Ancient history

The fit of Christianity in the Roman army during the 2nd and 3rd centuries

With this phrase, the evangelist Matthew illustrates the rejection that a follower of Christ must show before the use of weapons even in the case of a defensive attitude. This position, which in contemporary language could be classified as "pacifist", is the one adopted by the first Judeo-Christians in their communities.

This position of non-acceptance of the service of arms supposed, for the incipient Christianity, a problem of understanding both by the Jewish elites and by Rome. The Jews not only admitted the use of force, but the Temple of Jerusalem had its own guard as the sources show[1]. With the outbreak of the Jewish-Roman war in the year 66, this scenario changed for the members of these communities. At this time, there was still no clear separation between Judaism and Judeo-Christianity. The members of the Jewish-Christian community in Jerusalem, despite confessing Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah, continued to participate in Jewish religious life and customs. When they were called upon to defend with arms to Israel, they refused. We cannot know if this denial was given solely by fidelity to the "pacifist" message of Jesus of Nazareth or if we must also add a hypothetical animosity towards the social and religious groups that led the Jewish revolt. For this reason, it is possible that the subsequent accusations that Judaism leveled against the Judeo-Christian communities were not only heresy, but also treason. In this episode, the difficulty of professing a message against the use of weapons in a warmongering world was manifested for the first time.

Between the end of the 1st century and the end of the 2nd century, Christianity spread throughout the Mediterranean and split from Judaism progressively as well as rapidly. It was no longer a phenomenon limited to groups of Jewish roots in the Near East, now it had spread to all groups of the Empire and the military caste was no exception. The Christians of the time refused to erect temples, to venerate images and to participate in the cults of the State.

Christianity and the Roman Army in the 3rd century

Until the middle of the 3rd century, Christianity enjoyed a certain stability within the Empire. From this moment on, the persecutions began to be based on a defined legal basis that did not exist in previous times. The emperor Decius (249-251) in the year 250, decreed that all the inhabitants of the empire had to make a public sacrifice to the gods and the emperor. Christian monotheism implied the denial of worshiping pagan idols and with them, the images of the emperors. This refusal incurred a crime of lese majesty that carried capital punishment. In the year 257, Emperor Valerian (253-260) issued a first edict ordering theexecution of Christian clerics that they refused to publicly sacrifice an offering before the idols and the emperor. A second edict the following year extended the same requirements to members of the equestrian and senatorial orders.

This fact allows us to see to what extent, by the middle of the 3rd century, Christianity had already penetrated high Roman society . Christians, as Roman citizens, accepted the established social order and the emperor as their head of state, but could never recognize him as a god. This, without a doubt, was the great conflict between Church and State throughout the third century and the beginning of the fourth century. In the military world this problem was accentuated even more. The Roman army was a group closely linked to the figure of the emperor. The soldiers joined him in the oath (sacramentum ) and worshiped him. They carried his image on banners ( imago ). Likewise, all soldiers participated in the cults and sacrifices to the Dii Militares. Christian monotheism had a difficult fit in this markedly polytheistic and idolatrous reality. Instead, the evangelical idea of ​​non-violence was more easily reconciled. The presence of Christians in the ranks of the armies made some Christian authors of the time qualify the total repudiation of the use of weapons that the Gospel proposed.

Tertullian (160-220) recognized that the army and war were necessary to maintain the security of the empire and even assures that Christians collaborated in this company through their prayers. This same author is the one who attests to the existence of Christian soldiers at the end of the second century. In his book Apologeticum (197) he uses the expression “ vobiscum militamus ” referring to the collaboration between pagans and Christians in a common army. Tertullian also, in the same work, spoke of "the miracle of rain." The Legio XII Fulminata was experiencing a severe water shortage during one of his campaigns. An unexpected rain saved the members of this legion from dying of thirst. This unit was made up of a significant number of Christians, so they identified the rain as listening to their prayers. This fact is also attested by the reliefs on the Column of Marcus Aurelius. In this case, however, Iupiter Pluvius is represented. as the creator of the prodigy.

