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Roman Persecution of the Early Church

Adrian Russell


The aim of this essay is to investigate the persecution of the early Christian Church by the ruling Roman authorities. The period being considered commences with the first distinct Roman persecution of Christians in 64 CE., by the emperor Nero, and closes with the implementation of the 'Edict of Milan' in 313 CE., signed by Constantine and Licinius. However, it is not intended that this essay should provide a mere chronological coverage of two hundred and fifty years of early Church history. A variety of factors are to be considered; such as the background to, reasons for, and responses to the persecutions meted out by the Church's main antagonists.

It will be helpful to this examination to inquire as to the prevalent attitude towards Christianity and Judaism, prior to the persecution of the Church. Firstly, a precis of Judaism's relationship with the Roman State. Judaism, despite being monotheistic, had been recognised as 'religio licita' by Julius Caesar and had been awarded privileges by him and by subsequent rulers. The Jews were permitted to have civil jurisdiction over their own territory; thus making them almost a state within the larger Roman state. The destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem in 70 CE. did not have a devastating effect on Judaism in general; though it could be said to have destroyed Jewish Christianity. The Jews continued to be protected by the State, mainly because of their usefulness to the economy. There were, however, times when they were not in favour with the populace and frequently bore the brunt of cruel taunts and wicked insinuations denigrating their faith. They even, on occasion, suffered physical violence at the hands of illegal mobs.

Judaism, despite occasional opposition, continued to thrive beyond the loss of the Capital and centre of worship. At one time in Rome - due to the decline of the pagan religions - it became vogue to convert to Judaism. This trend ended with the edicts issued by Hadrian and Septimius Severus which banned proselytism.

The early Christian Church was, from its inception until the Neronian persecution in 64 CE, tolerated by the Roman authorities who regarded it as merely another Jewish sect. So, Christianity received the same protection and privileges from Roman law that Judaism did. However, the relationship between the Church and Judaism was far more tempestuous - as can be seen within the Acts of the Apostles. It was from the Jews, and only from the Jews, that the early Church was to suffer persecution. The Roman authorities ignored this; viewing it as an insignificant argument between two factious groups of Jews.[1]

The Church has traditionally spoken of ten primitive persecutions of Christianity; commencing with that of Nero in 64 CE, and closing with that of Galerius in 305.[2] This, however, is not to say that these ten periods were the only occasions upon which Christianity was to endure persecution. It is possible, on further investigation, to locate further instances upon which the Church was to suffer because of the malice and intolerance of the Roman authorities[3] Indeed the Christian, from the time of the Neronian outbreak, was to remain liable to persecution at any moment. It was always a possibility that the wrath of the populace would break out against the Church or that the Roman government might find it politically expedient to punish Christianity. So, although the Church was to enjoy spells of relative peace and security, these periods were often only transitory and were replaced by terms of renewed hostility.

The persecution of the early Church may be viewed as two distinct periods. The first period being from Nero in 64 to the end of the reign of Maximinus in 238. The second period extending from the Decian persecution of 249 through to the signing of the 'Edict of Milan' in 313. The first period, in comparison with the second, was neither as systematic nor as relentless, being more sporadic and localised: the result of transient animosity rather than clearly defined legislation against Christianity. The persecutions during this period were, although at times ferocious, less severe and had less effect upon the Church than did the period that followed. The second period began with the emperor Decius, who had inherited an Empire in which the Christian Church had grown significantly in size and influence. Decius started a campaign in which he hoped that Christianity would be eradicated. Thus began a policy of general persecution against the Church that was to be adhered to by later emperors. It was during this period that many were to be martyred; shedding their blood in defiance of the Roman State. During this period, as with the first, there were seasons of apparent tranquillity these were broken by renewed hostility that was savage in its intensity, if not, at times, in its extent.

An important aspect to be considered is that of the motives or reasons behind the violent hatred displayed by the Romans towards Christianity. To this end, six areas will be viewed.

