Persecution in the Early Church


In its first three centuries, the Christian church endured regular (though not constant) persecution at the hands of Roman authorities. This experience, and its resulting martyrs and apologists, would have significant historical and theological consequences for the developing faith. {4}

Among other things, persecution sparked the cult of the saints, facilitated the rapid growth and spread of Christianity, prompted defenses and explanations of Christianity (the "apologies"), and, in its aftermath, raised fundamental questions about the nature of the church.

The article that follows explores the history of persecution of the early church, some of the reasons behind it, and two important Christian responses to persecution: the glorification of martyrdom and the writings of the apologists.

Extent of the Persecutions

The total number of Christians martyred in the early church is unknown. Although some early writers speak of "great multitudes," modern scholars tend to believe the actual number is not so great as is sometimes imagined. Out of the 54 emperors who ruled between 30 and 311 AD, only about a dozen went out of their way to persecute Christians. {5}

It has been calculated that between the first persecution under Nero in 64 to the Edict of Milan in 313, Christians experienced 129 years of persecution and 120 years of toleration and peace. {6}

The Roman persecutions were generally sporadic, localized, and dependent on the political climate and disposition of each emperor. Moreover, imperial decrees against Christians were often directed against church property, the Scriptures, or clergy only. It has been estimated that more Christians have been martyred in the last 50 years than in the church's first 300 years. {7}

Reasons for Persecution

The Roman Empire was generally quite tolerant in its treatment of other religions. The imperial policy was generally one of incorporation - the local gods of a newly conquered area were simply added to the Roman pantheon and often given Roman names. Even the Jews, with their one god, were generally tolerated. So why the persecution of Christians?


In order to understand the Roman distrust of Christianity, one must understand the Roman view of religion. For the Romans, religion was first and foremost a social activity that promoted unity and loyalty to the state - a religious attitude the Romans called pietas, or piety. Cicero wrote that if piety in the Roman sense were to disappear, social unity and justic would perish along with it. {8}

The early Roman writers viewed Christianity not as another kind of pietas, piety, but as a superstitio, "superstition." Pliny, a Roman governor writing circa 110 AD, called Christianity a "superstition taken to extravagent lengths." Similarly, the Roman historian Tacitus called it "a deadly superstition," and the historian Suetonius called Christians "a class of persons given to a new and mischeivous superstition." {9} In this context, the word "superstition" has a slightly different connotation than it has today: for the Romans, it designated something foreign and different - in a negative sense. Religious beliefs were valid only in so far as it could be shown to be old and in line with ancient customs; new and innovative teachings were regarded with distrust.

The Roman distaste for Christianity, then, arose in large part from its sense that it was bad for society. In the third century, the Neoplatonist philosopher Porphyry wrote:

How can people not be in every way impious and atheistic who have apostatized from the customs of our ancestors through which every nation and city is sustained? ... What else are they than fighters against God? {10}

As Porphyry's argument indicates, hatred of Christians also arose from the belief that proper "piety" to the Roman gods helped to sustain the well being of the cities and their people. Though much of the Roman religion was utilitarian, it was also heavily motivated by the pagan sense that bad things will happen if the gods are not respected and worshiped properly. "Many pagans held that the neglect of the old gods who had made Rome strong was responsible for the disasters which were overtaking the Mediterranean world." {11} This perspective would surface again in the fifth century, when the destruction of Rome caused many to worry that the gods were angry at the Empire's new allegiance to Christianity. Saint Augustine's opus The City of God argued against this view.

On a more social, practical level, Christians were distrusted in part because of the secret and misunderstood nature of their worship. Words like "love feast" and talk of "eating Christ's flesh" sounded understandably suspicious to the pagans, and Christians were suspected of cannibalism, incest, orgies, and all sorts of immorality.

History of the Persecutions

At least since the fifth century, it has been customary to count ten major persecutions in the early church, a number that nicely parallels the ten plagues of Egypt. {12} These ten persecutions are:

1.       Persecution under Nero (c. 64-68). Traditional martyrdoms of Peter and Paul.

2.       Persecution under Domitian (r. 81-96).

3.       Persecution under Trajan (112-117). Christianity is outlawed but Christians are not sought out.

4.       Persecution under Marcus Aurelius (r. 161-180). Martyrdom of Polycarp.

5.       Persecution under Septimus Severus (202-210). Martyrdom of Perpetua.

6.       Persecution under Decius (250-251). Christians are actively sought out by requiring public sacrifice. Could buy certificates (libelli) instead of sacrificing. Martyrdoms of bishops of Rome, Jerusalem and Antioch.

