Roman Imperial Crisis and the Rise of Christianity

Sulpicius Severus’ Life of St. Martin of Tours (ca. AD 397) supports one of the key contentions of modern scholars about the rise of Christianity in the later Roman Empire, argues Drew Kaplan (’20). The benefits of Christian doctrine were twofold: it provided a series of answers to the crises and questions of the period easily understood by ordinary people, while being fully open to those who sought a deeper understanding through theological contemplation, in the manner of the Neo-Platonists.

Bronze statue of the emperor Trebonianus Gallus A.D. 251–253
Bronze statue of the emperor Trebonianus Gallus A.D. 251–253 (Metropolitan Museum, New York)

The third and fourth centuries AD, the earlier part of the period known as Late Antiquity, were a period of great religious and socio-political transformation for the Roman Empire. What had previously been a polytheist empire ruled from Rome by a single man had become a Christian state ruled by as many as four emperors simultaneously, all the while fighting more intensely than before simply to retain what was already Roman. The decline of state power brought a renewed search for answers to metaphysical questions the old religious cults now appeared unable to answer. Throughout the empire, traditional religious practices began to shift towards rites which offered individuals an escape from the weakness of the worldly empire, and granted revelation by means of inward reflection and contemplative prayer, not just the promise of a bountiful harvest by the offering of a goat or cow at a physical temple. Amongst the rites attempting to fill the newly emerged gap was Christianity, but it was hardly the only candidate.

The reasons for the success of Christianity have been much discussed, with some scholars emphasizing the doctrinal superiority of Christianity itself, other the worldly patronage of Constantine the Great. A roughly contemporary document, the Life of St. Martin of Tours by Sulpicius Severus (ca. AD 363 – ca. 425), written in Latin in what is now France in the later fourth century, helps make the dynamics of European conversion clearer and more concrete for one place and time, at least.

By 371 A.D., the year St. Martin (AD 317–397) was elevated as Bishop of Tours, the empire had already seen a series of civil wars, imperial sessions, and barbarian invasions. The historian Eutropius, writing around the same time, remarked that, during the 260s A.D., “the Alemanni ravaged Gaul and invaded Italy. Dacia, which had been added beyond the Danube by Trajan, was lost at that time. Greece, Macedonia, Pontus, and Asia were ravaged by the Goths, Pannonia was ravaged by the Sarmatians and Quadi, Germans invaded both Spanish provinces and stormed the prominent city of Tarraconensis, and with Mesopotamia occupied, the Parthians began to claim Syria for themselves,” leading him to denote this period as the nadir of Roman fortune (Eutropius, Breviarium 9.8.2, my translation). Although some recovery occurred, the fourth century displayed many of the same trends. The central government vacillated between non-functional at best and near non-existent at worst, and the functions of state were reduced to little more than ensuring the army was sufficiently staffed and provisioned to keep potential invaders at bay. Eutropius reports fewer outside invasions in the fourth century than the third, but the empire was wracked with a series of civil wars, one of which brought the emperor Constantine to power, and another following his death. As historian Ramsay MacMullen points out, imperial propaganda continued to assert that the empire was well, despite growing recognition of the contrary (MacMullen 1976, 11).

The inability of the state to secure for its population physical security led to a turn towards the metaphysical. Why would the gods permit such suffering and destruction on earth, and, given that it cannot physically be halted, what sorts of metaphysical solutions are available? What is clear is that there was a great deal of anxiety which permeated Roman society in the third and fourth centuries provoked by the civil wars, barbarian invasions, and the consequent inability of the state to sufficiently respond. Classicist E.R. Dodds argues there was a growing perception in all parts of society that some sort of evil deity was responsible for these ills (Dodds 1965, 17), although this idea had earlier been outside of the traditional Greco-Roman religious conception. Another question which arose was, what purpose were humans meant to serve in this world? Polytheism accessible to the lower classes did not provide an answer to this question either.

The polytheism of the lower classes displayed in large part a transactional relationship between the divine and human. Individuals may have sought divine aid in specific circumstances and offered prayer and sacrifices when seeking divine favor either for their actions or to remedy an ill. But the polytheist worshippers had little emphasis on a standardized intimate relationship with the gods. Within Rome, imperial patronage did allow the poor to get some meat from sacrificed animals along with fellowship at polytheist festivals, but as MacMullen notes, these practices became increasingly uncommon as the empire became embattled during the third century (MacMullen 1981, 36–54). Without a strong hand to tend the religious festivals, transactional style polytheism offered little in the way of community to worshippers.

