The Roman Persecution of Christians

By Neil Manzullo February 8th , 2000 Persuasive Writing

It is a time of trouble in the Roman world. Enemies vex Roman troops on all sides of their vast empire. Political problems threaten to tear the Empire to pieces. Romans war against fellow Romans. The burdening weight of corrupt and inept emperors threatens to crush the Empire. In the midst of this sea of chaos, a religion springs forth which is virulently, or so it seems, against the things which Rome has always stood for. Romans view it as yet another threat to the stability of their ancient but failing power, as something which must be stopped if the Empire is to survive. They condemn it as a perverse and irrational religious awe, harmful, new and mischievous, and other spurious contrivances of the Roman government. Despite the charges, it flourishes. This religion is Christianity. The Romans attempt to halt its rapid insinuation of itself among the common people by persecution and oppression. The tremendously powerful Roman state cannot stop this religion, for much of their power became sterile and stagnant ages ago. However, the massive power which still remains attempts to stop its spread. The only chance of slowing its rapid growth lies in persecution, which the Romans readily apply. Despite the persecution, Christianity flourishes.

This is the background of the Roman persecution of Christians. From the perspective of a typical Roman emperor, Christianity threatened to lay waste to traditional Roman values and practices, to sabotage the very basis for Roman power, to pervert what was Rome. Because of this, the Romans tried to halt its spread by persecuting Christians. They justified their persecution by accusing Christians of breaking the peace of the gods, corrupting public morals, not following their ancestors, and many other things. Even though this persecution was legal and, from the perspective of a typical Roman official, necessary to the survival of the Roman state, it was completely immoral.

The Roman view of Christians from the outset was not good. Suetonius, a famous Roman historian, called Christians "a sect professing a new and mischievous religious belief" (Suetonius, p. 221). His contemporaries denounced it as superstitio parva (‘perverse irrational religious awe'), immodica (‘immoderate'), nova (‘new'), malefica (‘harmful'), among many other accusations.

There were three basic periods of the persecution. The first was from the death of Christ until right before the Great Fire of 64 A.D., which Nero falsely blamed Christians for. However, this first persecution "was a mere afterthought, and did not result in any general proscription" (Cary and Scullard, p. 487). The second period lasted from the end of the first until around 250 A.D., and the final one spanned the years from 250/251, the persecution under Decius, until 313. Up until 250, the persecution was sporadic and localized. However, from 250-251 the Emperor Decius instituted what Michael Grant, an eminent classical historian, calls a "systematic persecution of the Christians" (Grant, p. 157). During this persecution, Decius even executed Pope Fabianus, after which he supposedly remarked: "I would far rather receive news of a rival to the throne than of another bishop in Rome." After that martyrdom, Cyprian, the Bishop of Carthage, wrote this to the clergy in Rome:

My dear brothers, News of the death of my saintly fellow-bishop was still uncertain and information doubtful, when I received your letter brought by subdeacon Crementius, telling me fully of his glorious death. Then I rejoiced, as his admirable governing of the Church had been followed by a noble end. For this I share your gladness, as you honour the memory of so solemn and splendid a witness, communicating to us also the glorious recollection you have of your bishop, and offering us such an example of faith and fortitude. Indeed, harmful as the fall of a leader is to his subjects, no less valuable and salutary for his brethren is the example of a bishop firm in his faith... My wish, dearest brothers, is for your continued welfare. (The Christian Catacombs)

So, the Christians accepted martyrdoms with joy and sadness. Joy in the sense that their brother now abided with God in heaven, but sadness in the sense that their brother had been killed.

The Emperor Valerian instituted the state-sponsored persecution, which lasted for about three years, from 257-259. The final, and longest, state-sponsored persecution had its inception under Emperor Diocletian, and it lasted, in the western portion of the empire, for around two years, 303-305, and around eight years in the eastern portion, 303-311. Concerning this persecution, Michael Grant remarks: "As never before, the motive of the Great Persecution which began in 303 was the total extirpation of Christianity: it was a struggle to the death between the old and new orders" (Grant, p. 208). Eusebius, a famous Church historian and eyewitness to the persecution of Diocletian, speaks about it thus when he writes:

This was the nineteenth year of the reign of Diocletian in Dystrus [March] when the feast of the Saviour's passion was near at hand, and royal edicts were published everywhere, commanding that the churches [should] be razed to the ground, the scriptures destroyed by fire, those who held positions of honor degraded, and the household servants, if they persisted in the Christian profession, be deprived of their liberty.

