Tomb of Caecilia Metella (1884)
Tomb of Caecilia Metella (1884)

Christianization of the Roman Empire began around AD 30–40, slowly and amidst opposition, in the Roman province of Judaea in the region of Palestine. Scholars disagree over numbers and the length of time Christianization took, but Christianity is generally thought to have begun with fewer than 1000 people. Growing at an estimated average rate of approximately 3.4 percent per year, compounded annually, it reached approximately 200,000 people by the end of the second century, half of the empire's population by 350, and eventually encompassed the majority of its 60–70 million people in the fifth – or possibly the sixth – century. From the earliest studies, scholars have sought to understand the conversion of an entire society by asking what sociologist Rodney Stark has described as the central question: "How was it done?" [1][2] Ancient historian Adam Schor observes that this question has, "more than any other, shadowed the study of late Roman history".[2]

Until the last decades of the twentieth century, the primary theory of "how?" revolved around Constantine the Great (r. 306–337). Early historiographers saw Constantine as driven by "boundless ambition" and a desire for personal glory, interpreting his conversion as a political act. It was thought that he forcefully caused the decline and demise of paganism, and the coerced conversion of the rest of the empire, in the fourth century. This is referred to as the "top-down" model, and for over 200 years, it and its modern forms the conflict model and the legislative model, have provided the major narrative of the conversion of Roman society.

Vast amounts of new information from multiple fields[3] ranging from the study of ancient inscriptions and coins to modern game-theory,[4] have led to changes in the top-down model. For example, it is now thought it was the pre-Constantinian third century, instead of the post-Constantinian fourth, that was the critical century for the growth of Christianity.[5][4] Recent research has also called into question the long accepted picture of the decline of paganism, and indications are it did not decline and die in the fourth century. Traditional Roman religions remained vibrant in the cities until the fifth and sixth centuries, in the rural areas into the sixth and seventh centuries, and in Greece, these religions lasted into the tenth century. The rise of Christianity can no longer be simply correlated with paganism's decline.[6]

In the twenty–first century, new discoveries and new methods have produced alternative answers to the perennial question of "How?". Psychology has offered insight into the processes whereby individuals acquire and transmit certain ideas; the study of disease provides two views of transmission and travel; game theory demonstrates that Roman belief about what Christians were doing is what mattered for conversion. Twenty-first century scholars are currently asserting that sociology's network theory and diffusion of innovation offer the best models for understanding how this extensive social change took place.[7][8] E. A. Judge says it was the powerful combination of new ideas, and the social impact of the church, that formed the central pivotal point for the religious conversion of Rome.[7][8]


Demographer John D. Durand explains two types of population estimates: benchmarks derived from data at a given time, and estimates that can be carried forward or backward between such benchmarks.[9] Reliability of each varies based on the quality of the data.[9] Romans were "inveterate census takers," but few of their records remain.[10] Historians have pieced together the fragments of census statistics that still exist "with such historical and archaeological data as reported size of armies, quantities of grain shipments and distributions, areas of cities, and indications of the extent and intensity of cultivation of lands".[10]

Prior to the year 100, Christianity was composed of perhaps one hundred small household churches consisting of around seventy (12 - 200) members each.[11] These small household churches were a segmented series of small cells.[12] By 200, Christian numbers had grown to over 200,000 people, and communities with an average size of 500–1000 people existed in approximately 200–400 towns. By the third century, the little house-churches where Christians had assembled were being succeeded by buildings adapted or designed to be churches complete with assembly rooms, classrooms, and dining rooms.[13] The earliest dated church building to survive comes from the mid-third century.[14]

Ancient Roman sarcophagus, Saint Petersburg - Саркофаг Церемония бракосочетания
Ancient Roman sarcophagus, Saint Petersburg - Саркофаг Церемония бракосочетания

Sociologists Rodney Stark and Keith Hopkins have estimated an average compounded annual rate of growth for early Christianity that, in reality, would have varied up and down and region by region.[15][16] Ancient historian Adam Schor explains that "Stark applied formal models to early Christian material... [describing] early Christianity as an organized but open movement, with a distinct social boundary, and a set kernel of doctrine. The result, he argued, was consistent conversion and higher birth rates, leading to exponential growth."[17] Stark asserts 3.4% per year while Keith Hopkins uses what he calls "parametric probability" to reach 3.35% annual growth.[15][16]

Art historian Robert Couzin, who specializes in Early Christianity, has studied numbers of Christian sarcophagi in Rome and explains that "more sophisticated mathematical models (for the shape of the expansion curve) could affect certain assumptions, but not the general tendency of the numerical hypotheses".[18]

