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A new and malevolent superstition

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The first instance of the Roman State taking action against Christians arose in the reign of the Emperor Claudius

(41-54 A.D.). The historians Suetonius and Dio Cassius tell us that Claudius had to expel the Jews because they were

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continually arguing among themselves about a certain Chrestos. “Here we have first mention of the response to the

Christian message in the community of Rome,” comments Karl Baus.

The historian Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (70- ca.140) was a high-ranking official at the imperial courts of Trajan and

of Hadrian. He was a scholar and counsellor of the emperors. He justified this and future actions of the State against

Christians defining them as a “new and malicious superstition”; very harsh words.

As a “superstitio”, Christianity was linked to “magia”. For the Romans it was the same as the irrational practices

which magicians and witches of evil character used to deceive the ignorant populace who had no training in

philosophy. Magic was against reason and was common knowledge as opposed to philosophical knowledge.


accusation of magia (witchcraft), as well as that of insanity was a weapon with which the Roman State branded and

suppressed new and suspect groups in society, such as Christianity.

The word malefica (=bringer of evil) caught the popular and suspicious imagination of the populace which viewed this

(and everything new) as intrinsically dangerous. It was therefore the cause of evil and inseparable from plague, flood,

famine and invasion by the barbarians.

A group at the same time open yet inward looking and suspicious

The Roman Empire was (as it showed itself especially in its persecution of Christians) a great open body, disposed to

absorbing every new people that forsakes its characteristics, but also a closed and suspicious group. By the words

etnìa, ethnic group (in Greek éthnos), we mean a social group marked by the same language or culture and one

suspicious of every other group. Rome, with its social organisation of free people enjoying all rights and slaves with

none, of rich patricians and poor ordinary people (plebs), with the centre exploiting and the outlying areas exploited,

considered itself as the realisation of the dream of Alexander the Great: to unify mankind, to make every free person a

citizen of the world, and the empire a “universal assembly” (oikuméne) which coincided exactly with “human

Those who wished to live outside of this, to maintain their own identity and not to be absorbed with it, cut themselves

off from human civilisation. Rome had a great fear of these “strangers” and “dissidents” who might upset its security.

Since this “universal accord” had been established by the ferocious efficiency of its legions, Rome intended to

maintain it by the strength of the sword, of crucifixions, of condemnations to forced labour and by exile.

In a word, Rome used “ethnic cleansing” as a method of protecting the undisturbed peace of the “civilised world”.

Nero and the Christians as seen by the historian Tacitus.

In the year 64 a fire destroyed 10 of the 14 wards of Rome. The emperor Nero, accused by the people of being the

instigator of the fire, threw the blame on to the Christians. He began the first great persecution which lasted until 68

and saw perish, among others, the apostles Peter and Paul.

The great historian Tacitus Cornelius (54-120), senator and consul, described these events when, in the reign of

Trajan, he wrote his Annals. He accused Nero of having unjustly attacked the Christians, but declared himself

convinced that they merited the most severe punishments because of their superstitions from which sprang every

Did not even share in the compassion experienced by many people in seeing them tortured .. Here is the famous

“To cut short the public outcry, Nero had to find someone guilty, and blamed a race of men despised for the perversity

of their rites and commonly called Christians. The name comes from Christus (Christ), who was put to death when

Pontius Pilate was pro-Consul and Procurator of Judea. Now, this pernicious superstition has broken out anew, not

only in Judea, the place of origin of this scourge, but even in Rome, where all that is shameful and abominable comes

At first were arrested those who openly confessed their belief. Then, after their accusation, a great multitude were

imprisoned not just accused of having caused the fire, but because they were regarded as being burning with hatred

against the human race.They were put to death with refined cruelty, and Nero added scorn and derision to their

sufferings. Some were clad in the skins of wild beasts and thrown to the dogs to be devoured; others were nailed to

the cross, others burned alive, and still others covered with inflammable material which was then set on fire to serve as

torches after sunset. Nero allowed his gardens (on the Vatican hill) to be used for this spectacle, which also included

circus games. As he proclaimed the opening of the circus games, he himself, driving a chariot and dressed as a

charioteer, mingled with the crowds.”

