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Romempire and Christianity, 2

See also Roman Empire

III. Attitude of the Roman Empire to Religions.

1. Roman or State Religion:

The history of Roman religion reveals a continuous penetration of Italian, Etruscan, Greek, Egyptian and oriental worship and rites, until the old Roman religion became almost unrecognizable, and even the antiquarian learning of a Varro could scarcely discover the original meaning or use of

Roman deities. The Roman elements or modes of worship progressively retreated until they and the foreign rites with which they were overlaid gave way before the might of Christianity. As Rome expanded, her religious demands increased. During the regal period Roman religion was that of a simple agricultural community. In the period between the Regifugium and the Second Punic War Roman religion became more complicated and the Roman Pantheon was largely increased by importations from Etruria, Latium and Magna Graecia. The mysterious religion of Etruria first impressed the Roman mind, and from this quarter probably came the Trinity of the Capitol (Jupiter, Juno, Minerva) previously introduced into Etruria from Greek sources, thus showing that the Romans were not the first in Italy to be influenced by the religion of Greece. New modes of worship, non-Roman in spirit, also came in from the Etruscans and foreign elements of Greek mythology. Latium also made its contribution, the worship of Diana coming from Aricia and also a Latin Jupiter. Two Latin cults penetrated even within the Roman pomoerium--that of Hercules and Castor, with deities of Greek origin. The Greek settlements in Southern Italy (Magna Graecia) were generous in their contributions and opened the way for the later invasion of Greek deities. The Sibylline Books were early imported from Cumae as sacred scriptures for the Romans. In 493 BC during a famine a temple was built to the Greek trinity Demeter, Dionysus, and Persephone, under the Latin names of Ceres, Liber, and Libera--the beginning of distrust in the primitive Roman numina and of that practice, so oft repeated in Roman history, of introducing new and foreign gods at periods of great distress. In 433 Apollo came from the same region. Mercury and Asclepius followed in 293 BC, and in 249 BC Dis and Proserpina were brought from Tarentum. Other non-Roman modes of approach to deity were introduced. Rome had been in this period very broad-minded in her policy of meeting the growing religious needs of her community, but she had not so far gone beyond Italy. A taste had also developed for dramatic and more aesthetic forms of worship. The period of the Second Punic War was a crisis in Roman religious life, and the faith of the Romans waned before growing unbelief. Both the educated classes and the populace abandoned the old Roman religion, the former sank into skepticism, the latter into superstition; the former put philosophy in the place of religion, the latter the more sensuous cults of the Orient. The Romans went abroad again to borrow deities--this time to Greece, Asia and Egypt. Greek deities were introduced wholesale, and readily assimilated to or identified with Roman deities (see ROME, III, 1). In 191 BC Hebe entered as Juventas, in 179 Artemis as Diana, in 138 Ares as Mars. But the home of religion--the Orient--proved more helpful. In 204 BC Cybele was introduced from Pessinus to Rome, known also as the Great Mother (magna mater)--a fatal and final blow to old Roman religion and an impetus to the wilder and more orgiastic cults and mysterious glamor which captivated the common mind. Bacchus with his gross immorality soon followed. Sulla introduced Ma from Phrygia as the counterpart of the Roman Bellona, and Egypt gave Isis. In the wars of Pompey against the pirates Mithra was brought to Rome--the greatest rival of Christianity. Religion now began to pass into the hands of politicians and at the close of the republic was almost entirely in their hands. Worship degenerated into formalism, and formalism culminated in disuse. Under the empire philosophic systems continued still more to replace religion, and oriental rites spread apace. The religious revival of Augustus was an effort to breathe life into the dry bones. His plan was only partly religious, and partly political--to establish an imperial and popular religion of which he was the head and centering round his person. He discovered the necessity of an imperial religion. In the East kings had long before been regarded as divine by their subjects. Alexander the Great, like a wise politician, intended to use this as one bond of union for his wide dominions. The same habit extended among the Diadochian kings, especially in Egypt and Syria. When Augustus had brought peace to the world, the Orient was ready to hail him as a god. Out of this was evolved the cult of the reigning emperor and of Roma personified. This worship gave religious unity to the empire, while at the same time magnifying the emperor. But the effort was in vain: the old Roman religion was dead, and the spiritual needs of the empire continued to be met more and more by philosophy and the mysteries which promised immortality. The cult of the Genius of the emperor soon lost all reality. Vespasian himself on his deathbed jested at the idea of his becoming a god. The emperor-worship declined steadily, and in the 3rd and 4th centuries oriental worships were supreme. The religion of the Roman empire soon became of that cosmopolitan and eclectic type so characteristic of the new era.

2. Non-Roman Religions: religiones licitae and religiones illicitae:

The non-Roman religions were divided into religiones licitae ("licensed worships") and religiones illicitae ("unlicensed"). The Romans at different times, on account of earthquakes, pestilences, famine or military disasters, introduced non-Roman cults as means of appeasing the numina. This generally meant that the cults in question could be performed with impunity by their foreign adherents. It legalized the collegia necessary for these worships from which Roman citizens were by law excluded. But, generally speaking, any people settling at Rome was permitted the liberty of its own native worship in so far as the exercise of it did not interfere with the peace of the state or corrupt the morals of society. On one occasion (186 BC), by a decree of the senate, a severe inquisition was instituted against the Bacchanalian rites which had caused flagrant immorality among the adherents. But Rome was never a systematic persecutor. These foreign rites and superstitions, though often forbidden and their professed adherents driven from the city, always returned stronger than ever. Roman citizens soon discovered the fascination of oriental and Greek mysteries, and devoted themselves to foreign gods while maintaining the necessary formalism toward the religion of the state. Very often too Roman citizens would be presidents of these religious brotherhoods. It should not be forgotten that the original moral elements had fallen out of Roman religion, and that it had become simply a political and military religion for the welfare of the state, not for the salvation of the individual. The individual must conform to certain prescribed rites in order to avert calamity from the state. This done, the state demanded no more, and left him a large measure of freedom in seeking excitement or aesthetic pleasure in the warm and more social foreign mysteries. Thus, while the Romans retained the distinction of religiones licitae and illicitae, they seldom used severity against the latter. Many unlicensed cults were never disturbed. In fact, the very idea of empire rendered toleration of non-Roman religions a necessity. Practically, though not theoretically, the empire abandoned the idea of religiones illicitae, while it retained it upon the statute-book to use in case of such an emergency as the Christian religion involved. Not only the government was tolerant, but the different varieties of religions were tolerant and on good terms with each other. The same man might be initiated into the mysteries of half a dozen divinities. The same man might even be priest of two or more gods. Some had not the slightest objection to worshipping Christ along with Mithra, Isis and Adonis. Men were growing conscious of the oneness of the divine, and credited their neighbors with worshipping the One Unknown under different names and forms. Hadrian is said to have meditated the erection of temples throughout the empire to the Unknown God.