The first area is that of the exclusive and separatist nature of Christianity as viewed by the pagan world. The Christians were regarded by both the common people and the authorities as being separatists. The Christian lifestyle itself distanced it from that of the pagan world. The very moral standards of the Church were seen as a severe reproach of the pagan way of life. Indeed, some Christians lived an almost excessively puritanical life and thus incurred the wrath of the populace. However, some other believers did not distance themselves so far from the world, conforming more to the society in which they lived. A description of a Christian community can be found within the Epistle to Diognetus, where it reads: "They pass their lives in whatever township - Greek or foreign - each man's lot has determined: and conform to ordinary local usage in their clothing, diet, and other habits." The letter goes on to describe the uniqueness of the Christian in his attitude to persecution, generosity, etc.[4]

It is possible that the Christian community had begun to acquire some wealth. This, perhaps, was gained by non-participation in the excesses of the pagan world, which for the Christian led to a more frugal existence than that of his contemporaries in Roman society. Also, believers looked to the immediate needs of their fellow Christians and exhorted one another to be gainfully employed, not idle.[5]The believer did, however, exclude himself from certain professions, such as acting, gladiatorial fighting and, in some cases, even teaching.

The most significant problem appertaining to employment was that of whether or not a Christian could serve in the army. Some said an emphatic "No!" Tertullian, for example, urged that believers should not: Origen and Lactantius also shared this belief. There was another dilemma that faced the Christian soldier, especially those of rank. For example, a centurion was duty-bound to participate in and to witness pagan sacrificial ceremonies. If he did not comply he would lose his office and, most probably, his life.[6] The army was a prime target whenever persecution was to break out; many Christian soldiers losing their lives rather than deny their faith.[7] Indeed it was the questionable loyalty of some sections of the army that was one of the contributory factors in the 'Great Persecution' under Diocletian and Maximian.

Christians were singled out as being a "gang... of ignorant men and credulous women".[8] They were noted for their stubbornness or "mere contumacy"[9], and were persecuted and hated for their "name".[10]

The second area to be examined is that of the pagan misunderstanding of the rites and ceremonies of the Christian Church. A regular accusation propagated against Christianity was that of atheism. Christianity, because of its monotheistic faith, would not offer the customary sacrifices and worship to other gods: a duty of Roman subjects. Justin Martyr wrote: "Hence are we called atheists. And we confess that we are atheists, so far as gods of this sort are concerned, but not with respect to the most true God...".[11] The necessary secrecy surrounding the believer's meetings aroused suspicion; the rites and ceremonies being interpreted as immoral. The agape, or love feast, was regarded as an orgy and as Athenagoras records: "Three things are alleged against us: atheism, Thyestean feasts [cannibalism], Oedipodean intercourse [incest]".[12] So, even the sacramental rite was believed to be an act of cannibalism. The Christian 'kiss' was also misunderstood.[13]

Other religions, such as Mithraism, the worship of Isis and other pagan gods endeavoured to take precautions against persecution. The Church, however, did not conform nor compromise to avoid danger; indeed Christians were observed to adopt a deliberately aggressive attitude towards the State, inciting and deliberately seeking martyrdom.[14]

Often Christians were punished for natural disasters and defeat in battle; the logic behind this being that the Pagan gods had been offended by the Christian's atheism and were making the people suffer as a result. Christianity was reported as being a "foreign superstition"[15] possessing a "new and mischievous religious belief".[16] Its followers were believed to be abominations and evil, being "notoriously depraved".[17]

Another factor that induced anger from the populace was the Church's chiliastic eschatology by which they believed that upon the Lord's return he would reign on David's throne for a thousand years. This view, concerning the fate of the world, deeply offended the pagan, who, according to Christian teaching, was doomed. The Church taught that upon the fall of the sinful world the reign of the saints would begin. Such a stance naturally resulted in intense dislike. It is worth noting that the instructions concerning the Eucharist, contained within the Didache, close with the word 'Maranatha', meaning 'our Lord come".[18] This shows the early Church's expectation and desire for that return.

A fourth area that caused concern for the authorities was that of the Christian attitude to wealth and property. Of prime concern was the church's radical view concerning the position and treatment of slaves. The slave was considered by pagans to be a mere chattel: a possession with no rights or liberties. The teaching of the Church, however, was that slaves were no longer to be regarded in such a way. The slave was to be accepted as a brother and an equal.[19] H. Chadwick writes: "In the Church masters and slaves were brethren."[20] It was not unusual for emancipated slaves to rise to positions of importance within the Church, some being appointed as deacons, elders and even bishops, for example, Callistus, Bishop of Rome in 217. Such people became highly respected members of the Church.

