Persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire

Persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire
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The Persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire is the religious persecution of Christians as a consequence of professing their faith. It began during the Ministry of Jesus and continued intermittently over a period of about three centuries until the time of Constantine when Christianity was legalized. Shortly thereafter it became the state religion of the Roman Empire. This persecution impacted all aspects of Christian life including the development of the Canonical gospels, Christian theology and the structure of the Church.

Christians were persecuted by local authorities on a sporadic and ad-hoc basis. Among other things, persecution sparked the cult of the saints, facilitated the rapid growth and spread of Christianity[citation needed], prompted defenses and explanations of Christianity (the "apologies") and, in its aftermath, raised fundamental questions about the nature of the Christian Church. It had a profound effect on the quest for the Historical Jesus as many earlier Christian writings were either lost or destroyed.[citation needed]

Although Christianity became the state religion of the empire in 380, (see First seven Ecumenical Councils and State church of the Roman Empire) persecution of Christians did not come to a complete halt, instead it switched to those deemed to be heretics. Again more material was lost or destroyed particularly in regard to Jewish Christianity.[1]


Reasons for persecution

The Roman Empire was generally quite tolerant in its treatment of other religions. The imperial policy was generally one of incorporation - the local gods of a newly conquered area were simply added to the Roman pantheon and often given Roman names. Even the Jews, with their belief in one God and refusal to worship the Emperor, were generally tolerated[2] (but see also Anti-Judaism in the pre-Christian Roman Empire).

Christianity in the 1st century was largely still a Jewish sect, so-called Jewish Christianity, thus the status of Jews in the Empire is valuable background to Roman persecution of the sect that would become known to the Romans as Christians, which began largely in the 2nd century. Historian H. H. Ben-Sasson has proposed that the "Crisis under Caligula" (37-41) was the "first open break" between Rome and the Jews.[3] After the First Jewish–Roman War (66-73), Jews were officially allowed to practice their religion as long as they paid the Jewish tax. Historians debate whether or not the Roman government distinguished between Christians and Jews prior to Nerva's modification of the tax in 96. From then on, practicing Jews paid the tax, Christians did not.[4]

For the Romans, religion was first and foremost a social activity that promoted unity and loyalty to the state[5] - a religious attitude the Romans called pietas, or piety. Cicero wrote that if piety in the Roman sense were to disappear, social unity and justice would perish along with it.[6]

According to Simon Dixon, the early Roman writers viewed Christianity not as another kind of pietas, but as a superstitio, or superstition. Pliny the Younger, a Roman governor writing c. 110 CE, called Christianity a "superstition taken to extravagant lengths." Similarly, the Roman historian Tacitus called it "a deadly superstition," and the historian Suetonius called Christians "a class of persons given to a new and mischievous superstition."[7] In this context, the word "superstition" has a slightly different connotation than it has today: for the Romans, it designated something foreign and different - in a negative sense. A religious belief was valid only insofar as it could be shown to be old and in line with ancient customs; new teachings were regarded with distrust.[1]

The Roman disdain for Christianity, then, arose in large part from its sense that it was bad for society. In the 3rd century, the Neoplatonist philosopher Porphyry wrote:

How can people not be in every way impious and atheistic who have apostatized from the customs of our ancestors through which every nation and city is sustained? ... What else are they than fighters against God?[8]

As Porphyry's argument indicates, hatred of Christians also arose from the belief that proper "piety" to the Roman gods helped to sustain the well-being of the cities and their people. Though much of the Roman religion was utilitarian, it was also heavily motivated by the pagan sense that bad things will happen if the gods are not respected and worshiped properly. "Many pagans held that the neglect of the old gods who had made Rome strong was responsible for the disasters which were overtaking the Mediterranean world."[9][10] This perspective would surface again in the 5th century, when the destruction of Rome caused many to worry that the gods were angry at the Empire's new allegiance to Christianity. Saint Augustine's opus The City of God argued against this view.

On a more social, practical level, Christians were distrusted in part because of the secret and misunderstood nature of their worship. Words like "love feast" and talk of "eating Christ's flesh" sounded suspicious to the pagans, and Christians were suspected of cannibalism, incest, orgies, and all sorts of immorality.[11]

According to H. B. Workman, the average Christian was not much affected by the persecutions; rather, Christian “extremists” would have been singled out as disruptive. Persecution of Christians acquired increasing significance in the writings of the Church Fathers during the 3rd and 4th centuries, on the eve of Christian hegemony.[12]

The Roman persecutions were generally sporadic, localized, and dependent on the political climate and disposition of each emperor. Imperial decrees against Christians were usually directed against church property, the Scriptures, and clergy. Everett Ferguson estimated that more Christians have been killed for religious reasons in the last 50 years than in the church's first 300 years.[13]

Persecution as a central theme in Christianity

Elizabeth Castelli asserts that " Christianity itself is founded upon an archetype of religio-political persecution, the execution of Jesus by the Romans." She points out that " the earliest Christians routinely equated Christian identity with suffering persecution" as attested by numerous passages in the New Testament. As examples, she cites the passage in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account”.[14] As another example, she cites the passage in the Gospel of John where Jesus warns his disciples with these words: “Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you” (John 15.20).

