The Roman Catholic Church, the largest denomination of Christians worldwide, has a glorious history as the church of Jesus Christ and the sole Christian Church in the West during the high and late Middle Ages (1054-1550 AD). Briefly explore early Christianity during the Roman Empire, the first in a series that documents the history of the Roman Catholic Church.
The Christian Church and Jesus Christ
Jewish rabbi Jesus of Nazareth (5 BC to 30 AD) is the founder of the Christian religion and the Christian Church. Jesus lived in Palestine during the rule of the Roman Empire, and his disciples struggled after his crucifixion to share Jesus’ message of new life, or resurrection, though belief in Jesus as God. Popular Catholic saints, such as St. Mary, the Blessed Virgin Mother of Christ, St. Joseph, St. John the Baptist, St. Peter, and St. Thomas, are key players in Jesus’ life and ministry.
Roman Empire Persecutes Jesus and Followers
The Roman Empire, urged by Jewish leaders, crucified Jesus of Nazareth as a common criminal in 30 AD. Jesus was the first of many early Christians to die a horrible death at the hands of the Roman state. The Roman Empire offered its subjects the latest in modern conveniences such as efficient transportation, running water, police protection, and exotic fruits from the tropics and treated them fairly as long as they worshipped the Roman Emperor as God.
Early Christians, just like Christians today, believed that worshipping other gods was a violation of their faith. Early saints in the Church, such as St. Peter, St. Thomas, St. Perpetua, and St. Agnes, refused to worship the emperor and suffered capital punishment as enemies of the state. The Coliseum, the massive amphitheater in Rome, saw the death of thousands of Christians during the persecutions of the Emperors Nero, Septimus Severus, Diocletian, and others.
First Monks in the Catholic Church
Many Christians fled to remote places to escape persecutions from Rome. Deserts and other remote areas far from cities offered save havens from Rome’s reach for many harassed Christians.
Later, Christians began to flee civilization deliberately to seek relationship with God. St. Anthony the Great (251-356) believed that isolation improved intimacy with God. This saint, according to legend, battled Satan in the deserts of Egypt and emerged victorious. His followers founded some of the first monastic communities in the Church.
Though St. Anthony, first of the Desert Fathers, was not the first Christian monk to seek retreat to the desert to seek God in a simple life free from sex and indulgent food, he began a movement within the Church. Anthony’s followers founded some of the first monastic communities away from society, and another saint, Benedict of Nursia, wrote the first rule for a Catholic religious community’s behavior (6th century AD).
Christianity Religion of Roman Empire
The Catholic Church’s relationship with the Church drastically changed thanks to Emperor Constantine the Great (227-304 AD). Constantine converted to Christianity after a vision of a cross at the head of his armies, according to his biographer Eusebius. The emperor began the tradition of building great churches as houses of worship, and his Church of the Holy Sepulcre still stands in Jerusalem.
Constantine declared freedom of religion for Christians in the Roman Empire, and soon Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the East and West (380 AD). Rapidly, Christianity changed from a persecuted religion with a substantial minority to the state majority religion of the Roman Empire.
Jesus Christ, founder of Christianity, died at the hands of the Roman Empire. Jesus’ Church suffered persecution from Rome, and Christian monks formed from groups fleeing Rome’s grasp in the desert. Yet Rome’s conversion to Christianity changed the history of the Roman Catholic Church and opened the door for Europe’s conversion to Christianity during the early Middle Ages.
For more on Catholic Church history, Part 2: Brief Guide to Catholic History During the Middle Ages may be of interest.
- Eusebius. Life of the Blessed Emperor Constantine. Medieval Sourcebook.
- Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity Volume 1: The Early Church to the Dawning of the Reformation. HarperCollins, 1984.