The Impact of Christianity on the Late Roman Empire
Christianity evolved and became the dominant religion in the late Roman Empire. This change brought about several innovations, including the Christianization of pagan festivals, the shift in the day of rest to Sunday, the decentralization of Christian activity and the promotion of charity to the poor. Christianity also introduced a complex hierarchy with a sophisticated institutional structure, which was increasingly influential in cities.
Table of Contents
- Army leaders and culture in the late 4th century
- The appearance of the Huns and the entry of Goths into the Roman empire
- Christianity becomes the dominant religion in the Roman Empire
- Christianity in the fourth century was not a monolithic entity
- The Christianization of pagan festivals and holy days
- Christian topography and its impact
- Innovations in the Roman world
- Christianity and its moral values
- The development of a complex hierarchy
1. How did army leaders like Silvanus operate within Roman political arenas in the late 4th century?
In the late 4th century, army leaders like Silvanus operating within Roman political arenas were often career soldiers who were culturally separate from neighbouring Franks. They claimed the empire when falsely accused of treason, and their appearance allowed Franks to infiltrate Roman political circles and become a force in their own right. Their career progression paralleled the rising influence of Christianity in Gaul and the Roman world.
2. What was the impact of the appearance of the Huns in the Roman Empire?
The appearance of the Huns in the East in the 370s depicted by Ammianus as hostile and uncivilised, led to the Goths seeking entry to the Roman empire in 376, and becoming Arian Christians in the following decades. This interpenetration of cultures became more common after larger numbers of “barbarian” groups invaded the empire in the early 5th century, with some groups like the Goths remaining separate from Roman culture.
3. When did Christianity become the dominant religion in the Roman Empire?
By 400, Christianity had become the dominant religion in the Roman Empire. Despite the presence of Jewish communities throughout the empire and the occasional persecution of Christians, all emperors since Constantine’s conversion in 312 were Christian. The Christian beliefs became the defining features of the religion, including the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus Christ, while rejecting pleasure and emphasizing poverty.
4. What did the Christian writers of the fourth century have to say about Christianity?
The Christianity of the fourth century was not a monolithic entity. Christian writers of the time were largely more rigorous than their fellow citizens, and their accounts provide a highly critical view of the more easygoing aspects of Christianity. Trying to interpret the meaning of religious practices and rites based solely on these accounts is therefore difficult, and the true picture of Christian practice is likely more diverse.
5. How did the Christianization of pagan festivals occur?
The Christianization of pagan festivals saw festivals and holy days become Christianized, with Christmas, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost replacing pagan festivals. The day of rest shifted to Sunday, and new Christian cult-sites were built. However, it is unclear how fully these changes were embraced by the general populace, and many still treated Christian festivals as they had pagan ones.
6. What was the impact of Christian topography?
Christian topography differed from that of paganism. While pagans saw the entire landscape as sacred, Christians saw only specific cult-sites as such. Churches soon became highly visible, and traditional public religion was replaced by decentralized Christian activity. This was particularly true in cemeteries and outside city walls.
7. What innovations did Christianity bring to the Roman world?
Martyrs and saints were venerated in Christianity as opposed to being considered sources of pollution like in paganism. Christians began to associate relics of saints with major churches inside city boundaries, and people wanted to be buried beside the saints. The unseen world was divided into good angels and bad demons in Christianity, which was inherited from Judaism and Zoroastrianism. Demons were thought of as the cause of illnesses, bad luck, and mental disturbances, and could be defeated by clerical exorcism.
8. How did Christianity impact moral values?
Despite the Christianization of the Roman Empire, people’s beliefs and everyday morality and values did not change greatly, apart from an emphasis on charity to the poor. Christianity brought about a complex hierarchy with a sophisticated institutional structure and increasingly influential informal authority in cities. By the fifth century, Episcopal became a part of elite career structures and were linked to a wider church hierarchy and controlled by councils of bishops.
Christianity had a profound impact on the late Roman Empire, with its spread leading to a new religion and model for governance. From the Christianization of pagan festivals to the creation of a complex hierarchy, Christianity left an indelible mark on Rome, bringing about several innovations that still influence modern society. While some elements of Christianity remained controversial, its emphasis on helping the poor and emphasis on charity remind us of the power of faith to change the world.