Forbidden Faith: The Maverick Religion That Shook the Roman Empire

Jeff Cunningham
3 min readMar 12, 2024

"The Manichaean ethic effect on the peoples of Upper Asia was profound. By helping to transform barbaric customs, where bloodthirsty behavior used to reign, a land where one ate vegetables sprang up; where militant states used to kill, was now a kingdom encouraged to do good to others."

Michel Tardieu, Manichaeism

Cao’an Manichaean Temple

Manichaeism is the most important religion you've never heard of, and that's because the Roman emperors wanted it that way. The mistake the Manichaean mavericks made was challenging the might of Rome and the doctrines of the Catholic Church. That was the equivalent of pulling on Superman's cape; it spelled trouble.

Crafted in the 3rd century CE by the visionary prophet Mani, Manichaeism offered an enthralling narrative of cosmic warfare between the forces of good and evil, or what today we might think of as the fight between the IRS and a startup founder.

The Enemy Within

The Roman Empire, a behemoth of power and tradition, found itself rocked by the surge of a new, popular faith. It was a gospel-singing church compared to the Puritan gospel. Manichaeism, with its exotic, the Romans said toxic, blend of Christian, Zoroastrian, and Buddhist elements, captivated the hearts and minds of people looking for answers to the apparent reality of good and evil. Yet, its inclusivity posed a threat to the Catholic Church's monopoly.

Rituals and Rebels

At the heart of Manichaeism is a religion rich in spirituality—prayer, fasting, meditation, and the pursuit of purity or the discarding of material things. Its scripture championed liberation from the material world. This was not just religion; it was a call to transcend beyond the physical.

Augustine: The Convert

Among those captivated by Manichaeism was Augustine, a future giant of Christian theology. For nine years, he was drawn to their promise of enlightenment. Yet, his devout mother, Monnica, saw a problem. Augustine stepped back into the Christian fold, narrowly escaping the fate that befell many of his former brethren.

The Empire Strikes Back

As Christianity ascended to the throne of religious legitimacy within the Roman Empire, especially after Emperor Constantine's conversion and the Edict of Milan in 313 CE, the stage was set for conflict. Manichaeism, branded as heresy, now faced the full wrath of an empire that saw it as a threat to its sanctioned order.

The Dark Ages

Emperor Diocletian's chilling edict in 297 CE, commanding the obliteration of Manichaean texts and the execution of its leaders, was later escalated by Constantine. He unleashed a storm of oppression — imprisonment, torture, and death became the daily reality for followers of Mani.

Against the Odds

Yet, the story does not end in tragedy. Despite relentless persecution, the faith endured far from Rome's reach, from the Persian Empire to the Silk Roads. Remarkably, in modern-day China, Manichaeism maintains an enduring presence of temples in Fujian.