7.       Persecution under Valerian (257-59). Martyrdoms of Cyprian of Carthage and Sixtus II of Rome.

8.       Persecution under Maximinus the Thracian (235-38).

Great Fire of Rome
The Fire of Rome. Illustration from Foxe's Book of Martyrs.

9.       Persecution under Aurelian (r. 270–275).

10.    Severe persecution under Diocletian and Galerius (303-324).

Persecution in the early church occured sporadically almost since the beginning, but it was first sanctioned by the government under Nero. In 64 AD, a great fire ravaged Rome. Nero took the opportunity provided by the destruction to rebuild the city in the Greek style and begin building a large palace for himself. People began speculating that Nero had set the fire himself in order to indulge his aesthetic tastes in the reconstruction so, according to Tacitus' Annals and Suetonius' Nero, the eccentric emperor blamed the Christians for the fire in an effort to divert attention from himself. Nero was quite insane, and is reported to have tortured Christians with great cruelties for his own enjoyment. According to the Roman historian Tacitus:

Emperor NeroBesides being put to death they [the Christians] were made to serve as objects of amusement; they were clad in the hides of beast and torn to death by dogs; others were crucified, others set on fire to serve to illuminate the night when daylight failed. Nero had thrown open his grounds for the display, and was putting on a show in the circus, where he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or drove about in his chariot. All this gave rise to a feeling of pity, even toward men whose guilt merited the most exemplary punishment; for it was felt that they were being destroyed not for the public good but to satisfy the cruelty of an individual. {13}

Despite these extreme cruelties, Nero's persecution was local and short-lived. However, it was the first official persecution and marked the first time the government distinguished Christians from Jews. Tertullian referred to persecution of Christians as institutum Neronianum, an institution of Nero. {14} After Nero, it became a capital crime to be a Christian, although pardon was always available if one publicly condemned Christ and sacrificed to the gods. {15}

Domitian is recorded as having executed members of his own family on charges of atheism and Jewish manners, who are thus generally assumed to have been Christians. {16}

In Philip Schaff's History of the Christian Church, the persecution under the great philosopher-king Marcus Aurelius is described this way:

Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher on the throne, was a well-educated, just, kind, and amiable emperor, and reached the old Roman ideal of self-reliant Stoic virtue, but for this very reason he had no sympathy with Christianity, and probably regarded it as an absurd and fanatical superstition. He had no room in his cosmopolitan philanthropy for the purest and most innocent of his subjects, many of whom served in his own army. He was flooded with apologies of Melito, Miltiades, Athenagoras in behalf of the persecuted Christians, but turned a deaf ear to them. Only once, in his Meditations, does he allude to them, and then with scorn, tracing their noble enthusiasm for martyrdom to "sheer obstinacy" and love for theatrical display. His excuse is ignorance. He probably never read a line of the New Testament, nor of the apologies addressed to him.

Belonging to the later Stoical school, which believed in an immediate absorption after death into the Divine essence, he considered the Christian doctrine of the immortality of the soul, with its moral consequences, as vicious and dangerous to the welfare of the state. A law was passed under his reign, punishing every one with exile who should endeavor to influence people's mind by fear of the Divinity, and this law was, no doubt, aimed at the Christians. At all events his reign was a stormy time for the church, although the persecutions cannot be directly traced to him. The law of Trajan was sufficient to justify the severest measures against the followers of the "forbidden" religion. {17}

Lions leap onto a young man. Detail of a floor mosaic.

