Persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire

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The persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire was a series of measures aimed at suppressing the growing influence of Christianity in the Roman Empire . At first they took place as spontaneous and locally or regionally limited, later imperially ordered, nationwide and systematic measures to halt the growth of the new religion , to prevent it from integrating into the Roman social system or to permanently destroy its structure.

They turned against all Christian groups, including those that the Old Church excluded as heresies , such as the Marcionites or Gnostics such as the Alexandrian Carpocrats . They ended with the Milan Agreement of 313, finally with the recognition of Christianity as the state religion by Theodosius I (380–391). With the edict of the Three Emperors by Theodosius I, Gratian and Valentinian II , nominal religious freedom was ended and the way to the state religion was cleared (cf. Reichskirche ).

Because of their special historical background, the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire differs from other persecutions of Christians .

Conditions of origin

Early Christianity

Christianity emerged after the crucifixion of Jesus (around 30). The first Christians proclaimed the risen Jesus Christ as Messiah and Son of God for the redemption of all humanity . This creed put them in danger from two directions:

  • the Sanhedrin (high council) in Judea , supreme authority in Judaism at that time , who had handed Jesus over to Pilate. His executive powers were limited: The Sadducee high priests tried all the more to maintain their all-Jewish leadership role over the temple cult.
  • the Roman state, whose provincial princes had to enforce the power of the emperor and were able to apply Roman law autonomously, especially against revolts. This allowed the Jews, of whom the Christians were considered to be a part until around 130, to practice their religion with restrictions.

The Acts According to the Christians could proclaim freely and unmolested her message beginning: even in the Temple in Jerusalem ( Acts 2,14ff  EU ). Pilate did not persecute her after Jesus' death either; he ignored internal Jewish conflicts as long as they did not threaten his power. Only after their first missionary success did the Sanhedrin arrest and interrogate some apostles ; they were chastised and warned, but released again ( Acts 4.21  EU ; 5.40 EU ). The famous intercession of the Pharisee Gamaliel made a decisive contribution to this ( Acts 5,34-39  EU ):

If their advice or work is of men, it will perish; but if it is from God , you cannot prevent them ...

Like Joseph of Arimathia , the Pharisees had therefore already rejected the death sentence against Jesus. Unlike the Sadducees, they tolerated the early Christians as an inner-Jewish messianic sect , the truth of which can be read from their success in history. So Paul of Tarsus , who was trained by Gamaliel ( Acts 22.3  EU ), was later able to take advantage of the disagreement between the two Jewish groups in his trial before the Sanhedrin (around 56) ( Acts 23.6  EU ).

After Pilate was deposed and his successor Marcellus had probably not yet arrived in Judea, the Sadducees were able to apply their religious law (especially Deuteronomy ). The first Christian to die because of his faith was the deacon Stephen . At 36 he was accused of blasphemy and lawbreaker , probably because of his mission critical to the temple in the Jewish diaspora , but - like Jesus himself - only convicted by the Sanhedrin for his public confession of the Son of Man ( Acts 6,8  EU - 7.60 EU ) . On behalf of the Sadducees, Paul is said to have supervised his stoning and then initiated a great persecution of the Jerusalem early Christians (cf. Gal 1,13f / 1. Cor 15,9). Some of them then fled to Syria and Samaria ; however, a nucleus with the apostles as founders remained in Jerusalem. Their followers could bury Stephen and mourn publicly ( Acts 8 : 1-2  EU ).

Only Christian communities in Judea, possibly also in Galilee , were expelled ; In Diaspora Judaism, on the other hand, they were not persecuted, but continued to frequently use synagogues for their missionary sermons. This as well as the law-free pagan mission ultimately led to the spread of their religion in the Roman Empire , initially in Asia Minor ( Acts 11 : 19ff  EU ).

44 the Judean king Herod Agrippa I, appointed by Rome, oppressed the remaining Christians in Jerusalem, had the apostle James the Elder beheaded and took Simon Peter , one of the community leaders , captive to execute him at Passover . He probably wanted to make himself popular with the High Council ( Acts 12 : 1-4  EU ). Shortly afterwards, at the height of his power, he was worshiped as God at a ceremony ; A few days later he died after only three years of all-Jewish government. Both Lukas and Flavius ​​Josephus ( Antiquitates 19, 343-350) saw it as a divine judgment: Jews as well as Christians rejected the deification of people. Here the conflict with the Roman imperial cult began.

According to Josephus, James , Jesus' brother and then leader of the early church, was stoned to death in 62 at the behest of the high priest. Four years later, led by the Zealots, there was a national Jewish uprising , which ended in 70 with the destruction of the temple. According to Eusebius of Caesarea , who referred to Hegesippus , the early community had to flee temporarily to Pella . Nevertheless, some of the early Christians returned to Jerusalem and stayed there until the end of the Bar Kochba uprising (135). Then Emperor Hadrian forbade all Jews to settle in Jerusalem. Judea was renamed Syria Palestine . This also ended the early church.

The Gospels , which were fixed in writing after 70 , often assume a situation of persecution of Christians in and around Israel. Mk 13.9-13  EU z. B. announces in a Jesus speech:

They will hand you over to the courts, and you will be beaten in the synagogues , and you will be brought before princes and kings for my sake as a testimony to them.

Historians usually see this as a reflex to the situation after the loss of the temple; Tensions with the synagogues intensified with the growth of the Christian communities, until the now rabbinically dominated Judaism excluded them (heretic curse in the eighteen prayers for 100). A systematic persecution of Christians was not connected with it. The handover to "princes and kings" was also rarely initiated by Jews. Rather, Jews and Christians were hardly distinguished by the Romans, even in non-Palestinian provinces, and they were jointly persecuted when conflicts with them threatened to escalate. The Christians saw in this an expected, necessary consequence of their faith in the Jews who had brought God's kingdom and would come again ( Mt 5:11  EU ).

