For the next two hundred years, the Christians of the Roman Empire would endure periods of persecution of varying intensity as well as brief respites of tranquility. The common thread is that the church maintained her faith (as always, imperfectly) and propagated it so successfully that her numbers always increased.
At this time, the first post-apostolic apologists appear, scholars who preferred to defend the church with pen rather than sword. The earliest known is Quadratus,
|Philip the Arab||244-249|
After Trajan had reigned for nineteen and a half years [Hadrian] became his successor in the empire. To him Quadratus addressed a discourse containing an apology for our religion, because certain wicked men had attempted to trouble the Christians. The work is still in the hands of a great many of the brethren, as also in our own, and furnishes clear proofs of the man's understanding and of his apostolic orthodox. 2 He himself reveals the early date at which he lived in the following words: "But the works of our Savior were always present, for they were genuine:-those that were healed, and those that were raised from the dead, who were seen not only when they were healed and when they were raised, but were also always present; and not merely while the Savior was on earth, but also after his death, they were alive for quite a while, so that some of them lived even to our day." (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl., IV, 3:2)
In the middle of the second century, the most notable apologist is Justin (A.D. 100-165), a Greek philosopher from Samaria who had been converted to Christianity. Ultimately he would die for his faith, and so is known to us as Justin Martyr. He defended Christianity to the Emperor Antoninus Pius and his two adopted sons.
One early anonymous apologist from the mid second century sums of the state of Christianity in the world:
For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonored, and yet in their very dishonor are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honor; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred..
To sum up all in one word--what the soul is in the body, that are Christians in the world. The soul is dispersed through all the members of the body, and Christians are scattered through all the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, yet is not of the body; and Christians dwell in the world, yet are not of the world. The invisible soul is guarded by the visible body, and Christians are known indeed to be in the world, but their godliness remains invisible. The flesh hates the soul, and wars against it, though itself suffering no injury, because it is prevented from enjoying pleasures; the world also hates the Christians, though in nowise injured, because they abjure pleasures. The soul loves the flesh that hates it, and [loves also] the members; Christians likewise love those that hate them. The soul is imprisoned in the body, yet preserves that very body; and Christians are confined in the world as in a prison, and yet they are the preservers of the world. The immortal soul dwells in a mortal tabernacle; and Christians dwell as sojourners in corruptible [bodies], looking for an incorruptible dwelling in the heavens. The soul, when but ill-provided with food and drink, becomes better; in like manner, the Christians, though subjected day by day to punishment, increase the more in number. God has assigned them this illustrious position, which it were unlawful for them to forsake. (Epistle to Diognetus, 5-6)
Although the author is unknown, he is considered one of the most eloquent writers of the era. Indeed, its beauty is the prime reason why the epistle is not credited to Justin.
None of these apologetic writings had any effect on their intended recipients. The authorities had no interest in defenses of Christianity. If Christians wanted to prove their loyalty, then they could burn incense for the state gods, just like the pagans did.
Justin, who was bona fide Greek philosopher, was martyred under another philosopher, the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius. Brought with six companions to Rusticus, prefect of Rome, we have an accurate account of the dialog:
"The Prefect Rusticus says: Approach and sacrifice, all of you, to the gods. Justin says: No one in his right mind gives up piety for impiety. The Prefect Rusticus says: If you do not obey, you will be tortured without mercy. Justin replies: That is our desire, to be tortured for Our Lord, Jesus Christ, and so to be saved, for that will give us salvation and firm confidence at the more terrible universal tribunal of Our Lord and Saviour. And all the martyrs said: Do as you wish; for we are Christians, and we do not sacrifice to idols. The Prefect Rusticus read the sentence: Those who do not wish to sacrifice to the gods and to obey the emperor will be scourged and beheaded according to the laws. The holy martyrs glorifying God betook themselves to the customary place, where they were beheaded and consummated their martyrdom confessing their Savior."
Under Marcus Aurelius, it was political turmoil within the empire that intensified persecution against the church. The year A.D. 166 was a year of great calamity, when havoc was wrought by plague, flood, famine, and invasion from beyond the Danube. In those times many Romans looked around for who, Jonah-like, was bringing the wrath of the gods upon them. Often the “atheistic” Christians were just the group.
