Christian History Home > 1990 > Issue 27 > Persecution in the Early Church: A Gallery of the Persecuting Emperors
Persecution in the Early Church: A Gallery of the Persecuting Emperors
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From A.D. 30 to A.D. 311, a period in which 54 emperors ruled the Empire, only about a dozen took the trouble to harass Christians. Furthermore, not until Decius (249–251) did any deliberately attempt an Empire-wide persecution. Until then, persecution came mainly at the instigation of local rulers, albeit with Rome’s approval. Nonetheless, a few emperors did have direct and, for Christians, unpleasant dealings with this faith. Here are the most significant of those rulers.
Perhaps the first to persecute Christians—inadvertently
Sickly, ill-mannered, and reclusive, Claudius devoted his early days to the quiet study of Etruscan and Carthaginian history, among other subjects. Understandably, he was an embarrassment to the activist imperial family. But the murder of his nephew, the emperor Gaius, in 41 propelled him to the throne nonetheless. During his reign, he wisely avoided potentially costly foreign wars, extended Roman citizenship at home, and showed tolerance toward a variety of religions.
However, “since the Jews were continually making disturbances at the instigations of Chrestus, he [Claudius] expelled them from Rome.… ” So writes the Roman historian Suetonius about events in Rome around 52. “Chrestus” may have been a thorn in the side of Roman politicos anxious to be rid of him and his cohorts. Or “Chrestus” may be the way uninformed bureaucrats pronounced the name about which Jews argued: Christus. Such arguments between Jews and Christians were not unknown (e.g., in Ephesus; Acts 19). Claudius likely and inadvertently was the first emperor, then, to persecute Christians (who were perceived as a Jewish sect)—for, it seems, disturbing the peace.
Savage madman in whose reign Peter and Paul were martyred
Nero, a man with light blue eyes, thick neck, protruding stomach, and spindly legs, was a crazed and cruel emperor, a pleasure-driven man who ruled the world by whim and fear. It just goes to show the difference an upbringing makes.
His mother, the plotting Agrippina, managed to convince her husband, Claudius, to adopt her son Nero and put him, ahead of Claudius’ own son, first in line for the throne. Maternal concern not satisfied, she then murdered Claudius, and Nero ruled the world at age 17.
The young Nero, having been tutored by the servile philosopher and pedophile Seneca, was actually repulsed by the death penalty. But he resourcefully turned this weakness into strength: he eventually had his mother stabbed to death for treason and his wife Octavia beheaded for adultery. (He then had Octavia’s head displayed for his mistress, Poppaea, whom years later he kicked to death when she was pregnant ) The Senate made thank offerings to the gods for this restoration of public morality.
Unfortunately, that is but the tip of the bloody and treacherous iceberg of Nero’s reign. Yet such activities overshadow the few constructive things he attempted, albeit without success: the abolition of indirect taxes (to help farmers), the building of a Corinthian canal, and the resettlement of people who had lost their homes in the Great Fire of Rome in 64.
Nero tried to pin the blame for that fire on the city’s small Christian community (regarded as a distinct, dissident group of Jews), and so, appropriately, he burned many of them alive. Peter and Paul were said to have been martyred as a result. But the rumors persisted that Nero had sung his own poem “The Sack of Troy” (he did not “fiddle”) while enjoying the bright spectacle he had ignited. That business about singing was not unreasonable, for Nero had for years made a fool of himself by publicly playing the lyre and singing before, literally, command performances.
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