The Persecutions of Christians in the Roman Empire

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Updated: Aug 18, 2023
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Christians in Rome withstood the Great Persecution by emperors, which led to them being scapegoats for the Great Fire. This scapegoating is widely known, likely from studying Nero and the Great Fire. However, what is often overlooked is that Nero was not the sole catalyst for the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. There were also several laws and edicts constructed to either support or dismantle the Christian religion.

The intensity of the persecution varied depending on the emperor in power.

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It could range from severe and harsh to minor discrimination. In the case of Nero, he was notably cruel. His ruthlessness is exemplified during the Great Fire, which he is speculated to have started. Followers of Nero were accused of exacerbating the fire by throwing flammable objects into it. Nero was also rumored to be playing the lyre safely away from the blaze during Rome’s burning. As a result of these accusations, Nero deflected the blame onto the Christians, a group widely disliked at the time. A significant number of people believed his scapegoat tactic and began persecuting Christians.

Then, there was Emperor Trajan. Trajan left it to Pliny the Younger to address the Christian issue. Pliny decreed death to Christians who refused to worship the gods and the emperor. However, Trajan implemented a rule for persecuting Christians, which stipulated that they could only be persecuted for reasonable causes, such as disregarding the gods. Unfortunately, the Christians did not adhere to this rule, and as a result, were exposed to wild animals.

We also have Emperor Hadrian. Hadrian did not support the random persecution of Christians, so he implemented a rule that they were innocent until proven guilty. Despite the seemingly fair rule, Hadrian deeply offended Jews and Christians by constructing temples to the gods over the alleged site of the crucifixion. Hadrian further forced Christians to swear honor to their emperor as a lord to show their allegiance to Rome.

Antoninus Pius was another emperor who participated in the persecution, though indirectly. The townspeople and government officials orchestrated the persecution during his reign. A brief lull in the persecution followed after the execution of an 86-year-old man.

Marcus Aurelius, another emperor, did not consider the Christians seriously apart from believing they were overly superstitious. His disdain was so high that when Christians willingly went to their executions, he dismissed their actions as mere pretense. Under Aurelius’s rule, Christians were wrongly blamed for natural disasters because they refused to offer sacrifices to the gods. As a result, slaves were brutally tortured into implicating their Christian masters.

Septimius Severus was another emperor under whose rule Christians faced severe persecution. Christians were frequently burned, beheaded, or otherwise executed. During Severus’s reign, he issued a law that banned the propagation of Christianity and Judaism. This law incited several brutal persecutions. Persecutions decreased after Severus ended his reign.

After Severus’ reign, Decius Trajan came to power. He enacted a law aimed at further exterminating Christianity, a pagan religion that had waned somewhat following Septimius Severus’ reign. During Decius Trajan’s reign, the suspected Christians were given an opportunity to demonstrate their loyalty to the government by sacrificing to the gods rather than face execution. To avoid imprisonment and interrogation, some Christians complied. However, numerous Christians refused, often resulting in torture, exile, and death. Those who succumbed to the pressure or accepted bribes, were excommunicated from Christianity.

Diocletian, one of the more ruthless emperors, conducted such severe persecutions during his reign that it overshadowed all previous religious suppressions. He ordered the destruction of churches and Bibles, denied Christians their civil rights, and enforced mandatory god-sacrifices on risk of death. Later, he legislated that everyone, regardless of their religious belief, must sacrifice to the gods or have their market food sprinkled with sacrificial wine.

The Great Fire, one of the most devastating events during the persecution of Christians, started in 64 AD. Originating from the Circus Maximus or outskirts south of the Palatine hill, the blaze, fanned by the wind, spread northwards. Some people even exacerbated the fire by throwing flammable objects into it. After burning for three days, the fire had obliterated three districts, with only four out of the fourteen districts remaining untouched. This left many people homeless or dead.

Many believed Emperor Nero to be the instigator of the fire, supposedly with intentions to make room for a new palace. Some even claimed he ordered people to feed the fire with flammable objects. A widespread rumor suggested that Nero was playing his fiddle during the fire. While it is unlikely Nero could play a fiddle — he was known to play the lyre — the public’s outrage intensified. To divert blame, Nero accused the increasingly disliked Christians of arson. He exploited this scapegoat to evade liability and initiated the persecution of Christians by arresting, torturing, and executing them on the grounds they started the fire.

The time of Diocletian’s reign marked the onset of the Great Persecution. Diocletian didn’t intend to kill Christians, but simply wanted them to worship the gods. When many still resisted, Diocletian, confounded by this rejection of his expectations, resorted to imprisoning the Christians and sentencing them to death, or enslaving them to work in his mines.

Even amidst widespread persecution of Christians, there were still moments where circumstances worked out to their advantage, such as the issuance of edicts or interventions by certain individuals. For instance, during Diocletian’s reign, a man named Galarius, recognizing the futility of his attempts to eliminate the Christians, issued the Edict of Toleration. This granted Christians the right to congregate and pray, provided they did not disturb the government.

A year later, the Battle of the Milvian Bridge took place. In this battle, Constantine, an emperor who intended to aid Christians rather than persecute them, endeavored to cross the Milvian Bridge, which had been narrowed to slow him down. To cross more quickly, Maxentius, Constantine’s rival, used pontoons to transport his men across the river and establish a guard. Having arranged his troops close to the water’s edge—too close, in fact—Maxentius found his forces pushed back into the river once the battle commenced.

Maxentius’ ranks broke, a problem that was amplified by the soldiers’ inability to regroup. Consequently, Maxentius decided upon a tactical retreat, which proved disastrous. There was minimal space between Constantine’s forces and the narrow bridge when Maxentius’ army staged their retreat. The situation was further complicated by Constantine’s forces pressing against Maxentius’ army. In the ensuing chaos, numerous members of Maxentius’ forces, including Maxentius himself, drowned.

Later in the same year, Constantine issued the Edict of Milan. This edict allowed Christians the legal right to worship, restored their rights, and permitted them to reclaim their confiscated property. This move convinced Romans to accept Christianity, leading Constantine to make it the official religion of Rome. Although many converted merely because Christianity was the state religion, this decision significantly advanced the religion’s reach throughout the world. Unlike other edicts, the Edict of Milan remained in effect for an extended period.

Previously, I noted that Christians in Rome had endured the Great Persecution by emperors, culminating in their being blamed for initiating the Great Fire. Emperor Nero, for example, is believed to have started the Great Fire. Diocletian was a considerable contributor to the Great Persecution and is, in fact, the one who initiated it. Through the Battle of the Milvian and the Edict of Milan, Constantine was a tremendous asset to the Christians. Despite the persecution and blame for the Great Fire, good emerged in the form of issued edicts and Constantine’s significant assistance. Ultimately, with God’s help, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.

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The Persecutions of Christians in the Roman Empire. (2023, Mar 17). Retrieved from