The Rise of Christianity in Ancient Rome – 12 Coins Album
Christianity spread rapidly during the First Century AD. By the time of the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD, the Christian community in the imperial capital was large and well-known enough that the Emperor Nero could use them as scapegoats for the disaster. It was at this time that the Apostles Peter and Paul were martyred on Nero's orders.
Christianity saw periods of tolerance in the Roman Empire alternating with state-sanctioned persecutions, until the ascendancy of Constantine the Great in 312 AD. From this point forward, it was the traditional pagan gods of Rome that were on the defensive, until Emperor Gratian, with co-rulers Valentinian II and Theodosius, issued the Edict of Thessalonica in 380 AD. This declaration proclaimed Christianity the official and only religion of the Roman Empire.
This 12-coin set of Roman bronze coins were struck by some of the Emperors whose actions affected the spread of Christianity, for better or for worse:
Gallienus (253 – 268): His Decree of Toleration in 259 reversed the persecutions of Christians ordered by his father Valerian. This was the first official declaration of tolerance of the Christian religion, as Gallienus saw toleration as less disruptive to the state than persecution of powerful Christian Romans.
From this point, Christianity began to be seen as less of a threat to the Roman state. Aside from their refusal to worship deified Emperors, they had never revolted, unlike the Jews in Judea. The ancient law that made Christianity punishable by death was not rescinded, however, leaving a powerful tool in the hands of those who would use charges of being Christian as a means to dispose of their rivals.
Claudius II Gothicus (268 – 270): During his short reign, Claudius II reversed Gallienus' edicts of religious tolerance, and restored strict adherence to the worship of Roman gods. The former emperor's toleration of other religions and his indolence were blamed for the loss of major portions of Roman lands in Europe and the Near East.
According to legend, it was Claudius II who ordered the martyrdom of St Valentine for providing aid to other Christians in Rome.
Constantine I (306 – 337): The first Christian emperor of Rome, Constantine the Great attributed his victorious rise to the throne to the intervention of the Christian God.
In 312 AD, Constantine, who was Emperor of the West, marched on Rome to give battle to the rebellious Maxentius. The day before the two armies met at the Milvian Bridge over the Tiber River, Constantine had a vision of a Christian cross hovering over the sun, surrounded by the words "By this Sign, you will conquer". Constantine had his soldiers paint the "Chi-Ro" symbol of Christ on their shields before the battle, which was a crushing defeat of Maxentius' army.
As undisputed emperor in the West, Constantine met with his counterpart in the East, Licinius, to issue the Edict of Milan, which ended Diocletian's Great Persecution of Christians, and decriminalized the Christian faith.Later, as sole Emperor of Rome, he would build a new Imperial capital at Constantinople, which became the global capital of Christianity.
Licinius I (308 – 324): Emperor in the East, and co-sponsor of the Edict of Milan, Licinius followed Constantine's example of painting the Chi-Ro symbol on the shields of his army. He protected right of Christians to worship openly. Later in life, he suspected that the Christians supported Constantine over him, and began persecuting them.
Constantine II (337 – 340): The oldest of three surviving sons of Constantine the Great, Constantine II divided up the Roman Empire with his brothers after their father's death. His empire consisted of Britain, Spain, and Western Europe as far as the Rhine.
Born and raised as a Christian, Constantine II was a supporter of Nicene Christianity over Arian Christianity. The Nicene Creed became the foundation for all the later major branches of Christianity, from Orthodox to Catholic, as well as many Protestant denominations.
Constans (337 – 350): The youngest son of Constantine the Great, Constans ruled over Italy, and North Africa territories west of Egypt after his father's death. Also an adherent to Nicene Christianity, Constans not only banned pagan sacrifices in his realm in 341 AD, he promoted tolerance of the Jews and their religion.
