Persecution in the Roman Empire was not, as is widely supposed, a constsant experience for Christians. Rather, it was sporadic, spaced sometimes by long periods of relative tranquility. The first long peace lasted from 211 to 250 (briefly interrupted in 235), and the second from 258 to 303.

Diocletian, the emperor who launched the “Great Persecution,” was a somewhat reluctant persecutor, the main thrust coming from his junior colleague Galerius.

Persecution was not always Empire-wide; more often, particularly in the first two centuries, it was localized.

Inflamed rumors, perhaps based on the early Christians’ observance of the Eucharist and love feasts, accused believers of cannibalism and incest.

Many Christians lapsed (i.e., compromised their faith by complying with imperial directives or cooperating with government authorities) under the threat of persecution. The numbers of those who fell away produced a crisis for the church in the 250s. Eventually the question of whether to readmit the lapsed produced several schisms.

The church allowed flight in order to escape persecution and warned against rushing into a voluntary martyrdom.

The high regard for the martyrs as the heroes of the church and the privileges assigned to them led to the cult of the saints.

One of the leading charges against Christians in the Empire was that they were “atheists,” that is, they did not worship the pagan deities and so did not participate in the social and civic activities that involved homage to them.

The catacombs around Rome were burial places and only infrequently places of hiding during persecution. Their locations were known to the authorities, with whom they were registered.

Persecution often grew out of animosity by the populace rather than ...

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