Despite this conciliatory approach between the army and Christianity, the author was much more forceful in a second stage of his life in which he embraced Montanism [2]. In his work De Corona Militis (c. 214) narrated the episode that occurred in a gratification ceremony for some soldiers in the times of emperor Caracalla (211-217). According to the author, a Christian soldier snatched from the ground his weapons and a laurel wreath with which he had honored him. This action was criticized by his comrades-in-arms (also Christians) who branded this attitude as "haughty and theatrical". Tertullian, on the other hand, defended the soldier's behavior on the grounds that a Christian could only have Christ as their leader. He also alluded to Mt 26:52 in relation to the commitment to peace to which a Christian must respond. The soldier in question was arrested and later executed.

Origenes (185-254) instead, in his book Against Celsus (c.248) argues that Christians accept the emperor as head of state and collaborate with him in his military campaigns. However, this author clarifies that this collaboration is about a spiritual struggle , in which, through prayers, God is asked for the military victories of Rome. It is a participation in the army from the priestly level that avoids the idea that a Christian takes up arms. Origen also sees in Christianity an effective tool to integrate the barbarian peoples into the Empire itself without the need for military action.

The main testimonies of martyrs in the military field are found in the times of Diocletian (284-305). For example, in the year 298, the martyrdom of Saint Marcellus, centurion of the Legio VII Gemina took place. . This soldier was executed for refusing to participate in the ceremonies in honor of the emperor's birthday. In addition, to show his rejection, he threw the sword, the military belt and the branch ( vitis ) on the ground. ) and proclaimed himself “soldier of Jesus Christ” . Saint Maximilian in the year 295 was forced by his father (a veteran of the army) to follow the trade of arms. Even as a recruit, Maximilian openly proclaimed his faith and refused to take the military oath for which he was beheaded. We also find the case of Saint Julius, a retired veteran, who was martyred in 302 for refusing to burn incense before the image of the emperor. These examples would be followed by a significant list of Christian military men who were also sentenced during these years. This dynamic responded to the "cleansing of the army" that Diocletian proposed during his mandate.

Military life entailed a habitual coexistence with death and often led soldiers to carry out morally questionable acts . The Christian offer of eternal life and redemption from sins was an attractive proposition for the men-at-arms. Faced with the growing number of soldiers who joined Christianity, Christian theology had to adapt its message of non-violence to this new reality. But the obstacle that could never be overcome was the reconciliation of Christianity with the cult of the emperor and the pagan deities. This was the reason why Christianity had a difficult fit in the Roman army. Despite being prosecuted, the majority of Christian soldiers continued to serve in the legions, reconciling their faith with their trade.


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  • Estrada, J. A., (2003):“The first Christian communities”. In M. Sotomayor, J. Fernández (eds.), History of Christianity. The ancient world, 1 , (pp. 123-187). Madrid:Editorial Trotta – University of Granada.
  • Ruiz Bueno, D. (2018):Acts of the Martyrs . Madrid:Library of Christian Authors.
  • Ruiz Bueno, D. (2001):Origins. Against Celsus. Madrid:Library of Christian Authors.
  • Teja, R. (2003):“Christianity and the Roman Empire”. In M. Sotomayor, J. Fernández (eds.), History of Christianity. The ancient world, 1 , (pp. 293-328). Madrid:Editorial Trotta – University of Granada.
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[1] For the foedera Established between the Jewish authorities and the Roman state, the Jews were exempt from serving in the army and thus the Judeo-Christians had a legal umbrella to support their anti-war philosophy and praxis.

[2] Montanism is a Christian doctrine considered heretical by ecclesiastical orthodoxy

This article is part of the I Desperta Ferro Historical Microessay Contest. The documentation, veracity and originality of the article are the sole responsibility of its author.