As you read through this, you will find I have added references along
the way. I do have a fairly large library dealing with religious
history and have used the books fairly extensively in composing the
answer. So rather than creating a major bibliography at the end, I
have included such references, along with some online references,
within the answer text.
That there were persecutions of Christians in ancient Rome is a fact.
However, the numbers involved, some of the events that history claims
took place, and whether all who are now claimed to be persecuted
Christians were even Christian at all, but rather members of other
faiths who also died at Roman hands, is open to question.
The followers of a number of mystery cults died in Roman arenas
because they would not deny their beliefs, but as later Christians
wrote the histories, many of these were probably claimed by "the
faith" and counted among the Christian dead. One of the reasons that
many today believe that only Christians had enough faith to become
martyrs. That is simply not true.
Many myths and falsehoods surround the story of the persecution of the
early Christians. The myths have it that the Christians were almost
continuously persecuted by the Roman Empire for the first three
centuries. And that they were persecuted simply because they were
However, you will find that a good look at history, paints a very
The official Roman religion was no more than a ceremonial "pledge of
allegiance," and the degree of religious toleration that existed at
that time in the Roman Empire was almost unparalleled in history. The
very extent of the empire required that it tolerated various local
beliefs and practices. The esoteric mystery religions such as
Mithraism and the worship of Isis and Osiris were tolerated as long as
the followers, during state celebrations, perform the formal "burning
of a pinch of incense" on the altars of the gods.
The followers of Isis and Osiris, as well as Christians, frequently
refused to make the "pinch of incense" even though such an act had
patriotic rather than religious significance. The followers of the
first two of these faiths frequently joined their Christian
counterparts as victims in the arena and other places. During one
brief period, even the followers of Mithras found themselves on the
receiving end of Roman punishment.
At such times, the followers of these faiths often found themselves
"in hiding" together which allowed for a great deal of syncretism
between them. But that would relate to a different kind of question
Just to put this into some kind of perspective, civil religion and the
ceremonial worship of the state did not end with the Roman Empire.
While the penalties are not as dire, more than one person, even in the
United States, has suffered officially and socially for refusing to
perform the proper ritual for honoring a flag or other national
symbol, by ritualistic actions such as standing, saluting the flag,
placing a hand over the heart, or other action which is the modern
version of the "pinch of incense," the ritual act of civic worship.
Most were left unmolested in the Empire and were free to practice
their faith. Even the Jews, who refused to sacrifice to the idols,
were rarely persecuted, with the exceptions of the periods following
the Jewish insurrections. The Jews, which were not the most sociable
of ancient religions, kept their beliefs to themselves and the
authorities left them alone. The point is, the Romans were prepared to
tolerate any religion that would tolerate others. (information used to
compose this and the next paragraph from "Margaret Knight, Humanist
Anthology" p107 and from Robertson, "History of Christianity" p78)
However, the Christians were not a religious organization that would
easily tolerate other religions. To them the Roman gods were not just
"superstitions," but they were actually demons. And, unlike the Jews,
they did not just keep their beliefs to themselves, they were actively
insulting the Roman gods. It was small wonder then, that the Romans
began to consider them a threat to the social stability of the empire.
In his book "The History of European Morals," William Lecky
(1838-1903) wrote: "Proselytizing with an untiring energy, pouring a
fierce stream of invective and ridicule upon the gods on whose favour
the multitude believe all national prosperity to depend, not
infrequently insulting worshippers, and defacing the idols, they soon
stung the pagan worshippers to madness, and convinced them that every
calamity that fell upon the empire was the righteous vengeance of the
gods. Nor was the skeptical politician more likely to regard with
favour a religion whose development was plainly incompatible with the
whole religious policy of the empire. The new church, as it was then
organized, must have appeared to him essentially and fundamentally
intolerant. To permit it to triumph was to permit the extinction of
religious liberty in an empire which comprised all the leading nations
of the world, and tolerated all their creeds."