Roger S. Bagnall found that, by isolating Christian names of sons and their fathers, he could trace the growth of Christianity in Roman Egypt.[19][20] While Bagnall cautions about extrapolating from his work to the rest of the Roman Empire, Stark writes that a comparison of the critical years 239–315 shows a correlation of 0.86 between Stark's own projections for the overall empire and Bagnall's research on Egypt.[21][19]

Though the reliability of population numbers remains open to question,[10] R. C. Runciman has written that "It seems agreed by all the standard authorities that during the course of the third century there was a significant rise, unquantifiable as it is bound to be, in the absolute number of Christians".[22] Therefore, he says, regardless of debated definitions and numbers, the original question, "How was it done?", remains the same.[22]


Roman religion

Greek and Roman Gods and Goddesses
Greek and Roman Gods and Goddesses

Main article: Religion in ancient Rome

See also: Ancient Roman religion

Religion as it is understood in the modern world did not exist in the Graeco-Roman world. Roman religion in the early Roman Empire was polytheistic and local, with rituals varying between localities. Most religious practice was embedded in, and inseparable from, the city. Ritual was the main form that worship took. Politics and religion were intertwined and many public rituals were performed by public officials. Respect for ancestral custom was a large part of polytheistic belief and practice, and members of the local society were expected to take part in public rituals.[23][24]

Roman historians such as the classicist J. A. North, observe that Roman imperial culture began in the first century with religion embedded in the city-state, then throughout the imperial period, it gradually shifted to religion as a choice.[25] Roman religion's willingness to adopt foreign gods and practices into its pantheon meant that as Rome expanded, it also gained local gods which offered different characteristics, experiences, insights, and stories.[26][27][26][28] There is consensus among scholars that religious identity became increasingly separated from civic and political identity, progressively giving way to the plurality of religious options rooted in other identities, needs and interests.[29][26]

This plurality was said to have contributed to the slow decline of polytheism beginning in the second century BC, and for many years this theory has been axiomatic.[30][31] James B. Rives, classics scholar, has written that: "Evidence for neglect and manipulation could readily be found,  ... But, as more recent scholars have argued, this evidence has often been cited without proper consideration of its context; at the same time, other evidence that presents a different picture has been dismissed out of hand".[32][33]

Over the last thirty years, evidence has expanded and altered the picture of late antique paganism.[34]

Context and other evidence

For example, views concerning the imperial cult (Emperor worship) have changed. For many years, the imperial cult was regarded by the majority of scholars as both a symptom and a cause of the final decline of traditional Graeco-Roman religion. It was assumed this kind of worship could only be possible in a system that had become completely devoid of real religious meaning. It was, therefore, generally treated as a "political phenomenon cloaked in religious dress".[35] However, scholarship of the twenty-first century has shifted toward seeing it as a genuine religious phenomenon.[35]

S. R. F. Price used anthropological models to show the imperial cult's rituals and iconography were elements of a way of thinking that people came up with for themselves as a means of coming to terms with the tremendous power of Roman emperors.[36] The emperor was "conceived in terms of honors ... as the representation of power" personifying the intermediary between the human and the divine.[37][35] According to Rives, "Most recent scholars have accepted Price's approach".[38]

The imperial cult served as a way for local elites and other representatives of Roman power to negotiate status.[38] In western provinces, it was "an instrument of centralized policy". Recent literary evidence reveals emperor worship at the domestic level with his image "among the household gods".[39] Rives adds that "epigraphic evidence reveals the existence of numerous private associations of ‘worshippers of the emperor’ or ‘of the emperor’s image’, many of which seem to have developed from household associations".[39]

Private cults of the emperor were previously greatly underestimated.[38] It is now recognized that these private cults were "very common and widespread indeed, in the domus, in the streets, in public squares, in Rome itself (perhaps there in particular) as well as outside the capital".[39]

Previous approaches

According to Roger Bagnall, the story of the rise of Christianity has traditionally been told in terms of contest and conflict with Roman paganism.[40] According to internationally recognized historian R. A. Markus, "The image of a society neatly divided into "Christian" and "pagan" is the creation of late–fourth century Christians, and has been too readily taken at its face value by modern historians".[33]

Graeco-Roman polytheism was not one uniform entity, nor were its many versions uniformly hostile to Christianity.[41] Paganism had its own history and its own dynamic.[42] A decline of paganism cannot be construed simply as the inverted image of the rise of Christianity "like children at the opposite ends of a see-saw" says Bagnall.[42]

Top-down model

See also: Constantine the Great and Christianity and Religious policies of Constantine the Great

Constantine the Great in Oria (Retouched)
Constantine the Great in Oria (Retouched)

