Written by Vladimir Moss



     In chapter 2 of Daniel the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar had a vision: he saw a metal statue in four parts: gold, silver, bronze and iron, which was crushed to pieces by a great stone. The Prophet Daniel interpreted the vision to be a summary of world history: the four parts of the statue refer to four world-empires, beginning with Nebuchadnezzar’s own, which are crushed by the Kingdom of God, which fills the whole earth and lasts forever.

     The Holy Fathers completed the prophet’s interpretation by identifying the four world-empires as those of pagan Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome. The iron part of the statue is said to crush all the other parts – which is precisely what Rome did in the centuries before the Coming of Christ. The statue is said to have ten toes made of a mixture of iron and clay. This refers to the flawed nature of ten successors of Roman power, which are divided, forming a mixture of strength and weakness - firm one-man rule and anarchic democracy. “The diminishing value of metals from gold to iron represent the decreasing grandeur of the rulers of the successive empire [for their kingdoms were inferior to yours, said the Prophet to Nebuchadnezzar], from the absolute despotism of Nebuchadnezzar to the democratic system of checks and balances that characterized the Roman senates and assemblies.”[1]

     Nevertheless, it was the iron power of one-man rule that gained the upper hand over democratic elements in Roman history from the time of Julius Caesar[2];  and when the Lord Jesus Christ, the King of heaven, was born as a man on earth, He was immediately enrolled as a citizen of a regnum in all but name, ruled by a single man, the Emperor Augustus. As Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich writes: “In those days, Caesar Augustus was ruling the land. His supreme rule over the whole earth is an image of God’s supreme rule over both worlds: the spiritual and the material. The many-headed dragon of power, that had, from the beginning of sin, brought decay to the peoples of the earth, was left with only one head. All known nations and tribes on earth were subject to Augustus’ power, directly or indirectly, whether only by sending him their tribute or by acknowledging Roman gods and Roman officials. The struggle for power had died down for a time, and the sole power over the whole world was entirely in the hands of Caesar Augustus. There was neither man nor god over him; he himself was proclaimed a god, and men made sacrifices to his image: slaughtered animals and unclean things. From the foundation of the world, no mortal man had rise to greater power than Caesar Augustus, who ruled without rival over the whole world; and indeed, from the foundation of the world, man, created by the living God, had never fallen to such a depth of nothingness and despair as then, when the Roman Emperor began to be deified – and he a man with all man’s frailties and weaknesses, with the life-span of a willow tree, with a stomach, intestines, liver and kidneys that were, after a few decades, to turn into a worm-infested stench and lifeless dust; a man, the statues of whom, raised during his reign, were to outlast his life, his power and his reign.

     “In this time of external peace and internal despair, the Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race and Renewer of all creation, was born…”[3]

     This coincidence of the birth of the King of kings with the birth of the Roman empire pointed, for many of the Holy Fathers and Church writers, to a certain special mission of the Roman empire, as if the Empire, being born at the same time as Christ, was Divinely established to be a vehicule for the spreading of the Gospel to all nations, coming into existence precisely for the sake of the Christian Church, and creating a political unity that would help and protect the spiritual unity created by the Church.

      Thus Melitus, Bishop of Sardis wrote to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius: “Our philosophy flourished first among barbarians; but after it had appeared among your peoples during the mighty principate of your ancestor Augustus, it became an auspicious benefit, especially to your empire. From that time on the power of the Romans increased in a great and splendid way: you became the successor to this whom the people desired and will continue to do so, along with your son, if you protect the philosophy which was nursed in the cradle of the empire and saw the light along with Augustus, which also your ancestors honoured, as they did other religions. And this is the greatest proof of its excellence, that our doctrine has flourished at the same time as the happy beginnings of the empire and that from the time of the principate of Augustus no evil has befallen it, but, on the contrary, all things have been splendid and glorious in accordance with the prayers of all…”[4]

     Again, in the third century Origen wrote: “Jesus was born during the reign of Augustus, the one who reduced to uniformity, so to speak, the many kingdoms on earth so that He had a single empire. It would have hindered Jesus’ teaching from being spread throughout the world if there had been many kingdoms… Everyone would have been forced to fight in defence of their own country.”[5]

     Origen considered that the peace of Augustus was prophesied in the scriptural verse: “He shall have dominion from sea to sea, and from the rivers even unto the ends of the inhabited earth” (Psalm 71.7), and that it prefigured the spiritual peace of Christ. Moreover, under the reigns of Augustus’ successors, the differences between the peoples had been reduced, so that by the time of Christ’s Second Coming they would all call on the name of the Lord with one voice and serve Him under one yoke.[6]

     Again, in the fourth century St. Gregory the Theologian said: “The state of the Christians and that of the Romans grew up simultaneously and Roman supremacy arose with Christ’s sojourn upon earth, previous to which it had not reached monarchical perfection.”[7] And in the fifth century the Spanish priest Orosius, claimed that the Emperor Augustus had paid a kind of compliment to Christ by refusing to call himself Lord at a time when the true Lord of all was becoming man. Christ returned the compliment by having himself enrolled in Augustus’ census. In this way He foreshadowed Rome’s historical mission.[8] Also in the fifth century, St. Leo the Great, Pope of Rome, wrote: "Divine Providence fashioned the Roman Empire, the growth of which was extended to boundaries so wide that all races everywhere became next-door neighbours. For it was particularly germane to the Divine scheme that many kingdoms should be bound together under a single government, and that the world-wide preaching should have a swift means of access to all people, over whom the rule of a single state held sway."[9] As Blessed Theodoret of Cyrus wrote, “through the pax Romana” God “facilitated the work of the preachers of truth. You see, once a single empire was formed, the uprisings of the nations against one another ceased and peace took hold throughout the whole world; the apostles, entrusted with the preaching of true religion, travelled about safely, and by traversing the world they snared humankind and brought them to life” [10]