The most notorious persecution of Marcus’s regime began in Gaul in 177 the church at Lyons. The outbreak began not with an official edict but mob violence that was given a blind eye by the local magistrates. When some of Christians turned out to be Roman citizens, the Emperor’s ruling was sought. Marcus replied that those who don’t recant should be beheaded, if Roman citizens, and tortured to death otherwise. The survivors sent a poignant and detailed description of the persecution to the churches at Asia Minor. Neither age (young or old) nor gender spared one from death. The ninety year old bishop of Lyons, Ponthinus, was a victim as were children. The most memorable martyr was a slave-girl Blandina. From the Catholic Enclopedia:
Among these Christians was Blandina, a slave, who had been taken into custody along with her master, also a Christian. Her companions greatly feared that on account of her bodily frailty she might not remain steadfast under torture. But although the legate caused her to be tortured in a horrible manner, so that even the executioners became exhausted "as they did not know what more they could do to her", still she remained faithful and repeated to every question "I am a Christian and we commit no wrongdoing." Through fear of torture heathen slaves had testified against their masters that the Christians when assembled committed those scandalous acts of which they were accused by the heathen mob, and the legate desired to wring confession of this misconduct from the Christian prisoners. In his report to the emperor the legate stated that those who held to their Christian belief were to be executed and those who denied their faith were to be released; Blandina was, therefore, with a number of companions subjected to new tortures in the amphitheater at the time of the public games. She was bound to a stake and wild beasts were set on her. They did not, however touch her. After this for a number of days she was led into the arena to see the sufferings of her companions. Finally, as the last of the martyrs, she was scourged, placed on a red-hot grate, enclosed in a net and thrown before a wild steer who tossed her into the air with his horns, and at last killed with a dagger.
Up to now there was a trend: those emperors that were most brutal in their persecutions were those who, after their deaths, were denounced by their pagan subjects as well. Namely: Nero and Domitian. Here the rule is violated: Marcus Aurelius presided over heinous violence against Christians, but is known by historians as one of the “five good emperors” who ruled during the Pax Romana heyday of the empire: Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius.
Marcus’s son Commodus, who succeeded him, is known to historians as a bad emperor, a scoundrel, but Christians had a much easier time under him. That may be due to his wife Maria who may have been a Christian or at least regarded the Christians favorably.
After Commodus’s death, Rome was ruled by a succession of soldier-emperors. The first of these was Septimius Severus who was known from campaigns in Roman Britian. (He reconstructed Hadrian’s wall and died in York.) In 202, Severus issued a first-of-its-kind decree officially forbidding anyone from converting to Christianity.
At this time there was an outbreak of persecution in Egypt that was so severe that many thought it heralded the apocalypse. It was at this time that Leonidas, the father of the great Christian scholar Origen, was beheaded by command of the prefect of Egypt, Lactus. (The fifteen year old Origen wanted to join his father when he was arrested, but could not because his mother hid his clothes!)
Farther west on the African coast, at Carthage, there was another famous martyrdom, that of Perpetua and Felicitas. We have accurate account of their martyrdom, including the fact that Perpetua a free-born matron and Felicitas, her slave, entered the amphitheater hand in hand bearing witness not only to the enduring Christian faith but also attesting to its making class distinctions irrelevant.
Perpetua was about 22 years old and had recently given birth to a son. Apparently, she was a relatively new Christian, too--she was actually baptized while in prison. Felicitas, her slave girl, was like a sister to her. And she too was a new mother, giving birth shortly after her arrest.
Three times Perpetua's father was allowed in to beg her to change her mind. No decent daughter in this patriarchal society would deny her father's pleas and cause him public disgrace. The resolve of the two young women and their friends was unshakable. To deny Christ was worse than death. To follow Him was their first loyalty, no matter what the cost. Shortly before her trial, Perpetua received a series of visions from the Lord, reassuring her of his strength and presence.
