Famine and war had recently afflicted Caesarea, so when the plague hit in the early fourth century, the populace was already weakened and unable to withstand this additional blow. The populace began fleeing the city, one of the larger ones of the Roman Empire, for safety in the countryside.[i] However, in the midst of the fleeing inhabitants, at least one group was staying behind, the Christians. Bishop of the city and historian of the early church, Eusebius, recorded that during the plague, “All day long some of them [the Christians] tended to the dying and to their burial, countless numbers with no one to care for them. Others gathered together from all parts of the city a multitude of those withered from famine and distributed bread to them all.”[ii]
Cities in the ancient world were even more overcrowded than the densest population centers today. With few sewers existing, cities were filthy beyond imagining and became a breeding ground for disease. Major catastrophes were not uncommon, including fires, plagues, conquests by armies, and frequent earthquakes.[iii] Even though the cities were unpleasant places to live, they were the population and intellectual centers of the empire, and they provided Christians with opportunities for numerical growth and cultural influence. Indeed, Christianity eventually dominated the empire by taking root in almost all the major cities of the ancient Mediterranean world, from Alexandria in North Africa to Cordova in Spain.[iv]
However, the Christian conquest of the Roman Empire came not by the sword, but by the preaching of the gospel joined with acts of compassion. Eusebius goes on to state that because of their compassion in the midst of the plague, the Christians’ “deeds were on everyone’s lips, and they glorified the God of the Christians. Such actions convinced them that they alone were pious and truly reverent to God.”[v] A few decades after Eusebius, the last pagan emperor, Julian the Apostate, recognized that the Christian practice of compassion was one cause behind the transformation of the faith from a small movement on the edge of the empire to cultural ascendancy. Writing to a pagan priest, he said, “[W]hen it came about that the poor were neglected and overlooked by the [pagan] priests, then I think the impious Galilaeans [i.e., Christians] observed this fact and devoted themselves to philanthropy.”[vi] To another, he wrote, “[They] support not only their poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us.”[vii] In fact, Julian proposed that pagan priests imitate the Christians’ charity in order to bring about a revival of paganism in the empire.
Julian’s program failed because the polytheism of ancient Rome was unable to sustain the kind of self-sacrificial love and compassion that Eusebius observed in Caesarea. Christianity presented to the ancient world two theological truths that were not to be found in the pagan religions. The first is that the God of Jesus Christ is a God worth dying for, since He had first demonstrated His love for humanity by sending His Son. The second truth was a “new conception of humanity,” that is, the idea that all human beings have special dignity and should therefore be shown compassion.[viii] These two ideas slowly but surely transformed the culture of the Roman Empire. Today, as the West appears to be returning to paganism, the distinctiveness of the Christian doctrines of God and of man will once more stand in stark contrast to the surrounding culture by Christians demonstrating the love of Christ in acts of compassion.
[i] Caesarea had a population of about 45,000. There were only thirty-one cities in the empire whose populations were greater than 30,000. See Rodney Stark, Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 35-36, 60.
[ii] Eusebius, The Church History, trans. Paul L. Meier (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007), 293. In other editions, see IX.viii.13-15. Eusebius records that the famine was so severe that a single measure of wheat was sold for 2,500 drachmas, one drachma being the daily wage of a skilled worker (292). Eusebius interprets the tragic events as divine punishment upon the city for its zeal in carrying out the government-sponsored persecution of the Christians initiated by Caesar Maximin. Shortly after these events Maximin died, Constantine became emperor, and Christianity was legalized throughout the empire.
[iii] Stark, Cities of God, 26-29.
[iv] See Stark, Cities of God, 35-59, for a brief overview of the Christian presence in each of the thirty-one largest cities of the empire.
[v] Eusebius, 293. In other editions, see IX.viii.13-15.
[vi] Julian, “Fragment of a Letter to a Priest,” in The Works of the Emperor Julian, vol. 2, trans. Wilmer Cave Wright (New York: MacMillan, 1913), 337. Julian is not referring to the specific instance that Eusebius cites, but is referring to Christian charity more generally. Elsewhere, Julian stated regarding the Christians, “It is their benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done most to increase atheism” (“To Arsacius, High-Priest of Galatia,” in The Works of the Emperor Julian, vol. 3, trans. Wilmer Cave Wright [New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1923], 69). He went on to say that “I believe that we [i.e., the pagans] ought really and truly to practise every one of these virtues.” Julian’s program of moral reform forbade priests from going to licentious theaters and to sacred games at which women were present. He also encouraged priests to demonstrate hospitality by establishing hostels for travelers and distributing money to the poor. As a former Christian, Julian knew the Christian ethic well. Echoing the words of Jesus about the greatest commandment, Julian summarized the requirements for appointment to the pagan priesthood as love for (the pagan) gods and love for man (“To Arsacius,” 69-71; cf. “Fragment of a Letter to a Priest,” 335-337).
[vii] Julian, “To Arsacius,” 71.
[viii] Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1997), 214.