MARTYRS AND THE PERSECUTION OF CHRISTIANS IN ROME

PERSECUTION OF CHRISTIANS

20120224-Christian_Martyrs_in_Colosseum.jpg
Christian martyrs in the Colosseum
Under Roman rule, Christians were denied business opportunities and status in society, prohibited from worshiping, attacked by mobs, persecuted, tortured and killed in organized campaigns by the Romans government. The Roman historian Tacitus accused them of "hatred of the human race." The Book of Revelation was written in response to the Roman persecutions.

Christians sometimes had their foreheads tattooed by Romans (some Christian slaves carried religion symbols to counteract images inscribed on them by their Roman masters) or were condemned to work in mines. In the worst cases, they were arrested and given the choice of recanting their faith or facing execution, with some being thrown to hungry lions in the Coliseum and other arenas.

Tacitus wrote Christians, "were nailed on crosses...sewn up in the skins of wild beasts, and exposed to the fury of dogs; others again, smeared over with combustible materials, were used as torches to illuminate the night."

Due to persecution, Christians met in secret primarily in the houses of wealthy members. This only seemed to raise the level of hostility against them. Because early Christians held services "behind closed doors" at night instead of during the day in open temples like the Roman they were accused of having orgies and engaging in cannibalism (partly from a misinterpretation of the practice of Communion).

The Romans demanded that their gods be worshipped, but at the same time they received the local gods. The reason the Jews and Christian were persecuted is that they presented a threat and refused to worship the Roman gods. Judaism and Christianity were not the only religions in the Roman empire. Mithraism, Manichaeism, Gnosticism and many others were practiced. There were lots of other strange religions around--- Manichaeans, Donatist, Pelagians, Arians. Subjects from all religions were expected to make sacrifices to the Roman gods and worship the Roman emperor as a god.

About A.D. 49 Claudius expelled Jews from Rome because of a disturbance. Persecution under Nero after the Great Fire in Rome seems to be less than what was long reported. The only martyrs of whom there is some plausibility are Peter and Paul. The persecution was a local police action limited to the city of Rome. It was probably not associated with a fire. Even so Nero's name has ever since been associated with a policy of persecution. The real major empire-wide persecution began around 200 years after Nero’s death under the Roman Emperor Decius, who rule from A.D. 249 to 251. [Source: Carl A. Volz, late professor of church history at Luther Seminary, web.archive.org, martin.luthersem.edu /~\]

See Separate Article VICTIMS OF ROMAN PERSECUTION

Websites and Resources: Christianity Britannica on Christianity britannica.com//Christianity ; History of Christianity history-world.org/jesus_christ ; BBC on Christianity bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ;Wikipedia article on Christianity Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/christ.htm ; Christian Answers christiananswers.net ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library www.ccel.org ; Early Christianity: Elaine Pagels website elaine-pagels.com ; Sacred Texts website sacred-texts.com ; Gnostic Society Library gnosis.org ; PBS Frontline From Jesus to Christ, The First Christians pbs.org ; Guide to Early Church Documents iclnet.org; Early Christian Writing earlychristianwritings.com ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Early Christian Art oneonta.edu/farberas/arth/arth212/Early_Christian_art ; Early Christian Images jesuswalk.com/christian-symbols ; Early Christian and Byzantine Images belmont.edu/honors/byzart2001/byzindex ; Saints and Their Lives Today's Saints on the Calendar catholicsaints.info ; Saints' Books Library saintsbooks.net ; Saints and Their Legends: A Selection of Saints libmma.contentdm ; Saints engravings. Old Masters from the De Verda collection colecciondeverda.blogspot.com ; Lives of the Saints - Orthodox Church in America oca.org/saints/lives ; Lives of the Saints: Catholic.org catholicism.org

Why Were Christians Persecuted?

20120224-Nero Peter Paul Simon Magus and Nero.jpg
Peter, Paul, Simon Magus and Nero
Why were the Christians persecuted? Dr Sophie Lunn-Rockliffe of the University of Cambridge wrote for the BBC: “Much seems to have depended on local governors and how zealously or not they pursued and prosecuted Christians. The reasons why individual Christians were persecuted in this period were varied. In some cases they were perhaps scapegoats, their faith attacked where more personal or local hostilities were at issue. [Source: Dr Sophie Lunn-Rockliffe, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“Contemporary pagan and Christian sources preserve other accusations levelled against the Christians. These included charges of incest and cannibalism, probably resulting from garbled accounts of the rites which Christians celebrated in necessary secrecy, being the agape (the ‘love-feast’) and the Eucharist (partaking of the body and blood of Christ). |::|

“Pagans were probably most suspicious of the Christian refusal to sacrifice to the Roman gods. This was an insult to the gods and potentially endangered the empire which they deigned to protect. Furthermore, the Christian refusal to offer sacrifices to the emperor, a semi-divine monarch, had the whiff of both sacrilege and treason about it. |::|

“Thus the classic test of a Christian’s faith was to force him or her, on pain of death, to swear by the emperor and offer incense to his images, or to sacrifice to the gods. In the mid-second-century account of the martyrdom of Polycarp, officials begged Polycarp to say ‘Caesar is Lord’, and to offer incense, to save his life. He refused. Later, in the arena, he was asked by the governor to swear an oath by the ‘luck of Caesar’. He refused, and although he was apparently eager to meet his death, beast-fighting had been declared closed for the day and so he was burnt alive instead. |::|

“General persecutions tended to be sparked by particular events such as the fire at Rome under Nero, or during periods of particular crisis, such as the third century. During the third century the turn-over of emperors was rapid - many died violent deaths. As well as this lack of stability at the head of the empire, social relations were in turmoil, and barbarian incursions were on a threatening scale. The economy was suffering and inflation was rampant. Pagans and Christians alike observed this unrest and looked for someone or something, preferably subversive, to blame. It was hardly surprising that a series of emperors ordered savage empire-wide persecutions of the Christians.” |::|

Conditions in the Roman Empire When Christians Were Persecuted?


