In the year 250 the triumphant course of Christianity was brought to what appeared to be an abrupt and disastrous halt. The most severe general persecution which the faith had yet met broke out and, at imperial command, swept across the Empire. This was the act of the Emperor Decius. Decius came to the purple in the year 249. He was a native of Pannonia, north-west of Thrace, and may have represented a reaction in that region against the influences which had entered the Empire from the East. It may be significant that Maximinus Thrax, who was responsible for the brief persecution in the 230's, was from Thrace, and that Galerius, a notorious persecutor of the next century, was from the same general region.
We do not have the texts of the anti-Christian edicts of Decius, and we can only guess at the reasons for his action. Decius was acclaimed by his admirers as an embodiment of the old Roman virtues, and it may well have been that in the drift towards non-
Roman religions under his immediate predecessors and in the attendant neglect of the Roman gods who, from his standpoint, had made Rome great, he believed the cause to lie of the calamities and decay which were palpably overtaking society.
Whatever the motives, in 249 imperial edicts were issued which presumably commanded all citizens of the Empire to sacrifice to the gods. Those who obeyed were given certificates as evidence that they had complied. Christians were not singled out but the sacrifices were to be made by all, of whatever faith. Obviously, however, Christians were the chief sufferers. In the easy-going syncretism of the times, pagans would not find their consciences troubled by compliance. They would simply be jarred temporarily out of any careless neglect of the traditional gods into which they might have fallen. For Christians, however, the issue was far more serious. To sacrifice would be apostasy and in current Christian belief apostasy was one of the sins for which no forgiveness was possible. Many Christians preferred their physical lives to spiritual death and fully complied. Numbers avoided so bald a departure from their faith by purchasing from venal officials certificates, or libelli, of compliance, without actually sacrificing. Others, how many we shall never know, braved the full displeasure of the state by failing to obey. Some of them were imprisoned, among them Origen, the Bishop of Rome, and the aged Bishop of Jerusalem. The two latter perished in prison. Others were killed outright. Some retired to places of comparative safety. Among the latter was Cyprian, the famous Bishop of Carthage of whom we are to hear more later.
Fortunately for the Christians, the persecution was of brief duration. In the year 251 Decius fell in battle with the Goths, "barbarians" against whom he was fighting to protect the Empire. In the months immediately before his death he had become too engrossed in the defence of the realm against the invaders to press his religious policy. Under his successor, Gallus (reigned 251-253), the anti-Christian measures were revived in at least some parts of the Empire, probably stimulated by a pestilence which drove terrified thousands to the altars of the old gods and led to hysteria against the Christians, who by their neglect of the gods were supposed to be accountable for the disaster. However, the persecution was not so protracted but that it proved salutary for the Church. It had been sharp enough to purge the Church of many of its weaker and more luke-warm members and yet had not been prolonged enough seriously to weaken it.
Under the Emperor Valerian (ruled 253-260) the anti-Christian storm broke out afresh and with redoubled fury. During the first few years of his reign Valerian appeared to be friendly to Christians and even had some of them in his household. Then his temper suddenly changed, possibly through the influence of one of his counsellors. The realm was still afflicted by foreign foes and domestic pestilence, and it may have been that Christians were again held responsible because of their antagonism to the gods who were believed to have made Rome strong.
The new persecution, which was begun in 257, seems to have been directed more astutely than was the one under Decius. The bishops, as the heads of the Church, were singled out and were commanded to do homage to the old gods under pain of exile. Christians were threatened with the death penalty if they so much as went to any of the meetings or services of the Church or even visited a Christian cemetery. Apparently the point of the measure against Christian conventicles was that they were still illegal, and the reason for action against Christian cemeteries was that, to have organizations which were within the law, Christians had formed themselves into burial associations, bodies which could obtain legal recognition.
In the year 258 a new and more drastic edict was promulgated. While, as in the case of its predecessor, we do not have the exact wording, presumably it ordered death for bishops, priests, and deacons; first confiscation of property and then, if this were not enough to induce apostasy, death for Christians of high rank in the state, confiscation of goods and banishment for Christian matrons, and slavery for Christian members of the imperial household. By hitting at the persons of prominence in the Church the latter would be deprived of its leadership.
Under these edicts the persecution was pressed in at least a majority of the provinces. In Rome the Bishop was taken while teaching seated in his chair in one of the catacombs and, with four of his seven deacons, was slain. The other three deacons were also soon caught and killed. One, Lawrence, is said to have been roasted on a gridiron. In Africa Cyprian was beheaded. A convert in middle life, as head of the church in Carthage Cyprian was one of the most honoured of the early bishops. In Spain a bishop who was reported to have been greatly beloved by both Christians and non-Christians was burned at a stake in an amphitheatre with two of his deacons.
The persecution ended abruptly in 260 when Valerian, at war with the Persians, was captured and disappeared from history. His son and successor, Gallienus, reversed his father's policy and either issued edicts of toleration for Christianity or rescripts to bishops which had much the same purport. Again a persecution which might have been disastrous had it been pressed over many years proved so short that the effect was rather to strengthen the Church than to injure it. The Church emerged with a fresh accretion of martyrs to reinforce its faith and courage.
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