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The Roman Persecution of the Early Christians

Many myths and falsehoods surround the story of the persecution of the early Christians. The myths had it that the Christians were almost continuously persecuted by the Roman Empire for first three centuries. And that they were persecuted simply because they were Christians. The ecclesiastical writers of the fifth century even asserted that, just like there were ten plagues in Egypt during the Exodus and there will be ten horns on the monster in Apocalypse, there were ten persecutions of Christians under the Roman Emperors. [1] The historical truth, however, paints a very different picture.

The state religion of the Roman Empire was the worship of the gods of Olympus. And since the reign of the Emperor Augustus (27BC-AD14), the emperor was treated as divine together with the Olympian deities. The worship of the Olympian deities involves simply the sprinkling of a pinch of incense and is done only on formal occasions. It is an act with patriotic rather than religious significance, roughly similar to saluting the flag and singing the national anthem today. The educated citizens of the empire, being educated in the great humanist tradition of Greece, no longer holds any belief in the Olympian gods; they perform the rites merely as a formality to show their allegiance to the emperor and the empire. [2]

Since the official religion was no more than a ceremonial pledge of allegiance, the degree of religious toleration that existed at that time in the Roman Empire was almost unparalleled in history. The very extent of the empire requires that it tolerates various local beliefs and practices. The esoteric mystery religions such as Mithraism and the worship of Isis and Osiris were tolerated as long as the followers, during state celebrations, perform the formal sprinkling of incense at the altar of the gods. [3] They were thus left unmolested by the Romans and were free to practice their faith. Even the Jews, who refused to sacrifice to the idols, were rarely persecuted, with the exceptions of the periods following the Jewish insurrections. The Jews, although not the most sociable of religions, kept their beliefs to themselves and the authorities left them alone. In short, the Romans were prepared to tolerate any religion that would tolerate others. [4]

The Christians however, were not a group of people who would easily tolerate other religions. To them the pagan gods were not just products of superstitions, but were actually demons. [5] And, unlike the Jews, they did not just keep their beliefs to themselves, they were actively insulting the pagan gods. It was small wonder then, that the Romans began to consider them a threat to the social stability of the empire. The conduct of these early Christians is aptly described by the historian William Lecky (1838-1903), in his book The History of European Morals (1877):

Proselytizing with an untiring energy, pouring a fierce stream of invective and ridicule upon the gods on whose favour the multitude believe all national prosperity to depend, not infrequently insulting worshippers, and defacing the idols, the soon stung the pagan worshippers to madness, and convinced them that every calamity that fell upon the empire was the righteous vengeance of the gods. Nor was the skeptical politician more likely to regard with favour a religion whose development was plainly incompatible with the whole religious policy of the empire. The new church, as it was then organized, must have appeared to him essentially and fundamentally intolerant. To permit it to triumph was to permit the extinction of religious liberty in an empire which comprised all the leading nations of the world, and tolerated all their creeds. [6]

In short the Christians, not only refused to burn the incense, they insulted the worshippers, their gods and even defaced their idols! Even with such anti-social and, to the Roman politicians, unpatriotic behavior, there was no systematic and official persecution of the Christians in the first and second centuries AD. [7] But as a result of their behavior, they were extremely unpopular and a likely scapegoat for any calamity. Thus in AD64 when Rome was burned, the Emperor Nero, to divert suspicion from himself, blamed the Christians. The Christians, in this particular instance, were subjected to cruel tortures and punishments. Thus it was Nero who persecuted the Christians with cruel tortures and punishments. This persecution however was a personal act of an insane man and was confined only to the city of Rome. [a] [8]

An often quoted exchange of letters in the year 112 between Pliny the Younger, the governor of Bithynia, a province in Asia Minor and the Emperor Trajan (c52-117) shows just how tolerant the Roman Empire was towards Christians. The governor wrote to the emperor asking for his advice on how to handle the Christians:

It is my custom, Lord Emperor, to refer you to all questions whereof I am in doubt ... I have never participated in investigations of Christians; hence I do not know what is the crime usually punished or investigated; or what allowances are made ... Meanwhile this is the course I have taken with those who were accused before me as Christians. I asked them whether they were Christians, and I asked them a second and third time with threats of punishment. If they kept to it, I ordered them taken off for execution, for I had no doubt that whatever it was they admitted, in any case they deserved to be punished for obstinacy and unbending pertinacity ... As for those who said they neither were nor ever have been Christians, I thought it right to let them go, when they recited a prayer to the gods at my dictation, and made supplication with incense and wine to your statue ... and moreover, cursed Christ - things which (so it is said) those who were really Christians cannot be made to do. [9]