Christian attitude towards wealth and property ran contrary to the materialistic position held by many pagans. Indeed, wealth was considered to be a hindrance to those who held high office within the Church. Many advocated that poverty was a prerequisite for those of rank within the faith. This appeared to the State to be nothing less that anarchy.

The threat to the established pattern of family life was a fifth sphere of Christian influence that concerned many unbelievers. Some felt that Christian teaching, such as Paul's[21], actively discouraged marriage. Any inter-marriage between Christian and Pagan was forbidden and in some extreme cases Christians were attempting to divorce their unbelieving partners. Those who remained with their partners were a source of much concern and consternation. Apollo, in reply to a question of how to recall a wife from Christianity said that one would more "easily write in lasting letters on water... than recall to her senses an impious wife who has once polluted herself".[22] The position of father within the family was also undermined by some Christian extremists who would refuse to acknowledge any man as father. The only father as far as they were concerned was God the Father.

Another problem was that of burial rites. A decision had to be made as to whether the deceased would be given a Christian or a pagan funeral. Many families were split because of this, for those who had both pagans and Christian believers within them it was impossible to satisfy both parties.

For the sixth and final part, the political threat posed by the Church will be considered. Throughout the whole period of persecution there continually hung a question mark over the loyalty of Christians to the State. It would be quite possible to argue that Christianity suffered not so much for the doctrinal differences between its faith and that of the pagans, but rather for its avowed allegiance to a Heavenly throne and Law as opposed to those of Rome. The Roman authorities were sensitive to unrest, as the expulsion of the Jews from Rome under Claudius reveals.[23] Complete submission and obedience was a pre-requisite for peaceful relations with the authorities; Christians gave neither to the State, for their allegiance lay with God. The Church was looking "forward to the day of God"[24] and had made their own laws - for example, the Didache - and would not obey any secular law that contradicted their own. Celsus, a notable opponent of Christianity, pointed out this failure to comply with the required homage demanded by the State.[25] This refusal was to be a major issue; leading to the martyrdom of many faithful believers who resolutely refused to participate in Roman civic and national ceremonies. The Christian would not offer worship to either throne or State and this was interpreted as treason and disloyalty.[26] The problem increased for the State as the Church, despite policies of persecution against it, continued to flourish in wealth, influence and number.[27] It was partly because of this rapid growth that the second period of more general persecutions was instigated. The State endeavoured to crush and eradicate the growing Church.

Having considered in depth the causes behind the persecutions, the actions and policies that were enacted against Christianity may now be investigated.

Firstly, the Neronian Persecution (64-68 CE) which began after a vast conflagration destroyed a considerable area of Rome on 19th July 64. After an exemplary start to his reign Nero had become unpopular and much feared; as much by his family as by the people. He led a life of excess and had carelessly drained the treasury. He then resorted to subterfuge, extortion and many dubious devices to replenish his much depleted funds.[28] So it is of little surprise that after the fire of Rome a rumour spread alleging that Nero was the author of it. It is generally held that it was Nero's agents who started the fire to clear space for his proposed Golden Palace. As Tacitus records: "To suppress this rumour, Nero fabricated scapegoats..."[29] that is, he apportioned the blame upon the Christian community. Nero had known Christians arrested and tortured into confessing the names of their brethren so they could be rounded up. Tacitus writes of an immense multitude who persisted at this time[30], indicating the size of the Roman Church: he also records the cruel and horrific deaths that the martyrs suffered.[31]

From this time on Christianity was regarded as a religio illicita and though it is not certain that there was a deliberate regulation or edict against Christians, it may be that, as H.M. Gwatkin writes, "the Neronian Persecution was not begun with any deliberate policy, however, it may have led to one".[32]

Shortly after Nero's death (68 CE) the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, thus crushing a Jewish revolt[33] and bringing to an end the form of Temple-based Christianity.