Edward Gibbon wrote the first version of the top-down model of Christianization in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published in 1776. Gibbon saw Constantine as driven by "boundless ambition" and a desire for personal glory to impose Christianity on the rest of the empire – from the top down – in a cynical, political move.[43][44] He believed this was how Constantine's religion "achieved, in less than a century, the final conquest of the Roman empire".[45][46][47] However, Gibbon's sources were almost exclusively limited to Christian documents.[48] These documents have a starkly supernatural quality and many are hagiographical. They depict Constantine's conversion as evidence of the Christian god's final triumph in Heaven over the pagan gods, and presents the rise of Christianity in terms of that inevitable and irresistible heavenly "conquest".[49]

Recent scholarship has seen multiple developments in studies of coins,[50] inscriptions,[51] material remains,[52] and art within this period, as well as whole new fields of scholarship, that have produced "an abundance of evidence unavailable to Gibbon".[53] This has led to the assertion that paganism did not end in the late fourth century.[54][55][56] In addition, classics professor Seth Schwartz asserts that the number of Christians at the end of the third century indicate Christianity's success predated Constantine.[57] Edwin A. Judge, one of Australia's most well-known social scientists, has provided a detailed sociological study demonstrating that a fully organized church system existed before Constantine and the Council of Nicea. From this, Judge concludes "the argument Christianity owed its triumph to its adoption by Constantine cannot be sustained".[58]

Peter J. Leithart and most modern scholars now assert that Constantine was a sincere, if simple, believer.[59] He was an autocrat, as were those emperors before and after him, but that did not equate to a demand that everyone become Christian.[60] Constantine never directly outlawed paganism, and accounts indicate he was generally tolerant of pagans.[61][62][note 1]

Constantine's personal views undoubtedly favored one religion over the other, but his imperial religious policy was aimed at including the Church in a broader policy of civic unity which required some tolerance of the pagan majority.[66] In Drake's view, indications are that Constantine genuinely converted to a belief in Christianity as a "big tent" capable of containing different wings.[67] Leithart writes that Constantine "did not punish pagans for being pagans, or Jews for being Jews", and scholars generally agree he was not in favor of suppression of paganism by force.[59][68][69] Constantine never engaged in a purge,[70] there were no pagan martyrs during his reign,[61][71] and pagans remained in important positions at his court.[59] Constantine's main approach to religion was to use enticement by making the adoption of Christianity beneficial.[72]

Socio-economic factors

Some innate characteristics of Roman empire contributed to Christianization: travel was made easier by universal currency, laws, relative internal security and the good roads of the empire. Religious syncretism, Roman political culture, a common language, and Hellenist philosophy made Christianization easier than in places like Persia or China.[73]

Judaism was also important to the spread of Christianity: evidence clearly shows the Diaspora communities were where Christians gave many of their earliest sermons.[74]

The fourth century developed new forms of status and wealth that included moving away from the old silver standard.[75] Brown says Constantine consolidated loyalty at the top through his spectacular generosity, paying his army and his high officials in gold and thereby flooding the economy with gold.[76] The imperial bureaucracy soon began demanding that taxes also be paid in gold.[77] Greed became rampant as the ruling elite "drove a primitive system of taxation and markets to its limits" to acquire gold. This created multiple problems.[78]

"The fourth century scramble for gold ensured that the rural population was driven" hard says Brown.[79] Eighty percent of the population provided the labor to harvest 60% of the empire's wealth, most of which was garnered by the wealthy.[80] This contributed to unrest.[81] Constantine reached out to the provincial elite for help with unrest and other problems, enlarging the Senate's membership from about 600 to over 2,000.[82] This also contributed to unrest and change as the novi homines ("new men", first in their family to serve in the Roman Senate) were more willing to accept religious change.[83]

In response to all of this, bishops became intercessors in society, lobbying the powerful to practice Christian benevolence.[84] After 370/380, wealth and cultural prestige began moving toward the Catholics.[85] The church joined the elite in being "idle mouths, taking a larger share of the national wealth" than those that actually produced it. Peter Brown supports A. H. M. Jones' view that it was the disproportion between those that did the work and those that reaped its benefits that brought down the Roman empire.[86][87]

Conflict and violence

Further information: Battle of the Frigidus

In his 1984 book, Christianizing the Roman Empire: (A.D. 100–400),[note 2] and again in 1997, Ramsay MacMullen argues that widespread Christian anti–pagan violence, as well as persecution from a "bloodthirsty" and violent Constantine (and his successors), caused the decline and demise of paganism in the fourth century.[94][88][note 3] Archaeologists Luke Lavan and Michael Mulryan of the Centre for Late Antique Archaeology indicate that archaeology does not show evidence of widespread conflict.[99]

