Western Civilization


In my last lecture, we traced the rise of the Romans in the western world, the establishment and

fall of the Roman Republic, and the creation of a Roman principate with an emperor. We talked

about how Octavian emerged victorious from the Second Triumvirate to establish the first

dynasty of the Julio-Claudian rulers, who were followed by the Flavians, and then the Age of the

Five Good Emperors. During this time, things seemed to be going well for the Romans. And

most Romans believed that this was because they were dedicated to the traditions of their

forefathers and devoted to the Gods, who in turn had allowed the Romans to dominate the world.

But as we know, all good things come to an end at some point. The beginning of the end came to

the Roman Empire after the five good emperors of the Antonine Age at the end of the second

century CE. At this point, Rome began to suffer from internal political chaos as well as invasions

from the outside, from barbarians living on the edges of the empire. The Romans watched as

their carefully built empire began to crumble and some began to look around for someone to

blame. And they found an easy scapegoat in the form of a new religious group that was emerging

around the same time- Christians.

[SLIDE] But, let's begin by looking at our questions for this lecture. Our first question is, why

did Christianity spread so quickly in the Roman Empire, and what obstacles did it face in the first

through fourth centuries? Second, how did Christianity develop as an established religion in Late

Antiquity? And third, why did the Roman Empire finally fall apart completely by the fifth


[SLIDE] If you remember from my last lecture, the Five Good Emperors that made up the

Antonine Age were generally all good administrators who treated their subjects with more

respect. And this was because the first four emperors beginning with Nerva didn’t have any

biological sons to take their place, so they adopted their heirs. And the men they adopted were all

grown men who had demonstrated loyalty to the emperor and good leadership skills.

Unfortunately, the last of the 5 Good Emperors, Marcus Aurelius, succeeded in having a

biological son, a man named Commodus, who succeeded him as emperor. Unlike the previous

emperors, Commodus was a cruel man and a poor leader. And he was assassinated in 192.

[SLIDE] The empty position for emperor led to a civil war. Septimius Severus, an army general

from North Africa, used his armies to win the war and seize power. On his deathbed, Severus

advised his sons to live in harmony, make the soldiers rich, and don't give a damn about anything

else. His advice set the tone for the new dynasty that he established. The Severan rulers created a

military monarchy. The Army was expanded. Soldiers' pay was increased. And military officers

were appointed to important government positions. A new stability seemed at hand. But the

increased power of the military encouraged other military leaders to try and become emperor.

And the reigns of the Severan rulers degenerated into military anarchy after the first quarter of

the third century CE.

[SLIDE] For the next 50 years, the empire was mired in the chaos of continual civil war.

Military leaders seeking to become emperor found that bribing soldiers was an effective way to

take power. During these 50 years of civil war, there were 27 emperors, only four of whom did

not meet a very untimely, very violent end. At the same time, the Empire began to suffer from a

series of invasions. As civil war wore down the central government, provinces began to break

away from the Empire. A military commander named Postumus seized control of Gaul and then

gained the support of Britain and Spain. He defended his claim to this region until he was

assassinated in 269 CE. In the east, Zenobia, the wife of the ruler of Syria, seized power after his

death. And then in 270, extended her control over Egypt and much of Asia Minor. In 272, the

Emperor Aurelian defeated Zenobia and her forces and ended the threat that she represented. But

it was clear that the Roman Empire was in decline.

[SLIDE] As Roman politics devolved into anarchy and civil war, a new religion was on the rise.

It had begun a far flung Roman colony that today we call Israel, but by the second century it had

taken root and was spreading throughout the Roman Empire. This was Christianity. To

understand the rise of Christianity in the first few centuries CE, we need to first consider the

religious environments from which Christianity emerged, which were both Roman and Jewish.

Concerning the Roman background, if you remember back to my previous lectures, I told you

that during the Roman Republic and in the first centuries of the Roman Empire, the Romans

were pretty tolerant of foreign religious practices. In fact, they frequently practiced syncretism,

in which they adopted and merged the gods and goddesses of conquered people. But even if they

allowed conquered people to continue practicing their own religions, the Romans expected them

to also participate in Roman religious rituals and worship the Roman gods. They believed this

was necessary for the continuing health and prosperity of the Roman Empire. And for most

conquered people, this wasn't a problem. Being polytheistic, they could add Roman gods and

rituals to their repertoire without issue. [SLIDE] This was a problem, however, for Jews living in

the Roman territory. Although Jews resided throughout the Roman Empire, the biggest Jewish

population was in the eastern Mediterranean, where Israel is located today. You will find Judaea

on the map on your screen if you look towards the bottom right side, to the left of Arabia. The

Roman Republic conquered this region in 63 BCE, and at this time, it was called Judaea. If you

think back to our previous discussions about Judaism, you will remember that Judaism is

monotheistic and demands absolute and exclusive obedience to Yahweh, the god of the Hebrews.