Mediterranean area

At that time the Roman Empire was not a tightly organized central state; in the provinces the governors ruled relatively sovereign. However, they had to take into account local conditions and the interests of trading towns, princes and landowners. So the local authorities could treat the " Nazarenes " very differently. It was only after the church was founded in Antioch that Roman state officials recognized it as a separate group ( Acts 11.26  EU ). Local Jews took care of their deportation ( Acts 13 : 44-50  EU ).

The Pauline mission brought unrest and division in some Hellenistic cities in the Mediterranean. In Ikonion z. B. Paul should be executed for his criticism of the Jupiter cult , but survived the stoning according to Acts 14.5.19  EU . In Philippi , a Roman colony, he and his companions were charged, tortured and imprisoned for “riot” and “un-Roman” embassy. However, they were released with appeal to their Roman citizenship ( Acts 16: 11-40  EU ). In Thessaloniki Jews are said to have accused them out of envy of their missionary successes ( Acts 17 : 5-7  EU ):

All of these act against the emperor's laws by saying that someone else is king, namely Jesus.

Regardless of the anti-Judaistic portrayal - the Jews themselves rejected idolatry and godly kingship and were therefore persecuted long before the Christians in antiquity - the decisive reason for the later persecution of Christians is already visible here: the adoration of a person condemned and crucified by the Roman state as a Messiah could be a rebellion against Roman case law and thus the legal order as a whole are considered.

Another motive for persecution is indicated in Acts 19 : 23-40  EU : Due to the "new teaching" of Christians, artisans who made statues of gods from precious metals and their suppliers and dealers in the Ephesus area lost their sales market. The early bishops also prohibited their parishioners from exercising professions related to the Roman state cult, or at least no work should be done for the Roman temples. These included goldsmiths, charioteers, actors, sculptors and also manufacturers of building materials for temples or their decoration, but also teachers (De Idololatria 4,1 and 8,1-3, Apostolic Tradition 16). The goldsmith Demetrius then called a protest meeting that detained the Pauline missionaries and threatened to kill them. In this situation, the local "Chancellor" Alexander, a Jew, defended the Christians and declared:

You brought these people here who are neither temple robbers nor blasphemers of our goddess ( Diana ).

He managed to calm the crowd and release the men. This shows, on the one hand, that a Jew could diplomatically recognize foreign cults despite the First Commandment, while Christians drew the wrath of Roman citizens because of the hindrance to the practice and cultivation of the state cult; on the other hand, he behaved graciously and saved the lives of non-resident Christians, even though they were also carrying out their mission among Jews.

Roman tolerance, polytheism and imperial cult

The religious understanding of the ancient Romans was principally characterized by tolerance . They made a distinction between the private cult (sacra privata), which the pater familias fostered , and the state cult (sacra publica), which the priests were responsible for exercising. These were civil servants and have been supervised by the Roman magistrate since the time of the republic .

The Romans originally worshiped abstract numina , that is, divine forces that they saw at work in nature as well as in human and political life. Later they gave these forces names like Mars - for the power of war - or Venus - for the power of love. Because of this idea it was easy for the Romans to identify their own gods with those of other peoples. For example, they regarded the Greek Zeus as just another name for the god Jupiter, whom they venerated (see Interpretatio Romana ).

The ancient Roman belief in gods was shaped by a simple “contract theory”: people owed worship and sacrifice to the gods and they owed people protection and help (motto: do ut des ; “I give, so that you give”). This resulted in two things: First, the execution of the state cults - for example for Jupiter - according to the Roman understanding was directly linked to the welfare of the state. Second, there was a general tolerance of foreign cults, whose protection the Romans also wanted to ensure. The ritual of the invocatio , with which foreign gods were invited to take their seat in Rome, was already known in republican times . During the imperial period there were therefore a large number of temples in Rome for originally non-Roman cults such as that of Isis . The worship of non-integrated deities such as Mithras or the God of the Jews and Christians was also permitted in principle. It was not the cults themselves which led to the rejection by the Romans, but the rejection of the Roman state cult by other religious communities. Judaism behaved more moderately than Christianity, while the Mithras cult did not collide with the state cult at all and proves that peaceful coexistence was possible.

Since the beginning of Roman history, the religious sphere has been inextricably linked with the state. With the expansion of the Roman Empire, but especially with the establishment of the principate , the need for a uniform state cult grew, which could override the religious customs and traditions of a large number of subjugated peoples, but who were principally respected, in order to bind the members of the empire to the state and the emperor . This feature was from the time of Augustus the on the person of the princeps concentrated emperor worship to. In addition to the highest state offices, Augustus had already taken on that of Pontifex Maximus , the highest priest. Since his death, most of the deceased emperors have been consecrated, i.e. ritually venerated as numina of state power and patron gods of the empire. In addition to the state cult of the republic, the person of the emperor himself was entrusted with the divine task of bringing salvation to the Roman state. As a result, the sacred sacrifice to the emperor was established in addition to the offerings to the previous gods. Participation in religious festivals, worship of the gods and the emperor, and the consumption of sacrificial meat became essential elements of life as a good Roman citizen. Anyone who withdrew from these cults appeared highly suspicious to the Romans, since in their eyes they threatened the pax deorum , peace with the gods, and thus endangered the public good. Christian authors used this to justify the persecution they were exposed to:

That is why Christians are enemies of the state, because they pay the emperors neither senseless, mendacious or daring honors, because, as people who have the true religion, they prefer to celebrate the emperors' feast days in their hearts rather than with debauchery.