Michael Gaddis writes:

The Christian experience of violence during the pagan persecutions shaped the ideologies and practices that drove further religious conflicts over the course of the fourth and fifth centuries... The formative experience of martyrdom and persecution determined the ways in which later Christians would both use and experience violence under the Christian empire. Discourses of martyrdom and persecution formed the symbolic language through which Christians represented, justified, or denounced the use of violence."[15]


The Christian Martyrs' Last Prayer, by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1883).

The ideal of martyrdom represented a new ideology of Christian suffering that inverted and subverted the Roman concepts of civic duty, honor, and justice. The martyrs' willing embrace of an ignominious death was perceived by the Christian audience as a heroic victory over the persecutors. For these reasons, some early Christians sought out and welcomed martyrdom. Some Roman authorities tried to avoid Christians because they "goaded, chided, belittled and insulted the crowds until they demanded their death."[citation needed] Tertullian (Ad Scapulam, 5) tells us that a group of people presented themselves to the Roman governor of Asia, C. Arrius Antoninus, declaring themselves to be Christians, and encouraging the governor to do his duty and put them to death. He executed a few, but as the rest demanded it as well, he responded, exasperated, "You wretches, if you want to die, you have cliffs to leap from and ropes to hang by."[16] Such seeking after death is found in Tertullian's Scorpiace but was certainly not the only view of martyrdom in the Christian church. Both Polycarp and Cyprian, bishops in Smyrna and Carthage respectively, attempted to avoid martyrdom.[citation needed]

Ancient writers did not think statistically. When the size of a Christian population is described, whether by a pagan, Jewish, or Christian source, it is opinion or metaphor, not accurate reportage.[17]

Estimates for total martyred dead for the Great Persecution depend on the report of Eusebius of Caesarea in the Martyrs of Palestine. There are no other viable sources for the total number of martyrdoms in a province.[18] During the Great Persecution, Eusebius was the bishop of Caesarea Maritima, the capital of Roman Palestine. Since, under Roman law, capital punishment could only be enforced by provincial governors, and because, most of the time, these governors would be in residence at the capital, most martyrdoms would take place within Eusebius' jurisdiction. When they did not, as when the provincial governor traveled to other cities to perform assizes, their activities would be publicized throughout the province. Thus, if Eusebius were an assiduous reporter of the persecutions in his province, he could easily have acquired a full tally of all martyred dead.[19]

Edward Gibbon, after lamenting the vagueness of Eusebius' phrasing, made the first estimate of martyr number as follows: by counting the total number of persons listed in the Martyrs, dividing it by the years covered by Eusebius' text, multiplying it by the fraction of the Roman world the province of Palestine represents, and multiplying that figure by the total period of the persecution.[20] Subsequent estimates have followed the same basic methodology.[21]

Eusebius' aims in the Martyrs of Palestine have been disputed. Geoffrey de Ste Croix, historian and author of a pair of seminal articles on the persecution of Christians in the Roman world, argued, after Gibbon, that Eusebius aimed at producing a full account of the martyrs in his province. Eusebius' aims, Ste Croix argued, were clear from the text of the Martyrs: after describing Caesarea's martyrdoms for 310, the last to have taken place in the city, Eusebius writes, "Such were the martyrdoms which took place at Cæsarea during the entire period of the persecution"; after describing the later mass executions at Phaeno, Eusebius writes, "These martyrdoms were accomplished in Palestine during eight complete years; and of this description was the persecution in our time."[22] Timothy Barnes, however, argues that Eusebius' intent was not as broad as the text cited by Ste Croix implies: "Eusebius himself entitled the work "About those who suffered martyrdom in Palestine," and his intention was to preserve the memories of the martyrs whom he knew, rather than to give a comprehensive account of how persecution affected the Roman province in which he lived."[23] The preface to the long recension of the Martyrs is cited:

It is meet, then, that the conflicts which were illustrious in various districts should be committed to writing by those who dwelt with the combatants in their districts. But for me, I pray that I may be able to speak of those with whom I was personally conversant, and that they may associate me with them – those in whom the whole people of Palestine glories, because even in the midst of our land, the Saviour of all men arose like a thirst-quenching spring. The contests, then, of those illustrious champions I shall relate for the general instruction and profit.