The polytheistic systems lacked a coherent uniting doctrine. As Fowden points out, polytheism could often provide answers to narrow scope questions, such as why peacocks have spotted tails, questions of a broader nature often lacked a clear and coherent answer (Fowden 2005, 522). What is the purpose of man was the sort of question polytheism struggled to answer, yet it was these sorts of concerns which were becoming more common in the age defined by anxiety (Dodds 1965, 132). These sorts of revelations were available only to those of sufficient means to devote their entire lives to philosophical contemplation. One such school of polytheist revelation was Neo-Platonism. Plotinus, a noted Neo-Platonic scholar, pondered the personal connection of individuals to the gods, and the personal relationships individuals may have with deities in his attempt to provide an answer. While Fowden notes that dualism was not a revolutionary idea at the time, when combined with the Neo-Platonic interests in purity, the renewed emphasis on dualism got at an unstated question underpinning Plotinus: why had the souls of individuals been sent to such an unenviable place as the Roman Empire during the crisis years? Plotinus provides two possible answers; either earth was a punishment for some earlier transgression of the soul in heaven, or the result of a false choice by the soul. Either way, the incarnation of the soul on earth was, in the words of Plotinus’s fellow Neo-Platonic philosopher Iamblichus, “unnatural.” MacMullen notes that a plausible interpretation of this issue was that humans had become guilty of some sorts of moral failings (MacMullen 1976, 13). To discover and correct these failings however required this depersonalization of divinity down to a power which required placation through inwardly directed moral piety. Plotinus, amongst other Neo-Platonists and other similarly ascetically oriented traditions considered a more individually aligned conception of the gods, indicative of a trend which would become increasingly central to religious devotion.

Plotonius taught that the divine permeated the world as one coherent network. Neo-Platonism provided the answer that the purpose of humans are here for “the self-realisation of God” or gods (Dodds, 1965, 22). Dualism was central to this accomplishment, because it was the soul, rather than the body, which achieved this realization. The body therefore only needed to be minimally sustained so that the individual could participate in his intellectual development. Asceticism becoming the preferred method for doing this, as it permitted the greatest allowance of contemplating the finer points of intellectual refinement while moderating bodily interference. This conception of the body does not entail its complete rejection, but rather a sort of tolerance and acceptance of the body. As Peter Brown puts it, the body “was not the true self,” instead a “perilous lower level of consciousness” the soul only occupied to its physical desires (Brown 2005, 608–9).

Peter Brown points out that these broad scope revelations came to polytheists at a glacial pace in large part because each thinker started from, if not the beginning, then quite near it (Brown 2005, 623). While communities certainly did form to further contemplate the broad questions, few individuals could afford to devote their entire selves to philosophy. Neo-Platonism also in no way offered a guarantee of revelation even for its practitioners, and the separation of ethics from spirituality set forth by Plotinus struck many of his would be follower as discomforting (Fowden 2005, 25). While Neo-Platonism as described by Plotinus did answer the anxiety-laden questions of the period, it was mainly polytheist philosophers, rather than ordinary people, who benefitted from these answers.

Christianity, by contrast, offered a far more accessible series of answers in its core texts. Christian doctrine employed similar conceptions of dualism and ascetic community to provide its answers to the questions of the age. However, the Christian ascetic communities were not necessarily organized around the revelations of a single leader. Instead of a reliance on an individual to deliver to his followers satisfactory answers, those answers were accessible to all in the form of the Bible. Brown argues that appeal of Christian doctrine, organized around written scripture rather than charismatic individuals, widened the appeal of the religion immensely. Christian doctrine guaranteed revelation simply by sincere acceptance of the necessary texts, rather than requiring potentially arduous contemplation, though this route remained for those seeking to further increase their understanding (Fowden 2005, 570). Simple acceptance of the text was likely more appealing to the lower classes, who lacked the means to apply themselves entirely to the study of scripture even if the desire existed. Individuals could find the answers they sought while retaining their worldly careers and other obligations, and had the additional benefit of Christian liturgy offering much in the way of corporeal social benefits the polytheist cults no longer provided. Christian congregations took it upon themselves to offer these services after the state could not (MacMullen 1981, 36–44, 53–54). The result was the genesis of Christian social networks within which there was only a surface level requirement of interaction with Christian doctrine. Those who sought to fully comprehend all facets of it were certainly encouraged, but to reap the benefits of the rising congregations a far lower level of devotion was all that was required.

