Why Early Christians Were Persecuted by the Romans

Popular suspicion rather than imperial policy, writes Bruce S. Eastwood, was responsible for Christian persecution in the Roman Empire.

'Nero’s Torches’ by Henryk Siemiradzki, showing early Christians being burned alive by the Roman emperor Nero, c. 1876. National Museum in Krakow. Public Domain.

In its first two centuries of existence Christianity witnessed the persecution of many of its members by officials of the Roman Empire; the causes of these persecutions have been and continue to be investigated by various scholars. The purpose of this paper is to review the general setting of the persecutions in order to offer some modification of current opinions concerning their causes. Two different aspects of the persecutions are presented below and brought together in support of the conclusions.

The rather familiar picture of mutual suspicion and recriminations between Christians and pagans is presented in some detail as the background for a consideration of the strictly legal causes of the persecutions. The legal causes have been an object of special study by historians for some time now. Three important interpretations of the evidence appeared in the later 19th century and have had varying influences on subsequent studies. One school of thought has emphasised the importance of the coercitio as a legal basis for the persecutions.

The coercitio was the power of Roman Governors to punish in virtue of their ordinary power to enforce public order by means of their own discretion, without reference to particular legislation. This power derived quite naturally from their full executive and judicial power, or imperium. A second, opposing school has stressed the continuing existence of a law explicitly against Christians as such during the period of persecutions. This view was based on the technical, legal interpretation of Tertullian’s mention of an institutum neronianum, supposedly proscribing the name of Christian itself.

While these two schools have tended to dominate historians of the persecutions in the first half of this century, a third view has also existed. This school has seen individual crimes under the common law as the basis for delation of Christians before Roman tribunals. According to this third interpretation, there was no single legal basis for the persecutions, neither coercitio in itself nor an institutum neronianum.

The proponents of a legal institutum neronianum have now been overburdened by the evidence against its existence. Not before the persecutions of the mid-third century were there imperial laws directing that Christians be condemned because of their religious beliefs; the important rescripts of Trajan and Hadrian, while mentioning Christians explicitly, were not against Christianity as a religion and were not intended by those Emperors as encouragement for legal attacks on Christians. They suggest, in fact, that Christianity was not in itself a basis for persecution. The real basis was the popular suspicion, contempt, and hatred for the early Christians. Without this motivating force it is inconceivable that the persecutions could have occurred.

Under Nero (54-68) occurred the first persecution of a ‘new and mischievous superstition’, as Suetonius described it. Christians were not necessarily culpable for the fire of AD 64 in Rome, according to Tacitus, but they were viewed with high suspicion as a group with ‘degraded and shameful practices’, holding to ‘a foreign and deadly superstition’; certainly they evidenced ‘antisocial tendencies’.

While the first general epistle of Peter also illustrates Christian awareness of suffering at the hands of pagans, Tacitus is the best contemporary guide for determining the cause of the Neronian persecution; he noted that the Christians were condemned for odium generis humani. Not as a specific crime but rather as an attitude, this ‘hatred of the human race’ was attributed to Christians throughout the period of the persecutions. Why? Many considerations are needed to give the answer.

First, let us consider the Jewish question. In the Book of Acts we find definite references to the mixing of Christians with the Jews; because the Christian mission was intended more for Jews than gentiles, the initial expansion of Christianity in the East was solely among the Jews. From the pagan point of view conversion to Christianity involved submission to the Jewish way of conceiving the origins of the universe and much of the history of mankind. The Jewish customs and religion excited popular disfavour in general, the pagan attitude in the Hellenic East being more intolerant than western Roman opinion.

The reaction of the people of Thessalonica to the missions of Saint Paul was that as Jews these missionaries taught illegal practices. Philo’s De legatione tells of Caligula’s antipathy for the Jews; he considered their refusal to worship him as a deity to be an instance of treason, but allowed them to escape the penalty for such a crime. Popularly as well, the Jews were attacked, being considered atheists for not worshipping idols. The evidence of popular disapproval is such that at least one historian has felt justified in stating that the Neronian persecution was against the Jews—that Tacitus injected the Christians into his account of the persecution because of knowledge gained of them in his own time.

In any case, the regarding of Christians as an extreme sect of Judaism is shown by the Roman protection of them from the excesses of Jewish persecution. And though the Roman authorities apparently distinguished between Christians and Jews as early as AD 64, the distinction did not prevent their being associated as adherents of a single monotheistic creed, springing from the same root and potentially hostile to Graeco-Roman society.

