"God protects us" says Church Father.
"God interposed His providence on behalf of believers, dispersing by an act of His will alone all the conspiracies formed against them; so that neither kings, nor rulers, nor the populace, might be able to rage against them beyond a certain point. A few engaged in a struggle for their religion, and these individuals who can be easily numbered, have endured death for the sake of Christianity."
– Origen of Alexandria (c184-254) (Contra Celsus, 3.8)
of a Fanatic
is a persecution of unrighteousness, which the impious
inflict upon the church of Christ; and there is a righteous
persecution, which the church of Christ inflicts on the impious ... Moreover
she persecutes in the spirit of love, they in the spirit
Augustine (Letter 185, 417 AD)
Empire lasted more than a thousand years and persecuted Christians
for fewer than twelve of them. The 'Christian Empire'
also lasted more than a thousand years and persecuted non-Christians
through all of them.
Until the early
years of the 2nd century, Roman administrators were ignorant
of the existence of the Christians. For a generation that followed
they remained indifferent to this obscure 'Jewish' sect (and
its many different factions) but, in time,
indifference gave way to contempt and then irritation.
still marginal but growing numbers of Christians turned the misfortunes of
the Roman world to their advantage. The radicals directed their
energies towards frightened widows and abandoned children, towards
the slave and criminal classes. Every defeat in battle, every
pestilence and natural calamity, was seized upon as evidence
of divine censure and retribution. With zeal
and anticipation, the Christians predicted further ruin and desolation.
Among the feckless peoples of the great cities, the fear of imminent
judgement and the threat of eternal torment were
spread like a contagion. Only by submission to Christ could the
individual hope for salvation. "Babylon" would surely
fall and most of humanity would perish.
Yet it was
only when the empire
itself in peril that the Roman state acted violently against
the enthusiasts of Christ, and only then because the
obstinate prejudices of the zealots undermined desperate measures
to defend Roman civilization.
Bad is Good
concerted psycho-terrorism the Christians demoralised a population
their own diminutive numbers. Ultimately, the self-confidence
and majestic pride of Rome, which had wrested a world from the
was sapped and eroded by the partisans
of Christ. By the mid-years of the 3rd century the empire began
fragmenting, with separatist regimes in Gaul and Syria, and
its only recourse
was to lurch into military despotism and a corporate state.
3rd century was an age of chronic instability for the Roman
the corruption introduced by the Syrian monarchs first the
Praetorian Guard and then the frontier Legions intervened repeatedly
the making and breaking of emperors.
militarisation of the state was reflected in the church
itself, which, by the late 3rd century, had purged itself
of independent minds and had replaced democratic elements
by disciplined hierarchy. The defeated factions, like mutinous
bodies of troops, seceded and continued a resistance. The
main body of the church, committed to the 'orthodoxy' of
international organisation if not yet the 'orthodoxy' of
doctrine, confronted the Roman State as a "Republic
within the Republic", with its own treasury, laws,
magistrates and command structure.
in the early 4th century, reluctant emperors attempted to
eradicate the public menace it was too late.
Though the Christians constituted perhaps five per cent of
the population they were concentrated in enclaves in the
key cities of the east. When the churches were closed the
imperial palace at Nicomedia was twice fire bombed. When the
zealots were arrested, an ambitious
prince in the west, Constantine, made the fanatics of Christ
the subject of his
and the Christians: The "Persecution" Myth
of Persecution / Location
nights in 64 AD Nero's garden was illuminated by a "vast
multitude" of torched Christians. Well, that's the
evidence that the Roman government was even aware of
Christians, let alone bothered to persecute them.
executed his cousin Flavius Clemens and banished
his niece Domitilla.
