Decius became emperor in 249, at a time of crisis. Externally, the Empire was threatened by invasions on the northern frontiers. Internally, the citizens lacked cohesion and moral fiber.

Decius decided to strengthen and unite the Empire on the basis of religion. He ordered that all citizens take part in a general sacrifice, pouring out a libation to the Roman gods and eating part of the sacrificial meat. This order was aimed particularly at prominent Christian leaders. Decius operated on the theory that if you cut off the head, the body will die of itself.

Citizens who refused to sacrifice were imprisoned, tortured, and killed. Great bishops such as Fabian of Rome, Babylas of Antioch, and Alexander of Jerusalem were killed or died in prison. Others, like Cyprian of Carthage, Dionysius of Alexandria, and Gregory the Wonderworker, were banished or went into hiding.

Eusebius describes the torture of Origen, the great theologian, in his Ecclesiastical History: “The dreadful cruelties he endured for the word of Christ, chains and bodily torments, agony in iron and the darkness of his cell; how for days on end his legs were pulled four paces apart in the torturer’s stocks—the courage with which he bore the threats of fire and every torture devised by his enemies.… ” Origen survived and was freed but died as a result of his torture.

Fallout for the Faithful

While the government targeted Christian leaders, mobs in Alexandria and other cities attacked the rank and file. Eusebius preserves a letter from Dionysius of Alexandria describing the attacks of a mob: “Next they took a female convert named Quinta to the idol’s temple and tried to make her worship. When she turned her back in disgust, they tied her feet and dragged her right through ...

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