The fourth and fifth centuries are richly documented by Christian sources which tend to be eager to portray their leaders as engaging in violent anti-pagan acts yet contain only a handful of incidents.[100] [note 4] In Gaul, some of the most influential textual sources on pagan-Christian violence concerns Martin, Bishop of Tours (c. 371–397), the Pannonian ex-soldier who is "solely credited in the historical record as the militant converter of Gaul".[112] These texts have been criticized for lacking historical veracity, even by ancient critics, but they are still useful for illuminating views of violence held in late fourth century Gaul.[113] The portion of the sources devoted to attacks on pagans is limited, and they all revolve around Martin using his miraculous powers to overturn pagan shrines and idols, but not to ever threaten or harm people.[114] Salzman concludes that "None of Martin's interventions led to the deaths of any Gauls, pagan or Christian. Even if one doubts the exact veracity of these incidents, the assertion that Martin preferred non-violent conversion techniques says much about the norms for conversion in Gaul" at the time Martin's biography was written.[115]

In a comparative study of levels of violence in Roman society, German ancient historian Martin Zimmermann [de], concludes there was no increase in the level of violence in the Empire in Late Antiquity.[116][117] Acts of violence were isolated and rare.[118][119][120][121] Archaeologist David Riggs writes that evidence from North Africa reveals a tolerance of religious pluralism and a vitality of traditional paganism much more than it shows any form of religious violence or coercion: "persuasion, such as the propagation of Christian apologetics, appears to have played a more critical role in the eventual "triumph of Christianity" than was previously assumed".[122][123][124]

In the twenty first century, the conflict model has become marginalized.[125] According to Raymond Van Dam, "an approach which emphasizes conflict flounders as a means for explaining both the initial attractions of a new cult like Christianity, as well as, more importantly, its persistence".[126] Historian Michelle Renee Salzman asserts that, in light of current scholarship, violence can not be seen as a central factor in explaining the spread of Christianity in the western empire.[127][128]

Temple destruction

Further information: Persecution of pagans in the late Roman Empire § Temple destruction and conversion

Archaeological evidence for the violent destruction of temples in the fourth century, from around the entire Mediterranean Basin, is limited to a handful of sites.[129] For example, the Serapeum of Alexandria is the only temple destroyed by human violence in this period in Egypt.[130] Cameron writes that the Roman temples in Egypt "are among the best preserved in the ancient world".[102] Richard Bayliss, archaeologist, has stated that it can no longer be argued that a universal 'fall of the temples' was caused by Constantinian legislation.[131]

Roman temple, Maiden Castle
Roman temple, Maiden Castle

Most recorded incidents of temple destruction are known from church and hagiographical accounts. Their subjects, usually bishops, are portrayed as engaging in violent acts like fighting demons and destroying their temples in an effort to emphasize the Bishop's piety and power.[132] For example, the temples of Zeus at Apameia [133] and of Marnas at Gaza City[134] are said to have been brought down by the local bishops around this period, but the only source for this information is the biography of Porphyry of Gaza which is considered a forgery.[135] Temple destruction is attested to in 43 cases in the written sources, but only four have been confirmed by archaeological evidence.[105]

Archaeologists Lavan and Mulryan write that, "As a result of recent work, it can be stated with confidence, that temples were neither widely converted into churches nor widely demolished in Late Antiquity".[105][note 5]

Influence of legislation

Main article: Persecution of pagans in the late Roman Empire

Scene of sacrifice in honour of Diana. Fresco from the triclinium of House of the Vettii in Pompeii
Scene of sacrifice in honour of Diana. Fresco from the triclinium of House of the Vettii in Pompeii

Imperial laws of the 5th-century Theodosian Code are the cornerstone of the 'legislative model' which argues that the Christianization of the Roman empire and the decline of paganism were imposed from the top down through imperial laws.[88][145] The Imperial laws collected in Chapter 10, Book XVI of the Theodosian Code, focus on the practice of sacrifice, and call for the closing of temples that continued to allow it.[146] Blood sacrifice of animals was the element of pagan culture most abhorrent to Christians, though Christian emperors often tolerated other pagan practices.[147] While it is difficult to date with any confidence any of the laws in the Code to the time of Constantine a century earlier,[88][148][149] most scholars agree that Constantine probably issued the first law banning the public practice of animal sacrifice.[150][151] Brown notes that the language of the anti-sacrifice laws "was uniformly vehement", and the "penalties they proposed were frequently horrifying", evidencing the intent of "terrorizing" the populace into accepting this change.[145]