The correspondence between Trajan (98-117) and Pliny, governor of Bithynia - the documents being extant - prove most illuminating for they illustrate what was to become the State's accepted policy for the treatment of the Church. In September 111 Pliny the Younger, a Roman lawyer and friend of Trajan, was despatched to Bithynia with the brief to reverse the province's severe economic decline. Pliny encountered Christians, maybe for the first time. Initially he executed Christians who professed their faith before him, thus showing that being a Christian was considered sufficient grounds for the death penalty to be imposed. Pliny, however, was unsure how to deal with the anonymous accusations that were being aimed at men and women from all walks of society, so he wrote to Trajan seeking advice.[34]

Pliny conveys that he believed Christianity had been the cause for the desertion of the temples, the lapse of the sacred rites, and the decline in sale of sacrificial animals. One may assume, however, that Pliny was also under pressure from irate tradesmen. He wrote that according to his current policies he allowed a Christian three opportunities to recant and to offer a sacrifice to the Roman gods. If they complied they were released, if not they were executed: Roman citizens were despatched to the capital to await trial there. Pliny concluded that a 'genuine Christian' could not be forced to revile the name of Christ.

Trajan's rescript to Pliny revealed the Emperor's wisdom and pragmatism.[35] He wrote that it was "impossible to lay down a general rule to a fixed formula", but openly accused and convicted Christians must be punished. If a believer recanted, offering the required sacrifice, he should be pardoned. He instructed Pliny that "these people must not be hunted out" and that "pamphlets circulated anonymously must play no part in any accusation."

Some have regarded Trajan as an instigator of a new policy of persecution against the Church, but surely the directives that he gave to Pliny reveal almost the opposite. If anything it gave the Christian a little protection, for Trajan instructed that the magistrate must be in control of the situation and not influenced by popular consensus and hatred. Also, the prerequisite that the accuser must be at the trial would dissuade many from pointing an accusing finger.

Trajan was succeeded by Hadrian (117-138) who continued Trajan's policy towards Christianity. He despatched a rescript to the Proconsul of Asia, Caius Minuaus Fundanus,[36] which in essence was the same as Trajan's to Pliny. There was one small gain for the Christian; Hadrian decreed that if a delator, or informer, failed to prove his accusations he was to be punished.

The Jewish revolt (132-135) led by Simon Bar Cochba occurred during Hadrian's rule, leading to the complete destruction of Jerusalem in 135[37] This resulted in a resurgence of Jewish hatred for the Christians who had distanced themselves from the uprising.

With the reign of Antoninus Pius (138-161) and later, that of Marcus Aurelius (161-180) the policy changed. Under Antoninus Pius some Christians were executed without trial and, though it was fairly localised, the persecution reminded Christians of the precarious position they maintained.

The reign of Marcus Aurelius brought increased severity as persecution intensified. Particularly notable were the persecutions in Lyons and Vienne in 177 CE.[38], where wholesale slaughters and martyrdoms took place within the amphitheatre. Informers were no longer ignored but were encouraged and spurred on by the prospect of gaining the confiscated goods of those found guilty of Christianity. The previous ruling concerning the conduct of magistrates was altered so that they now actively pursued Christians. Marcus Aurelius was the first philosopher Emperor, being a notable stoic.[39] He was probably the best educated and noblest of the Roman rulers, yet his reign was to be recorded as one of the bloodiest. Probably because of his philosophy, which was likely to have been influenced by political considerations, he attacked the faith of the Christians, lambasting it as pure superstition. So, as J.W.C. Wand writes, "The reign of Marcus Aurelius marked the climax of popular anger against the Christians. It was accompanied by serious attacks on the intellectual position of the Church".[40]

Other than an edict issued by Septimius Severus (193-211) forbidding proselytism to Judaism or Christianity, there was no major change in policy until the Decian Persecution. With the reign of Decius (249-251) the second era of persecution began. No longer was the persecution of Christians to be localised or left in the hands of local magistrates and officials. The general persecution of the Church had begun.

Decius was a Roman traditionalist and a competent soldier who was fully aware of the sorry state to which the Empire had fallen. With the aim of rectifying this he sought to strengthen the Empire by enforcing the worship of the traditional gods. To this end Decius issued an edict that was to have serious consequences for the Church. A command was given to the provincial governors and officials that, on a fixed day, every citizen was to offer a sacrifice to the gods and to the throne. To those who complied a 'libellus' or certificate was issued.[41] This caused much disruption within the Church and many obtained libelli by apostasy, bribery of officials, or with the aid of pagan friends. This was later to cause a schism within the Church, more of which will be written later.