Martyrs of Palestine (L) pr. 8, tr. Graeme Clark[24]

The text discloses unnamed companions of the martyrs and confessors who are the focus of Eusebius' text; these men are not included in the tallies based on the Martyrs.[25]

History of the persecutions


By the mid-2nd century, mobs were willing to throw stones at Christians, and they might be mobilized by rival sects. The Persecution in Lyon was preceded by mob violence, including assaults, robberies and stonings.[26] Lucian tells of an elaborate and successful hoax perpetrated by a "prophet" of Asclepius, using a tame snake, in Pontus and Paphlygonia. When rumor seemed about to expose his fraud, the witty essayist reports in his scathing essay

...he issued a promulgation designed to scare them, saying that Pontus was full of atheists and Christians who had the hardihood to utter the vilest abuse of him; these he bade them drive away with stones if they wanted to have the god gracious.

Further state persecutions were desultory until the 3rd century, though Tertullian's Apologeticus of 197 was ostensibly written in defense of persecuted Christians and addressed to Roman governors.[27] The "edict of Septimius Severus" familiar in Christian history is doubted by some secular historians to have existed outside Christian martyrology.[citation needed] The US Library of Congress reports the edict of 202 as "dissolving the influential Christian School of Alexandria and forbidding future conversions to Christianity."[28] After annexations in Parthia, Severus's son Bassianus (Caracalla) was accorded a triumph "over the Jews",[29] and when the emperor visited Alexandria in 202 he issued an edict forbidding Jewish proselytising and conversions to Judaism, which has been interpreted as having applied to Christians as well. The Catholic Encyclopedia states that the edict "forbade conversion to Christianity under the severest penalties," immediately adding that "Nothing is known as to the execution of the edict in Rome itself nor of the martyrs of the Roman Church in this era."[30]

The first documentable Empire-wide persecution took place under Maximinus Thrax, though only the clergy were sought out.

Christian sources aver that a decree was issued requiring public sacrifice, a formality equivalent to a testimonial of allegiance to the Emperor and the established order. Decius authorized roving commissions visiting the cities and villages to supervise the execution of the sacrifices and to deliver written certificates to all citizens who performed them. Christians were often given opportunities to avoid further punishment by publicly offering sacrifices or burning incense to Roman gods, and were accused by the Romans of impiety when they refused. Refusal was punished by arrest, imprisonment, torture, and executions. Christians fled to safe havens in the countryside and some purchased their certificates, called libelli. Several councils held at Carthage debated the extent to which the community should accept these lapsed Christians.

The persecutions culminated with Diocletian and Galerius at the end of the third and beginning of the 4th century. Their persecution, considered the largest, was to be the last major Roman Pagan persecution, as Constantine I soon came into power and in 313 legalized Christianity. It was not until Theodosius I in the latter 4th century, however, that Christianity would become the official religion of the Roman Empire.

Persecution of early Christians in Judea

Early Christianity began as a sect among early Jews led by Jesus of Nazareth. According to the Canonical gospels, Jesus preached against the growing corruption by religious leaders of the time. He stood up for the poor and oppressed. He socialized with outcasts and healed the sick. More importantly he spoke against the Jewish ruling class (the Herodians) and King Herod who were appointed by Rome to control the people.[31]

However, his harshest criticisms were against the religious leaders whom he condemned as hypocrites. He told the masses their religious leaders sit in Moses’ seat (see Woes of the Pharisees) and must be obeyed but not followed for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. Jesus said that these hypocrites do everything for show.[31]

They clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence; like whitewashed tombs, which are beautiful on the outside but inside are full of the bones and rotting flesh, full of hypocrisy and wickedness. This Rabbi from Nazareth said that these holy men appointed by Rome were snakes, a brood of vipers were condemned to hell for betraying God and the people entrusted to their care.[31]

This kind of talk outraged the Sanhedrin and caused Rome much concern. As Jesus grew in popularity, Rome, Herod and the Sanhedrin (see Responsibility for the death of Jesus) agreed that this movement must be stopped. After an Incident at the Temple, the Rabbi Jesus was executed, which some consider the beginning of Christian persecution. After his resurrection and ascent, the early Christians preached a Messiah which did not conform to the expectations of the Jews.[32] However, feeling that he was presaged in Isaiah's Suffering Servant and in all of Jewish scripture, Christians had been hopeful that their fellow Jews would accept their vision of a New Jerusalem.[32] Despite many individual conversions, a fierce opposition was found among the Jews.[32]

The Crucifixion of St. Peter by Caravaggio

Dissention began almost immediately with the teachings of Stephen at Jerusalem (unorthodox by contemporaneous Jewish standards), and never ceased entirely while the city remained.[32] A year after the crucifixion of Jesus, Stephen was stoned for his alleged transgression of unorthodoxy,[33] with Saul (who later converted and was renamed Paul) heartily agreeing.

