The persecution of Christians by the Roman emperors must at first sight seem strange, when one considers their inoffensive mode of faith and worship. When one remembers the scepticism that prevailed among the pagans, and the tolerant view of all religions which was characteristic of the Roman citizen in the early years of the empire, this harshness seems all the more remarkable.
It can be explained partly by the misapprehension which existed in the mind of the pagan world as to the principles of the Christian faith, and partly by the organization of the sect. The Jews were allowed the exercise of their unsocial and exclusive faith. But the Jews were a nation; the Christians were a sect. Moreover, the Christians were regarded as apostates from the ancient faith of Moses, and worshipping no visible god, were held to be atheists.
The Roman policy also viewed with the utmost jealousy and distrust any association among its subjects, and the secret and nocturnal meetings of the Christians appeared peculiarly dangerous in the eyes of the law.
But in spite of this, the early Christians suffered little, and their innocence was protected by the ignorance and contempt of the magistrates. Even the passage in Tacitus which narrates how Nero, having destroyed Rome by fire, cruelly sacrificed to his horrible tortures numerous Christians to divert suspicion from himself is open to question on points of fact; at any rate, Nero's persecutions were confined to Rome.
They were oppressed by the Emperor Domitian. Trajan protected their meetings by requiring definite evidence of these illegal assemblies, and an informer who failed in his proofs was subject to a severe or capital penalty. But the edicts of Hadrian and Antoninus Pius protected the Church from the danger of popular clamour in times of disaster, declaring that the voice of the multitude should never be admitted as legal evidence to convict or to punish those unfortunate persons who had embraced the enthusiasm of the Christians.
If convicted of being a Christian, a prisoner was not necessarily to be punished. He was given the chance of casting a few grains of incense upon the pagan altar; and if he refused this, he might be subjected to the scourge and the rack. But the Roman magistrates were, as a class, humane, and the number of martyrs was inconsiderable. The authority of Origen and Dionysius annihilates that formidable army of martyrs, whose relics, drawn for the most part from the catacombs of Rome, have replenished so many churches and whose marvellous achievements have been the subject of so many volumes of holy romance.
The martyrdom of Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, on September 14, 258, was one of the most notable of that period. Under Marcus Antoninus, the Christians were treated harshly, but the tyrant Commodus protected them by his leniency. After a temporary period of persecution during the reign of Severus, the Christians enjoyed a calm from 211 to 249. The storms gathered again under Decius, and so vigorous was the persecution that the bishops of the most considerable cities were removed by exile or death.
From 284 to 303, during the reign of Diocletian, the Christian Church enjoyed peace and prosperity, but in the latter year Galerius persuaded the emperor to renew the persecution of the sect. An edict of February 24 enacted that all churches throughout the empire should be demolished, and the punishment of death was pronounced against all who should presume to hold any secret assemblies for the purposes of religious worship. Many suffered martyrdom under this cruel enactment. Churches everywhere were burnt, and sacred books destroyed. Three more edicts published before March 304 led to the imprisonment of all persons of the ecclesiastical order, compelled the magistrates to exercise torture to subvert the religion of their Christian prisoners, and made it the duty, as well as the interest, of the imperial officers to discover and pursue the most obnoxious among the faithful.
But after six years of persecution, the mind of Galerius, softened by salutary reflection, induced him to attempt some reparation In the edict of toleration which he published on April 31, 311, he expressed the hope 'that our indulgence will engage the Christians to offer up their prayers to the Deity whom they adore for our safety and prosperity, and for that of the Republic.'
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