Augustus to Constantine: The Thrust of Christianity into the Roman World
Religion and Society in the Age of Saint Augustine
When in AD 229 the historian Dio Cassius died, the Greco-Roman world was still materially and spiritually secure. “We live round a sea like frogs round a pond,” Socrates had told his Athenian friends, and seven centuries later this was still true. The outlying provinces of the Roman empire, Dacia and Britain, were anomalies, areas which had been conquered mainly for strategic reasons, where the army and the leading provincials tried to adapt Mediterranean styles of life to inhospitable climates. The frontiers were well guarded, and behind them stood the cities with their majestic temples, marble colonnades, and market places whose ruins still attract the annual pilgrimage of tourists to the Mediterranean.
The rulers of the Roman empire were stalwart conservatives drawn from an international aristocracy that had emerged from the landowning and priestly families in the provinces of the empire. In 229 the emperor was Alexander Severus, a youthful member of a Syrian high priestly house. To the peasants who made up most of the provincial population he represented divine providence to whom they could turn with an assurance that grievances would be redressed. Over all presided the age-old divinities of territory and city, assisted by the myriad of goblins and demons that controlled under Fate the individual’s every action from birth to death. Science for the majority consisted in the compilation of accurate horoscopes. Only a few malcontents, muddled intellectuals, frustrated artisans, and bored women had joined the rebel sect of Judaism and accepted the “crucified Sophist” as God.
The story which R. M. Grant, Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Chicago University, sets out to tell so ably is how that minority gradually prevailed over all its pagan rivals, until in the lifetime of Dio Cassius’s grandson the emperor was a Christian and Christianity had become the official religion of the empire. His primary concern is “the thrust of the Christian movement into the Roman world.” His aim is, as he says, “to set the Christian movement in its Greco-Roman context and assess how much the direction of its development owed to its environment or environments.” This is a formidable task. So much vital evidence is lacking, and while modern criticism has eroded once accepted certainties, it is interesting that even in his final section devoted to Christian worship the author does not seek to trace the roots of the Christian liturgy in Jewish practices or even in the Greek mysteries, as Loisy and Lietzmann tried a generation ago. Surely here if anywhere Christianity owed the outward forms of its services to its environment.
Grant’s real aim is to follow the growth of the Church within the setting of the Greco-Roman world. He is eminently fitted for the task. In a style that sometimes resembles that of Tacitus in its lucidity and brevity he draws on a wide knowledge of Roman history and an acquaintance with archaeological discoveries to place the early impact of the Church against its secular background. A well-told …