, they did not desire it – at least not on a
revolutionary level. However, a sufficient number of people sought something different. Christianity
offered an alternative to traditional Roman religion, providing its members badly wanted and needed
physical and spiritual relief. And although Christianity in general defied and even undermined Roman
traditions, Christians did not desire to revolutionize society (Fox 21). In fact, Christianity’s initial gentile
converts were not mainly the poor but the middle class (Meeks 52). This group consisted of “angry and
disillusioned individuals as well as . . . plebeians and educated but dissatisfied women” (Frend 171). Quite
possibly, serious reconsiderations of traditional religious beliefs and practices influenced some of the
wealthy and educated to question the official state religion and to reevaluate the beliefs and practices of
Christianity. Wilken notes, “Christian thinkers appealed to a much deeper level of human experience than
had the religious institutions of society or the doctrines of the philosophers” (Early xiv).
B. Psychology and Reevaluation
Early Christianity addressed people’s spiritual and material needs. While the church emphasized
people’s spiritual salvation in the afterlife, many inhabitants of the Empire lacked clear, dogmatic beliefs
about anything beyond the physical life, worrying more about material considerations. Nevertheless, some
pagans, such as Justin Martyr, dissatisfied with life, found in Christianity answers to questions concerning a
meaningful existence. Christianity, to some extent, responded to psychological needs. However, this
explanation for Christianity’s increased popularity, perhaps most notably represented by Dodds,
oversimplifies the issue.
Dodds begins his Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety with a description of the
psychological climate of ancient Rome around the third century CE, roughly from the reign of Marcus
Aurelius in the second half of the second century to the conversion of St. Cyprian in the second half of the
third century. Dodds argues that, on the whole, people in the Roman Empire felt alienated, a disconnection
from the world stemming from reflections regarding humanity’s place in the universe: “They could
recognise with Plato that this sublunar world ‘is of necessity haunted by evil’, and could feel that man’s
activity in it is something of a secondary order” (12). Such considerations, according to Dodds, contributed
to a heightened anxiety, a “contempt for the human condition and hatred of the body . . . endemic in the
entire culture of the period” (35), and to an increased sense of insecurity that caused people to re-evaluate
their religious feelings and beliefs. In such an environment, Christianity became much more popular since,
as Dodds remarks in paraphrasing early critics of Christianity like Porphyry, “only sick souls stand in need
of Christianity” (135). While Dodds’ contention appears plausible, his conclusions perhaps oversimplify
the Roman people as a whole and understate the multifaceted appeal of Christianity.
Dodds asserts that many people in the second and third centuries CE, influenced by Greek ideas
that the physical world is governed by chance and change, recognized the ubiquitous suffering in this world
as normal and inevitable. Some moral philosophers, like Marcus Aurelius, taught that one could face this
suffering best by developing an inner discipline capable of enduring the unavoidable evil and calamities of
life. Other philosophers, like Plotinus, posited the existence of another world, one free from the flux and
misfortunes of this world and understood best by philosophical contemplation. These ideas provoked
questions concerning the meaning and purpose of human existence. Such questions, Dodds contends, are
not typically asked by people leading happy lives (21). Not surprisingly then, as Dodds relates, people in
general sought answers: “The entire culture, pagan as well as Christian, was moving into a phase in which
religion was to be coextensive with life, and the quest for God was to cast its shadow over all other human
activities” (101).
Psychological factors probably contributed to the emergence and establishment of Christianity, yet
these subjects alone fail to explain fully the increased popularity of Christianity around the third century.
Certainly, in this period the Roman Empire did experience turmoil. As Ward-Perkins reports:
In the fifty years between 235 and 284, the Romans suffered repeated defeats at the hands of
Persian and Germanic invaders, the secession of several of its provinces, a financial crisis that
reduced the silver content of the coinage to almost nothing, and civil wars that reduced the average
length of an emperor’s reign to under three years. (33-34)
Consequently, economic, political, and military conditions were affected by these events. However,
Brown, responding to Dodds’ claim that Christianity resulted from a spiritual crisis, urges caution in
assuming too much about the temper of the times, arguing that we “can be far from certain that ‘such
loneliness must have been felt by millions’” (Making 3). Brown contends that, if anything, people,
crammed in crowded cities and forced to face one another, suffered more from “claustrophobia” than from
“loneliness or rootlessness” (4). The spiritual anxiety that Dodds describes reflects, according to Brown,
more of the historian’s attempt to impose dichotomies (for example, personal versus collective) on Late
Antiquity than of the actual experiences of the people of the times (9-10). Brown asserts:
A period of military defeat and of undeniable insecurity among the governing classes of the
Roman Empire may not have had repercussions in Roman society at large sufficiently drastic to
produce, by way of immediate reaction, the religious changes we ascribe to this period. (4)
In fact, Brown states that the period was not marked so much by a blind and frenzied and desperate turning
to religion but rather by a more rational reevaluation of the source of divine power. Divine power, in Late
Antiquity, was not necessarily made manifest in ordinary people or in traditional institutions; it “was
represented on earth by a limited number of exceptional human agents” (12). And this shift in focus,
Brown argues, contributed to the importance attached to the Christian church, an institution deriving its
power and popularity from extraordinary personalities like the Apostles, martyrs, and saints and holy men
(12). Brown’s interpretation of Christianity’s rise in popularity (due to a reevaluation of the source divine
power) appears more accurate, especially given that in the early part of Late Antiquity religious
“competition had long been on the increase, and the traditional civic cults no longer enjoyed the nearmonopoly that once was standard” (Rives 151); the relative decrease in popularity of traditional Roman
religion and the increase in popularity of other religions, like Christianity, influenced official Roman
policies like Decius’ edict in 249 CE requiring inhabitants of Rome to sacrifice to the state gods, an attempt
to establish “a new type of Roman religion. . . . defined . . . by a particular cult act” (Rives 152).