(1) Judaism a "religio licita."

An interesting and, for the history of Christianity, important example of a religio licita is Judaism. No more exclusive and obstinate people could have been found upon whom to bestow the favor. Yet from the days of Julius Caesar the imperial policy toward the Jew and his religion was uniformly favorable, with the brief exception of the mad attempt of Gaius. The government often protected them against the hatred of the populace. Up to 70 AD they were allowed freely to send their yearly contribution to the temple; they were even allowed self-governing privileges and legislative powers among themselves, and thus formed an exclusive community in the midst of Roman society. Even the disastrous war of 68-70 AD and the fall of Jerusalem did not bring persecution upon the Jew, though most of these self-governing and self-legislating powers were withdrawn and the Jews were compelled to pay a poll-tax to the temple of the Capitoline Jupiter. Still their religion remained licensed, tolerated, protected. They were excused from duties impossible for their religion, such as military service. This tolerance of the Jewish religion was of incalculable importance to infant Christianity which at first professed to be no more than a reformed and expanded Judaism.

(2) Why Christianity Was Alone Proscribed.

The question next arises: If such was the universally mild and tolerant policy of the empire to find room for all gods and cults, and to respect the beliefs of all the subject peoples, how comes the anomaly that Christianity alone was proscribed and persecuted? Christianity was indeed a religio illicita, not having been accepted by the government as a religio licita, like Judaism. But this is no answer. There were other unlicensed religions which grew apace in the empire. Neither was it simply because Christianity was aggressive and given to proselytism and dared to appear even in the imperial household: Mithraism and Isism were militant and aggressive, and yet were tolerated. Nor was it simply because of popular hatred, for the Christian was not hated above the Jew. Other reasons must explain the anomaly.

(3) Two Empires: Causes of Conflict.

The fact was that two empires were born about the same time so like and yet so unlike as to render a conflict and struggle to the death inevitable. The Christians were unequivocal in asserting that the society for which they were waiting and laboring was a "kingdom."

(a) Confusion of Spiritual and Temporal:

They thought not merely in national or racial but in ecumenical terms. The Romans could not understand a kingdom of God upon earth, but confused Christian ambition with political. It was soon discovered that Christianity came not to save but to destroy and disintegrate the empire. Early Christian enthusiasm made the term "kingdom" very provoking to pagan patriotism, for many, looking for the Parousia of their Lord, were themselves misled into thinking of the new society as a kingdom soon to be set up upon the earth with Christ as king. Gradually, of course, Christians became enlightened upon this point, but the harm had been done. Both the Rein empire and Christianity were aiming at a social organization to embrace the genus humanum. But though these two empires were so alike in several points and the one had done so much to prepare the way for the other, yet the contrast was too great to allow conciliation. Christianity would not lose the atom in the mass; it aimed at universalism along the path of individualism--giving new value to human personality.

(b) Unique Claims of Christianity:

It seemed also to provoke Roman pride by its absurd claims. It preached that the world was to be destroyed by fire to make way for new heavens and a new earth, that the Eternal City (Rome) was doomed to fall, that a king would come from heaven whom Christians were to obey, that amid the coming desolations the Christians should remain tranquil.

(c) Novelty of Christianity:

Again after Christianity came from underneath the aegis of Judaism, it must have taken the government somewhat by surprise as a new and unlicensed religion which had grown strong under a misnomer. It was the newest and latest religion of the empire; it came suddenly, as it were, upon the stage with no past. It was not apparent to the Roman mind that Christianity had been spreading for a generation under the tolerance granted to Judaism (sub umbraculo licitae Judeorum religionis: Tert.), the latter of which was "protected by its antiquity," as Tacitus said. The Romans were of a conservative nature and disliked innovations. The greatest statesman of the Augustan era, Maecenas, advised the emperor to extend no tolerance to new religions as subversive of monarchy (Dio Cassius lii.36). A new faith appearing suddenly with a large clientele might be dangerous to the public peace (multitude ingens: Tac. Ann. xv.44; polu plethos Clem. Rom.; Cor 1 6).

(d) Intolerance and Exclusiveness of the Christian Religion and Christian Society:

In one marked way Christians contravcned the tolerant eclective spirit of the empire--the intolerance and absoluteness of their religion and the exclusiveness of their society. All other religions of the empire admitted compromise and eclecticism, were willing to dwell rather on the points of contact with their neighbors than on the contrast. But Christianity admitted no compromise, was intolerant to all other systems. It must be admitted that in this way it was rather unfair to other cults which offered comfort and spiritual support to thousands of the human race before the dawn of Christianity. But we shall not blame, when we recognize that for its own life and mission it was necessary to show itself at first intolerant. Many heathen would gladly accept Christ along with Mithra and Isis and Serapis. But Christianity demanded complete separation. The Jesus cult could tolerate no rival: it claimed to be absolute, and worshippers of Jesus must be separate from the world. The Christian church was absolute in its demands; would not rank with, but above, all worships. This spirit was of course at enmity with that of the day which enabled rival cults to co-exist with the greatest indifference. Add to this the exclusive state of Christian society. No pious heathen who had purified his soul by asceticism and the sacraments of antiquity could be admitted into membership unless he renounced things dear to him and of some spiritual value. In every detail of public life this exclusive spirit made itself felt. Christians met at night and held secret assemblies in which they were reputed to perpetrate the most scandalous crimes. Thyestean banquets, Oedipean incest, child murder, were among the charges provoked by their exclusiveness.

