Persecution; the First Christians in Rome

Posted: November 28, 2011 in Conspiracy Theories, History Related
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

When skeptics think of the founders of a religion, they tend to think of corruption, lies, or simple-minded fairy tails. Considering Christianity, some skeptics tend to think of the first Christians as Romans trying to use this new religion as a means to gain control over theRoman Empire, and to keep the people subordinate. As if Roman authorities adopted Christianity only to maintain absolute power in the empire. But, if one would only study history, they would realize that this is nowhere near the case. The first 300 years after Christ’s death, was one of persecution, imprisonment, and execution for Christians all overRome.

 

First you need to know the Biblical back story as recorded in Acts. Before Christians were even inRome, they were in Judea, a Jewish territory on the outskirts of theRoman Empire. Here Christianity was seen as a blaspheming cult. One devout Jew, a man by the name of Saul was a persecutor himself, putting many Christians into prison. Though eventually, through a divine experience with Jesus and temporary blindness, Saul converted to Christianity and became known as Paul. With his conversion, Paul immediately began to travel throughout theRoman Empireon multiple journeys, spreading the good news. Since he inherited his father’s Roman citizenship, he was well suited to preach all overRometo the gentiles, not just the Jews as many of the first Christians did. Paul’s missionary journeys would land himself inRomemany times.

 

At the time of Paul’s conversion, there were already a few Christian communities in Syria, Phoenicia, and areas of Asia Minor, but by the end of Paul’s life these Christian communities were flourishing as well as new ones in Romeand Greece.[1] The spread of Christianity throughout the Mediterranean was aided by the relative peaceful time experienced throughout the empire as well as a strong period of commerce connecting many regions of the empire, like the 60,000 miles of Roman roads.[2] Not to mention, everyone was speaking the same language; Greek. Meanwhile, in Jerusalem where Christianity began, Jews were becoming more and more hostile towards Christians which lead to a migration of many Christians into regions of Syria and Asia Minor to escape the persecution. By the year AD 100 it is estimated there were 300,000 Christians within the Roman Empire.[3]

 

This rise in population was not an easy one however. Persecution all started with Emperor Nero in the summer AD 64. A very long and dry summer. Romecaught fire, and burned much of the central part of Rome. Nero seized this as an opportunity to begin to build a massive new palace for himself amidst the destruction. Rumors began to circulate that Nero purposely set fire to the city to clear the grounds for his new palace. At that time Christians in Romewere a small underground group amongst slaves and poor people, making them the perfect scapegoat. Nero blamed the fire on them, and ordered all Christians to be arrested. During this persecution Christians were thrown to wild beasts and eaten alive in arenas throughout the empire, others were crucified.[4] Those that were “thrown to the beasts” were tied securely to stakes or other solid objects when beasts like lions, tigers and leopards (usually starved and tortured themselves) were released to devour them. Lions, tigers and leopards were efficient killers though, killing victims in one bite or paw swipe bringing forth death quickly. To increase the duration of the execution, Romans began using bears, crocodiles and wolves to kill the victims… a very slow and painful death.[5] It is during Nero’s persecution that St. Peter St. Paul are traditionally believed to have been killed.[6] Though the exact number of those killed is unknown, Roman historian Tacitus wrote that is was a “large number” of Christians.[7] Ironically enough, Nero’s antics were notorious for being cruel and immoral, something that drove even more people to accept the high moral standards of Christianity.[8]

 

Historically Romans were very tolerant on other religions entering their empire. The problem with Christians is that they believed their God was the one and only God, with all others being false. Christians also refused to participate in Roman religious ceremonies. By Roman political standards, this made them traitors.[9] Emperor Domitian unleashed another government sponsored persecution of Christians in AD 95, though little is known of the size and severity of it.[10] It is believed by some scholars that Domitian’s anti-Christian campaign lead to killing of his own cousin Flavius Clemens, which testifies to Christianity entering the political realm as far as the royal family.[11]

 

During the beginning of the 2nd century one of the most famous Christian martyrs Ignatius of Antioch was thrown to the beasts in the Roman Coliseum in AD 107.[12] Yet Christianity kept growing. The Christian population was such a significant growth that governor of Bithynia, Pliny the Younger wrote a letter to Emperor Trajan in AD 112 regarding Christianity as being “contagious.”[13] Between AD 161 to 180 Emperor Marcus Aurelius intensified persecution on Christians in which arrest, torture, property confiscation and execution were commonplace.[14] Sometimes the Christian persecution wasn’t government sponsored but instead carried out by Roman citizens themselves in the form of angry mobs.[15] It was during this period of persecution that the brilliant Justin Martyr was executed, for which the term “martyr” is now used.[16] In Greek, it is from “martus” which means, “witness” or “one who testifies,” in this case, for Christ. But after Justin martyrs execution it over time became the meaning as one who dies for his faith.”[17]

