It’s a series of fortunate accidents.
- Christianity won over Paul, who had the very definition of a missionary zeal. He set up lots of churches in Ancient Rome and made it a mission for the faithful to convert gentiles to the faith. He was also strongly opposed to the idea that one had to first convert to Judaism or to follow the Torah in order to be Christian.
- Christianity emerged into an empire with a superb road network. This is what enabled missionaries to set up churches throughout the empire. Had the religion emerged elsewhere, it would likely have remained a regional phenomenon.
- In the polytheistic world in which this new monotheistic faith was born, it was pretty much the only proselytizing cult that demanded exclusive loyalty. Polytheists didn’t feel that you needed to stop worshiping your gods in order to start worshiping a new one. But every time Christianity acquired a new follower, paganism lost one by the same token. In such an environment, Christianity had a natural advantage. Things would have been much different if it had needed to compete with a faith like Islam. It’s much easier to convert a pagan than it is to convert another monotheist. It also helped that Christianity had a superb organizational structure. Much of it survives in the Catholic Church today.
- The religion had been adopted by 5 to 10% of the empire’s population when it got its biggest break: it was adopted by a man who would become emperor of Rome. Constantine legalized Christianity and gave it favored status. This attracted more followers. All kinds of people will find that it’s in their interest to convert to the religion favored by the state. This is the same process that happened in many places conquered by Muslims, even when people weren’t forced or encouraged to convert.
- Constantine’s successors made Christianity the official religion of Rome. This strengthened its hold further. And when Julian the Apostate, having secretly converted to paganism before ascending to the throne, decided to re-introduce a reformed paganism as the new state religion, his reforms collapsed after he died in battle only 2 years in power.
- The religion became the official religion of the Rome’s successor states. In the East, the Eastern Roman Empire had for its capital Constantinople, a city founded to be the Christian Rome. In the West, even after the collapse of the Western Roman order, the various kingdoms that emerged found that the Church organization, with its highly literate clergy, was exceedingly helpful in administering their realms.
- It so happened that scientific and technological development gave Christian nations a military advantage over other parts of the globe. So, they went conquering, and having conquered, they took their religion to their new subjects. This religion had the prestige of conquest behind it, and it flourished, especially given the lack other local monotheistic traditions in Africa and Latin America. It should be noted that when Muslim areas were conquered, there were relatively few converts to Christianity.
There you have it.
RelatedWhy did Christianity spread so quickly in the Roman Empire?
Oh boy- complex topic.
I’ll try to be basic and concise.
So firstly Christianity did not spread fast at all. It was around during the reign of Emperor Tiberius, starting sometime around 31–33 AD. It remained a niche offshoot of Judaism for some 300 years. Never being the majority in any way.
For those first 300 years, it never did well. It remained small and mostly irrelevant, occasionally drawing the ire of the emperor. Then everything changed.
The crisis of the third century was a defining moment for the Roman Empire. The government collapsed, 2/3rd of the empire declared independence, numerous barbarian tribes invaded what remained of the empire, the economy collapsed, famine gripped the populace, and even a pandemic went around.
The Roman government- caught up in local conflicts- was unable to respond to the needs of the people well. In this void Christianity, one of the only organized religions in the Empire, stepped up big.
Christians fed the poor, treated the sick, and helped alleviate the intense poverty of the Empire for decades while the government figured everything out.
Eventually, an emperor named Aurelian put the pieces back together- ending the civil wars, defeating the barbarians, and stabilizing the border.
Now it was customary for emperors to identify with a certain god. Usually, Jupiter was the best choice but some chose Apollo, Mars, or even the Syrian sun-god Elgabal. Aurelian made a strange choice for his god though- choosing Sol Invictus, the unconquered sun, as his diety.
Now it is important to note- to the Romans all gods were real. Egyptian, Greek, and Gallic gods were as real as their own. The idea that there was 1 god was crazy to the Roman people and the idea of monotheism was unpopular with the masses. The Emperor was also considered something of a demi-god so insisting there was only 1 god was an insult to the emperor and undermined his power.
But as Roman traditional religion was eroded by a number of factors people began searching for something to fill the void. Eastern mystery cults, Sol Invictus, philosophy, and Christianity filled this void for a time.
When Aurelian accepted Sol Invictus as his diety he changed the Roman religious landscape forever. Christianity was stronger than it had ever been and with Aurelian strengthening a monotheistic cult suddenly the masses began to open up to the idea of monotheism.
Christianity was then heavily persecuted by Diocletian who came shortly after Aurelian’s death. Diocletian’s attempts to destroy Christianity was ineffective at best and the religion stayed strong- but remained a small minority even still.
Then Constantine won a civil war, became the sole emperor, and adopted Christianity. There is some debate here. Constantine may have worshiped Sol Invictus like Aurelian or he may have just used the Christians to gain standing but regardless he brought it out of the dark and made it a legitimate religion.
From there it spread more and more year by year. Emperors (with only a few exceptions) were Christian and supported the expansion of the church. Following the emperor’s religion was always a good way to get “good boy” points so more and more jumped on the bandwagon.
By the time Rome fell, Christianity had cemented itself throughout the empire as the dominant religion by a mile.
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