The Rise of Christianity

Select a Time Period:
1)Up to 200 AD  2)The Diocletian Persecution 303-305 AD  3)The Christian Empire 324-379 AD
4)The Final Demise of Paganism 380-450 AD       5)Christianity in 600 AD

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The Rise of Christianity


     Christianity is today the world’s largest religion, representing at least a quarter of the world’s population. It is also the primary inspiration behind the second largest religion of the world, Islam. Christianity began as a tiny sect of Judaism during the life of Jesus, but in just 4 centuries it had become the dominant religion of the entire Mediterranean World. How did Christianity achieve this tremendous feat?

Roman Unity and the Spread of Christianity
     In the first few centuries of Christianity, the Roman establishment felt threatened by this new religious movement and Christians were at times persecuted under Roman rule (This will be discussed in detail further on). However, the spread of Christianity was only possible because of the stability and unification of the Mediterranean achieved by the Romans. The Romans had successfully unified the entire Mediterranean into a relatively peaceful and prosperous trading system. Communications between the various peoples of the Mediterranean had become streamlined into two major languages: Latin in the Western Mediterranean, and Greek in the Eastern Mediterranean. This prosperity and unification assisted early missionaries such as St. Paul in getting the word out about the new faith. (Map 1 shows the cities across the Mediterranean that St. Paul visited). The early centers of Christianity were the largest cities and the most urbanized provinces on the major trade networks of the Mediterranean.

Christian Healthcare and the Rise of Christianity
    Rodney Stark's book, the Rise of Christianity, argues that one of the main reasons for the success of Early Christianity was the Christian emphasis on caring for the sick. During the late Roman period there were a number of devastating plagues: the Antonine Plague (165-180 AD), the Plague of Cyprian (251-270 AD), and the Plague of Justinian (541–542 AD). These periods coincide with some of the most prolific growth of Christianity. Stark contends that Christian communities would have had better survival rates during these plagues because of the healthcare they provided for one another. Christians also cared for the sick in non-Christian communities, which would increase the likelihood of their conversion, especially in times of death and uncertainty. The old religions offered no explanation for why these epidemics were occurring as the ancients had no real understating of micro-organisms and why communicable diseases spread, Christianity acted as a salvation.

The Roman Persecution of Christians
      During the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, persecutions of Christians were isolated, sporadic and carried out by local governors without any official decree from the Emperor. Whilst the Roman Emperor blamed the Great Fire of Rome of 64 AD on the Christians and persecuted the Christian community of Rome, the persecution was confined to just the city of Rome itself. (Map 1 shows some of the documented incidents of Christian persecutions up to 200 AD).
      By the 3rd and 4th centuries AD, the Christian community had begun to grow substantially, and with this growth came notoriety. A number of Roman emperors began to oppress the Christian faith more directly. For example the Emperor Decius proclaimed in 250 AD that all inhabitants of the Empire must make a sacrifice for the Emperor and the Empire’s well being in front of a magistrate by a certain date. Christians were obstinate in their non-compliance and some church leaders were arrested, tried, and executed such as Fabian, the bishop of Rome.
      The persecution of Christians culminated in the great persecution under the reign of Emperor Diocletian. In a series of edicts starting in 303 AD, Diocletian banned Christians from serving in the army, imprisoned many Christian bishops and priests, ordered the destruction of Christian scriptures and places of worship, and prohibited Christians from assembling for worship. Diocletian requested that the oppression of Christians be pursued "without bloodshed". In spite of this request, local judges often enforced executions during the persecution as capital punishment was among their discretionary powers. According to one modern estimate the Diocletian Persecution resulted in the deaths of up to 3,500 Christians out of a total Christian population of about 6 million. (Source) But many others were imprisoned or lost their property. (Map 2 shows some of the known incidents of martyrdom around the Roman Empire during or immediately after the Diocletian Persecution.) 