Many links between these two dubious sects were apparent to contemporary pagans. As late as 170 the Christians in Asia continued to observe the Passover, while the dating of Easter was commonly 14 Nisan (the first month of the year in the Hebrew calendar) throughout the Church during the first centuries. Attacking Jesus as a rebel Jew, Celsus in his De veritate said that Christ had started the sect by persuading people of the lower and ignorant classes to his belief; just as the Israelites were an offshoot of the Egyptian religion, Celsus reported, so was Christianity a despicable byproduct of Judaism.

Even as late as the beginning of the third century we find the linking of Christianity with Judaism in an anecdote of Tertullian; he told of the appearance in Carthage of someone carrying a placard on which was depicted a man with the ears of a donkey and having a cloven hoof, under which figure was written, ‘the god of the Christians—orokoétns' (he who lies with an ass). The meaning of the placard is clarified by Tacitus, who gave credence to the following tale about the Jews.

Wandering in the desert and apparently doomed to die of thirst before reaching the Promised Land, the Jews, said Tacitus, were saved by following a group of wild asses to water. After the passage through the desert:

Moses, wishing to secure for the future his authority over die nation, gave them a novel form of worship, opposed to all that is practised by other men. Things sacred with us with them have no sanctity, while they allow what with us is forbidden.

In their holy place they have consecrated an image of the animal by whose guidance they found deliverance from their long and thirsty wanderings... Their worship is upheld by its antiquity; all their other customs, which are at once perverse and disgusting, owe their strength to their very badness. The most degraded from other races, scorning their national beliefs, brought to them their contributions and presents.

This augmented the wealth of the Jews as also did the fact that among themselves they are inflexibly honest and ever ready to show compassion, though they regard the rest of mankind with all the hatred of enemies... They hold that the souls of all who perish in battle or by the hands of the executioner are immortal. Hence a passion for propagating their race and a contempt for death. They are wont to bury rather than to burn their dead...

The Jews have purely mental conceptions of deity as one in essence. They call those profane who make representations of God in human shape out of perishable materials. They believe that Being to be supreme and eternal, neither capable of representation nor of decay. They therefore do not allow any images to stand in their cities, much less in their temples. This flattery is not paid to their kings nor this honour to our emperors.

In this noteworthy passage there appear many similarities between Jew and Christian and even more between the charges brought against both. Of special note is the odium generis humani, significantly, the phrase is applied to Jew and to Christian in two places by the same author. This ‘hatred of the human race’ was for Tacitus obviously a phrase covering a multitude of sins and was not meant in any narrowly legal sense.

Specific crimes could also be attributed to the Christians. An early instance of applicable criminal law was a senatusconsultum of A.D. 16 which made a capital offence of the practice of magic or the prophetic arts in Italy; this infraction was punished in the provinces as well. Such a ruling would certainly have comprehended the eschatological teachings of those Christians of the Pauline persuasion, and later the millenary views of the adherents of Montanism. Magic also was cited continually as a crime of Christians. The broad scope of such crimes could include the messianic teaching of many Jews as well as the apocalyptic predictions of certain Christians.

In the persecution under Domitian (81-96) the association of Jew and Christian was of definite importance. Dio Cassius said that Flavius Clemens and Domitilla, probably Christians, were charged with atheism and described as ‘citizens who had adopted Jewish customs’. Indeed, it seems that not until the end of the first century did Christians and Jews finally and clearly recognize the distinctions between their respective religions. Well into the second century the pagan mind continued to confuse the two.

As differentiations came to be made, it was the Christians who suffered more. While the Jews were looked upon with distaste, yet generally tolerated as a nation of ancient origin, the Christians were considered revolutionaries, showing no respect for traditional values and mores. Here we can begin to survey the almost innumerable suspicions and charges against the Christians, either as a separate sect or as the worst manifestation of the detested Jewish race.

It was not the novelty, organization, or theology of Christianity that irritated the pagans, but rather the pretension to live apart, to break with traditional piety, even gradually to overcome all that was not Christian. One fact commonly held against Christianity was the nature and origin of so many of its converts—slaves. Saint Paul, in his epistle to the Ephesians, mentioned the Christian slaves and exhorted them in a manner that might have aroused the suspicion of pagan slave-owners. Paul advised:

Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters... not in the way of eye service as men pleasers, but as servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to men... Masters... forbear threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him.

