Roman Persecution of the Early Church: Why Did the Romans Persecute Christians?

Updated on December 9, 2017
Ignatius of Antioch
Ignatius of Antioch

Introduction

Although the first challenge to a newly-born Christian church came from the adherents of the Jewish religion from which it sprang, it is the Roman oppression of Christians in the first centuries prior to the era of Constantine (324A.D.) that has become the symbol of persecution. The Roman perspective on Christianity evolved somewhat over time, but from the beginning four basic grounds for persecution were already established: religious syncretism, emperor worship, prohibition of new religions, and wild rumors and accusations.

Religious Syncretism

Religious syncretism was a practice established long before the days of Imperial Rome. When Alexander the Great conquered vast stretches of the known world, he sought to unify his domains under a single, homogeneous (Greek) culture – a practice known as Hellenization. In the pagan world, a nation was closely linked to its gods; attempting to force people into abandoning their gods for a new, Greek pantheon was neither practical nor likely to succeed in anything but open revolt. However, allowing a nation to retain its religious identity would enable it to maintain an undesirable national identity which could also result in nationalistic rebellion. To address this problem, conquerors such as Alexander merged the foreign pantheon into their own. Sometimes this took the form of incorporating the characteristics of a foreign god under the name of an existing Greek god, at other times gods were added to the pantheon outright. This practice of incorporating gods into a fluid pantheon is known as religious syncretism and is one of the key pillars of Hellenization1.

The Romans were prolific imitators of Greek culture and they continued the practice of Hellenization (with their own innovative twists) in every region they conquered. The Roman pantheon, already largely borrowed from Greece, grew and morphed through syncretism. In this way, cults of Isis – an Egyptian goddess – and the late Roman military cult of Mithras – an eastern god – became very popular at times. Indeed, the only commonly practiced religious restriction exercised in the Roman Empire concerning foreign gods was that they could not be recent innovations. It was believed that no god or goddess would suddenly decide to make themselves known if they had not already, therefore no “new” god – one that had not previously been worshiped by anyone – could be acknowledged. Of course, the Greeks and Romans did worship the “unknown god” as well2.

Particularly to the religious mind, this may seem a glib approach to worship. In part religious syncretism was cynical, as it was a means by which foreign culture could be homogenized and so disarmed of any nationalistic pride that might manifest in revolt or resistance, but to the Romans it was more than mere pragmatism. It was considered a great offense to refuse to offer due worship and sacrifice to gods of a region or city, even if the expected worshiper was merely a visitor. Gods were not jealous on their own behalf, but they could be offended if one refused to worship the gods of a region properly2.

As had been the case with the Jews under the reign of the Seleucids, Christians would be persecuted on the grounds that they were exclusive – rejecting all others in favor of the One. To the Christian, the one true God is incompatible with these pagan deities. God jealously refuses to be worshiped alongside any other god, and would see his followers hold themselves to the highest standard of morality. To the Roman, this was nothing short of irrational stubbornness; gods had always abounded and never showed demanded to be worshiped exclusively, quite the contrary! Roman gods were often guilty of the highest crimes themselves, how could such an entity demand perfection from his worshipers? Gods required worship, not moral codes2.

In a letter to Emperor Trajan, Governor Pliny the Younger described his having executed a number of Christians on the grounds of their “obstinacy,” though he could prove no other crime they might have committed3. Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher emperor of the second century who persecuted Christians to promote the Roman gods admired their willingness to suffer death but disdained them for having developed this nature out of “obstinacy” rather than reason1.

The Roman Isis - Musei Capitolini
The Roman Isis - Musei Capitolini

Emperor Worship

There was also an additional participant in the Roman pantheon – the Emperor. Prior to the Roman Era, the Hellenistic successors of Alexander the Great (and even lesser officials) customarily received worship to varying degrees. When the Imperial rule was established in Rome, Deification of the Emperor was only natural. Festivals, Sacrifices, and at times even whole temples were dedicated to the Emperor, and after his death it was customary for the senate to vote him into the Pantheon4. This deification served two purposes, it was a supreme honor to the supreme authority, and it was the ultimate test of loyalty. Burning incense to the Emperor was a religious function, but failure to do so was civil sedition.

From the start, the Romans were already wary of the Christian Church which grew quickly despite all efforts against it. As the church spread across the empire, elders and church congregations maintained close ties. They corresponded with one another from across the world, forming a vast network which seemed nothing short of conspiratorial to the Roman mind. When Christians refused to offer sacrifices to the Emperor, this seemed nothing short of incontrovertible proof that these Christians were plotting the downfall of the Empire1. From very early on it became common practice in the Roman courts to require those accused of being Christians to burn incense to the Emperor in order to prove their innocence. This can be seen in Pliny’s most famous letter to Emperor Trajan3.

