Christianity first comes to the forefront of society in the first three centuries A.D. It does this though under extreme duress, as any person who claimed to be a Christian faced persecution at the hands of the Roman emperors. It wasn’t until 313 AD, under the Emperor Constantine, that Christianity was officially recognized as an acceptable religion. Yet, despite the unfavorable conditions, the Christian faith survived and eventually came to play a prominent role in Roman society.
This can be directly attributed to the courage showed by the martyrs of this age, and the pride that the rest of the Christian people took in recognizing these martyrs. Also as the Roman juggernaut began to falter in the early centuries A.D. the great image of Rome became tarnished and its ideals questioned. To better understand how the Romans viewed the Christians and what the Christians faced in being persecuted, I shall use correspondences between the Church of Rome and the Church of Carthage, also letters from Pliny the Younger to the Emperor Trajan.
In addition I will put forth Christian writings in defense of their faith and accounts by the historian Tacitus. All will help to ascertain the reason for the persecutions of the Christian people in the Roman Empire during the first three centuries To fully understand the scope of the Christian persecutions, I believe it is necessary to have a knowledge of the background of Christianity. The introduction of Christianity to the Romans first occurs in the eastern part of the empire, this can be attributed to the preaching of Jesus. Jesus was said to be the son of God, and during his short life he developed a base of followers to continue his work after his death.
The base of the Christian faith is God, God is seen as the almighty power and creator of the world. He is a singularity who all Christians were to be loyal too. . It is said that by 250 A.D. only 2 per cent of the Roman empire was of Christian faith.1 It is easy to see how the Christian ideals conflicted with traditional Roman ways of thinking, and it is because of this that the spread of Christianity was not as rampant as one would assume.
The Roman empire was built on the idea that the people of Rome were loyal to the state and the emperor above all else. So it is easy to see how the upper hierarchy of Rome perceived Christianity as a threat to there control. Obviously an empire the size of the Romans had a vast ranging population, the better portion of which was probably of lower class. It was these lower class people who the Roman elite deemed most vulnerable to the Christian superstition.
In 180 A.D. a man named Celsus wrote an attack against Christianity in it he stated; “ that Christianity was only suitable for the most ignorant slaves, women and little children”. It was necessary to the Roman empire that its subjects be loyal to the emperor above all else, so the spread of a faith that preached loyalty to a higher power above all else required the emperors to take action. The first persecutions against the Christians’ occurred under the emperor Nero. In the year 64 A.D. there was a great fire in the city of Rome, most of the great city was gutted and people were looking for someone to blame. It was the belief of many that Nero himself ordered the fire started, for the purpose of rebuilding Rome in his name, to leave a legacy of some sort.
This did not sit well with the Roman people, Tacitus tells of Neros’ response; “ Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for there abominations, called Christians by the populace.” Using the Christians’ to divert blame from himself was successful, many were arrested, tried and convicted. Tacitus writes that they were not convicted for burning the city but the real reason was for “ … hatred against mankind….” and there punishment was cruel, “ Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beast, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt…”.
The emperor Nero turned the punishment into a public event, he opened up his gardens and socialized as they watched the deaths of many Christians’. This incident marked the beginning of many years of persecutions for the Christian people. During the second century A.D. the Christians’ were continually persecuted under the emperor Trajan. We get a good idea of the persecution process of this time from letters that are written from a provincial governor, Pliny the Younger7, to the emperor Trajan.
In one particular exchange Pliny writes to Trajan asking him advice on what to do with the Christian people he encounters in his province. Trajan’s response tells us the protocols of the trials and persecutions, he states; “… it is not possible to lay down any general rule to serve as a kind of fixed standard. They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished,…. whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it– that is, by worshipping our gods–even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance…. anonymously posted accusations ought to have no place in any The Christians’ that Pliny encounters he puts to trial.
In order to be pardoned it was not enough to just deny that you were a Christian, one would have to say the names of the Roman gods, also pay homage and worship a picture of the emperor and curse the name of Christ, all of which a Christian was said to be unable to do. If a person did meet these three requirements they were put to death, because it was thought that if they were not a Christian they deserved to be punished for stubbornness. In his letter Pliny also comments on the spread of Christianity, he states his concern is because; “many persons of every age, every rank, and also of both sexes are and will be endangered.
For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and I am sure that the empires’ reason for the persecutions was to curb the spread of the faith and discourage disloyalty to the emperor. But, against all odds, the persecution of the Christians seemed to have almost the opposite effect. Christians reveled in the role of the oppressed people, they believed to die as a martyr was a glorious end.
The martyrs’ were viewed as heroes and their stories were told to strengthen the resolve of the Christian people.11 In one such writing, a letter from the Church of Carthage to the Church of Rome, an account of the trial of Tascius Ciprianus, we see how the trials were conducted and how the martyrs handled themselves; -`Are you the one who has presented himself as the leader of a sacrilegious -` The most holy emperors bid you to sacrifice’. – ` Do what you have been ordered to do. In such a just case there is It is clearly evident that the Christians strongly believed in there faith and under no circumstances would they repent it as a misgiving. Each time an example was set by one of the martyrs it worked to strengthen the already growing support for Christianity.
A man named Tertullian put it best, he stated; “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of It seems as though the Christians succumbed to the persecutions without opposition or defence. But, that is not the case, they disputed the attacks on their faith by telling, “What we believe” and “What we are”.
Early on in the history of Christianity the Senate labeled the Faith as “strana et illicita(strange and unlawful)”16, the Christians disputed this claim in the Apologies(defenses),were they presented themselves as loyal law abiding Roman citizens. “ Christians are not different because of their country or the language they speak or the way they dress……. Yet they testify to a way which, in the opinion of the many, has something extraordinary about it”.
All of which is true they were foreigners in their own countries, loyal citizens who were treated as outsiders. The way the Christians thought towards their persecutors were also extraordinary; “They love everyone, yet are persecuted by everyone. No one really knows them , but all condemn them”.
Even though it seemed everyone was against them they still preached and practiced goodwill towards all men. Even those who sucumbed to the pressure and deserted the faith they did not disown but prayed for god By utilizing the ancient writings of the people of Rome, we gain a better understanding as to why the Christians and the Romans clashed so radically. It becomes evident that the Roman hierarchy felt threatened by the ideals brought forth from the Christian faith. Rome was a society based upon loyalty to the emperor above all else, Christianity did not allow this. To be a Christian one must be loyal to God above all other things.
The Christians did not disregard Roman law or custom, they still respected the empire, but they did not worship him as was to be done. So the Christians were persecuted in an attempt to curb the spread of the so called superstition. The Christian people faced these persecutions courageously, some even heroically, each time a person was martyred it only seemed to strengthen the Christians. The perseverance paid off as finally, in 313, the Christian religion was recognized as a legitimate religion in the eyes of the Roman emperor.
- Tacitus. The Annals. Translated by Alfred John Church and William Jackson.
- Pliny the Younger. Letters.
- Freeman, Charles. Egypt, Greece and Rome; Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
- Miller, Andrew. Church History. London: 1860, (November 27, 2000)
- The Christian Catacombs of Rome. n.d., (November 22, 2000)