The Theodosian Code provides important evidence of the intent of Christian emperors to promote Christianity, but it does not have the ability to tell how, or if, these policies were actually carried out.[152] Imperial commands provided magistrates with a license to act, but those magistrates chose how, or whether to act, for themselves, according to local circumstances.[153] The Roman Empire lacked an equivalent of modern prosecutors or a police force, which made it difficult for the imperial court to enforce its will at the local level. Roman administrative authorities tended to be lax in enforcing the punishments. Bishops also intervened.[154][155] Difficult geography and the slowness of communication, the passivity and isolation of the imperial court, contradictions among the imperial laws and edicts, the persistance of the patronage system with obligations to family and friends overriding imperial law, all this and more, constrained the implementation of imperial law.[156] There is no record of anyone in Constantine's era being prosecuted for sacrificing, nor is there evidence of any of the horrific punishments ever being enacted.[157][158] Scott Bradbury concludes that Constantine must have written the laws without ever expecting them to be enforced.[159]

Robert Malcolm Errington has shown that, of the half dozen or so chroniclers of the period when the Code was promulgated, Sozomen is the only one who even mentions Theodosius' religious legislation, indicating that these chroniclers either did not know the laws contained in the Code, or they simply did not see them as important enough to mention.[160] Sacrifices continued to be performed privately by individuals, and in the country away from the imperial court, but the public ritual killing of animals seems to have largely disappeared from civic festivals by the time of Julian (361 to 363). Evidence for public sacrifices in Constantinople and Antioch altogether runs out by the end of the century.[161][162] Bradbury asserts that the complete disappearance of public sacrifice "in many towns and cities must be attributed to the atmosphere created by imperial and episcopal hostility".[163]

Policies toward sacrifice translated to a more general coercion of pagans in the sixth century.[164][165][151][166][167][168] Legal anthropologist Caroline Humfress, says the idea of "an empire-wide 'legal system' being imposed from above" before Justinian does not accurately reflect the social and legal realities of the earlier centuries of the Roman Empire.[169] Humfress asserts that Roman imperial law, though not irrelevant, was not a determining factor in Roman society before the sixth century.[170]

Law of 392

Sozomen, the Constantinopolitan lawyer, wrote a history of the church around 443 where he references the law of 8 November 392. This law has been described by some as a universal ban on paganism that made Christianity the official religion of the empire.[171][172][note 6] The law describes and bans practices of private domestic sacrifice, such as the lares fire.[174] Sozomen evaluates the impact of the law of 392 as having had only minor significance at the time it was issued. Sacrifice was already in decline.[175]

Edict of Thessalonica

In 379, Theodosius ascended the eastern throne, initially spending a year and a half in Thessalonica before moving on to Constantinople. In 380, a leap year, he issued the edict Cunctos populos, also known as the Edict of Thessalonica, on February 28.[176] The Edict declares that "the [Nicene] religion that is followed by the Pontiff Damasus and by Peter, Bishop of Alexandria" shall be practiced by all "who are ruled by the administration of Our Clemency" and that those who "sustain the infamy of heretical dogmas" will receive both divine and earthly vengence.[177][note 7] The Edict was addressed directly to the people of the city of Constantinople, but it was also valid throughout the Eastern part of the empire but only the Eastern Empire. Theodosius was emperor only in the East and did not become emperor of both East and West until 392.[179][180] The Edict was about opposing Arianism, establishing unity in Christianity, and suppressing heresy.[181] German ancient historian Karl Leo Noethlichs [de] writes that the Edict of Thessalonica was neither anti-pagan nor antisemitic; it did not declare Christianity to be the official religion of the empire; and it gave no advantage to Christians over other faiths.[182] It is clear from mandates issued in the years after 380 that Theodosius had made no requirement for pagans or Jews to convert to Christianity.[181][note 8]

Laws that favored Christianity

Constantine's main approach to religion was to use enticement by making the adoption of Christianity beneficial.[72] The "Imperial patronage, legal rights to hold property, and financial assistance" granted to the church by Constantine, and those emperors after him who followed his example, were important contributions to the church's success over the next hundred years.[186] Laws that favored Christianity increased the church's status which was all important for the elites. By absorbing aristocratic values and attitudes into Christianity, emperors who modeled Christianity's moral appeal with aristocratic honor made it attractive to the aristocratic class.[187][188] Constantine had tremendous personal popularity and support even amongst the pagan aristocrats. That prompted some individuals to become informed about their emperor's religion.[189] This passed along through aristocratic kinship and friendship networks and patronage ties.[190] Salzman documents the shift to the predominance of Christians in the aristocracy as taking place in the 360s under Gratian.[191][192]

