5 Ways Christianity Transformed the Roman Empire

   The Roman Empire was a very dark place. Thousands died in the Games held in their arenas. The worst sins were commonplace. Slavery was rampant. Women were treated badly. Babies were left to die.
   But into this darkness, came the light of Christ. And slowly, all that began to change as Christianity spread throughout the empire.
   While some accused the Christians of being “haters of mankind,” in reality, it was the Romans (not all of them, mind you, but some of them) who were truly practicing hatred. The early Christians were persecuted in the most horrific methods imaginable. They were torn apart by wild beasts in the arena, killed by gladiators, crucified, covered in oily pitch and set on fire to serve as human torches.
   Through these persecutions, Christianity continued to spread and slowly transform the Roman Empire, and finally, the world. St. Jerome wrote, “The church of Christ has been founded by shedding its own blood, not that of others; by enduring outrage, not by inflicting it. Persecutions have made it grow; martyrdoms have crowned it.”
   In Acts 17:6, it’s said of the Christians, “Those who have turned the world upside down have come here too.”  The early Christians weren’t leading armies to fight battles. Most of them were not in positions of power or political influence. Yet they truly conquered the world. They turned it upside down.
Here are five ways Christianity transformed the Roman Empire:
1.       Ending the Roman Games
   At least 230 amphitheaters have been found in ancient cities in the Roman world. In these amphitheaters, gladiators fought to the death, and people were killed by wild beasts. The first gladiatorial combat where men fought each other to the death before a watching crowd took place in 264 B. C. These games lasted for hundreds of years. It’s impossible to know exactly how many people were killed in the Roman games, but we know the number is huge.
   The Christians opposed these brutal games. On January 1, A. D. 404., a brave Christian monk named Telemachus climbed into an amphitheater in the middle of the games and endeavored to stop the gladiators’ fight. The crowd wasn’t too appreciative at the time and stoned him to death. But Emperor Honorius was so impressed by Telemachus’ actions, that he put a final end to the games. It’s said that was the last gladiatorial combat to take place in Rome.1
2.       Caring for the Weak and Vulnerable
  Unwanted babies were often drowned or left to die by exposure to the elements. Christians rescued and cared for these abandoned babies.
   Abortion was common in Rome, too. Basil of Caesarea (who died in 379) encouraged Christian women to care for those who might be tempted to abort their children, arranged protests against abortion and inspired Emperor Valentinian to ban abortion in the empire in A. D. 374.
   The emperor Constantine, who professed to be a Christian, legislated against infanticide. In the years following, as the impact of the gospel spread to the farthest reaches of the earth, other countries followed in ending abortion and infanticide. In fact, it’s only in the last century, that child-killing has once again become legal and approved in the form of abortion. Like those early Christians, we too must fight to protect innocent life.
   Christians also cared for the poor, the sick, the widows, and orphans. They cared for orphans in their homes, adopting them into their families, and by the middle of the fourth century, orphanages had been built. They brought hospitals into the world in the fourth century A. D. At the Council of Nicaea, in addition to discussing the deity of Christ and other matters, they also decided they should build a hospice in every city.
3.       Rescuing Slaves
   In the Roman Empire, there were more slaves than citizens. Slaves had little to no rights and were often treated very badly. Christianity taught that slaves and free were equal in Christ (Galatians 3:28).
No, Christianity didn’t cause slavery to end immediately. Some Christians did own slaves. But Christians viewed slaves as fellow human beings made in the image of God. Slave and master were brothers in Christ, both sinners in need of a Savior.
   And many Christians did fight against slavery, buying freedom for slaves. Augustine of Hippo bought freedom for a shipload of slaves bound for Galatia.  A document for the early Syrian church known as the Apostolic Constitutions, from around A. D. 375 instructed Christians to collect money for the “redemption of the saints, the deliverance of slaves, and of captives, and of prisoners and of those that have been abused, and of those that have been condemned by tyrants to single combat and death on account of Christ.”
4.       Honoring Women
   In a culture that often viewed women as little more than slaves, Christianity taught that men and women were both created in God’s image, both of equal value in the eyes of Christ. While men and women have different roles in the family and the church, Christianity honored women.
   Unlike the modern feminist movement that tries to deny gender distinctions, and actually devalues and mocks femininity, Christianity honored women for being women. Scripture honors women not for trying to do a man’s job, but for glorifying Christ through their uniquely feminine roles.
5.       Writing Books
   Beginning with the Holy Spirit-inspired books of the New Testament written by Paul, Luke, John, Peter, and others in the first century, the Christians wrote books. In the centuries following Christ, the writing world was completely overtaken by Christians. There were still pagan Roman and Greek writers to be sure, but they were minuscule in comparison to the works written by Christian men such as Tertullian, Origen, Basil of Caesarea, St. Jerome, and Augustine of Hippo. And the diary of Perpetua written in the early third century is the earliest known writing we have by a Christian woman.
   Birthed through persecution and suffering, the church spread throughout the Roman Empire, and on to the uttermost parts of the earth, following Jesus’ command to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature,” (Mark 16:15). And so, as the years went by, the gospel of Jesus Christ transformed the Roman Empire and eventually the whole world. Even though in recent years, we’ve seen a return to some ancient pagan practices, the world has never been the same since Jesus came.
   Tertullian, a Christian apologist, wrote in A. D. 197 about how Christianity had spread throughout the empire, “by the cruelty of Nero, they sowed the seed of their Christian blood in Rome …We are of yesterday, and yet we have filled all your places; your cities, islands, villages, townships, assemblies, your very camp, tribes, companies, palace, senate, forum; we leave you only your temples. We can count your armies; the Christians of one province are more numerous.”

1There are differing versions of the story of Telemachus. I’ve attempted to be true here to the story as told by the early Christian historian Theodoret of Cyrus.


The Bible
The Annals of Tacitus
The Ecclesiastical History by Theodoret of Cyrus


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