It was within this empire that there began the Christian Church, whose great story is told in the New Testament. Our Lord was teaching in Palestine about A.D. 33. In the next quarter of a century St. Paul and others spread the gospel in Asia Minor, in Greece, and in Rome itself, while the Roman legions were busy conquering Britain.
In the Acts of the Apostles s (written between A.D. 34 and 63), East and West meet in the person of St. Paul, "a Hebrew of the Hebrews, yet a born citizen of Rome, a son of Benjamin who wrote letters in Greek, and quoted Greek poets and philosophy; arrested in the Temple at Jerusalem for breach of Jewish law; saved from his own countrymen by Roman soldiers to defend himself before Roman governors, and to claim a trial at Rome, in the highest court of appeal -- the presence of Caesar himself."
But the early Church came into conflict with the Roman Empire. The Christians would not sacrifice to the emperor, nor serve in the legions. For these and other reasons they suffered persecution from time to time -- under the cruel Nero (64-68), Domitian (95), Trajan (106), Marcus Aurelius himself the most virtuous of men (165-177), and finally under Diocletian (303). A Roman governor (Pliny the Younger) thus wrote to his master, the Emperor Trajan:
"The method I have followed toward those who have been brought before me as Christians is this. I asked them whether they were Christians; if they confessed, I repeated the question twice, adding threats; and if they still persevered, I ordered them to be punished. They say that the whole of their guilt was that they met on a certain day before it was light, and addressed themselves in a form of prayer to Christ, binding themselves by a solemn oath, not for the purpose of any wicked deed, but never to commit any fraud or theft; never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up. Afterwards they said it was their custom to separate, and then gather together, to eat a harmless meal."
But some two centuries after Trajan, the Christians triumphed over their enemies. Constantine was the first Christian emperor, and Christianity was tolerated from his reign (313). He summoned the first council of the churches of the Roman Empire to Nicaea (325), and there the "Nicene Creed" was adopted.
"The triumph of the Christian Church over the might and majesty of the Roman Empire is," says a modern historian, "one of the most amazing events which world history has to record."
But by this time the best days of the Empire were over. This emperor moved his capital to the old Greek town of Byzantium, which he renamed after himself, Constantinople. This showed that the Empire was splitting into an Eastern and a Western portion. There were many causes of decay, and not the least was the prevalence of slavery. Only the Christian Church taught that all were equal, emperor and slave, at the Lord's Table.
Another great cause of decay was the pressure of the barbarians on the frontiers. For a long time many barbarians had crossed the borders and taken service as soldiers of the Empire. Now, in the fourth and fifth centuries, they were thundering in great numbers at the frontiers and making ready to invade the Empire in mass.