      The Church sums up this teaching thus: "When Augustus reigned alone upon earth, the many kingdoms of men came to an end: and when Thou wast made man of the pure Virgin, the many gods of idolatry were destroyed. The cities of the world passed under one single rule; and the nations came to believe in one sovereign Godhead. The peoples were enrolled by the decree of Caesar; and we, the faithful, were enrolled in the Name of the Godhead, when Thou, our God, wast made man. Great is Thy mercy: glory to Thee.”[11]


     That the Roman Empire came into existence for the sake of the Church was, on the face of it, a very bold and paradoxical teaching. After all, the people of God at the beginning of the Christian era were the Jews, not the Romans. The Romans were pagans; they worshipped demons, not the True God Who had revealed Himself to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In 63 BC they had actually conquered the people of God, and their rule was bitterly resented. In 70 AD they destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple in a campaign of appalling cruelty and scattered the Jews over the face of the earth. How could pagan Rome, the Rome of Nero and Titus and Domitian and Diocletian, possibly be construed as working with God rather than against Him?

     The solution to this paradox is to be found in an examination of two encounters recounted in the Gospel between Christ and two “rulers of this world” – Satan and Pontius Pilate. In the first, Satan takes Christ onto a high mountain and shows him all the kingdoms of this world in a moment of time. “And the devil said to Him, ‘All this authority I will give You, and their glory; for this has been delivered to me, and I give it to whomever I wish. Therefore, if You will worship before Me, all will be Yours.’ And Jesus answered and said to him: ‘Get behind Me, Satan! For it is written, You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only will you serve.’” (Luke 4.6-8). Here we see that Satan up to that time had control over all the kingdoms of the world – but by might, the might given him by the sins of men, - not by right. Thus St. Cyril of Alexandria exclaims: “How dost thou promise that which is not thine? Who made thee heir of God’s kingdom? Who made thee lord of all under heaven? Thou hast seized these things by fraud. Restore them, therefore, to the incarnate Son, the Lord of all…”[12]

     And indeed, the Lord accepted neither Satan’s lordship over the world, nor the satanism so closely associated with the pagan states of the ancient world. He came to restore true Statehood, which recognises the ultimate supremacy only of the one true God, and which demands veneration of the earthly ruler, but worship only of the Heavenly King. And since, by the time of the Nativity of Christ, all the major pagan kingdoms had been swallowed up in Rome, it was to the transformation of Roman Statehood that the Lord came.

     For, as K.V. Glazkov writes: “The good news announced by the Lord Jesus Christ could not leave untransfigured a single one of the spheres of man’s life. One of the acts of our Lord Jesus Christ consisted in bringing the heavenly truths to the earth, in instilling them into the consciousness of mankind with the aim of its spiritual regeneration, in restructuring the laws of communal life on new principles announced by Christ the Saviour, in the creation of a Christian order of this communal life, and, consequently, in a radical change of pagan statehood. Proceeding from here it becomes clear what place the Church must occupy in relation to the state. It is not the place of an opponent from a hostile camp, not the place of a warring party, but the place of a pastor in relation to his flock, the place of a loving father in relation to his lost children. Even in those moments when there was not and could not be any unanimity or union between the Church and the state, Christ the Saviour forbade the Church to stand on one side from the state, still less to break all links with it, saying: ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s’ (Luke 20.25).[13]

     Thus Christ is the true King, granting a qualified authority to earthly kings. Therefore Christians owe a qualified loyalty to the empire without full integration into it. Full integration was impossible, for, as Fr. Georges Florovsky writes, “in ‘this world’ Christians could be but pilgrims and strangers. Their true ‘citizenship’, politeuma, was ‘in heaven’ (Philippians 3.20). The Church herself was peregrinating through this world (paroikousa). ‘The Christian fellowship was a bit of extra-territorial jurisdiction on earth of the world above’ (Frank Gavin). The Church was ‘an outpost of heaven’ on earth, or a ‘colony of heaven’. It may be true that this attitude of radical detachment had originally an ‘apocalyptic’ connotation, and was inspired by the expectation of an imminent parousia. Yet, even as an enduring historical society, the Church was bound to be detached from the world. An ethos of ‘spiritual segregation’ was inherent in the very fabric of the Christian faith, as it was inherent in the faith of Ancient Israel. The Church herself was ‘a city’, a polis, a new and peculiar ‘polity’. In their baptismal profession Christians had ‘to renounce’ this world, with all its vanity, and pride, and pomp, - but also with all its natural ties, even family ties, and to take a solemn oath of allegiance to Christ the King, the only true King on earth and in heaven, to Whom all ‘authority’ has been given. By this baptismal commitment Christians were radically separated from ‘this world’. In this world they had no ‘permanent city’. They were ‘citizens ‘of the ‘City to come’, of which God Himself was builder and maker (Hebrews 13.14; cf. 11.10).

