When we talk of persecution of Christians during the Roman period we generally think of the 10 great persecutions of the Roman Empire. This notion that there were ten great persecutions dates from the fourth century and the lists vary slightly. This list is based on Foxe’s Book of Martyrs via the sites listed at the bottom. The Romans were generally open on religious matters absorbing the various gods into an ever expanding pantheon as they sauntered across the world.
Christianity violated the Roman notion of what a religion should be and how it related to society in general. Christians were considered atheists in some quarters because they were worshiping a God that had no image. Christianity was branded a superstition in others because the resurrection story had no precedent in Roman thought. The Romans thought that Christianity was generally not good for the society. In the third century, the Neoplatonist philosopher Porphyry provided an interesting perspective:
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?
If this is the why for the persecution than the what of it will follow. Here is a list of the Ten Great Persecutions:
1st Under Nero A.D. 54-68
When Nero who had his wife and mother killed burned Rome, it lasted 9 days. Many blamed him for his conduct. After this he turned the blame upon the Christians and thousands were killed. Some were dressed in shirts made stiff with wax, fixed to axletrees, and set on fire in his gardens, in order to illuminate them.
• Paul was beheaded during this persecution.
What is sad today is that history is being rewritten. Current history says that Nero did not persecute the Christians. This is what Compton’s interactive encyclopedia 1998 recorded:
He (Nero) also won the reputation of being a demented and depraved tyrant, the ruler who “fiddled while Rome burned” and who instigated the first persecution of Christians; however, Nero’s unsavory reputation is almost wholly undeserved. He was certainly not the bloody dictator that Roman and Christian historians have depicted. Nero became emperor in 54, and for the first five years his reign was exemplary. He stopped contests in the circus that involved bloodshed, banned capital punishment, reduced taxes, increased the independence of the Roman Senate, and gave permission for slaves to bring complaints against their masters.
2nd Under Domition A.D. 81- 96
Domition who was known for his cruelty, killed his brother and then raised the second persecution against Christians. In his rage he killed many of the Roman senate, either for malice or to confiscate their estate. It was during this time period that:
• John was boiled in oil and survived through a miracle of God. Later he was banished to Patmos.
• Domition made a law that no Christian, once brought before the tribunal, should be exempted from punishment without renouncing his religion.
• Timothy died during this time period.
3rd Under Trajan A.D. 98-117
According to Pliny the Second, who saw thousands of Christians being put to death daily, moved with pity wrote Trajan, certifying that these people did nothing against the Roman law worthy of death. Nothing was done in their defence. It was during this time that:
• Ignatius was martyred.
• Eustachius, considered by many to be a brave, successful Roman commander, was by the emperor ordered to join in an idolatrous sacrifice to celebrate his victories, but being a Christian he nobly refused it. Enraged at the denial the ungrateful emperor had him and his family murdered.
4th Under Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius Antoninus A.D. 138-180
Although he had noble principles, Marcus Aurelius persecuted the Christians for fear they would destroy the state. It was during this time period that:
• Polycarp of Smyrna was martyred. The martyrdom of Polycarp was the earliest detailed account of a martyr outside of the scriptures on record. When hearing that people were seeking him, he escaped, but was discovered by a child. After feasting the guards who apprehended him, granted him an hour in prayer. His prayer was so powerful that the guards repented that they were instrumental in his capture. When brought before the proconsul, they urged him saying swear, and I will release thee;- reproach Christ. But Polycarp answered, “86 years have I served him, and he never once wronged me; how then shall I blaspheme my King, who hath saved me?”
When he was burned at the stake, the fire surrounded him like an arch, not touching him. Upon seeing this, the executioner was ordered to pierce him with a sword. When he was pierced a great quantity of blood came out and extinguished the flames. It was then that Polycarp went to his King and Savior. Polycarp was the pastor of Smyrna, one of the seven churches of Revelation. Polycarp was a disciple of the apostle John and the last survivor of those who knew the apostles.
5th Under Severus A.D. 193 – 211
Severus, having recovered from a severe fit of sickness through a Christian, favored Christians in general: But because of the prejudice and fury of the multitude against them and their alarming growth it caused the pagans to panic. The persecutions started. Tertullian, who lived during this time period, informs us that if the Christians had collectively withdrawn themselves from the Roman territories, the empire would have greatly depopulated.
• Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, was beheaded in 202
• Irenaeus was a disciple of Polycarp. He was a great oppressor of heresies in general.
6th Under Maximus A.D. 235-238
In some provinces everything was done to exterminate all Christians. Numberless Christians were slain without trial and buried indiscriminately in heaps sometimes fifty or sixty being cast into a pit together, without the least decency.
7th Under Decius A.D. 249-251
This persecution was brought on because of Decius’s hatred for his predecessor Phillip, a Christian and partly by his jealously concerning the amazing increase of Christianity. Heathen temples began to be forsaken, and the Christian churches grew.
• During this time, error crept into the church. The heathens were taking the law into their own hands and were killing Christians and considered it a merit.
• Some Christians were to sacrifice to false gods or be tortured to death; some did recant after being tortured only to die soon after. Most of the errors that crept into the church at this time arose from placing human reason in completion with God’s word.
8th Under Valerian A.D. 253-260
The martyrs that fell during this time period were innumerable and their tortures were various and painful. Neither rank, gender, nor age were regarded. The Edict of 257and 258 ordered all Christian leaders to be put to death that did not take part in sacrificing to the gods.
• During this period two young noble ladies were engaged to two noble men who professed Christianity. When danger appeared, to save their fortunes, they renounced their faith. They took great pains to persuade the ladies to do the same, but disappointed in their purpose, the two suitors were base enough to inform against them. They were brought to the governor of Rome where their death was sealed in 257 AD.
• In Carthage a terrible plague broke out. The blame was laid on the Christians. Cyprian was brought before the proconsul and he was exiled. The Proconsul the very next year Cyprian was brought back. Under the new governor he was sentenced to death. He died 09/14/258.
• By 260 Valerian died and his son reigned. The church enjoyed peace for a few years.
9th Under Aurelian A.D. 274-287
In the year 286 a most remarkable event took place. A legion of soldiers, consisting 6,666 men, were all Christians. The legion was called the Theban Legion, named from the place they were raised. They were ordered to march over the Alps into Gaul.
• The emperor Maximian ordered a general sacrifice in which the whole army was to assist.
• They were to take an oath of allegiance and swear, at the same time, to assist in the extermination of Christians in Gaul.
• In hearing this, the whole legion refused to sacrifice or take the oath. The emperor was so enraged that he ordered every tenth soldier to be butchered in front of the legion.
• After this the legion was still committed to their faith, so every tenth soldier was slain again. Thinking this would cause the men to recant, it made no effect on them at all. He had the whole legion butchered by the other soldiers. This event took place on 09/22/286.
10th Under Diocletian A.D. 292-304
During this persecution, the emperor ordered 4 edicts against the Christians.
1. The first one was as follows:
• Churches should be destroyed.
• Sacred Scriptures burned.
• Christians of position would lose their honor and those of lower rank lost their liberty.
• Death was not pronounced as a penalty, but many died.
2. The second edict caused:
• Leaders of the Christians to be thrown into prison.
3. The third edict caused:
• Christian leaders who would not sacrifice would be thrown into prison. They suffered cruel tortures.
4. The fourth edict decreed that:
• All Christians everywhere should sacrifice on threat of being put to death in a war of extermination.