persecution of Christians with scenes of martydom in the background

Wayne A. Meeks told PBS: “One thing we have to remember is that the old Hollywood view of Christianity as kind of an underground persecuted society that skulks around in catacombs for three centuries before they finally emerge after Constantine's conversion, clearly cannot be true. Before [the year 250], we hear only rarely and locally of persecution of Christians, which is small scale and often times, has purely local kinds of causes, I think. But the question remains, since the things we see them doing seem fairly innocuous, at least to our eyes, why did people persecute them? Where did the suspicion arise that they did all kinds of dangerous anti-social things like cannibalism and incestuous sexual relations, orgies, this sort of thing? They're different. They are a people that, in a way, declare their boundaries over against the larger society by their very rituals that lead to conversion - turning away from the gods and turning to the one God, living and true, as Paul puts it in his First Letter of the Thessalonians. That means that they are not going to participate in a great many of not only the religious, but the civic functions, which emerged in the ordinary society of a Roman or Greek city. This is bound to arouse suspicion. Why do the Christians not participate in these rituals that are necessary to maintain the relationship between our society and the gods?” [Source: Wayne A. Meeks, Woolsey Professor of Biblical Studies Yale University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]

“At the time of the major empire-wide persecution, under the Emperor Decius, you have to realize, this is also a time when the Emperor's feeling under great pressure. The middle of the 3rd century is often time identified as a crisis in the Roman Empire. There is a lot of internal dissension, there is a lot of what Ramsey MacMullen has identified as sheer corruption in the aristocracy, from the Emperor down. There is a sense that we are being besieged on the borders, that the barbarians may be coming in at any moment, the Persians are dangerous, the Germans are dangerous and so on. There's a great sense that anything that upsets this ancient contract between the Romans and the gods has got to be dangerous to us.... This is one of the factors which must be feeding into the sense of the crisis, expressed in the persecution against the church.” <>

Robert Grant wrote in The Sword and The Cross: "To say that persecution was inevitable is to neglect the whole history of Rome's dealings with foreign religions. The Roman understanding of Christianity was so limited and bound up with precedent that simple ignorance was one of the chief causes of persecution. The Romans did not know what Christianity was. There was a double failure of communication. Rome could not express her aims in Christian terms, and Christians could not express their aims in Roman terms.

Websites on Ancient Greece and Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; BBC Ancient Greeks bbc.co.uk/history/; Canadian Museum of History historymuseum.ca; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; ; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org; British Museum ancientgreece.co.uk; Illustrated Greek History, Dr. Janice Siegel, Department of Classics, Hampden–Sydney College, Virginia hsc.edu/drjclassics ; The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization pbs.org/empires/thegreeks ; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive beazley.ox.ac.uk ; Ancient-Greek.org ancientgreece.com; Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/about-the-met/curatorial-departments/greek-and-roman-art; The Ancient City of Athens stoa.org/athens; The Internet Classics Archive kchanson.com ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Forum Romanum forumromanum.org ; “Outlines of Roman History” forumromanum.org; “The Private Life of the Romans” forumromanum.org|; BBC Ancient Rome bbc.co.uk/history; The Roman Empire in the 1st Century pbs.org/empires/romans; The Internet Classics Archive classics.mit.edu ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review bmcr.brynmawr.edu; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors roman-emperors.org; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources web.archive.org/web; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library web.archive.org ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame /web.archive.org ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History unrv.com

Legal Basic of Persecution

The legal bases for persecution, especially since the Roman government had high respect for legality. 1) The State controlled foreign religions and occasionally repressed them. (Bacchic rites, Isis, Jews). 2) Local police were given authority to maintain the peace and put down disturbances under the general legal right of "coercitio." 3) "Majestas" or treason was another umbrella formula whereby enemies of the "Majestas" or treason state were brought to trial. 4) There was popular hatred of Christians who interfered with the established order of things - trade interests, amusements, family life, military service, civic duties, and state religion. Was there a law against being a Christian? Apparently so by the time of Trajen (98-117) and Justin infers such (c. 150) but we do not know its contents or reasons. [Source: Carl A. Volz, late professor of church history at Luther Seminary, web.archive.org, martin.luthersem.edu /~\]

Is persecution a necessary part of authentic Christian life? Workman (Persecution In The Early Church) believes Christianity naturally calls forth opposition. Grant (The Sword and the Cross) believes the Romans persecuted because they were ignorant and failed to investigate, but there is nothing about Christianity which necessarily invites abuse. Were Christians persecuted "per nomen ipsum" (for the name only) or for the alleged crimes associated with the name?

Professor Paula Fredriksen told PBS: “It's difficult to track the legal status of Christianity in the second and third century. What's happened as a result of the spread of the movement is that we have, in Roman antiquity, an entire population of gentiles who are, in effect, claiming the legal prerogatives of Jews while insisting at the same time, rightly, that they're not Jews. Judaism had long ago come to a legal agreement with the Emperor that Jews would not be forced to participate in pagan rituals. And pagan rituals are part of the normal fabric of life in a Roman city. Jews were exempted from this because Romans knew that Jews were odd about this kind of thing. But a gentile who refused to participate in [the] civic cult had no legal standing. If they were a gentile, then the proper thing to do would be to honor the god of the Emperor and of the empire and of the city. And by insisting on not doing this, certain Christians made themselves conspicuous and invited upon themselves legal action on the part of governors.... [Source: Paula Fredriksen, William Goodwin Aurelio Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture, Boston University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]


Martydom and Persecution of Christains


“Paganism is, in a sense, the religious articulation of citizenship. Civitas is city. A civis is a citizen, and... the analogy between family and city is made continuously, in philosophy, and in popular piety. To exempt yourself from that, then, would have real social consequences.And this is one of the reasons, I think, for the persecution of Christians. Christians, who exempt themselves from this are criticized for -- I'm going to sound like I'm speaking in California dialect, but it's really a similar idea -- confusing the vibrations, the sympathetic harmony between heaven and earth. They are exempting themselves from the peace of the gods, the Pax Deorum and therefore, one church father, Tertullian says, on the cusp of the third century, "if the Tiber overflows or the Nile doesn't, the cry goes up. Christians to the lion." Christians are ... and by this I mean, specifically, gentile Christians. There are Jewish Christians, too, but in the literature, it's ... it's gentile Christians who populate the martyr stories that we have. They are they have made themselves outlanders in their own town. And therefore, they are used as an explanatory device whenever there are the usual natural insults of human existence. Plague. Earthquake. Flood. It's because the Christians, as gentiles who are not doing their duty to heaven ... why should the gods do anything for the city then?And that's how you get Christians dragged before Governors and before these circuit courts and named as troublemakers. <>