Averil Cameron also argues that previous historians like Dodds emphasize too much this idea of a
spiritual crisis to explain the relatively quick rise of Christianity, that Christianity answered people’s
spiritual doubts and longings more effectively than did traditional Roman religion. Cameron suggests that
Late Antiquity was not necessarily any more spiritual than previous periods; Christianity did not suddenly
fill voids left by an abrupt decline in paganism (11). Cameron argues that the “mid-third century did not
see a dramatic crisis so much as a steady continuation of processes already begun” (8). For example, from
our modern perspective, as she indicates, Late Antiquity appears marked by a striking distinction between
the upper and lower classes, yet this demarcation “had been developing well before the period of the ‘third
century crisis’” (10). Certainly, Christianity’s appeal was influenced by certain factors associated with
Late Antiquity, but Cameron stresses that religion is just one area that Late Antiquity developed. A larger
overhaul of the Roman Empire, not simply isolated to religion, was occurring around the third century CE
from the reign of Diocletian to that of Constantine (12). Nevertheless, somewhat paradoxically, as Roman
critics of Christianity, in defending the status quo, were showing concern for the Empire’s welfare in its
relation with the gods, Christians were tending to the physical well-being (though with the spiritual
salvation ultimately in mind) of many people neglected by the state and, in effect, attracting more
Rodney Stark, using a conservative estimate, argues that the Roman Empire, around 250 CE, had a
Christian population nearing 1.2 million people, about 1.9% of the population, and increased by about ten
percent every decade so that, by 300 CE, Christians numbered over six million, about 10.5% of the Roman
Empire’s population (7). As Christianity grew popular, criticism of it intensified in terms of regularity and
hostility. Yet, despite the attacks against Christianity, Christianity still gained numerous converts.
Regarding the process of conversion, Stark asserts that “conversion is primarily about bringing one’s
religious behavior into alignment with that of one’s friends and relatives, not about encountering attractive
doctrines” (Cities 11). And MacMullen states that conversion “did not require doctrine of the least
elaboration, nor a divine biography, nor very much more than the certainty that truth was being proposed
for acceptance” (Christianizing 21). Stark, in fact, argues that “conversion is not about seeking or
embracing an ideology” as it is about being accepted into affiliations” (Rise 16-17). If doctrine typically
does not serve as a new religion’s initial draw, then other features serve in attracting and converting
outsiders, who, for whatever reason, find their lives unsatisfactory, at least unsatisfactory enough to turn
elsewhere for fulfillment.
C. Women
One significant reason has already been indicated in the passage from the dialogue by Minucius
Felix: Christianity’s inclusion of women (8:4). Chadwick comments that Christianity appealed to many
women and that women were generally responsible for initially introducing Christianity to the upper
classes (58). The appeal of Christianity to women was so striking that the emperor Valentinian ordered
Pope Damasus I to quit making calls to the homes of pagan women (Stark Rise 95). Although official
Roman religious practices at times allowed women to participate, typically these women were members of
the aristocracy; the official state cults were largely dominated by men (Beard History 296-297). Women in
Roman society were typically considered inferior and classified with “other weak and wayward creatures,
such as the non-Roman, the young, and untamed animals, all of whom required the firm hand of Roman
male authority” (D’Ambra 12). Some foreign religions (for example, the cult of Isis), however, offered
women some roles, and partly for this reason, these foreign religions, at least initially, were considered
Even within these foreign religions, women, however, did not typically wield significant power or
comprise the majority of the membership (though in the third century CE, women most likely constituted
the majority in the Christian church [Fox 310]), but the opportunity for religious expression still attracted
many women (Beard History 299). Wayne A. Meeks observes that the newer religious groups, before
gaining official recognition and acceptance, were more welcoming of women and that this openness incited
the cults’ critics, “who portrayed foreign superstitions as an insidious threat to the proper discipline of the
household, and therefore to the fabric of the whole society” (25). Since women were dependent upon their
fathers or their (male) masters for determining their social status, Christianity’s appeal to many women and
acceptance of them contributed to Christianity’s reputation of being subversive. Critics of Christianity, in
particular, were quick to indicate that Christianity appealed to women because they were less governed by
reason and more influenced by superstitio; Celsus, in mocking the Resurrection story, remarks, “But who
really saw this? A hysterical woman . . . deluded by his [Jesus’] sorcery” or by hallucination (Hoffman 68).
Despite the denunciations from Christian critics, the early church appealed to a good number of women of
aristocratic society (Stark Rise 107).
No doubt, Christianity did become popular, and it became popular among women (Beard History
298), and women, particularly educated women, in turn contributed significantly to the rise of Christianity,
having enough of an influence that Julian commented to the people of Antioch in 363: “Every one of you
allows his wife to carry everything out of his house to the Galileans” (Frend Rise 561). Unlike the early
Christian church, Roman society was far from egalitarian; in fact, Rome “reinforced a social system based
on inequality and elitism” (D’Ambra 2), and it tended to marginalize women, seeing them as “peripheral
beings, who contributed little or nothing to the public character of their husbands” (Brown Late 11).
Christianity offered women a chance to establish themselves in some way (e.g., through patronage).
Indeed, for some of the wealthier women, practicing Christian charity offered them opportunities to
perform meaningful work and, consequently, to acquire social distinctions that otherwise were not available
to them typically in Roman society (Brown Late 43). The early church was largely dependent on the
patronage of wealthy women (Brown Late 43). For these women (and women in general), Christianity was
appealing. And the appeals were numerous; certainly, the spiritual dimension played a role, but, generally,
the primarily appeal was based on practical considerations: health and wealth. Regarding health,
Christianity prohibited infanticide and abortion and promoted chastity and marriage; regarding wealth,
Christianity supported widows financially, emphasized virginity (which allowed women to maintain
possession of whatever property and wealth they owned), and granted to women church positions. All of
this contributed to Christianity’s growth and power with the increase in members and in wealth.