Constantius II (337 – 361): The last surviving son of Constantine the Great, Constantius II became the sole Augustus of Rome after the death of his brothers. He followed his father's example by involving himself heavily in shaping the early Church. He banned pagan sacrifices upon pain of death, and closed many pagan temples. Unfortunately for him, his sect of Arianism was later declared herectical and expunged by the Nicenes.
Unlike his brother Constans in Italy, Constantius II saw the Jews as competitors to state-run businesses, and enacted several measures that greatly restricted their rights. He also turned a blind eye to persecution of Jews and pagans by Christian leaders, despite murders of Jews and mob violence that destroyed synagogues and temples.
Constantius Gallus (351 – 354): Made Caesar of the East by Constantius II, Constantius Gallus is most remembered today for his cruelty and his brutal suppression of the Jewish Revolt of 351. He ordered his generals to destroy the Judean city at the center of the rebellion, and had thousands of Jews put to death. Gallus was so cruel and corrupt, Constantius II had him executed, rather than risk he might become Emperor.
Julian (360 – 363): Known as "the Apostate", Julian rejected Christianity, championing the old Roman gods. He blamed the spread of Christianity throughout the Empire as a curse that led to its decline. The last pagan Roman emperor, his rule also marked the end for the Constantinian dynasty.
Julian knew that Christianity had grown too large to eradicate, so he focused on reducing its secular power. In addition to condemning wealthy and powerful Christians, he proclaimed an Edict of Tolerance of 362. This decree re-opened pagan temples destroyed by Constantine and his sons, as the old religions were given the same protections as Christianity.
Julian also brought back from exile various leader of rival Christian sects, such as the Arians. He correctly assumed that reigniting sectarian conflicts among the Christians would fracture their secular power. Julian also courted the Jews of the Empire as a counterweight to the Christians, going so far as to promise to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. The Galilee Earthquake of 363 destroyed this project, and it was never resumed.
Valentinian I (364 – 378): A Christian, and founder of the Roman Imperial Dynasty following the Constantinians, Valentinian was a rough military commander noted for his temper. The last emperor before the Western Roman Empire began falling apart, he ended Julian's persecution of Christians, and adopted a "live and let live" policy on religion.
Valentinian's temper was literally the death of him. Raging against the envoys of a barbarian kingdom in 378, he suffered a burst blood vessel in his skull and died of a brain aneurysm.
Valens (364 – 378): The younger brother of Valentinian, Valens was lifted to the title of Augustus by him to rule the Eastern Empire. Valens scored several decisive victories against the Visigoths early in his reign. He died in the Battle of Adrianople, where his army was overwhelmed by a grand coalition of barbarians. Valens was an Arian Christian who persecuted Catholic believers, but left alone the pagan temples reopened by Julian.
Gratian (367 – 383): The son of Valentinian, he was proclaimed co-ruler in the West by his father. After the death of his uncle Valens, Gratian named Theodosius as Emperor of the East. Gratian was the last Emperor to cross the Rhine and attack the pagan tribes there.
An ardent Christian, Gratian's chief advisor was St Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan. His rule is considered a major inflection point of ancient Christianity. In 380, Gratian, Theodosius, and Gratian's half-brother Valentinian II jointly issued the Edict of Thessolonica, establishing Nicene Christianity the official religion of the Empire. This codified the suppression of "heretical" sects such as the Arians, and withdrew state support of the traditional Roman gods.
Afterward, he ordered the ancient Altar of Victory removed from the Roman Senate, disbanded the Vestal Virgins and pagan imperial religious colleges, and declared that every pagan temple was now property of the government. Pagan Senators protested, calling on Gratian to honor the ancient Imperial title of "pontifex maximus", supreme religious authority and defender of traditional Roman gods and pagan practices. In response, Gratian abandoned the title, becoming the first Roman Emperor to do so.
This album of 12 Roman Imperial bronze coins were minted at some of the most important eras of early Christianity. At least 1600 years old, these coins traded among ordinary Romans, whether Christian or pagan. Holding these coins in your hand, you must wonder what sights they saw, and where they were used.