Persecution in the Early Church: A Gallery of the Persecuting Emperors
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.
Political turmoil finally forced the troubled emperor to commit suicide. His last words were, “What a showman the world is losing in me!”
Does Revelation depict him as a hideous beast?
The historian Pliny called Domitian the beast from hell who sat in its den, licking blood. In the Book of Revelation, John of the Apocalypse may have referred to Domitian when he described a beast from the abyss who blasphemes heaven and drinks the blood of the saints.
Domitian repelled invasions from Dacia (modern-day Rumania)—something later emperors would have increasing difficulty doing. He also was a master builder and adroit administrator, one of the best who ever governed the Empire. Suetonius, who hated Domitian, had to admit that “he took such care to exercise restraint over the city officials and provincial governors that at no time were these more honest or just.”
But there was something wrong with Domitian. He enjoyed catching flies and stabbing them with a pen. He liked to watch gladiatorial fights between women and dwarfs. And during his reign he was so suspicious of plots against his life, the number of imperial spies and informers proliferated, as did the number of casualties among suspect Roman officials.
Domitian was the first emperor to have himself officially titled in Rome as “God the Lord.” He insisted that other people hail his greatness with acclamations like “Lord of the earth,” “Invincible,” “Glory,” “Holy,” and “Thou Alone.”
When he ordered people to give him divine honors, Jews, and no doubt Christians, balked. The resulting persecution of Jews is well-documented; that of Christians is not. However, the beast that the author of Revelation describes, as well as the events in the book, are perhaps best interpreted as hidden allusions to the rule of Domitian. In addition, Flavius Clemens, consul in 95, and his wife, Flavia Domitilla, were executed and exiled, respectively, by Domitian’s orders; many historians suspect this was because they were Christians.
But what goes around, comes around. An ex-slave of Clemens, Stephanus, was mobilized by some of Domitian’s enemies and murdered him.
Skilled ruler who established policies for treating Christians
So well did Trajan rule that senators and emperors of the later Empire wished that new emperors should be “more fortunate than Augustus, better than Trajan.”
Trajan began his rule intent on conquests that would excel those of his hero Julius Caesar. Although he did not succeed, his conquest of Dacia turned out to be the last major conquest of ancient Rome.
Between military campaigns, Trajan found time to be an effective, albeit conservative, civilian administrator, protecting the privileges of the senate. He is also known for the impressive public works he undertook, especially his Aqua Trajana, the last of the aqueducts to serve Rome; Trajan’s Baths, which included soaring concrete arches, apses, and vaults; and the complex and magnificent Forum of Trajan.
A series of letters with Bithynian governor Pliny display Trajan’s concern for the welfare of the provinces. Unfortunately for Christians, this concern was combined with suspicious preoccupation with state security and a tendency to interfere in internal affairs of ostensibly self-governing cities. In one letter he tells Pliny how to deal with Christians “They are not to be hunted out. [Although] any who are accused and convicted should be punished, with the proviso that if a man says he is not a Christian and makes it obvious by his actual conduct—namely, by worshiping our gods—then, however suspect he may have been with regard to the past, he should gain pardon from his repentance. ”
Even though relatively temperate, the great Trajan became the first emperor known to persecute Christians as fully distinct from the Jews. Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, was perhaps the best known to have suffered death during his reign.
Marcus Aurelius (161–180)
Great Stoic philosopher whose reign fueled anti-Christian hostilities
Marcus Aurelius actively pursued military campaigns nearly his entire reign. From 161 to 167, Rome battled the invading Parthians in Syria. To repel Germanic tribes who were marauding Italy and then retreating across the Danube, Marcus personally conducted a punitive expedition from 167–173. On an expedition to extend Rome’s northern borders, he suddenly died in 180 at his military headquarters.
This is not, of course, the Marcus Aurelius we’ve come to know and love. That Marcus ruminated eloquently in his philosophical Meditations. Having converted to Stoicism early in life, these personal reflections display lofty and bracing austerity: we must show patient long-suffering; our existence on this earth is fleeting and transitory. Yet, there is also this humane strain in Marcus: all men and women share the divine spark, so they are brothers and sisters. “Men exist for each other,” he wrote. “Then either improve them, or put up with them.”