The tendency in Christian teachings to social levelling, combined with the suggestion of exorbitant rewards, possibly greater than those of their masters, in some future life, appealed immediately to the lower classes and slaves; it was quite natural that such motivations for conversion should have been most meaningful to the great majority. We are informed by Arnobius among others that slaves were often punished by their masters for adhering to Christianity; and such practice may well have been excusable in View of Saint Ignatius’ advice in writing to Polycarp: ‘Despise not the slaves, but neither let them be puffed up with pride.’

That Christian slaves troubled the order of the Roman state is shown by the declaration of Pope Calixtus (217-222) that divine law could validity what Roman Law forbade in the case of marriage by a woman of the clarissimi (highest class) to freedman or slave, which was not legally recognized in Rome. This was just one example of many Christian attitudes, real or imagined in the pagan’s mind, that contributed to the nuisance of Christians in the Imperial order.

From the province of Bithynia about 111 there came to the Emperor Trajan a letter that is the earliest clear piece of evidence for any history of the persecutions. It was written by Pliny the Younger, Governor of Bithynia, to the Emperor to obtain guidance in acting on accusations against Christians. From this letter, along with its answer by Trajan, we learn that (1) Trajan’s earlier proscription of private clubs comprehended Christian gatherings, (2) the ‘perverse and excessive superstition’ of the Christians apparently did not merit the punishment of death, (3) Christians were punished by Pliny primarily for obstinacy, and (4) no single rule or law was applicable to the trials of Christians.

Certainly no actual law, no institutum neronianum, was appealed to here. In fact, Nero had suffered an official damnatio memoriae, annulling his acts, upon his death, and Nerva had made an official rescissio actorum accomplishing the same purpose, for Domi-tian’s reign. Trajan himself reported to Pliny that ‘nothing can ,be laid down as a general law’.

Recently it has been suggested that the persecutions under Trajan, Hadrian, and others followed an institutum neronianum in a non-legal sense, that no actual Neronian law was applied, but rather that a general official practice begun by Nero was continued. Even this interpretation, however, can be questioned. According to Moreau, Trajan’s rescript to Pliny was designed to restrict fanatical attacks on Christianity, and a set procedure was briefly outlined; Christians were to be punished only when public order seemed threatened, yet the name itself seems to have been made the key to delation and punishment.

But what exactly did the. name ‘Christian’ mean to Pliny? He reportedly found nothing dangerous in the specifically Christian habits of those interrogated. Finding at most a ‘perverse and excessive superstition’, he was in need of Imperial advice, for he was unaware ‘what crime is usually punished’. What seemed most alarming to the Governor was the obstinacy of Christians in refusing to deny their religion. Such recalcitrance he could not understand, and continued refusal to obey a Roman Governor seemed to be a serious act of disobedience.

If it were a disloyal element, then this ‘contagious superstition’ should be halted. Effective persecution, Pliny noted, seemed to have resulted in a return to pagan religious practices. Pliny’s actions then were certainly based on no more than a simple exercise of coercitio, used to maintain order. But Trajan’s reply still poses a problem. Though he indicated the absence of any law explicitly condemning Christians, and though he forbade the searching out of Christians, the Emperor made the denial of the Christian name and belief the key to pardon.

Now this directive by Trajan should be considered in conjunction with Pliny’s inquiry. First, it should be remembered that the Governor did not initiate such actions; trial of those accused was held in order to satisfy the accusers and preserve order. Pliny pardoned and freed those who denied Christ and proved it by sacrifice; Trajan’s rescript required no more than this.

Pliny condemned those who were obstinate and therefore guilty of contumacy, possibly treason; Trajan’s rescript required no more. Without popular delation no persecution at all would have occurred under Pliny. The real key was not the nomen christiani, but popular antipathy to Christians. Trajan did not institute persecution; he simply allowed it on a restricted scale. The reason was preservation of order.

The persecutions in the second century were sporadic, local, and intermittent. One notable piece of evidence is a letter of Hadrian (117-138) to Minucius Fundanus, proconsul of Asia. In this letter (of about 124) the Emperor menaced false accusers and forbade any sizeable persecution of Christians. Punishment was to be awarded ‘according to the seriousness of the crime’; the implication was that crimes other than the profession of Christianity were involved. Hadrian was following the advice set by Trajan, but that advice did not require persecution for the nomen christiani itself.

Trajan, and Hadrian as well, simply backed up the exercise by the Governor of his coercitio; a Governor solicited direction concerning Christians in particular and therefore received guidance upon their examination and punishment. A Christian was to be punished ‘according to the seriousness of his crime’, that is with discrimination, as the crime varied. It seems most sensible to consider these crimes to have been contumacy, incitement of disorder, and more specific crimes, rather than the single invariable act of profession of Christianity.