When the fatal day came, Perpetua and Felicitas left the prison for the arena "joyfully as though they were on their way to heaven," as the eyewitness account puts it. Before a raging crowd, the Christians were thrown to the wild beasts. A mad heifer charged the women and tossed them, but Perpetua rose and helped Felicitas to her feet. She was ready, even eager, to die for the Lord.
"You must all stand fast in the faith and love one another," she called to the other martyrs, "and do not be weakened by what we have gone through!" When the beasts failed to kill the women, soldiers came to finish them off. But the soldier who came to Perpetua was trembling so much that she had to guide the sword to her throat, indicating that she was giving her life willingly. (http://www.gospelcom.net/chi/GLIMPSEF/Glimpses/glmps001.shtml)
The greatest of the early apologists was Tertullian (~160 – [220-240]) who lived during the suppression under Septimius Severus addressed the Roman governors. He complained about Christians being the scapegoats for everything:
The term conspiracy should not be applied to us but rather to those who plot to foment hatred against decent and worthy people, those who shout for the blood of the innocent and plead in justification of their hatred the foolish excuse that the Christians are to blame for every public disaster and every misfortune that befalls the people. If the Tiber rises to the walls, if the Nile fails to rise and flood the fields, if the sky withholds its rain, if there is an earthquake or famine or plague, straightaway the cry arises: “The Christians to the lions!” (Tertullian, Apologeticus 40, 1-2)
Tertullian also “bragged” about the rapid growth of Christianity:
We are but of yesterday, and yet we have filled all the places that belong to you—cities, islands, forts, towns, exchanges, the military camps themselves, tribes, town councils, the senate, the market place; we have left you nothing but your temples. (Tertullian, Apologeticus 37, 4ff.)
Tertullian goes into veiled threat mode, writing that it is well for the Empire that Christians do not really take up arms against it, they are numerous enough to do it effectively if they were so minded; or depopulate it by packing up and going to a distant corner of the earth. And if they were in truth the incendiaries that some alleged them to be, they could do considerable damage with torches some dark night.
Following this wave of suppression came a half century of relative peace. Some of the Emperors of that period were from the east, including Philip the Arab (244-249) of Damascus. They were more tolerant of Christianity, which had its roots in the eastern provinces. Alexander Severus (222-235) included Christ in his pantheon. And his mother was instructed by Origen.) This period of tranquility brought even more growth to the church.
In the middle part of the third century, there was more trouble for the empire. She faced a two fronted war against barbarians: Goths on north and Persians on the east. The war with Persians was especially problematic for Christians in the eastern provinces, for official Rome worried that they would have questionable loyalties: Christianity was in their minds an eastern religion and so Christians might look at Persian invaders as liberators. During this time, Decius (249-251) adopted the policy of “One Empire, one religion.” No more “merely” punishing Christians, Christianity itself had to go. In 250, an edict was issued that everyone in the empire must sacrifice to the state gods, and must get a certificate attesting to the fact that he had done so.
This sudden attack after a half century of relative peace led to turmoil within the church. A large number of Christians, those who found it easy to join in peaceful times, proved unable to endure the persecution and instead offered the sacrifices.
There was something different about this persecution. Unlike those of earlier years, the pagan populace as a whole did not go along. There was no mob uprising; the persecution was carried out by police. The hatred against Christians from “every day folk” (pagans) had largely disappeared, and slender against Christians, accusing them of horrible atrocities, had ceased. Christianity had grown so large, that everyone knew and was probably related to a Christian. In many cases, the pagans in general society tried to protect the Christians. One of the victims of this wave of persecution was Origen, who was “imprisoned and barbarously tortured, but his courage was unshaken and from his prison he wrote letters breathing the spirit of the martyrs.” (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl., VI, xxxix).
A few years of peace followed the persecution under Decius. Valerian (253-260) acted favorably toward the Christians for the first few years of his reign. He changed his mind in 257, no doubt in part due to the advancing Persian army who reached Syrian Antioch. He issued an edict prohibiting Christians from holding meetings and banning access to their cemeteries. It is believed that at this time the relics of Peter and Paul were removed from the Vatican hill and the Ostian road to find temprorary security in a place called Ad Catacumbas where the church of St. Sebastian now stands on the Appian Way. From here we get the word catacombs which eventually
came to refer to all Christian cemeteries.
