Christianity: A New State Religion
Religion in the Italian Peninsula had a long history. The early Romans had worshipped the spirit gods of the Etruscans, their neighbors to the north.
Later Romans adopted the gods of the Greeks as their deities. However, Roman tradition allowed people to worship according to the dictates of their own hearts. As a result of this religious freedom, many different religions and sects flourished in the Roman Empire.
Around 30 A.D., a new religious movement began among the Jews in the distant borders of the Roman Empire. A group of Jews began following the teachings of a new leader by the name of Jesus Christ. Slowly this movement expanded beyond the Jews to many other peoples in the surrounding areas, and a new religion was born. This new religion would be known as Christianity.
After the death of Jesus, his followers continued to teach those things that he had taught them. They taught that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, and the Messiah that the Jews had been waiting for.
Many people throughout the Mediterranean accepted these teachings, and became known as Christians. For the next 300 years, Christianity was practiced by many city dwellers in private. Roman officials viewed Christians as a threat and often had them killed. Christians continued to establish churches and to spread their religion, but they did so discreetly.
In 312 A.D., an important Roman general by the name of Constantine was converted to Christianity through a spiritual experience he had on the battlefield. That same year, Constantine was made emperor of Rome.
Under his leadership, Constantine offered protection to Christians, allowing Christian churches to be built throughout the empire, and allowing Christianity to spread more quickly.
By 392 A.D., Christianity had become a powerful force in Rome. It was practiced from border to border. In this same year, the emperor Theodosius declared Christianity the state religion and outlawed all other religious practices.
Christians began to organize their church into parishes, which were overseen by priests. Several parishes formed what was called a diocese. Each diocese was led by a bishop.
Eventually the bishop in Rome began to claim authority over all other bishops, and gave himself the title of ‘papa’, or Pope. The Western parishes readily accepted the authority of the Pope, however, the Eastern churches did not. The churches in the West eventually became known as the Roman Catholic Church, while the churches in the East joined together to form the Eastern Orthodox Church.