(Three weeks ago I posted a piece on Albert Göring, who was being considered for inclusion in the Israeli Righteous Among the Nations for his work in rescuing Jews. Apparently he did not make it, presumably because of a rumor of a Jewish father, which would make him ineligible, and Israel avoids the embarrassment of having Reichsmarschall Göring’s brother among the honored.)
The Roman persecution of Christians is a well-known episode in the history of the religion, but inasmuch as these events occurred almost two millennia ago, there is no longer a Roman Empire and the Church was the winner, one might expect that some distortion has crept into the popular narrative. And it has, primarily because few people have any real knowledge of the Empire beyond what Christianity and Hollywood have suggested and even fewer understand the nature of traditional Roman religion. As a result a key fact has been lost: so long as you observed Roman tradition the state did not give a damn what gods you worshipped (at least until the state became Christian).
At first of course Rome did not even notice the new cult. Those with any knowledge of Judaea assumed it was yet another Jewish heresy, doomed to disappear, as in fact the sect of Christian Jews did. As the adherents of the new faith spread and multiplied, it was popular dislike that first caught the attention of the authorities. Like the Jews, Christians were monotheists, compelled by their beliefs to deny the existence of other gods, and they were doing this in a society that was completely polytheist. Polytheist societies are generally tolerant when it comes to religion, even in states with a religious establishment supporting a divinely connected kingship, as in the Sumerian city-states and Egypt. Inasmuch as deities were typically personifications of natural phenomenon, it was easy to identify gods across cultural lines, and in any case no one (excepting perhaps Akhenaten) was about to deny the existence of other gods and certainly not resort to violence in order to teach others a lesson.
Into this world come the Christians, telling their neighbors that the gods of their fathers do not exist and that they are wasting their time worshipping idols. Of course the Jews had been doing this for quite a while, but apart from small communities in some of the cities of the Empire, they were essentially a phenomenon localized in Judaea, and in any case they did not proselytize. Early Christians were in fact confused with Jews, but as their numbers grew, people realized this was something new – and very annoying. And if modern evangelicals are any indication, these early Christians likely often displayed a holier-than-thou attitude; they had the good news after all.
There was also a feeling that for all their professed love these people actually hated mankind. The first generation or so of Christians believed that the Christ would be returning soon, perhaps in their lifetimes, and there was consequently talk of what would happen then. And if Revelations is the guide, it would be unmitigated horror, suffering and death for non-believers, which was of course virtually all of humanity. There were also rumors of strange and disgusting rites, such as incest and cannibalism, the sort of things that are said of the despised and alien throughout history. Natural disasters and unexplained misfortunes were blamed on them. The Christians were strangers in a strange land and initially played the same role of the “other” that the Jews would play in medieval and modern Europe.
Capping it all off was the growing suspicion that they were disloyal as well as obnoxious. The traditional religion of Greece and Rome was primarily civic in nature, concerned with the cohesion and well-being of the community, and as such, it was closely connected to the idea of the state. The sacrifices and rituals were communal, designed to keep the community in the right relationship with heaven, and in the case of Rome this led to the emergence of priesthoods, such as the Pontifex Maximus, that were actually state offices. The holders of these positions were not “priests” in the familiar sense of the word, that is, representatives of a centralized church, as the priests of the temple of Amon-Re or the Catholic Church. Their job was not to intercede for or counsel the individual, but to conduct the rituals necessary for the survival and prosperity of the community.
As a result, honoring Jupiter Best and Greatest and his colleagues was more of a social act than a religious one, declaring ones good standing as a member of the community. If the worshipper had other more personal concerns regarding heaven, he would turn to gods more pertinent to his situation, especially traditional local deities among the provincials. As with most things, Rome had always had a laissez faire attitude regarding non-Roman religions, so long as there was no threat to public order and morals, such as led the Senate to ban certain Bacchanalian rites in 186 BC. She was even ready to tolerate an extremely intolerant religion, Judaism, because it was essentially local and no threat to the state. Nevertheless, denying the existence of the Olympic gods was in fact directly assaulting one of the foundations of the state and endangering the well-being of the society.
Even so, Christianity might have gone unnoticed were it not for the fact that they quickly became almost universally unpopular, even hated, and their vociferous rejection of the Roman gods struck people as disloyal. Constantly claiming that their god was their only true “king” and master also did not sit well in an autocratic society, and the ideas of their founder/prophet regarding the poor and the rich were absolutely revolutionary in a world always dominated by the propertied classes. So, there was in fact public disorder in the form of anti-Christian riots, which the authorities were compelled to deal with. All the evidence indicates that the Roman government was completely aware of the essentially innocent nature of the new religion, but Roman officials were hardly likely to defend an unpopular minority in the face of overwhelming public displeasure.
Apart from their refusal to pay even lip service to the imperial cults, there was actually a legal problem for the new church. Since the time of Augustus (27 BC-AD 14), the first emperor, new clubs and associations were prohibited unless they were specifically granted imperial approval. The reason was clear: private associations could easily harbor conspiracies against the state (as they did during the collapse of the Republic), and autocrats tend to be very sensitive about this issue. And here was a new and offensive cult spreading throughout the cities of the Empire.
As it happened, the Empire was mellow about the whole issue, and generally confronted the issue only when it could not be avoided because of public clamor. This was certainly the case under Trajan (98-117), who when asked what to do with Christians by his governor in Bithynia, Pliny the Younger, instructed him not to search them out but only act when it was unavoidable. The typical procedure was to require the Christian to make a token sacrifice, a pinch of incense, to an imperial cult, generally that of Roma et Augustus. For the authorities this was far more a pledge of allegiance than a religious act; perform this one act and you would get your “ticket,” your libellus, and could go home and worship whatever gods you pleased. Of course, for a Christian this was apostasy, and though many took the plunge, many did not, which baffled the Romans, who could not fathom such religious fanaticism.
The result of all this was that violence against Christians was for two centuries limited to popular outbursts, such as blaming Christians for the fire in 64 (encouraged by Nero), and the odd official currying favor with the locals. Not until the third century was there an actual persecution in the sense of the central government taking Empire-wide action against the religion, and this would come during the Anarchy (235-285), a fifty year long civil war that essentially killed the Empire, even though it would stagger on for another century or so. During his short reign Decius (249-251) required that all Christians be put to the test and imprisoned if they refused, and this was repeated, with more severe penalties, by Valerian (253-60) in 257-258. Both of these men were ruling during a period of widespread instability coupled with serious barbarian invasions and internal military revolts and were desperately attempting to restore loyalty to the state. An obvious target was the Christian community, which was now highly organized and blatant in its rejection of the state religion, which now included deified emperors.
Diocletian (285-305) ended the Anarchy, but the Empire would never again come close to the stability and economic well-being it enjoyed before 235, and the history of the Late Empire was one of military autocracy alternating with periods of civil war. In 304 Diocletian launched the last anti-Christian crusade, destroying churches and sacred books and imprisoning priests, but it ended with his abdication the following year and seems to have petered out because of lack of popular support. His ultimate successor, Constantine the Great (305-337), legalized Christianity with the Edicts of Toleration (311-313), and with his conversion it became the official religion of the Roman Empire.
And then the real persecutions begin, as the government implements a continuous policy of crushing polytheism and eliminating the pagani (“rural folk”), so called because the old cults hung on the longest in the rural areas. Unlike those carried out against the Christians this persecution was moved by nothing other than simple religious intolerance.
In the end Christians themselves would slaughter tens of thousands more Christians than the Roman Empire ever did.