So, the Christians, not only refused to burn the incense, they
insulted the pagan Roman worshippers, their gods, and some even
defaced their images and temples. Even with such anti-social and, to
the Roman leadership, unpatriotic behavior, there was no systematic
and official persecution of the Christians in the first and second
centuries AD. However, because of their behavior, they were extremely
unpopular and a likely scapegoat for any calamity. In 64 CE when Rome
was burned, the Emperor Nero, in order to divert suspicion from
himself, blamed the Christians. The Christians, in this particular
instance, were subjected to cruel tortures and punishments. Thus it
was Nero who persecuted the Christians with cruel tortures and
punishments. This persecution however was a personal act of an insane
man and was confined only to the city of Rome.
Now please don't get me wrong. I am not saying that there were no
persecutions of Christians. These took place in other regions of the
Empire as well as in Rome proper. However, there was no "systematic"
or organized persecution which took place throughout the empire. At
least, not yet.
Even then, emperors tried to make things as easy as possible for those
accused of being Christian. The emperor Trajan, for example, stated
the following: "To those arrested and accused; they could not be
pardoned unconditionally, as that would affect the stability of the
empire; however, should they repent, they should be freed with no
questions asked about their past."
The whole idea is that once they show allegiance to the empire by
burning the "pinch of incense," they had thus proved their patriotism
and should be freed. The Romans were not out for "Christian blood."
They simply wanted a demonstration of loyalty to the state.
Trajan also advised against the use of anonymous testimonies, since
under Roman law, the accused had a right to know who accused him of
the crime. This humane suggestion puts Trajan morally far, far above
the medieval Christian inquisitors who, not only allowed anonymous
accusations, but actively encouraged it.
It is a known fact that more often than not, the Roman judges used
every legal means at their disposal to avoid punishing the Christians.
But the Christians, in the morbid need for the reward of martyrdom,
more often than not insisted on being sentenced.
As an example, there was an incident in North Africa around the year
180 where twelve people (nine men and three women) were accused of
being Christians. The proconsul Saturninus, who heard the case,
pleaded with them to save their own lives by burning the pinch. He
did not ask them to give up their faith, but to demonstrate that they
were patriotic citizens.
The accused were indignant and refused to do so. Saturninus, in a last
ditch effort, gave them thirty days to think things over. After that
time, they still refused. The proconsul then had no choice but to have
them executed. Upon receiving the death sentence some of them yelled
out: "We thank God!", "Today we are martyrs in heaven, thanks be to
God." (Pagels, "The Gnostic Gospels" p97-98)
Not only did these ancient Christians zealously demanded execution
upon trial, some of them, when they could not find somebody to accuse
them, went to the authorities, declared themselves Christians and
demanded the sentence of the law. We have testimony of the church
father Tertullian (160CE-225CE) of one such case in a small town. The
whole Christian population of that town, seeking death and martyrdom,
went to the proconsul Antoninus to demand punishment. Unable to
comprehend such an attitude, Antoninus told the Christians: "Unhappy
men! Unhappy men! If you are thus weary of your lives, is it so
difficult for you to find ropes and precipices?" Of course, suicide
doesn't count for martyrdom, so the crowd insisted on punishment.
Antoninus relented, put a few to death and dismissed the others.
It was only in the third century AD that actual systematic
persecutions of Christians took place. And it happened under the reign
of two emperors, Decius (251CE) and Diocletian (245-313CE). As
barbarian pressure on the empire increased, the need for national
unity increased. The official edict issued in the year 249 by Decius
was therefore a political move aimed at ridding the empire of the one
group that threatened its integrity and civil traditions the most, the
Christians. Decius declared that all citizens, including Christians,
must show their loyalty to the empire by offering incense on the state
altars. For the next three years, for the first time in history, the
Christians were systematically and ferociously persecuted. - "You have
ordinary people, for the first time, being rounded up, forced to
sacrifice, or if they can buy a forged certificate of of sacrifice.
There's some of those which have actually survived. And the odd thing
is it fails.... The net effect of this is that a new cult of the
martyrs appears in Christianity, which strengthens the the church,
which feeds on anti-government sentiment in many segments of the
empire, - those remote geographical areas distant from Rome which have
always been suspicious of Rome. This simply brings those into the
Christian fold and in many ways, it backfires. So the Decian
persecution is very short-lived." ( the material used to compose these
paragraphs about late Roman persecution came from Knight, "Honest to
Man" p60 - Livingstone, "Dictionary of the Church" p145 and Roberts,
"History of the World" p280) - The quote is from from "Jesus to
Christ: why did Christianity succeed?"