Concerning widowhood, Christianity showed respect to widows and discouraged re-marriage
(Stark Rise 105). By not remarrying, a Christian widow, based on the local laws on inheritance, would be
able to retain her property. While only a small fraction of women actually possessed property in the midthird century CE, “this minority was not without effect” since the church would naturally benefit from these
women’s wealth; the church also benefited by promoting virginity since women who refrained from
marrying would possibly inherit their family’s wealth, if such were the case, and would then bequeath this
fortune to the church (Fox 309-310). And even if Christian women married, such a situation increased the
chances for adding to the Christian population. Husbands at times would become “secondary converts,”
Christians in name if not in practice (Stark Rise 100); even more significant, a number of Roman
governors’ and aristocrats’ wives “were Christian sympathizers,” so these women had indirect influence on
society, at least enough influence to draw the ire of Porphyry (Fox 309). Women “used their influence to
dissuade their husbands from any lingering pagan sympathies,” an influence mocked by Libanius, who
complained that “when a man gets home, his wife and her tears and the night . . . draw him away from the
altars [of the official state cults]” (Frend Rise 562). Furthermore, secondary converts were not limited to
spouses. If they converted, so too did the entire family, and family, as Meeks explains, was not limited to
blood relations; it included relationships “of dependence and subordination,” that is, “slaves, former slaves
who were now clients, hired laborers, and sometimes business associates” (30). And even if these
conversions were not sincere, more in name than in deed, they still contributed to the swelling numbers of
Christianity, in terms of population and of wealth; as MacMullen declares, “Partial converts . . . do not lack
historical significance” (Christianizing 116). Thus, while women on the whole were largely insignificant
in Roman society, their conversion to Christianity, as Fox again notes, “was not without effect.”
Christian women, on the whole, possessed greater economic status and power than did pagan
women (Stark Rise 103), and the advantages were significant for both women and Christianity in general.
One reason, Christianity defied Roman custom involving girls’ marrying at the onset of puberty (though no
penalties applied if a man married a girl younger than twelve) (Stark Rise 105-106); since Christian women
married later in their lives, if they married at all, typically after turning eighteen, they generally avoided
having to have sex early in their lives and, thus, avoided having to give birth early and often, childbirth
being a potentially fatal act (Stark Rise 98). Another reason, Christianity’s prohibition on abortion spared
Christian women the experience of undergoing a damaging and often fatal procedure (Stark Rise 120), a
procedure rendering many pagan women infertile if they even managed to survive (Stark Rise 122). Still
another reason, Christianity’s prohibition on infanticide allowed female infants a chance to live since
wealthy and poor Romans, generally for financial reasons (Fox 54), practiced exposure to rid themselves of
unwanted children, particularly of daughters (Stark Rise 118).
Given these factors, Stark contends that, because Christians generally consisted of more females
than males and because pagan societies generally consisted of more males than females, this situation
created opportunities for Christians to marry pagans, marriages which offered the church chances to acquire
secondary converts (Rise 128). Although the marriages were not always between equals in status and
wealth, the differences were not sufficient to serve as obstacles to marriage. In fact, Meeks indicates that a
person would marry to improve his/her position, for example, a freeborn woman marrying an imperial slave
since the slave as a member of a respected family would allow the woman to establish important ties with
people of influence (23). Consequently, the early church increased in membership and in wealth partly as a
result of its open membership policy.
D. Urban Movement
Of course, the woman factor alone does not explain fully the rise of Christianity. Significant is
that, until the fourth century CE, the spread of Christianity was largely an urban phenomenon (Beard
History 302). As an urban movement, Christianity was able to attract converts from many avenues though,
as Brown emphasizes, Christian groups expanded “slowly and erratically” (Making 72); nevertheless, most
new Christian converts were found in the cities. In fact, the term pagan derives from the Roman paganus,
meaning “rural person,” in particular the people living in the country who, after Christianity established
itself, remained unconverted (Stark Cities 2). The cities were places where new ideas and practices could
be introduced and experienced and, thus, where change could occur (Meeks 16). The city, then, was an
ideal place to establish a new religion. In addition to welcoming women, the early church also accepted the
poor, the non-citizens, and those marginalized in whatever way. Widows and orphans and the poor in
general received Christian support (Fox 324), charity which must have been impressive at least to the
recipients, especially since, as Brown asserts, the history of the Roman Empire is “the history of the ways
in which 10 percent of the population . . . fed themselves . . . from the labours of the remaining 90 percent
who worked the land” (World 12). Indeed, practicing the state religion was costly for both the individual
and the state since sacrifice, for example, required the expensive act of killing of livestock (MacMullen
Christianizing 53); in contrast, Christianity was not as financially demanding, taking care of the poor,
tending the sick, and feeding the hungry, at times even holding banquets (54).
Although the long held view was that Christianity originated with the poor and the pariahs of
society, modern scholarship has demonstrated that “the educational and therefore probably the social level
of Paul and at least some of the members of his congregations was a good bit higher than has commonly
been assumed” (Meeks 52). Brown asserts that by 200 CE, Christian converts typically originated from the
urban lower middle classes, not from the extremely destitute and downtrodden (World 62). The majority of
the Christians consisted of “the humbler free classes, people who were far removed from higher education
and at most controlled a very modest property of their own” (Fox 301). By the third century CE, Christians
were found in Rome at every level of society” (Beard History 295). Christianity even won converts of the
“God-Fearers,” Gentiles attracted to Judaism but unable to commit to Judaic Law (Stark Rise 58).
Basically, Christianity helped itself by being open to all levels of society (as well as to German tribes),
promoting a sense of egalitarianism (Brown World 66); in contrast, the Roman government privileged and
protected the aristocracy (Meeks 13). Ultimately, as Stark emphasizes, “[W]hat Christianity gave to its
converts was nothing less than their humanity” (Rise 215). Regardless of who converted, whether the
typically marginalized or the stable artisan, he or she was recognized by the church as having individual
worth. By becoming Christians, many people – slaves, foreigners, women, criminals – who were otherwise
neglected or even despised acquired a feeling of kinship that generated a sense of identity deriving from,
what Sheldon Wolin calls, “meaningful participation” in their Christian communities (qtd. in Wilken Early
Christians’ recognition of all people in their society was significant, especially since Christianity
initially began, again, as an urban movement, this setting being relevant to understanding another reason
for the lure of Christianity. A general despair and disillusionment with the empire and with the world was
felt among the classes during the imperial age of Rome, and while Christianity was not necessarily
responsible for generating these feelings, this atmosphere was conducive to the growing appeal of
Christianity (Bowen 314). Life in the ancient world was far from pleasant as earthquakes and epidemics
were an ever-present threat (Fox 47). After 235 CE, the next fifty years were unstable as a result of civil
wars, barbarian invasions, collapsed trade, rampant inflation (Boren 300). In the cities, people lived in
squalor and filth and were threatened by crime and disease, and generally many of these people had little
official recourse for dealing with their problems, having to turn, if possible, to local affiliations like, for
example, clubs for help with burials. According to Brown, “Traditional paganism had expressed itself
through forms as impersonal as the universe itself” (World 52). This world was identified with suffering,
physical and spiritual: “contempt for the human condition and hatred of the body was a disease endemic in
the entire culture of the period” (Dodds 35). What people wanted, then, was a connection with others that
gave them some sort of identity. Brown argues that Christianity paradoxically stressed certain moral
standards yet “made almost no innovations:” “Much of what is claimed as distinctively ‘Christian’ in the
morality of the early churches was in reality the distinctive morality of a different segment of Roman
society from those we know from the literature of the wellborn” (25). Christianity, basically, redirected
focus, from the wealthy upper class to everyone else, offering people relief from the weight of the world.