In the second century there began to appear tracts on the merits of Christianity. The first Christian apologetic was that of Marcianus Aristides and was addressed to the Emperor Antoninus Pius. Aristides called attention to the religious, philosophical, and moral superiority of Christians. Having stated that the world continued to exist only because of Christian purity and election by God, he evoked the harsh judgment awaiting pagans. Such a tract could hardly have eased official feelings about an unpopular group.

The more intelligent among the pagans were just as convinced of the worthlessness and evil doings of the Christians as was the rabble. Lucian of Samosata attributed (about 170) the love of admiration, notoriety, and attention to the Christians and described them as quite gullible. Such crimes as incest, murder, and cannibalism had to be refuted continually by apologists like Justin, Athenagoras, and Theophilus of Antioch. Lucius Apuleius (second century) made a Christian of the woman who played a role in one of the most ignoble episodes of his book.

She was an enemy of faith, an enemy of all virtue; she despised and trampled underfoot our holy divinities; in return she was initiated into a certain sacrilegious religion which believed in a single god; by her vain and hypocritical devotions she deceived all men...

Celsus considered Christianity an association contrary to the law upon secret gatherings and societies; this religion, he said, stemmed from a barbarian source, taking its disdain for idols from the Persians. To show what a mockery might be made of Christianity, he cited its tenet: ‘Do not question, only believe; your faith will save you’; to see wisdom in this life as folly, and simplicity of mind as good, seemed to Celsus the height of foolishness.

Further persecutions, under Marcus Aurelius (161-180), offer more evidence of the great part played by popular agitation against unknown or disfavoured groups. Various military catastrophes as well as plague, famine, and flood were seen by the pagan populace as retribution for the toleration of Christians, natural scapegoats for all such catastrophes. Nor were the people discouraged from such a belief by Christian avoidance of religious ceremonies instituted by Marcus Aurelius in order to end the plague.

Among the most famous martyrdoms in the reign of Marcus Aurelius was that of Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna. Popular movements against Christians were especially virulent in the Greek East and resulted (about 177) in the summoning of the Bishop before the provincial Governor of Asia; the people desired blood and demanded the condemnation and execution of the notorious Christian leader. The following exchange between the Governor and the Bishop was reported.

Governor: Swear by the Genius of Caesar.

Polycarp: If you vainly suppose that I shall swear by the Genius of Caesar, as you say, and pretend that you know not who I am, listen plainly; I am a Christian. And if you wish to learn the doctrine of Christianity, fix a day and listen.

Governor: Persuade the people.

The Bishop was then led away and was burned. The power of mob action in the provinces, as illustrated in the passage on Polycarp, was often irresistible. In order to maintain peace it was necessary for an official in such a situation to accede to the demands against the Christians.

In the first year of the reign of Commodus (180-192) occurred the initial chapter in the African persecutions. Twelve Christians were executed by the Proconsul, Vigellius Saturninus, for refusing to swear by the Genius of the Emperor. Yet the Proconsuls generally sought only to bend Christian persistence from a path which would be harmful to them. Cincius Severus and Vespronius Candidus (183/5-193), for example, suggested to Christians brought before them the answers that would gain them their liberty.

Arrius Antoninus, the Proconsul of Asia, while assembling a group of denounced Christians (about 185) asked, ‘Unhappy ones, if you wish to die, have you not enough ropes and cliffs?’ The feeling among provincial Governors seems to have been much the same throughout the persecutions. Christians would be accused by groups demanding their execution. The Governors would seek what seemed a simple solution, the denial of their religion by those accused in order to save their lives. In the face of aloofness and obstinacy on the part of the accused, the Governor, frustrated and often suspicious, gave way to the demands of the people.

That various heinous crimes were attributed to Christians throughout the second century can be seen in an apology by a Christian. The apologist, Minucius Felix, gave the following description of contemporary Christians as probably seen by an educated Roman citizen of the day:

How can we witness without pain the attacks against the gods made by this miserable, unlawful, and fanatical faction? They collect from the scum of the populace ignorant and credulous folk and make them fellow conspirators; in their nocturnal meetings, after solemn fasts and unnatural repasts, they bind themselves together, not by an oath but by a sacrilege; they are a race which hides itself and flies from the light, silent in public, loquacious in their retreats... They recognize each other by secret signs and love each other almost before being acquainted; they are united by a religion of debauchery; they call one another sister and brother...