Policy of the Roman Empire to Persecute Christians

Professor Paula Fredriksen told PBS: “Empires have better things to do than persecute nursing mothers, which is the example, of course with Perpetua. Emperors tend not to care much about what people are doing as long as the servants and horses are not disturbed, taxes are collected, and nobody starts a rebellion. So, empires in general, and I think the Roman Empire, in particular, are religiously tremendously ecumenical. If you have a huge expansive political territory with huge varieties of religions, within those boundaries, you don't care what people are doing religiously. You just want your tax money. And so the fact that we have incontrovertible evidence that Christians are being persecuted says several interesting things about the growth of movement and the social fortunes of the empire. [Source: Paula Fredriksen, William Goodwin Aurelio Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture, Boston University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]

“Before the year 250, the persecution of Christians is sporadic. It's local. It's improvised. It is at the discretion of a Governor to whom complaints are made and so on. It's not a dragnet and it's not an imperial policy. After 250, when the empire is being battered on every frontier by invading armies, when there's absolute rampant inflation, [there is] incredible governmental instability. There are an average of two or three Emperors in a year. They keep getting assassinated. It's just an incredibly fraught time. That's also the point at which you begin to get the imperial expression of persecution of Christians. Now then again, also, it's interesting. It's not a criminal offense to be a Christian. What you have to do is get a ticket, a lebevos, a chit saying that you have sacrificed for the well-being of the empire.... There [are] various response[s] on the part of different Christian communities. You can have your servant go and do it for you. He might also be a Christian, but, you know, that's his problem. Pay him. He'll get two chits and then you're covered.... Or you can pay for the ticket but not actually do the sacrifice if you can bribe a friend of yours who's a magistrate. Or you can just go ahead and sacrifice, knowing that these gods are nothing, after all. That's right in...Paul's letters, that these gods are nothing. There are all sorts of different ways that people deal with this. But some people absolutely refuse to oblige by this rule at all. And those are the people - again, it's the heroic minority - who end up being martyred by government force. <>

Roman Historians on the Persecution of Christians

In “The Annals of Imperial Rome Book XV, chapter 47 (A.D. 64), during the Great Fire of Rome, Tacitus wrote: “Neither human resources, nor imperial generosity, nor appeasement of the gods, eliminated the sinister suspicion that the fire had been deliberately started. To stop the rumor, NERO, made scapegoats--and punished with every refinement the notoriously depraved CHRISTIANS (as they were popularly called). Their originator, CHRIST, had been executed in Tiberius' reign by the Procurator of Judaea, PONTIUS PILATUS (governor from 26 to 36 A.D.). But in spite of this temporary setback, the deadly superstition had broken out again, not just in Judaea (where the mischief had started) but even in Rome. All degraded and shameful practices collect and flourish in the capital. First, NERO had the self-admitted Christians arrested. Then, on their information, large numbers of others were condemned--not so much for starting fires as because of their hatred for the human race. Their deaths were made amusing. Dressed in wild animals' skins, they were torn to pieces by dogs, or crucified, or made into torches to be seton fire after dark as illumination. [Source: csun.edu]


Nero torches Siemiradski


Nero had offered his Gardens for the spectacle, and gave an exhibition in his Circus, mixing with the crowd in the habit of a charioteer, or mounted on his car. Hence, in spite of a guilt which had earned the most exemplary punishment, there arose a sentiment of pity, due to the impression that they were being sacrificed not for the welfare of the state but to the ferocity of a single man. .... Despite their guilt as Christians, and the ruthless punishment it deserved, the victims were pitied. For it was felt that they were being sacrificed to one man's brutality rather than to the national interest."

In “Life of the Emperor Claudius,” Chapter 25, Suetonius wrote: "Since the Jews were constantly causing disturbances at the instigation of CHRESTUS, he expelled them from the city..." In Chapter Mohammed, he wrote: "[After the Great Fire]...punishments were also inflicted on the CHRISTIANS, a sect professing a new and mischievous religious belief ...."

Persecution of Christians Under Roman Emperors

Nero began persecuting Christians on the grounds of disloyalty and blamed them for the great fire in Rome in A.D. 64, something which he was involved. Among those put to death under his rule, according to tradition, were the apostles Peter and Paul. Tacitus wrote that before the killing of Christians, Nero used them to amuse the people. Some were dressed in furs, to be killed by dogs. Others were crucified. Still others were set on fire . Although persecution was often cruel, the numbers have been wildly exaggerated. Most of the victims were bishops or other male leaders.

The height of the persecution of Christians was not during the reign of Nero, but much later. Domitian, Marcus Aurelius and Valerian all brutalized Christians after A.D. 150, when Christians held many high positions and presented a threat as "state within a state." In A.D. 202 the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus made baptism a criminal act. In A.D. 250 Emperor Decius increased the persecution of Christians.

Oppression of the Christians reached its peak under Emperor Diocletian, who ruled the Roman Empire in the early 300s and launched the “Great Persecution” in the year A.D. 284. It lasted until 311 and left 144,000 Egyptian Christians dead.

Believing that Christians profaned Roman pagan traditions, Diocletian ordered all Bibles burned and told priests to renounce their religion or face death. He prevented Christians from meeting together and holding government offices and denied them citizenship. A number of famous saints, including St. Nicholas, were persecuted and killed during his rule. Most of persecution was aimed at Christians in the East, where there were reports of Christians being stretched on racks and burned in public gatherings.