     “The Early Christians,” writes Florovsky, “were often suspected and accused of civic indifference, and even of morbid ‘misanthropy’, odium generis humani, - which should probably be contrasted with the alleged ‘philanthropy’ of the Roman Empire. The charge was not without substance. In his famous reply to Celsus, Origen was ready to admit the charge. Yet, what else could Christians have done, he asked. In every city, he explained, ‘we have another system of allegiance’, allo systema tes patridos (Contra Celsum, VIII.75). Along with the civil community there was in every city another community, the local Church. And she was for Christians their true home, or their ‘fatherland’, and not their actual ‘native city’. The anonymous writer of the admirable ‘Letter to Diognetus’, written probably in the early years of the second century, elaborated this point with an elegant precision. Christians do not dwell in cities of their own, nor do they differ from the rest of men in speech and customs. ‘Yet, while they dwell in the cities of Greeks and Barbarians, as the lot of each is cast, the structure of their own polity is peculiar and paradoxical… Every foreign land is a fatherland to them, and every fatherland is a foreign land… Their conversation is on the earth, but their citizenship is in heaven.’ There was no passion in this attitude, no hostility, and no actual retirement from daily life. But there was a strong note of spiritual estrangement: ‘and every fatherland is a foreign land.’ It was coupled, however, with an acute sense of responsibility. Christians were confined in the world, ‘kept’ there as in a prison; but they also ‘kept the world together,’ just as the soul holds the body together. Moreover, this was precisely the task allotted to Christians by God, ‘which it is unlawful to decline’ (Ad Diognetum, 5, 6). Christians might stay in their native cities, and faithfully perform their daily duties. But they were unable to give their full allegiance to any polity of this world, because their true commitment was elsewhere….”[14]

     Let us now turn to Christ’s second confrontation with a ruler of this world – His trial before Pilate. While acknowledging that his power was lawful, the Lord insists that Pilate’s power derived from God, the true King and Lawgiver. For “you could have no power at all against Me,” He says to Pilate, “unless it had been given to you from above” (John 19.11). These words, paradoxically, both limit Caesar’s power, insofar as it is subject to God’s, and strengthen it, by indicating that it has God’s seal and blessing in principle (if not in all its particular manifestations). Nor is this conclusion contradicted by His earlier words: “My Kingdom is not of this world” (John 18.36).

     For, as Blessed Theophylact writes: “He said: ‘My Kingdom is not of this world’, and again: ‘It is not from here’, but He did not say: It is not in this world and not here. He rules in this world, takes providential care for it and administers everything according to His will. But His Kingdom is ‘not of this world’, but from above and before the ages, and ‘not from here’, that is, it is not composed from the earth, although it has power here”.[15]

     Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich writes: “Let no-one imagine that Christ the Lord does not have imperial power over this world because He says to Pilate: ‘My Kingdom is not of this world.’ He who possesses the enduring has power also over the transitory. The Lord speaks of His enduring Kingdom, independent of time and of decay, unrighteousness, illusion and death. Some man might say: ‘My riches are not on paper, but in gold.’ But does he who has gold not have paper also? Is not gold as paper to its owner? The Lord, then, does not say to Pilate that He is not a king, but, on the contrary, says that He is a higher king than all kings, and His Kingdom is greater and stronger and more enduring than all earthly kingdoms. He refers to His pre-eminent Kingdom, on which depend all kingdoms in time and in space…”[16]

     The Lord continues: “Therefore the one who delivered Me to you has the greater sin” (John 19.11). The one who delivered Christ to Pilate was Caiaphas, chief priest of the Jews. For, as is well known (to all except contemporary ecumenist Christians), it was the Jews, His own people, who condemned Christ for blasphemy and demanded His execution at the hands of the Roman authorities in the person of Pontius Pilate. Since Pilate was not interested in the charge of blasphemy, the only way in which the Jews could get their way was to accuse Christ of fomenting rebellion against Rome – a hypocritical charge, since it was precisely the Jews, not Christ, who were planning revolution, and in fact rebelled in 66 A.D.[17] Not only did Pilate not believe this accusation: as the Apostle Peter pointed out, he did everything he could to have Christ released (Acts 3.13), giving in only when he feared that the Jews were about to start a riot and denounce him to the emperor in Rome. This fact has the consequence that, insofar Pilate could have used his God-given power to save the Lord from an unjust death, Roman state power appears in this situation as the potential, if not yet the actual, protector of Christ from His fiercest enemies. In other words, already during the life of Christ, we see the future role of Rome as “that which restrains” the Antichrist (II Thessalonians 2.7) and the guardian of the Body of Christ.


     Since the Christians had not taken part in the Jewish revolution, and always, unlike the Jews, stressed their civic loyalty to the Roman Emperor, one would have thought that the Romans would have had no problems in treating the Christians as tolerantly as (in general) they treated the Jews.

     But the matter was not as simple as that…

     Dvorkin writes: “The Roman government in practice was tolerant to any cult if only it did not incite to rebellion and did not undermine morality. Moreover, the Romans thought that one of the reasons for their military successes was the fact that while other peoples worshipped only their own local gods, the Romans showed marks of honour to all the gods without exception and for that were rewarded for their special piety. All cults not established by the state were allowed, but theoretically did not have the right to propagandize in Rome, although their gods also entered into the Roman pantheon. In the first century after Christ religions already known to the contemporary Roman were not, as a rule, persecuted for propagandizing. However, the law retained its prior force and theoretically the possibility of applying it remained. The permitted religions had to satisfy two criteria: place and time. Religion was always a local matter – that is, it was linked to a definite people living in a definite locality, - and also an ancient matter, linked to the history of this people. It was more complicated to assimilate the God of the Jews, Who had no representation and did not accept sacrifices in any place except Jerusalem, into their pantheon. The Jews themselves did not allow His representation to be placed anywhere and stubbornly declined to worship the Roman gods. The Jews were monotheists and theoretically understood that their faith in principle excluded all other forms of religion. Nevertheless, in spite of all the complications with the Jews and the strangeness of their religion, it was still tolerated: the religion of the Jews was a national one and, besides, ancient, and it was considered sacrilege to encroach on it. Moreover, the Jews occupied an important political niche that was for the Romans a stronghold of their eastern conquests. In view of all these considerations, the Romans gritted their teeth and recognized the Jewish religion to be permitted. Privileges were given to the Jewish people also because their rites seemed strange and dirty. The Romans thought that the Jews simply could not have proselytes among other peoples and would rather repel the haughty Roman aristocrat. Therefore the Jews were given the right to confess their belief in one God. Until the rebellion of 66-70 the Roman authorities treated them with studied tolerance. Augustus gave the Jews significant privileges, which, after the crisis under Caligula, who wanted to put his statue in the Jerusalem Temple (cf. Mark 13.14 and II Thessalonians 2.3-4), were again renewed by Claudius.

