In the year 64, a huge fire destroyed a large part of the city of Rome. Nero was Emperor at the time, and the rumor spread that he had started the fire himself, then “fiddled while Rome burned.” Nero was the sort of Emperor you could believe wild rumors about. He certainly did take advantage of the destruction: he built himself a gigantic palace on land cleared by the fire.
The Empire had no official policy on Christianity. There were local persecutions, but nothing so far had been dictated by the Emperor himself. But Nero needed someone to blame. Since the Christians were an unpopular cult, he accused them of setting the fire. Then he set about killing as many as he could get his hands on. Some were crucified in the usual way, but Nero could be much more imaginative than that. He liked to think of himself as an artist, and he applied all his creativity to the art of killing Christians.
Some of them were sewn up in animal skins and thrown to hungry wild dogs. Others were doused with pitch and became human torches for Nero’s garden parties. Even Tacitus, the pagan historian who hated Christians and thought they all deserved to die, was appalled by Nero’s cruelty. Tacitus pointed out that Nero’s methods had one effect no one had counted on: ordinary Romans started to have sympathy for the Christians, who met such horrible and unjustified punishments so heroically.
In the midst of these horrors, Peter and Paul both came to Rome—Paul in chains, Peter willingly. Eusebius tells us that they both died on the same day.
Peter was crucified. This time, he didn’t deny Jesus or try to run away. He made only one request: he asked his executioners to crucify him upside-down. He said he wasn’t worthy to die the same way as his Lord.
Paul, who was a Roman citizen, couldn’t be crucified. That was one of the privileges of being a citizen. Instead, he was beheaded—a quick, neat death, compared to the slow agony of crucifixion.
Nero’s persecution established a precedent for the persecutions to come. From now on, Christianity was a more-or-less illegal cult, and the punishment for it was death. But it also made the Christians much more visible, and it made them objects of sympathy. By creating so many martyrs, Nero may well have been responsible for thousands of conversions.
Nero’s persecution had set the official face of the Empire against the Christians. But the Romans had as yet no official policy against Christianity as such. For the next few decades, where persecutions broke out, they were usually responses to popular riots against the Christians—riots which the authorities blamed on the Christians.
So Christians lived in an uneasy uncertainty. They might live their lives in peace, or they might be called upon suddenly to give up everything for the sake of Christ. There was no way to know. And yet more and more pagans were turning Christian all the time. As the Good News spread outward from Palestine, it seemed to encounter everywhere huge numbers of people who had been waiting to hear it.
The persecutions stopped at the end of Domitian’s reign. Nerva, a virtuous and kindly Emperor, succeeded him, and he allowed all the Christians who had been exiled to return to their homes—including the ancient Apostle John, who returned to Ephesus from his exile on the remote island of Patmos. But virtuous and kindly Emperors didn’t usually last long, and in a little over a year Nerva was succeeded by Trajan, who renewed the persecutions. Still, Trajan wasn’t about to have a bloodbath on his hands, and he set the policy that would become the law for more than a century after him.
Trajan’s policy is preserved in a letter he sent to his friend Pliny, who had been sent to sort out problems in Bithynia in the year 111. Pliny had asked what to do about the Christians he found there. Trajan’s answer was very sensible, from the pagan point of view: “There’s no one rule that will cover every case. Don’t go looking for these people. But if someone points them out and they are found guilty, they must be punished; except that if the accused denies that he is a Christian, and proves he isn’t by worshipping the gods, he should be pardoned for reforming, no matter how suspicious he might have been. But no anonymous accusations can be admitted in evidence against anyone; they set a very bad precedent and don’t suit our modern ideas.”
In other words, the Roman government had a don’t-ask, don’t-tell policy for Christians. The government wasn’t going to go looking for them. And anonymous accusations—of which there had been plenty, sometimes in the form of posters hung up in the middle of the night—would not be allowed. The only way a Christian could be arrested was if one of his enemies was willing to accuse him, and risk the serious penalties that went with bringing false charges. Even then, the Christian had a way out. If he renounced Christianity, he would be pardoned.
