Until the third century, Christianity was almost exclusively urban in character and rooted in the Middle and lower urban classes. The rural areas had remained stubbornly pagan, conservatively attached to their local deities, and superstitions and their old ways of life. One thing that majorly contributed to this was language barrier. The peasants were so comfortable with their ancient Coptic, Berber, Syriac, Thracian, or Celtic tongues that they hadn’t time or desire to learn Greeks.
And so, it was quite normal for missionaries to bypass the rural areas and simply move from city to city. In other words, they were not also ready to learn those ancient and local languages.
It was only in the second half of the third century that Christianity began to make considerable inroads into the rural lands. In many of the great provinces of the Empire, the peasants deserted the temples of their ancestral gods and turned to Christ.
In one North African township, dedication of tablets tell the tale: The last one dedicated to Saturn-Baal Hammon is dated 272; all subsequent ones uncovered have proven to be Christian. By the year 300, North Africa was largely Christian. In Asia minor, the story was similar. The most famous of the missionaries there was Gregory the wonder worker. According to the general history of the province, Gregory found only seventeen Christians when he arrived in Neo-Caesarea in 243 and left only seventeen pagans when he was ready to die thirty years later.
In Egypt and probably also in Syria, there was the same widespread turning to Christ by the peasants. Eusebuis gives us an eyewitness account of the conversion of the coptics to Christianity when he was in Egypt in 311-12. Altars to Christ abounded, he reports, and the majority of the population were already Christian.
More still, there was this pro-Christian imperial policy, which began with emperor Constantine, who favoured Christians and only tolerated paganism, hoping to see it die a natural death in 337, He even set more efforts on top gear in ensuring a total extirpation of paganism. One of Constantine’s sons, for instance, ordered the pagan temples closed and imposed a death penalty for anyone participating in sacrifices. But some stubborn pagans still managed to carry on their worship at the great shrines in Heliopolis, Rome, and Alexandria, but they were caught in a tight squeeze.
Unfortunately, the dancing tune changed abruptly in 360, when the new Emperor, Julian took office in 360. Upon assuming the imperial purple, he marched into Constantinople, declared himself a pagan, and stated his intention of restoring the ancient religion. As a boy raised in the imperial household, he was baptized Christian and forced to conform to his uncle’s religion; but the bookish child and dreamy lad secretly dedicated himself to the ancient gods, and once secured in power he tore off his mask and showed his true colors. For Julian, the religion of the gods (i.e. Roman Paganism) was not merely a religion but also the very marrow of Romanitas – the highest level of cultural achievement possible to man and the source of Rome’s sublime morality. Christianity, on the other hand was merely a poor and social welfare. In addition to other social roles, the bishop ate daily with the poor. Ambrose for instance, wanted no gold vessels on the altars when there were captives to be ransomed. At the later period, Gregory the Great felt personal guilt when a poor man was found dead of starvation in his city. The bishop, moreover, stood forth as the champion of the oppressed bureaucracy and gradually became the most important figure in the city. That is to say; he enjoyed an aura of supernatural prestige as well as popular authority.
The final factor that brought about the total defeat of paganism cannot be mentioned without the recognition of the onerous tasks of emperors Gratian and Theodosius. Meanwhile, the epoch – making decree promulgated by Theodosius from Thessalonica on February 27, 380 which made Christianity the only legal religion in Rome, cannot be swept under a historical carpet. He proclaimed “We desire that all peoples who fall beneath the sway of our imperial clemency should profess the faith which we believe has been communicated by the Apostle Peter to the Romans and maintain in its traditional form to the present day…” By this decree, paganism was declared illegal while privileges were granted to the Catholic clergy to the point of being immuned from trial except in ecclesiastical courts. Roman Law was revised in harmony with Christian principles.
Gratian ordered the removal of the statue and altar of victory from the senate house in Rome in 382; his successor, Valentinian II, influenced by Ambrose and Pope Damascus, turned a deaf ear to the embassy of pagan senator who demanded its restoration. The co-Emperor of the East, Theodosius, gave memorable witness to his personal respect for the authority of the church when after ordering a horrible massacre of the citizens of Thessalonica (390) he accepted the rebuke of Bishop Ambrose and did public penance at the door of the Cathedral in Milan.
Finally, from the wall of Hadrian to the Euphrates River, Christianity in a time of extreme social decay, it provided a refuge for the oppressed and acted as an agent of social justice.