(e) Obstinatio:

Add to this also the sullen obstinacy with which Christians met the demands of imperial power--a feature very offensive to Rein governors. Their religion would be left them undisturbed if they would only render formal obedience to the religion of the state. Roman clemency and respect for law were baffled before Christian obstinacy. The martyr’s courage appeared as sheer fanaticism. The pious Aurelius refers but once to Christianity, and in the words psile parataxis, "sheer obstinacy," and Aristides apparently refers to Christianity as authadeia, stubbornness.

See Persecution, sec. 18.

(f) Aggressiveness against Pagan Faith:

But the Christians were not content with an uncompromising withdrawal from the practices of heathen worship: they also actively assailed the pagan cult. To the Christians they became doctrines of demons. The imperial cult and worship of the Genius of the emperor were very unholy in their sight. Hence, they fell under the charges of disloyalty to the emperor and might be proved guilty of majestas. They held in contempt the doctrine that the greatness of Rome was due to her reverence for the gods; the Christians were atheists from the pagan point of view. And as religion was a political concern for the welfare of the state, atheism was likely to call down the wrath of divinity to the subversion of the state.

(g) Christianos ad leones: Public Calamities:

Very soon when disasters began to fall thickly upon the Roman empire, the blame was laid upon the Christians. In early days Rome had often sought to appease the gods by introducing external cults; at other times oriental cults were expelled in the interests of public morality. Now in times of disaster Christians became the scapegoats. If famine, drought, pestilence, earthquake or any other public calamity threatened, the cry was raised "the Christians to the lions" (see Nero; Persecution, sec. 12). This view of Christianity as subversive of the empire survived the fall of Rome before Alaric. The heathen forgot--as the apologists showed--that Rome had been visited by the greatest calamities before the Christian era and that the Christians were the most self-sacrificing in periods of public distress, lending succor to pagan and Christian alike.

(h) Odium generis humani:

All prejudices against Christianity were summed up in odium generis humani, "hatred for the human race" or society, which was reciprocated by "hatred of the human race toward them." The Christians were bitterly hated, not only by the populace, but by the upper educated classes. Most of the early adherents belonged to the slave, freedman and artisan classes, "not many wise, not many noble." Few were Roman citizens. We have mentioned the crimes which popular prejudice attributed to this hated sect. They were in mockery styled Christiani by the Antiochians (a name which they at first resented), and Nazarenes by the Jews. No nicknames were too vile to attach to them--Asinarii (the sect that worshipped the ass’s head), Sarmenticii or Semaxii. Roman writers cannot find epithets strong enough. Tacitus reckons the Christian faith among the "atrocious and abominable things" (atrocia aut pudenda) which flooded Rome, and further designates it superstitio exitiabilis ("baneful superstition," Ann. xv.44), Suetonius (Ner. 16) as novel and maletic (novae ac maleficae), and the gentle Pliny (Ep. 97) as vile and indecent (prava immodica). Well might Justus say the Christians were "hated and reviled by the whole human race." This opprobrium was accentuated by the attacks of philosophy upon Christianity. When the attention of philosophers was drawn to the new religion, it was only to scorn it. This attitude of heathen philosophy is best understood in reading Celsus and the Christian apologists.

(4) The Roman Empire Not the Only Disturbing Factor.

Philosophy long maintained its aloofness from the religion of a crucified Galilean: the "wise" were the last to enter the kingdom of God. When later Christianity had established itself as a permanent force in human thought, philosophy deigned to consider its claims. But it was too late; the new faith was already on the offensive. Philosophy discovered its own weakness and began to reform itself by aiming at being both a philosophy and a religion. This is particularly the case in neo-Platonism (in Plotinus) in which reason breaks down before revelation and mysticism. Another force disturbing the peace of the Christian church was the enemy within the fold. Large numbers of heathen had entered the ecclesia bringing with them their oriental or Greek ideas, just as Jewish Christians brought their Judaism with them. This led to grave heresies, each system of thought distorting in its own way the orthodox faith. Later another ally joined the forces against Christianity--reformed paganism led by an injured priesthood. At first the cause of Christianity was greatly aided by the fact that there was no exclusive and jealous priesthood at the head of the Greek-Roman religion, as in the Jewish and oriental religions. There was thus no dogma and no class interested in maintaining a dogma. Religious persecution is invariably instituted by the priesthood, but in the Roman world it was not till late in the day when the temples and sacrifices were falling into desuetude that we find a priesthood as a body in opposition. Thus the Roman imperial power stood not alone in antagonism to Christianity, but was abetted and often provoked to action by

(a) popular hate,

(b) philosophy,

(c) pagan priesthood,

(d) heresies within the church.

IV. Relations between the Roman Empire and Christianity.

We have here to explain how the attitude of the Roman empire, at first friendly or indifferent, developed into one of fierce conflict, the different stages in the policy--if we can speak of any uniform policy--of the Roman government toward Christianity, the charges or mode of procedure on which Christians were condemned, and when and how the profession of Christianity (nomen ipsum) became a crime. We shall see the Roman empire progressively weakening and Christianity gaining ground. For the sake of clearness we shall divide the Roman empire into six periods, the first from the commencement of the Christian era till the last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.

1. Beginning of Christianity until Death of Nero, 68 AD:

At first the presence of the Christian faith was unknown to Roman authorities. It appeared first merely as a reformed and more spiritual Judaism; its earliest preachers and adherents alike never dreamed of severing from the synagogue. Christians were only another of the Jewish sects to which a Jew might belong while adhering to Mosaism and Judaism. But soon this friendly relation became strained on account of the expanding views of some of the Christian preachers, and from the introduction of Gentile proselytes. The first persecutions for the infant church came entirely from exclusive Judaism, and it was the Jews who first accused Christians before the Roman courts. Even so, the Roman government not only refused to turn persecutor, but even protected the new faith both against Jewish accusations and against the violence of the populace (Ac 21:31 f). And the Christian missionaries--especially Paul--soon recognized in the Roman empire an ally and a power for good. Writing to the Romans Paul counsels them to submit in obedience to the powers that be, as "ordained of God." His favorable impression must have been greatly enhanced by his mild captivity at Rome and his acquittal by Nero on the first trial. The Roman soldiers had come to his rescue in Jerusalem to save his life from the fanaticism of his own coreligionists. Toward the accusations of the Jews against their rivals the Romans were either indifferent, as Gallio the proconsul of Achaia, who "cared for none of those things" (Ac 18:12 ), or recognized the innocence of the accused, as did both Felix (Ac 24:1 ) and Porcius Festus (Ac 25:14 ). Thus the Romans persisted in looking upon Christians as a sect of the Jews. But the Jews took another step in formulating a charge of disloyalty (begun before Pilate) against the new sect as acting "contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, one Jesus" (Ac 17:7; compare Ac 25:8). Christianity was disowned thus early by Judaism and cast upon its own resources. The increasing numbers of Christians would confirm to the Roman government the independence of Christianity. And the trial of a Roman citizen, Paul, at Rome would further enlighten the authorities.

