THE IMPERIAL PERSECUTIONS
FROM THE DEATH OF St. JOHN, 100 A.D., TO THE EDICT OF CONSTANTINOPLE, 313 A.D.
The most prominent fact in the history of the church through the second and third centuries is the persecution of Christianity by the Roman emperors. While this condition was not continuous, it was often repeated for years at a time, and liable to break forth at any moment in terrible forms. It lasted in the forth century until 313 A.D., when the Edict of Constantine, the first Christian emperor, ended all attempts to destroy the Church of Christ. The fact is remarkable that during this period some of the wisest and best of the emperors were the most active in the persecution of Christianity, while some of the worst emperors were lax in their opposition or remitted it altogether. Before narrating the history, let us investigate some of the motives that impelled a government, in the main just and seeking the welfare of its citizens, to attempt, and continue for two hundred years, the expiration of a body as upright, as law-abiding, and as desirable as the Christians. A number of causes may be named for the antagonism of the emperors to Christianity. Heathenism was hospitable to new forms and objects of worship, while Christianity was exclusive. Where gods were already counted by the hundred, even by the thousand, one more god would make no difference. When the people of a city or a province desired to promote trade or immigration, they would build temples to the deities worshiped in other lands, in order that their citizens could have a place of worship. Thus in Pompeii we find a temple to Isis, an Egyptian goddess, erected to increase the commerce of Pompeii with Egypt, and make Egyptian traders at home. But on the other hand, Christianity opposed all worship except to its own God. One emperor wished to place a statue of Christ in the Pantheon, a building at Rome, still standing where all the important gods were worshiped. But the Christians rejected the offer with scorn. They would not have their Christ recognized merely as one of many deities. Idol worship was interwoven with life in every department. Images stood in every house to receive adoration; libations were poured out to the gods at every festival; with every civic or provincial ceremony the images were worshiped. In such forms the Christians would take no part. Hence they were regarded by the unthinking as unsocial and morose, as atheists, having no gods, as haters of their fellow-man. From such an unfavorable estimate by people in general, it was but a step to persecution. One form of idolatry was held as a test of loyalty, the worship of the emperor. In some prominent place of every city stood a statue of the reigning emperor; and before this image incense was offered as to a god.
It may be that in one of St. Paul‘s earliest epistles there is a guarded reference to this form of idolatry. This worship the Christians refused to render, simple as it was to drop a handful of incense upon the altar; and because they sang hymns of praise and gave worship to “another King, one Jesus,” they were looked upon by the multitude as disloyal and plotters of a revolution. In the first generation of the Christians, they were regarded as somehow connected with the Jews, and Judaism was recognized by the government as a permitted religion, although the Jews lived apart from the idolatrous customs, and would not even eat fool from the idol-feasts. This supposed relationship for a time preserved the Christians from persecution. But after the destruction of Jerusalem, in 70 A.D., Christianity stood alone with no laws to protect its followers from the hated of their enemies. The secret meetings of Christians aroused suspicion. They met either before sunrise or at night, often in caves or catacombs underground; and false reports went abroad of lascivious or murderous rites performed among them. Moreover, the autocratic government of the empire was jealous of all secret cults or societies, fearing disloyal aims. The celebration of the Lord’s Supper, from which outsiders were excluded, was often made a ground for accusation and persecution. Christianity looked upon all men as equal. It made no distinctions in its membership and its services; a slave might b chosen as bishop in the church. This was abhorrent to the minds of the nobles, to the philosophic, and to the ruling classes. The Christians were regarded as “levellers,” anarchists, and subverters of the social order; hence as enemies of the state. Incidentally, business interests often promoted or excited the persecuting spirit. Just as St.Paul at Ephesus was thrown into danger of death through the riot incited by Demetrius the silversmith, often the rulers were influenced to persecute the Christians by people whose financial interests were affected by the progress of the church; e.g. the priests and lay-servants of the idol temples, image makers, sculptors, architects of the temples, and others whose living depended upon the heathen worship. It was not difficult to raise the cry, “The Christians to the lions!” when men found their craft in danger, or covetous officials longed for the property of wealthy Christians.
During all the second and third century, and especially in the opening years of the fourth century, to the year 313 A.D., the Christian religion was forbidden and its votaries were outlawed. Yet most of the time the sword of persecution was sheathed, and the disciples were scarcely interrupted in their religious observances. But even during those periods of comparative rest they were at any time liable to sudden danger, whenever a provincial governor saw fit to execute the edicts, or when some prominent Christian was open and bold in his testimony. There were several periods, of shorter or longer duration, when throughout the empire, the church exposed to the fiercest persecution. We have noticed the persecutions in the first century, by Nero(66-68) and Domitian(90-95). These were simply outbreaks of frenzy and hate, with no reason except the rage of a tyrant, spasmodic, occasional and not long continued. But from 250 to 313 A.D. the church was subjected to a systematic, relentless, empire-wide series of attempts by the government to crush the ever-growing faith.