The charge was 'atheism' and 'Jewish manners', which
has allowed both Jews and Christians to claim them
as 'martyrs'. Given that Domitilla's freedman subsequently
assassinated the emperor the episode was clearly a
matter of palace politics and not a 'persecution.'
told Pliny "not to seek out" Christians
nor to act on anonymous charges.
of the Christians other than awareness of their name
is certain evidence that there were no laws directed
the sect. Nonetheless, the fable of Ignatius maintains that this supposed bishop of Antioch was sentenced to death by Trajan personally – and given an escorted tour of the eastern empire before "winning" his celebrated martyrdom in Rome. Utter baloney.
had to wage a 3-year war with Jewish fanatics and was
contemptuous of the Jews and, by extension,
the Christians, but
Trajan's policy of tolerance.
Trajan's policy of tolerance.
"Antoninus is admitted by all to have been noble and good, neither oppressive to the Christians nor severe to any of his other subjects; instead, he showed the Christians great respect and added to the honour in which Hadrian had been wont to hold them." – Cassius Dio, Roman History, 70.3
outburst" has to be conjured up to explain the
claimed martyrdom of 86-year-old bishop Polycarp in
either 155, 165 or 177!
desperately to defend the empire against its enemies,
Marcus threatened exile to those spreading morbid superstitions. Eastern Jews came under suspicion for support given Syrian usurper Avidius Cassius in 175.
outburst" has to be conjured up to explain the
lurid tale of "50 martyrs" in Lyons (Gaul)
trial and martyrdom for Justin Priscos aka
Justin Martyr (100-165?)
son of Marcus was unconcerned by the Christians. Perhaps
he should have been. One of his concubines,
Marcia, a Christian, was complicit in the murder of Commodus in 192.
evidence of persecution
Soldier-aristocrat from north Africa.
his reign, churches became major land owners and
adopted the practice of giving annual 'presents'
to provincial governors.
202 Septimius issued a
decree forbidding conversion to Judaism (Iudaeos
fieri). Later Christian writers reinterpreted
the edict – probably no more than an attempt
to prohibit circumcision – as a "persecution of Christianity".
of Alexandria (c150-215) makes the claim: "Many
martyrs are daily burned, confined, or beheaded, before
eyes", though we have nothing to confirm
scene worthy of Monty Python, it seems
the young Origen (182-251) was spared because his
his clothes". Apparently, his father, Leonides,
lost his head. Later in life, Origen was visited by a curious
(160-220) in Carthage claimed:
Christians are to blame for every public disaster
and every misfortune that befalls the people. If
the Tiber rises to the walls, if the Nile fails
to rise and flood the fields, if the sky withholds
rain, if there is earthquake or famine or plague,
straightway the cry arises: The Christians
to the lions!" (Bruce, p180)
we believe this? Tertullian's
Marcus Aurelius honouring Christian soldiers
and the emperor Tiberius being a closet Christian!
Gibbon comments drolly how curious it is that
the uncompromising fanatic did not himself suffer
also provides the tale of a young girl, cruelly
tortured, then boiled in a kettle
of burning pitch with her mother, and also the story
of Perpetua, a young noblewoman, and Felicitas,
slave girl, holding hands and kissing
thrown to wild beasts. (Interesting choice of names, don't
evidence of persecution
"It is reported, Philip was a Christian ... manifesting in his conduct a genuine and pious fear of God." – Eusebius, The History of the Church, 6.34.
Soldier-aristocrat from the Balkans and first emperor
to die fighting a foreign army in battle.
a half century of chaos, Decius
tried desperately to restore stability and unity to
the empire and the peace of the gods' (pax
deorum). He appointed roving commissioners,
who required all citizens to honour the traditional
state gods by sprinkling incense on a brazier or pouring
a libation for the health
emperor. Loyal subjects received a certificate of compliance
consequence of Decius's policy (which was not directed
specifically at Christians) was to cause division
within the ranks of the brethren, isolating the extremists.
historians gleefully regard this as the "first real persecution" because
some fanatics refused to toast the emperor's health
the state into retaliation.
died fighting the Goths and the empire returned to
Bishops Fabianus of Rome, Babylos of Antioch, and Alexander
of Jerusalem and the x-rated martyrdom of St.
