In the early years of Christianity, this small sect faced ruthless persecution throughout the giant Roman Empire. In 64 AD, only a few decades after Jesus Christ’s death in Jerusalem, Emperor Nero ordered the first official persecution of Christians in Rome. The Roman historian Tacitus recounted the particular cruelty of the executions ordered by the deranged tyrant Nero, some of which involved feeding believers to dogs. “In their very deaths they were made the subjects of sport,” Tacitus wrote.
Roman authorities considered Christianity a threat to the empire’s security. As they viewed it, Christians worshipped a criminal crucified by Rome and rejected the divinity of the emperor and the pagan gods. As the religion spread, the persecutions intensified sporadically for 200 years. Nevertheless, while the first Christians were often poor, the religion began to attract adherents from the mainstream of Roman life.
After seeing a vision and converting to Christianity, Emperor Constantine (275–337) issued the Edict of Milan in 313 AD, legalizing Christianity throughout the empire. By that time, Christian worship was widespread. In fact, within a few generations of the edict, Christianity replaced paganism as the official creed of the Roman Empire. In the span of four centuries, Christianity had gone from an outlaw faith embraced by a few Jewish malcontents to an imperial religion. The Roman Empire collapsed in the fifth century AD, but Christianity continued to spread in Europe and became the unifying faith of the continent.
The Roman Catholic Church remains headquartered at Vatican City in Rome, a few blocks from the ruins of the colosseum where ancient Roman authorities once fed Christians to the lions.
- Constantine’s conversion to Christianity didn’t prevent him from killing off many of his political enemies, including several members of his own family. During his thirty-one-year reign, Constantine executed his brother-in-law, his second wife, and his eldest son.
- Sick of Rome, which he considered an unsuitable capital for his empire, Constantine founded a city at the ellespont, where Europe meets Asia. It was originally named New Rome but soon came to be known as Constantinople in honor of the emperor. The city is now known as Istanbul, the largest city in modern-day Turkey.
- As emperor, Constantine abolished the gladiatorial games that had amused the Roman masses for centuries, although they continued illegally for decades.