the good was done to all men, not merely to the household of faith.
– Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, third century
The Age of Paradise: Christendom from Pentecost to the First Millennium, by John Strickland
In the aftermath of the notorious Spartacus rebellion, for instance, the road leading to Rome had been lined with no fewer than six thousand crucified slaves.
Rome was a cruel society, albeit the Romans did not believe it to be. They practiced their ethic, finding their behaviors to be quite moral. As Strickland notes, “Roman statesmen were connoisseurs of cruelty,” and this cruelty was not limited to the early Christians.
There is the story of Perpetua and Felicity, a young, aristocratic woman and her slave girl. In 203, they were rounded up and brought to the central amphitheater to be executed – a fate which could be avoided if they gave up the Christian faith. They would not.
The two walked into the arena together, hand in hand – the aristocrat with the slave. Their death was to be especially cruel – first a bear, then a leopard, finally a raging bull. None having fulfilled their purpose, finally the executioner finished the task.
Strickland notes that this event was one of many that began to shake traditional pagan morality. The spectators could not help but see the victimization of the Christians and the fact that a slave was held in regard by the noblewoman. They saw an image of a society far different than their own.
How to contrast some of the key features of the pagan religion and the Christian? Many gods vs. one God; the world a spiritual prison vs. a world created in goodness; the gods appear as men vs. man created in God’s image; a god becoming man is unconscionable vs. the Incarnation.
These differences, coupled with Christ’s moral teaching, would present to the Roman world an ethic almost diametrically contrary to their own. The improvements, which we take for granted today, were remarkable and stunning. Christianity, blamed by many today for all the ills of the West, instead was the cure.