In 41 AD, when Agrippa I, who already possessed the territory of Antipas and Phillip, was named King of the Jews, in a sense re-forming the Kingdom of Herod the Great (Herod was also appointed by the Romans but his kingdom involved more territory and was not yet a Roman province), he was reportedly eager to endear himself to his Jewish subjects and continued the persecution in which James the lesser lost his life, Peter narrowly escaped and the rest of the apostles took flight.[32]

After Agrippa's death in 44, the Roman procuratorship resumed (or technically began, the previous Roman governors being Prefects) and those leaders maintained a neutral peace, until the procurator Festus died and the high priest Annas II took advantage of the power vacuum to attack the Christians and executed James the greater, then leader of Jerusalem's Christians.[32] The New Testament states that Paul was himself imprisoned on several occasions by Roman authorities, stoned by Pharisees and left for dead on one occasion, and was eventually taken as a prisoner to Rome. Peter and other early Christians were also imprisoned, beaten and harassed. A Jewish revolt, spurred by the Roman killing of 3,000 Jews, led to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, an end of sacrificial Judaism (until the Third Temple), and the disempowering of the Jewish persecutors; the Christian community, meanwhile, having fled to safety in the already pacified region of Pella.[32] The early persecution by the Jews is estimated to have a death toll of about 2,000.[33] The Jewish persecutions were trivial when compared with the brutal and widespread persecution by the Romans.[33]

Of the eleven remaining apostles (Judas Iscariot having killed himself), only one—John the Apostle, the son of Zebedee and the younger brother of the Apostle James—died of natural causes in exile.[34] The other ten were reportedly martyred by various means including beheading, by sword and spear and, in the case of Peter, crucifixion upside down following the execution of his wife.[citation needed] The Romans were involved in some of these persecutions.[citation needed]

The New Testament, especially the Gospel of John, has traditionally been interpreted as relating Christian accounts of the Pharisee rejection of Jesus and accusations of the Pharisee responsibility for his crucifixion. The Acts of the Apostles depicts instances of early Christian persecution by the Sanhedrin, the Jewish religious court of the time.[35]

Under Nero

A Christian Dirce, by Henryk Siemiradzki. A Christian woman is martyred in a re-enactment of the myth of Dirce, while emperor Nero looks on (central figure).

The first documented case of imperially-supervised persecution of the Christians in the Roman Empire begins with Nero (37–68). In 64 AD, a great fire broke out in Rome, destroying portions of the city and economically devastating the Roman population. Nero was rumoured at the time of having intentionally started the fire himself.[36] In his Annals, Tacitus states that "to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians [or Chrestians[37]] by the populace" The Annals (Latin: Annales) is a history book by Tacitus covering the reign of the four Roman Emperors succeeding to Caesar Augustus. The parts of the work that survived from antiquity cover (most of) the reigns of Tiberius and Nero.

(Tacit. Annals XV, see Tacitus on Jesus). By implicating the Christians for this massive act of arson, Nero successfully capitalized on the already-existing public suspicion of this religious sect and, it could be argued, exacerbated the hostilities held toward them throughout the Roman Empire.[citation needed] Forms of execution used by the Romans included burning in the tunica molesta,[38] systematic murder, crucifixion, and the feeding of Christians to dogs and other wild beasts. Tacitus' Annals XV.44 record: "...a vast multitude, were convicted, not so much of the crime of incendiarism as of hatred of the human race. And in their deaths they were made the subjects of sport; for they were wrapped in the hides of wild beasts and torn to pieces by dogs, or nailed to crosses, or set on fire, and when day declined, were burned to serve for nocturnal lights."

The apostles Saint Peter and Saint Paul are said by Christian writers to have been martyred in Rome during this persecution; there is no evidence for this beyond that derived from Christian polemic works and martyrologies.

Under Domitian

According to many historians, Jews and Christians were heavily persecuted toward the end of Domitian's reign (89-96).[39] The Book of Revelation is thought by many scholars to have been written during Domitian's reign.[40][41] Other historians, however, have maintained that there was little or no persecution of Christians during Domitian's time.[42][43][44] There is no historical consensus on the matter.

