Roman Spain/Hispania and Christianity.

Roman Spain/Hispania and Christianity.
Rome controlled the Iberian Peninsula for some 600 years, and left a rich linguistic, legal, and architectural legacy. It also left a particular cultural phenomenon that outlived both its laws and its language: Christianity.

Christianity, of course, was not a Roman product; it was a transplant into Roman life and achieved its fullest impact when it abandoned Greek for Latin as its language, and chose Rome as its headquarters.

Latin preceded Christianity, and Christianity launched itself throughout Europe on the back of its linguistic host, until it eventually replaced it as the bond that held together a new religious “empire” when linguistic (and political) uniformity broke down. It formed the basis of what became known as the Holy Roman Empire, the formation of which is generally attributed to the French king, Charlemagne (crowned emperor in Rome in 800).

It was only during the Second Vatican
Council –1962-65—that the use of local
languages was permitted at mass. The use
of Latin was still encouraged as a unifying
factor for all Catholics worldwide, but
there was a widespread move to use the
vernacular.  Nevertheless, there is now
(2009) a strong move to restore Latin by
traditionalists within the church.

Significantly, Latin is still the official language of Vatican and the Catholic Church, and Rome is still the centre of Roman Catholicism.

We know little about the early years of Christianity in the Iberian Peninsula. According to legend the apostle James –at Christ’s urging–carried the gospel to the country in 40 AD, but the early church writers have nothing to say about it. We know that St Paul intended to visit in Spain (Epistle to the Romans, XV, 24 and 28), which would suggest that there were organised groups for him to preach to. But there is no evidence that he made the trip, nor does any church in Spain popularly claim to have been founded by Paul.

By the second century, however, some Christian communities were probably established in the peninsula. We know that St Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons (France), writing around 180 AD, alludes to Christian churches amongst the Celts and Iberians.  We also know from a letter by St Cyprian of Carthage (?-258?) that by 254 AD there were Christian communities in Astorga, Mérida, León and Zaragoza.

Persecution by the Romans was at first sporadic since the fledgling church was not important, and the polytheistic tradition of the Romans made them fairly tolerant of other beliefs as long as these did not conflict with the state.

However, the insistence of the Christians on serving one omnipotent God set them apart and increasingly undermined the divine status that the Emperors –beginning with Augustus (63 BC–14 AD)– had taken upon themselves.

One of the first known of the martyrs to have died for the Christian cause is the 13-year old Santa Eulalia of Mérida. Santa Eulalia died around 304 (during the rule of the emperor Diocletian, 284-305), by which time Christianity was quite firmly entrenched in the empire. A few years later –in 312– the emperor Constantine I (ruled 307-337) himself was converted and Christianity was on the road to becoming the official religion of the Empire.  (It became so in 380, when the Spanish-born emperor Theodosius declared Christianity the religion of the Empire.)

But the end of the 4th century, Roman hegemony was close to collapsing and even the new “official” religion was an insufficient bond to hold the whole political artifact together. The Empire was decaying at the centre. Bread and circuses and holidays (which had increased from 159 days of holidays including 93 of sports in Rome in the time of Claudius 41-54 AD to 200 days of holidays including 175 days of games by the 4th century) left the Romans unable to withstand the advance of Gothic tribes eager to tear apart the imperial cloak and sack the disintegrating body.

James M Anderson     Spain 1001 Sights: An Archeological and Historical Guide London 1992

Leonard Curchin     Roman Spain: Conquest and Assimilation London 1991
J. S. Richardson    The Romans in Spain Oxford 1996
José Manuel Roldán     La España romana Madrid: Historia 16 1989