People enduring such conditions would have accepted claims that the end of days was near,
longing “for relief, for hope, indeed for salvation” (Stark Rise 161). This Hobbesian world was very real to
its inhabitants. Unfortunately, for them, the official state religion offered little – physical and spiritual –
relief (Fox 95-98). Indeed, while some epitaphs make references to an afterlife, Romans typically did not
have established doctrines concerning anything after life, especially in the ways that Christians do (Warrior
39). Indeed, traditional Roman religion was primarily concerned with the present life and with the status
quo: “throughout antiquity . . . religion served to strengthen the existing social order” (MacMullen
Paganism 57); even more, “the masses’ faith . . . [was] stimulated so as to direct their thoughts upward in
reverence for nobility” (59). Fox comments, “[L]ike the city’s culture, the economic life of the towns was
propelled from the top” (59). The upper classes spent their wealth on themselves and on the state, large
sums meant to maintain “the sense of continued enjoyment and prestige of its regular citizens,” not to
relieve the burden of the huge numbers of poor people (Brown Late 17). While the state religion provided
for the few possessing wealth and power, everyone else was generally dependent on their patronage (Fox
60). If the poor were offered any charity, generally it resulted from donations to the state (for example, for
the erection of temples) by the wealthy so as to garner recognition for themselves and for their cities, aid
for the poor being merely a consequence (Brown Late 25). Of course, all of this is not meant to imply that
all wealthy Romans ignored the poor; some wealthy people did show concern for the poor, but such
concern was more individual than general (for example, Plotinus’ turning his house into an orphanage
[Dodds 27]). Charity on a grand scale within the empire and by the empire was a rarity; poor people
generally were despised by the wealthy for, among other things, being lazy (MacMullen Social 118). Thus,
Christianity suddenly came to appeal to people who felt abandoned and neglected (Brown World 67).
E. Christianity’s Response to People’s Basic Needs
1. Health Care
In the third century CE, the general popularity of Christianity partly resulted from its fulfilling the
basic needs of people, particularly those suffering from crowded, squalid conditions in the cities. And
interestingly enough, as Brown remarks, “to be a Christian in 250 brought more protection from one’s
fellows than to be a civis romanus” (World 67). With the primary concern of religion in general being “to
make the sick well” (MacMullen Paganism 49), Christianity won many converts. Hector Avalos notes
that, though the coming of God’s kingdom is a prominent theme in the New Testament, “health is portrayed
as one of the most persistent practical concerns of those who eventually converted to Christianity” (2). In
discussing the concept of philanthropia, which entails, among other things, taking care of the less fortunate,
Birger Pearson states that the term is used infrequently in early Christian texts but “comes to be used much
more beginning with Clement of Alexandria and Origen in the third century, being applied to God, Jesus
Christ, and the conduct of Christians” (203). Moreover, Pearson asserts that a significant reason for the
“spread of Christianity and its eventual success in the empire was the Christian ideal and practice of
philanthropy, involving networks of caring people who saw to the needs of the poor and the suffering in
their midst, friends and strangers alike” (212). Christianity attracted many converts by providing benefits
meant to help them to endure and, at times, to overcome the suffering common in the ancient world.
Traditionally, religion and healing were connected; one prayed to a god (or a number of gods) for,
among other requests, health and healing (Beard History 13). People in the ancient world tended to believe
that the gods were the source of sickness and that sickness required divine remedies (for example, cures
coming from oracles) (Compton 304). In fact, the Greco-Roman god whose popularity lasted longest after
the state officially recognized Christianity was Asclepius, who, according to some myths, healed the sick
and revived the dead and attained divine status (Ferguson 223-224). Asclepius was so popular that
Eusebius hated him, recognizing Asclepius as a rival to Jesus (Chuvin 34). Asclepius was a favorite god
among the masses, particularly since he ministered to all, regardless of wealth, status, gender, or age
(Compton 303); Asclepius “was acclaimed as a god who gave help inexpensively, being satisfied with
small thank-offerings” (Pearson 191). The sick seeking Asclepius’ aid would travel to an asclepion to
perform the necessary rituals, part of the ceremony involving “spiritual contemplation” (307). Pearson
explains that Asclepius’ priests’ were motivated to tend to the sick presumably because such healings
“would bring fame to the god and his temples, resulting in the attraction of revenue from the more affluent”
(192). Though Asclepius was the most famous god associated with health, people prayed to a variety of
gods for help. In the Greco-Roman tradition, in keeping with polytheism, people prayed and sacrificed to
many gods or switched to another god if the desired outcome failed to result initially; such acts were at
times complex (reciting various prayers to many gods), cumbersome (traveling relatively far distances), and
expensive (purchasing a number of ingredients for sacrifice and medicine) (Avalos 21-22). In contrast,
Christianity, being monotheistic, kept the process simple and inexpensive: simply have faith in God and
pray from anywhere (Avalos 103).