Evidence for persecution of Christians during the reign of Domitian is slim. Most often, reference is made to the famous account by Dio Cassius (67.14.1-2) of the execution of Flavius Clemens, a Roman consul and cousin of the Emperor, and the banishment of his wife, Flavia Domitilla, to the island of Pandateria, for "atheism" ("athotēs") and practising Jewish customs ("ta tōn Ioudaiōn"). Many interpreters have suggested that such persons were really Christians.

Keresztes observes that charges of "atheism" against Christians and consequent pogroms "certainly existed before Hadrian's time, under Trajan, in the Greek areas of the Empire and it is only fair to assume that they must have has a much earlier start in these areas where the Imperial cult had its origin and most enthusiastic supporters." (262) -- but the only evidence he cites is from Eusebius.

In any case, however, Keresztes nevertheless observes that the references here to "atheism" and "practicing Jewish customs" do not necessarily mean that Flavius and his wife were Christians. Far more probable is that they were converts to Judaism who attempted to evade payment of the Fiscus Iudaicus - the tax imposed on all persons who practiced Judaism. (262-265).[40]

Under Trajan

Between 109 and 111 CE, Pliny the Younger was sent by the emperor Trajan (r. 98-117) to the province of Bithynia (in Anatolia) as governor. During his tenure of office, Pliny encountered Christians, and he wrote to the emperor about them. The governor indicated that he had ordered the execution of several Christians, "for I held no question that whatever it was they admitted, in any case obstinacy and unbending perversity deserve to be punished." However, he was unsure what to do about those who said they were no longer Christians, and asked Trajan his advice.[45] The emperor responded that Christians should not be sought out, anonymous tips should be rejected as "unworthy of our times," and if they recanted and "worshipped our gods," they were to be freed. Those who persisted, however, should be punished.[46]

Under Marcus Aurelius

Amphithéâtre des Trois-Gaules, in Lyon. The pole in the arena is a memorial to the people killed during this persecution.

Belonging to the later Stoical school, which believed in an immediate absorption after death into the Divine essence, Marcus Aurelius considered the Christian doctrine of the immortality of the soul, with its moral consequences, as vicious and dangerous to the welfare of the state. A law was passed under his reign, punishing every one with exile who should endeavor to influence people's mind by fear of the Divinity, and this law was aimed at the Christians. At all events his reign was a stormy time for the church, although the persecutions cannot be directly traced to him. The law of Trajan was sufficient to justify the severest measures against the followers of the "forbidden" religion.

It was originally believed that it was during the reign of Marcus Aurelius that Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, was martyred, but newer estimates place it under the rule of Antonius Pius, and more specifically the proconsul of Asia Minor, Statius Quadratus. Later, there is record of "new decrees" making it easier for Christians to be accused and have their property confiscated.

One of the best-recorded acts of violence against Christians in Marcus Aurelius' reign is the persecution in Lyons, which occurred in 177 CE. Over 48 Christians were killed in it. See also Early centers of Christianity#Southern Gaul.

Under Septimius Severus

Another emperor under whom Christians suffered terribly was Septimius Severus who ruled from 193-211. Writing during his reign, Clement of Alexandria said, "Many martyrs are daily burned, confined, or beheaded, before our eyes."

The emperor Severus may not have been personally ill-disposed towards Christians, but the church was gaining power and making many converts and this led to popular anti-Christian feeling and persecution in Carthage, Alexandria, Rome and Corinth between about 202 and 210.

In 202 Septimius enacted a law prohibiting the spread of Christianity and Judaism. This was the first universal decree forbidding conversion to Christianity. Violent persecutions broke out in Egypt and North Africa. Leonides, the father of Origen, a Christian apologist, was beheaded. Origen himself was spared because his mother hid his clothes. A young girl was cruelly tortured, then burned in a kettle of burning pitch with her mother. The famed Perpetua and Felicity were martyred during this time, as were many students of Origen of Alexandria. It is reported that Perpetua, a young noblewoman, and Felicitas, a slave girl, held hands and exchanged a kiss before being thrown to wild animals at a public festival.

Under Maximinus the Thracian

Maximinus the Thracian initiated a persecution in 235 in the reign of that was directed chiefly against the heads of the Church. One of its first victims was Pope Pontian, who with Hippolytus was banished to the island of Sardinia.