The aim of Decius' edict was not that there should be a glut of martyrs nor a general slaughter of the Church. Rather, he desired apostasy not martyrdom from the Christians; with only the officials, not the members, being executed. However, the edict was not rigorously enforced everywhere due to the laxity of some authorities and many believers successfully escaped. The Church, generally, remained true to the faith and "the persecution grew less successful until it was stayed by the death of its instigator."[42]

Gallus (251-253) tried unsuccessfully to destroy the Church with a brief flurry of persecution: upon his death Valerian (253-260) succeeded to the throne. The early years of Valerian's reign were relatively peaceful for the Christian community.[43] This was not to last, for in 257 Valerian issued an edict aimed specifically at the removal of the upper echelon of the Church. Cemeteries were closed and Christian assemblies forbidden. A year later Valerian, acknowledging the failure of his first edict, intensified the persecution with the issue of a second.[44] His intention was to remove the clergy. Yet despite the confiscation of property, banishment and execution, the Church held fast. After Valerian's capture by the Persians[45] and the succession of his son, Gallienus - who issued an edict of toleration[46] - the Church was to enjoy a period of relative peace until the time of the 'Great Persecution'.

Upon the ascension of Diocletian (284-305) to the throne the culmination of the period of persecution began. Diocletian reorganised the Empire into a tetrarchy consisting of two Augustii and two Caesars; with Nicomedia as his Capital. He appears, initially, to have been favourable towards the Church, which seems to have continued to grow.[47]

There developed a problem within the army, its loyalty being brought into question: also accusations were made by the augers against Christians whom they blamed for their inability to discern the portents. Diocletian was persuaded by Galerius, his Caesar, and Hierocles, President of Bithynia, to act against Christianity. On February 23rd 303 an edict was issued which declared that all Christian churches were to be razed; Christian Scriptures were to be confiscated and burned; any officials who were Christians were to be removed from office and those without rank were to be enslaved.[48] As W.H.C. Frend writes: "though Christianity was now strong in the countryside as well as in the towns and enjoyed a considerable public sympathy, the edict was carried out to the letter."[49] After a fire in the Palace, for which the Christians were blamed, a second edict was issued which ordered the arrest and confinement of the clergy; this was later revoked due to lack of prison space. In 304 yet another edict was issued,[50] similar to the Decian edict, which demanded that all citizens offer sacrifice; those refusing would be subject to the death penalty.

In May 305 Diocletian retired from office and was replaced by Galerius who continued to effect the suppression of the Church. However, in the West, Constantine had been appointed Augustus and his provinces knew freedom from persecution. Galerius did not relent in his hatred of the church until, lying on his death bed, he issued an edict of toleration on April 30th 311 to try and gain favour and prayer from the Christians.[51] Galerius died shortly after and his lands were divided between Maximian and Licinius. The toleration granted by Galerius was to be short-lived for Maximian was to allow persecution at the discretion of local councils.[52]

Constantine, continuing to grow in influence and power, defeated Maxentius who had seized power in Rome in 306. This victory took place at the Milvian Bridge on October 27th 312 CE, a victory which Constantine claimed had been given to him through divine assistance.[53] From then on he was to be sympathetic towards Christianity. Afterwards, Constantine and Licinius met at Milan[54] and signed the "Edict of Milan". This was a policy which granted freedom of worship to Christians and to those of other religions. Also, all property belonging to the Church, including that of individual Christians, was to be restored.

With the defeat of Maximian by Licinius in April, 313, the edict became universal, being implemented in both eastern and western provinces, and so the final curtain was drawn on the persecutions of this epoch.

The attitude of the authorities and the masses towards Christianity has been noted. Yet what was the attitude of the Church to the State during this period? The Church was called upon by its leaders and its Holy Scriptures[55] to remain loyal to the authorities; despite the gross miscarriages of justice imposed upon the believers. Within the Epistle to Diognetus an explanation is given for the aggressive stance taken by non-Christians. It also writes of the Christians' response to the hatred they received stating that Christians: "...love those who hate them".[56](56) Tertullian, in his Apology, also writes of Christian loyalty stating that Christians "...call upon God for the safety of the Emperor..."[57] and that believers should know from Scripture "...that a superfluity of benevolence is enjoined on us, even so far as to pray God for our enemies and to entreat blessings for our persecutors"(58). So Christians were "...automatically good citizens, loyal to the Emperor and willing to carry out his commands, so far as service to God allowed".[59]

An obvious result of the persecutions was the death of many true and steadfast believers: it is the area of martyrdom that will now be considered. The pages of early Church history are indelibly written in the blood of the martyrs; the names of such as Ignatius, Polycarp and Justin Martyr being forever etched into the foundations of the Church. It was not only high-profile Christians who died for their faith; the bishop and presbyter died alongside the unknown labourer and slave.

