When Christ sent out His disciples to preach God’s gospel, He said to them, “And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake.” This prediction has been going into fulfillment through the ages without interruption and from the day that it was uttered by the Savior. Always have the true followers of Christ been hated of all men, of the world that lieth in darkness for the sake of the Word of God. Now hatred is the will to destroy, so that, according to this saying of Christ, the world is always bent on destroying God’s believing people. To achieve its purpose—a purpose which assuredly cannot be achieved—the world, as instigated by the invisible powers of darkness, avails itself of means, the chief of which are slander, speaking all manner of evil against God’s people falsely, and laying violent hands on their person, with a view to killing them in the event they persist in their belief. But not always does the world destroy the bodies of the believers. But it did so, intermittently, during the first three centuries of our Christian era. It is to these physical assaults which historians refer when they speak of the persecutions of the church, in particular of the primitive church. When in 313 the world, through the edict of Constantine, was prohibited from troubling the church in this sense, persecutions, it is said, ceased. This cessation of persecutions spelled, it is further maintained, “the victory of the Christian religion, the triumph of the church over paganism” so that it can be truly said, such is the reasoning, that “this bloody baptism of the church resulted in the birth of a Christian world”. Such phrases —the ones included in the quotation marks—make for fine oratory but they do not bespeak a great deal of realistic thinking. But this is a matter not covered by the title of this essay. Its treatment therefore must be postponed.
Persecutions did not cease. How could they if the world continued to hate the gospel of God and the men and women in whose lives this gospel by the power of God’s grace was made to bear fruit. What ceased is the violent form—the destruction of the body—in which this hatred was expressing itself during these centuries.
It is especially this form of persecution of the primitive church with which we have to do in this period. In treating this subject, we arrange our materials under the following points: 1) The history of this martyrdom; 2) The “why” of it; 3) Its significance.
1. The first Roman imperator to assail the Christians was Nero, a tyrant unspeakably vain, vile, and cruel. He committed crime after crime until he became a veritable monster in iniquity. He murdered his mother (Agrippina), his brother (Britannicus), his two wives (Octavia and Poppaea), his teacher (Seneca), and many Romans of high rank. This career of crime, which lasted nine years, was terminated by suicide in the thirty second year of his age.
Nero’s greatest sin was that he cast the blame for the conflagration in Rome upon the Christians to free himself from the general suspicion of the crime, that he then ordered their persecution and murdered a crowd of them in sheer sport. The horrible story is quickly told.
It was in the year 64 that a fire broke out in Rome which reduced more than half of the city to ashes. For six days the fire raged, consuming the wooden houses of the poor, and besides these numberless palaces and important buildings. Only four of the fourteen regions of Old Rome remained untouched by the flames. It was not known how this tremendous fire had started. Men therefore had to guess at the cause and their thoughts turned to the demon master of the Roman empire. It was known that for a long time he had been dreaming of a new Rome reconstructed on a vastly enlarged scale. Could he not have resorted to this method for clearing away the old Rome, in particular that portion of it where the streets were narrow and the buildings ancient and squalid? The truth will never be known. But there were rumors in the air, all of which pointed to Nero as the author of the calamity; and they were being believed by the populace. It was then that it occurred to the dark mind of Nero to divert the suspicions of the people from himself by throwing the blame of the crime upon the Christians. He subsequently ordered the Christians to be apprehended and brought to trial.
The police of Rome addressed themselves to their newly imposed task with a will. Many of God’s people were sought out. These, says Tacitus, a Roman historian, confessed—confessed certainly, not that they had set fire to Rome, but that they were Christians. For as the investigation of the government was prolonged, it was found that the charge of incendiarism could not be proven. Hence, they were convicted and put to death simply on the general charge of “hatred of mankind.” Soon all pretense of their connection with the recent great fire was dropped, and they were condemned on their confession that they were Christians,
But this is not all. It was then also that Nero conceived of the idea of converting the punishment of the Christians into an amusement for the populace. First, on a day, a long line of the condemned were marched round the interior of the great open-air theatre. This was followed by the “hunting scene”—a game in which the victims were forced into mortal combat with wild beasts. Besides, there were dramatic spectacles, the scenery of which provided by the well-known mythological legends,. To illustrate, a Hercules was carried to the funeral pyre and then burned; an Icarus was made to fly, and then fall and be dashed to death; a Prometheus was chained to the rock where he underwent his punishment; a Marsyas was flayed alive; and an Ixion was tortured on the wheel. Other scenes were added too degrading to be narrated. All this took place with the multitude gazing on those tortured with fierce excitement. Then night came and still the games went on, only the scene was changed. The principal amusement now was to be chariot racing. As it was night, there was need of artificial illumination. This was plentifully provided. The torches finally flamed up and every torch was a human being crucified on a cross. Thus were Christian people, covered with pitch or with some other combustible materials and nailed to posits of pine, lighted and burned for the entertainment of the mob.
The number of Christians who died in these persecutions in the city of Rome and in the provinces, to which it was extended by the example set by Nero, is uncertain, there being no statistics. Clement of Rome, whose labors fell in the last quarter of the first century, describes them as “a great multitude.”