Although these punishments were against a blameworthy people who merited such original torments, there arose a

sense of pity, since they had been sacrificed not for the common good but from the cruelty of the tyrant.” (XV,44)

Thus the Christians were believed by Tacitus as well to be a despicable people, capable of horrendous crimes. The

worst evil doings attributed to Christians were ritual infanticide (they spoke of the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, as the

killing and eating of a child !) and incest (clearly a travesty of the kiss of peace “between brothers and sisters” which

occurred in the celebration of the Eucharist). These accusations, based on popular gossip, were thus sanctioned by

imperial authority which persecuted and condemned Christians to death.

From this time on (Tacitus maintains) there was added to the burden of Christians, the accusation that they hated the

human race. Pliny the Younger, ironically, writes that with a similar accusation anyone could from now on be

We have scarce references of the persecution which struck the Christians in the year 89 under the emperor Domitian.

Of particular importance is the information given by the greek historian Dio Cassius, who became a praetor and

consul in Rome. In book 67 of his Roman History, he tells us that under Domitian they were accused and condemned

“for atheism” (ateòtes) the consul Flavius Clemens and his wife Domitilla, and with them many others who “had

The accusation of atheism, at this time, was thrown at those who did not consider as supreme deity, the imperial

majesty. Domitian, strictest restorer of centralised authority, arrogated to himself the highest worship, as centre and

It is worth noting that an intellectual like Dio Cassius designated as “atheism” the refusal to worship the emperor. It

meant that in Rome there was no concept of God separate from that of the imperial majesty. Those who thought

differently were regarded as gravely dangerous to “human civilisation”.

In 111 Pliny the Younger, governor of Bithynia on the Black Sea, was returning from an inspection of his rich and

well-populated province when a fire devastated his capital, Nicomedia. Much could have been saved, had there been

firemen.Pliny reported to the emperor Trajan (98-117): “It is up to you to decide whether it is necessary to create a

150-strong association of firemen. For my part, I will make sure that such an association will accept only firemen. . .”

Trajan replied rejecting the proposal: “Do not forget that your province is prone to societies of this kind. Whatever their

name or purpose, I do not wish to have people united in a body, who then, for whatever reason quickly become an

eterie. “The fear of the eterie (the greek name for associations) prevailed over the fires.

This was a phenomenon of ancient times. Associations of any type, which transformed themselves into political

groups, had pushed Caesar into forbidding all associations in 7 B.C.: “Whoever establishes an association without

special authorisation, is liable to the same penalty as those who, with armed forces, attack public places and

temples.” The laws were still in force, but the associations continued to flourish; the boatmen on the Seine, the doctors

of Avenches, the wine merchants of Lyons, the buglers of Lamesi. They all defended the interests of their members

putting pressure on the public authorities.

Pliny was not slow to apply the interdict on eterie to a particular case presented to him in 112. Bithynia was full of

Christians. “They are a crowd of people of all ages, and conditions, dispersed throughout the cities, in the villages and

the countryside,” he wrote to the Emperor. He goes on to tell of a complaint received from the makers of religious

amulets upset by the Christians who preached about the uselessness of such nicknacks. He had set up a special

inquiry and found out that they had “the habit of gathering on a fixed day, before sunrise to sing a hymn to Christ as

though to a god. They try to live justly, they oblige themselves by oath not to commit crimes, theft or robbery or adultery

or deceit with words. They have the custom of dining together, and in spite of what others may say, the food is ordinary

and harmless.” The Christians had not ceased having these meetings even after the governor had reissued the

interdict against eterie. Continuing the letter (10,96), Pliny assures the Emperor that he saw no malice in what they are

doing. However, the refusal to offer incense and wine before the statue of the Emperor seemed to him an act of public

sacrilege. The obstinacy of these Christians seemed “unreasonable and foolish”.