     “The circumstances changed when Christianity appeared. Having examined it, the Romans classified the Christians as apostates from the Jewish faith. It was precisely the traits that distinguished the Christians from the Jews that made them still lower in the eyes of the Romans even than the Judaism they had little sympathy for. Christianity did not have the right of belonging to historical antiquity – it was the ‘new religion’ so displeasing to the Roman conservative. It was not the religion of one people, but on the contrary, lived only through proselytes from other religions. If the propagandizing of other cults by their servers was seen rather as a chance violation, for Christians missionary work was their only modus vivendi – a necessity of their very position in history. Christians were always reproached for a lack of historical and national character in their religion. Celsius, for example, saw in Christians a party that had separated from Judaism and inherited from it its inclination for disputes.

     “The Christians could demand tolerance either in the name of the truth or in the name of freedom of conscience. But since for the Romans one of the criteria of truth was antiquity, Christianity, a new religion, automatically became a false religion. The right of freedom of conscience that is so important for contemporary man was not even mentioned at that time. Only the state, and not individuals, had the right to establish and legalize religious cults. In rising up against state religion, the Christians became guilty of a state crime – they became in principle enemies of the state. And with such a view of Christianity it was possible to interpret a series of features of their life in a particular way: their nocturnal gatherings, their waiting for a certain king that was to come, the declining of some of them from military service and above all their refusal to offer sacrifices to the emperor.

     “The Christians refused to carry out this self-evident, most simple of state duties. Beginning with the Apostle Paul, they affirmed their loyalty, referring to the prayers they said for the emperor, for the authorities and for the homeland. But they refused to recognize the emperor as ‘Lord’ and to carry out even an external worship of the idols, for they knew only one Lord, Jesus Christ. The Christians accepted both the state and society, but only to the degree that they did not limit the Lordship of Christ, did not drown out the confession of the Kingdom.

     “The Kingdom of God had come and been revealed in the world, and from now on became the single measure of history and human life. In essence, the Christians by their refusal showed that they – almost alone in the whole of what was then an exceptionally religious world – believed in the reality of the idols. Honouring the idols meant recognizing the power of the devil, who had torn the world away from the knowledge of the only true god and forced it to worship statues. But Christ had come to free the world from this power. Paganism came to life in its true religious significance as the kingdom of evil, as a demonic invasion, with which the Christians had entered into a duel to the death.

     “Christianity came as a revolution in the history of the world: it was the appearance in it of the Lord for the struggle with that which had usurped His power. The Church had become the witness of His coming and presence. It was precisely this witness that it proclaimed to the whole world…”[18]


      The first persecution against the Christians was that of Nero in 64, in which the Apostles Peter and Paul were killed. It was a local persecution in Rome, and was not directly related to religion. The real reason was that Nero needed scapegoats for the fire he himself had caused which destroyed a large part of the city.

      It was not until the persecution under Domitian in 92 that we see the first violent ideological clash between Rome and the Church. Domitian proclaimed himself “lord and god”, and required people to swear “by the genius of the emperor”. Those who did not were proclaimed to be “atheists”. The Apostle John was exiled to Patmos for his refusal to obey the emperor.[19]     

      However, over the next two centuries and a bit, until the persecution of Diocletian in the early fourth century, periods of persecution, while cruel, were sporadic and short-lived. Thus in the early second century the Emperor Trajan ordered the end of the persecution after the death of St. Ignatius the God-bearer, so impressed was he by the saint’s confession… With the possible exception of Diocletian’s persecution, these persecutions did not threaten the very existence of the Church. Indeed, taken as a whole, the persecutions of the first three centuries of the Church’s life under the pagan Roman emperors cannot be compared, either in length or bloodthirstiness, to the much more recent persecutions in Soviet Russia. Rather than destroying the Church, they shed the blood that, in Tertullian’s phrase, was the seed of future Christian generations.

     Roman power already began fulfilling the role of protector of the Christians in 35, when, on the basis of a report sent to him by Pilate, the Emperor Tiberius proposed to the senate that Christ should be recognized as a god. The senate refused this request, and declared that Christianity was an “illicit superstition”; but Tiberius ignored this and forbade the bringing of any accusations against the Christians. Moreover, when St. Mary Magdalene complained to the emperor about the unjust sentence passed by Pontius Pilate on Christ, the emperor moved Pilate from Jerusalem to Gaul, where he died after a terrible illness.[20] Again, in 36 or 37 the Roman legate to Syria, Vitellius, deposed Caiaphas for his unlawful execution of the Archdeacon and Protomartyr Stephen (in 34), and in 62 the High Priest Ananias was similarly deposed for executing St. James the Just, the first Bishop of Jerusalem. In between these dates the Apostle Paul was saved from a lynching at the hands of the Jews by the Roman authorities (Acts 21, 23.28-29, 25.19).[21] So at first the Romans, far from being persecutors of the Christians, were their chief protectors against the Jews – the former people of God…

      The Lord Himself accepted the Roman political order as legitimate, and exhorted His disciples to obey it as long as it did not compel them to disobey the Law of God: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22.21). Although Christians, being in essence free-born sons of the Heavenly King, were inwardly not subject to the yoke of earthly kings, nevertheless this yoke was to be accepted voluntarily “lest we should offend them” (Matthew 17.27).

     Following in this tradition, St. Peter writes: "Be subject for the Lord's sake, to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and praise those who do right... Fear God. Honour the emperor" (I Peter 2.13, 17).

