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§ 15. Causes of Roman Persecution.


The policy of the Roman government, the fanaticism of the superstitious people, and the self-interest of the pagan priests conspired for the persecution of a religion which threatened to demolish the tottering fabric of idolatry; and they left no expedients of legislation, of violence, of craft, and of wickedness untried, to blot it from the earth.

To glance first at the relation of the Roman state to the Christian religion.


Roman Toleration.


The policy of imperial Rome was in a measure tolerant. It was repressive, but not preventive. Freedom of thought was not checked by a censorship, education was left untrammelled to be arranged between the teacher and the learner. The armies were quartered on the frontiers as a protection of the empire, not employed at home as instruments of oppression, and the people were diverted from public affairs and political discontent by public amusements. The ancient religions of the conquered races were tolerated as far as they did not interfere with the interests of the state. The Jews enjoyed special protection since the time of Julius Caesar.

Now so long as Christianity was regarded by the Romans as a mere sect of Judaism, it shared the hatred and contempt, indeed, but also the legal protection bestowed on that ancient national religion. Providence had so ordered it that Christianity had already taken root in the leading cities of the empire before, its true character was understood. Paul had carried it, under the protection of his Roman citizenship, to the ends of the empire, and the Roman proconsul at Corinth refused to interfere with his activity on the ground that it was an internal question of the Jews, which did not belong to his tribunal. The heathen statesmen and authors, even down to the age of Trajan, including the historian Tacitus and the younger Pliny, considered the Christian religion as a vulgar superstition, hardly worthy of their notice.

But it was far too important a phenomenon, and made far too rapid progress to be long thus ignored or despised. So soon as it was understood as a new religion, and as, in fact, claiming universal validity and acceptance, it was set down as unlawful and treasonable, a religio illicita; and it was the constant reproach of the Christians: "You have no right to exist."2323    "Non licet esse vos." Tertullian, Apol. 42


Roman Intolerance.


We need not be surprised at this position. For with all its professed and actual tolerance the Roman state was thoroughly interwoven with heathen idolatry, and made religion a tool of itspolicy. Ancient history furnishes no example of a state without some religion and form of worship. Rome makes no exception to the general rule. "The Romano-Hellenic state religion" (says Mommsen), "and the Stoic state-philosophy inseparably combined with it were not merely a convenient instrument for every government—oligarchy, democracy, or monarchy—but altogether indispensable, because it was just as impossible to construct the state wholly without religious elements as to discover any new state religion adapted to form a substitute for the old."2424    The History of Rome, translated by Dickson, vol. IV. P. II. p. 559.3

The piety of Romulus and Numa was believed to have laid the foundation of the power of Rome. To the favor of the deities of the republic, the brilliant success of the Roman arms was attributed. The priests and Vestal virgins were supported out of the public treasury. The emperor was ex-officio the pontifex maximus, and even an object of divine worship. The gods were national; and the eagle of Jupiter Capitolinus moved as a good genius before the world-conquering legions. Cicero lays down as a principle of legislation, that no one should be allowed to worship foreign gods, unless they were recognized by public statute.2525    "Nisi publice adscitos."4 Maecenas counselled Augustus: "Honor the gods according to the custom of our ancestors, and compel2626    ἀνάγκαζε, according to Dion Cassius.5 others to worship them. Hate and punish those who bring in strange gods."

It is true, indeed, that individuals in Greece and Rome enjoyed an almost unlimited liberty for expressing sceptical and even impious sentiments in conversation, in books and on the stage. We need only refer to the works of Aristophanes, Lucian, Lucretius, Plautus, Terence. But a sharp distinction was made then, as often since by Christian governments, between liberty of private thought and conscience, which is inalienable and beyond the reach of legislation, and between the liberty of public worship, although the latter is only the legitimate consequence of the former. Besides, wherever religion is a matter of state-legislation and compulsion, there is almost invariably a great deal of hypocrisy and infidelity among the educated classes, however often it may conform outwardly, from policy, interest or habit, to the forms and legal acquirements of the established creed.

The senate and emperor, by special edicts, usually allowed conquered nations the free practice of their worship even in Rome; not, however, from regard for the sacred rights of conscience, but merely from policy, and with the express prohibition of making proselytes from the state religion; hence severe laws were published from time to time against transition to Judaism.


Obstacles to the Toleration of Christianity.


To Christianity, appearing not as a national religion, but claiming to be the only true universal one making its converts among every people and every sect, attracting Greeks and Romans in much larger numbers than Jews, refusing to compromise with any form of idolatry, and threatening in fact the very existence of the Roman state religion, even this limited toleration could not be granted. The same all-absorbing political interest of Rome dictated here the opposite course, and Tertullian is hardly just in changing the Romans with inconsistency for tolerating the worship of all false gods, from whom they had nothing to fear, and yet prohibiting the worship of the only true God who is Lord over all.2727    Apolog. c. 24 at the close: "Apud vos quod vis coler ejus est praeter Deum verum, quasi non hic magis omnium sit Deus, cuius omnes sumus."6 Born under Augustus, and crucified under Tiberius at the sentence of the Roman magistrate, Christ stood as the founder of a spiritual universal empire at the head of the most important epoch of the Roman power, a rival not to be endured. The reign of Constantine subsequently showed that the free toleration of Christianity was the death-blow to the Roman state religion.

Then, too, the conscientious refusal of the Christians to pay divine honors to the emperor and his statue, and to take part in any idolatrous ceremonies at public festivities, their aversion to the imperial military service, their disregard for politics and depreciation of all civil and temporal affairs as compared with the spiritual and eternal interests of man, their close brotherly union and frequent meetings, drew upon them the suspicion of hostility to the Caesars and the Roman people, and the unpardonable crime of conspiracy against the state.2828    Hence the reproachful designation "Hostes Caesarum et populi Romani."7

The common people also, with their polytheistic ideas, abhorred the believers in the one God as atheists and enemies of the gods. They readily gave credit to the slanderous rumors of all sorts of abominations, even incest and cannibalism, practised by the Christians at their religious assemblies and love-feasts, and regarded the frequent public calamities of that age as punishments justly inflicted by the angry gods for the disregard of their worship. In North Africa arose the proverb: "If God does not send rain, lay it to the Christians." At every inundation, or drought, or famine, or pestilence, the fanatical populace cried: "Away with the atheists! To the lions with the Christians!"

Finally, persecutions were sometimes started by priests, jugglers, artificers, merchants, and others, who derived their support from the idolatrous worship. These, like Demetrius at Ephesus, and the masters of the sorceress at Philippi, kindled the fanaticism and indignation of the mob against the new religion for its interference with their gains.2929    Comp. Arts. 19:24; 16:16.8



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