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/why/martyrs.html - From PBS
Even then, despite later assertion to the contrary, the number of
Christians that were actually killed was not large. The Christian
father Origen (185CE-254CE), who had first hand experience of the
persecution (he was actually imprisoned and tortured in the year
250CE), declared in no uncertain terms that the number of Christians
who were actually sentenced to death during the persecution of Decius
was very small. Origen's general assertion was confirmed by the
testimony of Dionysius (264CE), Bishop of Alexandria, who estimated
that only seventeen people were martyred for being Christians in that
In the year 303 Diocletian issued an edict which was to lead to the
most savage and prolonged persecution of Christians in the history of
the Roman Empire. Diocletian was convinced that one of the main causes
of the crisis in the Roman Empire was the defeatism and
anti-patriotism of the Christians.The Diocletian persecution was
ferocious. During this time, Christians lost their rights as citizens,
were punished for assembling to worship, and were forced, by torture,
to make the incense sacrifice. Not all the Christians captured were
executed, some were imprisoned and some were tortured and then
After Diocletian abdicated in 305, his successor Galerius continued
the persecution for another six years. Before his death in 311,
Galerius issued his edict of toleration which restored the civil
liberties and right to worship of the Christians. After his death
Constantine became emperor, and Christianity was persecuted no more;
it was soon to become the persecutor. And it did a far more thorough
job of it than the pagan Romans could ever conceive of.
You will find that more Christians were persecuted by the Roman
Government after the conversion of Constantine, than before. The
difference is that it was a Christian government who was then
persecuting other Christians.
Nobody really knows exactly how many Christians died in the Diocletian
persecution from 303 to 311. Based on available evidence, Gibbon
estimated the total number of Christians martyred during that nine
years of persecution as no more than two thousand.As Margaret Knight
pointed out in her book "Honest to Man" p62, this number: "sinks
almost into insignificance beside the number of Christians killed in
doctrinal dispute with their fellow Christians in the ages of faith."
( the beginning of the above paragraph is based on information found
in Gibbon "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" p217 )
One of the outcomes of all this was the development of minor cults
within Christianity itself. Namely the various cults of sainted
martyrs and the veneration of "relics" the practice of preserving bits
and pieces of the bodies of martyred people and holding these in great
honor and esteem, often in elaborate shrines of their own.
"The martyrs are a heroic minority. They don't represent a huge
popular swelling. We don't have tens of thousands of people being
martyred. What we do have, is tens of thousands of people admiring the
few who are martyred. So in that sense, like any extreme, a martyr
marks out a spiritual height to be admired but not necessarily
emulated. In that sense, the martyr stories have an incredible effect
on the imagination of Christians, because who's the first Christian
martyr? Jesus, himself. Heroically witnessing to his own faith, in a
sense, and against a hostile government tribunal. So there's this kind
of imaginative continuity between Christ and the martyr." - quote from
"Jesus to Christ: why did Christianity succeed?" - PBS link found
Other sources used, or which might be of use should you wish to do
further research include:
Roman Persecution of the Early Church" by Adrian Russell -
http://www.earlychurch.org.uk/persecution-russell.html - From
Neromania - An Ancient Persecution -
http://www.boisestate.edu/history/ncasner/hy210/nero.htm - From Boise
Rome's Decline and Christianity's Ascent, to 306 CE -
http://www.fsmitha.com/h1/ch23.htm - From Frank E. Smitha World
Cyprian and the Decian Persecution - History for Kids -
The Roman Persecution of Christians -
http://patriot.net/~carey/afa/latinclub/persecution.htm - From
Christian Beginnings: Roman View -
http://www.csun.edu/~hcfll004/xtians.html - From California State
If I may clarify anything before you rate the answer, please ask. I
feel I have covered the whys, hows, and after effects. However, you
may want additional detail, so don't hesitate.
Search - google, plus written materials. Search terms used;
"Christian persecutions Roman Empire," "Early Christian persecutions"