     And St. Paul commands Christians to give thanks for the emperor "and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceful life in all godliness and honesty" (I Timothy 2.1-2). For it is precisely the emperor's ability to maintain law and order, "a quiet and peaceful life", which makes him so important for the Church. And so “let every soul be subject to the higher powers. For there is no power that is not from God; the powers that be are ordained by God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God, and those who resist shall receive for themselves damnation” (Romans 13.1-2).[22]

     The exact meaning of these words of the Apostle Paul has been much disputed in recent times. The question is: is the apostle saying that all political authority is established by God, whatever its attitude to God Himself? Or are there grounds for asserting that some authorities are not established by God, but only allowed to exist by Him, and that these “authorities” should not be obeyed as being in fact established by Satan?

     The consensus of the Holy Fathers is that the apostle was not saying that everything that calls itself an authority is blessed by God, but that political authority is in principle good and God-established and therefore should be obeyed – because, as he goes on to say, political power is in general wielded in order to punish evil-doers and protect public order. Roman power, he says, is established by God, and therefore is a true political authority that must be obeyed in all its commands that do not directly contradict the commandments of God Himself. Hence the veneration and obedience that the early Christians displayed towards it.

     Thus St. Clement of Rome writes: “Give us, O Master, peace and concord, even as Thou didst give it to our forefathers when they called devoutly upon Thee in faith and truth. And make us obedient to Thine own almighty and all-holy name, and to all who have the rule and governance over us upon the earth. For it is Thou, O Lord, Who in Thy supreme and ineffable might hast given them their sovereign authority; to the intent that we, acknowledging the glory and honour Thou hast bestowed upon them, should show them all submission. Grant to them health and peace, that they may exercise without offence the sovereignty which Thou hast given them.”[23]

     Again, in the second century St. Justin the Martyr wrote: “We worship God only, but in other things we gladly serve you, acknowledging you as emperors and rulers of men and women, and praying that with your imperial power you may also be found to possess sound judgement…”[24]

     The holy Martyr Apollonius (+c. 185) expressed the classic Christian attitude towards the emperor thus: “With all Christians I offer a pure and unbloody sacrifice to almighty God, the Lord of heaven and earth and of all that breathes, a sacrifice of prayer especially on behalf of the spiritual and rational images that have been disposed by God’s providence to rule over the earth. Wherefore obeying a just precept we pray daily to God, Who dwells in the heavens, on behalf of [the Emperor] Commodus who is our ruler in this world, for we are well aware that he rules over the earth by nothing else but the will of the invincible God Who comprehends all things.”[25]

     Again, Athenagoras of Athens in his Representation for the Christians to Marcus Aurelius wrote that Christians pray for the authorities, so that the son should inherit the kingdom from his father and that the power of the Caesars should be continually extended and confirmed, and that everyone should submit to it. And St. Theophilus of Antioch wrote: “Therefore I would rather venerate the king than your gods – venerate, not worship him, but pray for him… Praying in this way, you fulfil the will of God. For the law of God says: ‘My son, fear the Lord and the king, and do not mix with rebels’ (Proverbs 24.21)” (Three Books to Autolycus)

     A generation later, Tertullian (+ c. 240) employed a similar argument. “Anticipating Eusebius, he insisted that Christians rendered ‘such reverential homage as is lawful for us and good for him; regarding him as the human being next to God who from God has received all his power, and is less than God alone.’ Christians, Tertullian argued, were even perfectly willing to offer sacrifice on behalf of the emperor, though it had to be a Christian sacrifice: ‘We therefore sacrifice for the emperor’s safety, but to our God and his, and after the manner God has enjoined, in simple prayer.’ Pagan sacrifices are useless, the ‘food of devils’. Christians appeal to God, praying ‘for the imperial well-being, as those who seek it at the hands of Him who is able to bestow it.’.. Christians do just what the imperial cult demands, though in his own way.”[26]

     In other words, the only legitimate sacrifice a Christian can make to the emperor is the sacrifice of prayer on his behalf; for he rules, not as a god, but “by the will of God”. So the Christians by no means refused to give to Caesar what was his. Indeed, the emperor was, in Tertullian’s words, “more truly ours (than yours) because he was put into power by our God”, which is why the Christians prayed that he should have “a long life, a safe empire, a quiet home, strong armies, a faithful senate, honest subjects, a world at peace”.[27]

     As for the pagan sacrifice to the emperor himself, Hieromartyr Hippolytus of Rome (+235) wrote: “Believers in God must not be hypocritical, nor fear people invested in authority, with the exception of those cases when some evil deed is committed [Romans 13.1-4]. On the contrary, if the leaders, having in mind their faith in God, force them to do something contrary to this faith, then it is better for them to die than to carry out the command of the leaders. After all, when the apostle teaches submission to ‘all the powers that be’ (Romans 13.1), he was not saying that we should renounce our faith and the Divine commandments, and indifferently carry out everything that people tell us to do; but that we, while fearing the authorities, should do nothing evil and that we should not deserve punishment from them as some evildoers (Romans 13.4). That is why he says: ‘The servant of God is an avenger of [those who do] evil’ (I Peter 2.14-20; Romans 13.4). And so? ‘Do you not want to fear the authorities? Do good and you will have praise from him; but if you do evil, fear, for he does not bear the sword without reason’ (Romans 13.4). Consequently, insofar as one can judge from the cited words, the apostle teaches submission to a holy and God-fearing life in this life and that we should have before our eyes the danger that the sword threatens us. [But] when the leaders and scribes hindered the apostles from preaching the word of God, they did not cease from their preaching, but submitted ‘to God rather than to man’ (Acts 5.29). In consequence of this, the leaders, angered, put them in prison, but ‘an angel led them out, saying: God and speak the words of this life’ (Acts 5.20).”)[28]


     This attitude was well exemplified by St. Maurice and his Christian legion in Agaunum. Like many martyrs before them, they did not refuse to fight in the armies of the pagan Roman emperors against the pagans. But they refused to destroy a village composed of fellow-Christians. For “we are your soldiers, yes,” said Maurice, “but we are also the soldiers of God. To you, we owe the dues of military service – but to Him the purity of our souls.”[29]

     So even the persecuting emperors were recognized as having legitimate authority: it was only when their commands contradicted the Law of God that they were defied. And even then, there is no hint of physical rebellion against the powers that be among pre-Constantinian Christians. Their attitude to Diocletian was like that of the Prophet Daniel to Nebuchadnezzar: his power is from God, even if he sometimes uses it against God.

