The Influence of Religion over Italy

How did religion become ingrained into the essence of Italian society? More so than anywhere else in Europe.

Religion during the Roman Empire

Hosting the world’s smallest independent nation-state dedicated to the Roman Catholic Church, Italy’s multitude of religious artefacts begs the question of how it all started.

Since the latter third of the 20th century, Italy has seen a great influx of migrants, making it the fourth most populous state in the European Union. This rising population of migrants has brought with it a diverse religious community. This has included over 1 million Muslims and 30,000 Jews. Although the Jewish community has fluctuated in numbers since the early 20th century, in 1987 they obtained the right to abstain from work on Jewish holidays, which are now recognised by the Italian state.

Religion during the Roman Empire

This shows how religious diversity is a fairly new phenomenon in Italy, which remains a predominantly Catholic country. This was a long time in the making however, and, as with most things in Rome, starts with the tremendous power of the Roman Empire. Emerging in the 1st century BC, the Roman Empire quickly became a dominant power, controlling cultural, political and religious attitudes across Italy, and later throughout Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. Their religion was one based on contract and the principle of do ut des meaning “I give so that you might give.” This contractual agreement was one that they applied to their relationship with the Gods. If they were correct and obedient in their worship, expressed through prayer, ritual, and sacrifice, they would be blessed with success.

This archaic religion was central to Roman society, and practised by all, including women, children and even slaves. During their expansion, the Roman empire, quite surprisingly, absorbed the deities and cults of other societies. Rather than trying to eradicate them, the Romans believed that by absorbing these different religious practices they would bring stability to the Empire. With its multiple number of deities, some absorbed, and some reinvented, religious tolerance was not an issue, as different people were not competing for one monotheistic system. That was, until the Jewish wars. Due to the belief in one God, Judaism posed difficulties for Roman policy. After allowing some compromise and exceptions to the rule for those who followed Judaism, the Roman empire was unable to accommodate them anymore. Their differences were too great, and so war broke out between the Romans and the Jews.

Roman Mythology vs Christianity

The conflict was ongoing, consisting of a series of large-scale revolts against the Roman Empire between 66 – 135 BC. Unfortunately for the Jewish population, the power of the Roman Empire was too much and they were eventually defeated, leaving them broken and scattered across the Eastern Mediterranean. Even in their overthrown state however, Jews continued to practice their faith and Judaism carried on.

Judaism’s revival and growth were not seen until the 1st century AD when Christianity was born as an offshoot of a Jewish religious sect in Roman Judea, a Roman province in southern Israel. Gradually the religion spread out of Jerusalem, first to cities in Egypt and Turkey, and then throughout the Empire and beyond. The Romans attempted to halt its development with random and unexpected persecutions, but this only fuelled the fire. The people who died were considered martyrs, dying for the Christian cause. The persecutions became worse under Emperor Nero who attempted to blame Rome’s fires on Christians as an excuse to kill them.

Even worse was Emperor Decius who specifically targeted Christians when he issued a decree that ordered everyone in the Roman Empire to perform a sacrifice to the Roman gods, in the presence of a Roman magistrate. His aim was to force Christians to choose between their religious beliefs and death. Some did perform the ceremony, whilst others refused and were put to death, and some went into hiding, feeling they had no other choice.

Conversion to Christianity

Despite the severe methods of prosecution taken out on Christians, this only seemed to strengthen their defiance, and they were soon rewarded for their patience with the conversion of Emperor Constantine I prior to 313 AD. He became the first emperor to convert to Christianity in the early 4th century. From that point on, Christianity slowly began to dominate the rest of the Roman Empire and any other religions were rejected as “pagan”. Non-Christians risked being prosecuted or excluded from public life, but traces of Rome’s original religious traditions can still be seen in certain aspects of Christianity. For example, the title for the head of the Roman Catholic Church, the Pope, originates from the old Roman office of pontifex maximum, meaning the high priest.

It is important to remember that the religious conversion of the Roman Empire did not happen overnight. Christianity grew out of Jewish traditions which were shaped by Roman cultural and political structures. This shows the complexity of Christian development in Italy and worldwide. Its teachings and traditions, so well-known today, took centuries to evolve.

As it stands

Reflecting on Rome’s religious history, it seems almost ironic that Rome, Italy’s capital city, came to be considered the new centre of Christianity when it is also blamed for the downfall of the Roman Empire. The only clear point which can be made with confidence is the importance Italy places on religion, as despite everything, their pious nature remained.

You can witness the impact of religion and Christianity in the holy city of the Vatican. Surrounded by Rome, the Vatican is home to the Roman Catholic Church and houses many ancient Roman sculptures and Renaissance frescoes, held within the Sistine Chapel.

Related article: Why is the Renaissance era so important?

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