Persecutions genesis and legacy

In the 250 years that separate the Neronian persecution in 64 ce from the conversion of Constantine to Christianity, c.312, Christianity was an illegal and suspect religion whose members were subject to arrest, condemnation and, in many cases, death. In the second century, acts of persecution would be carried out on the authority of provincial governors, but, in the third century, the emperors themselves began to become involved until under Valerian (253-60) edicts were promulgated through the senate that were aimed at suppressing the worship of the church and inflicting damage on its adherents. For their part, the Christians expected alienation from surrounding provincial society and subjection to persecution. Not all, however, were, like the deacon Euplus in Catania in 304, volunteer martyrs,1 but the tradition of righteous suffering, inherited from Judaism, was strong and was reinforced by the recorded example of Jesus himself, as well as the great prophets of Israel.2 Unfortunately for future history, the legacy of persecution, now aimed against heretics and non-believers, was not to die with the grant of toleration to the church.

The first encounter between the Christians and the Roman authorities was both fortuitous and disastrous. Up to the point at which Luke ends the Acts of the Apostles in 62 ce, relations with the provincial authorities had been tolerable.3 On arrival in Rome, Paul and his followers were still considered to be authentic, ifsuspect and unpopular, members ofthe Jewish community (cf. Acts 28: 22). This relationship appeared unlikely to change in the next two years. On 19 July 64, however, a massive fire broke out in Rome.4 Fanned by the high

3 It is possible that Suet. Claud. 25.4, recording the expulsion of the Jews from Rome in 49 ce because of'disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus', may refer to action against the Christians. Aquila and Priscilla moved from Rome as a result of this edict (Acts 18:2). For tolerance of the Claudian age, however, see Acts 18:12-17 (Gallio at Corinth).

4 See Stevenson and Frend, NewEusebius, 2-3, for a translation and notes on Tacitus' account of the fire and its consequences for the Christians (Tac. Ann. 15.44.2-8).

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