Toleration Versus Persecution in the Roman Empire


Dr Sophie Lunn-Rockliffe of the University of Cambridge wrote for the BBC:“Although fourth and fifth century A.D. Christian narratives tend to describe the preceding centuries bitterly as a period of sustained and vicious persecution, there were in fact lulls. How can we explain this? Well, the Roman empire was in the first few centuries A.D. expansionist and in its conquests accommodated new cults and philosophies from different cultures, such as the Persian cult of Mithraism, the Egyptian cult of Isis and Neoplatonism, a Greek philosophical religion. [Source: Dr Sophie Lunn-Rockliffe, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“Paganism was never, then, a unified, single religion, but a fluid and amorphous collection. But it would also be a mistake to describe Roman religion as an easy, tolerant co-existence of cults. ‘Toleration’ is a distinctly modern, secular idea. The very history of Christianity and Judaism in the empire demonstrates that there were limits to how accommodating Roman religion could be, and these were not the only cults to be singled out for persecution. |::|

“The cults of Bacchus and of Magna Mater had also been suppressed - by the Roman senate during the Republic, mainly because their behaviour was louche and ‘un-Roman’. Bacchic revels encouraged ecstatic drunkenness and violence, and the cult of Magna Mater involved outlandish dancing and music, and was served by self-castrating priests. |::|

“Under particular emperors, Christians were less liable to be punished for the mere fact of being Christians – or indeed, for ever having been Christian. Thus under Trajan, it was agreed that although admitting to Christian faith was an offence, ex-Christians should not be prosecuted.” |::|

Beginnings of the Roman Persecution of Christians

Dr Sophie Lunn-Rockliffe of the University of Cambridge wrote for the BBC: “The story of Christianity’s rise to prominence is a remarkable one, but the traditional story of its progression from a tiny, persecuted religion to the established religion in the medieval West needs some debunking. |::|

“Although in the first few centuries A.D. Christians were prosecuted and punished, often with death, there were also periods when they were more secure. Secondly, the rise of Christianity to imperial-sponsored dominance in the fourth and fifth centuries, although surprising, was not without precedent, and its spread hardly as inexorable as contemporary Christians portrayed it. [Source: Dr Sophie Lunn-Rockliffe, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“Christians were first, and horribly, targeted for persecution as a group by the emperor Nero in 64 AD. A colossal fire broke out at Rome, and destroyed much of the city. Rumours abounded that Nero himself was responsible. He certainly took advantage of the resulting devastation of the city, building a lavish private palace on part of the site of the fire. |::|

“Perhaps to divert attention from the rumours, Nero ordered that Christians should be rounded up and killed. Some were torn apart by dogs, others burnt alive as human torches. Over the next hundred years or so, Christians were sporadically persecuted. It was not until the mid-third century that emperors initiated intensive persecutions.” |::|

Nero and the Persecution of Christians


Nero with some Christains

Nero allegedly ordered the slaughter of Christians. Among them, according to tradition, were the apostles Peter and Paul. Christians, wrote Tacitus, "were nailed on crosses...sewn up in the skins of wild beasts, and exposed to the fury of dogs; others again, smeared over with combustible materials, were used as torches to illuminate the night."

Nero began persecuting Christians on the grounds of disloyalty and blamed them, along with Jews, for the great fire in Rome in A.D. 64, something which he is believed to have been was involved in. Tacitus wrote that before the killing of Christians, Nero used them to amuse the masses. Some were dressed in furs, to be killed by dogs. Others were crucified. Still others were set on fire. Although some persecution of Christian is believed to have occurred, and some it was very cruel, the extent of it has been wildly exaggerated. Most of the victims were bishops or other male leaders. Nero is believed to have accused the Christians of starting the Rome fire in order to shield himself from the suspicion of setting the fire himself.

The height of the persecution of Christians was not during the reign of Nero, but much later. Domitian, Marcus Aurelius and Valerian all brutalized Christians after A.D. 150, when Christians held many high positions and presented a threat as "state within a state." In A.D. 202 the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus made baptism a criminal act. In A.D. 250 Emperor Decius increased the persecution of Christians.

Martyrdom of St. Peter and St. Paul

According to the traditional story, in A.D. 67, in the last year of Nero’s reign, St. Peter was hung upside down and beheaded at the Circus Maximus during a wave of brutal anti-Christian persecution after the burning of Rome. His brutal treatment was partly of the result of his request not to be crucified, because he didn't consider himself worthy of the treatment of Jesus. After Peter died, it is said, his body was taken to a burial ground, situated where St. Peter's cathedral now stands. His body was entombed and later secretly worshiped.


St Peter by Caravaggio

It is not exactly clear what happened to St. Paul but it is believed that he was martyred in A.D. 64, the year that Nero blamed the great fire of Rome on the Christian and Jews. Before he was killed St. Paul invoked his right as a Roman citizen to be beheaded. His wish was granted. According to some, Paul was martyred at the site occupied by the Monastery of the Three Fountains in Rome. The Cathedral of St. John Lateran, the oldest Christian basilica in Rome, founded by Constantine on A.D. 314, contains reliquaries said to hold the heads of St. Paul and St. Peter and the chopped off finger doubting Thomas stuck in Jesus' wound.

On the arrest of Paul, Acts 16:19-22 from The New Testament: (A.D. c. 90) reads: “When her owners saw that their hope of profit was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them to the public square before the authorities. They brought them before the magistrates and said, "These people are Jews and are disturbing our city [Philippi, a Roman colony] and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us Romans to adopt or practice." The crowd joined in the attack on them, and the magistrates had them stripped and ordered them to be beaten with rods....”

According to Listverse: “At the time of the first Christians, St Peter, the first Bishop of Rome (and thus first Pope) was put to death by being crucified upside-down in the Circus of Nero – a large open-air venue used for public events. His body was buried there. A mere 200 years later, the Roman Emperor Constantine I legalized Christianity and donated the Circus of Nero to the Church for what is now known as Old St Peter’s Basilica. It took only 30 years to build and survived until 1506 when it was demolished by Pope Julius II in order to make way for the Basilica which stands in its place today and remains the seat of the Papacy. The irony of the fact that the seat of the oldest and largest Christian population in the world stands on the spot where the first attempts were made to destroy the new religion is obvious. Given the temporal power the Church wielded (and still does to a certain degree, though more through influence now), one could say that the Roman Empire is still at the heart of Western society.” [Source: Listverse, October 16, 2009]

Tacitus’s Account of Nero’s Persecution of the Christians

Our understanding of the “first persecution” of Christians under Nero largely comes from the account of the Roman historian Tacitus, which is of great interest because it contains the first reference by a pagan author to Christ and his followers. The following passage shows not only the cruelty of Nero and the terrible sufferings of the early Christian martyrs, but also the pagan prejudice against the new religion. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~\]

Tacitus wrote: says: “In order to drown the rumor, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. [Source: “Annals,” Book. XV., Ch. 44, by P. Cornelius Tacitus, A.D. 109, translated by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb]

Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his own gardens for this spectacle. The people were moved with pity for the sufferers; for it was felt that they were suffering to gratify Nero’s cruelty, not from considerations for the public welfare.”