( Tertullian , Acts 35.1  EU )

The Christians initially saw themselves as a Jewish renewal movement and were also viewed as a Jewish sect by the Romans for decades. Jewish communities were already widespread throughout the Roman Empire : the First Commandment only allowed them to worship their own God. However, they did not attack the cults of images and idols in their surroundings, but only rejected them for themselves. The Romans considered this to be unsocial, but it was tolerated and legally protected by the state. Since Caesar, the Jews enjoyed freedom of religion in principle , as the Romans perceived their religion as foreign and incomprehensible, but tolerated it due to their old age. Up to 70 and beyond, Jews as well as Christians, who had only partially broken away from Judaism, gained popularity among the so-called "God-fearing": Roman citizens of all nations who rejected the hedonistic and decadent way of life of their upper class.

Some Christians like Tertullian denied accusations and described themselves as loyal citizens of the Roman Empire and also pleaded that they prayed for the good of the empire and the emperor. However, this also implies that they did not worship the emperor, but only prayed for him, which continued to mean a departure from the imperial cult. In contrast to the presentation by authors such as Tertullian, today's research assumes that many Christians participated in the corresponding pagan cults in everyday life.

Only radical Christians at that time rejected the syncretism and polytheism of their environment and refused to recognize the Roman state symbols. Unlike Judaism, they required the addressees of their mission to give up their temples, rites and images of gods, while in Judaism such non-Jews were also considered righteous as those who would be redeemed who only kept to the Noachidic commandments .

For the Roman authorities, the open confession of Christianity was fundamentally a capital crime at least since Nero . The reason for this was not so much the rejection of the pagan cult as the fact that the Christians worshiped a man as God who the Romans had executed as a rebel and treason. The Christians were therefore suspected of being high traitors themselves, and for this very reason they always affirmed their loyalty to the emperors. Their religion was increasingly seen - also because of the unstoppable growth of their following - as state-destroying and dangerous. Since the separation from Judaism, Christianity was also perceived by the Roman state as a separate cult. With this, the “new superstition” finally lost the state protection it had enjoyed as a Jewish cult.

Individual pursuits

Claudius (41-54)

38 the Jewish religion was banned in Italy after Jews protested against images of the emperor because of the first commandment, which also includes the ban on images . In connection with this increase in Jewish resistance, Kajaphas and Pilate - the two chiefly responsible for Jesus' execution - were deposed in quick succession.

49 issued Emperor Claudius issued an edict that Jews as followers of "Chrestus" from Rome auswies ( Suetonius -Notiz). If “Chrestus” referred to Christ, a Christian community would have existed there even then. Paul met some of their expelled members around 50 in Corinth ( Acts 18: 1f  EU ). It becomes clear that the government initially saw no difference between Jews and Christians and persecuted both equally if they disrupted public order. On the occasion of a tumult in Alexandria , Claudius threatened the Jews there and indirectly also the Christians:

If they do not obey my orders, I will persecute them by all means as people who bring in a plague that spreads all over the world.

The spread of foreign cults that did not want to fit into their polytheistic environment and thus increased the potential for conflict in the provinces was perceived as a threat to public order. The action against it was supposed to guarantee state security at the same time as Roman customs.

Nero (54-68)

Henryk Siemiradzki : Nero's living torches . Tacitus reports that Christians were crucified and burned.
Henryk Siemiradzki: A Christian dirke . Clement of Rome reports that Christian women were martyred tied to the horns of bulls.

The persecution of Christians initiated by Nero 64 followed a devastating fire that hit ten out of fourteen, including mainly the poorer, mainly wooden parts of Rome. According to Tacitus , it was rumored that the emperor himself had ordered the arson. Nero, on the other hand, accused the hated religious minority of the "Chrestians" to have committed the arson. In this context, Tacitus mentions "Christ" and his crucifixion by Pilate and continues:

People who knew them were arrested first, then a huge crowd when they reported them. They were not convicted of arson, but of general hatred of people. The doomed were used for acting. They were wrapped up in animal skins and left to be torn to pieces by dogs, they were crossed or set on fire, and after dark they were left to burn as torches.

Nero made his private garden available for this, held a circus game there and dressed as a charioteer, celebrated the execution of the Christians with the people. Neither Nero, nor the Christians, or anyone else was ever actually proven to have been arson. Still, some of the condemned Christians were executed by fire like arsonists, as was the custom under Roman law.

So pity arose - although they were guilty and deserved the harshest punishments - because they fell victim not to the common good but to the cruelty of an individual.

Tacitus leaves open what the arrested confessed: their guilt for the fire or their belief. In both cases, denouncing many of the “accomplices” would be illogical, but would correspond to the Christian command not to lie. It remains unclear, however, whether the betrayed accomplices were named as further members of Christianity or as responsible for the devastating fire.

Presumably, Christians had already been noticed by the Romans in previous years as the cause of conflicts with the Jewish communities. This is reflected in the letter to the Romans , for example when Paul urged the addressees to bless all persecutors, especially representatives of the state, and to shame them with obliging charity in order to overcome evil with good ( Rom 12: 9-21  EU ):

As far as it is up to you, keep peace with all people!

Even Tacitus, despite his criticism of Nero, had no sympathy for her and would have sacrificed her in an orderly process for her "hatred of the human race" - that is, the rejection of Roman customs and rites - in order to reduce popular sympathy for her. This reproach of the odium generis had already hit the Jews before.

Nero had previously enjoyed an impeccable reputation as a protector of civil rights in the east of the empire, where early Christianity was based: it was customary to appeal to him as the chief arbitrator. Luke confirms that Paul also appealed to the emperor in his trial in Jerusalem ( Acts 25.11  EU ). However, this could also set new law and criminal offenses.

The Neronian persecution 64 remained an isolated case and limited to Rome. It was only later associated with the imperial cult by the church fathers . According to the 1st letter of Clement , Peter and Paul are also said to have been executed in the course of Nero's "circus play": Paul as a Roman citizen by the sword, Peter as a foreigner by crucifixion.