 

In AD 177 there was a persecution of Christians when Easter fell on the same day as the festival of hilaria, the Goddess of Cybele. Both the Christians and Romans in the city of Lugdunumheld a public procession for their respective celebrations, which turned to conflict. The priests of Cybele declared all Christians traitors, arrested them, and forced them to perform the Roman rituals. When the Christians refused they were taken to the arenas to be killed by wild beasts. Records indicate that 48 Christian leaders were executed for this conflict.[18]

But Christian populations were not shrinking during these persecutions. They were in fact, still growing. By the end of the 2nd century, theologian Tertullian wrote, “We are but of yesterday, yet we overspread your empire; your cities, islands, forts, assemblies, camps, palace, senate, forum all swarm with Christians.”[19]Rome was emerging as the central church for Christianity, sinceRome itself was the heart of the empire in which Christianity was spreading. It was also visited frequently by Peter and Paul which further signified it’s prestige among other Christian centers. This is also a time when many Christian apologists began debating Roman intellectuals on the divinity of Jesus and the false Roman Gods.

 

By the 3rd century Rome was in decline. A decline many were attributing (falsely) to the now massive portion of the population that was Christian. Emperor Decius, bent on restoring Rome to its former glory, hosted a series of public rituals to rally the Roman citizens. Christians of course refused to participate which enraged Decius, who then launched a brutal assault on Christians in AD 249. This persecution was carried on by his successors Gallus and Valerian as well.[20]

 

Later, Emperor Diocletian unleashed a persecution in AD 297 so violent and long it was named the Great Persecution, lasting 5 years.[21] Ironically, Diocletian was originally tolerant of Christians to the point where it is believed his own wife and daughter were Christians.[22] But the power Christians began to seize in the government was seen as a threat to his seat as the emperor. In an effort to maintain his power and restore Rome to its former glory, Diocletian, like many emperors before him, began executing Christians. First he declared that all government officials that did not participate in rituals to the imperial Gods be removed from power. Next came the arrest and execution of Christian clergy in AD 303 and 304. All churches were to be destroyed. Romans were also confiscating the land of the arrested and executed Christians, seizing it for themselves.[23]

 

Not all Christians kept strong to their faith during these persecution periods though. To escape death or torture, some self-proclaimed Christians submitted to imperial edicts and turned over their copies of scripture to the Romans, which were sadly destroyed. Persecuted Christians began to refer to these other “Christians” as “traditors.” Later, some of these traditors tried to become pastors and were subsequently denied because those, “unwilling to suffer for their faith were not worthy to be ministers of the church.”[24] In the end, the Christian population was too large and proved too costly for Diocletian to continue persecuting.Rome itself became divided into a west and east empire as it continued to decline.

 

In AD 306, Constantinecame to power in the west, and in AD 312 right before battle, Constantinesaw a vision of a cross on fire in the sky, which he perceived to be an omen of victory. Sure enough, Constantinewon the battle, and eventually became a Christian. In AD 313, he and the eastern emperor declared freedom for all religions in Rome, officially ending all Christian persecution. In AD 324, Constantineseized the eastern empire, reuniting Romeas one again. A year later, Constantinebrought 300 bishops together to the city of Niceato debate and declare authority to the state of Christianity in Romeand for the world.[25] Now secured, Christianity effectively ended the gladiatorial games and inhumane executions.[26] And even after theRoman Empire collapsed, Christianity continued its spread into the rest of the world.

 

After reviewing the historical facts surrounding Christianity’s rise to power inRome, it is clear that its rise was forged from persecution. This is important to understand as the Christian scriptures were already circulating and the theology was established long before the persecution ended and authority inRomehad been established. This alone should squelch many untrue conspiracies of corruption and attempts to control people with religion, in which many claim is the only reason Christianity took power. To read more about this and similar debunked conspiracies, I encourage you to read my other articles in the conspiracies section.


[1] Gardner, J. L. (ed), (1981) Reader’s Digest; Atlas of the Bible. The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., Pleasantville, NY., pp. 204

[2] Gardner, J. L. (ed), (1981) Reader’s Digest; Atlas of the Bible. The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., Pleasantville, NY., pp. 205

[3] Gardner, J. L. (ed), (1981) Reader’s Digest; Atlas of the Bible. The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., Pleasantville, NY., pp. 205

[4] Matthews, R. (2005) The Age of the Gladiators: Savagery & Spectacle in Ancient Rome, Chartwell Books, Inc.,Edison,NJ,  pp. 95

[5] Matthews, R. (2005) The Age of the Gladiators: Savagery & Spectacle in Ancient Rome, Chartwell Books, Inc.,Edison,NJ,  pp. 94

