[This is a cut-and-paste version of lectures given in this class and other related classes.  In many semesters, we have more time to spend on Eusebius, and talk a lot about his accounts of persecution.  If you've done the Eusebius readings, you should have things to add beyond what's here.  Also, there's a lot here that's background information, helpful, but not necessary should you address the persecution question on the exam.]


Many are the forms of divine intervention; many things beyond expectation do the gods fulfill.  That which was expected has not been accomplished; for that which was unexpected has god found a way.  Such was the end of this story. --Euripides
I tell the students in my History 121 class that the eclipse (disappearance) of Roman paganism and the triumph of Christianity. This change is, in many ways, one of the greatest surprises in all of history.  But change doesn't come easily: people don't like to change themselves, and they resent and sometimes hate those who they associate with those changes.  In some ways, it isn't at all surprising that the Romans hated and persecuted Christians.  What's more surprising is that persecution seems to so often have backfired and to have contributed to the growth of the church.

Paganism had many strengths, strengths that make it not at all surprising that people embraced it and hated anyone who threatened what, to them, was a key part of life.

Strengths of Paganism

First of all, Paganism had going for it its antiquity, the fact that it had been around for so long. Antiquity is a good thing in a religion: the longer a religion has been around, the more likely people are to believe that it is true.  For the Romans in particularly, antiquity was valued.  The Romans believe in the Mores Maiorum, the ways of the ancestors, and the worship of Jupiter, Juno and the rest was part of that ancestral tradition.  “Gimme that old time religion, gimme that old time religion, give me that old time religion, it’s good enough for me.”  Well, for the Romans, paganism was that old-time religion.  It was good enough for their fathers—and it should have been good enough for them.

A second strength of paganism was its tolerance.  Paganism was eclectic and syncretistic. Eclecticism comes from a Greek work which means to choose.  An eclectic religion is one where people can pick and choose from a great variety of traditions.  Syncretism involves an emphasis on similarities rather than differences.  The Romans worshipped Jupiter, Juno, and Mars.  When they encountered people who didn’t worship those gods, they didn’t emphasize the differences.  Instead, they just argued that these peoples worshipped the same gods, but called them by different names.  The Greek Zeus?  That’s our Jupiter.  The Greek Hera?  That’s our Juno.  The Greek Ares?  That’s our Mars.

The result of all this is that, like Hinduism, Roman paganism had a remarkable ability to absorb new religious impulses and add them to the mix.  There was something for just about every taste within the Roman tradition. 

A good example is Pagan attitudes toward sex. Temple prostitution was accepted within the pagan tradition. On the other hand, suppose you are totally turned off by sex.  Well, you can join the cult of Attis and Cybele where men go through a ceremony in which they are castrated, giving up sex altogether. Whatever you are looking for, you can find within the pagan tradition.

Another strength of paganism was its tie to the political system. Men like Julius Caesar had gained prominence and popularity in part through their service as aediles (religious officials) or, in Caesar’s case, as Pontifex Maximus, the high priest of the Roman religion.  When Augustus establishes the emperor cult, the tie between politics and religion is even closer.  To question the religious tradition means to question also the emperor and becomes close to treason.

But the greatest strength of paganism was its hold on people’s imaginations.  Paganism permeated every aspect of Roman society: the arts, literature, etc.  One out of every three days on the Roman calendar was a religious celebration of one sort or another.  And there were all sorts of incentives to participate.  At a pagan sacrifice, the wealthier members of society would provide a sacrificial animal.  But the meat from that animal might be shared among all those attending the sacrifice. A free steak dinner!  Who wants to turn that down?

Weaknesses of Pagan Rome--The Age of Anxiety

Nevertheless, there were some real weaknesses in Roman society, weaknesses great enough that it is perhaps not so surprising that the Romans would consider changing something even as fundamental as religion.

Rome faced political problems.  For over four centuries, Rome had been a Republic.  The Roman people elected their own leaders and made there own laws.  By the time of Augustus, the Republic had come to an end, and there was among some Romans a feeling that something had gone drastically wrong with their society when Romans could no longer maintain their Republican form of government.  And while the imperial system wasn’t bad under men like Augustus, when you had a Caligula or a Nero on the throne—well, obviously something had gone wrong.  Making matters worse was the periodic instability of the imperial system.  After Nero’s death, there were four emperors in the space of a year: civil war and assassination a real problem.  Later, things would get even worse.  Between 235 and 284 AD there were 26 emperors—only one of whom died a natural death.  Civil war, invasion, usurpers—no wonder the Romans were looking for answers. 

