The persecution of Christians in ancient Rome – contrary to what is commonly believed – was not of a mass nature. In the 2nd and early 3rd century CE, no document was issued explicitly pointing to the deliberate persecution of Christ’s followers.
Even though Christianity was considered supersitio (it was illegal), nothing bad happened to its followers because of their belief in one god. The Roman state paid more attention to the rule of law and compliance with the obligations towards Rome, which lie on the part of its citizens. For the Romans, the indicator of trust and loyalty was making sacrifices for the gods. It is worth noting, however, that no one controlled anyone whether they actually believed in the traditional deities of the Romans.
The first official persecution began in 250 CE when during the reign of Emperor Decius there were great invasions on the borders of the Empire. The state was facing a serious crisis and the unity of the Roman people was required. Many saw the causes of these events in the disfavour of the gods and the developing Christianity that did not live in accordance with the laws of the Romans. The “godlessness” of Christ’s followers was perceived, and for this purpose, the emperor decided to issue an imperial edict ordering all citizens to make an atonement, which was also to prove loyalty to the emperor and the state. It was the first such order in Roman history.
It should be noted that in 212 CE Caracalla granted all free inhabitants of the empire civil rights, which made a huge part of the community legally obligated. Christians find themselves in a hopeless situation. Many decided to make a sacrifice, which the clergy later rehabilitated. Some of them, however, faced persecution.
The edict was renewed in 257 CE during the rule of Emperor Valerian. This time, however, the edict was directed at the clergy and high society. There were numerous confiscations, exiles and hard labour sentences.
Officially, the subsequent persecution was averted and did not continue until 303 CE.