[6] Lang, J. S., (1999) 1,001 Things You Always Wanted to Know About the Bible  But Never Thought to Ask, Thomas Nelson,  Inc., Nashville, TN, pp. 106

[7] Gardner, J. L. (ed), (1981) Reader’s Digest; Atlas of the Bible. The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., Pleasantville, NY., pp. 207

[8] Lang, J. S., (1999) 1,001 Things You Always Wanted to Know About the Bible  But Never Thought to Ask, Thomas Nelson,  Inc., Nashville, TN, pp. 106

[9] Matthews, R. (2005) The Age of the Gladiators: Savagery & Spectacle in Ancient Rome, Chartwell Books, Inc.,Edison,NJ,  pp. 95

[10] Gardner, J. L. (ed), (1981) Reader’s Digest; Atlas of the Bible. The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., Pleasantville, NY., pp. 206

[11] Gardner, J. L. (ed), (1981) Reader’s Digest; Atlas of the Bible. The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., Pleasantville, NY., pp. 206

[12] Gardner, J. L. (ed), (1981) Reader’s Digest; Atlas of the Bible. The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., Pleasantville, NY., pp. 207

[13] Gardner, J. L. (ed), (1981) Reader’s Digest; Atlas of the Bible. The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., Pleasantville, NY., pp. 205

[14] Gardner, J. L. (ed), (1981) Reader’s Digest; Atlas of the Bible. The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., Pleasantville, NY., pp. 206

[15] Gardner, J. L. (ed), (1981) Reader’s Digest; Atlas of the Bible. The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., Pleasantville, NY., pp. 207

[16] Gardner, J. L. (ed), (1981) Reader’s Digest; Atlas of the Bible. The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., Pleasantville, NY., pp. 207

[17] Lang, J. S., (1999) 1,001 Things You Always Wanted to Know About the Bible  But Never Thought to Ask, Thomas Nelson,  Inc., Nashville, TN, pp. 462

[18] Matthews, R. (2005) The Age of the Gladiators: Savagery & Spectacle in Ancient Rome, Chartwell Books, Inc.,Edison,NJ,  pp. 96

[19] Gardner, J. L. (ed), (1981) Reader’s Digest; Atlas of the Bible. The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., Pleasantville, NY., pp. 205

[20] Gardner, J. L. (ed), (1981) Reader’s Digest; Atlas of the Bible. The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., Pleasantville, NY., pp. 208

[21] Matthews, R. (2005) The Age of the Gladiators: Savagery & Spectacle in Ancient Rome, Chartwell Books, Inc.,Edison,NJ,  pp. 96

[22] Gardner, J. L. (ed), (1981) Reader’s Digest; Atlas of the Bible. The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., Pleasantville, NY., pp. 208

[23] Matthews, R. (2005) The Age of the Gladiators: Savagery & Spectacle in Ancient Rome, Chartwell Books, Inc.,Edison,NJ,  pp. 96

[24] Lang, J. S., (1999) 1,001 Things You Always Wanted to Know About the Bible  But Never Thought to Ask, Thomas Nelson,  Inc., Nashville, TN, pp. 268

[25] Gardner, J. L. (ed), (1981) Reader’s Digest; Atlas of the Bible. The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., Pleasantville, NY., pp. 208

[26] Matthews, R. (2005) The Age of the Gladiators: Savagery & Spectacle in Ancient Rome, Chartwell Books, Inc.,Edison,NJ,  pp. 115

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Comments
  1. colbystream says:

    Hi,

    Interesting material. Just wanted to leave you a quick note that (hopefully) doesn’t come off rude and leaves you with some new material.

    First, you might try some newer references. 1981 is a long time away, and despite people’s perceptions things do change and we do learn more.

    Second, when touching on early Christianity and Constantine (in particular) I suggest Charles O’dahl. He’s one of the world’s foremost authorities on those subjects.

    Anyway, hope I’ve helped and not offended.

    ~C.
    colbystream.wordpress.com

    • matthew2262 says:

      No offense taken at all 🙂 Thank you for your opinions in fact and suggesting Charles O’Dahl. Using references 20 or 30+ years old has been something I’ve debated from time to time. What I’ve concluded is that when it comes to matters of theories and research in fields like science for example, up to date sources should be used. However, when it comes to historical evidence, I don’t mind using old sources in this case because they are referencing Roman historical documents discovered long ago. Granted, we have surely found more historical documents overtime, that doesn’t nescessarily render the older evidence inadequate, they were just unearthed first. Even books published within the last few years still base their conclusions from many of the old Roman historical manuscripts that have been referenced since the 80’s. Thank you for your comment.

  2. tobeforgiven says:

    Thanks for this. I have read some very misleading information on this subject.

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