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Persecutions

Kyle Sokul

453516

History 114, Dr. Kalinowsk

Christian Persecutions

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 wasnt 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

A.D.

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”.2 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.3 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.”4 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….”5

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…”.6 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. Trajans 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

prosecution”8

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.9 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

farms.”.10

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,12 we see how the trials

were conducted and how the martyrs handled themselves;

“-‘Are you Tascius Ciprianus?

Bishop Cyyprian answered:

-‘Yes I am.

Proconsul Galerius Maximus said:

-‘Are you the one who has presented himself as the leader of a sacrilegious

sect

Bishop Cyprian answered:

-‘ I am

Galerius Maximus said:

-‘ The most holy emperors bid you to sacrifice.

Proconsul Galerius Maximus said:

-‘ Think it over.

Bishop Cyprian answered:

– ‘ Do what you have been ordered to do. In such a just case there is

nothing to think over.”13

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

the Church.”.14

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”.15 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”.17 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”.18 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

to forgive them.

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.

Bibliography

Bibliography

Primary Sources

1. Tacitus. The Annals. Translated by Alfred John Church and William Jackson.

2. Pliny the Younger. Letters.

Books and Articles

1. Freeman, Charles. Egypt, Greece and Rome; Civilizations of the Ancient

Mediterranean. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

2. Miller, Andrew. Church History. London: 1860,

, (November 27, 2000)

3. The Christian Catacombs of Rome. n.d.,

, (November 22, 2000)

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