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Hello father,

It’s still me, Andrea.

Thank you again for your previous reply. I’d like to ask you some history questions.

Regarding the persecutions of the early Christians under Rome, there are those who say that Christian sources are unreliable (many of the acts of the martyrs) or by intransigent apologists, such as Tertullian.

Furthermore, some say that Christians were not persecuted as Christians but because they did not worship the gods (to belittle the persecution), that Christians did not take refuge in the catacombs (they were too narrow and small), that Christians at some point were just asking for trouble thanks to Tertullian’s current of thought (to voluntarily seek martyrdom, Montanism) so that they were persecuted even more. I also read that the Roman judges would not have been that much executioners (the apologists would have portrayed them like this, too busy exalting the martyrs).

Is there any truth? I have the impression that in order to criticize the Church, one says anything.

Answer of the priest


1. Tacitus, a Roman and pagan historian who lived between 56 and 120 AD, describes the persecution of Christians under Nero.

Tacitus is not a source of the Christian side.

You will notice from the text that I am going to cite that he considers Christians a most mischievous superstition and an evil.

Among other things, he decidedly predates Tertullian, who lived between 155 and 220 AD.

In a historical work, the Annales, he describes the salient facts covering the reigns of the four Roman emperors who succeeded Augustus, namely Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero.

2. Here is what he writes about Nero and the fire he arranged for, that devastated half of Rome:

“Such indeed were the precautions of human wisdom. The next thing was to seek means of propitiating the gods, and recourse was had to the Sibylline books, by the direction of which prayers were offered to Vulcanus, Ceres, and Proserpina. Juno, too, was entreated by the matrons, first, in the Capitol, then on the nearest part of the coast, whence water was procured to sprinkle the temple and image of the goddess. And there were sacred banquets and nightly vigils celebrated by married women.

 But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order.

Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace.

 Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and 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 centre and become popular.

Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind.

Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.

Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed”.

3. After the time of Tertullian, there were other particularly harsh persecutions, which evidently are not the result of Tertullian’s alleged emphasis.

I refer to that of Decius (towards the middle of the third century) and that of Diocletian, which was the last.

But about the latter, let us hear from two highly respected historians how things went.

4. “Diocletian (284-305) at first tolerated Christians.

Endowed with great energy and ability as a statesman, he carried out a profound reorganization of the empire.

He transformed the structure of the State into an absolute military monarchy by the grace of Jupiter with an oriental court ceremonial, transferred his residence to the East (Nicomedia) and created a new administrative division consisting of prefectures (4), dioceses (12), and provinces (96), with an imposing apparatus of officials.

He replaced the unitary government with the government of four, the tetrarchy: he employed his comrade in arms Maximian Herculius (286-305) as the second Augustus for the western half of the Empire and appointed as co-regents and successors to the throne (293), with the title of Caesars, the son-in-law Galerius for the East and Constantius Chlorus for the West.

The peace, which had lasted since 260, greatly favored the spread of the Christian faith.

In the cities then there were churches of considerable importance, one of these, quite openly, even in the residential city of Nicomedia.

Many Christians held very high positions in the army and at court.

It seemed that in a short time the new religion, which out of a total population of about 50 million could count at about seven to ten million faithful and to which Diocletian’s wife Prisca and daughter Valeria probably inclined, would take over the ancient one, especially in the East.

However, the party of the ancient religion, led by adherents to Neoplatonism, succeeded in persuading Caesar Galerius, valiant in war, fanatically brutal, and through him the hesitant Diocletian, that the imperial policy of restoration and centralization demanded, as a crowning achievement, the suppression of enemies of the state cult.

Lactantius indicates as the inspirer (auctor et consiliarius) of the persecution the proconsul Hierocles of Bithynia, a Neoplatonic, who fought against Christians also with his writings.

This led to the last major persecution, the most serious and longest of all, the real decisive battle between Christianity and paganism.

A prelude to it was the purge of the army: the soldiers were put before the alternative of either offering sacrifice or being ignominiously expelled from their career (Eusebius, III, 1), and on this occasion some found death (Marcellus, Dasius; regarding the Theban Legion, see below).

The persecution entered its most acute phase in 303. In the course of a year, four edicts were issued which constituted an authentic system of provisions aimed at annihilating Christianity, if possible.

The first edict (Eusebius VIII, 2; Lactantius, De mortibus, 3) of February 23, 303 ordered the churches to be razed to the ground and the Scriptures destroyed by fire.

The clerics who obeyed by handing over the sacred books to the persecutors were later called traditores, a new class of lapsi.

The loss of civil rights was imposed on all Christians, degradation of dignitaries, deprivation of liberty for imperial employees.

Already in the application of this decree there was here and there bloodshed, indeed there were many martyrs in Nicomedia.

In this city, a series of fires that broke out in the imperial residence was attributed to Christians and on the basis of this charge all those who did not offer sacrifice were put to death, including Bishop Anthimus, numerous members of the clergy and court officials. Some military uprisings that broke out in Syria and Cappadocia then offered the pretext for further intervention. Two new edicts (Eusebius, VIII, 6) ordered the imprisonment of the clergy and to force them to offer sacrifice.

Finally, a fourth decree (Eusebius, De mart. Palaest. 3) of the spring of 304, extended the order to offer sacrifice to all Christians. On those who, in spite of torture, remained firm in the faith, was imposed the death penalty, often in an extremely cruel form. Then rivers of Christian blood flowed, especially in the East (Aera martyrum).

As many as 84 stories of martyrdom from the small province of Palestine are known.

From Egypt (Thebaid) Eusebius (Historia Ecclesiast., VIII, 9, 3-4) reports mass executions, from 10 to 100 Christians per day.

Of course there were also weak people and apostates (Eusebius, VIII, 3).

An exception to this general persecution was made by the prefecture of Gaul, including France, Spain and Britain, since Constantius, who ruled this territory, did not go beyond the application of the first edict.

The first to report the martyrdom of the so-called Theban Legion (i.e. recruited in the Egyptian province of Thebais) was, around 450, the bishop Eucherius of Lyon (Passio Agaunensium martyrum, III, 20-41). According to him, the Legion, made up exclusively of Christians, having refused to participate in the persecution of Christian confreres, was twice decimated by the emperor Maximian in Agaunum (today St. Maurice in the Canton of Valais) and finally massacred in its entirety.

The officers Mauritius, Candidus, Exupernis and Victor are particularly mentioned.

According to later reports, various members of the Legion were also killed in other cities, especially on the Rhine (Bonn, Cologne, Xanten, Trier)” (K. Bihlmeyer – H. Tuechle, History of the Church, I, pp. 117-119).

Yes, you are right in the conclusion of your email: I have the impression that in order to criticize the Church, one says anything.

I gladly remind you to the Lord and I bless you.

Father Angelo

Translated by Chiara P.