Under Decius

It was not until the reign of Decius that a persecution of Christian laity across the Empire took place. The History of the Franks, written in the decade before 594 by Gregory of Tours, glosses the persecutions:

Under the emperor Decius many persecutions arose against the name of Christ, and there was such a slaughter of believers that they could not be numbered. Babillas, bishop of Antioch, with his three little sons, Urban, Prilidan and Epolon, and Xystus, bishop of Rome, Laurentius, an archdeacon, and Hyppolitus, were made perfect by martyrdom because they confessed the name of the Lord. Valentinian and Novatian were then the chief heretics and were active against our faith, the enemy urging them on. At this time seven men were ordained as bishops and sent into the Gauls to preach, as the history of the martyrdom of the holy martyr Saturninus relates. For it says: " In the consulship of Decius and Gratus, as faithful memory recalls, the city of Toulouse received the holy Saturninus as its first and greatest bishop." These bishops were sent: bishop Catianus to Tours; bishop Trophimus to Arles; bishop Paul to Narbonne; bishop Saturninus to Toulouse; bishop Dionisius to Paris; bishop Stremonius to Clermont, bishop Martial to Limoges.

The career and writings of Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, throw light on the aftermath of the Decian persecutions in the Carthaginian Christian community.

The persecution under Decius was the first universal and organized persecution of Christians, and it would have lasting significance for the Christian church. In January of 250, Decius issued an edict requiring all citizens to sacrifice to the emperor in the presence of a Roman official and obtain a certificate (libellus) proving they had done so.

In general, public opinion condemned the government's violence and admired the martyrs' passive resistance, and the Christian movement was thereby strengthened.[citation needed] The Decian persecution ceased in 251, a few months before Decius' death. The Decian persecution had lasting repercussions for the church. How should those who had bought a certificate or actually sacrificed be treated? It seems that in most churches, those who had lapsed were accepted back into the fold, but some groups refused them admission to the church. This raised important issues about the nature of the church, forgiveness, and the high value of martyrdom. A century and a half later, St. Augustine would battle with an influential group called the Donatists, who broke away from the Catholic Church because the latter embraced the lapsed.

Under Valerian

Under Valerian, who took the throne in 253, all Christian clergy were required to sacrifice to the gods. In a 257 edict, the punishment was exile; in 258, the punishment was death. Christian senators, knights and ladies were also required to sacrifice under pain of heavy fines, reduction of rank and, later, death. Finally, all Christians were forbidden to visit their cemeteries. Among those executed under Valerian were St. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, and Sixtus II, Bishop of Rome, and possibly also Antipope Novatian. According to a letter written by Dionysus during this time, "men and women, young and old, maidens and matrons, soldiers and civilians, of every age and race, some by scourging and fire, others by the sword, have conquered in the strife and won their crowns." The persecution ended with the capture of Valerian by Persia. Valerian's son and successor, Gallienus, revoked the edicts of his father.

A warrant to arrest a Christian, dated 28 February 256, was found among the Oxyrhynchus Papyri (P. Oxy 3035). The grounds for the arrest are not given in the document.

Under Diocletian and Galerius

Diocletian's accession in 284 did not mark an immediate reversal of disregard to Christianity, but it did herald a gradual shift in official attitudes toward religious minorities. In the first fifteen years of his rule, Diocletian purged the army of Christians, condemned Manicheans to death, and surrounded himself with public opponents of Christianity. Diocletian's preference for activist government, combined with his self-image as a restorer of past Roman glory, presaged the most pervasive persecution in Roman history. In the winter of 302, Galerius urged Diocletian to begin a general persecution of the Christians. Diocletian was wary, and asked the oracle of Apollo for guidance. The oracle's reply was read as an endorsement of Galerius's position, and a general persecution was called on February 24, 303.

Persecutory policies varied in intensity across the empire. Where Galerius and Diocletian were avid persecutors, Constantius was unenthusiastic. Later persecutory edicts, including the calls for universal sacrifice, were not applied in his domain. His son, Constantine, on taking the imperial office in 306, restored Christians to full legal equality and returned property that had been confiscated during the persecution. In Italy in 306, the usurper Maxentius ousted Maximian's successor Severus, promising full religious toleration. Galerius ended the persecution in the East in 311, but it was resumed in Egypt, Palestine, and Asia Minor by his successor, Maximinus. Constantine and Licinius, Severus's successor, signed the "Edict of Milan" in 313, which offered a more comprehensive acceptance of Christianity than Galerius's edict had provided. Licinius ousted Maximinus in 313, bringing an end to persecution in the East.

The persecution failed to check the rise of the church. By 324, Constantine was sole ruler of the empire, and Christianity had become his favored religion. Although the persecution resulted in the deaths of—according to one modern estimate—3,000 Christians, and the torture, imprisonment, or dislocation of many more, most Christians avoided punishment. The persecution did, however, cause many churches to split between those who had complied with imperial authority (the traditores), and those who had remained "pure". Certain schisms, like those of the Donatists in North Africa and the Meletians in Egypt, persisted long after the persecutions. The Donatists would not be reconciled to the Catholic Church until after 411. In the centuries that followed, some Christians created a "cult of the martyrs", and exaggerated the barbarity of the persecutory era. These accounts were criticized during the Enlightenment and after, most notably by Edward Gibbon. Modern historians like G. E. M. de Ste. Croix have attempted to determine whether Christian sources exaggerated the scope of the Diocletianic persecution.

