Persecuting Christians

    From BelieveTheSign
    Click on headings to expand them, or links to go to specific articles.

    This article is one in a series on the history of the Church - you are currently on the topic that is in bold:

    The Christian Church was brutally persecuted until Constantine decided to sanction this religion.

    Persecution by the Roman Empire

    Christians were severely persecuted by the roman Empire between 64 AD and 313 AD.

    • The first direct collision between the Roman Government and the rising Christian sect appears to have taken place at Rome during the latter part of the reign of Nero around 64 AD. The cause of this first outbreak is a difficult and much disputed question. The traditional view is that Nero, who was accused of burning a large part of the city of Rome, in order to divert suspicion from himself, accused the Christians of setting fire to the city, and thus started the persecution. It appears that both Paul and Peter were martyred in Rome during the persecution of Nero, Peter being crucified head downward and Paul being beheaded.[1]
    • Sporadic persecutions against Christians occured during the reigns of emperor Domitian (89-96 AD) and emperor Trajan (98-117 AD).
    • Marcus Aurelis executed a number of Christians in Lyon, France, in 177 AD.
    • Septimus Severus (193 - 211 AD) upheld the already-established laws against Christianity, allowing local governors to persecute them (which was especially strong in Africa) while sheltering the Christians in Rome itself.
    • Alexander Severus (222-235 AD) wanted to build a temple to the founder of Christianity, but was dissuaded by pagan priests.
    • Maximinus Thrax (235-238 AD) persecuted Christians relentlessly, as did Decius (249-251 AD) and Valerian (253-260 AD).
    • Roman Emperor Diocletian published an "Edict against the Christians" in 303 A.D. [2] ordering the destruction of Christian scriptures and places of worship across the Empire, while prohibiting Christians from assembling for worship. Fires in Diocletian's palace in Nicomedia caused him to increase this persecution. In 304, Diocletian ordered everyone in the empire to sacrifice [3], which was a sign of apostasy to Christians. Persecution, imprisonment, or execution followed for those refusing to participate.
    • Emperor Galerius continued Diocletian's ruthless persecution of Christianity until 311 when he wrote an edict of tolerance on his death bed.
    • Constantine I issued the Edict of Milan, formalized religious tolerance in the Empire in 312 A.D.

    There is a gap of around two year's time when there was no Bishop in Rome. This is likely due to intense persection. The Church under Sixtus was probably a decimated and persecuted Church, and may have been an entirely different Church than the church under Alexander (a martyr) due to dispersion and death of the inhabitants of the earlier church, and reintegration of backslidden Christians (probable, but speculation only). Rome's Pagan Emperors would sometimes meddle with Church affairs even before the time of Constantine. Emperor Maxentius deposed a number of Bishops until a more 'suitable' Bishop could be found. The Roman Bishop Marcellinus recanted Christianity and sacrificed to idols to escape persecution (although it is said he later recanted).


    The Roman Emperor Diocletian was figure of contrasts. Born to a poor family, he rose in stature in the Roman army and cavalry, until claiming the Empire for himself in 284. Taking the title "Jovius" and "Dominus et deus" (Lord and God), he reinstituted the Roman form of Emperor worship, forcing all who came to see him to prostrate themselves before his throne, and forbidding visitors to look at him. At the same time, Diocletian gave half of the empire to his friend Maximian (who took the title "Herculius"), and together they unified the power of the Roman Empire. His military and economic reforms formed the basis of the Byzantine Empire (which was to last another thousand years), and enabled the western Roman empire to continue another hundred years. In 305, after becoming sick, Diocletian became one of the few Roman Emperors to retire, and he took up the hobby of cabbage farming at his palace in Dalmatia.

    Persecution by Non-Roman Empires

    Once the Roman Empire began favoring Christianity, its enemies began their own series of persecutions. Strong persecution fell on the Persian church began from the rule of Shapur II (340 AD) to Hormizd III (c. 458 AD).

    Persecution by Christians

    A very brief summary of some key moments in Christians persecuting others include:

    • Constantine began a physical enforcement of orthodoxy.
    • Saint Theodora was the wife of the Byzantine emperor Theophilus (813 – 842). She re-established the veneration (not worship) of icons (images of Christ and the saints), and launched a vigorous persecution and extermination of the Paulician 'heresy'.
    • The Thirty Years' War was fought between 1618 and 1648, between Protestants and Catholics, resulting in deaths, and for the most part famine. *Protestants and Catholics continued to condemn witchraft, and killed thousands in witchhunts.
    • The Portugese, Goa (India), and Roman inquistions continued.
    • The Spanish Inquistion in Spain, Sicily, Southern Italy, Mexico and Peru continued until 1834.
    • Inter-denominational hatred and bloodshed (i.e. Ireland) continue to this day.

    In 1520, there were four main government-approved churches: the Roman Catholic Church, The Eastern Orthodox Church, The Ethiopian Church, and the Assyrian (Indian) Church - divided primarily by location. By 1750, there were numerous organized Protestant denominations, including the Anglicans, Lutherans, Mennonites, Baptists, Hutterites, Moravians, Pilgrims, Armenians, Puritans, Quakers, and Huguenots. Many of these groups were persecuted by the Catholic Church, but also persecuted the Catholic Church and each other when the opportunity arose.

    "Goa is sadly famous for its inquisition, which is contrary to humanity as much as to commerce. The Portuguese monks deluded us into believing that the Indian populace was worshipping the Devil, while it is they who served him." [4]


    1. Leon Hardy Canfield, The Early Persecutions of the Christians, 2nd ed., vol. LV, Studies in History, Economics and Public Law (New York; London: Columbia University; Longmans, Green & Co.; P. S. King & Son, 1913), 43.
    2. (Bleckmann, Bruno. (2002:, "Diocletianus". Brill's New Pauly 4: 429–438. Ed. Hubert Cancik and Helmut Schneider. Leiden: Brill. ISBN 9004122591.)
    3. (Liebeschuetz, p. 249–250.)
    4. Voltaire, Lettres sur l'origine des sciences et sur celle des peuples de l'Asie (first published Paris, 1777), letter of 15 December 1775