Throughout the Roman republic and most of the empire, the Roman religion was polytheistic. The religion was based on the Greek religion and included multiple gods and goddesses who were anthropomorphic and cruel. However, during the first century of the Common Era, Judaism and “mystery religions” such as Mithraism, Eleusis, and Christianity were becoming increasing popular. Roman rule tried to control the spread of these religions but eventually Christianity became the chief religion of Rome and its empire.
In the early stages of these new religions, Rome was surprisingly tolerant. Many rulers allowed citizens to practice these religions and asked only for simple patriotism and to recognize the holidays of Roman gods. Most Jews and Christians were uncooperative with this notion. In fact, many radical Jews and Christians emerged. A notable radical Jesus, who was an orthodox Jew, led and taught “the good news” to his followers. This stubborn disobedience enraged rulers such as Nero and Diocletian, who ordered for many Christian persecutions.
Diocletian ordered that churches and sacred books be destroyed throughout the Empire. Nero is best known for a devastating fire which was rumored to have been started by Nero himself. He tried to end these rumors by punishing many Christians as a distraction. Persecutions were common and often resulted in death. Women were persecuted the same as men. Christians accepted Jesus as their messiah after he had been put to a gruesome death under the orders of Pilate. At this time, the Roman Empire was in economic turmoil and Christian persecutions were its last attempt at control.
A major turning point in the history of Christianity occurred in 312 of the current era. The story is told that Constantine, Roman emperor during this time, had a dream telling him to decorate his shield with the Greek letters for Christ. When he did so and was victorious during battle, Constantine decided that he would convert to Christianity. Constantine also ended all persecutions and allowed all Christians to worship freely. Theodosius the Great took the work of Constantine a step further. He forbade any religion to be practiced except Christianity. This movement gave many more privileges to the church.
Churches could now own property and were exempt from certain taxes. Christians were finally free to live and worship. The phenomenon of Christianity was not a battle won easily. There were many cruel and devastating punishments to those who practiced against Roman religion. Men and women were put to death or forced into hiding in the first century. However, as the population of Christians grew rapidly, Roman law found it necessary to revise laws and allow Christianity within the Empire. Christians had won the victory of faith and progressed onward through history.