A further edict in 258 spelled out the penalties: The clergy would be executed upon conviction; Senators and knights were to be degraded from their rank; ladies of rank were to be punished by confiscation and exile; employees of the imperial household were to be sent to forced labor camps on the imperial estates. Xystus, bishop of Rome (Pope Sixtus II) while seated on his chair in the act of addressing his flock he was suddenly apprehended by a band of soldiers. There is some doubt whether he was beheaded forthwith, or was first brought before a tribunal to receive his sentence and then led back to the cemetery for execution. Cyprian the bishop of Carthage was also executed in accordance with this edict.
Valerian himself was taken prisoner by the Persians and died in captivity. Following his death, though the Empire was still besieged on two fronts, there came almost forty years of peace for the church. Gallienus (253-268), Valerian’s son and successor, revoked the anti-Christian edicts and restored their property. Aurelian (270-275) planned to fuse all religions into a single state religion, but fortunately his death precluded his plan from being enacted.
One interesting “first” occurred under the reign of Aurelian: the first time the state was asked to settle an ecclesiastical dispute. In 268, the Church condemned Paul of Samosata, bishop of Antioch, as a heretic. (Paul was accused of of acquiring great wealth by illicit means, of showing haughtiness and worldliness, of having set up for himself a lofty pulpit in the church, and of insulting those who did not applaud him and wave their handkerchiefs, and so forth. He had caused scandal by admitting women to live in his house, and had permitted the same to his clergy.) He was removed from office but refused to leave. At this time Antioch was part of the kingdom of Palmyra, whose ruler Zenobia was Paul’s patroness. In 273 Aurelian conquered Zenobia and regained Antioch. He heard the appeals of both sided, and ordered that the church property be handed over to the party recognized by the bishop of Rome.
In the peaceful closing decades of the third century, the numbers of Christians once again rose rapidly, to a point where they were at least a powerful minority in most of the empire, and a majority in certain parts.
Diocletian (284-305, whose wife and daughter were Christian) decided to reorganize the empire. He divided it into two parts, each ruled by a senior Emperor (with the title: Augustus) and a junior colleague who held the title Caesar. While this worked as long as Diocletian ruled (who was the first among equals) it effectively resulted in four wannabes vying for power after his abdication in 305.
Near the end of Diocletian’s reign, persecution suddenly reappeared in 303. It was mainly due to his son Galerius, who was Diocletian’s junior colleague in the eastern province. Galerius, it would seem, viewed the rapid growth of Christianity as ominous. He and other conservatives decided that if action wasn’t taken against Christianity, it would soon be too late. The first action in 303 was an edict ordering the destruction of church buildings and scripture. After several fires in the imperial palace were falsely blamed on Christians, a second edict was issued ordering the arrest of all clergy. In 304, an edict was issued that all Christians should sacrifice to the state gods, on pain of death. Diocletian’s Christian wife and daughter (who was Galerius’s wife) recanted. Once again the tendency among the populace was to protect their Christian neighbors. As crowds lined up to pay tribute to the gods, officials often turned a blind eye to Christians who just walked by without taking the prescribed action, such as throwing incense on the altar.
The severity of this persecution varied with local circumstances. In Gaul and Britian, which Constantius ruled as the western Caesar, there was hardle any. In Egypt and Palestine, the persecution was fierce, especially after Diocletian’s abdication in 305, when Galerius was elevated to the eastern Augustus, and his like-minded nephew Maximian became his eastern Caesar.
Although sever in certain areas, the persecution was short-lived. Galerius himself rescinded the anti-Christian measures before his death in 311. Maximian became Augustus of the east, and attempted some dimwitted propaganda against Christians, but he was quickly defeated in battle by his rival Licinius. Meanwhile, Constantine, the son of Constantius, had established supremacy over his rivals in the west, restoring church property in his part of the empire.
In 313 Constantine and Licinius held a meeting in Milan where the two victors agreed upon an official policy of tolerance for all religions in the empire.