The Victory of the Church: Christianity and the Roman Empire

The Victory of the Church: Christianity and the Roman Empire


The relationship between the Roman Empire and Christianity was one fraught with difficulty and persecution. Despite this, Christianity grew rapidly throughout the third and fourth centuries, ultimately becoming the dominant religion of the empire. This article highlights the challenges Christians faced and the measures taken by the Roman state to maintain control. It also explores the impact Christianity had on Roman society and culture.

Table of Contents

  • The persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire
  • The growth of the Church and incorporation of Roman culture
  • The turning point towards the victory of the Church
  • Diocletian’s reorganization of the Empire
  • The founding of Constantinople and its impact on Roman culture
  • Changes to the structure of Roman government and their impact on society


What was the treatment of Christians like in the Roman Empire?

The enforcement of laws against Christians in the Roman Empire was relaxed during the second and early third centuries. However, in 249, the emperor Decius passed an edict requiring all inhabitants of the empire to offer sacrifices to pagan gods, which led to the execution of many bishops and Christians. Despite the centrally directed persecution easing off in the 260s, the experience of it showed how difficult it was to be a good Christian and a good Roman.

How did the Church grow and incorporate Roman culture?

By the third century, the Church had become an organised state within the Roman state, complete with its own legal system and strict hierarchy. Christians began to incorporate the civic cults and ideology of the Roman provinces in their relations with non-Christian neighbours. The proportion of Christians in certain regions likely differed, but the Phrygian highlands of inland Asia Minor saw Christianity take deep roots early on. In some areas, around 80% of people openly professed to be Christian by the end of the third century AD.

What was the turning point towards the victory of the Church?

The late third and early fourth centuries saw the turning point towards the victory of the Church, which became the new Christian empire of the fourth century. The relation of the inherited culture of the past to Christianity remained contested.

What were the measures taken by Diocletian to stabilize the state?

Diocletian built a new and more durable imperial system when he became emperor in 284 AD, reorganizing the army and formalizing the idea of an imperial team. He also established a new administrative system, building on the changes made by his predecessors. However, by the end of the period, the state had begun to lose control of some territory, culminating in the Romans pulling out of Britain in AD 409. Diocletian also took highly interventionist measures to stabilize the state, such as tackling inflation and taking action against new religious movements.

What impact did the founding of Constantinople have on Roman culture?

Constantinople was controversially founded as a new Christian city by Constantine in AD 324 to rival Rome, and although it initially caused divisions due to the treatment of traditional cults, it ultimately institutionalized the Latin-Greek linguistic and cultural divide. Constantinople became a significant Christian presence by building churches and a Christian mausoleum. He also created a palace and a hippodrome in the city. The Lupercalia festival was celebrated through chariot racing instead of racing through the streets.

How did changes to the structure of Roman government impact society?

Changes in the structure of Roman government affected the prosperity of cities. New elites emerged, operating at a regional or supra-regional level, while those families who had previously been the mainstays of their native cities diverted their wealth to grand houses in the countryside and church-building. The system of Roman roads connected cities within the empire and provided an extraordinary degree of connection. Christianity could also affect the status of a town or city, as seen with Orcistus’s unsuccessful petition for the reinstatement of its civic status.


In conclusion, the relationship between the Roman Empire and Christianity was one of tension and conflict. Despite this, Christianity was able to grow and become the dominant religion of the empire, ultimately contributing to its downfall. The incorporation of Roman culture and the impact of Christianity on society and government was significant, influencing the course of Western history for centuries to come.

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