1st period of Persecution under Nero, 64-68 A.D.
The first documented case of imperially-supervised persecution of the Christians in the Roman Empire begins with Nero (37-68). In 64 A.D., a great fire broke out in Rome, destroying portions of the city and economically devastating the Roman population. Nero himself was suspected as the arsonist by historian Suetonius, claiming he played the lyre and sang the 'Sack of Ilium' during the fires. In his Annals, Tacitus (who claimed Nero was in Antium at the time of the fire's outbreak), stated that "to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace" (Tacit. Annals XV, see Tacitus on Jesus).
People Who are persecuted: Many people were persecuted during the Holocaust and the time period before it. Jews were the primary focus, but others including Poles, Slavics, gypsies, homosexuals, mentally handicapped, physically handicapped, trade unionists, communists, and many more were targeted. Many political opponents and other possible competitors were murdered as well.
By the mid 2nd century, mobs could be found willing to throw stones at Christians, and they might be mobilized by rival sects. The Persecution in Lyon was preceded by mob violence, including assaults, robberies and stonings.
Further state persecutions were desultory until the third century, though Tertullian's Apologeticus of 197 was ostensibly written in defense of persecuted Christians and addressed to Roman governors The "edict of Septimius Severus" familiar in Christian history is doubted by some secular historians to have existed outside Christian martyrology.
The first documentable Empire-wide persecution took place under Maximinus, though only the clergy were sought out. It was not until Decius during the mid-century that a persecution of Christian laity across the Empire took place. Christian sources aver that a decree was issued requiring public sacrifice, a formality equivalent to a testimonial of allegiance to the Emperor and the established order. Decius authorized roving commissions visiting the cities and villages to supervise the execution of the sacrifices and to deliver written certificates to all citizens who performed them. Christians were often given opportunities to avoid further punishment by publicly offering sacrifices or burning incense to Roman gods, and were accused by the Romans of impiety when they refused. Refusal was punished by arrest, imprisonment, torture, and executions. Christians fled to safe havens in the countryside and some purchased their certificates, called libelli. Several councils held at Carthage debated the extent to which the community should accept these lapsed Christians.
The persecutions culminated with Diocletian and Galerius at the end of the third and beginning of the fourth century. Their persecution, the Great Persecution is considered the largest. Beginning with a series of four edicts banning Christian practices and ordering the imprisonment of Christian clergy, the persecution intensified until all Christians in the empire were commandeded to sacrifice to the gods or face immediate execution. Over 20,000 Christians are thought to have died during Diocletian's reign. However, as Diocletian zealously persecuted Christians in the Eastern part of the empire, his co-emperors in the West did not follow the edicts and so Christians in
This persecution lasted, until Constantine I came to power in 313 and legalized Christianity. It was not until Theodosius I in the later fourth century that Christianity would become the official religion of the Empire. Between these two events Julian the Apostate did temporarily renew Pagan and Christian hostilities.
Some early Christians sought out and welcomed martyrdom. Roman authorities tried hard to avoid Christians because they "goaded, chided, belittled and insulted the crowds until they demanded their death."193 One man shouted to the Roman officials: "I want to die! I am a Christian," leading the officials to respond: "If they wanted to kill themselves, there was plenty of cliffs they could jump off."194 Such seeking after death is found in Tertullian's Scorpiace but was certainly not the only view of martyrdom in the Christian church. Both Polycarp and Cyprian, bishops in
The conditions under which martyrdom was an acceptable fate or under which it was suicidally embraced occupied writers of the early Christian Church. Broadly speaking, martyrs were considered uniquely exemplary of the Christian faith, and few early saints were not also martyrs.
The New Catholic Encyclopedia states that "Ancient, medieval and early modern hagiographers were inclined to exaggerate the number of martyrs. Since the title of martyr is the highest title to which a Christian can aspire, this tendency is natural". Estimates of Christians killed for religious reasons before the year 313 vary greatly, depending on the scholar quoted, from a high of almost 100,000 to a low of 10,000.