History 114, Dr. Kalinowsk
Christianity first comes to the forefront of society in the first three centuries A.D.
It does this though under extreme duress, as any person who claimed to be a Christian
faced persecution at the hands of the Roman emperors. It wasnt until 313 AD, under the
Emperor Constantine, that Christianity was officially recognized as an acceptable
religion. Yet, despite the unfavorable conditions, the Christian faith survived and
eventually came to play a prominent role in Roman society. This can be directly
attributed to the courage showed by the martyrs of this age, and the pride that the rest of
the Christian people took in recognizing these martyrs. Also as the Roman juggernaut
began to falter in the early centuries A.D. the great image of Rome became tarnished and
its ideals questioned. To better understand how the Romans viewed the Christians and
what the Christians faced in being persecuted, I shall use correspondences between the
Church of Rome and the Church of Carthage, also letters from Pliny the Younger to the
Emperor Trajan. In addition I will put forth Christian writings in defense of their faith
and accounts by the historian Tacitus. All will help to ascertain the reason for the
persecutions of the Christian people in the Roman Empire during the first three centuries
To fully understand the scope of the Christian persecutions, I believe it is
necessary to have a knowledge of the background of Christianity. The introduction of
Christianity to the Romans first occurs in the eastern part of the empire, this can be
attributed to the preaching of Jesus. Jesus was said to be the son of God, and during his
short life he developed a base of followers to continue his work after his death. The base
of the Christian faith is God, God is seen as the almighty power and creator of the world.
He is a singularity who all Christians were to be loyal too. . It is said that by 250 A.D.
only 2 per cent of the Roman empire was of Christian faith.1 It is easy to see how the
Christian ideals conflicted with traditional Roman ways of thinking, and it is because of
this that the spread of Christianity was not as rampant as one would assume.
The Roman empire was built on the idea that the people of Rome were loyal to
the state and the emperor above all else. So it is easy to see how the upper hierarchy of
Rome perceived Christianity as a threat to there control. Obviously an empire the size of
the Romans had a vast ranging population, the better portion of which was probably of
lower class. It was these lower class people who the Roman elite deemed most
vulnerable to the Christian superstition. In 180 A.D. a man named Celsus wrote an
attack against Christianity in it he stated; ” that Christianity was only suitable for the
most ignorant slaves, women and little children”.2 It was necessary to the Roman empire
that its subjects be loyal to the emperor above all else, so the spread of a faith that
preached loyalty to a higher power above all else required the emperors to take action.
The first persecutions against the Christians occurred under the emperor Nero.
In the year 64 A.D. there was a great fire in the city of Rome, most of the great city was
gutted and people were looking for someone to blame. It was the belief of many that
Nero himself ordered the fire started, for the purpose of rebuilding Rome in his name, to
leave a legacy of some sort.3 This did not sit well with the Roman people, Tacitus tells of
Neros response; ” Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and
inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for there abominations, called
Christians by the populace.”4 Using the Christians to divert blame from himself was
successful, many were arrested, tried and convicted. Tacitus writes that they were not
convicted for burning the city but the real reason was for ” … hatred against mankind….”5
and there punishment was cruel, ” Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths.
Covered with the skins of beast, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to
crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt…”.6 The emperor Nero turned the
punishment into a public event, he opened up his gardens and socialized as they watched
the deaths of many Christians. This incident marked the beginning of many years of
persecutions for the Christian people.
During the second century A.D. the Christians were continually persecuted under
the emperor Trajan. We get a good idea of the persecution process of this time from
letters that are written from a provincial governor, Pliny the Younger7, to the emperor
Trajan. In one particular exchange Pliny writes to Trajan asking him advice on what to
do with the Christian people he encounters in his province. Trajans response tells us the
protocols of the trials and persecutions, he states;
“… it is not possible to lay down any general rule to serve as a
kind of fixed standard. They are not to be sought out; if they
are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished,….
whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it–
that is, by worshipping our gods–even though he was under
suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance….