Nero and a persecuted Christain


Pliny's Letter to Emperor Trajan

In the early A.D. 2nd century, Trajan appointed Pliny the Younger, a distinguished Senator and literary man, as governor of Bithynia (modern day Turkey) — a province that had previously been poorly administered. While he was there he corresponded with Emperor Trajan about various problems. In the year 112, Pliny was faced with a dilemma. A number of Christians were brought into his court and he wasn’t sure what to do with them. According to PBS: “It is unclear what the initial charges are, but he ultimately decided, despite the fact that the Christians seemed generally harmless to him, that he should execute them if they refused to recant their faith. Because he is unsure as to whether he can kill them legally for no other crime than their faith, he writes to his friend the Emperor for advice. These letters concern an episode which marks the first time the Roman government recognized Christianity as a religion separate from Judaism, and sets a precedent for the massive persecution of Christians that takes place in the second and third centuries. The Emperor replies that he did the right thing in excecuting them, but advises him not to seek out Christians for prosecution. [Source: Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]

Pliny to Trajan: “It is my custom, Sire, to refer to you in all cases where I am in doubt, for who can better clear up difficulties and inform me? I have never been present at any legal examination of the Christians, and I do not know, therefore, what are the usual penalties passed upon them, or the limits of those penalties, or how searching an inquiry should be made. I have hesitated a great deal in considering whether any distinctions should be drawn according to the ages of the accused; whether the weak should be punished as severely as the more robust, or whether the man who has once been a Christian gained anything by recanting? Again, whether the name of being a Christian, even though otherwise innocent of crime, should be punished, or only the crimes that gather around it? [Source: Pliny the Younger (61/62-113 A.D.) and Trajan (r.98-117 A.D.): Letters, Book X. 25ff : “The Correspondence of a Provincial Governor and the Emperor Trajan,” c. 112 A.D.,William Stearns Davis, ed., “Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources,” 2 Vols. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-13), Vol. II: Rome and the West, 196-210, 215-222, 250-251, 289-290, 295-296, 298-300]

“In the meantime, this is the plan which I have adopted in the case of those Christians who have been brought before me. I ask them whether they are Christians, if they say "Yes," then I repeat the question the second time, and also a third -- warning them of the penalties involved; and if they persist, I order them away to prison. For I do not doubt that -- be their admitted crime what it may -- their pertinacity and inflexible obstinacy surely ought to be punished.

“There were others who showed similar mad folly, whom I reserved to be sent to Rome, as they were Roman citizens. Later, as is commonly the case, the mere fact of my entertaining the question led to a multiplying of accusations and a variety of cases were brought before me. An anonymous pamphlet was issued, containing a number of names of alleged Christians. Those who denied that they were or had been Christians and called upon the gods with the usual formula, reciting the words after me, and those who offered incense and wine before your image -- which I had ordered to be brought forward for this purpose, along with the regular statues of the gods -- all such I considered acquitted -- especially as they cursed the name of Christ, which it is said bona fide Christians cannot be induced to do.

“Still others there were, whose names were supplied by an informer. These first said they were Christians, then denied it, insisting they had been, "but were so no longer"; some of them having "recanted many years ago," and more than one "full twenty years back." These all worshiped your image and the god's statues and cursed the name of Christ.


Death of St Paul

“But they declared their guilt or error was simply this -- on a fixed day they used to meet before dawn and recite a hymn among themselves to Christ, as though he were a god. So far from binding themselves by oath to commit any crime, they swore to keep from theft, robbery, adultery, breach of faith, and not to deny any trust money deposited with them when called upon to deliver it. This ceremony over, they used to depart and meet again to take food -- but it was of no special character, and entirely harmless. They also had ceased from this practice after the edict I issued -- by which, in accord with your orders, I forbade all secret societies.

“I then thought it the more needful to get at the facts behind their statements. Therefore I placed two women, called "deaconesses," under torture, but I found only a debased superstition carried to great lengths, so I postponed my examination, and immediately consulted you. This seems a matter worthy of your prompt consideration, especially as so many people are endangered. Many of all ages and both sexes are put in peril of their lives by their accusers; and the process will go on, for the contagion of this superstition has spread not merely through the free towns, but into the villages and farms. Still I think it can be halted and things set right. Beyond any doubt, the temples -- which were nigh deserted -- are beginning again to be thronged with worshipers; the sacred rites, which long have lapsed, are now being renewed, and the food for the sacrificial victims is again finding a sale -- though up to recently it had almost no market. So one can safely infer how vast numbers could be reclaimed, if only there were a chance given for repentance.

Trajan to Pliny: “You have adopted the right course, my dear Pliny, in examining the cases of those cited before you as Christians; for no hard and fast rule can be laid down covering such a wide question. The Christians are not to be hunted out. If brought before you, and the offense is proved, they are to be punished, but with this reservation -- if any one denies he is a Christian, and makes it clear he is not, by offering prayer to our gods, then he is to be pardoned on his recantation, no matter how suspicious his past. As for anonymous pamphlets, they are to be discarded absolutely, whatever crime they may charge, for they are not only a precedent of a very bad type, but they do not accord with the spirit of our age.”

Marcus Aurelius’s Persecution of Christians


Marcus Aurelius

Although his philosophy dovetailed with many Christian doctrines Marcus Aurelius persecuted Christian because it is said they were regarded as a threat to the empire. This is perhaps the most striking example of the fact that the emperor’s sense of duty was not always in harmony with the highest welfare of people. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~\]

By Marcus Aurelius’s time, Christianity had found its way throughout the eastern and western provinces. It was at first received by the common people in the cities. As it was despised by many, it was the occasion of bitter opposition and often of popular tumults. The secret meetings of the Christians had given rise to scandalous stories about their practices. They were also regarded as responsible in some way for the calamities that inflicted the Roman Empire during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. \~\

Since the time of Nero, the policy of the rulers toward the new sect had varied. But the best of the emperors had hitherto been cautious like Trajan, or tolerant like Hadrian, or openly friendly like Antoninus. But Marcus Aurelius sincerely believed that the Christians were the cause of the popular tumults, and that the new sect was dangerous to the public peace. He therefore issued an order that those who denied their faith should be let alone, but those who confessed should be put to death. The most charitable judgment which can be passed upon this act is that it was the result of a great mistake made by the emperor regarding the character of the Christians and their part in disturbing the peace of society. \~\