Domitian (81-96)

After the Jewish uprising in Palestine, which among other things triggered an image of the emperor in the temple, Jews were increasingly observed by the government across the empire and despised by the Roman upper class. From then on, the Jews had to pay a special tax (fiscus iudaicus) . This increased the distancing of many Christians from the authorities from Judaism and the tensions between the two religions. This situation could be behind the few scattered notes on persecution in Domitian's reign.

The Roman historian Cassius Dio reports that in 95 the emperor had his cousin Titus Flavius ​​Clemens executed for "godlessness" and banished his wife, along with many others who had lost their way in Jewish customs . So it could be about the rejection of the state gods: Christians were therefore later considered atheoi .

The church historian Eusebius of Caesarea quotes Hegesippus and claims that the wife of the imperial cousin was a Christian. Domitian then ordered the persecution of the Jews, which also hit Christians who had been denounced as Jews. Among them were the grandchildren of Judas, a brother of Jesus . She had been brought before the emperor, he had interrogated her and asked about her nature of her belief. When they told him that Christ's kingdom was not worldly but heavenly, he released them and stopped persecuting Christians. - The representation does not reveal the reason for the persecution. At best, this was limited in time and affected more Jews than Christians. Local tensions between them may again have played a role here.

Trajan (98-117)

At the beginning of 112 the governor of the province of Bithynia in Asia Minor, Pliny , asked the Emperor Trajan in a letter for advice on how to behave towards the Christians accused of apparently larger numbers of Roman citizens: Be their name (= their confession of Christ) punishable in itself, even if there is no further crime, or is it the crimes that were connected with the name? He interrogated them, threatened them with the death penalty and had those who refused to renounce their beliefs executed. He had worshiped many anonymously accused gods, sacrificed them to the image of the emperor and had Christ blasphemed. Those who fulfilled this had been released: because true Christians should not allow themselves to be forced into any of this. Many then declared that they used to be Christians, but only took part in the regular singing of praises and swore an oath: not to commit a crime, but to refrain from theft, robbery, adultery, faithlessness, and embezzlement of entrusted property. The Ten Commandments and Christian catalogs of vice are echoed here (cf. 1 Cor 5.11  EU ; 1 Tim 1.9f  EU, etc.).

In the meantime, I did the following with those who were reported to me as Christians: I asked them whether they were Christians. I asked the confessors a second and third time, under threat of the death penalty, whether they were Christians. Those who stayed with me I had taken away. Because I believed, whatever it was, what they admitted, that their stubbornness and indomitable stubbornness should be punished in any case. There were also others with a similar delusion who, because they were Roman citizens, I reserved for transfer to Rome. [...] Those who denied being or had been Christians, I thought I had to release, because they called on the gods with a formula I had spoken to me and in front of your picture, which I together with the pictures of the gods for this purpose had brought in, sacrificed with incense and wine, and also reviled Christ, things that real Christians, it is said, cannot be compelled to do. (Letter from Pliny to Trajan)

Rather, Pliny regards Christians as pitiful people who only have to be turned back from their superstition and put back on the path of reason.

The epidemic of this superstition has spread not only through the cities, but also through the villages and the plains. But it seems that it is possible to stop it and steer it in the right direction. It is fairly certain that the almost deserted temples will be revisited and the long suspended solemn sacrifices will be resumed, and that the sacrificial meat, for which hardly a buyer has been found, will be offered for sale again everywhere. From this it is easy to see the amount of people who can be improved by giving the opportunity to repent.

Emperor Trajan approved his procedure and ordered:

They shouldn't be tracked down. If they are reported and convicted, they must be punished ... Claims without an author must not have a place in any criminal offense. Because that would be a very bad example and does not fit our age.

Only a Christian who publicly refused to worship the gods (and thus the emperor) was considered a criminal and enemy of the state. The Roman legal tradition offered a certain protection against arbitrariness: Christians should not be targeted, anonymous reports should not be considered. Only those who demonstrably refused to practice the imperial cult were to be executed for resisting state power . But it was also clear: In the event of an indictment, Christians could save their lives by carrying out the sacrifice, i.e. betraying their faith, which undoubtedly many did, especially since many early Christians were not aware of the exclusivity of the veneration of Christ (which is why Christian authors keep repeating it this exclusivity was pointed out again). Furthermore, every Roman citizen could report the Christians, even if no longer anonymously; whether they were persecuted therefore now almost exclusively depended on the “people's voice”. Therefore, Christians were persecuted wherever they aroused public displeasure. From then on, the authorities proceeded according to this regulation, which enabled the spread of Christianity to be quite undisturbed.

2nd century

From Domitian to Commodus (180–192) there were some localized persecutions of Christians of varying intensity. However, here, too, the historicity of some of the martyrs' stories that are only attested in later sources is questioned by some researchers. One of them was the bloody hunt for Christians in the port city of Smyrna . In the course of this, the then Bishop Polycarp was burned in 155 . A record of his congregation, the Testimony of Polycarp , tells of the events and was widely circulated among Christians at the time.

This oldest Christian martyr report stylizes the bishop as an exemplary martyr. When he was arrested, he had already refrained from fleeing and happily exclaimed: The Lord's will be done! He had rushed to meet the soldiers, entertained them as guests and thus delayed the implementation of their assignment. He had been brought to the governor, who tried in vain to bring him to his senses: Remember your age! Sacrifice to the emperor and blaspheme Christ! Threats with predators also did nothing. The people then demanded: Before the lions! Before the lions! The governor refused and instead had a pyre built in the circus arena. Until the end, the burning man had praised his God and thanked him that he had been honored this death.