In addition, Rome faced the problem of ethical breakdown.  The Romans had once been among the most moral of all people.  But, by the time of Augustus, Roman morality was a thing of the past. This is particularly clear when it came to sexual morality. One Roman writer says that, in an earlier period of history, there was a two hundred year period where he couldn’t find record of a single divorce.  By his own day, however, he wrote that people getting married expected to divorce—and to remarry, and to divorce, and to remarry and to divorce.  And even when they were married, they didn’t pay much attention to marital fidelity.

Now marriage breakdown is a sign of moral breakdown in general.  A fundamental principal of morality is the Golden Rule, do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  Suppose one doesn't follow this rule in married life, that one treats the people one should love most (wife, husband, and kids) with utter disrespect for their feelings. The principle established is that my own desires are more important than anything else—and it’s almost certain that, if one doesn't treat one's family well, one won't treat others appropriately either.  And it’s no wonder that marital breakdown in Rome is paralleled by a breakdown in political morality (bribery and corruption everywhere) and economic immorality (vast fortunes made by exploiting others).

In addition to all this, Pagan religion itself had some growing weaknesses.  By associating their gods with those of the Greeks, the Romans ended up absorbing Greek attitudes toward the gods.  While the original Jupiter had been the embodiment of noble principles, the Greek Zeus was quite different—a god who spent his time cuckolding mortal men, and who (if the myths could be believed) actually raped his mother.  Hardly the kind of god worthy of worship!

Further, the Romans inherited both Greek skepticism, a tendency to doubt the gods even existed—and Greek fear of the supernatural.  Many Romans were (as the Apostle Paul noted) “deisidaimoneros”—too fearful of demons.

But the greatest problem of all for the Roman people was simple that so many of them were unhappy.  A society based on slave labor meant that many millions suffered harshly under the master's whip.  It also meant that, for many free-born Romans, there weren’t enough jobs.  As many as 1 out of every three Romans was on the equivalent of welfare.  Not having a meaningful job is *extraordinarily* demoralizing.

Roman leaders adopted an inadequate solution, the policy of bread and circuses.  Give the people enough to eat, and lots of entertainment, and hope that that is enough.

Well, it wasn’t.  Entertainments got more an more violent.  At first, a pair of gladiators fighting to the death was enough amusement.  But, by the time of Augustus, a *real* show might have 1000 pairs of gladiators!

The high rate of suicide is one clue as to the deep unhappiness of many Romans.  Also an indicator, the high rate of infanticide.

The most important sacrifice people make to keep their society going is the sacrifice involved in the bearing and raising of children.  The fact that many Romans would no longer make this sacrifice shows a society no longer providing emotional fulfillment, no longer convincing people that it is a society worth making sacrifices for.

Now its important to understand that irrational persecution of minorities is likeliest in time were people are worried and concerned about society breakdown.  All these troubles with Roman society made it more likely for minorities including Christians (and sometimes Jews) to end up  as scapegoats.

Christianity as a problem   

At first, it looked like Christianity was just adding to the problems of Rome--another reason Christians were persecuted.

Christians were thought to be a political problem.  The wouldn't swear an oath of allegiance to the emperor as a god, the equivalent of not saying the flag salute.  To a people worried about political stability and sometimes invasion from without, Christian failure to support the emperors divinity meant political disunity and potential trouble.

Likewise, Christians were believed to be horribly immoral people.  Pagans believed Christians practiced incest and cannibalism.  They also believed that Christians were atheists and haters of mankind.

Would you visit a church where, if rumor was to be believed, people practiced cannibalism and incest?  Where atheism and hatred flourished?  In view of such commonly held beliefs about Christianity, it’s surprising people looked twice at this new faith.

Phases of Persecution: Madmen, Good Emperors, Soldier Emperors

Also making the survival and eventual triumph of Christianity surprising is the intense persecution of Christians.

Imperial persecution of Christians began with the emperor Nero.  Nero, who had been blamed for starting the fire that destroyed much of Rome, needed a scapegoat.  He blamed the Christians for the fire, and began punishing them as if they really were responsible.  He killed most of the leaders (including Peter and Paul) and put the Christian to horribly cruel deaths.

Nero, of course, was something of a madman, as were several of the early persecutors.  But good emperors and good officials persecuted the Christians too.  An example is the emperor Trajan and Pliny, who served under Trajan as governor of Bithynia.  Both these men were competent leaders, and both had the interests of the Roman people at heart.  But though they know that none of the rumors about Christians were true, they still persecuted them.  Why?

