Christian Persecution in Ancient Rome

The first persecution of record occurred under Nero. He accused Christians of burning Rome and ordered a witch hunt to track them down. Historians argue over why Christians were hated, but it’s not too hard to figure out. Throughout history, dictators killed or imprisoned their enemies. Caligula, Nero, and other Roman emperors were serial killers. Needless to say, they had a lot of enemies. People, who are hated, tend to be paranoid. With the Church growing by leaps and bounds, this tight network of believers frightened emperors. Later in history, Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot, sent gangs of thugs to beat or stab their opposition, often in the middle of the night. When the opposition increased, they sent their enemies to concentration camps and to gulags, or they simply executed them. Why? They were terrified of being overthrown. The Communist hatred of religion stems from this fear. Hitler, on the other hand, minimized the Church by making Nazi orators preach Socialist propaganda in the pulpit. When priests and pastors objected, they were thrown into concentration camps. Truly, the first inmates were political dissidents. On a lesser scale, but just as harmful, American Presidents have used the IRS and the FBI to harass their political opposition.

Wall mosaic, Herculaneum

Wall mosaic, Herculaneum

Back to Rome….Nero was paranoid. To stop this tight network of believers from meeting in secret, he devised terrible tortures to kill Christians, which had the opposite effect. The Church grew, as it always does under persecution. Modern-day China has a huge underground Church, despite Communist efforts to subdue it.

After Nero was killed, Christians weren’t persecuted for a century. The persecution resumed after barbarians invaded Rome and the Roman Army suffered defeats. As with any crisis, when politicians are desperate, they want citizens to pray. In 250 AD, Emperor Decius wanted Christians to offer respect to Roman gods. Most complied rather than face torture and death. Who could blame them?

Emperor Valerian persecuted Christians around 258 AD. Emperor Diocletian had the most brutal of persecutions between 304 to 311 AD. Any Christian refusing to sacrifice to the gods was put to death. It’s worthy to note that some Christians still worshiped pagan gods along with Jesus, and people of other religions also died for their faith. The Church continued to grow, however, until it took over the Roman Empire.

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