As for himself, he tried to improve them. It was during his reign that the Institutes of Gaius, an elementary handbook about which our modern knowledge of classical Roman law is based, was written. Also, numerous measures were taken to soften the harshness of the law against the weak and helpless.
Except those Christians. Officially, Marcus took the position of his predecessor Trajan, also followed by Hadrian and Antoninus Pius. But his philosophical mentors convinced him that Christianity was a dangerous revolutionary force, preaching gross immoralities.
So under Marcus, anti-Christian literature flourished for the first time, most notably Celsus’s The True Doctrine. More regrettably, Marcus allowed anti-Christian informers to proceed more easily than in the past, with the result that fierce persecutions broke out in various regions. In Lyons in 177, the local bishop was martyred, bringing Irenaeus to the office. In addition, Justin, the first Christian philosopher, was martyred during Marcus’s reign.
During the reign of the magnanimous, philosopher-king Marcus Aurelius, then, Christian blood flowed more profusely than ever before.
Septimius Severus (193–211)
Consummate soldier in whose reign Perpetua was killed
Severus was a soldier, first and last. He militarily dispensed with Pescennius Niger, rival emperor in the east, in 195, and then with Clodius Albinus in 197, rival emperor in the West. In 208 he set out for Britain to shore up its defenses, and on that trip succumbed to illness in 211. At death, he is said to have summoned his two sons, Caracalla and Geta, and said, “Keep on good terms with each other, be generous to the soldiers, and take no heed of anyone else.”
That generosity to soldiers was one of Severus’s trademarks. During his reign he raised their pay 67 percent and ennobled the military so that it became a promising path for many different careers. In addition, the deity most popular with soldiers, the sun-god Mithras, began to edge out the competition in the Roman pantheon.
During the first part of his reign, Severus was not unfriendly toward Christians. Some members of his household, in fact, professed the faith, and he entrusted the rearing of his son, Caracalla, to a Christian nurse.
However, in 202 Severus issued an edict that forbade further conversions to Judaism and Christianity. A persecution followed, especially in North Africa and Egypt. The North African theologian Tertullian penned his famous apologetic works during this period, but to no avail. Among others, the dramatic martyrdom of Perpetua and her servant Felicitas occurred under Severus. Clement of Alexandria also perished, as did the father of Origen. (Tradition holds that Origen, in his youthful ardor, wished to share his father’s fate, but his resourceful mother prevented his leaving the house by hiding his clothes. )
But the persecution ended at Severus’s death, and except for a brief bout under Maximinus (235–238), Christians were free from persecution for some 50 years.
Leader of the first Empire-wide persecution
For decades, Roman emperors had become increasingly concerned with the ragged edges of the Empire and the invading barbarian tribes that harassed them. Decius, from a village near the Danube, at the northern frontier of the Empire, recognized the military dimensions of the problem but perceived some spiritual ones as well.
He was concerned that traditional polytheism was weakening, and thought a resurrection of devotion to the deified Roman rulers of the past would help restore Roman strength. Naturally, monotheistic Christians stood in the way.
Although they still constituted a small minority, their efficient and self-contained organization, with no need of the state, irritated him. Consequently, Decius became the first emperor to initiate an Empire-wide persecution of Christians, apparently one with intensity. After executing Pope Fabian he is said to have remarked, “I would far rather receive news of a rival to the throne than of another bishop of Rome.”
Although he did not actually order Christians to give up their faith, he did expect them to perform one pagan religious observance. When undertaken, Christians would receive a Certificate of Sacrifice (libellus) from the local Sacrificial Commission and so be cleared of suspicion of undermining the religious unity of the Empire.
As expected, many Christians succumbed to this pressure; others paid bribes to receive the certificate. But many refused to compromise and died as a result. Origen was arrested and tortured during this time. Though released, he died within a few years.
Decius, a not-incompetent general, died in Scythia Minor (in modern-day Bulgaria and Rumania) while engaging in battle, the other tactic he thought necessary to shore up the troubled Empire.