From the letter of Pliny it appears clear that the accusations of ritual infanticide and incest had been droped out as

absurd. There still remained the accusation of refusing to worship the Emperor (i.e. high treason) and of establishing

The Emperor replied, “The Christians ought not to be sought out by the authorities. If, however, they are denounced

and found guilty, they will have to be condemned.” In other words: Trajan encourages turning a blind eye to them: they

are a harmless eteria like the boatmen on the Seine or the wine merchants of Lyon. But since Christians are

practising an “unreasonable and foolish superstition” (as Pliny and other intellectuals of the time such as Epictetus

said) and continued to refuse to do emperor worship (and thus were considered “outcasts” from civic life), Pliny

should not pretend as if nothing happened. If they are denounced, they are to be condemned. Thus there continued the

policy (even if in less rigid form) of “It is not legal to be Christians”. Certainly victim in this period were Simeon, the

Bishop of Jerusalem, crucified at the age of 120, and Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, carried to Rome as a roman citizen

and executed there. The same policy towards Christians came to be adopted by the emperors Hadrian (117-138) and

Marcus Aurelius: Christianity is folly

Marcus Aurelius (161-180), philosopher emperor, spent 17 of the 19 years of his reign fighting. In his Memoirs, which

he wrote each night in his military tent, he recorded his thoughts “for himself”. He greatly despised Christianity. He

considered it folly since it proposed to the common, ignorant people a certain manner of conduct (universal love,

forgiveness, sacrifice for others without waiting for reward) which only philosophers such as himself could understand

and practise through long meditation and discipline.

His rescript of 176-7 prohibited fanatical sects, and the introduction of new cults so far unknown which might threaten

the state religion. The situation for Christians, always grave, became even worse under him.

The flourishing communities of Asia Minor founded by the Apostle Paul were liable day or night to robbery and plunder

by the mob. At Rome, Justin and a group of Christian intellectuals were condemned to death. The flourishing Christian

community of Lyon was destroyed by accusations of atheism and immorality. (There perished under severe torture the

very young Blandina and the fifteen year old Ponticus).

We realise that public opinion was hardening against the Christians. Great public calamities (such as war and plague)

had raised the conviction that the gods were angry with Rome. When it became known that the Christians did not take

part in the expiatory ceremonies ordered by the Emperor, popular wrath tried to find pretexts for raging against them.

This situation continued even into the first years of the emperor Commodus, son of Marcus Aurelius.


In the reign of Marcus Aurelius, the offensive of the intellectuals of Rome against the Christians reached its peak.

“Frequently and erroneously – writes Fabio Ruggiero – it is believed that the ancient world had combated the new faith

with the weapons of law and order, in a word, with the persecutions. If this is true (and only in part) for the first century

of the Christian era, it was no longer so in the second half of the second century. Both the gentile (=pagan) world and

the Church understood, about the same time, the necessity of discussion and dialogue on the level of philosophical

and theological argumentation. Ancient culture, trained for centuries in the subtleties of reasoning, could bring very

sophisticated arguments against Christian teaching. Soon enough the Church itself, taking account of the force which

classical thought could exert as a brake on the spread of the Gospel, understood the necessity of developing

genuinely Christian philosophical and theological thought. At the same time this must be expressed in a language and

in cultural categories intelligible to the graeco-roman world in which the Church was becoming more deeply involved.”

The lines of argument used by antichristian intellectuals

The arguments of Marcus Aurelius (121-180), Galenus(129-200), Lucian, Pellegrinus Proteus and especially Celsus

(all of whom wrote their works in the second half of the second century) can be summarised as follows:-

«”Salvation” from the insignificance of life, from disorder of events, from the annihilation of death, from sorrow, can be

found only in a “philosophical wisdom” on the part of a highly intelligent elite.

The answer which Christians gave to this “salvation” as “faith” in a man crucified (like a slave) in Palestine (a border

province) and declared to be risen, was folly. The fact that Christians believed in the message of this crucified one,

adopting a preference for the outcasts and poor (the dregs of humanity) and preaching brotherly love for everyone (in

a society tightly built in a pyramid and considered the ‘natural order’) was another intolerable folly, which everyone

rejected. Christians had to be eliminated as the adversaries of human civilisation.»