2. Death
By the third century CE, Christianity achieved popularity for producing miracles, healing and
exorcising merely with the touch of hands (MacMullen Christianizing 40). Of course, this reputation began
with the religion’s founder. Morton Smith, describing the early reputation of Jesus as a healer, states that
doctors, during the time of Jesus, were “inefficient, rare, and expensive. When a healer appeared – a man
who could perform miraculous cures, and who did so for nothing! – he was sure to be mobbed” (9). Jesus
initially acquired fame for being a miracle worker (Smith 22), curing people’s sickness, exorcising their
demons, and raising the dead, though Jesus’ performance of magic was motivated, so Christians argued, not
by ambition but by compassion (Ankarloo and Clark 124). And this love extended beyond the physical
world. In fact, one consequence of Jesus’ resurrection was the opportunity for salvation after death for his
believers (Meeks 181). Generally, to the upper classes and the educated, startling and repugnant was the
concept of resurrection, an act only a magician could perform (MacMullen Christianizing 12-13). While
other religions, besides Christianity, were associated with the idea of an afterlife (the cult of Isis, for
example), pagans did not necessarily believe that the resurrection of divine beings resulted in blessings for
the believers (MacMullen Paganism 55). Even Asclepius, who supposedly raised the dead, did not offer
salvation in some afterlife (224). Moreover, no Greco-Roman religious institution established and
promoted an authoritative view of the afterlife (Most 309). In fact, as Fox notes, “Thinking pagans had
worried more about the beginning of the world than about its possible end” (265).
Many people, nevertheless, believed in the existence of souls (Toynbee 34). The official state
religion of Rome was not typically concerned with the afterlife (Beard History 289); less concerned with
one’s immediate end as well as with the world’s general end, Roman religion in general demonstrated more
anxiety over one’s present state of affairs. Fox remarks that, while some people were afraid of what would
happen to them after they died, more people were fearful of the anger of the dead directed toward the living
(98). Romans generally believed that the dead had powers; thus, if properly honored, the dead supplied
aid; if disrespected or neglected, however, the dead, motivated by spite, brought harm (Toynbee 35).
Although Romans generally had no fixed beliefs about the afterlife, they were at least somewhat
preoccupied about burial. Since people believed that the gods were involved in human affairs, rituals were
performed to ensure that people were in “a fit state for keeping company with the divine” (Fox 83). Death
was no exception. While the wealthy could afford to have built lavish tombs and monuments and to hire
caretakers (for example, slaves) to bury them properly, the less affluent, if they were unable to find a
sponsor, had to find other means to prepare for their burials. One option was joining a burial association
(Dixon 115), a funeral club to which one paid dues and performed a variety of duties such as retrieving the
bodies of members if they died while traveling abroad (Warrior 33-35). Although these clubs provided the
poor the opportunity to have a proper funeral, these associations were still restrictive, for example, not
allowing admittance to women (Beard History 297). Those unable to find a sponsor or to afford the dues to
be members of funeral clubs were buried or cremated anonymously in mass public cemeteries (Warrior 35).
Since these clubs typically had a religious association (Toynbee 55), Christians naturally were able to
establish their own clubs. They differed from the traditional clubs specifically in accepting people of
various rank and occupation, men and women, freedmen and slaves (Fox 325), and the churches took care
of the deceased’s family, especially that of martyrs, and sponsored banquets and memorials (Ferguson
244). In particular, during major crises, like a town’s being closed due to plague, the Christians, being the
most organized group in the area, took charge in relieving the sick and burying the dead, with all costs
covered by the church (Brown Late 67).
Thus, on many levels, Christianity proved appealing. Christianity not only healed the sick and
provided physical relief from pain and hunger and isolation of everyday life for many people, Christian and
pagan, but also ministered to many people’s spiritual needs. Frend states, “Christianity in the second
century provided an alternative way of life and a promise of salvation to those whom custom and ancestral
beliefs no longer inspired” (“Early” 61). And A.D. Nock states that the church was “not an organization
for the sanctification of the souls in the present so much as a nursery of the people of the future” (243).
MacMullen contends that pagan conversion to Christianity was significantly influenced by what
pagans observed practiced among Christians (“Conversion” 184). Christian promises of a heavenly
afterlife were inspiring, particularly to those enduring much suffering in the world of the living; however,
pagans were generally amazed by Christian charity, which was, at the same time, motivated by beliefs in an
afterlife (doing good to gain entry into Heaven). Galen, for example, though finding most Christian
religious ideas ridiculous (Wilken Christians 92), admired their ethics (82). In fact, Christian ethical
beliefs and practices were perhaps what first attracted the attention of the Roman society (Wilken
Christians 82). In discussing the effects of two epidemics, one in 165 CE and the other in 251 CE, Stark
argues that “had classical society not been disrupted and demoralized by these catastrophes, Christianity
might never have become so dominant a faith” (Rise 74). When disease afflicted many, not discriminating
between pagans and Christians, many pagans, including Galen, fled the cities, abandoning the dead and the
sick, friends and families. Christian charity, already a developed discipline among the Christians,
motivated Christians to bury the dead and to nurse the dying, regardless of religious affiliation. Such acts
impressed many pagans and even influenced conversion: “The Wonder-worker puts an end to an outbreak
of plague . . . and the pagans thereupon turn to his God” (MacMullen “Conversion” 187).
3. Miracle
Even more, that a number of Christians survived the plague surprised pagans and led them to
believe that their survival resulted from miracles associated with their religion (Stark Rise 75). MacMullen
contends that belief in miracles, more so than a desire for blessings or a fear of death, was most influential
in attracting converts (Christianizing 108). Pagans and Christians accepted as fact that miracles occurred
(MacMullen Christianizing 22). Nock remarks that, “while a miracle did not necessarily attract all who
saw it to new worship, the principle was fully accepted that miracle proved deity” (91). MacMullen, trying
to answer why so many pagans converted to Christianity, responds: “Converts sought reality, they sought
truth” (Paganism 93). And MacMullen adds that truth was conveyed through the display of supernatural
powers (95-96). Thus, to those suffering from sickness, anyone who managed to avoid contracting the
plague or who managed to overcome it appeared to possess miraculous healing powers. Since Roman
religion was generally pragmatic, such cures by Christians served as a testament to that religion’s power
and validity.
F. Martyrdom
Moreover, at the popular level, many pagans converted as a consequence of their amazement in
witnessing Christian imperturbability in the face of persecutions; MacMullen describes the state of mind of
a pagan, the jailer of incarcerated Christians being held to die: “their conduct is beyond nature, a real god
must be at work – in short, they [the Christians] constitute a miracle” (185). And Christians, in establishing
their identities and displaying their devotion to their faith, were eager to popularize the acts of the martyrs,
what Christian texts described as “athletes and prizefighters in a supernatural combat” (Fox 436). Fox
states, “Martyrdom brought great publicity and near-universal admiration. It had no use for sophistication
or for a complex awareness of the complexities in human choices. It required a simple, persistent response,
which was admirable even if it irritated others and had only to be repeated to attain its end” (441).