From the reign of Trajan to that of Antoninus Pius(98-161 A.D) Christianity was not recognized, yet was not severely persecuted. Under the four emperors, Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian and Antoninus pius(who with the next in succession, Marcus Aurelius, were known as “the five good emperors”), no Christian could be arrested without a definite and proven complaint, and the spirit of the age was to ignore the Christian religion. Yet when charges were made and Christians refused to recent, the rulers were compelled, even unwillingly, to enforce the law and put them to death. Prominent martyrs to the faith during those reigns were:
Simeon(or Simon, Mark 6:3), the successor of St. James as head or bishop of the church in Jerusalem, and like him was also a brother of our Lord; said to have attained the age of one hundred and twenty years. He was crucified by order of the Roman governor of Palestine in 107 A.D. during the reign of Trajan.
Ignatius, bishop of Antioch in Syria, was more than willing to be a martyr, and on his way to Rome wrote letters to the churches, hoping that he might not lose the honor of dying for his Lord. He was thrown to wild beasts in the Roman amphitheatre, 108 or 110 A.D. Although the persecution during these reigns was less than that falling upon the church soon afterward, there many martyrs beside these two distinguished men.
The very best of the Roman emperors, and one of the highest type of ethical writers, was Marcus Aurelius, who reigned 161 to 180 A.D. His equestrian statue still stands before the site of the ancient Capitol in Rome. Yet this good man and just ruler was a bitter persecutor of the Christians. He sought to restore the old simplicity of Roman life, and with it the ancient religion; and opposed the Christians as innovators. Many thousands of the believers in Christ were beheaded or devoured by wild beast in the arena. Among the multitude of the martyrs during those years we mention only two.
Polycarp. bishop of Smyrna in Asia Minor, died in 155 A.D. When brought before the governor and commanded to curse the name of Jesus Christ, he answered, “Eighty and six years have I served him and he has done me nothing but good; and how could I curse him, my Lord and Saviour!” He was burned to death.
Justin Martyr had been a philosopher, and continued teaching after his acceptance of Christianity. He was one of the ablest men of his time, and a foremost defender of the faith. His books, still extant, give much valuable information concerning the church in the middle of the second century. His martyrdom took place at Rome in 166 A.D.
After the death of Marcus Aurelius, 180 A.D., a period of confusion followed, with weak and worthless emperors, who were too busy with civil wars or their own pleasures to pay much attention to the Christians. But Septimius Severus began in the year 202 a fierce persecution which lasted until his death in 211 A.D. Severus was morbid and melancholy in nature, and a strong disciplinarian, striving vainly to restore the decaying religions of other days. Everywhere persecution raged against the church, but it was the most severe in Egypt and North Africa. In Alexandria, Leonidas, the father of the great theologian Origen was beheaded. A noble lady in Carthage, Perprtua, with her faithful slave Felicitas, was torn in pieces by wild beasts 203 A.D. So bitter was the spirit of the emperor, Septimius Severus, that he was regarded by many Christian written as the Antichrist.
Under the numerous empowers who followed in rapid succession, the church was left unnoticed for forty years. The emperor, Caracalla(211-217 A.D.), conferred citizenship upon every person not a slave throughout the empire. Incidentally this was a benefit to the Christians, as they could no longer be crucified or thrown to wild beasts, unless they were slaves. But with the reign of Decius (249-251) fierce persecution broke out anew, though fortunately his reign was very short, and the slaughter of Christians ended for a time with his death.
More than fifty years of comparative rest followed the death of Decius, although there came at times brief periods of persecution, in one of which, under Valerian, in 257 A.D., the celebrated Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, one of the great writers and church-leaders of the period, was put to death; also the Roman Bishop Sextus.
The last, most systematic and most terrible persecution of all the series took place in the reign of Diocletian and his successors, from 303 to 310 A.D. In the series of edicts it was ordered that every copy of the Bible should be burned; that all churches which had arisen throughout the empire during the half-century of comparative rest from persecution-should be torn down; that all who would not renounce the Christian religion should lose their citizenship and be outside the protection of law. In some places the Christians were assembled in their churches, which were set on fire and burned with all the worshipers within their walls. It is said that the emperor, Diocletian, erected a pillar inscribed, “In honor of the extirpation of the Christian superstition”-yet within seventy years Christianity became the official religion of the emperor, the court, and the empire. With the forced labor of enslaved Christians the immense Baths of Diocletian were erected at Rome. But twelve centuries after Diocletian’s time, a part of his building was transformed by Michelangelo into the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, consecrated in 1561 A.D. and still in use for Christian worship. Diocletian abdicated the imperial throne in 305 A.D, but his subordinates and successors, Galerius and Constantius, continued the persecution for six years. Constantius, as coemperor, who was not at that time a professing Christian, issued his memorable Edict of Toleration in 313 A.D. By this law Christianity was sanctioned, its worship was made law-ful, and all persecution ceased, not to be renewed while the Roman Empire endured.