This situation is also reflected in the Christian writings that emerged at the end of the 1st century: 1st Peter , 1st Clement and the Revelation of John . They set up u. a. to churches like Smyrna and Philippi, which have already endured persecution. Based on the Jewish martyr theology and the Pauline School, they develop ideas that helped them to deal with the constant threat to their existence. They interpret the suffering of Christians as an inescapable consequence of their faith: The path of salvation into the kingdom of their God necessarily leads through the deadly rejection of the world ( Acts 14:22  EU ). She is the alien far from God ( Phil 3,20  EU ). Behind their “mighty and mighty ones” stand Satan and his demons, against whom only the “armor of God” can stand : Truth, justice, the good news of peace ( Eph 6.10–17  EU ) - trusting in him whose death Has established peace between God and the world, near and far, Jews and Gentiles ( Eph 2,13–16  EU ). 1 Petr 4.12  EU admonishes :

Do not think that something strange is happening to you, but rejoice that you suffer with Christ, so that you may have joy and bliss also at the time of the revelation of his glory. Blessed are you when you are reviled for the name of Christ ...

That is why active resistance to government measures on the part of Christians was very rare. They did not respond to hostilities with violence, but with intensified memories of their Lord and his victory over death that had already been achieved.

Another report of this kind from 177 in the reign of Marcus Aurelius from Lugdunum ( Lyon ) in Gaul cites Eusebius of Caesarea in his church history . Even under him, many Christians are said to have been sent into the arena and died there. However, many of the Christian martyrs' legends, which were rare at the beginning, were made later or existing ones were tendentiously changed. In contrast, there are hardly any official Roman sources on Christian policy. The actual extent of the persecution can therefore hardly be determined. The emperor himself is also called upon to re-examine the situation:

“If this is done at your command, it should be right; for a just ruler can never make an unjust decision, and we gladly take the honor of such a death; but let us make this one request to you, that only after you have got to know the originators of such a contentious addiction do you judge whether they deserve death and punishment or security and peace. "

- Eusebius of Caesarea : Church history 4,26,6

Christianity was still just one of many sects in the Roman Empire. In contrast to Gnostics , Marcionites and Montanists , it underwent an internal change and developed a hierarchical form of organization: the monarchical episcopate . From around 180 the canon of the New Testament was also established. In this way the communities gained internal and external stability. Church officials now also had political weight vis-à-vis the local authorities.

They were mostly rejected by the non-Christian majority of the population and at the same time deeply despised by the educated upper class. As expressed Caecilius Natalis , a spokesman for the State cult to 200 over the Christians:

They are people who collect ignorant and gullible women from the lowest yeast of the people, who are easy to win because of the weakness of their sex and who form a nefarious gang of conspirators. They fraternize in nocturnal gatherings, a cowardly and light-shy people, silent in public and only talkative in corners. They despise the temples as tombs, the gods ostracize them, they laugh at the victims. Although pitiful themselves, they pity the priests, disdain positions of honor and purple dresses, and cannot even cover their nakedness!

This was linked to the accusation that Christians can only recruit themselves from the lower and above all uneducated classes, since all the more educated citizens would not fall for the Christian charlatanry, but would rather remain faithful to the Roman state cult according to their common sense. In addition, the strangeness of private house services and their rejection by state offices are accused. Since they were considered inscrutable and dangerous to the state and harmed the pax deorum by refusing to participate in the state cult, they were soon accused of all sorts of inexplicable accidents. So wrote Tertullian also about 200:

When the Tiber rises up into the city walls, when the Nile does not rise above the fields, when the weather does not want to change, when the earth shakes, when there is famine, when there is an epidemic, the shouting is immediately heard: The Christians before the lions!

Septimius Severus (193-211)

Septimius Severus won the imperial throne only after knocking three competitors out of the field. He followed the tradition of Marcus Aurelius through a fictitious adoption, even named his son after him and preferred Syria and North Africa as the power base over Rome. In this context, he issued a ban on all conversions to Christianity or Judaism in 202 under threat of the death penalty. Above all, it should hit the border provinces more affected by both religions and stop the flow of churches there. A general ban was not associated with this.

But the edict encouraged Roman citizens to report the hated “inhumans” to the authorities more often. The result was increased local persecution of Christians, especially of catechumens , newly baptized people and their teachers. Often they were accused of godlessness ( irreligiousness ), incest or murder : Behind this was the self-chosen isolation of the Christian communities from public life and the customary law (institutum), through which one could still refer to Trajan's letter to Pliny from the 1st century, according to which Christians had to confess guilty before being executed. Christianity was now increasingly equated with hostility towards the state. Nevertheless, the local pogroms were unable to reintegrate the Christians into society as a whole. They only slowed down the expansion of the Church and Christianity and even made for a radicalization and stronger fundamentalization of the other Christians, so they strengthened their inner opposition to the state.

For the next 40 years, Christians were relatively unmolested. The emperors were fully occupied with defending themselves against external enemies, so that the capacity to fight internal enemies was also insufficient. This almost always illustrates the prevailing parallelism between critical times for the empire and the spread of Christianity, which benefited from the suffering of the entire empire. The proclamation of redemption and eternal happiness after death was tempting for many desperate people in times when there was a downright doom and gloom. On the other hand, the Roman state cult was also confirmed in the fact that the kingdom then goes badly when the peace with the gods was disturbed, for which the Christians were previously held responsible because they rejected God's sacrifices.

Maximinus Thrax (235-238)

A persecution limited to Rome perhaps took place in 235 under the soldier emperor Maximinus Thrax , but the historical content of this message, first mentioned in Eusebius of Caesarea (HE VI, 28), is unclear. Another source supports this thesis: The chronograph from 354 , a collection of even older, official Roman documents, reports in the chapter on the Roman bishop Pontianus (230–235) that he and the priest Hippolytus were banished to Sardinia in 235 , died there and was buried in a catacomb on Via Tiburtina : "Eo tempore Pontianus episcopus et Yppolitus presbiter exoles sunt deportati in Sardinia."