There remain many stirring accounts of the excruciating torture and deaths of the Christian martyrs, a few of which will now be reflected upon. Ignatius, bishop of Antioch - who was believed to have been a disciple of the Apostle John - is said to have appeared before Trajan, declaring himself to be a 'Theophorus', i.e. a man carrying the person of Christ within him. Such a stand resulted in his death at Rome. On his way to Rome Ignatius wrote seven letters, one to the Roman church itself.[60] These provide a fascinating insight into many areas other than just his forthcoming martyrdom, for example, an understanding of church hierarchy and doctrine may be gleaned. Ignatius made no attempt to effect his escape; he even asks that they "...incite the creatures to become a sepulchre..."[61] for him. His wish was granted c.112 CE.

The death of Polycarp, the elderly and respected bishop of Smyrna, is often remembered for his refusal to revile Christ. His cry: "Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?"[62] was to be an inspiration to many facing the same fate.

The historical accounts of martyrdom are many and varied, recording the deaths of such as Vibia Perpetua and the servant Felicitas[63] - both believed to have been Montanists. Cyprian,[64] who had evaded death for many years, and the Thebean Legion,[65] executed by Maximian. The methods used by the Romans to torture and kill the martyrs were breathtaking in their cruelty and malevolence.[66] Justin Martyr wrote that "it was the sight of the martyrs with their fearless bearing that converted him."[67] So it may be said that the martyrdoms had a profound effect upon some of those who witnessed them.

However, some elements within the Church adopted the opinion that it was only through martyrdom that one could be received into heaven. This resulted in many deliberately provoking the authorities so that they might receive their martyr's crown.[68] Tertullian wrote that "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church",[69] but some, such as the Montanists, took this to an extreme and believed any reluctance to seek a martyr's death was cowardice. The attitude of Clement perhaps injected wisdom, for he agreed that "by death the martyr lives", but at the same time censured "those who recklessly expose themselves to persecution.".[70]

It was during the second century that there arose a new defender of the faith: the Apologist. The defence of Christianity by the written word began with Aristedes and Quadratus,[71] and was continued from then onwards by the likes of Justin,[72] Irenaeus,[73] Athenagoras[74] and Origen.[75] They wrote not only to defend Christianity in the face of persecution, but also to counter the problems being raised by heresies. These heresies - such as Gnosticism, Montanism [?] and Monarchianism - were to be a serious challenge to orthodox Christianity and were vigorously opposed by the Apologists.

Finally, the problem of schism within the Church needs to be noted. In many ways the persecution of the Church had strengthened it, cleansed it, and established it. Unfortunately there were also negative results from the persecutions, schism being one. The schism that shall be considered is the one that was caused by divergent opinions within the Church regarding the 'lapsi' during the Decian Persecution. The problem centred upon whether or not the bishop had the right to remit sins, in this case apostasy. Cornelius of Rome and Cyprian of Carthage believed that he had; the presbyter Novatian believed that he did not.[76]6)

Cyprian held a council of bishops at Carthage in 251 where it was decided that the libellatici - Christians who held a libellus but had not sacrificed - upon prescribed penance could be re-admitted into the Church. The sacrificati - those who had sacrificed - would only be re-admitted by confession upon their death-beds. Cyprian later forbade the re-admission of lapsed clergy. Novatian, who had been appointed as a rival bishop to Cornelius in Rome,[77] continued to oppose Cornelius' and Cyprian's belief. Eventually Cornelius was to emerge as the dominant force in Rome and the Novationist problem gradually lessened; though it was to leave the Church somewhat marred by the division. Later, after the 'Great Persecution', a similar schism occurred, that being the 'Donatist schism'. As H. Chadwick writes: "The worst legacy of the persecution was once again schism".[78]

To conclude this assessment of Roman persecution of the early Church it may be said that the Church had emerged victorious. It had endured 250 years of intermittent, often savage, persecution that sought the annihilation of Christianity. The Church, though battle-scarred and bloodstained, had triumphed over the pagan. As Bishop Wordsworth writes: "The Church was purified by the fire, and came forth more bright and glorious from it".[79]

© 1992 Adrian Russell

Note: This article was written as part of an undergraduate course in early church history. It is therefore not a quoteable source for academic coursework.


