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Christianity in the Roman Empire

Many contemporaries would have seen Christianity as essentially a sect or cult of Judaism through much of the 1st century AD. Understandings of it changed as it acquired new adherents. Because it was new, because it rejected other deities, the imperial cult and animal sacrifice, it was often treated with suspicion by the authorities. Periodic persecution encouraged discretion and early Christians met in private homes to worship. This only exacerbated suspicions of their intentions and beliefs. It was not really until the fourth century that purpose-built churches were constructed.

The status of Christians improved considerably with the rise of Constantine. His Edict of Toleration (AD 313) marked an end to the sporadic persecution of Christians while his own Christian inclinations introduced an environment where participation in Christianity had political incentives. While there is no reason to doubt that strength of Constantine’s religious convictions (he demonstrably had a deep understanding of Christian theology) he could also see the potential Christianity had to unify the Empire.

Constantine and subsequent emperors also sponsored and promoted Church Councils, in which the leading clergy and theologians of the Christian faith met to define official Christian practice and theology. The emperor Theodosius played a crucial role by convening a council in 380 that defined Catholic theology and by making Christianity the official state religion of the Empire. This was followed in 393 by a law the prohibited the public practice of any non-Christian religious practice.

How this legislation impacted on the lives of people in the frontier zone is hard to tell. Public worship was only one of an array of forms of religious expression. Some would no doubt have held onto the beliefs of their ancestors, others came to see the gods and goddess as demonic forces that shadowed their daily lives, while still others refashioned the myths of the classical world as allegories conveying timeless truths.

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Hadrian's Wall: Life on the Roman Frontier

Newcastle University

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