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Persecution of Christians in ancient Rome

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Christian dirce, painting by Henryk Siemiradzki
Christian dirce, painting by Henryk Siemiradzki

Romans were very attached to their religion. Making sacrifices to the pantheon of gods had not only religious significance but was also a sign of belonging to a particular social group. This faith, although very formalistic, was shaped over the centuries, initially taking over the beliefs of the Etruscans and Greeks, and finally basing its values ​​​​on the preaching of the cult of the emperor and transferring the Eastern culture to Rome.

The Hellenization of faith occurred thanks to the strong influence of Greek colonies in Italy and Etruria. The Romans quickly began to identify their gods with the Greek ones, and to adopt some of them along with their cults and festivals. Of course, the authorities repeatedly objected to some adorations, for example, participation in bacchanalia, astrologers or supporters of the Egyptian cult of Isis were expelled. All Roman gods were guardians of the empire, and thus, the power simply imposed this religion.

Mosaic allegedly showing Christ.
Under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.

In Rome, the ruler was the high priest (pontifex maximus), and this dignity was already known in the times of royal Rome. This title in 12 B.C.E. Augustus took over and from then on he was permanently associated with the emperor. Dealing with the state cult by the emperor was not only to show his authority but also to unite the citizens. This task was difficult because the inhabitants of the empire spoke different languages, which, moreover, were part of separate cultures from various corners of the world. The rulers wanted to go down in history as builders of the greatness of the empire, which required maintaining discipline, strengthening power in the hands of the individual, and shaping civic virtues – cultivating Roman traditions and following the path set by native values.

It is worth looking at the basic features of Roman religion. First of all, it was an indicator of the life cycle of the population, people chose holidays as well as places where places of worship would be set up. Even priests were at the same time officials and politicians who organized festivals or observed the fulfilment of rituals. The adoption of oriental influences played a large role in the way of changing the perception of life. Already in the 2nd century BCE people began to think about human destiny and life after death.

As I have already mentioned, the imperial cult had its beginning in the 1st century during the reign of the Julio-Claudian line, when rulers were worshipped not only in the capital but especially in the East and in the African provinces. With time, the number of emperors counted among the gods began to increase and the cult of Augustus and Roma did not stop. In the following years, under the rule of the Flavians and Antonines, the divi cult takes place. When Septimius Severus won the civil war against Pescennius Niger and Clodius Albinus, he added the term dominus noster to his and his descendants’ titles. In the 3rd century, there was a transitional period between the deification of the dead emperors and the living ones, while the worship of the goddess Roma completely disappears. Emperors begin to be likened to deities in portraits or coins, and divine attributes are added to them. Only in the seventies of the third century, Emperor Aurelian established the official cult of Deus Sol Invictus, becoming the representative of the sun god on Earth.

The first-century Christians were badly received by pagans. Thanks to the expansion of the empire’s borders, they came from Asia Minor, Syria, Egypt and Palestine. They did not worship gods, did not worship the emperor, and did not take part in everyday life, whether political or social. And since they did not go to temples and believed that the Messiah was a few-know Jew, it was easy to blame them for any failure, such as a natural disaster or the birth of a deformed child. The masses were always suspected – there was no concept of personal responsibility at that time, the whole community was responsible for offences against the gods.

The Romans had one characteristic feature – they were religiously very tolerant people, but only for religions similar to their own. The gods of the conquered, incarnated or allied countries were recognized, but the cult of Capitoline Jupiter played a superior role. There was a relationship of interest here – the Romans made sacrifices to the gods in return for fulfilling their requests. When, for example, soldiers came abroad, they worshipped local, barbarian gods. In the case of Christians, their God is not the god of the nation. For pagans, Christians were atheists who were guilty of deeds for which the law of the Twelve Tables already provided for punishment – deportation and even death. In addition – and this cannot be forgotten – according to Roman law, Jesus was a criminal sentenced to crucifixion. Rumours about miracles, healings of the sick and exorcisms plunged him. For these reasons, Christians were accused of practising magic and sorcery.