After Constantine (and the brief period of Julian's rule), paganism never regained its previous status as a state religion. Yet despite its inferior status in the Christian Empire, paganism still existed and was practiced.[193] Up to the time of Justin I and Justinian, there was some toleration for all religions; there were anti-pagan and anti-heretical laws, but they were not generally enforced. Thus, up through the sixth century, there still existed centers of paganism in Athens, Gaza, Alexandria, and elsewhere.[193]

Alternative approaches

The third century is now seen as the century that established Christianity as successful.[5][4] Critical mass was achieved in the hundred years between 150 and 250 which saw Christianity move from fewer than 50,000 adherents to over a million.[194] There is agreement among scholars that Christianization did not happen by ‘‘top-down’’ imposition from rulers to the ruled in the centuries preceding Constantine. Instead, it happened through its acquisition by one person from another through imitation and learning what constituted Christian self-identification.[195]


Psychological explanations of Christianization are based on a belief that paganism declined during the imperial period causing an era of insecurity and anxiety.[196][197] These anxious individuals were seen as the ones who sought refuge in religious communities which offered socialization.[198] For most modern scholars, this view can no longer be maintained since traditional religion did not decline in this period, but remained into the sixth and seventh centuries, and there is no evidence of increased anxiety.[199][6] Psychologist Pascal Boyer says a cognitive approach can account for the transmission of religious ideas and describe the processes whereby individuals acquire and transmit certain ideas and practices, but the cognitive theory may not be sufficient to account for the social dynamics of religious movements, or the historical development of religious doctrines, which are not directly within its scope.[200]


Contemporaries like Pliny the Younger employed the model of the spread of disease to describe the spread of Christianity in Pontus in northern Asia Minor: ‘it was not only in towns, but also in villages and the countryside that the contagion of this dreadful superstition has spread’.[201] Price writes that ‘contagious disease’ is a misleading metaphor. It embodies a negative view that leads to the idea of a linear spread where the new cult infected each place it passed through, and this was not the case.[201] Movement of individuals did take place along the obvious routes, but for a new cult to be created along one of those routes, it required community and interaction within family, professional or other social contexts.[201]

Disease can be and is often spread in a linear manner along land routes, water (and air) arteries where each place through which the disease passes becomes infected.[202] But not all disease is spread in this linear fashion. Scientists are now looking at nonlinear dynamics which depends upon the structure of social networks.[203] To quote Simon Price: "We may agree that spread through personal contacts and individual movements is basic".[204]

Game theory

Game theory is like arithmetic or logic. It can only show one proposition as consistent or inconsistent with another.[205] E. Tsakas asserts that game theory demonstrates it is what people believe about their neighboring groups that matters more than what those groups are actually doing.[206] People form beliefs about their opponent's strategies and then act according to those beliefs.[207] Beliefs are seen as beneficial if they are later seen as confirmed. Enfield and Levinson quote Rodney Stark asserting that Romans believed the early Christian community as offering a better quality of life than the ordinary life available to most in the Roman empire.[208]

Empirical evidence indicates behaviors spread because people have a strong tendency to imitate their neighbors when they believe those neighbors are more successful. Enfield and Levinson add that "The rapid spread of Christianity in the Roman Empire may provide an example".[208] Pagan society had weak traditions of mutual aid, whereas the Christian community had norms that created “a miniature welfare state in an empire which for the most part lacked social services”.[208] This was particularly important during the several severe epidemics of the Imperial period when some cities devolved into anarchy. In Christian communities, care of the sick reduced mortality. Extant Christian and pagan sources indicate many conversions were the result of "the appeal of such aid".[208]

Enfield and Levinson speculate that middle class women had higher status and greater marital security within the Christian community because Christian norms required monogamy whereas Roman norms allowed men multiple mates even if they were married. Pagan widows were required to remarry thereby surrendering control of their property to the pater familias. Christian widows could retain their property, and if they had no property of their own, church rolls of the first centuries indicate they were supported by the church community. Christianity was against infanticide, and it is likely this led to substantially higher reproduction rates among Christians which also contributed to the growth of Christianity.[209]


For broader coverage of this topic, see Christianization of the Roman Empire as diffusion of innovation.

Classical archaeologist and ancient historian Anna Collar supports the sociological approach based on network theory: it does not address why such changes take place, but it can help explain how change happened.[210] Greg Woolf believes the network approach "forces historians to formulate more precise descriptions of change".[211]

Current studies in sociology and anthropology have shown that Christianity in its early centuries spread by forming a social network that closely followed a gravity-guided (determined by population and distance) diffusion of innovation path.[212][213] Collar explains that networks are formed wherever there are connections.[214] When groups of people with different ways of life come into contact with each other, interact, and exchange ideas and practices, sociology calls it "cultural diffusion". The more groups interact, the more cultural diffusion takes place.[212] Diffusion is the primary method by which societies change; it is distinct from colonization which forces elements of a foreign culture into a society.[215]

