Friday, June 26, 2009

Christianity in the Roman Army

The Roman government was largely tolerant of foreign religions. Most of the people incorporated into the Empire were polytheistic, worshiping many gods just as the Romans did. It was easy to accept the foreign gods, because to the Romans many of these appeared to be their very same gods worshiped under a different name. There were foreign deities which did not conveniently correspond with a Roman ones. This did not pose a problem as long as the followers of these gods welcomed Roman gods in their worship. However, there were two religions for which the Romans had very little tolerance: Judaism and Christianity. There was the belief that for Rome to prosper, its gods must be properly venerated. The nature of these monotheistic religions made this impossible. As a result, Jews and Christians across the empire suffered insult, harassment and persecution.

Those in power were especially alarmed at Christianity's growth within the Empire. Whereas those of the Jewish faith tended to keep to themselves, Christians were actively promoting and spreading their belief. The excellent road system, shipping routes and general peace of the Empire allowed Christian missionaries to spread their word relatively quickly. There was a constant hostility toward the religion, sporadically bursting into state organized violence as in the persecutions lead by Emperors Nero, Domitian, Marcus Aurelius, Decius, Gallus, Valerian and Diocletian. Noted victims include Peter and Paul who were arrested on separate occassions and executed in Rome sometime around 65 -67 AD.

Initially more popular with the poor and underprivileged, Christianity was slow to enter the ranks of the Roman army. The New Testament of the Bible mentions several occasions were Roman soldiers were convinced by Jesus. For instance, Matthew 8:5 tells of a Roman centurion embracing the new faith. In following years, there would be Christians found in the Roman army. however, the number was very small. The army placed a strong emphasis on pagan ritual, something quite distastefull to devout Christians. A Christian would have very little reason to join the ranks of an establishment so often employed in the persecution of his fellows, and there would have been great pressure discouraging exisiting soldiers from taking up the religion.

The Roman Empire went through a dramatic change with the rise of Emperor Constantine. On October 28, 312 AD Constantine's army defeated and killed his rival, Maxentius, at battle of Milvian Bridge. The night before the battle, Constantine was commanded in a dream to place a sign of Christ on the shields of his soldiers. Twenty-five years later Eusebius, the early Christian historian, gives us a far different account in his "Life of Constantine" When Constantine and his army were on their march toward Rome they observed in broad daylight a strange phenomenon in the sky: a cross of light and the words "by this sign you will be victor." During the next night Christ appeared to Constantine and instructed him to place the heavenly sign on the shields and standards of his army. This new symbol became known as the labarum. It consists of the overlapping of the "Chi and Ro" (the first 2 Greek letters in the word "Christ") forming a cross shape.

Attributing his success to his newfound faith, he made Christianity the official religion of the empire. Constantine ordered the end of any religious persecution in all of the Empire, a step he had already taken in his own provinces of Britainia and Gaul in 306. He proclaimed the Edict of Toleration at Milan in 313, in which Christianity was made legal throughout Rome. By 324 Constantine was in full control of a united empire. He relocated the imperial headquarters to Byzantium, whose name he then changed to Constantinople. The top political and military posts were now filled by Christians. Although they continued to operate, the old pagan temples were stripped of their former wealth, which was then shifted to Christian churches. The many fledgling churches across the empire thus acquired great strength and prosperity. In the East, the city of Constantinople would grow to be the capitol of a Christian Byzantine Empire, flourishing long after the Western Empire was lost to invading barbarians. Although no longer part of a unified Roman empire, western Europe would see the continued growth of Christianity.

It was in 337 AD that Constantine received Christian baptism on his deathbed. His chosen religion continued to grow eventually completely extinguishing the old pagan religion. It has been argued that Constantine was merely using the growing influence of Christianity for his own benefit. Whether or not this is true, it is agreed that the religion benefited tremendously from his patronage.

1. Late Roman Infantryman AD 236 - 565, by Simon MacDowall
2. Romano-Byzantine Armies 4th-9th Centuries, David Nicolle
3. The Holy Land, by Peter Connolly


  1. Andrew,

    I think it is worth noting the attitude shown by Trajan (a noted soldier-emperor) in respect of Christians. The younger Pliny (Letters X: 96-97), presumably following precedents established under Domitian wrote to Trajan that he had been taking action against Christians, as they had not been sacrificing in the prescribed manner. When Christians were brought before them he tried to get them to renounce their faith. If they did not he then sentenced them to execution. However, his investigations and observations seem to have shown him that Christianity was very widespread throughout Bythinia (he notes that it was hard to find people prepared to buy meat which had been sacrificed, even though it was readily available). He therefore asked Trajan's advice on how he should proceed, noting that anonymous pamphlets were circulating which listed names of prominent people who were believed to be Christians.
    Trajan's reply (X:97) advises Pliny to punish people who are brought to him who refuse to sacrifice, but to stop looking any further for them, as well as telling him to ignore anonymous pamphlets. In effect this could be read to mean that people who are actually charged with something should be punished appropriately (the Governor must be seen to be doing the right thing) but that if the Christian people were not causing any trouble then they should be left alone.
    These two letters tell us that persecutions could often be local affairs conducted by officials unsure what to do but trying to err on the side of caution but that meanwhile it might be more important to an emperor to avoid confrontations which could lead to public unrest.

    Continued in next post..

  2. Although this does not refer specifically to soldiers, it is evident that Christianity did indeed spread though the army, although probably more slowly than it did in civil society. Christians were often citizens (especially after AD214) and there is nothing to show that Christians were anything other than loyal members of Roman society. As such, many seem to have seen little conflict between their faith and the duty to help protect the empire. By the time of the Dominate there were even entire units which were entirely Christian, the earliest known of these (the 'Thundering Legion') having been instituted under Antoninus Pius in the mid second century AD (Eusebius 31). It is entirely possible the Constantine's decision to have the Chi-Ro painted on his soldier's shields reflected the possibility that a large proportion of his soldiers were Christians. One gets the impression that prior to this point there was probably something akin to a 'don't ask - don't tell' policy, as Eusebius notes, in addition to th Thundering Legion, a number of examples of soldiers who were revealed to be Christians, such as Basilides (48), the soldiers in Alexandria during Decius' persecution, who became Christians after seeing the fortitude of the people they had been sent to arrest (58), Ammon, Zeus and Ingenuus (60), and Marinus (68).

    Continued in next post...

  3. Eusebius also tells us (73) that most emperors of the third century AD wished Christians to be treated with respect and tolerance (apart from Traianus Decius,his successor Trebonianus Gallus and Diocletian) and that Christians were permitted to build churches openly, some of which catered to huge congregations and exceeded the pagan temples in size. He also tells us that Christians often occupied important civil posts (eg see Eusebius 58), demonstrating that unde normal circumstances there was nothing preventing Christians from holding influential civilian positions. As part of his persecution however, Diocletian ordered the Christian churches to be demolished and scripures burned (74). Most churches were demolished but some were appropriated for other purposes. Constantine decreed that these should be handed back to Christian ownership. Therefore, the Christian churches were very strong prior to Constantine but the church building had been destroyed and many Christians had to go into hiding. The church was hardly a 'fledgling' therefore and had not been so for over a century.