Decian Persecution


Decius

The short but furious Decian persecution resulted from an edict issued in A.D. 250 by the Emperor Decius ordering everyone in the Roman Empire to perform a sacrifice to the Roman gods and the well-being of the Emperor. The edict ordered that the sacrifices be performed in the presence of a Roman magistrate, and a signed and witnessed certificate be issued to that effect. It was the first time that Christians had faced legislation forcing them to choose between their religious beliefs and death, although there is no evidence that Decius' edict was specifically intended to target Christians. The edict appears to have been designed more as an Empire-wide loyalty oath. Nevertheless, a number of Christians were put to death for refusing to perform the sacrifices, many others apostatized and performed the ceremonies, and others went into hiding. The effects were long-lasting and caused tension between Christians who had performed the sacrifices or fled and those who had not, and left bitter memories of persecution. [Source: Wikipedia]

About 250 A.D., during the Decian persecution, persons suspected of Christianity were obliged to clear themselves by sacrificing to the old gods, then taking out a certificate to protect themselves against further legal proceedings. This example below comes from a papyrus found at Oxyrhyncus (in Egypt, 160 kilometers siuth of present-day Cairo). [Source: William Stearns Davis, ed. Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources, 2 Vols. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-1913), Vol. II: Rome and the West, p. 289, sourcebooks.fordham.edu].

To the Commissioners of Sacrifice of the Village of Alexander’s Island: From Aurelius Diogenes, the son of Satabus, of the Village of Alexander’s Island, aged 72 years: — scar on his right eyebrow. I have always sacrificed regularly to the gods, and now, in your presence, in accordance with the edict, I have done sacrifice, and poured the drink offering, and tasted of the sacrifices, and I request you to certify the same. Farewell.
— Handed in by me, Aurelius Diogenes.
— I certify that I saw him sacrificing [signature obliterated].
Done in the first year of the Emperor, Caesar Gaius Messius Quintus Trajanus Decius Pius Felix Augustus, second of the month Epith. [June 26, 250 A.D.]

Porphyry: Against the Christians


papyrus with records of the Decian persecutions

Porphyry (A.D. c. 234 – c. 305) was a leading "Neoplatonist", who sought to defend "reason". As Christianity spread, there was a strong, negative intellectual reaction to it among the classically oriented intellectuals.In the following passage, Porphyry attacks Christian unreason as reported by Eusebius. "Some persons, desiring to find a solution to the baseness of the Jewish Scriptures rather than abandon them, have had recourse to explanations inconsistent and incongruous with the words written, which explanations, instead of supplying a defense of the foreigners, contain rather approval and praise of themselves. For they boast that the plain words of Moses are "enigmas", and regard them as oracles full of hidden mysteries; and having bewildered the mental judgment by folly, they make their explanations." [Source: Eusebius, “Church History, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers,” 2nd Series, ed. P. Schaff and H. Wace, (repr. Grand Rapids MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1955), Vo1 I, pp. 265-266]

“"As an example of this absurdity take a man whom I met when I was young, and who was then greatly celebrated and still is, on account of the writings which he has left. I refer to Origen, who is highly honored by the teachers of these doctrines. For this man, having been a student of Ammonius, who had attained the greatest proficiency in philosophy of any in our day, derived much benefit from his teacher in the knowledge of the sciences; but as to the correct choice of life, he pursued a course opposite to his. For Ammonius, being a Christian, and brought up by Christian parents, when he gave himself to study and to philosophy straightway conformed to the life required by the laws.

“But Origen, having been educated as a Greek in Greek literature, went over to the barbarian recklessness. And carrying over the learning which he had obtained, he hawked it about, in his life conducting himself as a Christian and contrary to the laws, but in his opinions of material things and of the Deity being like a Greek, and mingling Grecian teachings with foreign fables. For he was continually studying Plato, and he busied himself with the writings of Numenius and Cronius, Apollophanes, Longinus, Moderatus, and Nicomachus, and those famous among the Pythagoreans. And he used the books of Chaeremon the Stoic, and of Cornutus. Becoming acquainted through them with the figurative interpretation of the Grecian mysteries, he applied it to the Jewish Scriptures."”

Christians Charged with Ritual Cannibalism

Octavius Minucius Felix (died A.D. c. 250), a Roman advocate, rhetorician, and Christian apologist, wrote: “And now, as wickeder things advance more fruitfully, and abandoned manners creep on day by day, those abominable shrines of an impious assembly are maturing themselves throughout the whole world. Assuredly this confederacy ought to be rooted out and execrated. They know one another by secret marks and insignia, and they love one another almost before they know one another; everywhere also there is mingled among them a certain religion of lust, and they call one another promiscuously brothers and sisters, that even a not unusual debauchery may by the intervention of that sacred name become incestuous: it is thus that their vain and senseless superstition glories in crimes. [Source: Minucius Felix, Octavius, R. E. Wallis, trans. in The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, N. Y.: The Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887), Vol. 4, pp. 177-178, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]


demon cannibalism from 1450

“Nor, concerning these things, would intelligent report speak of things so great and various, and requiring to be prefaced by an apology, unless truth were at the bottom of it. I hear that they adore the head of an ass, that basest of creatures, consecrated by I know not what silly persuasion, a worthy and appropriate religion for such manners. Some say that they worship the genitals of their pontiff and priest, and adore the nature, as it were, of their common parent. I know not whether these things are false; certainly suspicion is applicable to secret and nocturnal rites; and he who explains their ceremonies by reference to a man punished by extreme suffering for his wickedness, and to the deadly wood of the cross, appropriates fitting altars for reprobate and wicked men, that they may worship what they deserve.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.”