These worldly benefits increased greatly after Christianity received official toleration from the emperor Constantine. Constantine engaged in a series of public works projects during his reign which benefitted the Christian church, all paid for out of the imperial treasury. These building projects had two effects, the provision of the church with a vast new amount of space within which to operate, and the demonstration of the sway followers of the faith now had within the empire (MacMullen 1984, 49). The significance of imperial toleration also cannot, in my view, be underestimated. The underlying message, when comparing the opulence of the Basilica of Constantine to the now modest by comparison temples of old, was clear.

However, it is equally important to consider how imperial subjects became aware of Christian doctrine and abandoned their traditional beliefs for it. The vast majority of the Roman population was composed of rural laborers. This sector of society was not drawn in by Neo-Platonism, but instead maintained the more transactional style of polytheist worship, and for whom manifest demonstrations of divine power carried more weight than philosophic arguments towards one deity over another. Conversion amongst these peoples was achieved by the demonstrations of a series of charismatic individuals devoted to the spreading of the faith, amongst them St. Martin of Tours.

St. Martin had been born in the early to mid-fourth century, and after leaving home, he enlisted in the army. Already a Christian, he became well liked amongst fellow soldiers and civilians for his demonstrable virtues. Eventually, he retired from service to form an ascetic Christian community in an abandoned villa near the city of Tours. His personal virtue also contributed to St. Martin being appointed bishop of Tours in 371 A.D. In his biography, written towards the end of his life by Sulpicius Severus, he is displayed using his personal charisma and self-assuredness in his faith to provide physical refutations of polytheism. Physical demonstration was essential, as it allowed St. Martin to meet the polytheists on their own terms.

While destroying a temple to some deity, St. Martin is confronted by an irate townsman who draws his sword to defend the temple. With St. Martin presenting his neck to the man, the man’s sword merely bounces off of St. Martin neck, the recoil throwing the man to the ground. In a more graphic episode, St. Martin is presented with the corpse of man who had died without baptism. By prayer alone, the man is revived, and becomes an ardent follower of St. Martin. The same is later done for a slave who had died by suicide (White 1988, 142). In another incident, a father stops St. Martin on the street to explain that his daughter is deathly ill and asks him to cure her. St. Martin at first begs off, explaining that the power of healing is reserved for God alone, but is eventually convinced to tend to the girl as she lay on her sickbed. Blessing her with oil, the girl was cured (White 1988, 149).

Sulpicius Severus intended the biography not only to be read simply by ascetics already convinced of the lifestyle, but also by polytheists unconvinced of the merits of Christianity though. Instead of offering an esoteric argument only accessible to those already learned in theology, Sulpicius instead meets the polytheists on their grounds, using their own epistemology against them by presenting polytheist religious themes with a Christian narrative (Stancliffe 1987, 73 – 78). Moreover, St. Martin is also depicted in himself as being similar to the rural polytheists; when elected to the bishopric, his appointment is opposed by some of the more vain and worldly bishops on grounds that St. Martin is too scruffy, and lacks the necessary cultural refinement to serve as bishop. St. Martin is depicted throughout as a man both similar to the common people with whom he interacts daily, but also above them because of his devotion to his faith. His conversion abilities rest in his demonstrated familiarity with how polytheism operated, and what sort of knowledge he might need to convince the polytheists of his offered religion. Claire Stancliffe asserts that St. Martin should not be interpreted as a miracle worker due to his demonstrations of divine power, but instead that the intent of Sulpicius is likely to allow comparisons to the early Apostles to be made (Stancliffe 1987, 157). In my view, another apt comparison comes in the mythicized Roman heroes, such as Mucius Scaevola. Both are willing to suffer greatly for their causes, which both lie somewhere between the mythic and material. There is no moment where St. Martin is unsure of his faith, and despite undergoing several religiously transformative events (baptism, episcopal consecration, and the establishment of the monastery), there is no change in his character (Stancliffe 1987, 150–151).