Religions adapt, adjust and change all the time; a religious innovation, then, must be seen as a significant change – such as the shift from polytheism to monotheism – on a large scale.[216] Peter Brown has asserted that the emergence of ethical monotheism in a polytheistic world was the single most crucial change of Late Antiquity: the content of Christianity was at the center of this age, contributing to both a "behavioral revolution" and a "cognitive revolution" which changed the "moral texture of the late Roman world".[217][218][219] Collar argues that even though "the philosophical argument for one god was well known amongst the intellectual elite, ... monotheism can be called a religious innovation within the milieu of Imperial polytheism."[220]

Christianization of a city is defined as the emergence of the first Christian congregation in that city.[221] Having begun moving outward from Jerusalem, all the largest cities in the empire had Christian congregations by the end of the first century.[222] These became hubs for the ongoing spread of the innovation. The pattern of growth followed the well-known logistic curve in which a slow start leads into a period of exponential increase which then falls off as the number of potential converts still available declines.[195]

Ideology is always an aspect of religious innovation, but societal change is driven by the social networks formed by the people who follow the new religious innovation.[223] As E. A. Judge explains, the powerful combination of new ideas, and the social impact of the church, formed the central pivotal point for the religious conversion of Rome.[7][8]

See also


  1. ^ According to H. A. Drake, there have, historically, been many different scholarly views on Constantine's religious policies.[63] For example Jacob Burckhardt has characterized Constantine as being "essentially unreligious" and as using the Church solely to support his power and ambition. Drake asserts that "critical reaction against Burckhardt's anachronistic reading has been decisive."[64] According to Burckhardt, being Christian automatically meant being intolerant; however, as Drake points out, that assumes a uniformity of belief within Christianity that does not exist in the historical record.[65]
  2. ^ Award winning historian Michelle Renee Salzman describes MacMullen's book as "controversial".[88]
    • In a review of MacMullen's work, T. D. Barnes has written that MacMullen's book treats "non-Christian evidence as better and more reliable than Christian evidence", generalizes from pagan polemics as if they were unchallenged fact, misses important facts entirely, and shows an important selectivity in his choices of what ancient and modern works he discusses.[89]
    • David Bentley Hart also gives a detailed discussion of MacMullen's "careless misuse of textual evidence".[90]
    • Schwarz says MacMullen is an example of a modern minimalist.[91] Schwarz suggests that minimalism is beginning to show signs of decline because it tends to understate the significance of some human actions, and so makes assumptions that are hard to support.[92] As a result, "MacMullen's account of Christianization as basically an aggregation of accidents and contingencies" is not broadly supported.[93]
  3. ^ Peter Brown explains that much of the previous framework for understanding this age has been based on the "tabloid-like" accounts of the destruction of the Serapeum of Alexandria, the murder of Hypatia (which probably occurred much later in 415), and the publication of the Theodosian law code.[95][96] The language of the Code parallels the writings of the Christian apologists in a rhetoric of Roman–style conquest and triumph.[97] For many earlier historians, this created the impression of on–going violent conflict between pagans and Christians on an empire-wide scale.[98]
  4. ^ * The ancient Christians rarely committed violence against persons.[101] According to Alan Cameron, most violence committed by Christians was against property, was unofficial, perpetrated primarily by monks and radicals, and done without the support of Christian clergy or state magistrates.[102][103] There are only a few examples of Christian officials having any involvement in the violent destruction of pagan shrines. In the 380s, one eastern official (generally identified as the praetorian prefect Cynegius), used the army under his control and bands of monks to destroy temples in the eastern provinces.[104]
    • Salzman says pagans were more likely to commit violence against persons, and that this was often done with the support of municipal elites.[103][105])
    • Harold A. Drake writes that Christians did pick up the practice of book burning from pagans, but that many previous assertions of Christian violence have recently been modified, (such as temple destruction), and many have been overturned by modern scholarship.[106][107]
    • For example, for over 60 years there has been a thesis claiming the demise of paganism included a short attempt at pagan revival at the end of the fourth century which culminated in the "last pagan stand" at the Battle of the Frigidus (394).[108] Salzman explains that "two newly relevant texts – John Chrysostom's Homily 6, adversus Catharos (PG 63: 491–492) and the Consultationes Zacchei et Apollonii, re-dated to the 390s, reinforce the view that religion was not the key ideological element" in the Battle of the Frigidus.[109] The story is now seen as "romantic myth".[110][111]