Under Julian the Apostate

Julian the Apostate, the last pagan emperor of the Roman Empire, was brought up during a time that paganism was in decline in Rome.[citation needed] Upon being proclaimed Augustus in 361 CE, Julian immediately declared his faith to the old Roman Gods and began to bring about a pagan revival. However, he was killed in Persia in 363 CE and his attempt to restore paganism ultimately failed.

Julian used many methods to subtly break the Church. He recalled bishops who had previously been exiled for heretical teachings, stripped clergy of their rights to travel at the expense of the state as they had done previously,[citation needed] and banned Christians from teaching classical works such as the Iliad or the Odyssey. Julian was replaced by the Christian emperor Jovian.

See also


  1. ^ a b F.L. Cross and E.A. Livingston, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, Oxford University Press, 1989. pp 1065-1066
  2. ^ Jacob Neusner, Religious Tolerance in World Religions, Templeton Foundation Press, 2008. pp 60-65
  3. ^ H.H. Ben-Sasson, A History of the Jewish People, Harvard University Press, 1976, ISBN 0-674-39731-2, The Crisis Under Gaius Caligula, pages 254-256: "The reign of Gaius Caligula (37-41) witnessed the first open break between the Jews and the Julio-Claudian empire. Until then — if one accepts Sejanus' heyday and the trouble caused by the census after Archelaus' banishment — there was usually an atmosphere of understanding between the Jews and the empire ... These relations deteriorated seriously during Caligula's reign, and, though after his death the peace was outwardly re-established, considerable bitterness remained on both sides. ... Caligula ordered that a golden statue of himself be set up in the Temple in Jerusalem. ... Only Caligula's death, at the hands of Roman conspirators (41), prevented the outbreak of a Jewish-Roman war that might well have spread to the entire East."
  4. ^ Wylen, Stephen M., The Jews in the Time of Jesus: An Introduction, Paulist Press (1995), ISBN 0-8091-3610-4, Pp 190-192.; Dunn, James D.G., Jews and Christians: The Parting of the Ways, CE 70 to 135, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing (1999), ISBN 0-8028-4498-7, Pp 33-34.; Boatwright, Mary Taliaferro & Gargola, Daniel J & Talbert, Richard John Alexander, The Romans: From Village to Empire, Oxford University Press (2004), ISBN 0-19-511875-8, p. 426.;
  5. ^ Jacob Neusner, Religious Tolerance in World Religions, Templeton Foundation Press, 2008. pp 60-65
  6. ^ Robert L. Wilkin, "The Piety of the Persecutors." Christian History, Issue 27 (Vol. IX, No. 3), p. 18.
  7. ^ Robert L. Wilkin, ibid.
  8. ^ Robert L. Wilkin, ibid., p. 19.
  9. ^ Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity, p. 82
  10. ^ "As the existence of the Christians became more widely known, it became increasingly clear that they were (a) antisocial, in that they did not participate in the normal social life of their communities; (b) sacrilegious, in that they refused to worship the gods; and (c) dangerous, in that the gods did not take kindly to communities that harbored those who failed to offer them cult. By the end of the second century, the Christian apologist (literally, 'defender' of the faith) Tertullian could complain about the widespread perception that Christians were the source of all disasters brought against the human race by the gods. 'They think the Christians the cause of every public disaster, of every affliction with which the people are visited. If the Tiber rises as high as the city walls, if the Nile does not send its waters up over the fields, if the heavens give no rain, if there is an earthquake, if there is famine or pestilence, straightway the cry is, "Away with the Christians to the lion!"' (Apology 40)" - Bart D. Ehrman, A Brief Introduction to the New Testament (Oxford University Press 2004 ISBN 9780195369342), pp. 313-314
  11. ^ Minucius Felix, Octavius. "Ancient History Sourcebook: The Ritual Cannabilism Charge Against Christians". 
  12. ^ Workman, H. B.. Persecution in the Early Church. 
  13. ^ Ferguson, Everett. "Did You Know?". Christian History XI (27). 
  14. ^ Matthew 5:10-11
  15. ^ Gaddis, Michael (2005). There is no crime for those who have Christ: Religious Violence in the Christian Roman Empire. University of California Press. 
  16. ^ Quoted in Bowersock, G. W. Martyrdom and Rome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, 1. Bowersock cites Tertullian.