The first heathen persecution of Christianity resulted from no definite policy, no apprehension of danger to the body politic, and no definite charges, but from an accidental spark which kindled the conflagration of Rome (July, 64 AD). Up to this time no emperor had taken much notice of Christianity. It was only in the middle of the reign of Augustus that Jesus was born. In the reign of Tiberius belong Jesus’ public ministry, crucifixion and resurrection; but his reign closed too early (37 AD) to allow any prominence to the new faith, though this emperor was credited with proposing to the senate a decree to receive Christ into the Roman pantheon--legend of course. Under the brief principate of the mad Gaius (37-41 AD) the "new way" was not yet divorced from the parent faith. Gaius caused a diversion in favor of the Christians by his persecution of the Jews and the command to set up his own statue in the temple. In the next reign (Claudius, 41-54 AD) the Jews were again harshly treated, and thousands were banished from Rome (Judaeos impulsore Chresto assidue tumultuantes Roma expulit: Suet. Claud. 25). Some would see in this an action against the Christians by interpreting the words as meaning riots between Jews and Christians, in consequence of which some Christians were banished as Jews, but Dio Cassius (lx.6) implies that it was a police regulation to restrain the spread of Jewish worship. It was in the reign of Nero, after the fire of 64 AD, that the first hostile step was taken by the government against the Christians, earliest account of which is given by Tacitus (Ann. xv.44). Nero’s reckless career had given rise to the rumor that he was the incendiary, that he wished to see the old city burned in order to rebuild it on more magnificent plans. See Nero. Though he did everything possible to arrest the flames, even exposing his own life, took every means of alleviating the destitution of the sufferers, and ordered such religious rites as might appease the wrath of the gods, the suspicion still clung to him.

"Accordingly in order to dissipate the rumor, he put forward as guilty (subdidit reos) and inflicted the most cruel punishments on those who were hated for their abominations (flagitia) and called Christians by the populace. The originator of that name, Christus, had been executed by the procurator Pontius Pilatus in the reign of Tiberius, and the baneful superstition (exitiabilis superstitio) put down for the time being broke out again, not only throughout Judea, the home of this evil, but also in the City (Rome) where all atrocious and shameful (atrocia aut pudenda) things converge and are welcomed. Those therefore who confessed (i.e. to being Christians) were first arrested, and then by the information gained from them a large number (multitudo ingens) were implicated (coniuncti is the manuscript reading, not conuicti), not so much on the charge of incendiarism as for hatred of mankind (odio humani generis). The victims perished amid mockery (text here uncertain); some clothed in the skins of wild beasts were torn to pieces by dogs; others impaled on crosses in order to be set on fire to afford light by night after daylight had died. .... Whence (after these cruelties) commiseration began to be felt for them, though guilty and deserving the severest penalties (quamquam adversus sontes et novissima exempla meritos), for men felt their destruction was not from considerations of public welfare but to gratify the cruelty of one person (Nero)."

This passage--the earliest classical account of the crucifixion and the only mention of Pilate in a heathen author--offers some difficulties which require to be glanced at. It is held by some that Tacitus contradicts himself by writing subdidit reos at the beginning and sontes at the end, but sontes does not mean guilty of incendiarism, but guilty from the point of view of the populace and deserving severe punishment for other supposed flagitia, not for arson. It is thus quite clear that Tacitus regards the Christians as innocent, though he had not the slightest kindly feeling toward them. Qui fatebantur means most naturally, "those who confessed to being Christians," though Arnold argues that confiteri or profiteri would be the correct word for professing a religion. But this would contradict both the sense and the other evidences of the context; for if fatebantur could mean "confessed to arson," then the whole body of Christians should have been arrested, and, further, this would have diverted suspicion from Nero, which was not the case according to Tacitus. Some Christians boldly asserted their religion, others no doubt, as in Bithynia, recanted before tribulation. By indicio eorum Ramsay (Christianity in the Roman Empire, 233) understands "on the information elicited at their trial," i.e. from information gathered by the inquisitors in the course of the proceedings. This incidental information implicated a large number of others, hence Ramsay prefers the manuscript reading coniuncti to the correction conuicti. This is in order to explain the difficulty seemingly raised, namely, that the noblest Christians who boldly confessed their Christianity would seek to implicate brethren. But it is not impossible that some of these bold spirits did condescend to give the names of their coreligionists to the Roman courts. Hence, Hardy (Christianity and the Roman Government, 67) prefers the more usual rendering of indicio eorum as "on information received from them." This may have occurred either

(1) through torture, or

(2) for promised immunity, or

(3) on account of local jealousies.

The early Christian communities were not perfect; party strife often ran high as at Corinth. And in a church like that of Rome composed of Jewish and pagan elements and undoubtedly more cosmopolitan than Corinth, a bitter sectarian spirit is easy to understand. This as a probable explanation is much strengthened and rendered almost certain by the words of Clement of Rome, who, writing to the church at Corinth (chapter vi) from Rome only a generation after the persecution, and thus familiar with the internal history of the Roman ecclesia, twice asserts that a (polu plethos = Tac. multitudo ingens) of the Roman Christians suffered (dia zelos), "through jealousy or strife." The most natural and obvious meaning is "mutual or sectarian jealousy." But those who do not like this fact explain it as "by the jealousy of the Jews." Nothing is more easily refuted, for had it been the jealousy of the Jews Clement would not have hesitated one moment to say so. Those who are familiar with the Christian literature of that age know that the Christians were none too sensitive toward Jewish feelings. But the very fact that it was not the Jews made Clement rather modestly omit details the memory of which was probably still bearing fruit, even in his day. Once more correpti, usually rendered "arrested," is taken by Hardy as "put upon their trial." He argues that this is more in accord with Tacitean usage. A "huge multitude" need not cause us to distrust Tacitus. It is a relative term; it was a considerable number to be so inhumanly butchered. There is some hesitation as to whether odio humani generis is objective or subjective genitive: "hatred of the Christians toward the human race" or "hatred of the human race toward the Christians." Grammatically of course it may be either, but that it is the former there can be no doubt: it was of the nature of a charge against Christians (Ramsay).

