Easter in Ancient Rome – thanks to Emperor Constantine

What Christians now know as Easter had its roots in the Jewish Passover – the annual marking of the Jews’ liberation from Egypt in the Exodus.

Some wrongly believe the Jews killed Jesus Christ – even though Jesus was a Jew. However, Jesus was put to death by the fifth Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, who saw his teachings as a threat to the rule of Rome.

Jesus was 33 years’ old when he was crucified – we take the year of the birth of Jesus as AD 1.

Pontius Pilate was born in 12 BC, so historically it is possible to pinpoint exactly when Jesus was crucified and when he was born by looking at other historic dates.

Exodus, when the Hebrews were liberated, took place some time between 1450 BC and 1270 BC – a long time before the birth of Jesus.

After the Exodus, every year the festival of Passover was celebrated to mark the liberation of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. It is called the Passover because it refers to the passing over of the forces of destruction when God punished Egypt for enslaving the Hebrews with ten plagues – and ordered the death of each firstborn son of the Egyptians as the final plague. Moses led the Hebrews to freedom when the Red Sea parted to allow them to cross.

How the Jewish festival of Passover became the basis for the Christian festival of Easter much later is open to speculation. Easter marks the crucifixion of Jesus on Good Friday – and his resurrection three days later on Easter Sunday.

Michelangelo’s Pieta in St Peter’s Basilica

Before Easter in Christian belief is a period called Lent – beginning 40 days before Easter when Christians fast.

The festival of Passover takes place in the month of Nisan every year – March or April. The festival begins on the 15th of the month and ends on the 21st or 22nd outside Israel. It takes place on different dates each year, though, just like Easter – and extends over seven or eight days, not four as in the case of Easter.

The Julian calendar that was used in the Roman Empire after the death of Julius Caesar in 44 BC was based on Caesar’s addition of an extra day every four years (Leap Year) to account for the rotation of the earth. Some months were shorted and others lengthened, including July and August. July was named after Julius Caesar and August after his successor Emperor Augustus. Because an emperor like Augustus or a great statesman and general like Caesar could not have a short month named after them, these months were lengthened to reflect their status and February was reduced to 28 days except during a Leap Year.

Synchronising Easter with the Passover every year was therefore open to dispute. We have Emperor Constantine (AD 272 – 22 May 337) to thank for deciding when Easter should take place every year.

Emperor Constantine, Capitoline Museum, Rome (Image A. Meredith 2018)

Constantine had been born pagan and worshipped the gods Romans worshipped – gods like Mars and Venus and the household gods, the penates. However, he was the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity, perhaps under the influence of his mother, Helena. There was some religious tolerance in the Roman Empire, however – Rome and Venice have the oldest Jewish communities outside the Holy Land and Julius Caesar was a friend to the Jews of Rome, who mourned him after his assassination.

Emperor Constantine felt that, as a Christian festival, Easter (marking the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus) should not be linked to another festival of a different religion. He decided that Easter should take place on the first Sunday following the first new moon in spring – which is why Easter varies every year, sometimes at the end of March and in other years, towards the end of April.

Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine, Forum, Rome

The giving of Easter eggs is thought to represent the resurrection of Jesus and new life – spring is a time of new life when plants begin to bloom after winter and animals give birth. The tradition of chocolate eggs is also thought to be related to the end of fasting during Lent, when Christian often volunteer to give up eating their favourite foods like chocolate for the duration of Lent.

Babingtons Tea Shop at Easter

many of our holidays and celebrations – including Christmas, Easter, the harvest festival, Leap year and Valentine’s day – can be traced back to practices and celebrations in Ancient Rome and other cultures.

But it was Emperor Constantine who decided on when Easter would take place every year – and when we could all tuck into those chocolate eggs to mark Easter Sunday.

In Rome, Easter Sunday is also marked with mass at St Peter’s conducted by the Pope – and Christians travel across the world to be there.

Have a happy and safe Easter, wherever you are and whatever your faith.

Buona Pasqua – e buon appetito!

Easter in Trastevere, Rome

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