[1] Comparing the synoptics with John's Gospel a change of emphasis may be seen. Within the synoptics the Scribes and Pharisees were the primary persecuters of the Christians. However, in John's Gospel the Jews, as a whole, are spoken of as being the sole persecuters. In none are the Romans referred to as the persecuters of the Christian Church.

[2] The ten primitive persecutions as recognised by the Church during the rule of:

1) Nero (64-68 CE)

2) Domitian (81-96)

3) Trajan (98-117)

4) Marcus Aurelius (161-180)

5) Septimus Severus (193-211)

6) Maximinus (235-238)

7) Decius (249-251)

8) Valerian (253-260)

9) Diocletian (284-305)

10) Galerius (305-311)

[3] For example: the persecution of Christians during the reign of Antoninus Pius (138-161) and the reign of Gallus (251-253).

[4] The Epistle to Diognetus vv.5-6. Early Christian Writings. London: Penguin, 1988, p.144f.

[5] The Didache, v.12, Early Christian Writings,196.

[6] Marcellus, a centurion, lost his life by such a refusal. See Wordsworth, A Church History to the Council of Nicea. London: Rivingtons, 1899, p. 348.

[7] In 286 AD Emperor Maximian ordered the decomation of the Thebaean Legion for their refusal to exterminate fellow Christians. For a detailed account see Wordsworth, 376.

[8] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations. London: Penguin, 1987, 11.3.

[9] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations., 11.3.

[10] Athenagoras, Legatio pro Christianis, 1-3. J. Stevenson, A New Eusebius. London: SPCK, 1990. p. 66.

[11] Justin Martyr, Apology, 1.6. Stevenson, 60.

[12] Athenagoras, Legatio pro Christianis, 3. Stevenson, p.67. See also Eusebius. The History of the Church London: Penguin, 1986, p.95. These were also reasons given by Nero for the persecution of Christians.

[13] Clement gave warnings concerning the misuse of the kiss. See Clement of Alexandria, Paedogogas, Stevenson, p.183.

[14] "In contrast with the fairly broad tolerance which characterised other cults, they declared that they had final truth and would eliminate rival faiths." K.S. Latourette, A History of the Expansion of Christianity, Vol. 1 Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1971, p.128.

[15] Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome, XIII.32, London: Penguin, 1989, p.298. See also the footnote.

[16] Seutonius, The Twelve Caesars London: Penguin, 1989, p.221, section 16.

[17] Tacitus, p.365.

[18] The Didache, Early Christian Writings, p.195.

[19] See Philemon 15-16.

[20] H. Chadwick, The Early Church London: Penguin, 1969, p.60.

[21] See 1 Corinthians 7. This was misunderstood and taken as definitely teaching against marriage.

[22] Porphyr's concern at advancing Christianity: Philosophy from Oracles, quoted by Augustine, On The City of God, XIX, Stevenson, p.269. See also Tacitus, p.298, concerning Pamponia Graecina, wife of Auklis Plautius.

[23] Seutonius, p.202, section 25. See also Acts 18:2.

[24] 2 Peter 3:12.

[25] See Origen, Against Celsus, VIII.67-69, Stevenson, p.135.

[26] "To refuse to participate in the pagan Emperor cult was a political as well as a religious act, and could easily be construed as dangerous disaffection." Gwatkin, H.M. Early Church History, Vol. 1. London: MacMillan & Co., 1912, p.77.

[27] For example, within Pliny's corresponence to Trajan, Pliny talks of the detrimental effect Christianity was having upon the temple worship and economy of Bithynia. See The Letters of the Younger Pliny, Book 10, No. 96 London, Penguin, 1969, p.293ff.

[28] Seutonius' account of Nero, though in some areas it may be of dubious authenticity, gives an excellent impression of the depths of depravity and cruelty to which Nero sank. See Suetonius.

[29] Tacitus, p.365.