Agatha, apparently at
the hands of a senator! For just over a year, Rome was
without a bishop.
and imprisonment of Pope Cornelius.
Syrian provinces to Persia.
who entrusted the western empire to his
son Gallienus. Suffered the ignominy of being used as a
foot stool by Sapor I, before being flayed – much
to the glee
of the Christians.
Bishop Dionysius of Rome wrote of Valerian's early years: "He had been mild and friendly towards the men of God... and received Christians with manifest hospitality." – Eusebius, The History of the Church, 7.10.
in the army was a serious concern and Valerian tried
to expropriate the wealth of the church for the war
fought a desperate war on the Persian front in which
he himself was captured and killed.
required the clergy to sacrifice to the State gods
on pain of exile, and property sequestrated.
execution of clergy who refused to sacrifice.
Martyrs: Pope Sixtus II, his deacon
Lawrence, and 6 other deacons. Apparently, Lawrence was
slowly roasted on a grill and as a result (really!) became the patron saint for cooks.
Legend says he found the strength to tell his executioners "Turn
me over. I am done on this side." Well we wouldn't
want a half-cooked saint, would we?
St. Cyprian, exiled under the first edict, was now
recalled and publicly beheaded. As a yardstick of these
troubled times, during Cyprian's reign as bishop, 4
Roman emperors and their
families had perished.
"It is remarkable
that, of so great a multitude of bishops in the province
of Africa, Cyprian was the first who was esteemed worthy
to obtain the crown of martyrdom." – Gibbon.
evidence of any persecution for half a century. Celebrated
by the Church as the "Peace of Gallienus".
Church becomes a property and land owner. Bishops appear
at the imperial court.
emperors allowed the Christians in their service
to make the freedom of the faith almost a matter
of glory." – Eusebius
So acrimonious was the dispute between rival clergy and the metropolitan bishop of Antioch, Paul of Samosata, that the bishops petitioned Aurelian, the pagan emperor, to eject Paul from the church buildings!
"The rulers of this world can never find an opportunity against the churches of Christ, except the hand that defends them permits it, in divine and heavenly judgment, for the sake of discipline and correction, at such times as it sees best."
of Caesarea (HE 7.30.21).
Diocletian, son of a freed slave who became a Roman
Emperor. For 18 of his 20 year reign he tolerated the
Christians. Even his wife and daughter took an interest
in the cult.
western provinces, which were under the control of
Maximian and Constantius, were scarcely affected"
After the Persian
war of 297-298, the caesar Galerius became increasingly
concerned with disaffected Jews and fanatical oriental
cults, notably Christian ones.
Even his own wife (Diocletian's daughter) had been mixing
with the Christ followers! He adopted a policy that soldiers
and administrators in his service had to affirm
their loyalty by a sacrifice to the old
who refused were obliged to quit their posts.
winter of 302/303 Galerius urged upon Diocletian a tougher
on Christianity. As a result, Diocletian
met in Rome and jointly issued their infamous laws.
February 303 an edict was promulgated for the destruction
churches and sacred books, the death penalty for
secret assembly, and for the punishment of
leading Christians by loss
office and civil rights.
bishop, Felix, was beheaded for failing to hand over
led to a stampede of others who did so, the so-called
'Traditors'. Some martyrs are reported from Spain but
none from Britain.
in 303 a further edict required the arrest and
of all Christian clergy, who, none the less,
were to be released after sacrifice to the old gods.
April 304 a final edict required that all Christians clergy
and laity – were to sacrifice on pain of death. But
only one year later, in May 305, after
a lifetime of service to the empire, the ailing
retired and the persecution was halted.
son of a Greek shepherd who became a Roman Emperor.
confined to eastern provinces and a period of 3 years.
An edict issued by Galerius in 308 ordered
that all men, with wives, children, and servants, were
to offer sacrifice to the gods, "and that
all provisions in the markets should be sprinkled with
sacrificial wine." Cruel, eh?!
his death, Emperor Galerius issued an Edict
of Toleration in April 311.
have been especially anxious that even the Christians,
who have abandoned the religion of their ancestors, should
return to reason."