And such was the first decree against us. But issuing [other] decrees not long after, the Emperor commanded that all the rulers of the churches in every place should be first put in prison and afterwards compelled by every device to offer sacrifice. (Medieval Sourcebook: Diocletian: Edicts Against The Christians)

The Christians were persecuted for a variety of reasons. First, they denied the basis for the Roman imperium (‘command, rule, empire, supreme power') by advocating that their God was the only real God. This denied the existence of the pagan Roman gods. These same Roman gods, in a sense, founded Rome, because according to legend and popular belief, Romulus, the offspring of the Roman god of war, Mars, founded the city of Rome in 753 B.C. This gave the Romans a divine basis for their temporal power. When the Christians denied the existence of Mars, they attacked the foundation of Roman power. Since they were attacking Roman authority and power, the Romans came to view Christians as a threat to the state. This was a view further exacerbated by Roman emperors, such as Nero, blaming fires and plagues on Christians. The Roman persecution of Christians was legal, but immoral. One reason it was legal was that the Christians attacked the pax deorum. The pax deorum (‘peace of the gods'), according to popular opinion, protected the Empire from troubles. This peace was preserved "by means of the appropriate ceremonies," such as the correct ritual sacrifices and worship (Ste Croix, p.246). In fact, many Roman histories relate stories of kings dethroned and cities destroyed for not sacrificing correctly. Also, these histories, which most Romans were familiar with, relate stories of people and cities, even Rome, saved for sacrificing and worshiping correctly. Because of these stories, Roman commoners, along with the Roman nobility, believed that this peace was essential to the continued security of Roman power. Since they believed that the keeping of this peace was essential, it was especially offensive to them when Christians refused to sacrifice to those gods. St. Justin the Martyr makes the Christian view of the Roman gods clear when he says, "Hence are we called atheists. And we confess that we are atheists, so far as gods of this sort are concerned, but not with respect to the most true God" (Justin Martyr). Believing this denial of the gods to be an attack upon Rome, many Romans despised Christians. During the reign of Decius, around 250 A.D., persecution for this reason reached its climax. Cary and Scullard, two Roman historians, write:

But in 250 the precarious safeguards of the Christians were swept away by the emperor Decius. In a wild attempt to crush the general insubordination and anarchy of his time and to create a greater unity within the Empire under its ruler, Decius expressly commanded all Christians to abjure their faith and to take part in the pagan worship of the Empire; in order to secure the pax deorum the Empire's loyalty to the old gods of Rome must be demonstrated (Cary and Scullard, p. 546).

Another reason that the persecution was legal was that Romans believed that the Christians were corrupting public morals. Even though some Romans did not respect Christian morals much, they still accused Christians of corrupting the public morals. Time after time, Christian rituals were perverted in the eyes of the Roman populace so that the people believed that Christianity was an immoral religion. Christians were accused of flagitia (‘heinous crimes') and scelera (‘wicked things') among other charges. Many of these charges stemmed from a misunderstanding of common Christian rituals. Partaking of the Lord's supper was mistaken as cannibalism, greeting each other with a holy kiss was looked upon as lechery, and the active seeking of martyrdom by a few Christians was applied to all its adherents. Minucius Felix charged:

Now the story about the initiation of young novices is as much to be detested as it is well known. An infant covered over with meal, that it may deceive the unwary, is placed before him who is to be stained with their rites: this infant is slain by the young pupil, who has been urged on as if to harmless blows on the surface of the meal, with dark and secret wounds. Thirstily - O horror! they lick up its blood; eagerly they divide its limbs. By this victim they are pledged together; with this consciousness of wickedness they are covenanted to mutual silence. (Felix)

Caecilius called Christianity a "religion of lust," Tacitus styled the religion "a pernicious superstition" and Christians "a class of men loathed for their vices" (Benko, p. 15, 55). The Emperor Nero, who was hated even by his own countrymen, blamed Christians for the Great Fire of 64 A.D., which many Romans blamed Nero himself for. Tacitus relates this story:

Therefore to scotch the rumour [that Nero had burned the city himself], Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians. Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate, and the pernicious superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judaea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue. (Benko, p. 15)

Prior to this passage, Tacitus had himself implicated Nero as the culprit of the crime. However, it is obvious that Tacitus held no love for Christianity. This antipathy for Christians was common to many Romans of the time, and it caused many Romans to want Christians to be persecuted.