anonymously posted accusations ought to have no place in any
The Christians that Pliny encounters he puts to trial. In order to be pardoned it was not
enough to just deny that you were a Christian, one would have to say the names of the
Roman gods, also pay homage and worship a picture of the emperor and curse the name
of Christ, all of which a Christian was said to be unable to do.9 If a person did meet these
three requirements they were put to death, because it was thought that if they were not a
Christian they deserved to be punished for stubbornness. In his letter Pliny also
comments on the spread of Christianity, he states his concern is because; “many persons
of every age, every rank, and also of both sexes are and will be endangered. For the
contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and
I am sure that the empires reason for the persecutions was to curb the spread of
the faith and discourage disloyalty to the emperor. But, against all odds, the persecution
of the Christians seemed to have almost the opposite effect. Christians reveled in the
role of the oppressed people, they believed to die as a martyr was a glorious end. The
martyrs were viewed as heroes and their stories were told to strengthen the resolve of the
Christian people.11 In one such writing, a letter from the Church of Carthage to the
Church of Rome, an account of the trial of Tascius Ciprianus,12 we see how the trials
were conducted and how the martyrs handled themselves;
“-‘Are you Tascius Ciprianus?
Bishop Cyyprian answered:
-‘Yes I am.
Proconsul Galerius Maximus said:
-‘Are you the one who has presented himself as the leader of a sacrilegious
Bishop Cyprian answered:
-‘ I am
Galerius Maximus said:
-‘ The most holy emperors bid you to sacrifice.
Proconsul Galerius Maximus said:
-‘ Think it over.
Bishop Cyprian answered:
– ‘ Do what you have been ordered to do. In such a just case there is
nothing to think over.”13
It is clearly evident that the Christians strongly believed in there faith and under no
circumstances would they repent it as a misgiving. Each time an example was set by
one of the martyrs it worked to strengthen the already growing support for Christianity.
A man named Tertullian put it best, he stated; “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of
It seems as though the Christians succumbed to the persecutions without
opposition or defence. But, that is not the case, they disputed the attacks on their faith
by telling, “What we believe” and “What we are”.15 Early on in the history of
Christianity the Senate labeled the Faith as “strana et illicita(strange and unlawful)”16,
the Christians disputed this claim in the Apologies(defenses),were they presented
themselves as loyal law abiding Roman citizens. ” Christians are not different because
of their country or the language they speak or the way they dress……. Yet they testify to
a way which, in the opinion of the many, has something extraordinary about it”.17 All
of which is true they were foreigners in their own countries, loyal citizens who were
treated as outsiders. The way the Christians thought towards their persecutors were
also extraordinary; “They love everyone, yet are persecuted by everyone. No one really
knows them , but all condemn them”.18 Even though it seemed everyone was against
them they still preached and practiced goodwill towards all men. Even those who
sucumbed to the pressure and deserted the faith they did not disown but prayed for god
to forgive them.
By utilizing the ancient writings of the people of Rome, we gain a better
understanding as to why the Christians and the Romans clashed so radically. It
becomes evident that the Roman hierarchy felt threatened by the ideals brought forth
from the Christian faith. Rome was a society based upon loyalty to the emperor above
all else, Christianity did not allow this. To be a Christian one must be loyal to God
above all other things. The Christians did not disregard Roman law or custom, they
still respected the empire, but they did not worship him as was to be done. So the
Christians were persecuted in an attempt to curb the spread of the so called
superstition. The Christian people faced these persecutions courageously, some even
heroically, each time a person was martyred it only seemed to strengthen the
Christians. The perseverance paid off as finally, in 313, the Christian religion was
recognized as a legitimate religion in the eyes of the Roman emperor.
1. Tacitus. The Annals. Translated by Alfred John Church and William Jackson.
2. Pliny the Younger. Letters.
Books and Articles
1. Freeman, Charles. Egypt, Greece and Rome; Civilizations of the Ancient
Mediterranean. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
2. Miller, Andrew. Church History. London: 1860,
, (November 27, 2000)
3. The Christian Catacombs of Rome. n.d.,
, (November 22, 2000)