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Persecution of Christians | Most Persecuted Religion

In ancient Rome, strictly speaking, the term “persecution of Christians” was used above all to indicate the struggle of the pagan Roman government against the most persecuted religion, and that is Christianity. Among the reasons behind this persecution, a fundamental aspect was identified in the intimate conjunction between the state organization and the official religion of the empire. For which the recognition of official public worship (which included that reserved for emperors) was always considered an expression. The persecution of the Church of Jesus Christ is also called “The Persecution of Christians”.

The persecution of Christians began with the emperor Nero in 64 AD. He accused the Christians of setting fire to Rome. Many Christians were imprisoned and killed, often during bloody circus performances, torn apart by wild beasts. According to tradition, Peter and Paul met their deaths during this persecution.

Traditionally, the initiator of the persecution of Christians policy would have been Nero (in 64); followed by Domitian (81-96); Trajan (98-117), who sent Pliny a rescript prescribing that Christians should not be sought out, but punished only if denounced; Hadrian (117-138), of whom a rescript of Minicius Fundanus is mentioned; Antoninus Pius (138-161); Marcus Aurelius (161-180); Septimius Severus (193-211), who forbade (202) Christian proselytism; Maximin Thracian (238).

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Why were Early Christians persecuted?

At a time when Christianity was not yet concretely distinguished from Judaism, the church suffered little persecution, for the religion of the Jews was a legal one – religio licita. At the time of the split from Judaism Christianity became a separate group, considered a secret society. Which later became the target of becoming the most persecuted religion worldwide.

According to historical sources, the Early Christians were persecuted for the following reasons:

  • religious
  • economic/ political
  • the cult of the Emperor

Demanding devotion from its followers beyond imperial requirements, Christianity became the enemy of the state and a potential hotbed of treason – a threat to the security of the Roman state.

Any religion could be accepted as long as it contributed to the stability and integrity of the state, but Christianity’s exclusivism when it came to choosing between Caesar and Christ quickly earned the displeasure of the state’s rulers. Caesar’s sovereignty was threatened by Christ, and Christians were seen as trying to make a state within a state, a Christian enclave within an empire.

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Why were Christian persecuted in Rome?

Christianity, which arose on the periphery of the empire thanks to missionary activity, was spreading with its communities throughout a large part of the Roman Empire.

Christians were persecuted in Rome because they were completely disinterested in civil and political life (for example, Christians refused to perform military service), but central to Roman citizenship. In addition, Christians did not participate in traditional cults. The accusation that Christians practiced incest spread from the practice of Christians calling each other ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’; from the practice of celebrating the Holy Supper, rumors spread that meals of human flesh ( pasti tested ) and ritual murders were practiced.

On the pagan side, at first, there was an almost total misunderstanding. Pliny the Younger, in his letters to Emperor Trajan, the historians Tacitus in his Annals, and Suetonius in his Lives of the Caesars highlight how the aristocracy, committed to the defense of piety and other traditional values ( mos maiorum ), saw in Christianity a “depraved, excessive, alien superstition”.

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Causes of persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire

1. Religious

Roman religion was rigid and formal. For a pantheon full of gods, the addition of other deities did not matter much as long as the newcomers did not threaten the old figures, creeds, or rituals. Christians had no external trappings of worship, it was mostly spiritual, and inner. Soon Christians began to be labeled atheists – without gods. The secret gatherings of Christians soon drew suspicion and accusations of immorality and antisocial actions – incest, cannibalism. This even though an institution like the Lord’s Supper or various internal Christian protocols like the “kiss of peace” demanded a well-defined morality within Christianity.

Any natural calamity came to be attributed to Christians because of pagan ignorance and superstition. “If the Tiber floods, if the Nile does not flood, if it does not rain, if the earthquakes if there is famine, pestilence, you immediately cry out: Christians ad leonem” (Tertullian – Apologeticum)

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2. Social

Christians had a great outreach to the lower classes and slaves. Christianity supported the equality of all people. On the other hand, the new converts were thinning the ranks of participants in the religious actions and entertainments of Roman citizens – temple gatherings, theatre, and entertainment venues. Their nonconformity attracted the dislike and antipathy of others. Their transgression of social patterns earned them the characterization of antisocials, a danger to humanity.

3. Economic

Any extra Christian added to the church meant one less worshipper at pagan temples, one less customer for idol makers and animal sellers. More than just a missing customer he now meant a strong competitor for every priest, salesman, painter, sculptor, architect, and fortune-teller in the empire.

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4. The cult of the emperor

From Octavian Augustus, who was deified after his death (14 AD), and Caligula (37-41), who declared himself ‘Deus’ during his lifetime, to Domitian, who declared himself ‘Dominus ac Deus’, Roman emperors had a cult of their own; public sacrifices were made to them in special temples, just like to gods. The emperor’s cult was a true state religion and a civic obligation for all the inhabitants of the empire. Any religion was tolerated, but worship of the emperor was obligatory. Refusal to worship the emperor was considered sacrilege and ‘Les majesties (state crime). This cause immediately triggered public anti-Christian persecution.

Persecuted Christians

Before 250 persecution was generally local, sporadic, and more often the result of mob action than of a well-defined civil policy. After 250 they sometimes became expressed political actions on the part of the Roman imperial government, in time escalating into widespread and violent actions. Tertullian’s assertion that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church” became on the one hand a frightening reality and on the other an astonishing promise. From the beginning, Christianity has not been an easy existential problem.

Jesus Christ Himself and then His most important disciples died as the first persecuted Christians. But the reasons and manner of persecution varied from case to case, from era to era, from area to area. The Church faced the serious internal problem of heresy and the external problem of persecution.