Christians, unlike Jews, were not exempt from praying. Initially considered a Jewish sect, there was peace for many years because Roman law protected the Jews. In addition to the fact that they did not have to make sacrifices, they had Saturdays off and were exempt from serving in the army. They were a privileged group because their religion was old and full of tradition. The main reason why Christians were initially considered Jews was that the first missions were spread by Jewish communities, and both groups spoke of the messiah and the same books. This situation could not last long, because the Christians were joined by ever larger groups of pagans, including the wealthy ones. By separating from Judaism, they constituted a group that was not protected by anything. To avoid harassment, followers of Jesus met under the pretext of funeral fraternities, the so-called collegia funeratica, collegia tenuiorum. In addition, Christians were stigmatized even by the Jews themselves, especially because after the events of 68 they left Jerusalem, which the Jews treated as treason.

At that time, the followers of Jesus were waiting for New Jerusalem and the Last Judgment, which was supposed to be a rescue from oppression. They seemed to tolerate the state only because it was about to be destroyed anyway. Hence the opinion that Christians hated humanity and want its destruction (odium humani generis). This end was not forthcoming, so some of them sought reconciliation with the pagans. These people came mainly from the wealthy class and applied for official positions, where making sacrifices to the gods was also part of their duties. Even if such a Christian was captured, thanks to his high position, he could count on the most lenient treatment (e.g. death by beheading instead of slow torture), or he could bribe the guards.

There were also rumours of ritual murders or cannibals eating small babies (a reference to the eucharistic doctrine of flesh and blood). There have also been reports of incestuous orgies (referring to each other as sister, brother) or close relationships through kissing (kiss of peace at Sunday mass). Spirals of hatred were often made by the representatives of the Church themselves, saying that Rome is inhabited by villains and robbers. It also happened that they persuaded soldiers to abandon military service, which aroused dissatisfaction among the authorities. Some pagans admired Christians for their help to other people – donations, food for the poor, orphans, slaves unable to work, mine workers or sailors who lost their ships.

The most difficult issue is to assess the number of victims of persecution. While some authors believe that a person as an eyewitness to events cannot be wrong, others argue against these theories. However, it is difficult not to agree with the doubts of the researchers. Eusebius himself says that he tells everything that can speak for the glory of religion, and conceals what could harm it. Often the stories of martyrs are falsified or added after a dozen or so years. Those who died for defying authority could also be counted among those who died for their faith. The cult of martyrs was based on the teaching of the Church about Christ the Mediator and the need for support. For pagans, martyrdom was a manifestation of Christian truth, while the Church believed that martyrdom was proof of the presence of the Holy Spirit. To commemorate the death, the martyr’s name was entered into the martyrology. The martyrs were honoured on the day of their death (natalitia – rebirth) by gathering around their graves, singing psalms and celebrating the Eucharist. Since the 4th century, basilicas and churches appear over the tombs of martyrs, but it takes more than 100 years for their names to appear in the Roman canon. Martyrs (martyres – witnesses) became something like deities, ideal Christians who replaced those known from the old religions. You didn’t have to be an emperor to be worshipped – anyone could become a martyr. Christians may also have been hopeful that they would atone for their lifetime sins by being in prison. The Church was striving to become a spotless institution, forgetting that it was made up of a majority of converted sinners and pagans. For this, he used legends that were listened to by people guided by the authority of the clergy.

After the end of the persecution, the problem of the so-called fallen Christians. Some bishops believed that the sacrifice was an unpardonable sin, even more so when baptism was received. Others maintained that forgiveness was to be done, and after proper penance fallen returned to the bosom of the Church. There were certainly many such Christians, the natural fear of torture and death was fueled by visions of social degradation. Fear of confiscation of property was the most frequently alleged reason in such cases. However, it must not be forgotten that Christians witnessed a drama that shook the ancient world. Later, they tried many times by various – sometimes even wicked – means to return to the community. These assemblies often experienced serious crises. There were fanatics who caused arguments about faith. Even people sent to the mines or in detention still shouted their reasons. There were fights and bloody clashes in the streets. The Christians treated each other more harshly than they had previously been treated by the pagans. Christianity, however, proved too strong, and even the most ardent pagans feared new civil wars and bloodshed. Hatred was won by the prospect of a better afterlife, which made everyday life seem less overwhelming for many.

Author: Judyta Włodek (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)

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