The criticism of antichristian intellectuals was marked by the same idea of “revelation from above”, not based on

“philosophical wisdom”; on Christian scriptures, which had contradicted history, and logic; on the “irrational”

teachings; on the actions of the LOGOS of God that became man (Gospel of John) and submitted himself to death as

a slave; on Christian morality (fidelity to marriage, honesty, respect for others, mutual help) which could be accepted

by a small number of philosophers, but certainly not by the vast number of ignorant poor.

All of Christian teaching, for these intellectuals, was folly, since the claim of resurrection is folly (i.e. the claim of life

after death), the preference God gave to the poor, and universal brotherly love. It.is all irrational.

The greek philosopher Celsus, in his True Discourse, wrote: «Accepting ignorant people, joining the vilest population,

the Christians bring down the honourable and the noble, and finally go as far as calling everyone brother and sister

The object of their veneration is a man on whom the most severe punishment was inflicted, and from the fatal wood of

the cross is made an altar, as it is suited for depraved and criminals»

For decades the Christians remained silent. They spread with the quiet force of the forbidden. With love and

martyrdom they answered the most infamous accusations. It was in the second century that their first apologists

(Justin, Athenagoras, Tatian) refuted with proofs the more outrageous of the charges, and sought to explain their faith

(born in the Semitic lands and couched in “stories”) in terms culturally acceptable to a world imbued with

graeco-roman philosophy. The “bricks” well suited to the message of Jesus Christ began to be organised into an

architectural structure which could be regarded as Graeco-roman. It would be Tertullian in the West and Origen in the

East (in the third century) who would impose systematic form on “Christian wisdom”. With the “building bricks” of the

message of Jesus Christ they would attempt to create the harmony of the roman basilica. With the passage of

centuries, it would become the daring of the Gothic cathedral, the solid calmness of the romanesque , the pomp of the


The Third Century saw Rome in very deep crisis. The relationship between Christianity and the roman empire

changed (even though not all noticed it).

This great crisis is described by the greek historian Herodian: «In the previous 200 years, there never was such a

quick succession of rulers, of civil wars, of wars against tribes on the borders and of great migrations of peoples.

There were innumerable attacks on cities within the Empire and in many barbarian countries, earthquakes and

pestilence, rulers and usurpers. Some were in charge for a long time, others held power for the briefest of periods.

Some were proclaimed emperor and crowned one day and overthrown the next.»

The Roman Empire had been gradually extended by the conquest of new provinces. This continuing expansion

allowed the exploitation of ever new and greater territory (Egypt was the granary of Rome, Spain and Gaul were its

vineyards and olive groves). Rome had seized ever newer mines (Dacia was conquered for its gold mines). The wars

of acquisition produced countless multitudes of slaves (prisoners of war), unpaid manpower.

Towards the middle of the 3rd century (ca 250) the party was over. In the East was formed the mighty Sassanid

empire which launched strong attacks on the Romans. In 260, the emperor Valerian and his whole army of 70,000

men were captured and the provinces of the East laid waste. Plague devastated the surviving legions and overflowed

the empire. In the North was formed another alliance of strong peoples: the Goths spread over Malaya and Dacia. The

Emperor Decius and his army were massacred. The Goths spread devastation from the North as far as Sparta,

Athens and Ravenna. The piles of rubble they left were terrible. Most of the people of culture lost their lives or were

taken into slavery, and could not be replaced. Life returned to a primitive and savage state. Agriculture and commerce

In this time of great uncertainty, the security guaranteed by the State collapsed. Now were the gentiles (=pagans) to

become “irrational”, no longer having confidence in the imperial order but in the protection of the strangest and most

mysterious gods. On the Quirinal rose a temple to the Egyptian goddess Isis. The emperor Elagabulus imposed the

worship of the sun-god, the people had recourse to magical rites to drive away plague. Yet even in the Third Century

there were terrible persecutions of the Christians. No longer was it because of their “irrationality” (in a sea of people

confiding in magical rites, Christianity was the only rational system) but in the name of renewed ethnic cleansing.