Pliny’s letter to Trajan (read in class) helps us make some guesses.  First of all, people are complaining about the Christians.  Those in the religion business found the competition from Christianity hitting them where it hurt—right in the pocketbook—and they ran crying to Pliny to do something about the harm Christianity was doing to business.  Further, the Christians were simply stubborn: not willing to do what Pliny so reasonably asked them to do.

Nevertheless, such persecution wasn’t likely to mean the end of Christianity.  Trajan and the good emperors weren’t seeking Christians out: they just dealt with them appropriately if someone else brought charges.

The situation for Christians worsened in the 3rd century. The period from 235-285 is called the Age of the Soldier Emperors.  There were 26 emperors in those 50 years, only one of whom died a natural death. Political instability, outside invasion, and a devastating plague had the Romans more worried than ever that their society was falling apart. And who was to blame?  The Christians.  Many Romans felt that the gods were angry because so many people had quit worshipping them.  Bring back that old time religion, and thing would be good again.

One who felt that way was the emperor Decius.  Around 250 AD, Decius makes the first systematic attempt to rid the whole empire of Christianity.  And now the Christians would have been in trouble—except that Decius had too much else on his plate.  He has neither the time nor the resources to make a thorough end of Christianity.  Around 258 AD, Valerian (another soldier emperor) tried the same strategy, but he also had way too much on his plate to make a thorough job of it.  And, for a time, persecution died down.

But things change again for the Christians with the rise of Diocletian.

The Age of the Soldier Emperors had been a time of constant crisis in Rome: there were invasions by Goths, Boranni, Allemani, Franks, and Sassanids; disruption to political stability caused usurping emperors and mutinous armies; devastating plagues—and those troublesome Christians.  “Things Fall Apart,” said Yeats--and so they do.  And it must have seemed to many 3rd century Romans that there empire was one of those things that was going to fall apart, no matter what they wanted or what they did.

But in the midst of these crises, as it so often did at crisis time, Rome got an exceptionally capable leader: Diocletian.  Diocletian in many ways earned the title he claimed for himself, “restorer of the world.”  But the true turning point in Roman (and world) history was the reign of Constantine.

Diocletian took power in Rome after another series of usurpations, mutinous armies, and assassinations.  At first, he seemed like just one more soldier emperor, no more likely to succeed than any of his predecessors.  But Diocletian was determined to preserve his life, to preserve his power, and to restore peace and security to the empire.

He came up with a brilliant way to do this.  You will remember that the problem for Rome stemmed in large part from the necessity of fighting on several fronts at the same time.  The Rhine, Danube, and the Euphrates all had to be well supplied with troops. But a general sent out with enough force to deal with the problems in these areas was very likely to succumb to the temptation of instead making his own bid for power.  An emperor could, of course, lead the troops himself…but not in all three places at once!

So what do you do?  Well, what if the man sent out cannot possibly be made emperor?  That might work, yes?  But what kind of person can’t you make into an emperor?  Well, what about someone who is emperor already!!!

What Diocletian does is to divide the empire into two parts.  He chooses a co-emperor (an Augustus) to rule with him, Maximius.  Later, he adds two junior emperors (Caesars), Constantius and Galerius.

This is a more than decent solution to the problem. Constantius defeats the Allemani and pushes them back across the Rhine, while Galerius pacifies the Goths and Diocletian inflicts a major defeat on the Parthians.

Also, there is an obvious potential solution to the succession problem here, a system sort of like that of the Five Good Emperors.  When an Augustus retires, his Caesar moves up, and chooses a new Caesar.

Diocletian also deals with a potential problem from the Senate. Senate confirmation was, prior to this time, a more-or-less official part of the imperial process.  Diocletian says no.  He uses the title “Dominus” for himself. He is the master, not merely a Princeps.  And there’s none of the diarchy nonsense either: no split between senatorial and imperial provinces.  There’s just one bureaucracy, run by the emperor himself.

Political stability.  Economic recovery.  Hope for the future…and just one more little problem to solve: the Christians.  In 303 AD (almost 20 years into his reign), Diocletian’s Caesar, Galerius, convinced him that it was time to deal with one more serious threat to the stability of the empire.  It was time to get the gods back on their side, and deal, once and for all, with the Christians.  At first, Diocletian ordered the churches destroyed, the scriptures burned, and the exclusion of Christians from all offices and authority.  This was not enough: he now order the leaders to be imprisoned and compelled with every type of torture to sacrifice to the emperor as a god.  Still not enough.  So Diocletian set out to get all the Christians, rich and poor, young and old, male and female.  Refuse to sacrifice, and you’re imprisoned, tortured, and eventually dead. And now the Christians were in real trouble.  They had been persecuted before, but never by a ruler with the ability to devote full attention to the job.  Diocletian (and even more Galerius) were also doing there best to restore pagan worship, building temples, planting groves, and sending pagan priests everywhere.