See Persecution.

Some have impugned the veracity of Tacitus in this very important passage, asserting that he had read back the feelings and state of affairs of his own day (half a century later) into this early Neronian period. This early appearance of Christianity as a distinct religion and its "huge multitude" seem impossible to some. Schiller has accordingly suggested that it was the Jews who as a body at Rome were persecuted, that the Christians being not yet distinct from Jews shared in the persecutions and suffered, not as Christians, but as Jews. But Tacitus is too trustworthy a historian to be guilty of such a confusion; besides, as proconsul in Asia he must have been more or less familiar with the origin of the Christian party. Also Poppea was at this time mistress of Nero’s affections and sufficiently influential with him to stay such a cruel persecution against those to whom she had a leaning and who claimed her as proselyte. Again, the Jewish faith was certe licita and a recognized worship of the empire.

The next question is, Why were the Christians alone selected for persecution? That they were so singled out we know, but exactly for what reason is hard to say with certainty. A number of reasons no doubt contributed.

(1) Farrar (Early Days chapter iv) sees "in the proselytism of Poppea, guided by Jewish malice, the only adequate explanation of the first Christian persecution," and Lightfoot is of the same opinion, but this by itself is inadequate, though the Jews would be glad of an opportunity of taking revenge on their aggressive opponents.

(2) Christians had already become in the eyes of the Roman authorities a distinct sect, either from the reports of the eastern provincial governors, where Christianity was making most headway, or from the attention attracted by Paul’s first trial. They were thus the newest religious sect, and as such would serve as victims to appease deity and the populace.

(3) Even if ingens multitudo be rhetorical, the Christians were no doubt considerably numerous in Rome. Their aggressiveness and active proselytism made their numbers even more formidable.

(4) They were uncompromising in their expression of their beliefs; they looked for a consummation of the earth by fire and were also eagerly expecting the Parousia of their king to reconstitute society. These tenets together with their calm faith amid the despair of others would easily cast suspicion upon them.

(5) For whatever reason, they had earned the opprobrium of the populace. "The hatred for the Jews passed over to hatred for the Christians" (Mommsen). A people whom the populace so detested must have fallen under the surveillance of the city police administration.

(6) A large proportion of the Christian community at Rome would be non-Roman and so deserve no recognition of Roman privileges.

These reasons together may or may not explain the singling-out of the Christians. At any rate they were chosen as scapegoats to serve Nero and his minion Tigellinus. The origin of the first persecution was thus purely accidental--in order to remove suspicion from Nero. It was not owing to any already formulated policy, neither through apprehension of any danger to the state, nor because the Christians were guilty of any crimes, though it gave an opportunity of investigation and accumulation of evidence. But accidental as this persecution was in origin, its consequences were of far reaching importance. There are three principal views as to the date of the policy of proscription of the new faith by the Roman government:

(1) the old view that persecution for the name, i.e. for the mere profession of Christianity, began under Trajan in 112 AD--a view now almost universally abandoned;

(2) that of Ramsay (Christianity in the Roman Empire, 242 ff, and three articles in The Expositor, 1893), who holds that this development from punishment for definite crimes (flagitia) to proscription "for the name" took place between 68 and 96 AD, and

(3) that of Hardy (Christianity and the Roman Government, 77), Mommsen (Expos, 1893, 1-7) and Sanday (ibid., 1894, 406 ff)--and adopted by the writer of this article--that the trial of the Christians under Nero resulted in the declaration of the mere profession of Christianity as a crime punishable by death.

Tacitus apparently represents the persecution of the Christians as accidental and isolated and of brief duration (in the place cited), while Suetonius (Ner. 16) mentions the punishment of Christians in a list of permanent police regulations for the maintenance of good order, into which it would be inconsistent to introduce an isolated case of procedure against the "baneful superstition" (Ramsay, op. cit., p. 230). But these two accounts are not contradictory, Tacitus giving the initial stage and Suetonius "a brief statement of the permanent administrative principle into which Nero’s action ultimately resolved itself" (ibid., 232). Nero’s police administration, then, pursued as a permanent policy what was begun merely to avert suspicion from Nero. But as yet, according to Ramsay, Christians were not condemned as Christians, but on account of certain flagitia attaching to the profession and because the Roman police authorities had learned enough about the Christians to regard them as hostile to society. A trial still must be held and condemnation pronounced "in respect not of the name but of serious offenses naturally connected with the name," namely, first incendiarism, which broke down, and secondly hostility to civilized society and charges of magic. The others agree so far with Ramsay as describing the first stages, but assert that odium humani generis was not of the nature of a definite charge, but disaffection to the social and political arrangements of the empire. At the outset a trial was needed, but soon as a consequence the trial could be dispensed with, the Christians being "recognized as a society whose principle might be summarized as odium generis humani." A trial became unnecessary; the religion itself involved the crimes, and as a religion it was henceforth proscribed. The surveillance over them and their punishment was left to the police administration which could step in at any time with severe measures or remain remiss, according as exigencies demanded. Christianity was henceforth a religio illicita. The Roman government was never a systematic persecutor. The persecution or non-persecution of Christianity depended henceforth on the mood of the reigning emperor, the character of his administration, the activity of provincial governors, the state of popular feeling against the new faith, and other local circumstances. There is no early evidence that the Neronian persecution extended beyond Rome, though of course the "example set by the emperor necessarily guided the action of all Roman officials." The stormy close of Nero’s reign and the tumultuous days till the accession of Vespasian created a diversion in favor of Christianity. Orosius (Hist. vii.7) is too late an authority for a general persecution (per omnes provincias pari persecutione excruciari imperavit; ipsum nomen exstirpare conatus ....). Besides, Paul after his acquittal seems to have prosecuted his missionary activity without any extraordinary hindrances, till he came to Rome the second time. This Neronian persecution is important for the history of Christianity: Nero commenced the principle of punishing Christians, and thus made a precedent for future rulers. Trouble first began in the world-capital; the next stage will be found in the East; and another in Africa and the West. But as yet persecution was only local. Nero was the first of the Roman persecutors who, like Herod Agrippa, came to a miserable end--a fact much dwelt upon by Lactantius and other Christian writers.