     However, the mention of Daniel reminds us that there was a somewhat different and darker attitude to Rome among the Christian writers. Following Daniel’s prophecy of the four beasts (Daniel 7), Rome was seen as the last of four kingdoms – the others were Babylon, Persia and Macedon - that would finally be destroyed in the last days by the Kingdom of Christ. According to this tradition, the pagan absolutist kings who persecuted the people of God were not legitimate rulers but tyrants. Nebuchadnezzar, for example, is called “tyrant” in some liturgical texts: “Caught and held fast by love for the King of all, the Children despised the impious threats of the tyrant in his boundless fury” [30]

     Now the distinction between the true monarch, basileus, and the unlawful usurper, rebel or tyrant, tyrannis, was not new. Thus King Solomon wrote: “My son, fear the Lord and the king, and do not mix with rebels” (Proverbs 24.21). After Solomon’s death, there was a rebellion against his legitimate successor, Rehoboam, by Jeroboam, the founder of the northern kingdom of Israel. And although the Prophets Elijah and Elisha lived and worked mainly in the northern kingdom, they always made clear their loyalty to the legitimate kings of Judah over the usurping kings of Israel. Thus when both kings, in a rare moment of alliance, approached the Prophet Elisha for his advice, he said to the king of Israel: “What have I to do with you? Go to the prophets of your father and the prophets of your mother… As the Lord of hosts lives, Whom I serve, were it not that I have regard for Jehoshaphat the king of Judah, I would neither look at you, nor see you.” (II Kings 3.13, 14)…

     The Greek philosophers also made a clear distinction between monarchy and tyranny. Thus Aristotle wrote: “There is a third kind of tyranny, which is the most typical form and is the counterpart to the perfect monarchy. This tyranny is just that arbitrary power of an individual which is responsible to no-one and governs all alike, whether equals or betters, with a view to its own advantage, not to that of its subjects and therefore against their will.”[31]

     If Rehoboam and Nebuchadnezzar were tyrants, then it was logical to see tyranny also in the Roman emperors who persecuted the Church. Thus some early interpreters saw in one or other of the evil symbolic figures of the Revelation of St. John the Theologian, which was written during the persecution of Domitian, references to Roman power. Indeed, what contemporary Christian could not fail to think of Rome when reading about that great city, symbolically called a whore and Babylon, who sits on seven hills (Rome is situated on seven hills), who is “the mother of harlots and abominations of the earth”, that is, the multitude of pagan cults that all found refuge in Rome, “a woman drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus” (17.5, 6)? Thus Hieromartyr Victorinus of Petau wrote that the whore’s downfall was “the ruin of great Babylon, that is, of the city of Rome.”[32] In other words, Rome, according to this tradition, was seen, not as a lawful monarchy or the blueprint of a future Christian autocracy, but as a bloody and blasphemous despotism, in the tradition of all the ancient despotisms that took their origin from Nimrod’s Babylon.[33]

     This tradition became more popular as the history of pagan Rome reached its bloody climax in the early fourth century. For the Church was now threatened, not with a merely local persecution by local madmen, but with a determined attempt to destroy it completely at the hands of men who considered themselves gods and whose personal lives were often extraordinarily corrupt. The empire concentrated in itself, and especially in its capital city, all the demons of all the pagan cults together with all the moral depravity and cruelty and rabid antichristianity which those cults encouraged. How could such a kingdom be established by God? Was it not that tyrannical beast of which Scripture said that it was established by the devil (Revelation 13.2)?

    And so the image of the Empire was ambiguous for the early Christians: it was both a true kingdom, an anti-type of God’s Kingdom, and a tyranny, a forerunner of the kingdom of the Antichrist that would be wiped out at the Second Coming of Christ Himself…

     Nevertheless, it is undoubtedly the more optimistic view of Rome as the true kingdom that prevailed. And the essentially loyal attitude of the Christians to Rome is demonstrated by the fact that even during the persecution of Diocletian, when the Church was threatened with extinction, the Christians never rebelled against the empire, but only against the unlawful demands of the emperors. And in reward for this faith and patience, the Lord finally broke the crust of ancient pagan despotism, bringing to birth a new creature designed specifically for the spreading of the Faith throughout the world – the Roman Christian Autocracy…[34]

     There was another reason why obedience even to the persecuting Roman emperors was enjoined: Roman power was believed to “restrain” the coming of the Antichrist. “There is also another and a greater necessity,” writes Tertullian, “for our offering prayer on behalf of the emperors as also for the whole state of the empire, … since we know that by the prosperity of the Roman empire the mighty power impending on the whole world and threatening the very close of the age with frightful calamities shall be delayed. And as we are loath to suffer these things, while we pray for their postponement we favour the stability of Rome - nay, we pray for the complete stability of the empire and for Roman interests in general. For we know that the mighty shock impending over the whole earth – in fact, the very end of all things threatening dreadful woes – is only retarded by the continued existence of the Roman empire.”[35]