He blamed Christians for the Empire’s woes
Valerian seems to have been honest and well intentioned, but he inherited an empire nearly out of control. Plague and civil strife raged within the provinces. At the eastern borders, Germanic tribesmen invaded with greater efficiency and more numbers. Meanwhile, attacks from the north were underway. Valerian, recognizing that one emperor could not simultaneously defend north and east, extended in 256–257 the principle of collegiate rule to his son and colleague Gallienus, who was already fully occupied to the north.
To divert attention from the troubles that beset the Empire, Valerian blamed the Christians. In August 257 he intensified Decius’s policies by ordering clergy to sacrifice to the gods of the state (although, with usual Roman pragmatism, they were not prohibited from worshiping Jesus Christ in private.) A year later clergy became liable to capital punishment. Pope Sixtus II and St. Lawrence were subsequently burned to death in Rome, and Cyprian was executed at Carthage. In addition, the property of Christian laity, especially that of senators and equites (a class immediately below senators) was confiscated, and Christian tenants of imperial estates were condemned to the mines.
In 259, the Persians, under Shapur I, launched a second series of attacks in Mesopotamia. (In the first, 254–256, they had captured and plundered 37 cities.) Valerian took an army into Mesopotamia to drive Shapur back from the beseiged city of Edessa. However, in May 260, Valerian was taken prisoner. In Michael Grant’s words, “The capture of a Roman emperor by a foreign foe was an unparalleled catastrophe, the nadir of Roman disgrace.”
Fortunately, soon after Valerian’s capture, in an attempt to win the favor of eastern Christians against the Persians, Gallienus lifted the edicts against Christians.
Gifted organizer who led the Great Persecution to extinguish Christiantiy
Diocletian was the most remarkable imperial organizer since Augustus, and that talent, unfortunately, was not lost on Christians.
He is most famous for his reconstruction of the Empire into a Tetrarchy. The Empire was divided between four men, two Augusti and, under them, two Caesars. However, the multiplying of ruling authorizes did not ease the transition of rulers, as Diocletian had hoped, but only made for more strife.
Diocletian also presided over a complete reconstruction of the Empire’s military system, which included the garnering of enormous taxes to pay for its half-million soldiers, a huge increase from the previous century. He tried to insure that tax burdens were equitably distributed, but for all its fairness, the new system tended to freeze people in their professions and social positions, and led, on paper, to a thoroughgoing totalitarian state (in practice, however, there was no way to fully implement the new rules).
Diocletian’s gift for mass organization, unfortunately, extended to things religious and patriotic. In 303, encouraged by his Caesar Galerius, and attempting to rouse patriotic feeling, Diocletian returned to hounding Christians, even though his wife, Prisca, belonged to the faith.
It was the first time in almost 50 years that an emperor had taken the trouble. Yet, as never before, the motive of this Great Persecution was the total extinction of Christianity. It was, it seems, the final struggle between the old and new orders, and therefore the fiercest.
The first of Diocletion’s edicts prohibited all Christian worship and commanded that churches and Christian books be destroyed. Two further edicts, required in the eastern provinces, ordered clergy to be arrested unless they sacrificed to pagan deities. By 304 this edict was extended to all Christians and was particularly vicious in Africa, under Diocletian co-Augustus Maximian.
After a serious illness in 304, Diocletian took the unprecedented step of abdicating the throne. Although called back for a brief period, he retired to farming in Salonae in Dalmatia (in modern-day Yugoslavia). The persecutions continued under Galerius, now promoted to Augustus. But falling seriously ill in 311, Galerius and his fellow emperors issued an edict canceling the persecution of Christians. The following year, Constantine emerged triumphant in the West after the battle at the Milvian Bridge. In 313 he and Licinius, soon to control the Eastern Empire, issued the Edict of Milan, which decreed full legal toleration of Christianity.
For all intents and purposes, no Roman emperor harassed Christians again.
Mark Galli is associate editor of Leadership Journal.
Copyright © 1990 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Christian History.