Christianity, with the examples of the martyrs, was able to demonstrate a remarkable spiritual dedication
not typical in the Roman world. As Dodds explains, “Christianity . . . was judged to be worth living for
because it was seen to be worth dying for” (132). This earnestness contrasted with the opportunism of
philosophy, at least the public image of philosophy: “Philosophers became hucksters, salesmen marketing
the ideas and beliefs of their respective schools” (Wilken Christian 74). In fact, the typical indication of a
good philosopher to most contemporary observers was found not so much in what he argued but more in
how he died (Most 305). By the fourth century CE, with Christianity becoming officially recognized and
paganism losing its dominance, “paganism appears as a kind of living corpse, which begins to collapse
from the moment when the supporting hand of the State is withdrawn from it” (Dodds 132). In fact, while
Julian tried to reestablish traditional Roman religious practices while he was emperor, he found Christianity
to be a formidable rival: “Julian wanted his priests to fulfill the same role that Constantine had assigned to
Christians; pagan priests were to be agents of social change and also of social control. Not only did
Christians have a thirty-year head start, the pagans were handicapped in that they were not taken seriously”
(Murdoch 141). Indeed, a telling sign of the difficulty Julian faced was his trying to convert the eastern
troops of Constantius to paganism and needing at times to resort to bribery (Bowersock 106).
G. Christian Intellectuals and the Failure of Philosophy
Christian concerns for people’s material needs influenced the religion’s general appeal. However,
despite claims by critics like Celsus, Porphyry, and Julian concerning Christianity’s absence of anything
intellectual, Christianity defended itself with rational arguments composed by brilliant thinkers. A number
of early Christian intellectuals discovered Christianity in similar ways, by first studying different
philosophies, finding them dissatisfying, and finally studying and accepting Christianity. MacMullen
remarks that such a pattern could be natural (a process based on typical intellectual pursuits) or fictional
(biographical information disseminated for purposes of propaganda) or both, which MacMullen believes to
be most likely the case (Christianizing 30).
These brilliant men used their philosophical and rhetorical training to defend their faiths against the
criticism attacking their beliefs. Neoplatonism, led by Celsus, in the second century CE challenged
Christianity, criticizing Christianity for its stressing faith over reason and its promotion of the Incarnation
and other miracles (Wallis 100-101). Yet, by the third century CE, Origen and other Christian Apologists,
using their Hellenistic education and training, “were endeavouring to supplement authority by reason”
while “pagan philosophy tended increasingly to replace reason by authority” (Dodds 122). Though
Neoplatonism served as the “last intellectual challenge to Christianity in the paganism of the fourth
century,” it was overcome by Christian thinkers who usurped some of its metaphysical ideas and
incorporated them into Christian theology (Ferguson 391). Even more, Christian thinkers used the
criticisms of the philosophers into arguments to refute the philosophers. As the philosophers ridiculed
Christianity for being superstitio, early Christian apologists sharpened their rhetorical skills and counterattacked, at times with their critics’ arguments, as did Origen and Eusebius, “appropriating . . .
philosophical attacks on ‘superstition’ to attack Greek religion and even philosophy itself” (Martin 212).
Ironically, in being the object of attack by philosophers, early Christian thinkers had the opportunity to
develop, to strengthen, and to promote their ideas in ways which Christianity, as initially a new and obscure
religion, was incapable. The intelligent critics of Christianity studied Greek rhetoric and logic, subjects
they used as weapons, seeking to ridicule Christianity by undermining basic principles and by indicating
inconsistencies and contradictions. To defend Christianity from these attacks, the Apologists had to be as
intellectually capable.
Fortunately for Christianity, a number of early Christian thinkers developed their rhetorical skills
and philosophical insights through this Hellenistic education (Wilken Early 275). Werner Jaeger explains
that Christianity was able to establish itself in the Mediterranean world fairly quickly partly because it had
ties to Hellenism – Paul addressed Hellenized Jews, speaking Greek and using “all the subtleties of Greek
logical argumentation” (6-7). Case contends that Christian missionaries and preachers would have had
difficulty winning converts without the use of traditional Greco-Roman ideas: “success would have been
slight had they not used the terminology which was familiar to their hearers and shown that the new
religion . . . conserved and enhanced the values of the old” (7). While Christians preached a new religion,
they did not neglect the traditional philosophical and educational foundations of Roman society. Although
Christians criticized philosophy, they incorporated philosophical ideas into their beliefs and used
philosophical argumentative strategies. Moreover, in large part due to the general philosophical quest for
truth, “philosophy in late antiquity had remarkable capacity for innovation” (De Haas 254), so Christian
thinkers’ usage, development, and reinterpretation of previous philosophical thought was typical among
philosophers at the time.
Around the middle of the second century CE, Christian thinkers, not just writing to fellow Christians
but now responding to their critics, adopted Greek methods so as to explain and to argue their beliefs in the
Greco-Roman world, an example being Justin Martyr’s dialogue with Trypho (Jaeger 26-27). Fox notes
that “articulate, thinking Christians tended . . . to emphasize the general certainty which they found in their
new faith” (333). Many of these Christian thinkers, like Justin, initially studied various Greek philosophies
in a pursuit of truth but failed to find much satisfaction until they discovered Christianity. For Arnobius,
Christianity was “a deliverance from what had been burdensome and stupid and unworthy” (Nock 258).
Benko remarks, “Thus it was a quest for philosophical truth that led Justin to Christianity,” which he
believed to be “comparable and superior to other contemporary philosophies” (144). These early Christian
thinkers’ pursuit of knowledge was really more a pursuit of god, their education being more a metaphysical
longing after something more certain and secure than anything offered in the physical world (MacMullen
Christianizing 68-69), a world, according to Dodds, felt to be filled with evil, all too subject to strife and
instability, and ultimately absurd with regard to a person’s place in it (12-13).
