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Did Roman Legions Spread Christianity?

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Last night I sat back after a hectic session with music and decided to watch a Youtube video. I chose one that asked the question "Did The Roman Army Spread Christianity?". This was an annoying but well made journalistic investigation into the spread of Christianity during the Roman Imperial period. Annoying because both the journalist and the narrator kept saying "Is it possible that....?" For crying out loud, you tell me, you're making this video! I do hate that rhetorical question approach, it covers so much falsity. 

But instead of composing a long, dry, academic post (which I'm sure some would enjoy), here I'll answer the salient points as I see them.

1 - "The Roman Army...." 

Before we go any further, the idea that the Romans had one national army is actually incorrect. Each legion was a small independent army in it's own right, though obviously you could brigade them together. Legions were not regiments.

2 - "The Roman Army Crucified Jesus".

Well... Yes and no. Legionaries did the crucifixion, but the order came from the governorship of Pontius Pilate after Jesus was put on trial and in some versions, chosen for a grisly fate by the public, not the military.

3 - "The Roman Army Persecuted Christians".

Ermm.... No. It's that simple. Persecutions were not constant or particularly commonplace. It was never the legions that followed an anti-christian agenda, but the occaisional emperor who didn't like Christians. The soldiers were following orders I suppose, but I guess you've heard similar things before.

4 - "The Roman Army Spread Christianity"

Again, no, not as an agenda or strategy, but obviously there must have been legionaries who were Christian and helped convert others where-ever they were stationed. We know Christians served in the legions, either by their own volition or enforced by threat of painful and legal redress. However it is just as likely that legionaries were converted in situ by worshippers in that area, either by travelling worshippers or even by worshippers acting as a sort of missionary.

Conclusion - the concept is flawed but does contain an element of truth. Unless of course, you disagree....

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Interesting post. Than you.

I will reply as a religious skeptic.

I think there were three major reasons for the slow diffusion of Christianity throughout the Empire.

1. The majority of the Empire spoke either Latin or Greek, facilitating the spread of the Church teachings over vast and diverse areas. 

2. The efficient road system allowed more rapid travel throughout the Empire for missionaries and and other believers. 

3. The fundamental nature of Christianity improved its chances of success. Christianity is a proselytizing belief system which allowed membership by all segments of society. Many of the mystery cults, on the other hand, were more exclusive, open only to a more narrow segment of society based on gender, class, or  profession. Christianity would, therefore, be more attractive to the weak and powerless of society: women, slaves, the poor, downtrodden, etc.

 If anything, the Roman army was an impediment to the spread of Christianity.  The military served as an enforcer of the cult of the emperor, willing to suppress the Christian faith with any imperial order. For the first three centuries of the Christian faith, the rare Christian legionnaire was more a thing of Christian mythology than part of any real movement.

Despite the eventual success of Christianity in becoming the official religion of the Empire, we should remember that this conversion was a long and uneven process. It took nearly three centuries of perseverance and martyrdom before the "conversion" of the emperor Constantine in AD 312.


guy also known as gaius

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The Imperial Cult was built to exploit the huge persona Augustus was able to wield, and used with some success by one emperor or another, certainly not all of them. The Romans after all viewed various personal attributes as evidence of increased spiritual power leading toward divinity. I don't think the military enforced the cult as such, rather that it was an internal matter of belief and loyalty as part of the everyday regime, such that every unit had its own spirit symbolised by the military standards. but that in itself did not exclude other gods in pagan terms. On reflection, the move toward standardisation of this spiritualism begins with Marius, who removed the various animist symbols of legions in preference for eagles.

The appeal of christianity had less to do with equality than the belief that worship would bring them back to life eventually, doing away with death altogether. This message is still included in Christian services today though rarely dwelt upon, but then life isn't quite as short as the Romans experienced.

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