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Roman Persecution of the Early Church (Part II): The Evolution of Persecution in the First Four Centuries

Updated on December 6, 2017
Legendary Crucifixion of the Apostle Peter
Legendary Crucifixion of the Apostle Peter | Source

Persecution in the First Century

As discussed previously, as long as the Christians continued to be considered a sect of the Judaism, they were afforded a modicum of protection from Roman scrutiny. However, although the distinction between Jews and Christians was unclear to the Roman mind, de-facto persecution of Christians seems to have begun fairly early. According to Suetonius, the Jews were expelled from Rome c. 52 A.D. by the Emperor Claudius due to disturbances attributed to “Chrestus.” Although this account leaves room for interpretation, there is reason to believe this expulsion was due to the conflict arising between Christians and Jews in Rome1a.

Whatever the cause of the Jewish expulsion, Christians were first singled out as enemies of the state by Emperor Nero2. Nero was struggling to rid himself of an ongoing public rumor that he had started a fire in Rome which had consumed large swaths of the city in 64 A.D. to clear the way for his new palace. To shift the blame, Nero blamed the Christians1b. Though initially charged with arson, it seems more edicts were soon issued prohibiting the practice of, or adherence to, the Christian faith. It is believed that both the Apostles Paul and Peter were executed In Rome during the Neronian persecution3.

Nero chose his scapegoat well. It seems by this time the Christians had become subject of a number of lurid rumors, including accusations of cannibalism, child sacrifice, and orgies, which fueled the public’s rancor against them. Regardless of whether these allegations were a cause or symptom of this enmity, they left the early Christian church primed for such comparatively believable accusations as arson and conspiracy against the state. Writing early in the next century, the Roman historians Tacitus and Suetonius present accounts that reflect both an acceptance of these rumors and a prejudice against what was perceived as a new religion – which was prohibited by Roman law. Tacitus refers to the Christians as “a class hated for their abominations” and Suetonius refers to Christianity as a “novel and mischievous superstition.”1

When Nero’s reign ended, so too did the brunt of his persecution, although the laws against Christians remained in place. Domitian was the next to begin the campaign, targeting both Christians and Jews. Although the persecution began late in Domitian’s reign and ended with his death in 96A.D., those relatively few years were a harsher trial for the Christian church than under Nero and represented a time of great suffering in the form of “continuous and unexpected evils.”* Although many Christians were put to death outright under Domitian’s rule, others were merely exiled. It is likely that the last book in the Bible written – The Revelation of John – was written during this time while its author was in exile on the island of Patmos3.

according to Tacitus, some Christians were burned alive to serve as lamps in the night. Annales XV
according to Tacitus, some Christians were burned alive to serve as lamps in the night. Annales XV | Source

Persecution in the Second Century: The Edict of Trajan

The second century saw a new step in the evolution of persecution with the Edict of Trajan as found in a correspondence between Governor Pliny (the Younger) of Bithynia and the emperor.

Pliny the Younger was a classic example of the Roman perception of Christians during this period. Bithynia was a region heavily populated with Christians. As governor, Pliny found himself tasked with overseeing the trial of many accused adherents to the faith. He interrogated some among the Christians, expecting to find evidence of the many crimes they were presumed to have commited, but he could find nothing of the sort. This did not prevent Pliny from putting those Christians who would not recant their faith to death, but finding no evidence of any (other) crime was troubling to him. He was in doubt as to “Whether the very profession of Christianity, unattended with any criminal act,” was sufficient reason to punish the professor. C. 112A.D., he wrote to Emperor Trajan for direction. In response, Trajan instructed, “Do not go out of your way to look for them [Christians], if indeed they should be brought before you, and the crime is proved, they must be punished.”4

Trajan was laying down a policy of punishing Christians without an active program of persecution. If a man was accused of being a Christian he would be required to prove his innocence by worshiping the Roman gods, burning incense to the Emperor, and cursing Christ4. Although it seems this mode of passive persecution predated Trajan, the second century saw the codification of this practice. This would open the door for two centuries of intermittent persecution throughout the Empire. Local authorities were not required to hunt Christians, but anyone could report their neighbor or a prominent citizen and see them tried and executed if they did not deny the faith. In addition, regional persecutions would occasionally break out with brutal zeal even in otherwise “peaceful” times. At times this was ordered by the local authorities, other times it was the work of a frenzied mob stirred up by rumors of Christian abominations as seen in the letter written from the churches of Lyons and Vienne**. In short, though through most of the second century there was no systematic, or widespread persecution, many Christians suffered and were killed for their faith and none were ever beyond the threat of being denounced, tried, and executed. The delicate position in which Roman Christians found themselves is exemplified in the case of the famed second century Christian apologist and philosopher, Justin Martyr. Justin was able to live in relative peace in Rome, even gaining somewhat of a name for himself as a philosopher, but when he insulted an opponent, Crescens, by besting him in public debate it seems Crescens denounced him as a Christian and he was tried and executed3.**

