How did Christianity Fit into the Religious Context of Ancient Rome?

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Roman Empire: From Augustus to the Fall of Rome

By Gregory Aldrete, Ph.D., University of Wisconsin, Green Bay

The beginning of the fourth century A.D. saw a surprising leap in the expansion of a religion. Christianity, a previously obscure religion for the past three centuries, suddenly took a turn and became the official religion of the empire. The emperor himself converted to Christianity, and all subsequent emperors would do the same (with one exception). For the first few hundred years after the birth of Christianity, it was largely unknown to most Romans. Some might have never heard of it as there were hundreds of unknown cults and religions around the whole empire. However, Christianity was fundamentally different from most of the religions at that time.  

Picture showing the Capitoline Triad of Juno, Jupiter, and Minerva.
People in Ancient Rome worshiped a wide variety of gods.
(Image: Sailko/CC BY 3.0/Public domain)

Ancient Rome: A Religious Melting Pot

In ancient Rome, a wide array of gods, demigods, and spirits were worshiped. First and foremost, there were the traditional gods of Mount Olympus like Jupiter, Neptune, Mars, and Venus, each having their additional epithets. These epithets referred to a particular feature of the god and were often worshiped separately. For example, Jupiter had 19 epithets or roles.

Another subject of worship included humans who had gained divine status, which were called demigods, such as Hercules and Romulus.

The list of worshiped objects does not end here. There were entities that we could call nature spirits, such as trees and water nymphs. Virtually all geographic features were seen as a deity, and every flowing body of water had a divine spirit in it.

Abstract qualities were also personified and worshiped as gods. For example, Fortuna was the goddess of luck, and Victoria was the goddess of victory.

The list was constantly expanding with deities borrowed from other civilizations like Egyptian, Etruscan, and Germanic gods. So, the notion of godhood in Roman culture is not a single one and contains a wide variety of divine entities.

The Roman gods did not have a clear-cut hierarchy. Certain gods were related to specific cities and professions, so they were worshiped by the people of that particular profession or place. Also, rituals were conducted by ordinary people as there were very few professional priests.  

People were free to choose as many gods as they wished to worship, as it was a personal choice. For example, a Roman might pray to a major Olympian god such as Neptune; his neighbor would be devoted to an Egyptian god like Amon-Ray, and another one would worship a tree in his yard. There were also gods affiliated with the State, such as Jupiter and Mars. Occasionally, people would gather to worship these gods. All in all, this disorganized mess of polytheism was personalized and tolerant.

This is a transcript from the video series The Roman Empire: From Augustus to the Fall of Rome. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The Birth of a New Religion

Early Christianity was mostly a branch of Judaism. Jesus was born in the Roman province of Judea to a Jewish family and was raised a Jew. It is highly likely that he was born around 4 B.C., which means our calendar is behind by a few years. He was a contemporary of Augustus and practiced his ministry during his reign. It is interesting that the two men who had the most significant influence over the next millennium lived at the same time. Jesus wandered about his home province and preached his message of love and tolerance. He was crucified around the year 30 A.D., although the exact year is not clear. But it was only after his death that Christianity developed ideas of salvation and resurrection.

Learn more about gods of the Roman State.

Christianity, Unique in Many Aspects

In contrst to other religions, Christianity vehemently promoted monotheism. For Christians, there was only one legitimate god, and all other deities of any kind were false. Christianity, and also Judaism, were the only religions that believed in monotheism. Even some of the more intense pagan cults, such as Mithraism, never insisted on monotheism and a single god worthy of devotion.

Pietro Perugino's depiction of the Crucifixion as Stabat Mater, 1482.
Jesus was crucified around 30 A.D.
(Image: Pietro Perugino/Public domain)

Another major difference between Christianity and other religions was that almost none of the previous religions had a sacred text. The Bible defined what principles its believers followed and claimed to be the instructions directly received from God. No one had ever heard of a ‘Book of Jupiter’, and the idea of a book coming from a god would be weird for Romans. Again, Judaism was similar to Christianity in that it had a holy script, the Torah.

Another aspect of Christianity that was unique was its private, individualized nature. On the other hand, most pagan religions promoted public and collective rituals. In those religions, rituals and sacrifices were performed in large crowds in front of temples and in the form of festivals. In contrast, Christianity was all about the relationship between an individual and God. Christian prayers were also performed indoors.

Learn more about the crisis of the third century.

Common Questions about How Did Christianity Fit into the Religious Context of Ancient Rome?

Q: How many gods did ancient Rome have?

Ancient Rome had a wide array of gods and demigods. There were Olympian gods, like Jupiter and Neptune. Demigods were human beings with divine status, like Hercules and Romulus. Even geographical features, trees, and bodies of water would be worshiped.

Q: Was ancient Rome monotheistic?

Ancient Rome was not monotheistic. There was a wide variety of gods, and everyone could worship as many gods as they wished. In addition to these, they were expected to pay homage to the gods that the empire would specify.

Q: How many years ago was Jesus alive?

Jesus was most likely born in 4 B.C. So, our calendars might be off by a few years. He was crucified around the year 30 A.D.

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