Sulpicius presents St. Martin acting as the leader of an ascetic Christian community, with around eighty members. Although these men chose to reject all trades and devote themselves entirely to religious worship and ministry, it was by no means required to do so to reap any benefits. To be a Christian, and to take advantage of what the Christian community offered, did not require a full surrendering of one’s self to the faith. St. Martin’s community serves as a demonstration that Christianity offered this choice; individuals were free to devote their lives to the study of scripture as they saw fit, but were equally free to continue their lives as normal, and join the community simply for the social benefits and metaphysical answers it offered without actively engaging in further metaphysical contributions. The emphasis, noted by Sulpicius, is on the experiential aspect, which required the charisma of uniquely capable leaders to deploy properly. The arguments put forth by leaders such as St. Martin then, in my view, would have appeared as less foreign, or at least easier to integrate into existing belief structures of polytheist individuals. Indeed, Origen of Alexandria admits a century before St. Martin that, for the bulk of the population, these sorts of physical demonstrations and arguments based on faith alone are sufficient to win converts (Dodds 1965, 122).

For all that may be said in praise of Christianity, equally responsible for its success in our period of discussion are the failings of polytheism. Dodds provides a succinct summation of this point; “One reason for the success of Christianity was simply the weakness and weariness of the opposition: paganism had lost faith both in science and in itself.” Dodds also notes that, by the fourth century, Roman polytheism appeared “a kind of living corpse” (Dodds 1965, 132). A degree of existential seriousness had descended onto a disparate group of religious cults which in no way were capable to directly addressing them, leaving polytheism particularly vulnerable to competing claims to truth, especially in an age where the strength of religion was defined in relation to constant and dramatic physical demonstrations (Brown 2005, 603). The intermingling of those seeking surface level answers and those engaged in deeper reflection also greatly benefitted the religion. Individuals such as St. Martin were wholly of the latter, but actively engaged the former. Evidence of the same from polytheism is lacking.

Christian communities offered a stable and welcoming community which posed few barriers to entry and was filled with individuals all working towards the same well-defined end. That polytheism did not provide the same is not an inherent failing of the system. Polytheism’s weakness was that it proved unable to adapt. Polytheists had seen no reason to change their beliefs in an age without anxiety, yet when the times changed, polytheism proved unable to adapt to the new religious demands. Christian doctrine and adherents then intervened to offer individuals what polytheism had never been required to in great quantity.

Although this has necessarily been a brief foray into the matter, the rise of Christianity appears to me as a twofold matter. First are the advantages Christianity held over polytheism, both in doctrine and the zeal of its adherents, as argued for by Fowden and Brown; but beneath them are the socio-political factors emphasized by Dodds and MacMullen. The worldly factors governed the changing metaphysical requirements of the age of anxiety, and were necessary for the doctrinal strengths noted by Fowden and Brown to flourish.


Brown, Peter. “Asceticism: pagan and Christian.” In The Cambridge Ancient History, 2nd ed., 13:601–31. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Brown, Peter. “Christianization and religious conflict.” In The Cambridge Ancient History, 2nd ed., 13:632–64. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Dodds, Eric Robertson. Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety. Cambridge: University Press, 1965.

Eutropius. Breviarium Ab Urbe Condita. Edited by Bruno Bleckmann and Jonathan Gross. Paderborn, Deutschland: Ferdinand Schöningh, 2018.

Fowden, Garth. “Polytheist religion and philosophy.” In The Cambridge Ancient History, 2nd ed., 13:538–60. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Fowden, Garth. “Religion, Culture, and Society.” In The Cambridge Ancient History, 2nd ed., 12:521–89. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

MacMullen, Ramsay. Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981.

MacMullen, Ramsay. Christianizing the Roman Empire (A.D. 100-400). New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984.

MacMullen, Ramsay, and Eugene N. Lane, eds. Paganism and Christianity, 100-425 C.E: a Sourcebook. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992.

MacMullen, Ramsay. Roman Governments Response to Crisis, AD 235-337. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976.

Stancliffe, Clare. St. Martin and His Hagiographer: History and Miracle in Sulpicius Severus. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987.

White, Carolinne, trans., ed. Early Christian Lives: Life of Antony by Athanasius, Life of Paul of Thebes by Jerome, Life of Hilarion by Jerome, Life of Malchus by Jerome, Life of Martin of Tours by Sulpicius Severus, Life of Benedict by Gregory the Great. London: Penguin Books, 1998





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