     “The subject here,” writes Professor Marta Sordi, “was the interpretation given to the famous passage from the second Epistle to the Thessalonians (2.6-7) on the obstacle, whether a person or an object, which impedes the coming of the Anti-Christ. Without attempting to interpret this mysterious passage, the fact remains that all Christian writers, up to and including Lactantius, Ambrose and Augustine, identified this restraining presence with the Roman empire, either as an institution or as an ideology. Through their conviction that the Roman empire would last as long as the world (Tertullian Ad Scapulam 2) the early Christians actually renewed and appropriated as their own the concept of Roma aeterna. ‘While we pray to delay the end’ – it is Tertullian speaking (Apologeticum 32.1) – ‘we are helping Rome to last forever’.”[36]

     Thus St. John Chrysostom wrote about “him that restraineth”: “Some say the grace of the Holy Spirit, but others the Roman rule, to which I much rather accede. Why? Because if he meant to say the Spirit, he would not have spoken obscurely, but plainly, that even now the grace of the Spirit, that is the gifts of grace, withhold him… If he were about come when the gifts of grace cease, he ought now to have come, for they have long ceased. But he said this of the Roman rule,… speaking covertly and darkly, not wishing to bring upon himself superfluous enmities and senseless danger.[37] He says, ‘Only there is the one who restraineth now, until he should be taken out of the midst’; that is, whenever the Roman empire is taken out of the way, then shall he come. For as long as there is fear of the empire, no one will willingly exalt himself. But when that is dissolved, he will attack the anarchy, and endeavour to seize upon the sovereignty both of man and of God.”[38]


December 25 / January 7, 2016/17.

[1] The Lives of the Holy Prophets, Buena Vista, CO: Holy Apostles Convent, 1998, p. 387. Charles T. Cook put it as follows: “Babylon, the Head of Gold, was governed by an Absolute Autocracy. Medo-Persia, the Breast and Arms of Silver, favoured an Aristocratic Oligarchy. This form gave place to Alexander the Great’s Military Oligarchy. And in turn Rome, the Legs of Iron, represented Democratic Imperialism.” (“Is the Book of Daniel Fact or Fiction?” Watching and Waiting, 2, May 1919, republished in vol. 28, no. 15, July-September, 2015, p. 238)

[2] Wiseman, “The Slow Death of Democracy”, BBC History Magazine, vol. 6, N 12, December, 2005, p. 15.

[3] Velimirovich, “The Nativity of Christ. 2”, Homilies, volume 1, Birmingham: Lazarica Press, 1996, pp. 25-26.

[4] St. Melito, in Eusebius, Church History, IV, 26, 7-8.

[5] Origen, Against Celsus II, 30.

[6] Charles Davis, “The Middle Ages”, in Richard Jenkyns (ed.), The Legacy of Rome, Oxford University Press, 1992, p. 67.

[7] St. Gregory, Sermon 4, P.G. 47, col. 564B.

[8] Orosius, Seven Books of History against the Pagans; in Jenkyns, op. cit., pp. 72-74.

[9] St. Leo, Sermon 32, P.L. 54, col. 423.

[10] Blessed Theodoret, Commentary on Zechariah, chapter 9. Again, E. Kholmogorov writes: “Rome set herself an unprecedentedly bold task – to establish peace throughout the inhabited world and root out barbarism” (“Vybor Imperii” (“The Choice of Empire”), Epokha, N 11, 2001, pp. 15-16).

[11] Festal Menaion, Great Vespers for the Nativity of Christ, "Lord, I have cried", Glory... Both now...

[12] St. Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on the Gospel of Saint Luke, Homily 12, New York: Studion Publishers, 1983, p. 89.

[13] Glazkov, “Zashchita ot Liberalizma” (“A Defence from Liberalism”), Pravoslavnaia Rus’ (Orthodox Russia), N 15 (1636), August 1/14, 1999, p. 10.

[14] Florovsky, “Antinomies of Christian History: Empire and Desert”, Christianity and Culture, Belmont, Mass.: Nordland, 1974, pp. 68- 69.

[15] Bl. Theophylact, On John 18.36.

[16] Bishop Nikolai, The Prologue from Ochrid, Birmingham: Lazarica Press, 1986, part III, September 30, pp. 395-396.

[17] Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky), "Christ the Savior and the Jewish Revolution", Orthodox Life, vol. 35, no. 4, July-August, 1988, pp. 11-31.

[18] Dvorkin, op. cit., pp. 79-81.

[19] Domitian was seen in antiquity as the worst of the Roman emperors, worse even than Nero and Caligula (Peter Heather, The Restoration of Rome, London: Pan Books, 2013, p. 114).

[20] Bishop Nikolai, The Prologue from Ochrid, part III, July 22, p. 94.

[21] Professor Marta Sordi, The Christians and the Roman Empire, London: Routledge, 1994, chapter 1.

[22] The Synod of Bishops of the Russian Church Outside Russia wrote that “the Apostles Peter and Paul required of the Christians of their time submission to the Roman authority, even though it later persecuted the followers of Christ. The Romans by nature were distinguished by their moral valor, for which, according to the words of Augustine in his book On the City of God, the Lord magnified and glorified them. To the genius of the Romans humanity owes the working out of a more perfect law, which was the foundation of its famous governmental structure, by which it subjected the world to itself to an even greater degree than by its renowned sword. Under the shadow of the Roman eagle many tribes and nations prospered, enjoying peace and free internal self-government. Respect and tolerance for all religion were so great in Rome that they were at first also extended to recently engendered Christianity. It is sufficient to remember that the Roman procurator Pilate tried to defend Christ the Savior from the malice of the Jews, pointing out His innocence and finding nothing blameworthy in the doctrine He preached. During his many evangelical travels, which brought him into contact with the inhabitants of foreign lands, the Apostle Paul, as a Roman citizen, appealed for the protection of Roman law for defense against both the Jews and the pagans. And, of course, he asked that his case be judged by Caesar, who, according to tradition, found him to be innocent of what he was accused of only later, after his return to Rome from Spain, did he undergo martyrdom there.