Not long after beginning this great persecution and trying to bring back that old time religion of Rome,  Diocletian decided to retire, and to force his co-Augustus (Maximan) also into retirement.  The new leaders:

Augusti: Constantius, Galerius
Caesars: Severus, Maximinus

The transition went as smoothly as one could have hoped.  Diocletian had done it!  Stability.  Peace.  Prosperity.  And those pesky Christians would be gone soon as well.

But the best laid plans of mice and men gain oft aglay.  Constantius dies unexpectedly in 306 AD, and now there’s a question: who should take his place.  Severus?  Well, Constantius' soldiers say no: they want Constantine, the son of Constantius.  And, from retirement, Maximian pipes up with his own candidate: Maxentius.  Eventually, there are six Augusti fighting for two spots…and Rome is at war with itself again….and with the Christians.

Galerius, despite the difficulties of the civil war (which should have been his main priority) decided to step up the persecution of the Christians.  Eusebius of Caesarea, who was fortunate enough to survive this bloody time, left us an account of some of those things the Christians suffered:

It would be impossible to describe the outrages and tortures which the martyrs in Thebais endured. They were scraped over the entire body with shells instead of hooks until they died. Women were bound by one foot and raised aloft in the air by machines, and with their bodies altogether bare and uncovered, presented to all beholders this most shameful, cruel, and inhuman spectacle.

Others being bound to the branches and trunks of trees perished. For they drew the stoutest branches together with machines, and bound the limbs of the martyrs to them; and then, allowing the branches to assume their natural position, they tore asunder instantly the limbs of those for whom they contrived this.

All these things were done, not for a few days or a short time, but for a long series of years. Sometimes more than ten, at other times above twenty were put to death. Again not less than thirty, then about sixty, and yet again a hundred men with young children and women, were slain in one day, being condemned to various and diverse torments.

We, also being on the spot ourselves, have observed large crowds in one day; some suffering decapitation, others torture by fire; so that the murderous sword was blunted, and becoming weak, was broken, and the very executioners grew weary and relieved each other. And we beheld the most wonderful ardor, and the truly divine energy and zeal of those who believed in the Christ of God. For as soon as sentence was pronounced against the first, one after another rushed to the judgment seat, and confessed themselves Christians. And regarding with indifference the terrible things and the multiform tortures, they declared themselves boldly and undauntedly for the religion of the God of the universe. And they received the final sentence of death with joy and laughter and cheerfulness; so that they sang and offered up hymns and thanksgivings to the God of the universe till their very last breath.

These indeed were wonderful; but yet more wonderful were those who, being distinguished for wealth, noble birth, and honor, and for learning and philosophy, held everything secondary to the true religion and to faith in our Saviour and Lord Jesus Christ.

It seemed that, no matter what Galerius did, the Christians just wouldn’t give up.  But then…well, we get the great surprise.

It’s AD 311.  A sick Galerius is on what he suspects is his death bed.  But he still has time to issue one of the strangest decrees in history, the Edict of Toleration (read in class).

Note that Galerius, on his deathbed, asks for the prayers of the Christians--and there is a sense here of a readiness to surrender.  For more than 300 years, the Roman Emperors had tried to unite their people but their claim to be gods, or at least heirs to a line of gods.  Some insisted on the title Deus et Dominus: Lord and God.  But while the emperors were claiming to be gods and many willingly worshipped them as just that, growing numbers of Romans insisted that the Deus et Dominus title belonged to someone else entirely.

To paraphrase a famous poem, he was a poor man from a poor country, a man who never traveled far from where he was born, who never held political office, who commanded no armies, and wrote no books—who never did any of those things one usually associates with greatness.  And yet he was a man who changed the world more than any individual who has ever lived and who quite clearly knew he was changing the world.  A man who told his followers, “Go ye unto all the world and preach the gospel to every living creature.” 

That man, of course, Jesus of Nazareth.  And, to a certain extent, here hinges the persecution question.  What is it about Jesus that inspired people to give their lives rather than give up their faith in him?  Is it surprising or not that they would be faithful unto death, that they would endure so much for that martyr's crown?