Toward the end of the second century, beginning with the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180A.D.), nationwide persecution once again was ordered to promote the proper observance of the Roman pantheon. After the terror under Aurelius, Christians enjoyed another relative peace, though they still had to reckon with the ongoing Edict of Trajan. Local persecutions continued to plague Christians into the third century, when they redoubled and were amplified under Emperor Severus, beginning in 202A.D.

Emperor Trajan
Emperor Trajan

Persecution in the Third and Fourth Century

Severus heralded a new era of persecution, and the bloodiest century for the early church. In this instance, Severus sought a new degree of unity by demanding the worship of Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, as the supreme deity above all the rest. All the people of the Empire were free to worship their traditional gods, it was just necessary that they acknowledge the supremacy of Sol Invictus. To some this may have been a blow to national or regional pride, but only to two peoples was this impossible; the Jews and the Christians.

Persecutions in the first half of the third century followed the same pattern as in the second, but in 149A.D. Emperor Decius was crowned and soon he began the final stage in its evolution. Decius recognized that threatening Christians with death had only seemed to strengthen their resolve and swell their numbers. Indeed, the executions of the past centuries had blessed them with an array of “Witnesses” (the origin of the term martyr as we now know it – Doric Greek “Martyr” means simply “witness”) whose example compelled them to proclaim their faith all the more freely. To put an end to this once and for all, Decius resolved not to execute Christians, but to force them to recant their faith by means of intimidation, torture, and disfigurement. This is not to say Christians had not faced torture in the past, but now the objective was no longer to kill them and so grant the Christians their martyrs, but only to torment them till they broke and denied the faith. Later Valerian also continued this policy of torture and intimidation to quell the tide of Christianity. As a result, relatively few martyrs were made during this time, but those who endured the torments of their captors without denying their faith were bestowed a new title, “confessor,” and their example bolstered the hearts of others3.

In the chaotic fourth century, beginning with Diocletian in the eastern portion of the empire, persecution of the church reached fever’s pitch. Diocletian waged a veritable war against the Christians, employing all the methods of his predecessors. While rumors were spread of Christian arson and conspiracies to whip the mobs up into a frenzy, increasingly harsh measures were employed from the governing authorities. Eventually, all those suspected of being practicing Christianity were required to offer sacrifices to the gods and the Emperor, if they refused, they were taken and tortured till they recanted. Those who still refused to denounce their faith were tortured further and eventually put to death if they did not break3.

Diocletian’s mantle was passed on to Galerius who initially enforced the cruel laws against Christians until 311A.D. when he abruptly revoked them. Galerius died a few days afterward.

Illustrating a medieval legend of ten thousand Christian soldiers crucified during the Diocletian persecution
Illustrating a medieval legend of ten thousand Christian soldiers crucified during the Diocletian persecution | Source

"The Peace of the Church"

Without delving into the interactions of the four, co-reigning emperors and their exploits, suffice to say that Emperors Constantine and Licinius met in Milan in 313A.D. and agreed upon a policy of tolerance toward Christians, even to the point of returning their buildings and other property to them. This declaration of tolerance is known as the Edict of Milan. Although persecution was not ended fully in all quarters of the Empire until Constantine’s final victory over Licinius (who himself reneged on the agreement made in Milan) in 324A.D., the Edict of Milan marks the traditional end of Roman persecution and the beginning of the “Peace of the Church.” The Reign of Constantine would mark a new era in the history of the church and, unfortunately, an era of new trials.

Footnotes

* Quotation from the letter from the church at Rome to the church at Corinth known as 1st Clement

** Recorded in Eusebius


1. Bettenson “Documents of the Christian Church,” 2nd ed.

a. Suetonius, Vita Neronis XVI

b. Tacitus, Annales XV

2. Eusebius, The History of The Church, Williamson translation, (page 104)

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

4. Harvard Classics, “Letters and Treatises of Cicero and Pliny”, p. 404-407

© 2017 B A Johnson

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