Roman Christian Persecution
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64. Roman Christian Persecution
Revelation 17.6-8

"I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of God's holy people, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus. When I saw her, I was greatly astonished. Then the angel said to me: 'Why are you astonished? I will explain to you the mystery of the woman and the beast she rides, which has the seven heads and ten horns.' The beast, which you saw, once was, now is not and will come up out of the Abyss and go to his destruction. The earth's inhabitants whose names have not been written in the book of life from the world's creation will be astonished when they see the beast because he once was, now is not, and yet will come." (Revelation 17.6-7)✞

Ancient Rome

Martyrs' DeathHow John of Patmos describes Roman Christian persecution is very significant. He says that ancient Rome was "drunk with the blood of God's holy people." He implied persecution of the saints and martyrs was a legal necessity because Christians would not partake in Emperor worship. The authorities took great delight in persecuting and hounding Christians to death. The Empire's oppression stamped Ancient Rome as the great persecutor. She reveled in slaughter and enjoyed it as a drunken person relishes wine.

Emperors Nero

Emperor Nero's BustNo doubt, John was thinking of the Empire-wide persecution under Emperor Nero (27-68 AD). The Neronic persecution sprung from the great fire of Rome in 64 AD, which burned for six days and devastated Rome, according to Tacitus (54-117 AD), a senator, historian, and observer. There was a myth that "Nero fiddled while Rome burned," but this cannot be true because "fiddles or violin-like instruments did not exist until the 11th century AD," according to the Daily Express writer William Hartston (1947-present)! However, Rome's people believed that the fire was no accident, and they also witnessed those who tried to extinguish it hindered. When it did die down, supporters of the emperor deliberately rekindled it!

Emperor Decius

In 250 AD, the Declan Christian persecution occurred under the Roman Emperor Decius (201-251 AD). He issued a proclamation ordering the Empire's citizens except exempted Jews to sacrifice to the Roman gods and the emperor's well-being. They had to be completed in a Roman magistrate's presence and confirmed with a certificate signed and witnessed by the magistrate. Although the proclamation's text is lost, many examples of certificates survive. With the Jews' exception, everyone in the Empire had to sacrifice and burn incense to the gods and the emperor's well-being in a Roman magistrate's presence and obtain a "libellus," a written completion certificate. Numerous libelli examples signed by the magistrate and witnesses survive from Egypt.

"To the commission chosen to superintend the sacrifices. From Aurelia Ammonous, daughter of Mystus, of the Moeris quarter, priestess of the god Petesouchos, the great, the mighty, the immortal. I have sacrificed to the gods all my life, and now again, following the decree and in your presence, I have made a sacrifice, and poured a libation, and partaken of the sacred victims. I request you to certify this below."

Nothing in these "libelli" inferred any need to deny being a Christian, in contrast to the provincial governor Pliny the Younger's (61-113 AD) letter written to Emperor Trajan (53-117 AD) in 112 AD. He reported that suspected Christians who cursed Christ were freed, showing that persecuting Christians was not Decius' mandate's goal.

Empire-wide Loyalty Oath

Decius intended his edict as an Empire-wide loyalty oath to his coming to power in 249 AD. He did not seek to target Christians specifically or persecute followers. Decius exempted Jews, showing his tolerance. However, Christians were not because the Romans did not consider them a religion. So Christians were forced to choose between their religious beliefs and following the law. Their faith in one God did not allow them to worship other gods. Many Christians were executed or imprisoned for refusing to perform sacrifices. Others hid, while many performed the ceremonies regardless. The effects were long-lasting in that it caused tensions between Christians who agreed to the worship or fled and those who did not.

Who Burned Rome?

Rome BurningPeople in Nero's reign believed that the fire's instigator was none other than Emperor Nero himself. Nero had a passion for impressive and imposing buildings. The people thought that he deliberately burned down part of Rome's old, dilapidated wooden city to rebuild it with grandiose marble public buildings. After the fire, Nero built a large landscaped portico villa called the Domus Aurea in ancient Rome's heart. Nero also was generally quite brutal in his actions, and when he was only 16 or 17 years old, he had his mother killed, and later in 62 AD also had his wife, Claudia Octavia (39-62 AD) murdered. William Hartston adds, "In 67 AD, Nero competed in the then Olympic Games and remarkably won events in chariot racing, singing, and acting, probably by bribing the judges."

Nero's Scapegoat

ScapegoatThe Roman Christian persecution began when Emperor Nero falsely accuses them of setting fire to Rome. Emperor Nero had to find a scapegoat to divert suspicion from himself, so he fixed his attention on Christians. The persecution was the earliest great oppression and the most savage of all.

The Name Christian

According to the Roman historian Tacitus (54-117 AD), Emperor Nero blamed the followers of Jesus Christ. He wrote in his "Annals 15.44," "Christus, from whom the name Christian had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Emperor Tiberius, (BC 42-37 AD) at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, (12 BC -?) (Prefect of the Province of Judea 26-36 AD). A most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular." Tacitus then spoke of the Roman Christian persecution by Nero, "Accordingly, all who pleaded guilty were arrested, then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred of humankind. They added to their deaths mockery of every sort. They were covered with beasts' skins, torn by dogs, perished, or nailed to crosses. They were doomed to the flames and burned to serve as a nightly illumination when daylight had expired." Tacitus's description of Rome's persecution of Christians is one of the few passages in pagan literature where Christ's name independently occurs and describes the early Christians' terrible abuse and suffering.

"Roman Christian Persecution"
by Ron Meacock © 2021

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