Roman Pagans and Christians

Holding on to Pagan Traditions in the Early Christian era: The Symmachi Panel

The Symmachi Panel shows a priestess giving a small offering at an alter. It is made of ivory, 32 x 13 cm and is now at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris

In the final analysis, the reason Christianity won out over the popular and non-philosophical dualist, lordified Paganism of Rome is that Christianity removed fear of the many capricious human-like gods.

Early Christian and Pagan Persecutions of Each Other (Parts 1 and 2)

This is a decent summery, especially when combined with this comment on Part 1 by Alessio Renzoni:

The major persecutions against Christians of which there are clear accounts were those under Marcus Aurelius, a second with Decius and Valerian and a third, called the "great persecution", with Diocletian. They ended with the edict of Nicomedia of 311 issued by the emperor Galerius, confirmed by the edict of Milan of 313 promulgated by Constantine I.

The Christians could have avoided martyrdom by sacrificing to the Roman gods without renouncing their faith, while the pagans were not allowed this, they had to cancel their faith and convert. The pagans would not have bothered one more God, there were several of foreign divinities in Rome, in the barracks and in the circuses there were chapels where everyone prayed to his God, with a tolerance that made Rome a beacon of civilization. The greatest martyrdom was that reserved for the pagans and concerned the entire Roman empire, both in the West and in the East.

In Christian hagiographic sources we remember, between the second half of the first century. and the beginning of the IV, 10 main persecutions against Christians, which occurred under the emperors: Nero, Domitian, Trajan, Marcus Aurelius, Septimius Severus, Maximin Thrace, Decius, Valerian, Aurelian and Diocletian.

The first persecution, that of Nero, also witnessed by Tacitus, broke out in 64 when Christians were accused of having started the Great Fire of Rome which destroyed a large part of the city of Rome. According to tradition, the apostles Peter and Paul were killed in this persecution.

In the following two and a half centuries, Christianity always remained an illegal religion and Christians guilty of impiety when they refused sacrifices to the Roman gods. But the ten "great persecutions" listed above were alternated with periods of tranquility and tolerance. Estimates of Christian martyrs are unclear. Hagiographic sources generally do not provide reliable data, and in the 1st and 2nd centuries there was no imperial decree ordering an organized persecution of Christians for their faith. The killings and condemnations were limited episodes, linked to concrete sins that were attributed to them, and were also accompanied by favorable attitudes in some of the emperors.

The serious crisis of the third century of the empire was instead the cause of an attitude of greater hostility in general, also due to the greater weight assumed by the Christian communities, especially in the eastern regions of the empire. The persecutions ceased with the Milan edict of 313, in which Constantine I recognized freedom of worship for Christians, while allowing the profession of paganism.

Julian the Apostate, the last pagan emperor of Rome, did not forbid Christian worship, because he supported freedom of worship. Only he forbade Christians to teach Greek and Roman literature, which Christians opposed and condemned, often in a violent way, so much so that another element of the Christian conflict with the Pagans.

In 380 the emperor Theodosius I issued the edict of Thessalonica with which he proclaimed Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, drastically prohibiting any other type of cult under penalty of death and confiscation of all family assets, thus starting the persecution of the pagans.