2. Flavian Period, 68-96 AD:

In the Flavian period no uniform imperial policy against Christianity can be discovered. According to Ramsay the Flavians developed the practice set by Nero from punishment of Christians for definite crimes to proscription of the name. But, as we have seen, the Neronian persecution settled the future attitude of the Roman state toward the new faith. The Flavians could not avoid following the precedent set by Nero. Christianity was spreading--especially in the East and at Rome. We have no account of any persecution under Vespasian (though Hilary erroneously speaks of him as a persecutor along with Nero and Decius) and Titus, but it does not follow that none such took place. As the whole matter was left to the police administration, severity would be spasmodic and called forth by local circumstances. The fall of Jerusalem must have had profound influence both on Judaism and on Christianity. For the former it did what the fall of Rome under Goths, Vandals, and Germans did for the old Roman religion--it weakened the idea of a national God bound up with a political religion. The cleft between Judaism and its rival would now become greater. Christianity was relieved from the overpowering influence of a national center, and those Jews who now recognized the futility of political dreams would more readily join the Christian faith. Not only the distinction but the opposition and hostility would now be more apparent to outsiders, though Vespasian imposed the poll-tax on Jewish Christians and Jews alike. No memory of harshness against Christianity under Vespasian has survived. Ramsay (op. cit., 257) would interpret a mutilated passage of Suetonius (Vesp. 15) as implying Vespasian’s reluctance to carry out justa supplicia against Christians.

Titus, "the darling of the human race," is not recorded as a persecutor, but his opinion of Judaism and Christianity as stated in the council of war before Jerusalem in 70 AD and recorded by Sulpicius Severus (Chron. ii.30, 6) is interesting as an approval of the policy adopted by Nero. Severus’ authority is undoubtedly Tacitus (Bernays and Mommsen). The authenticity of the speech as contradicting the account of Josephus has been impugned; at any rate it represents the point of view of Tacitus. Titus then advocates the destruction of the temple in order that the religion of the Jews and the Christians may be more thoroughly extirpated (quo plenius Judeorum et Christianorum religio tolleretur), since these religions though opposed to each other were of the same origin, the Christians having sprung from the Jews. If the root was removed the stem would readily perish (radice sublata, stirpem facile perituram). We know, however, of no active measures of Titus against either party, his short reign perhaps allowing no time for such.

It is Domitian who stands out prominently as the persecutor of this period, as Nero of the first period. His procedure against Christians was not an isolated act, but part of a general policy under which others suffered. His reign was a return to ancient principles. He attempted to reform morals, suppress luxury and vice, banish immoral oriental rites, actors, astrologers and philosophers. It was in his attempt to revive the national religion that he came in conflict with the universal religion. His own cousin, Flavius Clemens, was condemned apparently for Christianity (atheism), and his wife, Domitilla, was banished. The profession of Christianity was not sufficient for the condemnation of Roman citizens of high standing; hence the charges of atheism or majestas were put forward. Refusal to comply with the religion of the national gods could be brought under the latter. But for ordinary Roman citizens and for provincials the profession of Christianity merited death. No definite edict or general proscription was enacted; only the principle instituted by Nero was allowed to be carried out. There was, as Mommsen remarks, a standing proscription of Christians as of brigands, but harsh procedure against both was spasmodic and depended on the caprice or character of provincial governors. Domitian took one definite step against Christianity in establishing an easy test by which to detect those who were Christians and so facilitate inquiries. This test was the demand to worship the Genius of the emperor. This too was only part of Domitian’s general policy of asserting his own dominus et deus title and emphasizing the imperial cult as a bond of political union. The Apocalypse reflects the sufferings of the church in this reign.

3. The Antonine Period, 96-192 AD:

(1) Nerva and Trajan.

On the death of Domitian peace was restored to the Christian church which lasted throughout the brief reign of Nerva (96-98) and the first 13 years of Trajan. It is a curious fact that some of the best of the Roman emperors (Trajan, Marcus Aurelius, Decius and Diocletian) were harsh to the Christians, while some of the worst (as Commodus, Caracalla, Heliogabalus) left them in peace (see Persecution, 17). Christianity had been rapidly spreading in the interval of tranquillity. Pliny became governor of Bithynia in 111 AD and found, especially in the eastern part of his province, the temples almost deserted. Some Christians were brought before him and on established precedents were ordered to be executed for their religion. But Pliny soon discovered that many of both sexes and all ages, provincials and Roman citizens, were involved. The Roman citizens he sent to Rome for trial; but being of a humane disposition he shrank from carrying out the wholesale execution required by a consistent policy.

He wrote to Trajan telling him what he had already done, rather covertly suggesting tolerant measures. Should no distinction be made between old and young? Should pardon not be extended to those who recanted and worshipped the emperor’s image and cursed Christ? Should mere profession (nomen ipsum) be a capital offense if no crimes could be proven, or should the crimes rather be punished that were associated with the faith (an flagitia cohaerentia nomini)? He then explains his procedure: he gave those who were accused an abundant opportunity of recanting; those who persisted in this faith were executed. He considered their "stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy" (pertinaciam certe et inflexibilem obstinationem) as in itself deserving punishment. But the administration having once interfered found plenty to do. An anonymous list of many names was handed in, most of whom, however, denied being Christians. Informers then put forward others who likewise denied belonging to the faith. Pliny was convinced their meetings were harmless, and on examination of two deaconesses under torture discovered nothing but a perverse extravagant superstition (sup. pravam immodicam). Trajan replied that no universal and definite rule could be laid down, apparently confirming the correctness of Pliny’s action and perhaps disappointing Pliny in not yielding to his humane suggestions. Nevertheless, the emperor made three important concessions: (1) the Christians were not to be sought out by the police authorities, but if they were accused and convicted they must be punished; (2) anonymous information against them was not to be accepted; (3) even those suspected of flagitia in the past were to be pardoned on proving they were not Christians or on renouncing Christianity. Some regard this rescript of Trajan as the first official and legal authorization to proscribe Christianity; but we have already seen that Christianity as such was proscribed as a result of the Neronian investigations. Besides, there is not the slightest trace of any new principle of severity, either in the letters of Pliny or in the rescript of Trajan. The persecution of Christianity had been "permanent" like that of highwaymen, but not systematic or general. Neither was Trajan’s rescript an edict of toleration, though on the whole it was favorable to the Christians in minimizing the dangers to which they were exposed. The question was as yet purely one of administration.