The burden of blame of this and subsequent persecutions rests heavily also upon the multitudes. God’s people were hated of all men, as Christ had said, and thus not simply of a few Romans of high position. The hostility of the populace, as we shall see, was at all times so fierce that the least encouragement from the successive emperors brought new persecutions. Even without this encouragement tumultuous violence broke out against the Christians over and over.
The years A.D. 68 (the date of Nero’s death) to A.D. 81 formed a period of stillness for the harassed Christians, though recent investigations point to persecutions by the Roman emperor Vespersian (A.D. 69).
Many Christians, including his own cousin, were put to death and many more sent into exile by the blasphemous Domitian (81-96). It is to the reign of Domician that tradition assigns the banishment of John to Patmos and the martyrdom of Andrew and Mark.
Trajan (98-116) was one of the best of emperors. But he was the first to pronounce Christianity an outlawed religion. This it had been all along in fact. There had been long in existence rigid laws against private political clubs or unions for party purposes. These Trajan revived; and the police of the provinces enforced them with respect to the meetings for worship of the Christians.
The friend of Trajan was Pliny, governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor from 109-111, and a statesman and lawyer of great reputation. Pliny, to stop the progress of Christianity, which he regarded as a “depraved and immoderate superstition” had condemned many Christians to death and had sent others, who were Roman citizens, to the imperial court at Rome. But there was a perplexing question troubling him. Among the Christians brought to trial there were some who denied that they had ever been Christians at all; others of the accused, afraid of death, burnt incense before the statue of Trajan and spake evil against Christ.
Pliny was at a loss to know how to proceed against such penitents, whether to set them free without the infliction of some kind of punishment. So he asks the emperor to instruct him. In his missive to his master, he also acquaints him with what he has learned of the life lead by these Christians through an inquiry that he had caused to be made. Had these persons, in the exercise of their strange rites, committed any of the crimes with which they had been so freely charged by their enemies, such crimes as child-murder, cannibalism, and immorality? The results of his inquiries he sent to the emperor. He had found these secret charges of wickedness to be absolutely without foundation. The Christians led simple and innocent lives. He also describes their worship. It was their habit to meet at dawn on a certain day, when they sang hymns together in praise of God as Christ. It was also their custom to vow never to commit theft or adultery. When the service was ended they came together for a simple meal. Trajan replied: You have adopted the right course my friend, with regard to the Christians, for no universal rule, to be applied to all cases, can be laid down in this matter. They should not be searched for; but when accused and convicted, they should be punished; yet if any one denies that’ he has been a Christian, and proves it by action, namely, by worshipping our gods, he is to be pardoned upon his repentance, even though suspicion may still cleave to him from his antecedents. But anonymous accusations must hot be admitted in any criminal process; it sets a bad example, and is contrary to our age” (i.e. to the policy of Trajan’s government).
The instruction embodied in this correspondence with Pliny was followed by the government for all of a century. It was calculated to occasion extreme severity toward the Christians,. It forbade ‘the search for the Christians; yet by demanding their punishment it declared them guilty and their worship a crime. It thus encouraged, nay, rendered imperative what it forbade. It was evidently inspired by the thought that Christianity could be suppressed sooner by ignoring it, than by attacking it. Especially in Syria and Palestine did this decision awaken in this reign the fury of persecution. The Jews accused Simon, bishop of Jerusalem, with the result that he was crucified and this at the age of a hundred and twenty years. Ignatius, bishop of Rome was condemned to death. Brought to Rome, he was thrown before the wild beasts In the Colosseum.
The position of the followers of Jesus was made more tolerable by the imperial document of the emperor Hadrian (117-138), which followed the conscript of Trajan but changed some of the directions. In the case of Christian persecution, it demanded concrete evidence and ordered that if the complaining party in the litigation failed to prove his case, he should be severely punished. This change, however slight, served as a check upon the popular fury against the Christians in the provinces. For the first sixteen years of his reign, Hadrian himself interpreted the imperial precedents very gently. But in his last years his feelings toward the Christians changed. The testimony of tradition is that during these years many confessors of Christ suffered martyrdom. Among them was the distinguished bishop of Rome, S. Telesphorus.
In the successive reigns of Antonius Pius (so-called for his conscientious adherence to the pagan religion of his fathers), and Marcus Aurelius (138-180), the dangers to which the Christians were exposed increased in number. The safeguards which rulers like Trajan and Hadrian (they had given orders -that mere noisy clamor on the part of the people should not be admitted as a formal accusation of the Christians) had raised against the fury of the mob, were more or less ignored or circumvented. Before the hearing of the accused had begun or was completed, the governors in the provinces were induced by the tumult and shouting of the populace to sanction the execution as in the case of the great Bishop Polycarp.
The second of the two emperors last named, to wit, Marcus Aurelius, went down in history as the noblest of Roman ruler. A philosopher he was, one whose “Meditations” reveal a conscience most acute. Yet, under his reign more Christian blood flowed than was shed in the persecutions of any of his predecessors including Nero.