The Church, despite persecution – or perhaps because of it – continued to flourish until the 4th century when it gained freedom of worship following the Edict of Toleration of Milan issued by Emperor Constantine.

Persecuted Church

Around 112 under Trajan, there are complaints against Christians in the provinces. The emperor prevents them from being searched ex officio, but if anyone denounces them (as long as they are not anonymous), he orders them to be captured and condemned. If an accused denies being a Christian, he must prove it.

The first time when we see the persecuted Church is in 64 AD when Nero started it. The first persecution of Christians from the Church is caused by the emperor’s need to find a scapegoat to remove the accusation that he was responsible for the burning of Rome.

In 250, when Decius came to power, a period of harsh persecution began. The emperor orders all subjects of the empire to prove their loyalty to the state religion by making a sacrifice to the gods in the presence of a commission. Those who sacrificed were given a libel – a kind of certificate of ‘good religious conduct’. In 257/258 Valerian attacked the Christian organization, beating the bishops and confiscating their property.

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Christians being persecuted

There were countless varieties of cults in the Empire, permitted as long as they did not disturb the established order and imperial authority. Among these cults was Judaism. This could have been a problem because its cult was monotheistic, and therefore incompatible with the emperor’s semi-divine cult. The conflict was avoided, however, because the Jewish religion had been given the status of ‘religion licita’ (permitted religion). For this recognition, Jewish support for Caesar in the Egyptian campaign (48-47 BC) was decisive.

The reason for Christians being persecuted can be found at the moment when the Romans realized that the Christians came directly from the Jews, both in terms of territory and foundation of faith. And their detachment from Judaism prevented them from benefiting from being persecuted Christians. They thus found themselves at risk of being considered deniers of the imperial cult.

The first persecution, confined within the walls of Rome, began thanks to Emperor Nero who, in search of a scapegoat, blamed the great fire of Rome (which took place between 18 and 19 July in the area. of the Circus Maximus) on Christians. Numerous Christian sources attest that the apostle’s Peter and Paul suffered martyrdom in Rome during that very persecution: Peter was crucified upside down, while Paul had his head cut off.

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Persecution of Christians

3 Interesting facts about Christianity
  1. Christianity became a tolerated religion only after the Edict of Milan in 313. Various Roman emperors have gone down in history as great persecutors of Christians. In fear of them, believers used various signs or symbols to prove their membership in the Church of Jesus Christ.
  2. To avoid being caught and persecuted by the Romans, the early Christians used various symbols to identify themselves. In the early Christian centuries, the image of the fish appeared everywhere: in murals, on sarcophagi, in funerary inscriptions, and on various objects. Christians wore metal, stone, or mother-of-pearl fish around their necks, inscribed with the words ‘Thy salvation be done!’ or “Save!”
  3. References to fish are found in the writings of the New Testament. Jesus Christ himself calls his apostles to be “fishers of men”. The Saviour himself offers two fish to feed a crowd of over 5,000 people. He likens the Kingdom of Heaven to a net full of all kinds of fish. The image of the fish is also used to explain the multitude of heavenly goodness (Matthew 7:9-11; 13:47-48; Luke 5:10).

Read also: Who guards the gates of Heaven? Is St Peter the gatekeeper?

Primary Takeaways
  • Judaism was a legal religion in the Empire, while Christians were not recognized by either Jews or Romans. Around the year 44, the apostle Yakov bar-Zavdi was beheaded by order of King Herod Agrippa I. At the same time, Kifa (Shimon bar-Ioanan, Peter), the first representative of the Christians, was arrested. But miraculously escaped from prison. In 57 Paulus was arrested in Jerusalem. In 62, Yakov bar-Iosef, the new Christian representative, was executed by the Sanhedrin.
  • Following the fire of 64, Nero, whose wife Poppaea was a Jewish proselyte, found scapegoats for the Christians. He condemns the apostles Peter (64) and Paul (67) to death and fills the Colosseum arena with Christians thrown to the lions. Dressed in wild animal skins, and torn to pieces by dogs.
  • Nero turns the Christians into living torches to light his gardens, nailing them to crosses. Torturing and killing them in many ways to satisfy the crowds. Nero will die in a despicable suicide in 68, and Rome will be punished by God in many ways. And Jerusalem will be conquered and the temple destroyed in 70.

Read also: Who was King Agrippa in the Bible?


Naturally, the persecution of Christians began in the bosom of traditional Judaism, since Christianity, the most persecuted religion was regarded as a Jewish sect. Between 31-135, Jewish pontiffs and theologians in the Holy Land were the first to set the tone. After crucifying Jesus (31), they soon launched the first anti-crucifixion, beginning with the stoning of Archdeacon Stephen (34). That was the moment when the persecution of Christians began.

The early Christians used all sorts of symbols to recognize themselves. And to hide together from the cruel persecutions against them. The cross is the most widespread symbol of Christians. Until the 10th century, the cross was depicted without the body of Jesus on it. Then gradually this element was added with the abolition of the penalty of crucifixion.

Read also: Why was St Andrew crucified?

The most persecuted religion was Christianity, and for the early Christians, the Cross became a symbol of hope. Of faith in salvation. Many forms of the cross are recorded in history, the most common being the Tau (T-shaped) cross. The Greek cross, and the Latin cross. The dove is the universal symbol of peace. For Christians, it is the symbol of the Holy River that descended upon Jesus at the Jordan. When John baptized the Saviour. It was also the dove that brought Noah the news that the flood was over. As he returned to the ship with an olive branch in his beak.