Trajan initiated no procedure against Christians--in fact rather discouraged any, asking his lieutenant to close his eyes to offenders--and Pliny consulted him in the hope of obtaining milder treatment for the Christians by putting in question form what he really wished to be approved. Trajan’s rescript "marks the end of the old system of uncompromising hostility."

See Persecution, 15.

(2) Hadrian.

The reign of Hadrian (117-38) was a period of toleration for the Christians. He was no bigot, but tolerant and eclective, inquiring into all religions and initiated into several mysteries and willing to leave religion an open question. In Asia, where Christianity was making most progress, a state of terrorism was imminent if delatores were encouraged against Christians making a profession of delatio (giving information). As we saw in the letter of Pliny, even non-Christians were accused, and any professing Christian could be threatened by these informers in order to secure a bribe for proceeding no farther. Licinius Silvanus Granianus, like Pliny, found himself involved in difficulties and wrote to Hadrian for advice. Hadrian’s rescript in reply is addressed to Granianus’ successor, Minucius Fundanus, the proconsul of Asia, about 124 AD. The genuineness of this important document, though impugned by Overbeck, Keim and Lipsius, is vouched for by Mommsen, Hardy, Lightfoot and Ramsay. Indeed, it is much easier accounted for as authentic than as a forgery, for who but the broad-minded Hadrian could have written such a rescript? Apparently the questions put by the proconsul must have been of a similar nature to those extant of Pliny. The answer of Hadrian is a decided step in favor of Christianity and goes beyond that of Trajan:

(1) information is not to be passed over (a) lest the innocent suffer (as was the case under Pliny), and (b) lest informers should make a trade of lodging accusations;

(2) provincials accusing Christians must give proof that the accused have committed something illegal;

(3) mere petitions and acclamations against the Christians are not to be admitted;

(4) a prosecutor on failing to make good his case is to be punished.

These terms would greatly increase the risk for informers and lessen the dangers for Christians. That the name is a crime is not admitted, neither is this established principle rescinded. It is quite possible that Hadrian’s rescript "gave a certain stimulus toward the employment of the more definite and regular legal procedure."

(3) Antoninus Pius (138-161).

The liberal policy of Trajan and Hadrian was continued by Antoninus, though persecution occurred in his reign in which Ptolemeus and Lucius were executed at Rome and Polycarp at Smyrna. But he decidedly confirmed Hadrian’s policy of protecting the Christians uncondemned against mob violence in his letters to Larissae, Athens, Thessalonica and to "all the Hellenes." As at Smyrna, his "rescript was in advance of public feeling," and so was disregarded. Anonymous delation was also repressed.

(4) Marcus Aurelius (161-80).

Under Aurelius a strong reaction set in affecting the Christians, caused partly by the frontier disasters and devastating pestilence and partly by Aurelius’ policy of returning to ancient principles and reviving the Roman national religion. In this reign we find persecution extending to the West (Gaul) and to Africa--a step toward the general persecutions of the next century. Though no actual change was made by Aurelius, the leniency of the last three reigns is absent. No general edict or definite rescript of persecution was issued; the numerous martyrdoms recorded in this reign are partly due to the fuller accounts and the rise of a Christian literature. Christianity in itself still constituted a crime, and the obstinacy (parataxis) of Christians in itself deserved punishment. Aurelius seems to have actually rebuked the severity of the Roman governor at Lugdunum, and to have further discouraged the trade of informers against Christians. Tertullian actually styles him as debellator Christianorum ("protector of Christians"). We find as yet therefore no systematic or serious attempt to extirpate the new faith. The central government "was all this time without a permanent or steady policy toward the Christians. It had not yet made up its mind" (Hardy).

Under the rule of Commodus (180-192) Christians gain enjoyed a respite. The net result of the collisions between the new faith and the government in this period is somewhat differently estimated by Ramsay and by Hardy. The latter thinks (Christianity and Roman Government, 156 f) that Ramsay "has to some extent antedated the existence of anything like a policy of proscription," due to antedating the time when Christianity was regarded as a serious political danger. Hardy thinks that the Christian organization was never suspected as more than an abstract danger during the first two centuries. Had Rome taken the view that Christianity in its organization was a real danger and an imperium in imperio, she must have started a systematic exterminating policy during a period when Christianity could have least withstood it. When the empire did--as in the 3rd century--apprehend the practical danger and took the severest general measures, Christianity was already too strong to be harmed, and we shall find the empire henceforth each time worsted and finally offering terms.

4. Changing Dynasties, 192-284 AD:

In the next period the insecurity of the throne, when in less than 100 years about a score of candidates wore the purple and almost each new emperor began a new dynasty, enabled Christianity to spread practically untroubled. Further diversions in its favor were created by those fierce barbarian wars and by the necessity of renewed vigilance at the frontier posts. The Christians’ aloofness from political strife and their acquiescence in each new dynasty brought them generally into no collision with new rulers. Further, the fact that many of these emperors were non-Roman provincials, or foreigners who had no special attachment to the old Roman faith, and were eclectic in their religious views, was of much importance to the new eastern faith. Moreover, some of the emperors proved not only not hostile to Christianity, but positively friendly. In this period we find no severe (except perhaps that of Decius) and certainly no protracted persecution. The Christian church herself was organized on the principle of the imperial government, and made herself thus strong and united, so that when the storm did come she remained unshaken. In 202 Severus started a cruel persecution in Africa and Egypt, but peace was restored by the savage Caracalla (lacte Christiano educatus: Tert.). Heliogabalus assisted Christianity indirectly (1) by the degradation of Roman religion, and (2) by tolerance. According to one writer he proposed to fuse Christianity, Judaism and Samaritanism into one religion. Alexander Severus was equally tolerant and syncretic, setting up in his private chapel images of Orpheus, Apollonius, Abraham, and Christ, and engraving the golden rule on his palace walls and public buildings. He was even credited with the intention of erecting a temple to Christ. Local persecution broke out under Maximin the Thracian. The first general persecution was that of Decius, in which two features deserve notice: (1) that death was not the immediate result of Christian profession, but every means was employed to induce Christians to recant; (2) Roman authorities already cognizant of the dangers of Christian organization directed their efforts especially against the officers of the church. Gallus continued this policy, and Valerian, after first stopping persecution, tried to check the spread of the worship by banishing bishops and closing churches, and later enacted the death penalty. Gallienus promulgated what was virtually the first edict of toleration, forbade persecution and restored the Christian endowments. Christianity now entered upon a period of 40 years’ tranquillity: as outward dangers decreased, less desirable converts came within her gates and her adherents were overtaken in a flood of worldliness, stayed only by the persecution of Diocletian.