In the evil days of Commodus (180-193), the vile offspring of Emperor Marcus, the persecution of the Christians was much less severe and general. This was due to two causes. Commodus cared nothing about the ancient pagan religion of his ancestors; secondly, there was at the seat of the Government a strong influence at work in favor of the Christian religion. Marcia, the wife of Commodus, who was a staunch friend of the Christians, and the many Christian officebearers about the court, possessed vast influence with the Emperor. This period of comparative “stillness” continued until about 202, when a great change for the worse set in under Septimus Severus (193-211). This Sovereign, during the first ten years of his reign, was pleased to tolerate, if not to favor, the Christians. Then a change came over his feelings, perhaps on account of the excesses of the extreme party among the Christians themselves, and he enacted a rigid law against the further spread of Christianity and Judaism. Persecution again became general and also bitter especially in Alexandria, Carthage and other North African centers. “We Christians”, wrote Tertullian, “are daily harassed, tracked out, surprised in our most secret assemblies.” His writings contain many a vivid picture of the trials and sufferings of God’s people during these sad years.
This state of things continued through the early years of Caracalla (211-217), the son and successor of Severus. After the year 212 the long drawn out persecution gradually ceased and for thirty seven years the church enjoyed a rest interrupted only by the short outbreak of persecution under the Emperor Maximinus (235-238). El-Cabal (218-222) and his successor Alexander Severus (222-235) looked with favor on all religions in the hope of merging them into one. The latter even placed the busts of Abraham and of Christ in his chapel with those of the Roman gods. Maximinus the Thracian (235-238) again resorted to persecution. But Gordianus (238-244) left the church unmolested. And it was even supposed by some that Philip the Arabian (244-249) was a Christian,. This period of rest proved detrimental to the spiritual life of the church. The zeal of the Christians cooled and their brotherly love diminished. There was need of another storm to restore the purity of the church. It came with the coming to power of Decius Trajan (249-251).
To Decius the presence of the Christians in Rome, their number and influence seemed one of the principal causes of the decline of the Empire; and in the year 250 he promulgated a persecuting edict demanding return to the pagan state religion. Every possible means was employed to terrify the Christians into returning to the gods of Rome; confiscation, exile, torture, and promises and threats of all kinds. Vast numbers of nominal Christians apostatized, consenting to sacrifice to some Roman deity to escape the loss of their goods or free themselves from the penalty of death. Cyprian Bishop of Carthage, was amazed and appalled at the sight of so many faithless members of his flock rushing to the temples of the gods to burn incense at the heathen alters.
Decius died in a battle with the Goths. The lull in the persecution which followed his death was of short
duration, Valerian (253-260), the successor of Decius, was at first kind and friendly toward the Christians; but after two or three years he changed his policy, and made an effort to check the spread of their religion first by banishment and confiscation of property and, when these measures proved fruitless, by bloodshed.
The next emperor, Gallienus (260-268), left the church undisturbed. He even issued a toleration edict acknowledging Christianity as a lawful, religion. This calm continued forty years. It was followed by the last and most violent persecution of all—the Diocletian persecution.
Diocletian (284-305) immediately after coming to power called to his side three subordinate vice-gerents, Maximian, Galerius, and Constantine Chlorus (the father of Constantine the Great), and divided with them his vast empire. In the first twenty years of his reign his policy with respect to the Christians was one of toleration. Then in 303 under the instigation of his cruel and fanatical co-regent and son-in-Jaw, Galerius, he promulgated three persecution edicts of ascending severity. A fourth, the worst of all, was issued soon after by Maximian. The terrible persecution which these edicts initiated lasted ten years. In raged most fiercely in the East under the reign of Galerius and his inhuman nephew Maximim Daza to whom Diocletian before his retirement had entrusted the command of Egypt and Syria. “All the pains, which iron and steel, fire and sword, rack and cross, wild beasts and beastly men could inflict, were employed to “induce the Christians to embrace the official state religion. In this as in former persecutions there was a vast number of apostates, men and women who preferred to save their lives rather than lose them and gain a crown. In 311 Galerius was smitten with a terrible disease. His conscience awoke and he was afraid. Shortly before his death he published in connection with Constantine and Licinius, his colleagues in the imperial throne, an edict of toleration and (the persecution ended. A new edict, promulgated in 313, by Constantine, and signed under his pressure by his colleagues, ordered the governors in all the provinces to restore all confiscated property to the body of the Christians at the expense of the imperial treasury, and placed Christianity on a full legal equality with any religion of the Roman world. In 319 heathen sacrifice was forbidden. In the same years the clergy were freed from the obligation of paying taxes to the state, and in 321 the church was granted the right to receive legacies. In 323 Constantine, through defeating his last rival, Licinius, in battle, became the sole ruler of the Roman world. With the defeat of Licinius, who was hostile to Christianity, and whose hostility had grown to persecution, the church was everywhere free from its enemies. But it now found itself largely under the dominion of a new master—Constantine the great, the first Christian occupant of the throne of the Caesars.