The emperor's reply (given below) shows two things: that there was no systematic persecution of Christians during that time and that the empire was actively tolerant of them. This facts should be considered in the light of today’s world. In most countries in the world, any group that refuses to pledge allegiance to the flag or sing the national anthem and actively insult these, would immediately be branded as subversives, at best they would be viewed with suspicion both by the government and the public. This was how the Christians looked like to the pagan Roman Empire. Let us now read Trajan's reply:

You have adopted the proper course, my dear Secundus, in your examination of the cases of those who were accused before you as Christians, for indeed, nothing can be laid down as a general rule involving something like a set form of procedure. They are not to be sought out; but if they are accused and convicted, they must be punished - but on the condition that whoever denies that he is a Christian, and makes the fact plainly by his action, that is, by worshipping our gods, shall obtain pardon on his repentance, however suspicious his past conduct may be. Public accusations by anonymous persons have no place in criminal practice, since they are a bad example and unworthy of our time. [10]

The tolerant tone of the emperor's reply must be made clear. Here we have a group of (for all purposes in the eyes of the Roman Empire) fanatics who refused to show loyalty to the empire, renounced life on earth (and hence in the Roman Empire) as transient and worthless, and who refused to bear arms in times of war. And Trajan, instead of displaying a furious indignation, which in this case, as emperor, he had every right to, suggested a humane way of handling the Christians. To those arrested and accused; they could not be pardoned unconditionally, as that would affect the stability of the empire; however, should they repent, they should be freed with no questions asked about their past! The whole point is that once they show allegiance to the empire by burning the incense to the gods and the emperor, they had thus proved their patriotism and should be freed; the Romans were not out for Christian blood. Trajan also advised against the use of anonymous testimonies, as surely the accused have a right to know who accused him of the crime. This humane suggestion puts Trajan leaps and bounds, in moral terms, above the medieval Christian inquisitors who, not only allowed anonymous accusations, but actively encouraged it.

In fact, more often than not, the Roman judges used every legal means at their disposal to avoid punishing the Christians. But the Christians, in the morbid need for the reward of martyrdom, more often than not insisted on being sentenced. As an example, take the incident in North Africa around the year 180 where twelve people (nine men and three women) were accused of being Christians. The proconsul Saturninus, who heard the case, pleaded with them to save their own lives:

If you return to your sense you can obtain pardon of our Lord the emperor ... We too are a religious people, and our religion is a simple one: We swear by the divine spirit of our lord the emperor and offer prayers to his health - as you ought to do.

The accused men were indignant and refused to do so. Saturninus, in a last ditch effort, gave them thirty days to think things over. After that time, they still refused to budge. The proconsul had no choice but to have them executed. Upon receiving the death sentence some of them yelled out: "We thank God!", "Today we are martyrs in heaven, thanks be to God!" [11]

Not only do these Christians zealously demanded execution upon trail, some of them, hard put to find someone to accuse them, went to the tribunal of magistrates, declared themselves Christians and demanded the sentence of the law. We have testimony of earlier the church father Tertullian (c160-c225) of one such case in a small Asiatic town. The whole Christian population of that town, seeking death and martyrdom, went to the proconsul Antoninus to demand punishment. Unable to comprehend such an attitude, Antoninus told the Christians: "Unhappy men! Unhappy men! If you are thus weary of your lives, is it so difficult for you to find ropes and precipices?" Of course, suicide doesn't count for martyrdom, so the crowd insisted on punishment. Antoninus relented, put a few to death and dismissed the others. [12]

Capital punishment was not invariably applied in all cases. Some Roman judges used other legal methods to avoid it. They contented themselves to sentencing the Christians to prison, exile or slavery. This allowed the Christians some chance of freedom as the emperor might, during a period of celebration, offer a general pardon to the prisoners. [13]