Another trait of Christians which greatly disturbed the Romans was the burning desire of some Christians for martyrdom. In fact, some of the most prominent figures in the early Church had a strong desire to be martyred. Ignatius, one of the most prominent early Church figures, wrote to the Romans that:

An auspicious beginning has certainly been made--if only I obtain the grace of taking due possession of my inheritance without hindrance. The truth is, I am afraid it is your love that will do me wrong. For you, of course, it is easy to achieve your object; but for me it is difficult to win my way to God, should you be wanting in consideration for me. Surely, I do not want you to court the good pleasure of men, but to please God, as indeed you do please Him. Yes, I shall never again have such an opportunity of winning my way to God, nor can you, if you remain quiet, ever have your name inscribed on a more glorious achievement. For, if you quietly ignore me, I am the word of God; but if you fall in love with my human nature, I shall, on the contrary, be a mere sound. Grant me no more than that you let my blood be spilled in sacrifice to God, while yet there is an altar ready. (Ignatius)

When Ignatius speaks of not courting the "good pleasure of men," he is beseeching the Romans not to appeal to their highly placed friends in order to stop them from killing Ignatius. The Romans did not understand why Christians would want to die. The desire of some Christians for martyrdom scared them, and caused them to think that the Christians were, by their desire for death, corrupting public morals.

Another part of Christianity which the Romans failed to understand was the Book of Revelations. It was seen as an attack against Rome, because the Romans believed that the city of Babylon referred to in Revelations was actually a poorly disguised reference to Rome. So, this book was viewed as anti-Roman propaganda, adding another nail to the coffin of Christianity in the minds of Romans.

The most common charge against Christians was simply being a Christian. Because of the widespread fabrications concerning the name, the title ‘Christian' had picked up a great deal of bad connotations. As the Church historian Tertullian relates:

What are we to think of it, that most people so blindly knock their heads against the hatred of the Christian name; that when they bear favourable testimony to any one, they mingle with it abuse of the name he bears? "A good man," says one, "is Gaius Seius, only that he is a Christian." So another, "I am astonished that a wise man like Lucius should have suddenly become a Christian." Nobody thinks it needful to consider whether Gaius is not good and Lucius wise, on this very account that he is a Christian; or a Christian, for the reason that he is wise and good. They praise what they know, they abuse what they are ignorant of, and they inspire their knowledge with their ignorance; though in fairness you should rather judge of what is unknown from what is known, than what is known from what is unknown. (Tertullian)

Tertullian's righteous indignation at the spurious allegations made against Christians was common to members of the early Church. They could not believe that the Romans could so horribly misunderstand their holy rituals.

Yet another charge against the Christians was that they didn't follow in the footsteps of their ancestors. Romans, such as Cicero, held incredible respect for the auctoritas maiorum (‘authority of greater men'), the authority of ancestors. This authority meant that Romans should continue in the worship of the same gods which they had previously worshiped. In fact, the Jewish religion was tolerated in the Empire, even though it did not agree with the Roman state religion, because it was known to have existed for so long, in keeping with Jewish ancestors. However, the Christian religion was nova (‘new'), and it went against, in the view of Rome, the Jewish religion, thereby going against their ancestors. Not only did the Christians go against their Jewish ancestors, but also, by denying that the Roman gods existed, they went against the Roman ancestors - a double crime in the eyes of the Romans.

The legality of the Roman persecution was easily assured by their legal system. In the Roman judicial system, magistrates had nearly unlimited power. Because of this and because of the populace's antipathy toward Christians, magistrates persecuted Christians merely because the people wanted them to. This became one of the leading, if not the leading, reasons why Christians were oppressed. Also, because of the almost boundless power of those magistrates, it became one of the leading legal justifications for the persecution.

During the year 112 A.D., Pliny the Younger, governor of Bithynia (present day Turkey) was confused as to what he should do about the Christians in his province. So, in a letter to the Emperor Trajan, he wonders:

Whether the bare name, without any crimes besides, or the crimes adhering to that name, [deserves] to be punished? In the meantime, I have taken this course about those brought before me as Christians. I asked them whether they were Christians or not? If they confessed that they were Christians, I asked them again, and a third time, intermixing threatenings with the questions. If they persevered in their confession, I ordered them to be executed; for I did not doubt but, let this confession be of any sort whatsoever, this positiveness and inflexible obstinacy deserved to be punished. (From Jesus to Christ)

After this, he relates how he attempted to interrogate Christian prisoners as to the odious crimes which they were accused of. These interrogations turned out in the negative, for no matter what pressure was put on the questioned, they still refused to admit culpability for any of those crimes. So, the very crimes which Romans accused Christians of were proved false, once the Romans actually bothered to interrogate the Christians. In Trajan's reply, Trajan states that Pliny is not to let anonymous accusers accuse people of being Christians. If someone is to accuse, he must be publicly known as the accuser. This kept people from being randomly persecuted. "The practical effect of Trajan's rescript was that in the second century sporadic executions of Christians continued, although on the whole under Hadrian and Antoninus they enjoyed something of a lull during which the Church spread rapidly." (Cary and Scullard, p. 488).