Many emperors (although barbarians by birth) saw in a return to centralised unity the only hope of salvation. So they

decreed the extermination of the ever more numerous Christians so as to expel from the roman ethnic group, this

“extraneous body” which was more and more seen as a different ethnic group ready to take over the empire founded

on force of arms, robbery and violence and now in decline.

Septimius Severus, Maximin the Thracian, Decius and Gallus.

With Septimius Severus (193-211), founder of the Syriac dynasty there seemed to be announced for Christianity a

phase of undisturbed development. Christians occupied influential positions at court. Only in the tenth year of his reign

(202) did the emperor radically change his stance. In 202 appeared an edict of Septimius Severus which prescribed

grave penalties for those who became converts to Judaism or to Christianity. The emperor’s sudden change can only

be understood by assuming that he realized that in striving strongly for religious unity for the whole of society

throughout the world. They were therefore suspect.

The damage was most obvious in the abolition of the celebrated Christian School of Alexandria and the Christian

Maximin the Thracian (235-238) reacted violently and coarsely against the friends of his predecessor Alexander

Severus, who had been tolerant towards Christians. He threw the Church of Rome into confusion with the deportation

to the mines in Sardinia of the two leaders of the Christian community, bishop Pontian and the presbyter Hippolytus.

The attitude of the mob towards Christians had not changed. There was launched in Cappadocia a true and proper

hunt for Christians when they seemed to be to blame for an earthquake. This popular reaction tells us that the

Christians were still considered in general as “strangers and malefactors” (cf. K Baus, Le origini, p 282-287).

Under the emperor Decius (249-251) there was let loose the first systematic persecution of the Church, aimed at

finally wiping them out. Decius (successor of Philip the Arab who was very favourable to Christians and may even

have been one himself), was originally a senator from Pannonia, and was very attached to roman traditions. Being

deeply conscious of the pollitical and econbmic break up of the empire, he believed that would restore unity by

gathering all the energies of the protectors of the state. All the inhabitants were required to sacrifice to the gods, after

which they would receive a certificate. Those who refused this act of submission were arrested, tortured and executed.

At Rome at Roòe were executed bishop Fabian and with him many priests and laity. At Alexandria there was a

persecution accompanied by plundering. In Asia the martyrs were numerous: the bishops of Pergamum, Antioch and

Jerusalem. The great scholar Origen was subjected to inhuman torture and survived the sufferings for four years

Not all Christians endured suffering. Many agreed to sacrifice. Others, by bribes, secretly obtained the famous

certificates. Among them, according to letter 67 of Cyprian, there were two Spanish bishops. The persecution which

had seemed the death blow for the Church, ended with the demise of Decius in battle against the Goths on the plains

of Dobrugia (Romania). (cfr. M Clèvenot, I Cristiani e il potere, p. 179s). The next seven years (250-257) were ones of

tranquillity for the Church, disturbed only at Rome by the outbreak of persecution when Trebonianus Gallus (251-253)

had the head of the Christian community arrested and exiled to Centum Cellae (Civitavecchia). The conduct of Gallus

was probably a giving in to the mood of the people, who blamed the Christians for the outbreak of disease

devastating the empire. The Christians were still seen as “superstitious”, strange and malicious! (cf. K. Baus, Le

Valerian and the financial state of the empire.

In the fourth year of the reign of Valerian (257) something unforeseen occurred, a severe and bloody persecution of

the Christians, However, it was not due to religion but rather to money. Because of the precarious situation of the

Empire, the imperial counsellor (and later usurper) Macrianus persuade Valerian to confiscate the goods of wealthy

Christians. There were illustrious martyrs (from bishop Cyprian and pope Sixtus II, to the deacon Lawrence). However,

it was simply robbery under the pretext of ideological motives, and ended with the tragic death of Valerian. In 259 he

and all his army fell prisoners to the Persians. He was reduced to life as a slave and died.

