Some people search search engines by using a few keywords, but others ask entire questions. This series of posts is dedicated to them. Over the next couple weeks I’m going to pick full questions from my logs and answer them. It is the least I could do.
The first question in this series comes from an American using Windows and Internet Explorer, and they ask “What religion did the People of the Roman Empire follow?” Well I’m glad you asked that… um…let’s call you Fred… while your search landed on a very popular article entitled Causes and Effects of the Popularization of Christianity in the Roman Empire, I’m afraid that it won’t answer your question entirely.
Yes, for a portion of its history the Roman Empire was Christian, but for most of its history Rome itself (including the period of the Republic and the Empire) followed a mythopoeic religion that was closely related the classical Greek religion. It wasn’t until Constantine realized that a single unified religion could revitalize the Roman empire that Christianity actually became a quasi-official religion. Prior to this the Roman Empire as a whole did not have an official religion: each culture was allowed to worship their own gods as long as they paid tribute to the gods of Rome and did not deny their existence. Even this requirement was ignored for a time and the Jewish peoples were allowed to live peaceably under Roman rule for many years. However, as the Roman economy degraded and the Empire spread to encompass many different cultures, it began to fracture and there was little to integrate the different groups or the classes. Read that article if you want to know more.)
For the rest of Roman history, the Romans followed a pagan religion and allowed people to believe whatever they wanted. That was the long way of saying: there was no one religion of the Roman empire, there were many.
My next question comes from … let’s say Sarah … who hails from Canada and also uses Windows and Internet Explorer. Sarah asks Did the church unite the Roman Empire?” Sarah landed on the same page as Fred and again the question is not fully answered. The real answer is both yes and no because individually the Eastern Empire and Western Empire were united through Christianity, but because they both had a slightly different view of Christianity (this is the divide between the Greek Orthodox and Catholic sects) the two parts of the empire slowly separate because of the religion.
You see Sarah, as Christianity spread in its early days, certain cities became the founding cities of the religion think Québec and Toronto or New York City and Boston, so they had a relatively large Christian population with widespread influence. However, in what was to become the Western Roman Empire, there was only one city: Rome, but in the Eastern Roman Empire there were several cities such as Jerusalem and Antioch.
Each of these major cities basically had someone, think a bishop, who was sort of a guide to the people under their influence, so while the Eastern Empire had several religious leaders to look up to, the Western Empire had only one: the Pope. As the two empires split the Western side looked only to their Pope for religious guidance and over time the two churches separated because the Western Pope was seen as the single most influential person in the religion by his own people, but the Eastern Empire was used to following several different religious leaders, so the religious structure of the two sides slowly separated.
So the short and sweet answer is yes, Christianity did unite the Roman Empire, but it united it in two slightly different styles.