Resumed persecution after death of Galerius but within
months had to abandon the policy to fight a civil war
with Licinius. Lost, fled and died.
"The defeat of Maximin soon delivered the church from
the last and most implacable of her enemies." – Gibbon
The "Saviour" of
the Christians triumphs.
In 286, Diocletian
promoted his trusted colleague Maximian to the rank of Augustus.
Seven years later he appointed two new Caesars,
Constantius, given Gaul
in the west, and Galerius, assigned the Balkans in the
east. The intention was to provide an imperial presence in all sectors
of the empire and provide for orderly succession. On 1 May 305,
Diocletian abdicated, compelling his co-Augustus Maximian to
do the same. Constantius and Galerius became the new Augusti,
and two new Caesars were chosen,
Severus in the west and Maximinus Daia – nephew of Galerius – in the east.
(Maximin) based his court at Caesarea and ruled Egypt,
Syria, and Asia Minor.
Though these were among the richest provinces of the empire they
also presented Maximin with the most contentious problem
of Jewish and Christian radicals.
In 306 the
orderly management of the empire fell apart. The sickly Constantius
died. Severus became Augustus but the ambitious son
of Constantius – Constantine – compelled his acceptance as Caesar
from his fortress at Trier. Then another
malcontent, Maxentius, the son of Maximianus,
Augustus in Rome.
senior monarch, convened a conference at Carnuntum in late 308
to resolve matters. Severus had fallen in battle against Maxentius
and Galerius appointed Licinius, another army
colleague, in his stead. But Licinius chose to remain with
the Balkans rather than move against Maxentius in Italy.
Thus, in the
years immediately before that celebrated "Battle of the Milvian
Bridge", 5 pagan princes contended
for mastery of the Roman world: in the west, Constantine in Gaul,
Maxentius in Italy, Licinius
in the Balkans, Galerius in Nicomedia, and Maximin in
Maximin, confronting a "Christian problem" demoralising
their forces and causing commotion in the cities, adopted a hard
line policy towards the obstinate fanatics. Licinius back-pedalled
on the official policy. In the west, where factions of the church
in Rome and Carthage were themselves in conflict, Maxentius adopted
toleration, hoping for Christian support
for his rebellion. Constantine, in pagan Gaul where
no Christian problem existed, not to be outflanked,
of the Christians."
And then, in
311, Galerius died. Licinius and Maximin divided the east
along the Bosphorus, with Maximin taking possession of the heart
of the empire. His emissaries sought an alliance with Maxentius
in Italy. The following year Constantine made his move and trounced
at the Milvian Bridge.
At this late
hour, Maximin tried to defeat his Christian adversaries
in the great eastern cities by hastily organising the disparate
pagan priesthoods into a hierarchy to match the Christians. Pontiffs
and Metropolitan High Priests, chosen from noble families, were
granted the powers of magistrates to enforce the edicts on sacrifice.
Temples were restored and invigorated ceremonials introduced. The governor of Antioch, Theotecnus of Antioch, even circulated forged "memoirs of Pontius Pilate" casting Christ in an unfavourable light.
"The zeal and
rapid progress of the Christians awakened the Polytheists from
their supine indifference in the cause of those deities whom
custom and education had taught them to revere," – Gibbon, Decline & Fall, 16.