The forty years of peace which followed, favoured the internal and external development of the Church. Several

Christians reached high office in the State and proved themselves capable and honest.

Financial disaster falls into the lap of Diocletian

In 271, the emperor Aurelian ordered his soldiers and roman citizens to abandon to the Goths the vast province of

Dacia with its gold mines. The defence of this territory would cost by then too much blood.

Since there were no more provinces to conquer and despoil, all attention was focused on the ordinary citizen. On them

fell taxes, the ever-more onerous chores (maintenance of aqueducts, canals, sewers, roads, public buildings. . .). They

literally did not know how they would manage to survive and pay the taxes. In 284, after a brilliant military career,

Diocletian, of Dalmatian origin, was proclaimed emperor. Now the taxes would have to be paid per testa (head)and

per jugero i.e. for each individual and for each unit of land under cultivation.

The collection was entrusted to a shrewd and lumbering bureaucracy, which ensured it was impossible to avoid the

payment. It punished inhumanly those who tried and was very costly to the state.

The taxes were so heavy that they took away all incentive to work. Remedy: it was forbidden to abandon one’s job, the

piece of soil one cultivated, the workshop or military service.

«This was just the beginning – wrote F. Oertel, professor of ancient history at the University of Bonn – of the oppressive

measures of the State which squeezed the last drop from the population. . . Under Diocletian, a complete socialist

state was brought into being: terrorism by officials, severe limitation of individual freedom, progressive state

Persecution by Galerius in the name of Diocletian.

In the first twenty years of the reign of Diocletian we see no molesting of Christians.

In 303, with a change of scene, the last great persecution of Christians began. «It was the work of Galerius, the

“Caesar” of Diocletian – wrote F. Ruggiero – in 303 he put an end to the prudent policies of Diocletian, which were

restrained although he held to traditional feelings, and went over to intransigent and intolerant acts.» Four consecutive

edicts (February 303 – February 304) imposed on Christians the destruction of their churches, confiscation of their

goods, the handing over of sacred books, torture and even death for those who would not sacrifice to the emperor.

As always, it is difficult to determine what motives induced Diocletian to approve a policy of this kind. We suppose it

was pressure from the fanatical pagans who supported Galerius. In a situation of “widespread anguish” (as Dodds

calls it), only return to the ancient faith of Rome, according to Galerius and his friends, could save the people and

persuade them to make such sacrifices. It required a return to the vetera instituta, i.e. to the ancient laws and

The persecution reached its greatest intensity in the Orient, especially in Syria, Egypt and Asia Minor. To Diocletian

who abdicated in 305, there succeeded as “Augustus” Galerius and as “Caesar” Maximin Daia who showed himself

Only in 311, six days before he died of cancer of the throat, did Galerius grudgingly issue a decree ending the

persecution. With this document (which finally signalled the freedom to be Christian), Galerius deplored the obstinacy

of Christians who mostly refused to turn to the religion of ancient Rome. He declared that to persecute Christians any

more was futile, and he exhorted them to pray to their God for the health of the emperor.

Commenting on this decree, F. Ruggiero, wrote: «The Christians had been an extremely anomalous enemy. For more

than two centuries, Rome had sought to absorb them into its social fabric. . . Physically within the civitas Romana, but

in many ways outside of it» they had finally brought about «a radical transformation of the civitas itself into something

The final systematic persecutions of the Third and Fourth Centuries were as ineffective as the sporadic ones of the

First and Second Centuries. The ethnic cleansing invoked and upheld by the Graeco-roman intellectuals was never

Because the indignant accusations of Celsus («Gathering ignorant people, belomging to the vilest population, the

Christians bring down the honourable and the noble, and finally go so far as to call people brother and sister without

distinction. ») in the long run became the best eulogy for Christians. It recalled the dignity of each individual, even the

lowliest and their equality before God (the most revolutionary point in the Christian message). This had imperceptibly

Cite this A new and malevolent superstition

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