Traditionally, historians have labeled ten different periods prior to Constantine as ones of persecution. The last one under Diocletian lasted from about 303 to 313 AD and is seen as the only one that was Empire wide and systematic. The first period of persecution is usually seen as the one under Nero.
After the Great Fire in Rome, Nero needed a scapegoat because the populace (wrongly) thought Nero was responsible. Nero rightly assumed that Christians were hated enough to take the blame. Tacitus speaks of the Christians as a class of men hated for their incendiarism but even more so for their antisocial ways, their hatred of mankind. Suetonius, in a much shorter passage, speaks of the Christians in a similar way, as people following a depraved superstition. Tacitus describes how Nero lit Christians on fire in his garden, dragged them around in chariots, threw them in bags with snakes, crucified them, placed them in animal skins on them and threw them in arenas with wild beasts.
It is likely that during this time, approximately 67 AD, that both Peter (crucified) and Paul (beheaded) were martyred in Rome. The Neronian persecution was centered in Rome and although it was intense, did not last long.
Another Roman Emperor, Domitian, pursued a policy of persecuting Christians and may have even been alluded to in the Book of Revelation, circa 96 AD.We see another glimpse of persecution from the letters of Pliny the Younger, writing around 112 AD. Pliny was a governor in Asia Minor and was writing to the Emperor to help forge a policy for prosecuting Christians. The Emperor had banned all collegia, or associations, fearing that they would turn political. This included even the fire department! The Christians would not comply. Lists began to circulate of Christians and eventually Pliny tortured and executed two deaconesses to see what they did.
He also interviewed some lapsed Christians. They explained to him what they did at their services. Pliny did not find anything but a depraved superstition taken to extravagant lengths.
What he really did not like, though, was the Christian’s obstinacy – they would not recognize the Emperor or curse Christ. This stubbornness was unacceptable. However, Pliny wanted to know if Christians were guilty just for being Christians or if they had to do something more. The Emperor replied back and said that these people should not be hunted out and no anonymous lists were to be accepted. He also said that is any Christians were brought before him that they should be made to offer incense, hail the emperor, and curse Christ and if they do that than they should be let go, no matter what.
The Emperor’s successor followed a similar policy of fairness and protection coupled with the threat of execution if the Christians would not comply when told to do so.We learn more about the persecution of Christians from court minutes, such as the Martyrdom of Polycarp or the Acts of Justin Martyr and His Companions.
In the Polycarp account, we read how the crowds had a bloodlust to see the 86-year old bishop die. The Roman prosecutor asked a series of questions and was working with Polycarp to help him to see the folly of resisting. The Roman lawyer wanted Polycarp to curse Christ and live. Polycarp would not and was martyred. This helps us see that persecution was often a mob action, created by popular dislike of Christians.
With Justin, we read of a jealous philosopher named Crescens who turned Justin in and again, Justin and his associates would not comply with the Roman official’s wishes and were executed.
Another prominent Roman official involved in persecution was Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor who was also a Stoic philosopher, active in the 160’s and 170’s AD. Marcus was a pupil of Cornelius Fronto, and Fronto had some nasty things to say about Christians. From one of Marcus’ works, The Meditations, we read that Marcus viewed Christian martyrs as melodramatic. He helped foster persecution and did not punish injustice against Christians, such as the massacre of many in Gaul around 177 AD. This sweep is the one that led to the death of Irenaeus’ bishop in Lyon, among others.
.Tertullian, circa 185 AD, had much to say about the persecution of Christians. The most famous was where he said that “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church”. He also spoke about how the Christians were blamed for famines and floods. He said that whenever bad weather or something similar happens, the crowds shout, “the Christians to the lion”! Some of the persecution of Christians had to do with the idea that Christians were making the gods angry and the gods were sending bad things as a result … so to appease the gods again and get good things from them, Christians should be killed.
Persecution was on and off again but when Diocletian took the purple, it got really bad. For ten long years he hunted down bishops, burnt copies of the Scriptures, destroyed churches, and made Christianity illegal. This was the one effort that was truly Empire wide and systematic. Diocletian’s persecution was relentless and could have succeeded were it not for the improbable ascension of a Christian emperor in one Constantine in 313 AD.
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