By Dr Nigel Pollard
Last updated 2011-02-17
Christianity in the Roman Empire
Roman tolerance did not extend to religions that it perceived as threats to public order within the empire. Cults such as Isis-worship were banned from time to time, when their practice caused unrest. Judaism was widespread throughout the empire, but its exclusive monotheism combined with a strong nationalist ideology in Judaea itself led to conflicts with, and ferocious revolts against, Roman authority - although these were bloodily repressed.
Christianity was sporadically persecuted throughout Roman history, primarily to maintain public order. Groups that met privately (whether religious sects, trade guilds or even local fire brigades!) were viewed with suspicion by Roman authorities, who suspected such groups of plotting subversion.
Christian unwillingness to worship traditional gods, or to sacrifice for the health of the empire, was also viewed as undermining the religious security of the state. Nevertheless (perhaps for reasons connected with the contemporary political climate) the emperor Constantine (who gained control of the western part of the empire in AD 312) not only tolerated but officially favoured Christianity.
Pagan culture and religious practice remained important through the fourth century AD, but in AD 392 the emperor Theodosius I forbade pagan worship, and Christianity effectively became the official religion of the Roman state.
The image shown here is that of a fresco on a ceiling vault in a Christian catacomb - the catacomb of S. Peter and S. Marcellinus (a catacomb is an underground burial chamber - especially associated with Rome). It probably dates to the early fourth century AD, about the time of Constantine's accession. The central image is that of the Good Shepherd with his sheep. It can certainly be read as a Christian image, but it is also found in pagan iconography. Given past persecution, it is not surprising that much early Christian imagery is ambiguous and has to be interpreted in its context.
This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.