From the onset, in relation to religions, Rome was tolerant in principle and to some extent, observed freedom of worship. This created an enabling environment for many religions to flourish. But unfortunate for Christians, Rome came to realize that their aim was total triumph over all other religions including Roman pagan worship. Hence, the need to declare war on Christians.
The very first persecution of the church by Emperor Nero was masterminded by merely public opinion which saw Christians as atheists and moral monsters because of the secrecy with which they surrounded their own services.
It was in the third century that edicts were now issued that forced the provincial governors to persecute Christians because they proclaimed the reality of the one true God and demanded absolute rejection of the gods worshipped by Rome. The first to issue such an edict was Septimius Severus (193-211). Tertulian wrote a powerful protest against the cruelty of this persecution in his Ad Natione (195) and Ad Scapulam (211). This persecution subsided with the advent of a new Emperor, Alexander, a gentle and virtuous person who placed Jesus in his domestic pantheon with the other Roman gods. Alexander’s assassination and the accession of Maximin in 235 again kindled the fires, but when Philip the Arabian (244-45) an Emperor friendly to Christians, came to power, peace again ensued, but lasted only a few years.
Decius (249-51) was another tormentor who saw the Christian sect as a terrible poison to the ancient Roman morals and ordered all suspects to make a public act of homage to the gods. Great numbers of Christians apostatized when faced with the rack, but many important church leaders including Pope Fabian, suffered heroically and died at the hands of their torturers. Once things cooled down, the apostates begged for re-admission to communion creating grave pastoral problem for bishops like Cyprian of Carthage.
Persecution flared again and numbered among its victims Cyprian as well as Pope Sixtus II and his deacons Lawrence. But the zeal of the persecutors slackened, and for nearly a half century, the church was left undisturbed.
The final persecution of the church began with a devastating intellectual assault led by Porphyry (d. 303). In his work against the Christians, Porphyry held Christ up to scorn as a pitiful weakling, attacked the Scriptures as full of absurdities and contradictions, scoffed at the Eucharist, and ridiculed Christian works of mercy. This was the prelude to the attack launched by Diocletian, a strong and industrious ruler who has carried through a radical reorganization of the Empire; he divided it into 101 provinces and 12 dioceses, placing two co-emperors in supreme command, with imperial headquarters at Milan in the West and Nicomedia in the East.
The new system was designed to meet the extreme peril now facing the Empire from the hordes of barbarians rounding at her gates. Insecurity had become a way of life; intercourse among the cities was no longer safe, taxes skyrocketed, larger armies were required, the amenities of life disappeared, and people tried to save their skins at best they might. It was very tempting to blame the Christians for all the trouble, since their very existence could be regarded as a standing insult to the gods. The fact that so many of them even hold high posts in the government and the army aggravated the offense.
Then at a public sacrifice, a pagan priest claimed that the presence of Christians at the ceremony invalidated the sacrifice and thus endangered the state. It was the final straw. By a decree of February 303, Diocletion ordered all Christian places of worship to be destroyed and their sacred books handed over. Christians were forbidden to assemble and were to be denied the protection of the laws.
The first church destroyed was an imposing edifice that stood adjacent to the royal palace itself in Nocomedia. The Emperor watched from a window as his soldiers broke down the church’s doors and ransacked the palace, burning the ornaments and Holy Scriptures.
With this act, the final agony of the church began. It was to last from 303 to 312 AD. A second more severe decree singled our bishops, priests, and deacons for special attention, while later great numbers of Christians in all ranks were seized.
They had their eyes and tongue gonged out, their feet sawed off, they died at the stake or in a red hot chair. Some were thrown to wild beasts to entertain a holiday mob, others were starved to death or thrown into dungeons. It was mainly in the East that the blood flowed, under Galerius (Diocletian’s Successor) and maximinus Dara. Thanks to Emperor Constantine who savaged the church as we shall witness next week