  5. ^ A number of elements coincided to end the temples, but none of them were strictly religious.[136] Earthquakes caused much of the destruction of this era.[137] Civil conflict and external invasions also destroyed many temples and shrines.[138] Economics was also a factor.[136][139][140] The Roman economy of the third and fourth centuries struggled, and traditional polytheism was expensive and dependent upon donations from the state and private elites.[141] Roger S. Bagnall reports that imperial financial support declined markedly after Augustus.[142] Lower budgets meant the physical decline of urban structures of all types. This progressive decay was accompanied by an increased trade in salvaged building materials, as the practice of recycling became common in Late Antiquity.[143] Economic struggles meant that necessity drove much of the destruction and conversion of pagan religious monuments.[136][139][140] In many instances, such as in Tripolitania, this happened before Constantine the Great became emperor.[144]
  6. ^ The English translation of the law 16.10.12 (8th November 392): "Emperors Theodosius, Arcadius and Honorius to Rufinus, praetorian prefect: nobody, of whatsoever condition and class, who was appointed for an office or some privilege, should he be powerful for his origin or born in humble conditions, absolutely nowhere, in no city, shall offer an innocent victim to the meaningless idols, nor, as a worse sacrilege, worship the Lares with fire, the Genius with wine, the Penates with perfumes, nor shall light lamps or put incense after them, nor hang wreaths. If someone dares to sacrifice a victim or consult its still warm intrails, he’ll be charged for high treason and subject to the prescribed penalty, even though he didn’t try to divine anything in favour or against the prince’s health. For the crime to be grave it’s enough the will of going against the laws of nature, to investigate illicit things, to discover the hidden, to try the forbidden, to want to put an end to everyone else’s health, to hope in someone’s death. If someone adores, by putting incense after them, images made by human hands and therefore suffering the passing of time, or suddenly fears in a ridicule manner what himself made, or, after putting ribbons on a tree or constructing an altar out of clumps, tries to honor the vane idols with an even modest gift, but completely despising religion, he will be charged of religion violation and will be punished with confiscation of the house or land in which the superstition of gentiles will be proven to have survived. Therefore, all places in which will be proven that the smoke of incense raised, if they’re property of the person who burnt the incense, will be attributed to the imperial revenue. If the guilty tries some form of sacrifice in a public temple or sanctuary or in a place belonging to another person and if this latter is recognized unaware of what happened, the guilty will pay 25 pounds of gold and the same amount will be paid by every accomplice. We wish judges, defender and curial officers in every city to implement what we said, so that on one hand they refer violations to the court, on the other they punish the referred facts. But if they conceal something for benevolence or let it unpunished for negligence, they’ll underwent the trial; if they have been warned of the crime but omitted to implement the provided punishment, they would pay a fine of 30 pounds and so their staff".[173]
  7. ^ This text has been translated to English by Clyde Pharr in the following way: Emperors Gratian, Valentinian, and Theodosius Augustuses An Edict to the People of the City of Constantinople. It is Our will that all the peoples who are ruled by the administration of Our Clemency shall practice that religion which the divine Peter the Apostle transmitted to the Romans, as the religion which he introduced makes clear even unto this day. It is evident that this is the religion that is followed by the Pontiff Damasus and by Peter, Bishop of Alexandria, a man of apostolic sanctity; that is, according to the apostolic discipline and the evangelic doctrine, we shall believe in the single Deity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, under the concept of equal majesty and of the Holy Trinity. We command that those persons who follow this rule shall embrace the name of Catholic Christians. The rest, however, whom We adjudge demented and insane, shall sustain the infamy of heretical dogmas, their meeting places shall not receive the name of churches, and they shall be smitten first by divine vengeance and secondly by the retribution of Our own initiative, which We shall assume in accordance with the divine judgment. Given on the third day before the kalends of March at Thessalonica in the year of the fifth consulship of Gratian Augustus and the first consulship of Theodosius Augustus. – February 28, 380.[178]
  8. ^ Hungarian legal scholar Pál Sáry explains that, "In 393, the emperor was gravely disturbed that the Jewish assemblies had been forbidden in certain places. For this reason, he stated with emphasis that the sect of the Jews was forbidden by no law. It is also important to note that during the reign of Theodosius pagans were continuously appointed to prominent positions and pagan aristocrats remained in high offices."[181] The Edict applied only to Christians, and within that group, only to Arians.[183] It declared those Christians who refused the Nicene faith to be infames, and prohibited them from using Christian churches. Sáry uses this example: "After his arrival in Constantinople, Theodosius offered to confirm the Arian bishop Demophilus in his see, if he would accept the Nicene Creed. After Demophilus refused the offer, the emperor immediately directed him to surrender all his churches to the Catholics."[184] Christianity became the religion of the Late Empire through a long evolutionary process, of which the Edict of Thessalonica was only a small part.[185]


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Further reading