 The Roman Attitude towards Christianity
      Why did the early Romans have such an aversion to this new faith? A common perception is that the Romans felt threatened by the Christian’s reverence of a single God, but this then begs the question why were the Jews not also persecuted to the same degree? Some of the other reasons that have been put forth about why Christians were so disliked by the Roman establishment was that the Christians rejected the Roman public festivals, avoided public office and military service, and publicly criticized ancient traditions. But what did the Romans themselves say about the Christian belief system?
      Unfortunately for the historian, all of the Greco-Roman writings that criticized Christian belief were burned by over-zealous Christians in later centuries. For example the writings of the philosopher Porphyry and the Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate were burnt on the orders of the Christian Emperor Theodosius II in 448 AD. For this reason it is difficult for us today to understand why the Romans held such a negative view of Christianity. However, it is possible to begin to piece together what these anti-Christian writings contained because a number of Christian Theologians wrote rebuttals to their works and quoted them extensively.
      In 'The Christians as the Romans Saw Them', Robert Wilkens explains that the Romans had a very conservative attitude towards religion. The Romans had great respect for their own ancestors who they considered to have been closer to the Gods and they also encouraged respect for the ancestors and traditional religions of the other peoples in their Empire. New religious movements on the other hand were regarded as “superstitions”, Christianity in particular was considered to be an apostasy from Judaism. Thus the philosopher Celsus wrote “When the father sent Jesus had he forgotten what commands he had sent to Moses? Or did he condemn his own laws and change his mind?” But the Roman aversion to this new religious movement was confounded by the Christian view that they alone had received special revelation unknown to all others, which the Romans labeled as arrogance. According to this view, God had not cared about the ancestors of the Romans. Thus the Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate wrote: “Why is Judea the only land that God chose to care for? If he is the God of all of us alike, why did he neglect us?”

The Creation of a Christian Empire
      After Emperor Diocletian abdicated in 305 AD, the persecutions of Christians began to subside. Christians came out of hiding and became influential once again. The Roman Emperor Constantine I, (reigned 306-337 AD), was the first Roman Emperor to be converted to Christianity. But he was not the first ruler to become a Christian as the King of Armenia, Tiridates III had already converted to Christianity in 301 AD, a man who had ruthlessly persecuted the Christians in his early reign, and then ruthlessly persecuted non-Christians after his conversion. Constantine I on the other hand was comparatively tolerant of non-Christians, though he did work tirelessly to spread and promote his new faith across the empire. He legislated freedom of religion for Christians and ordered the return of church property that had been confiscated during the persecutions. He was also praised by the Christian historian Sozomen for ensuring that Christians were placed in almost all the principal positions in government.
      During Constantine’s reign, Christians were still only a fifth of the population of the western portions of the Empire, but they already made up approximately half the population of the Eastern provinces. (source) This may have been one of the reasons why Constantine decided to move the capital city of the Roman Empire from Rome to a brand new city that he built in the East called “Constantinople” (see map 3). At his new capital he could surround himself with a loyal Christian population and the city was also easily defendable, being surrounded by sea on 3 sides and mountains on the fourth. The Pagans in the Roman Empire were still too numerous and influential for Constantine to order any large scale demolishment of their temples across the entire empire, nevertheless he did begin to demolish a number of Pagan temples in the Eastern portion of the Empire that were considered to be the most divergent to or competitive with Christian beliefs (namely those of Aphrodite, the Greek Goddess of Love, and Asclepius, the Greek God of Medicine), the entire temple complex and Oracle of Apollo at Didyma was also destroyed by Constantine but this appears to be more as an act of revenge as the priests here had encouraged the earlier persecutions of Christians under Diocletian. (Source) Take a look at map 3 and you will notice that during this period only a small number of Pagan temples were destroyed and they were limited to the eastern portion of the Empire, which was the Christian power base.

      After the reign of Constantine I, all subsequent Roman Emperors were also Christians, with the single exception of Julian the Apostate, whose anti-Christian writings were discussed earlier. Julian the Apostate briefly tried to restore the traditional pagan religions of the Empire, but he only reigned for 2 years. The fate of the Pagans was finally sealed during the reign of Theodosius I (reigned 379-392) who outlawed all Pagan religious festivals and ordered the destruction of all Pagan temples across the Empire. Theodosius also banned the Olympic Games which were seen as a non-Christian celebration. The process of destroying all of the last remnants of Paganism took decades and resulted in riots and street fighting in many areas. In Alexandria, the Pagans had fortified themselves within the Serapeum (the Temple of the Egyptian God Serapis) which was also the location of one of the last remaining libraries of the city (note that the famous Great Library had already been accidentally destroyed centuries earlier) in the ensuing conflict, both the Serapeum and the library were destroyed. (source) Conflicts between the Pagans and Christians of Alexandria continued, in 415 AD, the female Pagan philosopher and mathematician Hypatia was dragged to a church and brutally murdered by a Christian mob. Map 4 shows the Pagan temples that were destroyed during and after the reign of Theodosius I.
      Whilst Paganism was by this point officially outlawed, it was not easy to destroy over a thousand years of pagan religious traditions, and throughout the 5th century AD, Roman emperors would continue to issue new laws forbidding Paganism. In 529 AD, the Emperor Justinian ordered the closure of the Neo-Platonic School of Philosophy in Athens as it was seen as a threat to Christian belief. This event has been seen by many historians as marking the end of Antiquity.

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