The charge of ritual cannibalism was probably based on confused accounts of the Christian eucharist. Hippolytus of Rome tells us what actually went on at a Christian service. This early eucharistic prayer still used in some churches dates from the beginning of the third century. In “Apostolic Tradition,” Hippolytus wrote: When one has been consecrated bishop all give him the kiss of peace . . . and the deacons bring him the offering . . . he lays hands upon it with all the priests and gives thanks, saying, "The Lord be with you." And all answer, "And with your spirit." "Lift up your hearts." "We have lifted them up to the Lord." "Let us give thanks to the Lord." "It is right and just." [Source: H. Achelis, Die Canones Hippolyti (Leipzig, 1881), pp. 48-55]

“And he thus continues, "We give thanks to you O God through your beloved son Jesus Christ whom in these last times you have sent to us as the redeemer and saviour and messenger of your will. He is your inseparable Word, through whom you created all things and who was acceptable to you. You sent him from heaven into the Virgin's womb and in her womb he was made man and was manifested your son, born of the Holy Spirit and of the Virgin. Fulfilling your will and buying for you a holy people, he stretched forth his hands when he suffered, that by his Passion he might deliver those who believed in you. When he was delivered over to his Passion of his own will, to destroy death, to break the bonds of the devil, to trample upon Hell, to enlighten the just, and to manifest his resurrection, taking bread and giving thanks to you, he said: Take and eat, this is my body which shall be broken for you. And taking likewise the cup, he said: This is my blood which shall be shed for you; when you do this, do it in memory of me.

"Mindful therefore of his death and resurrection, we offer you this bread and cup, giving thanks to you because you have found us worthy to stand before you and serve you. And we beg you to send the Holy Spirit upon the offering of the holy church and gather into one all who have received it . . . that we may praise and glorify you through your son Jesus Christ, through whom is glory and honor to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, in your holy church both now and forever. Amen."”

Decian Persecutions Backfire


Decian Christian persecution papyrus

Professor Wayne A. Meeks told PBS: “After a long period in which the persecutions of Christianity were really spasmodic, local, [and] involved very few people, suddenly in the middle of the 3rd century, the year 250, the Emperor Decius decides that Christians are a real enemy of the Roman order, that they must be dealt with empire-wide, with all the police power that the emperor can bring to bear upon them. And he issues a decree that everyone has to sacrifice to the Roman gods and they must produce a certificate signed by a Roman official that they have done so. [Source: Wayne A. Meeks, Woolsey Professor of Biblical Studies Yale University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]

“Why did this happen? Clearly, one of the things which this indicates is that Christianity, which begins with such tiny groups, scattered in various cities across the empire, have become numerous, they have become a significant segment of the population in many places. There is some evidence that in many towns in North Africa, the[y] may actually be a majority already. So they have come forcibly to the attention of the Emperor. At the same time, it clearly indicates that that counter-cultural tendency, which was one aspect of the self-understanding of Christians, from the very beginning..., they are the ones who worship, as Son of God, one who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, a Roman governor. This counter-cultural implication of their most fundamental beliefs still remains, and the Emperor has recognized this counter-cultural tendency and says, "This is dangerous - we can't have this large a group, which by the way, is also very highly organized, and, unlike other religious communities, is organized not just on a local basis, but is organized on an empire-wide basis. Something has to be done about it...."

“So, the Romans bring to bear all the power they have at their disposal. They say, "All right, let's hit the leaders. Let's find these bishops and bring them into court and force them to recant, and if they won't, we'll eliminate them."And so you have bishops fleeing to the countryside and you have others being martyred. You have ordinary people, for the first time, being rounded up, forced to sacrifice, or if they can buy a forgedcertificate of of sacrifice. There's some of those which have actually survived. And the odd thing is it fails.... The net effect of this is that a new cult of the martyrs appears in Christianity, which strengthens the the church, which feeds on anti-government sentiment in many segments of the empire, - those remote geographical areas distant from Rome which have always been suspicious of Rome. This simply brings those into the Christian fold and in many ways, it backfires. So the Decian persecution is very short-lived. <>

Diocletianic Persecution of Christians


Diocletien

Diocletian was a Roman emperor from A.D. 284 to 305. He was not regarded as a cruel and vindictive man, and was at first favorably disposed toward the Christians. But in the latter part of his reign he was induced to issue an edict of persecution against them. It is said that he was led to perform this infamous act by his assistant Galerius, who had always been hostile to the new religion, and who filled the emperor’s mind with stories of seditions and conspiracies. An order was issued that all churches should be demolished, that the sacred Scriptures should be burned, that all Christians should be dismissed from public office, and that those who secretly met for public worship should be punished with death. The persecution raged most fiercely in the provinces subject to Galerius; and it has been suggested that the persecution should be known by his name rather than by the name of Diocletian. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~\]

The Diocletianic Persecution (303–11) was Roman Empire’s last, largest, and bloodiest official persecution of Christianity. It failed to eliminate Christianity in the empire; indeed, after 324, Christianity became the empire's preferred religion under its first Christian emperor, Constantine. “Of the Manner in which the Persecutors Died” is a pamphlet listing the various persecutors of Christians, and how they died. It was written by Lactantius (A.D. c.240-c.320) and addressed to Donatus, (318 CE?). Here are some excerpts related to the Diocletianic Persecution period:

There are two authorities for the ten year period of the most intense persecution against the Christians, that initiated under Diocletian: Eusebius and Lactantius. These two men were contemporaries and eye-witnesses, the former in Phoenicia and Egypt, and the latter in Nicomedia. From them we get many details of the events leading up to the persecution edicts and decrees, as well as of the horrors and cruelty that took place once the persecution began.

Diocletian: Edicts of Persecution

Diocletian: Edicts Against The Christians: “(Hist. Ecc viii 2.) This was the nineteenth year of the reign of Diocletian in Dystrus (which the Romans call 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. [Source: Eusebius: Hist. Ecc., Book VIII, ch. 2, ch. 6 at end, and De Mart. Palest. ch- 3, ch. 4, and ch. 9 (ed. Dindorf, Vol. IV, p. 351, 357, 386, 390, 402). translated in University of Pennsylvania. Dept. of History: (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press [1897?-1907?]), Vol 4:, 1, pp. 26-28.]

“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.

“(Hist Ecc. viii 6.) Then as the first decrees were followed by others commanding that those in prison should be set free, if they would sacrifice, but that those who refused should be tormented with countless tortures; who could again at that time count the multitude of .martyrs throughout each province, and especially throughout Africa and among the race of the Moors, in Thebais and throughout Egypt, from which having already gone into other cities and, provinces, they became illustrious in their martyrdoms.

“(De Mart. Pal. ch. 3.) During the second year the war against us increased greatly. Urbanus was then governor of the province and edicts were first issued to him, in which it was commanded that all the people throughout the city should sacrifice and pour out libations to the idols.