The years 218–238 are considered to be a time of peace in the Roman Empire without general persecution of Christians.

State persecutions

Decius (249-251)

With Decius began the first administratively and systematically carried out persecution of Christians in the entire Roman Empire. From the outside, the empire was increasingly threatened by the Sassanids in the east, the Goths , Alemanni and Franks in the north and west (see Imperial Crisis of the 3rd Century ). It therefore seemed necessary to the emperor to please the gods in this situation through a general sacrifice; In addition, the measure carried the character of a nationwide demonstration of loyalty for Decius, who had come to power as a usurper and had to consolidate his position (as recently the ancient historian Bruno Bleckmann ). Shortly after his accession to the throne, Decius also issued a general sacrifice:

Whoever does not worship the gods of Rome and refuses to sacrifice to the almighty emperor is guilty of the religious crime [ sacrilegium] and the crime of majesty [crimen laesae maiestatis] .

Every citizen had to obtain written confirmation that he had sacrificed to the gods, to which the former emperors belonged. Failure to do so would face severe penalties, including the death penalty.

The measure of Decius did not react to the increasing spread of Christianity and was also not intended to force and decimate the clergy - bishops and priests - to take the “oath of revelation”, as was often assumed in the past. Rather, it is no longer denied in research today that Decius did not specifically focus on Christians, but had everyone, even pagan priests, who undoubtedly could not be Christians, sacrificed. It was only when some Christians stood out for their demonstrative refusal to make sacrifices that their religion became the focus of state attention.

Execution by hunting animals

How many Christians refused to accept the victim and were subsequently tortured and executed is unknown. Very many, especially newly baptized and lay people, gave in to the pressure ( lapsi , apostates) - in view of the fact that not a few Christians at the time were by no means strictly monotheistic, this is hardly surprising. Others obtained a victim certificate (libelli) through deception or bribery . Cyprian of Carthage, who fled and hid, later devoted himself to the imprisoned Christians in one of his letters and glorified their time in custody:

Now let only the officials and the consuls or proconsuls come, let them boast of the badges of their only one-year dignity and the twelve bundles of rods! You see, you bear the mark of heavenly dignity in the glory of your now one-year glory, and it has already crossed the rolling cycle of the recurring year through the long duration of your honorable victory. The rising sun and the moving moon shone down on the world: but to you, who created the sun and the moon, was a greater light in your dungeon, and the glory of Christ, which shines in your hearts and minds, enlightened those so terrible and dreadful for others Darkness in the place of torment with that eternal and pure light. In the change of the months the winter passed: but in prison you exchanged the storms of persecution for the stormy winter season. The winter was followed by the mild spring, leaping roses and wreathed with flowers: but roses and flowers smiled to you from the delights of paradise, and heavenly threads wreathed your head. See, the summer is blessed with rich harvests, and the threshing floor is filled with crops: but you who have sown glory reap the fruits of glory and, placed on the threshing floor of the Lord, you see how the chaff (lapsi) is burned in an inextinguishable fire, while you, as cleaned grains of wheat and precious grain, already examined and stored, consider the dungeon room as a granary. And even in autumn there is no lack of spiritual grace to do work appropriate to the season. There wine is pressed outside, and the grapes are crushed in the presses in order to later fill the cups: you are the fat grapes in the Lord's vineyards, which with their already ripe berries are exposed to the pressure of the hostile world, and you get to feel our wine press in the agony of the dungeon; instead of wine you shed your blood, and courageously determined to endure the suffering, you joyfully empty the cup of martyrdom. So the year flows by with the servants of God.

( Cyprian , Ep. 15, 2)

Despite all this glorification of the imprisoned and the condemnation of the apostates (lapsi), Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage, did not follow this example, as I said, but fled when he was threatened with persecution. A small, radical minority, however, demonstratively defied every threat. Most of these professors were (confessores) then burned. Roman citizens who professed Christianity had previously mostly been beheaded (like Paul), but most of the imperial residents had been citizens since 212 , and special treatment was therefore often omitted; on rare occasions the victims were crucified or torn apart in the arena by wild animals. If necessary, the death penalty was waived and the men were handed over to mines as work slaves , and women and girls to brothels .

The later Christian veneration of saints emerged from the glorification of the martyrs of this persecution, the annual celebration of the anniversary of their death and the veneration of their relics . Martyrdom was idealized more than before.

When Emperor Decius was unexpectedly killed in a battle against the Goths after only two years of reign in 251, this persecution of Christians, which had already subsided, ended. It had three main consequences:

  • The Roman authorities had become increasingly aware of the Christians.
  • The Christians prepared for further persecution and a broad consensus developed on what to do in such a case.
  • Conflicts arose within the congregations over the question of how to deal with the numerous lapsi who tried to get back into the church (see also heretic controversy ).

Valerian (253-260)

The decisive turning point in Roman Christian policy came under the indirect successor of Decius, Valerian . After the new emperor had initially successfully defended the imperial borders in the east, he resumed the policy of persecution of his predecessor 257, but from the beginning he deliberately aimed at Christianity and tightened the Decian measures by a general ban on Christian assembly. In 258 he also had the Christian bishops arrested and executed without trial. Unlike Decius, he took action against the leaders among the Christians and tried to systematically refute and eliminate this religion by destroying their leadership and so trying to break the rigid hierarchy.

With that he destroyed many communities; but unlike before, there was now apparently a change in the attitude of the population. In many places Christians were hidden from the authorities and not extradited; Above all, however, this persecution was no longer unexpected for Christians. Cyprian of Carthage, who in previous years had to justify himself for fleeing, this time knew what was expected of him and no longer tried to evade Roman justice:

You have long led the life of a high traitor and started a dark conspiracy with numerous others. You are a declared enemy of the gods and the laws of the Roman state. Even the pious and venerable Augusti Valerian and Gallienus and the most high Caesar Valerian were unable to get you to serve the gods of the state again. Because you are the actual author of despicable crimes and have seduced others into outrageous acts, an example should be made of you as a warning to those whom you have made your co-conspirators; at the price of your blood, discipline and custom will be preserved. We give orders that Thascius Cyprianus be executed by the sword.

