January 2, 2013
Ancient Rome and Christianity: A Revolution Begins
Life in ancient Rome was cheap. Gladiators turned war into a cruel sport. Just below the surface of the parades and the pomp of these games, there lurked a low regard for the dignity of the person and the value of human life. Spectators crowded Rome’s Coliseum and cheered as hundreds of gladiators were mauled, mangled and murdered before their eyes. Life had only a relative value. And, this was true in so many other areas.
Lawyer, magistrate and author Pliny the Younger (c. 112 A.D.) relates the story of a woman named Arria. Her husband had a terminal illness. Her son had recently died. Despondent and unable to cope, she plunged a dagger into her own breast and then gave the dagger to her husband to follow suit.
Suicide was an acceptable way to die. It was widely practiced on all levels of society. Doctors in ancient Rome would not be involved in euthanasia (something forbidden by the Hippocratic oath). However, they had no problem assisting at a voluntary suicide. A disgraced political figure would often prefer to kill himself before any charge could be brought against him. Nero committed suicide. And so did Claudius, Vespasian and Caligula.
The philosopher and statesman Seneca (65 A.D.) vigorously endorsed suicide for the elderly. In fact, he once remarked that, if being elderly “begins to unseat my reason…if it leaves me not life but mere animation, I shall be out of my crumbling, tumble-down tenement at a bound.” Interesting enough, the emperor Nero, his former pupil, gave him his wish. He commanded Seneca to kill himself.
It is hardly a surprise that adults who had no moral compunction about taking their own lives valued little the lives of others. Slaves lived at the whim, and often for the pleasure, of their masters. Countless people died of starvation for the lack of common charity. Infanticide was common. Those born deformed or physically frail were drowned or left to die. Abortions were routine.
By the first century, respect for marriage had virtually become extinct. The Roman historian Juvenal (c.140 A.D.) went so far as to say that a chaste wife was almost nonexistent. When women who indulged in extramarital sex became pregnant, they would resort to abortion to cover up their indiscretions. This added even more to the number of children aborted.
Not only women, but men freely engaged in sexual relations outside of marriage. Prostitution was common. Same-sex relations were not uncommon. Roman men were free to enjoy sex with other males without a loss of social status. Some men kept a male concubine before marrying a woman. Furthermore, men saw no evil in indulging their passions with young men, as long as they were not freeborn. The notoriously debauched emperor Elagabalus (218-222 A.D.) married and divorced five women. He considered his male chariot driver to be his “husband.”
With the arrival of Christianity to Rome and her vast empire, a new era began. Christians accepted human life as a gift given by God. They recognized, as worthy of love, every individual for whom Christ shed his blood. They saw each person as destined for eternal life. They respected the natural law, that is, what reason could discover as God’s design for his creation. They put into practice the Ten Commandments revealed by God to Moses.
Christians wove a new, uplifting and ennobling morality into the fabric of daily life. Women were more and more respected. Children were welcomed. Marriage became a more stable unit of society. Life became worth living. In first century Rome, a revolution had begun. They made a difference.
Do Christians make such a difference in today’s society?
This is the first of two articles dealing with the influence of Christians on the society of their day.