Constantine forged an alliance with Licinius to divide the
world. Meeting at Mediolanum, Constantine married
his sister to his erstwhile rival and together they promulgated
the so-called 'Edict
of Milan', granting
Christians (and others) freedom of religion. It was a policy
designed to cause Maximin the greatest difficulty. Enraged,
he forced-marched his troops across Asia Minor in the depths
of winter to take Byzantium by siege.
counter-stroke with fresh troops routed Maximin's exhausted troops
fled back to Tarsus. He took ill and died – to the
jubilation of the Christian bishops. Licinius' triumph was
short-lived. Having eliminated Constantine's most implacable
enemy, Constantine returned the favour by destroying Licinius'
army and executing his unloved brother-in-law. Thus did an
eminently qualified 'Christian' monarch emerge as master
of the world.
the history of Eusebius it may however be collected that
only nine bishops were punished with death; and we are assured,
by his particular enumeration of the martyrs of Palestine,
that no more than ninety two Christians were entitled to
that honourable appellation ...
may be considered as the sixteenth part of the Eastern empire
... it is reasonable to believe
that the country which gave birth to Christianity produced
at least a sixteenth part of the martyrs who suffered death
within the dominions of Galerius and Maximin; the whole might
consequently amount to about fifteen hundred ... an annual
consumption of 150 martyrs."
– Gibbon, Decline & Fall,
1500 martyrs for the whole climatic decade of persecution in
the more populous east. The western provinces
were little affected and such persecutions as occurred were of
brief duration. In total, then, the pagan assault on the Christians,
throughout a 300 year period, claimed "somewhat less than two
We might set
this number against any number of comparisons. Victims of the
witch trials, burnings and lynchings during the period 1300-1800
are conservatively put at 35-65,000 (and
many estimates are much higher). Victims
of the Inquisition, though
sometimes speculatively put in the millions, in any event far
exceeded anything dreamed of by the cruellest of Roman emperors.
Gibbon himself draws a contrast with the 100,000 Protestant Netherlanders
committed to the executioner by the Catholic Charles V of Spain.
But the real
comparison is between the thousand years of Greco-Roman civilisation
and the fifteen centuries of darkness that were to
Back Time: The Christian Torture Garden
'Wherever we look,
bishops were encouraging the landed elites... to take firm
and coercive action to make the peasantry Christian ...
Like it or not,
this is what our sources tell us over and over again. Demonstrations
of the power of the Christian God meant conversion. Miracles,
wonders, exorcisms, temple-torching and shrine-smashing were
in themselves acts of evangelisation."
Richard Fletcher (The Conversion of Europe, p45)
With the triumph
of Constantine the inmates came into possession of the asylum.
Their insanities were to become the only acceptable world view. Demonic
nonsense, dreamed up in the psychotic mind of the pious
theologian, populated the natural world with monstrous phantoms
and set Satan's familiars at every cherished spring
and venerable grove. Ever more lurid descriptions of Hell instilled
dread and terror. Every town and hamlet was polluted by limitless
malevolence from which the only deliverance was complete
submission to Holy Mother Church and her rapacious agents.
placed himself at the head of the collective of Christian fraternities,
rewarded their bishops and obtained their fawning adoration.
Fanaticism was now pressed into service as the propaganda of
a divine monarch;
zealotry was directed, not merely at the pagan and the skeptic,
but also at the brethren who had failed to understand the true
nature of the political revolution, had failed to adapt to servitude in
the kingdom of the world and still cast their
eyes, wistfully, on an anticipated kingdom of heaven.
Christian monarchs would far surpass in resolution and cruelty the mild attempts
of the pagan caesars to eliminate such unacceptable thoughts:
"In the century opened by the Peace of the Church, more Christians died for their faith at the hands of fellow Christians than had died before in all the persecutions."
– Ramsay MacMullen, Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries, p14.
Michael Walsh, Roots of Christianity (Grafton, 1986)
Arthur Ferrill, The Fall of the Roman Empire (Thames & Hudson, 1986)
Edward Gibbon, The Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire (1799)
Michael Grant, The Climax of Rome (Weidenfeld& Nicolson, 1996)
Chris Scarre, Chronicle of the Roman Emperors (Thames & Hudson, 1995)
Robert Wilken, The Christians As the Romans Saw Them (Yale UP, 1984)
Keith Hopkins, A World Full of Gods (The Free Press, 1999)
J. D. Randers-Pehrson, Barbarians & Romans (BCA, 1983)
Robin Lane Fox, Pagans & Christians (Viking, 1986)
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