Dodds’ depiction might be exaggerating this sense of absurdity, people in general; however,
according to Brown, “fitted less easily into their communities and felt out of place in the physical world
(World 56). Christianity, in contrast, offered people “in miniature a world that accepted permanent ties of
unalloyed loyalty to a high-pitched class of ‘friends of God’” (Making 74). Frend remarks that Christianity
“combined truth with inspiration for moral reform” (173); traditional philosophy, in wrangling over
philosophical issues, failed to provide sufficient answers and solutions and subsequently produced, among
its students, mockery and exasperation (171). St. Basil declares that he wasted his time studying
philosophy, realizing “the uselessness of wisdom of the princes of this world” after he had “arose and
gazed toward the miraculous light of the Messiah” (qtd. in MacMullen Christianizing 69).
While acquiring a training in rhetoric and oratory and studying philosophy in the search for absolute
truths about the divinity, many intelligent young men from pagan families found Christianity and converted
largely because Christianity stressed the importance of the individual, as opposed to the prevailing
philosophy of the time, Neoplatonism, which was largely impersonal and abstract. While emphasizing the
individual’s significance, at the same time, Christianity also fostered a sense of community. Wilken states,
“Christianity is inescapably social” (Early 194), attracting a wider audience with its promises of hope and
its supply of material relief, all of it shared within the Christian community. For many people in the
Roman world, Christianity fostered a sense of belonging and offered them perhaps “the only way of
maintaining their self-respect and giving their life some semblance of meaning” (Dodds 137).
Justin Martyr, an early Christian apologist, serves to illustrate the failings of Hellenistic philosophy,
having converted to Christianity as an adult after having been trained in philosophy and making the subject
his practice (Wilken Early 4-5), claiming to have found “a life that was ‘sure and fulfilling’” (Wilken Early
268). Even after converting to Christianity, Justin, like others who followed a similar path, still considered
himself a philosopher and was considered to be enough of a philosopher that other philosophers attacked
him (Marrou 326). And about his conversion, Tatian, one of Justin’s students, writes in his Address to the
Greeks: “So, when I saw these things <the stupidity of Greek religion and cultures>, I also took part in
mysteries and tested the rituals performed everywhere by effeminates and androgynes. . . . Retiring on my
own, I began to ask how I could find out the truth” (Beard Sourcebook 332).
Apparently the traditional religious beliefs and practices could not satisfy this desire for truth. In
fact, the philosophers’ criticism against Christianity served also as criticism against certain pagan beliefs in
general (Simon 389). Philosophy, thus, inadvertently created the weaponry that was trained against Roman
religion and Greek philosophy itself. MacMullen describes the conversion of one individual who studied
Greek philosophy but eventually accepted the Christian faith: “I have learned that [Greek] writings lead to
our being judged and condemned, but that these others put an end to our slavery” (“Conversion” 184). And
Brown describes a general dissatisfaction felt by young men studying philosophy and traveling the empire
and discovering the lack of cultural homogeneity. Brown describes Tatian as a young man trekking from
Syria to Rome and returning home “disgruntled – and a Christian” (World 60).
And though Christianity was described by many of its detractors as appealing to the destitute and the
dumb, Christianity in the middle of the second century CE had the semblance of philosophy due to the
Apologists’ debating and writing about their faith and their discussing ethics, cosmology, and primarily
theology (Jaeger 32). While Justin presented himself as a philosopher and while many intellectual converts
to Christianity considered Christianity a philosophy as well as a religion, Christianity, as a philosophy,
distinguished itself from Hellenistic philosophy in at least one significant way. As H.I. Marrou explains:
Christianity was an intellectual religion but it was a religion for the masses, and the humblest of the
faithful, however elementary their intellectual development, received something equivalent to what
the culture of antiquity had haughtily reserved for a philosophical elite – a doctrine about being and
life, an inner life and spiritual direction. (339)
Chadwick, in relating some of the reasons why Christianity drew early converts, concludes that the primary
draw was that Christianity “directly answered to the human quest for true happiness – by which more is
meant than feeling happy” (55). Christianity created a society in which people could find some sense of
security and kinship and hope for salvation. This communal foundation certainly appealed to the poor,
oppressed, and neglected inhabitants of the Roman Empire, yet many upper class citizens, though in the
minority, turned to Christianity as well since Christianity “aimed to reform the heart, not the social order”
(for example, not openly challenging slavery) (Fox 299).
Although Christian Apologists provided Christianity a firm intellectual foundation, Christianity
maintained its focus as a religion concerned with the welfare of the soul. It did not stray into the realms of
philosophy, forgetting its main mission; Christianity kept itself distinguished from pagan philosophy.
Pagan philosophy, besides influencing only a very small fraction of the population, was too weak to appeal
to the real needs of people who were not satisfied with Roman religion which, by the third century CE, had
created “a crushing sense of social distance between the notables, the ‘wellborn,’ and their inferiors”
(Brown Late 4). According to Brown, “The philosopher had never seriously considered addressing the
masses” (Late 13). Greco-Roman philosophy developed from Platonic thought and generally did not
undergo any “substantial change” after assuming its “classical and definitive form” a generation after
Aristotle (Marrou 95); it developed from the ideas of Plato, who “was less concerned with the education of
the ordinary citizen than with the problem of how to train political technicians” (Marrou 64).
Philosophy, essentially, was an option of study for an extremely elite educated class and, for even
this group and definitely the population at large, had little if any influence on their personal lives (Martin
168). In fact, by the time of Constantine, philosophy was widely ridiculed because it was perceived as a
forum of debaters arguing nonsense: “Disciplined abstract thought, tested by challenges made sharp in the
course of fierce fights over many, many centuries, the challenges themselves not to be handled or even
understood by the casual observer, had passed from favor” (MacMullen Paganism 71). While Christianity
perhaps initially won worshippers among the poor and oppressed, by 200 CE, converts to Christianity were
coming from the “lower middle classes and . . . respectable artisans of the cities” (Brown World 62). This
widening gap, Christianity was only to ready to fill. As Brown relates, “The Christian community suddenly
came to appeal to men who felt deserted” (World 67). Wallis asserts that Neoplatonism “might have
produced firmer results” if it had associated itself with some of the “new saviour-cults, such as that of Isis
or Mithras,” adding that “Porphyry was right in regarding such methods as more immediately helpful than
philosophy to the average man” (108).
H. Organization
Christianity was able to take advantage of the general decline of paganism in the third and fourth
centuries CE because Christians had already organized themselves, establishing churches in major cities
across the empire and offering assistance to those in need. As Brown relates, the church “could emerge as
the unwitting midwife of those very social changes that had weakened the hold of its rivals” (Making 74).