“(De Mart. Pal. ch. 4.)...For in the second attack upon us by Maximinus, in the third year of the persecution against us edicts of the tyrant were issued for the first time that all the people should offer sacrifice and that the that the rulers of the city should see to this diligently and zealously. Heralds went through the whole city of Caesaream by the orders of the governor, summoning men, women and children to the temples of the idols, and in addition the chiliarchs were calling upon each one by name from a roll.

“(De Mart. Pal. ch. 9). All at once decrees of Maximinus again got abroad against everywhere throughout the province. The governors, and in addition the military prefects, incited by edicts, letters and and public ordinances the magistrates, together with generals and the city clerks in all the cities, to fulfill the imperial edicts which commanded that the altars of the idols should be rebuilt with all zeal and that all the men, together with the women and children, even infants at the breast, should offer sacrifice and pour out libations ; and these urged them anxiously, carefully to make the people taste of the sacrifices ; and that the viands in the market should be polluted by the libations of the sacrifices ; and that watches should be stationed before the baths, so as to defile those who washed in these with the all-abominable sacrifices.”


St Sebastion Reproving Diocletian by Paolo Veronese


Seizure of Christian Books by the Romans in A.D. 395

The historian William Stearns Davis wrote: “In the great persecution started by Diocletian, a special effort was made to seize all copies of the Christian scriptures, in the hope of depriving the persecuted sect of the means of preserving and propagating its doctrines. The following tells how the search for the books was conducted in Cirta, an important city of Numidia. [Source: William Stearns Davis, ed., “Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources,” 2 Vols. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-13), Vol. II: Rome and the West, 289-290]

On “How the Romans Tried to Seize Christian Books”, the “Deeds of Zenophilus” (A.D. 395) reports: “When the magistrates and a policeman, guided by the apostatizing secretaries of the bishop, came to the house of Felix the tailor, he brought out five books, and when they came to the house of Proiectus he brought out five big and two little books. Victor the schoolmaster brought out two books, and four books of five volumes each. Felix the "Perpetual Flamen" said to him: "Bring your scriptures out: you have more." Victor the schoolmaster said, "If I had had more I should have brought them out."

“When they came to the house of Eutychia who was a Caesarian [i.e., in the government service], the flamen said, "Bring out your books that you may obey the law." "I have none," he replied. "Your answer," said Felix the flamen, "is taken down."At the house of Coddeo, Coddeo's wife brought out six books. Felix said "Look and see if you have not got some more." The woman said, "I have no more." Felix said to Bos, the policeman, "Go in and see if she has any more." The policeman reported "I have looked and found none."

Of the Manner in which the Persecutors Died

“ Of the Manner in which the Persecutors Died” by Lactantius (A.D. c.240-c.320) reads: “Diocletian, as being of a timorous disposition, was a searcher into futurity, and during his abode in the East he began to slay victims, that from their livers he might obtain a prognostic of events; and while he sacrificed, some attendants of his, who were Christians, stood by, and they put the immortal sign on their foreheads. At this the demons were chased away, and the holy rites interrupted. The soothsayers trembled, unable to investigate the wonted marks on the entrails of the victims. They frequently repeated the sacrifices, as if the former had been unpropitious; but the victims, slain from time to time, afforded no tokens for divination. At length Tages, the chief of the soothsayers, either from guess or from his own observation, said, "There are profane persons here, who obstruct the rites." Then Diocletian, in furious passion, ordered not only all who were assisting at the holy ceremonies, but also all who resided within the palace, to sacrifice, and, in case of their refusal, to be scourged. And further, by letters to the commanding officers, he enjoined that all soldiers should be forced to the like impiety, under pain of being dismissed the service. Thus far his rage proceeded; but at that season he did nothing more against the law and religion of God. After an interval of some time he went to winter in Bithynia; and presently Galerius Caesar came thither, inflamed with furious resentment, and purposing to excite the inconsiderate old man to carry on that persecution which he had begun against the Christians. I have learned that the cause of his fury was as follows. [Source: “Of the Manner in which the Persecutors Died”by Lactantius (A.D. c.240-c.320 CE) addressed to Donatus, (318 CE?), J. Vanderspoel, Department of Greek, Latin and Ancient History, University of Calgary]

Chapter XI: “The mother of Galerius, a woman exceedingly superstitious, was a votary of the gods of the mountains. Being of such a character, she made sacrifices almost every day, and she feasted her servants on the meat offered to idols: but the Christians of her family would not partake of those entertainments; and while she feasted with the Gentiles, they continued in fasting and prayer. On this account she conceived ill-will against the Christians, and by woman-like complaints instigated her son, no less superstitious than herself, to destroy them. So, during the whole winter, Diocletian and Galerius held councils together, at which no one else assisted; and it was the universal opinion that their conferences respected the most momentous affairs of the empire. The old man long opposed the fury of Galerius, and showed how pernicious it would be to raise disturbances throughout the world and to shed so much blood; that the Christians were wont with eagerness to meet death; and that it would be enough for him to exclude persons of that religion from the court and the army. Yet he could not restrain the madness of that obstinate man. He resolved, therefore, to take the opinion of his friends. */*


Martydom and persecution of Christians


“Now this was a circumstance in the bad disposition of Diocletian, that whenever he determined to do good, he did it without advice, that the praise might be all his own; hut whenever he determined to do ill, which he was sensible would be blamed, he called in many advisers, that his own fault might be imputed to other men: and therefore a few civil magistrates, and a few military commanders, were admitted to give their counsel; and the question was put to them according to priority of rank. Some, through personal ill-will towards the Christians, were of opinion that they ought to be cut off, as enemies of the gods and adversaries of the established religious ceremonies. Others thought differently, but, having understood the will of Galerius, they, either from dread of displeasing or from a desire of gratifying him, concurred in the opinion given against the Christians. Yet not even then could the emperor be prevailed upon to yield his assent. He determined above all to consult his gods; and to that end he despatched a soothsayer to inquire of Apollo at Miletus, whose answer wa such as might be expected from an enemy of the divine religion. So Diocletian was drawn over from his purpose. But although he could struggle no longer against his friends, and against Caesar and Apollo, yet still he attempted to observe such moderation as to command the business to be carried through without bloodshed; whereas Galerius would have had all persons burnt alive who refused to sacrifice.” */*

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Forum Romanum forumromanum.org ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) forumromanum.org |+|; BBC Ancient Rome bbc.co.uk/history/ ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, oll.libertyfund.org ; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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