The legal process under which most of the persecutions took place was cognitio extraordinaria (‘special inquiry'). Since the Roman law was quite vague in some areas, the magistrate in charge of these proceedings had a very wide discretion. As G.E.M. de Ste Croix puts it: "In the criminal sphere it [the power of a magistrate under cognitio extraordinaria] was almost unlimited, save in so far as the rights of Roman citizens had to be respected." So, even though today what was done to Christians would be deemed highly immoral, most of the Romans did not have any moral or legal objections to it.

Even though this persecution was legal, it was totally immoral. In Exodus 20:13, the Bible commands not to murder, thus defining murder as immoral. Since the Romans murdered Christians, an act deemed immoral by the Bible, they acted immorally. Also, the Bible commands men to love their neighbors as they love themselves (Matthew 19:19), and killing Christians was certainly not an act of love on the part of the Romans. So, the persecution of Christians at the hands of the Romans was immoral.

Some purport that when the Christians denied the existence of the Roman gods, they did not attack the foundation for Roman government, because many of the wealthy aristocrats who controlled the government did not believe in those gods anymore. This is partly true. It was true in the sense that many of the aristocrats no longer believed in the gods. Overall it was false since it did not matter whether the aristocrats believed it or not. It mattered whether the populace believed it or not, and the common people did still believe in those gods. So, when Christians denied their existence, the people saw it as a denial of the basis for Roman authority.

Others would say that since the Romans had not been raised to think that the persecution was immoral, it was not. This is relativistic nonsense. Just because one is not raised to think something is immoral does not mean it is not. If Marquis de Sade, whom the word sadistic was derived from, was raised to think that torture was not immoral, does that make it not immoral? If the Unabomber, Theodore Kaczynski, was raised to think that mailing bombs to people was not immoral, does that make it not immoral? The answer to both these questions is a resounding no. Morality is an absolute standard, and how one is raised cannot alter it. So, the Roman persecution of Christians was immoral.

This bitter persecution eventually ended though, as Christian, or at least tolerant, emperors came to power. "[I]n 313 he [Constantine, the first Christian emperor] met his ally Licinius at Milan and won him over to a policy of complete toleration; this policy may not have been formally expressed in a so-called ‘Edict of Milan', but it was none the less real and effective: freedom of worship was granted to all subjects of the Empire, East and West alike, and the Christian Churches were recognized as legal corporations" (Cary and Scullard, p. 547). So, over time, the Empire's policies toward Christians grew more tolerant, until the religion dominated the Empire. However, this did not happen quickly. Christians for many years were persecuted because of false accusations or misconceptions about their religion. Romans could not understand their rituals and other things, and because of this assumed them to be corrupt and anti-Roman. So, Romans slaughtered innocent Christians in an atrocious manner however legal it was.

Even with the knowledge that many of the charges against Christians were either fictional or a misconception on the part of the Romans, it is important to study how they were accused of breaking the pax deorum, corrupting public morals, not following their ancestors, and many other things. It is important for several reasons. First, those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. History plays an essential role in the development of nations, governments, and people. If one forgets his history, then one has lost something precious to his development. Imagine if doctors did not remember their history; they would never be able to correct mistakes or build on others' research to heal mankind. Imagine if judges forgot their history; all the precedents that have gone before judges in the past to establish certain rights and liberties and rules and laws would have to be debated and ruled on in each and every individual trial. It is easily seen that forgetting the past is not beneficial. Secondly, the way and the reasons for which Christians were persecuted in the past can give clues as to why they are persecuted now. Christians who are persecuted in foreign countries today are persecuted for some of the same reasons as in Roman days, such as preserving the state. Finally, it is important to have an accurate perception of history. If one has a twisted vision of it then one will remember the past mistakes but make the same mistakes again, because he does not know that they were mistakes. Anytime one participates in a serious discussion, it is imperative that his facts are correct. Christians should study this persecution in order to know more about the history of their religion. So, the Roman persecution of Christians is imperative to study, for it leads us to not only a better understanding of what has gone before but also as to what is happening now.

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