CHAPTER XXX, from the third volume of the Story of Civilization: Caesar and Christ, A History of Roman Civilization and of Christianity from their beginnings to A.D. 325

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IN pre-Christian days the Roman government had for the most part allowed to the rivals of orthodox paganism a tolerance which they in turn had shown to the official and imperial cults; nothing was demanded from the adherents of new faiths except an occasional gesture of adoration to the gods and head of the state. The emperors were piqued to find that of all the heretics under their rule only the Christians and the Jews refused to join in honoring their genius. The burning of incense before a statue of the emperor had become a sign and affirmation of loyalty to the Empire, like the oath of allegiance required for citizenship today. On its side the Church resented the Roman idea that religion was subordinate to the state; it saw in emperor-worship an act of polytheism and idolatry, and instructed its followers to refuse it at any cost. The Roman government concluded that Christianity was a radical- perhaps a communist- movement, subtly designed to overthrow the established order.

Before Nero the two forces had found it possible to live together without blows. The law had exempted the Jews from emperor-worship, and the Christians, at first confused with the Jews, were granted the same privilege. But the execution of Peter and Paul, and the burning of Christians to light up Nero’s games, turned this mutual and contemptuous tolerance into unceasing hostility and intermittent war. We cannot wonder that after such provocation the Christians turned their full armory against Rome- denounced its immorality and idolatry, ridiculed its gods, rejoiced in its calamities, and predicted its early fall. In the ardor of a faith made intolerant by intolerance, Christians declared that all who had had a chance to accept Christ and had refused would be condemned to eternal torments; many of them foretold the same fate for all the pre-Christian or non-Christian world; some excepted Socrates. In reply, pagans called the Christians “dregs of the people” and “insolent barbarians,” accused them of “hatred of the human race,” and ascribed the misfortunes of the Empire to the anger of pagan deities whose Christian revilers had been allowed to live. A thousand slanderous legends arose on either side. Christians were charged with demonic magic, secret immorality, drinking human blood at the Paschal feast, and worshiping an ass. But the conflict was profounder than mere pugnacity. Pagan civilization was founded upon the state, Christian civilization upon religion. To a Roman his religion was part of the structure and ceremony of government, and his morality culminated in patriotism; to a Christian his religion was something apart from and superior to political society; his highest allegiance belonged not to Caesar but to Christ. Tertullian laid down the revolutionary principle that no man need obey a law that he deemed unjust. The Christian revered his bishop, even his priest, far above the Roman magistrate; he submitted his legal troubles with fellow Christians to his church authorities rather than to the officials of the state. The detachment of the Christian from earthly affairs seemed to the pagan a flight from civic duty, a weakening of the national fiber and will. Tertullian advised Christians to refuse military service; and that a substantial number of them followed his counsel is indicated by Celsus’ appeal to end this refusal, and Origen’s reply that though Christians will not fight for the Empire they will pray for it. Christians were exhorted by their leaders to avoid non-Christians, to shun their festival games as barbarous, and their theaters as stews of obscenity. Marriage with a non-Christian was forbidden. Christian slaves were accused of introducing discord into the family by converting their masters’ children or wives; Christianity was charged with breaking up the home.

The opposition to the new religion came rather from the people than from the state. The magistrates were often men of culture and tolerance; but the mass of the pagan population resented the aloofness, superiority, and certainty of the Christians, and called upon the authorities to punish these “atheists” for insulting the gods. Tertullian notes “the general hatred felt for us.” From the time of Nero Roman law seems to have branded the profession of Christianity as a capital offense; but under most of the emperors this ordinance was enforced with deliberate negligence. If accused, a Christian could usually free himself by offering incense to a statue of the emperor; thereafter he was apparently allowed to resume the quiet practice of his faith. Christians who refused this obeisance might be imprisoned, or flogged, or exiled, or condemned to the mines, or, rarely, put to death. Domitian seems to have banished some Christians from Rome; but “being in some degree human,” says Tertullian, “he soon stopped what he had begun, and restored the exiles.” Pliny enforced the law with the officiousness of an amateur (111), if we may judge from his letter to Trajan: