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A fresco inside the catacomb of Priscilla in Rome, November The catacomb was used for Christian burials from the late 2nd through the 4th century CE. Michael Kulikowski.


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Brought to you by Curio , an Aeon partner. Edited by Sam Haselby. The Roman empire became Christian during the fourth century CE.

By its end, Christians or nominal Christians indisputably constituted a majority in the empire. Apart from the small and ethnically circumscribed exception of the Jews, the ancient world had never known an exclusivist faith, so the rapid success of early Christianity is a historical anomaly. That a world religion should have emerged from an oriental cult in a tiny and peculiar corner of Roman Palestine is nothing short of extraordinary. Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew, though an eccentric one, and here the concern is not what the historical Jesus did or did not believe.

We know that he was executed for disturbing the Roman peace during the reign of the emperor Tiberius, and that some of his followers then decided that Jesus was not merely another regular prophet, common in the region. Rather, he was the son of the one true god, and he had died to bring salvation to those who would follow him. Quite a few people believed them, including Saul of Tarsus, who took the message on the road, changing his name to Paul as a token of his conversion.

Paul ignored the hardscrabble villages of the Galilee region, looking instead to the cities full of Greeks and Greek-speaking Jews all around the eastern Mediterranean littoral. He travelled to the Levant, Asia Minor and mainland Greece, where he delivered his famous address to the Corinthians. Some scholars now believe that Paul might have gone to Spain, not just talked about wanting to go.

What matters is not whether Paul went there, or if he really was executed at Rome during the reign of the emperor Nero, but rather the person of Paul himself. The fact that he was a Roman citizen meant that, unlike Jesus, he could neither be handed over to the Jewish authorities for judgment nor summarily executed by an angry Roman governor. Paul was a Christian, perhaps indeed the first Christian, but he was also a Roman. That was new.

As a religion, Judaism was ethnic, which gave Jews some privileged exemptions unavailable to any other Roman subjects, but it also meant they were perpetually aliens. In contrast, Christianity was not ethnic. In the socially stratified world of antiquity, the egalitarianism of Christianity was unusual and, to many, appealing. Miracles and the immanence of the supernatural abounded in the Roman world. Powerful miracles were powerfully persuasive.

Roman King and the Armies of Fire and Light

It used to be said that women, slaves and the working classes took to Christianity first but, in fact, the miracle stories and the promises of salvation attracted a wide cross-section of society. Christianity offered eternal life in exchange for belief — no complex initiation rituals, no hieratic pyramid of occult revelation. In a cosmopolitan Roman empire, where cities sucked in expendable labour from the countryside, and where artisans and craftsmen had to travel a very long way from home, that kind of community could not be taken for granted or created casually.

Christians would and did look after one another, sometimes exclusively so. Good Christians were expected to shun these celebrations, the festivals and ceremonies their fellow townsfolk kept at the centre of their social lives. That made Christians very strange.

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Technically, for a time, Christianity was illegal its god had been nailed to a cross like a common bandit after all. The Jews had kept themselves separate for as long as anyone could remember, but Greeks and Romans were used to that. Jewish communities were concentrated, nowhere large, and they were exempt from mandatory participation in a public cult. Around the Mediterranean, people could look at Jews with a sort of tolerant, if uncomprehending, disdain.

But Greeks and Romans sitting out the traditional cult of their own cities made no sense. Were these monotheist Christians pretty much the same as atheists, refusing to give the divine its due? What exactly did they get up to in their exclusive meetings? Were they cannibals? Probably it was all just another eccentric. Pyrrhus and his Elephants. Incendiary pigs or flaming pigs were not used as a military weapon only by the Romans.

The elephants bolted in terror from the flaming, squealing pigs, often killing great numbers of their own soldiers by trampling them to death. Coin of Antigonus II Gonatas. Pigs ended up saving the day. As the pig was hanging there, he naturally squealed, and this so irritated the elephant that it, stepping back little by little, withdrew.