  17. ^ Keith Hopkins, "Christian Number and Its Implications", Journal of Early Christian Studies 6:2 (1998), 186–87.
  18. ^ Geoffrey de Ste Croix, "Aspects of the 'Great' Persecution", Harvard Theological Review 47:2 (1954), 100–1; W. H. C. Frend, Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church (orig. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1965, rept. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1981), 535–36.
  19. ^ Ste Croix, 101.
  20. ^ Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, ed. David Womersley (London: Allen Lane, 1994), 1.578.
  21. ^ T. D. Barnes, Constantine and Eusebius (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981), 154, 357 n. 55.
  22. ^ Eusebius, Martyrs of Palestine (S) 11.31, 13.11, tr. A. C. McGiffert, cited by Ste Croix, 101.
  23. ^ Barnes, 154.
  24. ^ Graeme Clark, "Third-Century Christianity", in the Cambridge Ancient History 2nd ed., volume 12: The Crisis of Empire, A.D. 193–337, ed. Alan K. Bowman, Peter Garnsey, and Averil Cameron (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 658–69.
  25. ^ Clarke, 659.
  26. ^ Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 5.1.7.
  27. ^ Tertullian's readership was more likely to have been Christians, whose faith was reinforced by Tertullian's defenses of faith against rationalizations.
  28. ^ "Egypt under Rome", on-line
  29. ^ Historia Augusta: Life of Septimius Severus
  30. ^ Catholic Encyclopedia "Pope St. Zephyrinus".
  31. ^ a b c Matt 23: 1-37
  32. ^ a b c d e f g Wand, John Williams Charles A History of the Early Church to AD 500, p. 12, Routledge 1990
  33. ^ a b c Burke, John J., Characteristics Of The Early Church, p.101, Read Country Books 2008
  34. ^ Saint Sophronius of Jerusalem (2007) [c 600], "The Life of the Evangelist John", The Explanation of the Holy Gospel According to John, House Springs, Missouri, USA: Chrysostom Press, p. 2-3, ISBN 1-889814-09-1
  35. ^ Acts 4:1-22, 5:17-42, 6:8-7:60, 22:30-23:22
  36. ^ Tacitus, Annals
  37. ^ In the earliest extant manuscript, the second Medicean, the e in "Chrestianos", Chrestians, has been changed into an i; cf. Gerd Theißen, Annette Merz, Der historische Jesus: ein Lehrbuch, 2001, p. 89. The reading Christianos, Christians, is therefor doubtful.
  38. ^ History of the Origins of Christianity. Book IV. The Antichrist.
  39. ^ Smallwood, E.M. Classical Philology 51, 1956.
  40. ^ a b Brown, Raymond E. An Introduction to the New Testament, pp. 805-809. ISBN 0-385-24767-2.
  41. ^ Irenaeus, Against Heresies, c.170 C.E.
  42. ^ Merrill, E.T. Essays in Early Christian History (London:Macmillan, 1924).
  43. ^ Willborn, L.L. Biblical Research 29 (1984).
  44. ^ Thompson, L.L. The Book of Revelation: Apocalypse and Empire (New York: Oxford, 1990).
  45. ^ Pliny, Letters 10.96.
  46. ^ Trajan in Pliny, Letters 10.97. Evidence for persecution of Christians during the reign of Domitian is slim. Most often, reference is made to the famous account by Dio Cassius (67.14.1-2) of the execution of Flavius Clemens, a Roman consul and cousin of the Emperor, and the banishment of his wife, Flavia Domitilla, to the island of Pandateria, for "atheism" (athotês) and practicing Jewish customs (ta tôn Ioudaiôn). Many interpreters have suggested that such persons were really Christians. Keresztes observes that charges of "atheism" against Christians and consequent pogroms "certainly existed before Hadrian's time, under Trajan, in the Greek areas of the Empire and it is only fair to assume that they must have has a much earlier start in these areas where the Imperial cult had its origin and most enthusiastic supporters." (262) -- but the only evidence he cites is from Eusebius. In any case, however, Keresztes nevertheless observes that the references here to "atheism" and "practicing Jewish customs" do not necessarily mean that Flavius and his wife were Christians. Far more probable is that they were converts to Judaism who attempted to evade payment of the fiscus Iudaicus - the tax imposed on all persons who practiced Judaism. (262-265).


  • W.H.C. Frend, 1965. Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church
  • This Holy Seed: Faith, Hope and Love in the Early Churches of North Africa Robin Daniel, (Chester, Tamarisk Publications, 2010: from ISBN 095385634
  • This article incorporates text from the public domain 1907 edition of The Nuttall Encyclopædia.

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