Having explained how Pliny the Younger began to put Christians on trial does not answer the question why did the Romans so fear the Christians? Christianity could have been viewed as an offshoot of Judaism, which had preferential treatment within the Empire, even though the Jews had been shown by this time to be a rebellious people. So how did Christianity become so feared by Romans that they resorted to extreme measures against Christianity?
There appears to be at least five factors at work here and intertwined together. First, Romans were adamantly opposed to any secret society, club, esoteric group, or cabal, which were lumped under the term hetaira. Second, Romans had grave fears about any religious belief which was foreign or alien, which were encompassed by the term superstitio. Third, the Romans were notoriously conservative; they were genuinely mistrustful of anything new or innovative, particularly as pertains to religion. Fourth, the Christians were obstinate in their beliefs. Fifth, the Christian beliefs touched on class issues, being a religion of the slaves and the poor people; it also touched upon gender issues, for Christianity was a religion which appealed to women. Let us examine each of these factors in greater depth.
Secret societies were mistrusted because they could form the basis for opposition to the Roman government. No matter how one felt about Gaius Julius Caesar, it was clear that a secret cabal had brought about his assassination and the downfall of his counsulship and dictatorship. Trajan, at one point, opposed the request by Pliny the Younger when he was governor of Pontus and Bithynia to form a fire brigade. This opposition appears to be rooted in this fear of cabals. On the other hand, the Christian apologist, Tertullian, clearly disputes this factors as being the prime factor in the Roman oppression of Christianity.
Tacitus once identified Judaism as an example of a superstition which ran counter to the official religion of Rome. Suetonius later supplanted Judaism with Christianity. Why? Christianity was at its very base diametrically opposed to the official religion of Rome. Christianity had nothing but contempt for the pantheon of gods; it held the oracles as being virtually demonic; Christianity was opposed to martial glory and killing, the hallmarks of Rome’s world viewpoint. Romans believed that their social and civic authority rested upon and was given by the Olympian gods. Denial of the traditional gods was tantamount to civil unrest and chaos. Thus, the fear of superstitions was the fear of the unraveling of society. The new God offended the old gods. Further, the Christians who refused to worship the old gods were seen as atheistic.
That Romans were a conservative lot is well known. They hated things that were new and different. The official religion permeated society. A drinking party could not go on unless there was a dedication to Bacchus. The new religion, with its emphasis that there was only one God and that there were no other gods, was very different from the other cults. Mithraism simply said that Mithras was the main god to be worship; it did not say that there were no other gods.
It was this emphasis that there was only one God and that there were no other gods, which made the Christians seem obstinate. Being obstinate, however equated with being contumacia, that is being defiant of authority. This was the same as being in disobedience to the legitimate authority. This raised the specter that Christians were undermining the government and society.
Adding fuel to this fire was the fact that Christianity spoke to the under classes of Rome: slaves, the poor, and women. Christianity gave hope to these groups; hope was enough to worry the Roman elite. If the masses cried for more and hoped that they could get it, then perchance Roman society would fall apart. Christianity promised salvation; it promised an afterlife. Even if its promises were about the afterlife, it was changing the lives of women in the h here and now. Women were regarded with great favor in the early Christian community. This too was threatening. Women might not be able to convince their husbands, but they could teach their children. If the children of Rome were being taught this new religion, then what would happen to the old ways? Women were especially attracted to the doctrines of love, as well as the Church’s attitude regarding sexual relations which were for procreation-a major relief from the rampant prurient and lasciviousness of elite Roman males.
In short Christianity threaten Roman society at virtually every level: Christians refused to acknowledge the gods; they refused to sacrifice to the emperor and the gods; they looked forward to the end of the world; their God had been crucified as a criminal under Rome; they said all men were equals; they said that all things were possible with their God.
We will conclude this study in our next blog.