     “The persecution of Christians never permeated the Roman system, and was a matter of the personal initiative of individual emperors, who saw in the wide dissemination of the new Faith a danger for the state religion, and also for the order of the State, until one of them, St. Constantine, finally understood that they really did not know what they were doing, and laid his sword and sceptre at the footstool of the Cross of Christ…” (Encyclical Letter of the Council of Russian Bishops Abroad to the Russian Orthodox Flock, 23 March, 1933; Living Orthodoxy, #131, vol. XXII, N 5, September-October, 2001, pp. 13-14)

[23]St. Clement of Rome, To the Corinthians, 60.

[24] St. Justin the Martyr, First Apology, 17.

[25] The Acts of the Christian Martyrs, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972, p. 93.

[26] Peter J. Leithart, Defending Constantine, Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2010, p. 281.

[27] Tertullian, Apologeticum 33.1.

[28] The Works of St. Hippolytus, Bishop of Rome in Russian translation, vol. 1, p. 101. Quoted in Fomin, S. & Fomina, T. Rossia pered Vtorym Prishestviem (Russia before the Second Coming), Moscow, 1994, vol. I, p. 56.

[29] Eucherius of Lyons, The Passion of the Martyrs.

[30] Festal Menaion, The Nativity of Christ, Mattins, Canon, Canticle Seven, second irmos.

[31] Aristotle, Politics, IV, 10.

[32] Hieromartyr Victorinus, Commentary on the Apocalypse.

[33] Some saw in I Peter 5.13 a similar identification of Rome with Babylon, but this is doubtful. The Babylon referred to there is probably Babylon in Egypt, from where St. Peter was writing his epistle. However, there can be no doubt that for John’s first readers the image of Babylon would have reminded them in the first place of Rome under Nero and Domitian.

[34] Fr. Michael Azkoul, The Teachings of the Orthodox Church, Buena Vista, Co.: Dormition Skete publications, 1986, part I, p. 110.

[35] Tertullian, Apologeticum, 32.1.

[36] Sordi, The Christians and the Roman Empire, London: Routledge, 1994, p. 173.  Tertullian also writes: “The Christian is hostile to nobody, least of all to the emperor, whom… he wishes well, with the whole Roman empire, so long as the world shall last, for so long as it shall last (Ad Scapulum 2). Again Lactantius writes: “It is apparent that the world is destined to end immediately. The only evidence to diminish our fear is the fact that the city of Rome continues to flourish. But once this city, which is the veritable capital of the world, falls and there is nothing in its place but ruins, as the Sibyls predict, who can doubt that the end will have arrived both for humanity and for the entire world?… The Sibyls openly speak of Rome being destined to perish. Hystaspes also, who was a very ancient king of the Medes,… predicted long before that the empire and name of Rome should be effaced from the globe… But how this shall come to pass I shall explain… In the first place, the empire shall be parceled out, and the supreme authority being dissipated and broken up shall be lessened,… until ten kings exist all together;… these… shall squander everything and impair and consume… The very fact proclaims the fall and destruction to be near, except that so long as Rome is safe it seems that nothing of this need be feared. But when indeed that head of the world shall fall and the assault begin that the Sibyls speak of coming to pass, who can doubt that the end has already come?… That is the city that has hitherto upheld all things, and we should pray and beseech the God of heaven, if indeed his decrees and mandates can be postponed, that that detested tyrant may not come sooner than we think” (Institutes VII, 15, 16, 25). And pseudo-Ephraim writes: “When the kingdom of the Romans shall begin to be consumed by the sword, then the advent of the evil one is at hand…  And already is the kingdom of the Romans swept away, and the empire of the Christians is delivered unto God and the Father, and when the kingdom of the Romans shall begin to be consumed then shall come the consummation” (1, 5). See W. Bousset, The Antichrist Legend, Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1999, pp. 124-125. St. Ambrose of Milan also believed that the fall of Rome would bring in the Antichrist.

[37] For he could have been accused of preparing the fall of Rome, aeterna et invicta, which would have given them an excuse for persecuting the Christians on the same basis as they persecuted the Jews – as political revolutionaries. (V.M.). Cf. Patriarch Nicon of Moscow: “It is necessary to investigate: who is he who restrains, and why does Paul speak about him unclearly? What hinders his appearance? Some say – the grace of the Holy Spirit, others – Roman power. I agree with the latter. For if Paul had meant the Holy Spirit, then he would have said so clearly. But he [the antichrist] was bound to come when the gifts of the Holy Spirit should become scarce, they have already become scarce a long time ago. But if he is speaking of Roman power, then he had a reason for concealment, for he did not want to draw from the Empire persecution on the Christians as if they were people living and working for the destruction of the Empire. That is why he does not speak so clearly, although he definitely indicates that he will be revealed at the fitting time. For ‘the mystery of iniquity is already at work’, he says. By this he understands Nero, as an image of the antichrist, for he wanted people to worship him as god. …  When he who restrains now will be taken away, that is, when Roman power will be destroyed, he will come, that is, as long as there is fear of this power nobody will introduce anarchy and will want to seize for himself all power, both human and Divine. For, just as earlier the Median power was destroyed by the Babylonian, and the Babylonian by the Persian, and the Persian by the Macedonian, and the Macedonian by the Roman, so this last will be destroyed by the antichrist, and he by Christ...” (in Zyzykin, op. cit., part 2, pp. 48-49).

[38] St. Chrysostom, Homily 4 on II Thessalonians.

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