The growth of Christianity within the Roman Empire was remarkable, even to many who witnessed it. In the year 64, after a disastrous fire had destroyed much of the city of Rome, the emperor Nero found it convenient to lay the blame on the Christians and to persecute them. This shows us that in just a generation this Jewish sect had grown from nothing to a movement that was widely known at the heart of the empire, but it also shows us that the Christians were a favourite minority for suspicion and hatred (because they refused to participate in the state religion, and therefore risked angering the gods). By this time the bonds with Judaism were gradually weakening; a process that was accelerated after 70 when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, and ultimately Christianity was seen as entirely separate from the Jewish faith and a new Gentile religion. Certainly some Christians were persecuted, but this was very patchy and largely dependent on the whim of the emperor or, more often, the attitude of the local governor and populace. Most lived their lives much like any other citizen or slave, gradually growing in numbers until famously Constantine became the first Christian emperor in the early fourth century, while the final triumph came when it became the official religion of the empire in 380.
Christians naturally looked no different to anyone else, just as is the case today, so essentially this is a set of Roman civilians. As such the costume is mostly conventional and reasonable, with most of the men wearing the ubiquitous tunica in a number of forms, and some also wearing a cloak. One elderly gentleman seems to have a form of mantle, and one has a toga, which was unpopular and generally only worn on formal occasions, but persisted throughout the course of the empire.
The several women in this set seem to wear the stolla, which we might loosely call a dress today, although as so often the sculptor has been tempted to give them a very low neckline which would have been severely frowned upon in Roman polite society. The third figure in the top row has her breasts exposed entirely, which was certainly not acceptable in the street but of course could doubtless have been seen in a tavern or similar place of ill repute.
If the clothing cannot identify these people as Christians, then perhaps the poses can. Clearly the designer has focused on persecution of the Christians, for many of these poses appear to be engaged in violence. Those on the top row are not doing much, but the last figure is perhaps shielding himself from a stoning – a common form of punishment. The second row includes two men apparently hurling stones, while a third is shaking his fist. Row three includes a man with a club, and also a remarkable pair of one man sitting on the shoulders of another; the man beneath must be very strong to put up with this for long, presumably so his friend can better see what is going on. The last figure in this row is holding up a cup, perhaps officiating at some ceremony.
The fourth row has some particularly interesting figures, beginning with a man holding open a codex (a sort of Roman version of what would become the book), Why he might be doing this we could not guess, although as it has been estimated that 90% of Romans were illiterate they would have relied on having holy texts read to them. Next we have a woman perhaps kneeling in prayer, followed by an older man holding a staff (nothing unusual in that) and wearing a pallium, which was a kind of scarf worn by Imperial Roman officials as a sign of rank. This was taken up by the Christians, and even today priests and others wear one in the modern form of a stole. Therefore this figure is likely to be an official of the Church. Beside him is a scribe seated on a box (?), in the act of writing and with what looks like an ink pot suspended round his neck on a chain. He could be doing anything from recording a trial to writing one of the gospels. Finally there is another, younger man with a pallium, so again some form of Church official. He is emptying a bowl, which makes us think of the act of baptism, although at the time most baptisms are thought to have been by immersion, preferably in a river or other moving water (although 'affusion' like this is also quite likely, perhaps for the baby being held in the third row).
The first man in the last row wears a toga, so presumably is some fairly senior official (perhaps a governor judging some Christian prisoner) who is 'on duty', particularly as he carries a heavy cane. Then we have a soldier, perhaps with his hand on a prisoner’s shoulder, and a man with a whip whose purpose is clear. Finally we come to a very odd figure, who has been tied to an 'X' arrangement of logs. He is clearly emaciated, so is perhaps very poor or been incarcerated for some time. This is not how Romans crucified people, so perhaps he is the victim of the man with the whip? The problem with this is that it is his front that is exposed. Whipping someone on the front quickly damages vital internal organs and can easily be fatal, whereas whipping the back can be long and painful without the release of death. The suspicion is that Strelets have again left the historical path and wandered into legend. There are many images showing Saint Andrew being crucified in this way, allegedly at his own request since it was not standard practice to use a cross such as this. However early scripts state he was crucified on a normal cross, and the story of the 'X' shaped cross only appears in the later Middle Ages. Nevertheless the legend has taken root in the modern mind, so perhaps Strelets knew this and delivered a recognisable but historically useless figure to please some customers.
Apart from the last figure we have no problem with any of the poses. Of course all could be Christians, as the early Christians were just as ready to condemn, punish and even murder their co-religionists when they were considered heretics. The figures in the fourth row are useful for depicting Christian ceremonies, and some of the poses are quite neutral, but the other main theme is judgement and punishment, which fits with the picture many Christians then and now liked to perpetuate of savage persecution by a pagan authority. As a result, then, all bar one are appropriate and pretty good choices in our view.
The simple clothes and lack of implements of these people make sets like this the most forgiving of the chunky and sometimes fairly crude Strelets sculpting style, and it also allows them to produce fairly flat poses without it looking unnatural or contrived, so while the style here is the same as all other Strelets figures, they don’t seem too bad and some even have quite appealing faces with a bit of character. Where a bit of fine work is called for, such as in the shoes, the result is acceptable, so we think many will find this set very useable. There is no flash either, and happily no assembly or 'ring hand' appendages, so we were quite impressed with the design and the production of this interesting set.