Christian Success and Martyrdom | Emperor Constantine supports Christianity | Bishop Eusebius unites Christianity ideologically with Rome | Julian the Apostate | Christian Emperors against Pagans, Jews and Arian Christians
The Roman empire declined economically, and there was a search for refuge in religion. Rome was a theocracy, and Christianity benefited as an alternative to the religion of those in power. For some Romans the austere morality of the Christians – viewed as strange during prosperous times – became an attraction.
Christianity benefited from worship of someone with a human face – easier to worship than a god that was vague, unseen, unspeaking or a creature other than human. Christianity benefited from Jesus being viewed as a martyr with a message. People could identify their own suffering with the suffering of Jesus. And some people were attracted by descriptions of Jesus' words and deeds, his belief in justice and his love for all people. And some were attracted by the message of the coming of a new world.
Christianity benefited from its claim that poverty was an advantage in attaining salvation after death, and becoming a Christian was less expensive than entering some other faiths. To be initiated into Great Mother Worship – a major rival to Christianity – one had to bear the great expense of a bull that had to be slaughtered. Conversion to Christianity, on the other hand, was a free immersion in water.
And joining Christianity was open to people ignored or excluded by other religions: to women, non-citizens and to slaves. In appealing to slaves, Christians claimed that although one would remain a slave in the material world, in God's eyes a good person was never a slave.
Christians grew in number and became more visible. To the middle 200s the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire had been infrequent, the persecutions usually coming after a calamity such as an earthquake, with people blaming the Christians for the anger of the gods. Persecution came again under the emperor Decius, who wanted to lift the empire from economic ruin and put Rome in good stead with the gods. Decius acted against the Christians in a way he thought would please the gods most: he hoped for Christian conversions to the state religion. He ordered Christians to prove their loyalty by making sacrifices or libations to Rome's gods in the presence of official witnesses. Those Christians who did so were to receive and carry on their person a paper document certifying that they had performed the required ritual. To escape persecution, thousands of Christians renounced their faith and performed the required ritual, and there arose a flurry of business in writing the special documents that they were required to carry. Some Christians of wealth gave bribes in exchange for anonymity and safety, and some, including bishops, went into hiding.
The government arrested some prominent Christians, among them the bishops of Rome, Jerusalem and Antioch, and they were executed, going to their deaths, it was said, zealously savoring their righteousness. The bishop of Carthage, Cyprian, saw the persecutions as God's punishment. In hiding, he wrote of Christians delighting the Lord with their martyrdom, and he wrote of the flow of blood as a "glorious flood to quiet the flames and fires of hell." The Christians, he claimed, were being persecuted because they had "not been doing the will of God" and had been "striving for property and profit." Each person, he wrote, had been "pleasing himself alone and displeasing everyone else." "And so," he added, "we are being given the thrashing which we deserve."
The executions brought still more attention to the Christians, and people were impressed by Christians willing to suffer and die for their beliefs. Some people saw the prevailing theocracy as more of an enemy than they did the Christians. They preferred Christians in their communities to the usual abuses that came with the arrival of soldiers. And rather than the number of Christians diminishing with the persecutions, Christianity appears to have grown.
The appeals to the gods which Decius had demanded appeared to produce no positive results for him or for the empire. Goths had begun storming southward across the Danube River. Decius went to do battle against them, and in June, 251, the Goths lured him and his army into a swamp, destroyed his army and killed him and his son. And this to some was an indication that God was more angry with Decius than he was with the Christians.
A few years later a plague that ravaged North Africa moved north into Europe, and it was killing as many as five thousand per day in Rome. The new emperor, Valerian, sought help from the gods and ordered Roman citizens throughout the empire to perform the requisite religious rituals. Having learned more about Christianity's hierarchy in the last persecutions, this time the emperor's edict took aim specifically against Church bishops and elders. In 257 and 258, leading Christians were rounded up, executed and their property confiscated. Among those martyred was Cyprian, his execution witnessed by thousands, some climbing trees for a better view, those near Cyprian throwing pieces of cloth to catch his blood.
But Christianity continued to grow. By the beginning of the 300s, Christians in the eastern half of the empire had expanded to twenty or more percent of its Greek speaking population. North Africa had become largely Christian, the result of Christian evangelists having learned the Coptic and Berber languages. And Christians had also learned Syrian, Thracian and Celtic. Across the empire, Christians were around ten percent of the population – their number having doubled in about fifty years. Two kings had been converted: the king of Osroene in northeastern Mesopotamia and the king of Armenia. Christians were serving in Rome's armies, and they were working as civil servants in local government or in lowly positions on the imperial staff.
The Emperor Diocletian was trying to maintain what was left of Roman law and customs, and tried to create order in the realm of ideas. He outlawed astrologers and the alchemists of Egypt and had their writings burned. He viewed Manchaeism as a Persian religion and ordered its writings and the authors of those writings burned, and he ordered death for those of the Manichaean faith. He moved also against Christians. This followed trouble that arose involving Christians during a religious ritual performed in the presence of Diocletian. One or more of Diocletian's Christian courtiers made a sign of the cross to ward off what they thought to be the demonic influences of the ritual. Afterward, the priests complained to Diocletian, and Diocletian ordered everyone in the palace to worship the gods or be beaten. Diocletian's vice-emperor in the east, Galerius, pursued the attack against Christians, demanding that the army there purge itself of all Christian officers. Galerius' palace was set ablaze, and Christians were accused of having set the fire. Galerius persuaded Diocletian to launch a drive to crush Christianity, believing that he and Diocletian could succeed where Decius and Valerius had failed. Again Christians were ordered to sacrifice to the gods of the state or face execution. Christian assemblies were forbidden. Bibles were confiscated and burned, and churches were destroyed.
But by now, Christians had become too numerous to be wiped out. Unlike Germany during World War II – the Roman state had not developed an efficient method for rounding people up and executing them. Moreover, because Christians could read and write – in an effort to study scripture – they had become an indispensable part of government. The purges slowly and intermittently dragged on into the year 305, when Diocletian retired because of ill-health.
Copyright © 2009-2013 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.