The third century

Through most of the third century, popular hostility continued to be one of the principal factors in rousing persecution against the Christians, but the emperors and their officials now became more active. Previously, they appear to have been, except perhaps in the case of the Scillitans, the passive recipients of demands from the people for the destruction of the Christians. Now, they began to take the initiative.

The first indication that things were changing comes in the years 202-6. There seems no reason to doubt the authenticity of the end of a rescript of Septimius Severus (193-211 ce), preserved by Spartian, his alleged biographer, forbidding conversion either to Judaism or Christianity and dated to 202 ce.49 This was to be the last time that the two religions were bracketed in joint infamy. The Christians were probably the main sufferers. Though nothing seems to have befallen the Christian leaders in either Rome, Carthage or Alexandria, new Christians were punished, and ugly scenes occurred there and in Corinth.50 At Alexandria, Leonides, Origen's father, was a victim.51 The converts Perpetua and Felicitas and their companions were executed in Carthage in March 203. The detailed account of their martyrdom shows the damage which conversion to Christianity could inflict on one of the leading families in Carthage and once more the 'unbending perversity' of the Christians, rejecting with contempt pleas from Perpetua's father and from the procurator to recant. They were fanatics, threatening eternal punishment on the procurator while being marched round the amphitheatre at Carthage, enduring the sadistic pleasure of the spectators at their deaths.52

There was no sympathy for Christianity or Christians. Tertullian (c.197) writes of the 'instinctive fury' of the populace of Carthage as a prime cause of persecution.53 Christians were blamed for every natural disaster. In a well-remembered sentence, he summed up the attitude of the people. 'If the Tiber reaches the walls, if the Nile does not rise to the fields, if the sky does not move or the earth does, if there is famine, if there is plague, the cry is at once, "The Christians to the lion." All of them to one lion!'54 To the charge of illegality

50 For Alexandria, see Euseb. HE 6.3.3 'under Aquila' (early in 202). For Corinth, the fate of a 'noble Christian lady who blasphemed both the times and the emperors and spoke ill of the idols' is recorded by Pall. H. Laus. 65. See also Frend, Martyrdom and persecution, 321-4 (cf.Barnes, 'Legislation').

51 Euseb. HE 6.2.12, probably in 202, 'when he (Origen) was not quite seventeen'.

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