(Acta proconsularia 4)

In 260 an unexpected silver lining appeared for them: Valerian's son Gallienus repealed the Valerian decrees and stopped the persecution. The reasons for this are unclear. Presumably it plays a role that the military situation of the empire was too desperate to tie up resources with persecution of Christians that year, when Valerian was captured by Persia and Gaul, Britain and Spain broke away from the empire. The Christian communities again gained popularity in the period that followed. In the opinion of some, a word that has been handed down from the beginning of the 2nd century came true:

The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.

Nevertheless, the renewed large number of apostate Christians, who now wanted to return to the bosom of the congregation, brought with them dogmatic problems following the pattern of the heretic controversy, which continued to intensify and 60 years later, after the end of the Diocletian persecution (see below) , led to a split in the church: The majority of the bishops accepted the resumption with a new baptism, but some strictly refused, and the question of who was entitled to the financial benefits that Constantine I had given Christians since 312 came to the open fracture. This Donatist movement formed its own church with a focus on North Africa. It existed alongside the Roman Church until the Vandals conquered North Africa.

Diocletian and Galerius (303-311)

Almost 50 years after the end of the last persecution, the Christian communities were hit again: In 293 Diocletian carried out a comprehensive reform of the state to reorganize and stabilize the Roman Empire: he strengthened the provincial administrations and shared his power with three co-rulers ( tetrarchy : two Augusti and two Caesares ). The empire was sacralized more strongly than ever, that is, transported into a superhuman sphere through a bond with the Roman state gods. Two years before Diocletian withdrew from power after completing the reform work, he began an empire-wide persecution of Christians in 303. It aimed at the final smashing of the church and extermination of its followers and should serve to stabilize the empire. Some ancient sources claim that the real mastermind was Diocletian's under-Emperor Galerius , whose role was probably greatly exaggerated by the church writers Laktanz and especially Eusebius . The fact that Augustus had ordered an empire-wide persecution of the Manicheans a few years earlier speaks for the predominant responsibility of Diocletian himself ; like the Christians, these refused to accept the ancient Roman cults.

As Karl-Heinz Schwarte was able to prove in 1994, Diocletian did not issue four edicts of persecution, but one. It banned Christian worship, ordered the destruction of churches, the burning of Christian scriptures (see also: Martyrs of the Holy Books ) and the imprisonment of Christian civil servants; it also contained a ban on office for Christians. This decree, often referred to as the “first edict”, was issued on February 23, 303. With it, Christians lost crucial civil rights and were easier to prosecute. The edict ordered the imprisonment and torture of all community leaders, bishops or presbyters in order to dissuade them in any way from their faith; Above all, however, Diocletian and his fellow emperors ordered the death penalty for all who continued to refuse the imperial sacrifice.

The edict was implemented with varying degrees of severity in the provinces. In the eastern part of the empire under Galerius, the persecutions were very bloody and intensified when Diocletian abdicated in 305 and Galerius took over his office. In the West, however, most executions probably ended after that; instead steadfast Christians were deported to the mines until 311.

A presumption that Christians in the army planned a palace revolt against the emperor and thus provoked his measures (according to Jacob Burckhardt in 1853 in The Time of Constantine the Great ) is now regarded as a legend to legitimize the persecution from Galerius's circle.

Galerius continued the work of his predecessor until 311, before he was seriously ill and had the persecution stopped. In the Nicomedia Edict of Tolerance , he admitted that the persecutions had failed. This was again interpreted by the Christians as the decline of the empire, which in turn allowed them to quickly gain followers. Even on his deathbed, Galerius tried to tie Christians to the state and the emperor:

“Among all the considerations that we are used to doing for the good and success of the Republic, we had previously decided to regulate all things in accordance with the traditional laws and order of Rome and determined that even Christians who believe in their Fathers have abandoned should be brought to their senses; since in fact the Christians themselves, for some reason or other, followed a whim and fell into the foolishness of not following the long-serving mores which may still have come from their fathers; but according to their will and as they see fit they want to create laws for themselves, which they should and want to obey, gathering different people in different places in communities. In the end, when our law was proclaimed with the purpose that they obey the old customs, many submitted for fear of danger, but many endured death. And yet most of them persisted in their decision when we saw that they paid neither the worship nor the owed reverence nor the worship of the God of Christians to the gods, we thought, in view of our greatest gracious gentleness and the regular habit to which we are accustomed to indulge everyone, that we immediately indulge them, too, so that they may be Christians again and hold their meetings, provided that they do not act contrary to discipline. But we explain to the judges in another letter what to do. Because of our indulgence, let them pray to their God for our safety, for that of the republic, and for their own, that the republic may continue unscathed and that they may live safely in their homes. "

Constantinian turn

After the death of Galerius, fights for his successor broke out. According to a legend reported by Eusebius, Constantine the Great is said to have won the decisive battle at the Milvian Bridge 312 after he had seen a cross of flames in the sky some time before, according to Lactantium, the Chi-Rho , and signs with the meaning:

IN HOC SIGNO VINCES (In this sign you will win.)

It was customary to look for signs of gods before a battle in order to secure the support of the strongest god in each case, which is why an integration of Christianity into the latter is effectively found here with a Christian symbol in a process of the Roman state cult. The symbol of the cross - for Romans the most dishonorable punishment for slaves, rebels and criminals - has now been reinterpreted by Christians themselves as the symbol of victory for the Roman Empire ( Christ monogram ). For the early Christians it had expressed the rulership of the Son of God over all worldly rulers (Rev 17:14): Many followers of Jesus had been crucified like him for this faith.

