Believers were accused of criminal activity under Nero, for the emperor blamed them for igniting the Great Fire of 64, and this resulted in the first attempt to condemn them for the purpose of diverting public sentiment. While not officially proclaimed, Christianity was labeled an enemy of the state. The church adopted an acute apocalyptic understanding, and this was inevitable since its members were primarily drawn from the poor and powerless who grew apathetic about the religious policies of Rome. To their defense arose apologists who addressed emperors directly with the intent of demonstrating how believers benefited the empire. They contrasted the church to the mystery and imperial cults that were fabricated dramas rather than genuine divine institutions.
However, after religious riots broke out in Egypt, Decius decreed that all inhabitants must actively promote the state and obtain proof that they honor the ancestral deities. After this policy was enacted Christians became the cause of natural disasters and malevolence throughout the empire, for they openly refused to fulfill this sacrificial obligation. While persecution was not universal, it was consistent in some regions, while other centers of the faith flourished in relative peace. Valerian (253-260) issued a religious order that identified the church as a particularly subversive foreign cult and as such threatened the stability of the empire with each new convert. Its members were denied the right to assemble during his reign, and Christians were ordered to sacrifice to the traditional gods of Rome.
Diocletian ordered the destruction of church buildings and religious texts in 303; he banned members from gathering, degraded all clerical officials, re-enslaved imperial Christian freedmen, and reduced the legal rights of believers. His second proclamation threatened its leaders with imprisonment, and a third offered freedom if they performed the sacrificial obligation. The ensuing dictate demanded universal sacrifice to the traditional gods of Rome, and this policy was strictly enforced in most regions. The Diocletian Persecution (303-311) was the only official assault against the church that was universally decreed; thousands of believers were terrorized or tortured.
Since the emperor intended to restore conventional religious traditions throughout the empire, his campaign was relentless. However, his policies were applied inconsistently, and the boldness of the martyrs ultimately strengthened the church’s resolve. In the end, each edict was rescinded in 311 with an admission of their failure to force Christians to comply. The estimated number of martyrs is between 3000 and 3500; however, hundreds more were brutalized, imprisoned, or pillaged. While Diocletian set out to restore the myths and pantheon of antiquity in order to foment a revival of the classical age of Rome, the church’s resistance proved fatal and his efforts were declared a failure.
to be continued …