No. III The Roman Empire at the Time of Christ
It will help greatly to understand the tremendous difficulties which confronted the Christian church during the first three centuries, if a short historical sketch is given describing the actual condition of the Roman Empire as it was when Paul and his associates preached the gospel even in Caasar's household.
In giving this synopsis of Roman life, only the high points can be dwelt upon, and those in particular that had a direct bearing upon the apostasy of the early church.
As the wealth of Rome continued to increase through Roman conquests, there was a corresponding drift of the people into the, cities. The cities gave ample opportunities for exciting games and amusements. In proportion to the increase of commerce, agriculture suffered because there were better chances to accumulate fortunes in the commercial world than in the small proprietorships of agriculture. The middle class disappeared from the rural districts.
As a result of this, and also on account of the wars, slaves were imported. About 10 n. c. there were over 600,000 slaves in the city of Rome. There are various estimates of the number of slaves in the empire, ranging from 40,000,000 to 60,000,000. Gibbon thinks there were about as many slaves as freemen. At one slave market there were sold as many as 10,000 slaves daily.
The masters of slaves could inflict any punishment they saw fit, as the slaves had no rights; and if a runaway slave was caught, a frightful punishment was sure to follow. Christianity did not interfere nor try to abolish slavery.
The Stage and Amphitheater
The result of slavery upon society was terrible. The plays became more and more immoral. The rich master had a harem of slaves of young women, for they had no protection against his lust. The Romans conquered the world, but could not govern themselves. Vice became virtue by popular interpretation. The duty of parents was neglected. Children were a burden, and in consequence abortion was practiced everywhere. One emperor offered rewards to families with three children. Games and amusements were the order of the day, for the home had all but disappeared.
There was one place to which the idle people flocked, and that was the amphitheater. The gladiatorial shows were introduced in the third century before Christ, and as time went on they became more brutal. In the beginning only slaves, criminals, and captives entered the arena. Later even freemen fought for the glory of the combat. Let me quote one authority here:
"Caesar put up 320 pairs at once; Agrippa caused 700 pairs to fight one day in Ilerytus; under Augustus, 10,000 fought; Titus, ' the darling of the human race,' put up 3,000; Trajan amused Rome for 123 days by exhibiting 10,000 captives in mutual slaughter. Rome's holiest, the vestals, had seats of honor in the arena. Claudius liked to witness the contortions of a dying gladiator." — " The Environment of Early Christianity," by S. Angus, p.43.
One of the most heinous of the sins of Roman society was male prostitution, against which Paul the apostle speaks so strongly in the first chapter to the Romans. Some of the Caesars were guilty, as Julius Cwsar, Antoninus, Hadrian, Trajan. Divorces were frequent, men changing wives by mutual consent in some instances.
It was a Roman policy to accept the different gods of conquered nations. These gods found a place in the Roman pantheon, which in the year 610 A. D. was dedicated to the virgin Mary and all the saints. When the Romans incorporated these religious systems into their own, there could be but one outcome, and that was Caesar worship, which had its root in Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Greece, and now finally Rome. Under one name or another the sun had been worshiped in all nations of antiquity since the days of the Pharaohs of Egypt, which name really means " sons of the sun." Not satisfied with the deification of the dead, they must also deify the living, hence they began with the ruler cult of the nations. Sun worship became intensified in Rome as the worship of Mithra (the sun) was introduced from Persia about 70 B. c. About B. c. 36 the sacred fire from the altars of Persia was introduced into Rome, and it did not take long before the Roman emperors permitted themselves to be called divine and became objects of worship.
Some historians claim that emperor worship began with Julius Ctesar, but it is of uncertain authority. However, Czesar Augustus was deified in Pergamos A. D. 29. Says the historian:
"The machinery of the cult was very complete from the start. The whole system of worship was imperialized just as it stood. The senate established Augustaba or Augustan celebrations. This institution spread through the empire with great rapidity."—" Roman Emperor Worship," by Dr. Louis M. sweet, p. 69.
At these celebrations incense was offered to the emperors upon the altars erected to their honor. Besides this, very nearly everything in the Roman household was dedicated to some god. Paganism was rooted deep into the very heart of the nation. The oracles were consulted as well as the entrails of animals. Roman imperialism, Grecian philosophy, and Oriental pantheism were three great systems which stood ready to contest every move that the Christian evangelists were making for their conversion to the cross of Christ and redemption,
Such in brief was the condition of the Roman-Grecian world at the time when Christ sent His disciples into all the world to preach the gospel of salvation to those heathen in every part of ancient civilization. (For further reading on this subject see " Roman and Grecian Antiquities," by Dr. Smith; Potter's " Grecian Antiquities; " Ramsay's " Roman Antiquities; " Tacitus' " Annals; " and Dio Cassius' " Roman History.")
In our next article we will give the causes of the apostasy of the pure apostolic Christian church.