5. Diocletian until First General Edict of Toleration, 284-311 AD:

Like some other persecutors, Diocletian was one of the ablest Roman rulers. He was not disposed to proceed against the Christians, but was finally driven to harsh measures by his son-in-law Galerius. The first edict, February 24, 303, was not intended to exterminate Christianity, but to check its growth and weaken its political influence, and was directed principally against Bibles, Christian assemblies and churches. The second was against church organization. A third granted freedom to those who recanted, but sought to compel the submission of recalcitrants by tortures--a partial confession of failure on the part of the imperial government. Bloodshed was avoided and the death penalty omitted. But a fourth edict issued by Maximin prescribed the death penalty and required the act of sacrifice to the gods. In the same year (304) Diocletian, convinced of the uselessness of these measures, stayed the death penalty. The change of policy on the part of the emperor and his abdication next year were virtually a confession that the Galilean had conquered. After the persecution had raged 8 years (or 10, if we include local persecutions after 311), Galerius, overtaken by a loathsome disease, issued from Nicomedia with Constantine and Licinius the first general edict of toleration, April 30, 311. Christianity had thus in this period proved a state within a state; it was finally acknowledged as a religio licita, though not yet on equality with paganism.

6. First Edict of Toleration until Fall of Western Empire, 311-476 AD:

In the next period the first religious wars began, and Christianity was first placed on an equal footing with its rival, then above it, and finally it became the state religion of both West and East. As soon as Christianity had gained tolerance it immediately became an intolerant, bitter persecutor, both of its old rival and of heresy. Constantine, having defeated Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge (October 27, 312), became sole ruler of the West, and, in conjunction with his eastern colleague Licinius, issued the famous edict of toleration from Milan, March 30, 313, by which all religions were granted equal tolerance, and Christianity was thus placed on an equal footing with heathenism. Constantine’s favors toward the Christian faith were largely political; he wished simply to be on the winning side. With each fresh success he inclined more toward Christianity, though his whole life was a compromise. His dream was to weld pagan and Christian into one society under the same laws; he in no way prohibited paganism. With the rounding of Constantinople Christianity became practically the state religion--an alliance with baneful consequences for Christianity. It now began to stifle the liberty of conscience for which it had suffered so much, and orthodoxy began its long reign of intolerance. The sons of Constantine inherited their father’s cruel nature with his nominal Christianity. Constantine had left the old and the new religions on equal footing: his sons began the work of exterminating paganism by violence. Constantius when sole emperor, inheriting none of his father’s compromise or caution, and prompted by women and bishops, published edicts demanding the closing of the temples and prohibiting sacrifices. Wise provincial administrators hesitated to carry out these premature measures. Christianity was now in the ascendancy and on the aggressive. It not only persecuted paganism, but the dominant Christian party proscribed its rival--this time heterodoxy banishing orthodoxy. The violence and intolerance of the sons of Constantine justified the mild reaction under Julian the Apostate--the most humane member of the Constantine family. He made a "romantic" effort to reestablish the old religion, and while proclaiming tolerance for Christianity, he endeavored to weaken it by heaping ridicule upon its doctrines, rescinding the privileges of the clergy, prohibiting the church from receiving many bequests, removing Christians from public positions and forbidding the teaching of classics in Christian schools lest Christian tongues should become better fitted to meet heathen arguments, and lastly by adding renewed splendor to pagan service as a counter-attraction. But the moral power of Christianity triumphed. Dying on a battle-field, where he fought the Persians, he is said (but not on good authority) to have exclaimed, "Thou hast conquered, O Galilean" (nenikekas Galilaie). For a brief period after his death there was religious neutrality. Gratian--at the instigation of Ambrose--departed from this neutrality, removed the statue of Victory from the senate-house, refused the title and robes of pontifex maximus, prohibited bloody sacrifices, and dealt a severe blow to the old faith by withdrawing some of the treasury grants, thereby making it dependent on the voluntary system. Theodosius I, or the Great, adopted a strenuous religious policy against both heresy and paganism. His intolerance must be attributed to Ambrose--a bigot in whose eyes Jews, heretics and pagans alike had no rights. Systematic proscription of paganism began. In 381 Theodosius denied the right of making a will to apostates from Christianity, in 383 the right of inheritance, in 391 heathen public worship was interdicted, in 392 several acts of both private and public heathen worship were forbidden, and greater penalties were attached to the performance of sacrifice. Christian vandalism became rampant; all kinds of violence and confiscation were resorted to, monks or priests often leading the populace. For the present the West did not suffer so severely from fanatic iconoclasm. Under the sons of Theodosius the suppression of paganism was steadily pursued. Honorius in the West excluded (408 AD) pagans from civil and military offices; in a later edict (423) the very existence of paganism is doubted (paganos .... quamquam iam nullos esse credamus). That heathenism was still an attraction is proved by the repeated laws against apostasy. Under Valentinian III (423-55) and Theodosius II, laws were enacted for the destruction of temples or their conversion into Christian churches. In the western empire heathenism was persecuted till the end, and its final overthrow was hastened by the extinction of the western empire (476). In the East Justinian closed the heathen schools of philosophy at Athens (529 AD), and in a despotic spirit prohibited even heathen worship in private under pain of death.