Apparently Constantine did not suddenly become a Christian, but initially also adhered to the sun god Sol invictus . This god had shown his power in his eyes. He also relied on the toleration of the church from the start so that it would support his sole rule as an additional instrument of power. In 313 he and Licinius in the Milan Agreement (often wrongly referred to as the Edict of Tolerance , because such a nationwide edict was by no means issued in 313) allowed every Roman citizen the free choice of his religion (not just Christians). The famous passage read:

We give political empowerment to Christians and others to follow whatever religion they choose.

The imperial cult as compulsory was abolished. Christianity was thus officially on an equal footing with the Roman state cults. Its future primacy was already indicated. Furthermore, Constantine returned her property to the church and granted all bishops rights and honors that had previously only been granted to senators and pagan priests.

The Christians experienced the so-called “ Constantinian Turn ” as a breakthrough and great liberation. From now on, because of the privileges given to Christianity by Constantine, it could be beneficial for social advancement to profess the Christian faith. In the period that followed, many of the higher state offices on which the shaping of public life depended were filled with Christians, so that many rich and until then powerful people were forced to convert to Christianity in order to be able to maintain their power.

In 321 Constantine made the Sunday on which Christians celebrated their worship a legal day of rest; but since the day - as the name suggests - was also dedicated to the sun god, this measure cannot necessarily be viewed as pro-Christian (even if the Christians did this). In general, it is controversial how strongly Christianity influenced Constantine's legislation. In 324 he became the unlimited ruler and tried to carry out the failed state reforms of his predecessors: no longer against the church, but with its help.

Christianity should evidently increasingly take over the functions of the old cults and bring about divine support for the Roman Empire . Only when the church was organizationally and theologically united could it support the unity of the state: To this end, the emperor - as pontifex maximus - now also actively intervened in its internal affairs. In 325 he called the first ecumenical council of Nicaea . The bishops came at state expense; the emperor himself chaired the meetings and put through purely theological compromise formulas such as homoousios in order to resolve the internal church dispute about the sonship of Jesus. So he treated the council like an imperial arbitration tribunal. The motives behind this were primarily political, but also personal convictions: Constantine was still baptized on his deathbed in 337.

Development to the state religion

Constantine was accepted among the state gods after his death and can therefore hardly be called a "Christian" in the narrower sense, but rather as a "follower of the Christian god". But he had his sons raised in a Christian way: among them, Constantius II (337–361) in particular carried out a resolute Christianization policy. He issued a first ban on pagan rites, which he lifted after his visit to Rome in 357.

Even more as the Roman Empire became "Christian," the Church began to adapt to the empire's power interests. The Christian cross symbol became a national emblem on army standards and coins. War was justified theologically insofar as it served the security of the empire. Bishops blessed the same weapons with which Christians were previously murdered. Since around 400, compulsory Christianization measures have also been theologically justified: Augustine justified this in the Donatism dispute with the fact that like small children, the “ schismatics ” had to be forced to their happiness.

Quite a few clerics succumbed to the temptations that the newly won position brought with it. Large and richly furnished churches were built; the imperial court ceremony became the model for the liturgy . The higher clergy became rich through gifts. Many Christians criticized these changes, but they were unstoppable. As a countermovement, monasticism developed from Egypt . The Roman state temples, however, slowly disintegrated.

Even Constantine had very isolated measures against "pagan" cults; under Constantius II there were already storms on pagan temples. Constantius II tried in vain to make Arianism (in the courtly form) binding for the church, so he continued to intervene in dogmatic questions (see also Constantius II's religious policy ).

Under Emperor Julian Apostata (361–363) there was a brief attempt to revive the non-Christian cults and to push back Christianity. After Julian's death, the Christian emperors tolerated traditional gods. The prohibition of all non-Christian cults, that is, public acts of sacrifice, under Theodosius I then, in 380 and 392, respectively, put a (formal) end to the religious freedom that had prevailed earlier ( Dreikaiseredikt "Cunctos populos"):

... The rest, whom we declare to be truly mad and insane, have to bear the shame of heretical teaching. Their meeting places are also not allowed to be called churches. Finally, divine retribution is to overtake it first, but then also our punishment righteousness, which has been transferred to us through heavenly judgment.

Furthermore, after a failed religious conversation, Theodosius issued a law on heretics in 383, which threatened the Arians, Donatists and Manicheans with banishment. Christianity in its “ orthodox ” form as the imperial church had thus become the state religion .

However, many of the harsh pronouncements of Theodosius, who himself was probably not a religious zealot, were implemented rather mildly or not at all in practice. The old Roman state cult and the other polytheistic religions were therefore able to persist into the 6th century, and in Eastern Rome sometimes even into the 7th century. But they got more and more on the defensive, lost more and more followers and increasingly lost their inner strength - but conversely, through the massive conversion of former followers, they left clear traces in Christianity, which underwent massive change between 300 and 600.


Web links

Individual evidence

  1. Alexander Demandt : The late antiquity. 2nd edition, Munich 2007, p. 157 ff.
  2. quoted from Theodor Mommsen: Chronica Minora saec. IV, V, VI, VII in Auctorum antiquissimorum , t.IX, 1; Berlin 1892; P. 74.
  3. Erich Schnepel: Jesus in the Roman Empire. The way of the church of Jesus in the first four centuries. Betanien, Oerlinghausen 2013 (first edition furrow 1936), ISBN 978-3-935558-41-9 , p. 55.
  4. ^ Tertullian , Acts 35.1  EU
  5. ^ Karl-Heinz Schwarte: Diocletian's Christian Law . In: E fontibus haurire. Contributions to Roman history and its auxiliary sciences . Schöningh, Paderborn 1994, ISBN 3-506-79058-7 , pp. 203-240.