The Christian church in Rome in 248 CE was staffed by 155 clergy members who cared for fifteen hundred
widows and poor people, a group rivaling Rome’s largest trade association (Brown Late 34). Moreover,
the church, according to Brown, was “plainly more complex and more rich in economic and intellectual
resources than the stereotype . . . presented at the time by pagan polemic” (Making 58). Of course, such
organization partly stemmed from a desire for solidarity in a large and crowded world where the Christian,
if noticed, was recognized as a pariah: “Christians . . . needed and got from each other special comfort
through their comradely congregations” (MacMullen Social 83). Chadwick remarks that Celsus recognized
“the close-knit structure and coherence of the Christians as a social group, and saw in this the principal
source of Christian strength” (54). Indeed, as H.A. Drake stresses:
The one thing the Christian God had that no other deity in the ancient world could match was, not
the advantages of either monotheism or intolerance, but an organizational core in the person of its
bishops – local leaders who held their local communities together and who also had a tradition of
periodic meetings to work out solutions to common problems. (131)
Julian also was keenly aware that Christianity’s strength resulted from its organization and its appeal from
its practice of charity. While Julian, during his brief reign as emperor, busied himself restoring temples and
reviving pagan ceremonies and festivals (Bradbury 346), he knew that he had more significant changes to
Chapter 5
In attempting to revive paganism and to rival Christianity, Julian understood that, to have any
success undermining Christianity, he had to offer people what Christianity already provided. As Chuvin
explains, Julian, in reorganizing pagan temples, directed pagan priests to imitate Christians in their
charitable acts and to reorganize pagan religion based on the Christian model. Birger Pearson remarks,
“Despite his hatred of the ‘atheistic’ religion of the ‘Galileans’ . . ., he used the Christian practice of
‘philanthropy’ as a model” (186). Julian declares, “Don’t we see that nothing fostered atheism [i.e.,
Christianity] more than kindness with foreigners, attention to burials, false respectability in their way of
life” (qtd. in Chuvin 47). While critical of Christianity, Julian acknowledged its popularity and
comprehended the means of its appeal among the masses. Chadwick contends, “The practical application
of charity was probably the most potent single cause of Christian success” (56). By the time of Julian,
whatever little authority and tradition remained associated with paganism were nothing compared to the
benefits gained from being Christian. Furthermore, when Christianity was firmly established as the
religion of Rome, pagans were generally powerless to respond since they lacked “a cohesive spirit and
shared sense of purpose” as did the Christians when they were mocked and persecuted (Bradbury 345-346).
Pearson remarks, “Julian was promoting a cause that had already been lost” (213). While paganism
markedly declined after Constantine officially established law to recognize Christianity and after Julian
failed to extinguish it, paganism did not disappear completely. Many people still practiced ancient rites and
still held traditional beliefs, but the worship of the old gods was limited to individual practice as opposed to
public ceremony (Chuvin 10).
In the end, Christianity’s triumph, while not obviously inevitable nor predictable, appears less
remarkable given the conditions of the Roman Empire from the beginning of the third century CE through
the middle of the fourth century. Christianity responded to a world-weariness illustrated by a general
dissatisfaction with the status quo. As Nock observes, Christianity “had no doubt an attraction for many
who found life heavy and unjust and who looked for conditions under which its inequalities would be set
right” (246). And a significant number of people in Rome and in the Empire as a whole were affected by
these inequalities, whether or not they recognized the differences or even bothered to question the great
divide between rich and poor. As Brown emphasizes, Roman history essentially reveals the way “10 per
cent of the population . . . fed themselves . . . from the labours of the remaining 90 per cent who worked the
land” (World 12). Although most people accepted this situation and resigned themselves to their
sufferings, many poor people nevertheless hated the wealthy; however, because they had no real recourse
or available resources, they did nothing to provoke change: “There could be no revolution of rising
expectations when in fact few expected to rise” (MacMullen Social 119). Christianity, then, responded to a
need to effect change without necessarily altering the established system. Temporary relief from pain and
loneliness could be found within the Christian community; eternal salvation could be achieved through the
grace of their savior. Nock states that Christianity promoted a belief that people are “capable by divine
favour of receiving salvation and destined at the end to become a glorified unity” (249). No doubt, while
the poor benefited from Christian charity, Christians practicing this charity as well acquired a greater sense
of purpose: “Alms to the poor were an essential part of the prolonged reparation of penitents and the
normal remedy for lesser, venial sins . . . that did not require public penance” (Brown Late 41). Overall,
what Christianity offered for many marginalized people, besides promises of salvation, was a sense of
community in an otherwise harsh and unforgiving world (Dodds 136-137).
Certainly, Christians, after Christianity became the official religion of Rome, behaved in ways much
like their previous persecutors, intolerant of pagan religions and their worshippers (Fox 671-672). And no
doubt, many Christian converts, especially after Constantine’s promotion of Christianity, were insincere,
seeking wealth and rank, ambitiously using Christianity to further personal interest (MacMullen
Christianizing 114-115). Nevertheless, early Christianity had much to recommend itself. With its focus on
social welfare, Christianity proved capable of responding to a cold conservatism intent on maintaining the
existing conditions in which those with wealth and power both neglected and exploited the masses. In
stressing what he believes to be one of the most striking features of Christianity, its emphasis on religion
being a social affair, Wilken, discussing the thoughts of Paul and Augustine, remarks, “Peace can be
realized only in community and enjoyed only when all the members of the community share in that good”
(Early 196). Early Christianity began with noble goals – with Jesus instructing his disciples “to teach them
to observe all that I have commanded you (Matthew 28:19) – and grew gradually by attracting adherents
through its liberal spirit and progressive principles.
Although Christian Apologists argued that the Roman Empire was ultimately saved by God (Brown
World 84), material considerations played no mean role in attracting pagans to Christianity. Fox states:
In cities of growing social divisions, Christianity offered unworldly equality. It preached, and at its
best it practiced, love in a world of widespread brutality. It offered certainty and won conviction
where the great venture of Greek philosophy was widely perceived to have argued itself into the
ground. By 250, it was still the persecuted faith of a small minority, but its progress was sufficient
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