So most Christians could live their lives in peace most of the time. The threat of death was always hanging over them, but it was seldom carried out. Christianity spread rapidly under those conditions: life was not impossible for the average Christian, but the heroic witness of the famous martyrs kept enthusiasm high. For there were famous martyrs, even under Trajan’s mild reign.
The Church wasn’t always persecuted. While Rome disdained Christianity, full-scale purges took place only sporadically. Especially bloody persecutions happened during the reigns of Domitian (81-95), Trajan (98-117), Antoninus Pius (138-161), Marcus Aurelius (161-180), Septimius Severus (193-211), Decius (249-251), Valerian (253-260), Diocletian (284-305), and Galerius (305-311). In between, some of the Emperors were sympathetic or at least indifferent to Christians, so there were long periods of peace. When Philip the Arab became Emperor in 244, rumor had it that he was actually a Christian. If that’s true, Philip deserves the honor of being called the first Christian emperor. Christian or not, he encouraged the Church to grow and prosper—which made the persecution under his successor, Decius, all the more terrible.
And in every persecution, the pagans made the same mistake. “Most Christians won’t be willing to die for their silly religion,” they seemed to think. “If we just show them we’re serious about it, they’ll come round to our way of thinking.” But it never worked that way. The Christians had an entirely different way of seeing things.
“Your cruelty is our glory,” the famous Christian theologian Tertullian wrote to the imperial authorities. And Rome could be ingenious in its cruelty. Thus, all the greater was the Church’s glory. St. Irenaeus described the shock of pagans who witnessed the willingness of Christians to endure lingering tortures and the “games” (as they were called, though being eaten by a lion had little sport in it) rather than renounce the cult of Jesus. Tertullian taunted the pagans that their most noble philosophies offered them nothing comparable to die for. Testing the resignation of Socrates, the famous Greek philosopher who was sentenced to death by poison, he found it wanting, when measured against the Christians’ eager embrace of death.
What the Romans couldn’t understand was that martyrdom was the ultimate imitation of Christ: accepting a cruel and unjust death, as Jesus did. There could be no greater proof of one’s faith than to choose death rather than apostasy. So the Christians recorded the trials and pains of the martyrs in almost unbearable detail. It was common teaching that the martyrs entered heaven immediately upon their death. Some of the early Christian writers taught that the martyrs earned a sort of “priesthood” by their endurance.
And that was true in a sense. A priest is one who offers sacrifice, and martyrs offered their lives in union with the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Two of the most famous martyrs of that age, St. Ignatius of Antioch and St. Polycarp of Smyrna, both used images of the Eucharist to speak of their dying. “I am the wheat of God,” St. Ignatius wrote to the Romans. “Let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ.” And while he was being burned at the stake, St. Polycarp made a speech that sounds like a eucharistic prayer: “I give you thanks that you have counted me worthy of this day and this hour, that I should have a part in the number of your martyrs…among whom may I be accepted this day before you as a rich and acceptable sacrifice, as you, the ever-truthful God, have foreordained.”
In 260, a new Emperor named Gallienus came to the throne. Things had been going rather badly for the Empire; the previous Emperor, Valerian, had been captured by the Persians. Gallienus revoked all the edicts against the Christians, and restored the property the previous emperors had taken from them. For the next four decades, Christians would live at peace in the Empire. Gallienus’ edict of toleration guaranteed their rights. It seemed as though Christianity had finally been accepted.
But if you think the story of the Roman persecution is over in 260, you haven’t read been visiting this blog very much! The worst was yet to come.
Read some books on the subject: Abbot Ricciotti’s The Age of Martyrs: Christianity from Diocletian (284) to Constantine (337), Herbert Musurillo’s The Acts of the Christian Martyrs (Oxford early Christian texts), and most especially Robin Darling Young’s In Procession Before the World: Martyrdom As Public Liturgy in Early Christianity.