It was during the reign of Marcus Aurelius that Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, was martyred. Later, there is record of "new decrees" making it easier for Christians to be accused and have their property confiscated. In 177, 48 Christians were martyred in the amphitheater in Lyons (modern France). {18}

In 112 AD, Roman governor Pliny the Younger was sent by the emperor Trajan (r. 98-117) to the province of Bithynia on official business. During his visit, Pliny encountered Christians, and he wrote to the emperor about them. The governor indicated that he had ordered the execution of several Christians, "for I held no question that whatever it was they admitted, in any case obstinancy and unbending perversity deserve to be punished." However, he was unsure what to do about those who said they were no longer Christians, and asked Trajan his advice. The emperor responded that Christians should not be sought out, anonymous tips should be rejected as "unworthy of our times," and if they recanted and "worshipped our gods," they were to be freed. Those who persisted, however, should be punished. {2}

The emperor Hadrian granted Christians even more concessions. Also responding to a request for advice from his governor, this time in western Asia Minor, Hadrian decreed (c. 124 AD) that Christians could be brought to trial but only for specific illegal acts. Significantly, therefore, being a Christian was no longer sufficient in itself to merit arrest. Moreover, "slanderous attacks" against Christians were forbidden, meaning that anyone who brought a case against a Christian but failed would suffer serious consequences. Justin Martyr attached Hadrian's imperial order to the end of his First Apology (c. 155). {19}

The emperor Severus may not have been personally ill-disposed towards Christians, but the church was gaining power and making many converts and this led to popular anti-Christian feeling and persecution in Catharge, Alexandria, Rome and Corinth between about 202 and 210. The famed St. Perpetua was martyred during this time, as were many students of Origen of Alexandria. {20}

The persecution under Decius was the first universal and organized persecution of Christians, and it would have lasting significance for the Christian church. In January of 250, Decius issued an edict requiring all citizens to sacrifice to the emperor in the presence of a Roman official and obtain a certificate (libellus) proving they had done so. Forty-four of these libelli have survived. One surviving example reads:

Libellus, Egypt, 250 AD
Univ. of Michigan

To those appointed to see the sacrifices:
From Aurelia Charis of the Egyptian village of Theadelphia.
I have always continued to sacrifice and show reverence to the gods, and now, in your presence, I have poured a libation and sacrificed and eaten some of the sacrificial meat. I request you to certify this for me below. {21}

This method of persecution created a crisis of conscience for many Christians, as a certificate could be obtained without actually sacrificing by bribing Roman officials. It was clear that Christians should not sacrifice to a false god, but whether it was acceptable to save one's life by buying a certificate was a bit more of a gray area. Many Christians chose to defy the edict outright, refusing to buy a certificate, and were arrested or executed. Among those martyred under Decius were the bishops of Rome, Jerusalem and Antioch. However, the bishop of Smyrna performed the sacrifice, as did many others.

In general, public opinion condemned the government's violence and admired the martyrs' passive resistance, and the Christian movement was thereby strengthened. The Decian persecution ceased in 251, a few months before Decius' death. {22} The Decian persecution had lasting repurcussions for the church. How should those who had bought a certificate or actually sacrificed be treated? It seems that in most churches, those who had lapsed were accepted back into the fold, but some groups refused them admission to the church. This raised important issues about the nature of the church, forgiveness, and the high value of martyrdom. A century and a half later, St. Augustine would battle with an influential group called the Donatists, who broke away from the Catholic Church because the latter embraced the lapsed.

Under Valerian, who took the throne in 253, all Christian clergy were required to sacrifice to the gods. In a 257 edict, the punishment was exile; in 258, the punishment was death. Christian senators, knights and ladies were also required to sacrifice under pain of heavy fines, reduction of rank and, later, death. Finally, all Christians were forbidden to visit their cemeteries. Among those executed under Valerian were St. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, and Sixtus II, Bishop of Rome. According to a letter written by Dionysus during this time, "men and women, young and old, maidens and matrons, soldiers and civilians, of every age and race, some by scourging and fire, others by the sword, have conquered in the strife and won their crowns." The persecution ended with the capture of Valerian by Persia. Valerian's son and successor, Gallienus, revoked the edicts of his father. {23}

The last major Roman persecution of Christians occurred under Diocletian, and it was the worst of all. It is known as the "Great Persecution." The reasons for this persecution are unclear, but Diocletians actions may have been based on the influence of his junior colleague Galarius (a fanatical adherent of Roman religion), Porphyry (an anti-Christian Neoplatonist philosopher), or the usual desire for political unity. In any case, Diocletian published four edicts of 303-04. The emperor ordered the burning of Christian books and churches, but promised not to spill any blood. In actuality, the Diocletian persecution turned out to be extremely violent. This violence "did not succeed in annihilating Christianity but caused the faith of the martyrs to blaze forth instead." {24}

Official persecution of Christians ended with the Edict of Milan, signed by the Christian convert Constantine and his co-emperor Licinius. This did not make Christianity the official religion of the empire (that happened under Emperor Theodosius in 381), but granted it legal status.