A New Religion: Jews and Christians

There was only one exception among subjects of the Emperor which was permitted to reject the ever expanding pantheon and refuse to burn incense to the Emperor – The Jews. Since the days of the Seleucids, the Jews had proved a thorn in the side of Hellenizing nations. Under Roman rule they proved no less troublesome so, by the first century A.D., the Romans had decided they would be better served if they simply left the Jews to their own devices.

In the early decades of the church, Christians viewed themselves as Jews*, and the Romans saw no distinction whatsoever, so for a time Christians enjoyed protection from Roman scrutiny. It was Jewish persecution of Christians that gradually forced the Christian community out of Jerusalem and increasingly isolated them from their Jewish heritage. As the church grew throughout the non-Jewish “Gentile” world, it became increasingly distinct. When the First Jewish rebellion broke out( and was subsequently crushed) this process was accelerated. The rebellion, and particularly the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 70A.D. opened the door for persecution of both Jews and gentiles under Domitian who issued an edict against both by prohibiting “Jewish practices”. By the end of the second Jewish revolt in 135A.D., the Jewish nation was completely scattered. Although adherents to Judaism continued on (even gaining a large number of new adherents) the Christian church was left completely distinct – a “new” religion to bear the brunt of Roman persecution1.

This is not to say that the Christian Church was universally considered a Jewish sect prior to 135A.D., this was merely the progression that ultimately split Christianity away from its Jewish roots. There is reason to believe that in 52A.D. the Romans saw Christians as Jews, but by the time twelve years had passed, the church was distinct enough to be singled out by Emperor Nero. Writing in retrospect concerning Nero’s persecution, Suetonius refers to the Christians as adherents of a “Novel superstition.”5

Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem - Roberts
Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem - Roberts

Rumors and Accusations

As they became more distinct, Christians became the subject of many lurid rumors. Christians customarily referred to partaking in The Lord’s Supper as “eating his flesh” and “drinking his blood,” which they did at gatherings they called “loves feasts.” The Romans heard rumblings of flesh eating and love feasts which led to accusations of cannibalism and orgies. These “abominations” and others, aided in stirring up public emotion against Christians.

Since Christians worshiped no visible idols and rejected the vast pantheon of other gods they were accused of “Atheism.” As Roman culture was so rooted in polytheism that all events, theater, races, politics, etc. were inseparably tied to worship of the gods, Christians were forced by their faith to abstain from all such events. It seemed as though Christians were repulsed by the very fundamental institutions of Rome and disdained its highest cultural achievements. Because of this they incurred the further condemnation that they were “haters of mankind.”1

These accusations, outlandish and unfair as they may seem, left a deep impression on the Roman mind. At times when no systematic persecution was being carried out, Christians still had to fear the furry of mobs stirred up by these wild stories**. The rumors also served a darkly useful purpose at times to the leading figures of Rome. The earliest systematic Roman persecution of Christians began under the reign of Emperor Nero after the Great Fire of Rome in 64A.D.. Nero was struggling to rid himself of the popular accusation that he had ordered the fire started for his own purposes. In order to put an end to the matter, Nero accused the Christians, “a class hated for their abominations”6. It seems he had some success in shifting the object of public ire.

Nero blamed the great fire of Rome on the Christians
Nero blamed the great fire of Rome on the Christians | Source

Conclusion

Nero’s persecution would be the first of many. As the nature and severity of persecution evolved, these central factors would continue to characterize the persecution that itself defined the life and our understanding of the early church.

Footnotes

* Christ is the culmination of the Jewish faith, not its abolition. As the “Hope of Israel,” the Messiah was promised to God’s chosen people, and Jesus’ willingness to reach out to non-Jews (gentiles) was a point of great contention during his ministry.

** An example of this can be found in the brutal persecutions suffered by the churches and Lyons and Vienne as detailed in a letter they sent to fellow churches in Asia Minor. Eusebius’ church history presents a full copy of the letter.


1. Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol. I

2. Larry Hurtado, Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Lecture) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tb96kYfk628&t=2s

3. Pliny the Younger, Harvard Classics “Letters and Treatises of Cicero and Pliny”

4. Gibbon, Folio Society “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” Vol I, p.85

5. Suetonius, Vita Neronis XVI, Bettenson “Documents of the Christian Church,” 2nd ed.

6. Tacitus, Annales XV, Bettenson “Documents of the Christian Church,” 2nd ed.

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