[30] The apostles Peter and Paul are commonly believed to have been martyred by Nero c.68 AD.

[31] For a full account see note 29, also note that: "Although Tacitus has a definite grudge against Nero, it is possible that his account is little, if at all, exaggerated." J.W.C. Wand, A History Of The Early Church to 500 AD London: Methuen & Co., 1963, p.17.

[32] Gwatkin, p.83.

[33] For an account of the burning of the Temple, see Josephus, The Jewish War London: Penguin Books, 1988, p.357ff.

[34] For a transcript of this communication see Pliny, Book 10, Letter No. 96, 293ff.

[35] Pliny, p.295.

[36] H. Bettenson, The Documents of The Christian Church Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988, p.7.

[37] See Eusebius, IV.6, 157.

[38] See The Epistle of the Galilean Churches, Eusebius, V.I; Bettenson, p.12.

[39] See Marcus Aurelius.

[40] Wand, p.66.

[41] For an example of a libellus, see Bettenson, p.13.

[42] H.M. Gwatkin, Early Church History, Vol. 2. London: MacMillan & Co., 1927, p.102.

[43] See Eusebius, p.292.

[44] See The Rescript of Valerian, July 258, Cyprian, Epistle LXXX.1, Stevenson, p.247.

[45] See Eusebius, p.298.

[46] Eusebius, p.299.

[47] See Eusebius, p.328, where Eusebius writes of the "...mass meetings...", "...enormous gatherings...", "...remarkable congregations...", and "...churches spacious in plan..."

[48] Eusebius, p.330; Lactantius, On The Deaths of The Persecuters, 11-13, Stevenson, p.271f.

[49] W.H.C. Frend, Saints and Sinners in the Early Church London: DLT, 1985, p.103.

[50] See Eusebius, Martyrs of Palestine, 3.1, Stevenson, p.275.

[51] See Edict of Toleration 31; Lactantius, De Mort. Pers., XXXIV. Bettenson, p.15.

[52] See Maximian's Rescript, Eusebius, p.362f.

[53] See Lactantius, On The Deaths of the Persecuters 44:3-6, Stevenson, p.213; Eusebius, VC, 1:26-29, 283f.

[54] Lactantius, De Mort. Pers., XLVIII. Bettenson, p.15.

55 See I Timothy 2:1-2. "I urge you then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone - for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness."

[56] The Epistle of Diognetus, Early Christian Writings, p.145.

[57] Tertullian, 1 Apology, XXIX-XXXII, Bettenson, p.7.

[58] Bettenson, p.7.

[59] W.H.C. Frend, The Early Church London: SCM, 1986, p.65.

[60] The Epistle to the Romans, Early Christian Writings,p. 85ff.

[61] Early Christian Writings, 86, v.4.

[62] The Martyrdom of Polycarp, Early Christian Writings, 128, v.9. The whole account conveys the character of Polycarp and his acceptance of martyrdom. It is little wonder that he became a hero to many.

[63] See Wordsworth, 177f.

[64] Wordsworth, 351.

[65] See note 7.

[66] For examples of the inhuman torture inflicted upon Christians see Wordsworth, 173ff; Eusebius, 193-203, for an account of the experiences of the martyrs in Vienne and Lyons.

[67] Justin Martyr, II Apology, 12.

[68] Ignatius' attitude is worth noting. See note 61 and notice his refusal to accept any attempt to prevent his death. See also, The Epistle to the Ephesians, Early Christian Writings, 61, where Ignatius, on his way to Rome as a prisoner, writes that he hopes: "to be granted an encounter with the wild beasts of Rome - a boon that will enable me to be a true disciple."

[69] Tertullian, Apology 50.

[70] Clement, cited in Wordsworth, 259.

[71] See Eusebius, IV.3, ; Stevenson, 58.

[72] See Justin Martyr, Apology and Dialogue With Trypho, Stevenson, 58-64.

[73] For example, his work against Gnosticism, Stevenson, 84.

[74] See Legatio pro Christianis, 1-3, Stevenson, 66.

[75] For example, Origen, Against Celsus, VI.31.

[76] See The Essence of Novatian's Doctrine About The Lapsed, Stevenson, 89.

[77] See Eusebius, .281f.

[78] Chadwick, 122.

[79] Wordsworth, 381

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