Two Christian Responses: The Glory of Martyrdom and Apologetics

"Though beheaded, and crucified, and thrown to wild beasts, and chains, and fire, and all other kinds of torture, we do not give up our confession; but, the more such things happen, the more do others in larger numbers become faithful."

-- Justin Martyr {25}

In the face of persecution, many Christians chose to die before they would deny their Lord. Those who did so came to be called martyrs, which means "witnesses." The second-century theologian Tertullian had converted to Christianity based in part on his wonder at Christians' faithfulness in the face of martyrdom and it clearly had a similar effect on others as well. It was Tertullian who famously declared, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church." Indeed, persecution seemed to have a dramatic effect on Christianity's numbers, but not in the direction intended by the persecutors.

A second response of the church to Roman persecution was to write apologies, or defenses, of the Christian faith. The bishops and leaders who wrote these defenses are known as the Apologists. Writing especially in the 2nd century AD, the Apologists' primary goal was to defend Christianity against pagan accusations and misconceptions in an effort to stop the persecution. Thus they often addressed their works to Roman emperors. The Apologists explained, for example, that the Christian "love feast" did not involve cannibalism or orgies as many thought, but was a sacred meal of bread and wine in honor of Christ's death.

The Apologists also sought to show that Christianity was equal or even superior to pagan religion and philosophy, and good for the Roman state. They pointed out that Christianity was just as old as Greek thought, having originated in the ancient religion of the Hebrews. They asked their readers to compare the ethical behavior of Christians and pagans. They explained that although they were not willing to sacrifice to him as a god, Christians prayed for the emperor's welfare regularly.

The Apologists' writings do not provide a full picture of Christianity in the 2nd century, as they were generally limited in their scope to responding to specific accusations. {26} However, these early texts provide important insight into how early Christians related their faith to Greco-Roman paganism and why they personally found it convincing. Important Greek Apologists include Aristides, Justin Martyr, Tatian, Apollinaris (bishop of Hierapolis), Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria. Notable among the Latin apologists were Marcus Minucius Felix and Tertullian.


1.       Lk 6:22-23

2.       Epistle 10 (to Emperor Trajan), 96 (in Bettenson et al, Documents of the Christian Church, p. 3).

3.       Epistle 76, Ante-Nicene Fathers 5.403.

4.       "The tradition of martyrdom has entered deep into the Christian consciousness." Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity, Volume I: Beginnings to 1500, rev. ed. (Prince Press, 2000), p. 81.

5.       Mark Galli, "The Persecuting Emperors." Christian History, Issue 27 (Vol. XI, No. 3), p. 20.

6.       Maurice M. Hassatt, "Martyr." The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. IX (Robert Appleton Company, 1910).

7.       Everett Ferguson, "Did You Know?" Christian History, Issue 27 (Vol. XI, No. 3), inside cover.

8.       Robert L. Wilkin, "The Piety of the Persecutors." Christian History, Issue 27 (Vol. XI, No. 3), p. 18.

9.       Ibid.

10.    Ibid., p. 19.

11.    Latourette, p. 82.

12.    cf. Augustine, City of God, 18.52.

13.    Henry Bettenson and Chris Maunder, eds., Documents of the Christian Church, 3rd. ed. (Oxford UP, 1999), p. 2.

14.    Tertullian, Ad nat., 1.7.

15.    "Nero." Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service. 2005. "Christianity." Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service. 2005.

16.    Suetonius, Domitian, 15.

17.    Philip Schaff, "Persecutions under Marcus Aurelius. a.d. 161–180." History of the Christian Church, 2.2.20.

18.    William H.C. Frend, "Persecution in the Early Church." Christian History, Issue 27 (Vol. XI, No. 3), p. 7.

19.    Ibid.

20.    Ibid, p. 8.

21.    Ibid., p. 9.

22.    "Decius, Gaius Messius Quintus Trajanus." Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service. 2005.

23.    Maurice M. Hassatt, "Martyr." The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. IX (Robert Appleton Company, 1910).

24.    "Diocletian." Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service. 2005.

25.    Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, 110.

26.    "Apologist." Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service. 2005.

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