The Influence of the Roman Empire on the Catholic Church

Written by: Toby Gay

After possibly the most damaging year for the Roman Catholic Church in recent times with the global sex abuse crisis spiralling out of the control in the Vatican, and with Pope Francis bemoaning the current ‘weary’ condition of the Church, 2019 may be the year when the very structure and purpose of the world’s oldest international institution is questioned and reformed. Before this can happen, the long and complicated history of a religion, which plays a central part in over 1.3 billion people’s lives, must be understood. For the problematic past of the Catholic Church extends far beyond the twenty-first century conflicts with socially progressive movements, or the associations with Fascism in the twentieth century, or even the European Wars of Religion or the Crusades of the last millennium. Its conception as a leading religion at the hands of the emperor Constantine in the fourth century AD meant that the Church was destined to be defined by the all-conquering violence, organisation and mindset of the cultural hegemon of its time: the Roman Empire.

According to Eusebius of Caesarea, Constantine’s conversion to Christianity began after a visitation during the Battle of Milvian Bridge, when the Roman emperor supposedly experienced the revelation that if he and his troops adopted the Christian ‘Chi-Rho’ symbol, they would be victorious. In winning the battle, Constantine was able to start putting an end to the Tetrarchy and eventually become sole ruler of the Roman Empire. The symbol thereafter became the official imperial insignia, and the symbol for victory not only over Rome’s enemies, but also the Christian notion of death and Satan, as evidenced by its use on the sarcophagus of Domitilla in the fourth century. It is clear that the iconography of Catholicism was almost immediately associated with conflict and righteous expansionist aggression, especially after it found a rival in Arianism after it became the Empire’s official religion in 380 AD. As Christianity’s rise to power was a ‘top-down’ process rather than one inspired by popular pressure, the authority and executive power of the Church was dependent on its relationship with the Roman ruling elite, which meant that when the Empire finally came to an end in 476 AD, the Church was forced to support the next superpower in the region – the Franks – to secure their survival, and later the first ‘Holy Roman Emperor’, Charlemagne I, for the same reason.

This tradition continued even until Pope Pius XII negotiated the Reichskonkordat treaty with Nazi Germany, which made the Church the first legal partners of Adolf Hitler’s regime. Indeed, one of the few recognized instances of the exercise of papal supremacy came in 1096, when Pope Urban II initiated the first Crusade, which also appears to support the idea that the militaristic manner of the Roman Empire was adopted by the Church. However, on closer inspection it becomes clear that this was intended as a desperate distraction to the infighting between European powers which threatened to leave the Church’s status as the foremost religion in the continent as vulnerable. Thus, it appears that the origin of the Church moulded its structure and outlook in such a way that it was unable to avoid incriminating associations with dominant secular authorities and act in a reactionary, bellicose way.

It is true that the hierarchy of the early Church reflected, or ‘mimicked’, the organisation of the Empire, with the ecclesiastical structure being headed by Constantine, who appointed the bishops. The Church also adopted the same organisational boundaries as the Empire: geographical provinces, called dioceses, corresponding to imperial governmental territorial division. In the words of Charles Norris Cochrane: ‘Ecclesiastical councils functioned as parliaments embodying the philosophic […] wisdom of the Empire.’ However, the structure of today’s more democratic and more complicated Church is very different to the one it was 1600 years ago; most notably in its current separation from the state in most European countries, showing that the Church is capable of withstanding changes to its structure and identity. In France for example, the separation of Church and State happened after a law of the same name was passed in 1905. After the First World War, the Church succeeded in remodelling itself in the country and establishing new diplomatic relations with France in 1921. Because of this, it seems plausible that the Church would be able to remove itself from the governmental practices in Latin America, a subject which has been a constant source of criticism over the last few years. More vocal have been the calls to reform the practice of exclusively ordaining men, a tradition which has its roots in the Roman political tradition. Before being accepted as a state religion, the history of Christianity is replete with the actions of females, from the Biblical Mary Mother of Christ and Mary Magdalene, through the mention of the deaconess Phoebe in Paul’s letter to the Romans, to the 15 records of women being ordained in antiquity.

This appears to have changed with the first ever ecumenical council, the council of Nicaea in 325 AD, which was overseen by Constantine, and which outlawed the ordination of females. However, there is evidence that the belief that only women could be priests existed as early as the first century, with Pope Clement I (88 – 99AD) teaching that the apostolic succession only included males. In fact, the deepest theological and historical roots of the practice appear to lead all the way back to Christ himself, as Priests see themselves as sacramental symbols of Christ (in persona Christi) and so have to represent his masculinity. Christ’s example is also the source of the other serious problem facing the Church today, as his apparent celibacy led to the Church instructing their priests to lead similarly chaste lives. This is seen as being one of the main, indirect causes of the twenty-first-century child sex abuse scandals, as many priests have pointed to the lack of preparation during their training for a life of celibacy in the priesthood as leading to a sense of frustrated sexuality. However, as St Peter – who is seen as the first pope – was married and Jesus at no point instructed that priests could not be married, reform in this area of Church theology is a possibility. This is where the influence of the Roman Empire, more specifically its official language, Latin, is seen most clearly. First of all, the moral philosophy which the Church adopted was heavily influenced by the Roman philosophers Cicero and Seneca, whose work on the ideas surrounding the problem of evil and the field of natural law ethics defined Roman civic law. The Roman Empire had a population of around 60 – 70 million at its peak and covered 4.4 million square kilometres, so a strict and straightforward binary moral code was vital, and this pervaded the philosophy of the Church, as can be seen today with its policy towards abortion and homosexuality. Moreover, the language of Latin, deeply influenced by Cicero and still the official language of the Vatican and its doctrines, is not one which lends itself to liberal reinterpretations. In De Finibus, Cicero wrote that:

‘I have often observed that Latin is not only not destitute (inopem), as is vulgarly believed, but that it is even richer (locupletiorem) than Greece’. 

However, there is an irony here which Joseph Farrell points out in his book Latin language and Latin culture, and which contradicts Cicero’s point by demonstrating the limited nature of the language with regards to abstract, fluid concepts such as beauty and tolerance:

‘The etymology of locuples refers to the extensive land holdings in which Roman wealth traditionally consisted […] Cicero would deploy the motif more conventionally by linking territorial to linguistic poverty’.

This may explain why the Catholic Church is so hamstrung when it comes to reforming its doctrines, and thus confronting its modern-day problems.

So, it is clear that although there is hope for the Church to modernise and resolve some of the issues it is facing today, it must first decolonise itself from the ever-present influences of the Roman Empire’s culture and language.

Image: Constantine the Great at the Milvian Bridge, c.1640,


Cicero, De Finibus Bonorum Et Malorum, (45BC).

Farrell, James, Latin Language and Latin Culture: From Ancient to Modern Times (Cambridge, 2001).


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