It is said by some unheard of folly they adore the head of a filthy animal [the ass]: A fine religion and one well worthy of them. Their rites of initiation are as detestable as they are known. A child, covered with flour to deceive the uninstructed, is presented to the one to be initiated; the latter, seeing only a floury mass and thinking his blows harmless, strikes the unseen child and kills him. And then these wicked people greedily drink his blood; they unite themselves together by this sacrifice and bind each other mutually to silence by complicity in the crime.

The fires of popular suspicion and hatred were further fuelled by the writings of Tertullian in Africa at the turn of the third century. Each African province possessed its own deities and worshipped them along with the imperial cult. In this religious pantheon Tertullian could not accept a place for Christianity, and he refused to worship any sort of image. In fact, he felt that Christians should not only abhor sacrificing to the Emperor but also sacrificing for the Emperor.

Each member of the faith was advised to take no part in the domestic cult of the pagan side of his family: there was to be no participation by a Christian in any religious function, even family feasts, held by pagan members of his family. Nor should there be any recognition of official feasts. Christians refused to decorate their lodgings on public feast days and were even warned to avoid all games of chance. Tertullian’s most culpable work in Roman eyes was probably De corona militis, in which he wrote of the sword as an anti-Christian tool, the bearer of which was promised an unhappy end.

This work argued that no official position within the Empire was tenable by a true Christian. Finally, alarm must certainly have been occasioned by references to the strength of the Christians and to their potential threat to the Romans. Such apologetic writings contributed good reasons, in pagan minds, for continued persecutions.

The edict of Septimus Severus (193-211), which gave full leeway to popular tendencies against Christians, was a prohibition of further proselytizing on the part of any Jew or Christian; this edict provided severe punishment for disobedience. In Africa Tertullian complained ‘...we are besieged, hunted down, taken by surprise in arcanis congregationibus’. In Africa the real moving force behind persecution was the devotees of the cult of Serapis.

When imperial coins appeared with the figure of Severus as Serapis, the followers of the god were encouraged by this sign of imperial favour to bring charges against Christians in Egypt and North Africa. Pressure was brought to bear on the Governors, and persecutions began again.

The edict of Septimus Severus against conversion to Christianity was the first imperial initiative against Christians per se, though not for religious reasons. This is not meant to deny the mention of Christians in rescripts by Emperors such as Trajan and Hadrian, but rather to view those Emperors as dealing with the Christians for their benefit. Trajan and Hadrian were, for instance, careful to lay down rules limiting as much as possible the charges against Christians, requiring that they be delated and tried according to proper procedure.

Trajan’s mention of the name Christian was a misfortune for Christians, as it suggested imperial favour for persecution, but Trajan’s intention was the opposite; his rescript to Pliny was intended to prescribe and allow no more than the proper exercise of coercitio by the Governor in maintaining order and punishing contumacy. Hadrian’s rescript should be seen in the same light. Only with the third century came imperial support of persecutions. The persecutions under Maximinus Thrax, Decius, Valerian, Diocletian, and Galerius took place in more trying times and were encouraged by imperial decrees.

Lactantius mentioned a list compiled by Ulpian of imperial rescripts against the Christians, but the absence of any such list for modern analysis makes it difficult to suppose that Emperors before the third century attacked Christianity—Lactantius’s bias is notable, for instance, his De mortibus persecutorum, which details with relish the ends of the persecuting emperors. Legal bases other than imperial edicts better explain the persecutions of the first two centuries.

Normally the prosecution of Christians followed the forms of the cognitio system of penal jurisdiction, in which proconsular coercitio found its usual expression. Under this system the Governor enjoyed much freedom in the first and second centuries in recognizing crimes and determining sentences. If, remembering this power of the Governor, we recognize the seriousness of contumacia, then the requirement for worshipping the Roman gods appears as having been a tool for determining contumacy on the part of Christians.

Obstinacy and refusal to recant were seen as cohaerens scelus, which in its extreme form was treason and eventually led, because of repeated occurrences and the worsening political situation of the Empire, to the ban of the nomen Christiani itself. Nor was this general crime, determined by proconsular coercitio, the only legal basis for persecution.

Roman citizens found time and time again specific aspects of Christian behaviour to be suspicious and apparently criminal. In this way especially the pagans attacked Christians, continually blaming them for natural and political troubles and bringing charges of specific crimes. Thus we find one list of crimes held against the Christians with forty-two entries. The key to the causes of the early persecutions lies primarily in the pagan mobs rather than in the imperial or proconsular attitudes.


Bruce S. Eastwood is Emeritus Professor of the University of Kentucky College of Arts and Sciences, and the author of Ordering the Heavens: Roman Astronomy and Cosmology in the Carolingian Renaissance (2007).