Now, Judaism in the 1st century BCE was actually a legally recognize religion by Roman rulers.

But this doesn’t meant that the Jews didn’t feel a lot of pressure to be more like the Romans. And

this was problematic.

[SLIDE] Jews in Judaea disagreed about how they should relate to the Romans. This

disagreement split Jews into four groups. The first group, the Sadducees, were very conservative

in religious matters. They favored rigid adherence to Hebrew law, and they didn't accept ideas

unless they were stated in the Torah. But even though they were very conservative about

religion, they favored cooperation with the Romans, and they were open to incorporating Roman

culture into their lives. The second group, the Pharisees, were more liberal when it came to

interpreting scriptures and religious law. And this is primarily because, in addition to the Torah,

they believed in an oral law, called the Talmud, which God had given to Moses. But whereas the

Pharisees were more liberal when it came to religion, they wanted strict separation from Roman

culture and religion, and they wanted to liberate Judaea from Roman control. Now, most Jews in

Judaea agreed with the stance of either the Sadducees or the Pharisees. A much smaller number

of other Jews supported the Essenes. The Essenes decided that Jerusalem and the Temple had

been corrupted. So the Essenes moved out of Jerusalem and lived separately in an isolated

community near the Dead Sea. They didn't want anything to do with the Sadducees or the

Pharisees, and certainly not the Romans. The fourth, smaller group belonged to the Zealots.

These were militant extremists and the most radical of separatists. They advocated the violent

overthrow of Roman rule. The Zealots provoked two major uprisings against Rome. The first

revolt took place in 66 CE-- the Great Revolt. And when the Roman soldiers came in and

crushed the revolt, they destroyed the Jewish temple in Jerusalem and carried off its treasures.

Another revolt took place in 132 CE. It wasn't any more successful, and it resulted in the deaths

or exile of nearly 580,000 Jews.

[SLIDE] In the midst of this conflict between the Romans and the Jews, a man named Jesus of

Nazareth began preaching publicly. Jesus of Nazareth grew up in Galilee- and spent, presumably,

at least 30 years of his life there. Galilee was a center for the Zealots, and so it's not entirely

surprising that someone with a new view of life and God would emerge from this area. When

Jesus began to speak out and teach others his beliefs, he reassured fellow Jews that he did not

plan to undermine their traditional religion. According to Jesus, what was important was not

adherence to the letter of the law but a transformation of the inner person. God's simple

command was, love your Lord, your God, with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love

your neighbor as yourself. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus emphasized ethical concepts of

humility, charity, and brotherly love. These ethical concepts, however, were not the dominant

values of Roman civilization.

[SLIDE] Although Jesus did not intend to undermine the traditional Jewish religion, his ideas in

the first century CE sparked controversy almost immediately. Some Jews welcomed Jesus as the

messiah who would save Israel from oppression and establish God's kingdom on earth. But Jesus

spoke of a heavenly kingdom, not an earthly one. Consequently, he disappointed many Zealots.

On the other hand, conservative religious leaders, particularly the Sadducees, were unhappy with

Jesus. And this was because, even though it wasn't his intention, they believed that Jesus was

undermining respect for traditional Jewish religion. Finally, Roman authorities viewed Jesus as a

potential revolutionary who might transform Jewish expectations for a savior into a revolt

against Rome. So Jesus found himself denounced on many sides. And he was given over to

Roman authorities. Pontius Pilate was the procurator of the region, which meant that he had

military control over Judaea, he collected Imperial taxes, and he also stood as judge for criminal

cases. Pontius Pilate was the one to officially order the crucifixion of Jesus. But crucifying Jesus

didn't solve the problem. Loyal followers of Jesus began to spread a report that he had overcome

death and had been resurrected. He was labeled "Christos," which is Greek for "anointed one."

And he was hailed as the Savior. This began a new religious movement within Judaism, and it

was viewed as a Jewish sect by Roman authorities for many decades.

[SLIDE] Now, Jesus had quite a few followers. But the most important of these followers for the

expansion and the spread of early Christianity was Paul of Tarsus. Paul of Tarsus was from

Tarsus, which was a city in modern-day Turkey. And he was born to Jewish parents, and he was

a Roman citizen. His original name was Saul. And he began his adult life by prosecuting

Christians. He later took the name Paul after he had a vision from God that blinded him and

caused him to convert to Christianity. Once converted, Paul began to travel and preach. And

what was unique about Paul was that he believed that the message of Jesus should be preached

not only to Jews but also to gentiles-- non-Jews. As a result of his efforts, Christianity began to

spread through the Mediterranean. In short, Paul transformed Christianity from a religious

movement within Judaism into a new world religion. At the same time that he traveled around

preaching about Jesus, Paul also wrote a series of letters known as epistles. These letters are

important because they outlined the foundational ideas and organization of Christianity. Paul's

letters, in addition to the writings of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, formed the core of what

would become the New Testament.