It was only in the third century AD that actual systematic persecutions of Christians took place. And it only happened under the reign of two emperors, Decius (d251) and Diocletian (245-313). As barbarian pressure on the empire increased, the need for national unity increased. The official edict issued in the year 249 by Decius was therefore a political move aimed at ridding the empire of the one group that threatened its integrity and civil traditions the most, the Christians. Decius declared that all citizens, including Christians, must show their loyalty to the empire by offering sacrifice to the emperor. For the next three years, for the first time in history, the Christians were systematically and ferociously persecuted. [14]

Even then, despite later assertion to the contrary, the number of Christians that were actually killed was not large. The Christian father Origen (c185-254), who had first hand experience of the persecution (he was actually imprisoned and tortured in the year 250) [15], declared in no uncertain terms that the number of Christians who were actually sentenced to death during the persecution of Decius was very inconsiderable. [16] Origen's general assertion was confirmed by the testimony of Dionysius (d. c264), bishop of Alexandria, who estimated that only seventeen people were martyred for being Christians in that vast Egyptian city. [17]

After the death of Decius, the persecution stopped. Emperor Valerian (emperor from 253-260) confiscated church properties and went after some Christian leaders during his reign; but the mass of believers were left unmolested. [18] There was comparative calm for more than four decades after the death of Valerian.

In the year 303 Diocletian issued an edict which was to lead to the most savage and prolonged persecution of Christians in the whole history of the Roman Empire. [19] Diocletian was convinced that one of the main causes of the crisis in the Roman Empire was the defeatism and anti-patriotism of the Christians. [20] The Diocletian persecution was ferocious. Christians lost their rights as citizens, were punished for assembling to worship, and were forced, by torture to make the sacrifice to the gods. [21] It is important to note that not all the Christians captured were executed; many were imprisoned and some were tortured and then released.

After Diocletian abdicated in 305, his successor Galerius continued the persecution for another six years. Before his death in 311, Galerius issued his edict of toleration which restored the civil liberties and right to worship of the Christians. After his death Constantine became emperor, and Christianity was persecuted no more; it was soon to become the persecutor. [22]

Nobody really knows exactly how many Christians died in the Diocletian persecution from 303 to 311. Based on available evidence, Gibbon estimated the total number of Christians martyred during that nine years of persecution as no more than two thousand. [23] As Margaret Knight pointed out, this number:

sinks almost into insignificance beside the number of Christians killed in doctrinal dispute with their fellow Christians in the ages of faith. [24]

Thus is the factual, albeit greatly abridged account of the persecutions of the early Christians.

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a.Another first century emperor normally cited by tradition as a zealous persecutor of Christians was Domitian (AD51-96). This persecution was against people who were accused of "atheism and Jewish practices." This probably included the Christians but this is by no means certain. At any rate, the persecution, although empire-wide, was of a limited duration (it started in AD95 and ended with Domitian's death in AD96) and not very ferocious. Furthermore it was the Jews that were the main target of the persecution


1.Gibbon, Decline And Fall of the Roman Empire: p217
2.Craveri, The Life of Jesus: p300-301
Knight, Honest to Man: p55-56
3.Ibid: p55-56
Robertson, History of Christianity: p78
4.Knight, Humanist Anthology: p107
5.Robertson, History of Christianity: p78
6.Knight, Humanist Anthology: p107-108
7.Craveri, The Life of Jesus: p299
8.Knight, Honest to Man: p57-58
Gibbon, Decline And Fall of the Roman Empire: p206
9.Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels: p94-95
10.Knight, Honest to Man: p60
Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels: p95
11.ibid: p97-98
12.Knight, Honest to Man: p61
Gibbon, Decline And Fall of the Roman Empire: p215
Robertson, History of Christianity: p81
13.Gibbon, Decline And Fall of the Roman Empire: p210
14.Craveri, The Life of Jesus: p301
Knight, Honest to Man: p60
Livingstone, Dictionary of the Church: p145
Roberts, History of the World: p280
15.Livingstone, Dictionary of the Church: p371
16.Gibbon, Decline And Fall of the Roman Empire: p210
17.ibid: p211
18.Roberts, History of the World: p280
19.Knight, Honest to Man: p60
20.Craveri, The Life of Jesus: p301
21.Knight, Honest to Man: p60
22.ibid: p61
23.Gibbon, Decline And Fall of the Roman Empire: p218
Knight, Honest to Man: p62
Robertson, History of Christianity: p83
24.Knight, Honest to Man: p62
27. 28. 29. 30. 31. 32. 33. 34. 35. 36. 37. 38.

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