This article will feature in Issue 35: Fractured Nations (March 2020)
In response to the Crisis of the Third Century, in which the Roman empire faced a series of financial, military, and political crises, the administration of the empire was gradually reformed to increasingly centralise the power of the emperor(s). This laid bare to the Roman state the presence, throughout the empire, of a religious community whose faith and doctrines ran against everything it meant to be Roman.
Religious persecution of the Christian communities had existed ever since the days of Saints Peter and Paul, but prior to 250 CE, this had been on a sporadic, case-by-case basis. The Emperor Nero might have turned Christians into human candles, according to the Roman historian Tacitus, but most evidence for the persecution of Christians suggests that it occurred at the provincial or local level, usually instigated by mobs.
This changed in 250 CE with an edict of Emperor Decius which, in requiring all members of the empire (excluding Jews) to sacrifice to the gods, indirectly criminalised all Christians who refused to sacrifice to any polytheistic deities.
This edict only lasted 18 months and, while it did lead to the execution of several notable Christians, including Pope Fabian, this state-led persecution is perhaps more notable for its scale (the whole empire) rather than the degree of persecution. Christians could be found across all social classes and several Christians achieved prominence and high status in Roman society. In the eastern half of the empire, particularly Syria, Egypt, and Palestine, Christians even participated in government. This suggests that most Christians were still able to live within the empire peacefully.
More severe persecution began in 303 CE under Emperors Diocletian, Maximian, Galerius, and Constantius. It is known as the Diocletian Persecution, or the Great Persecution. The first edict of the persecution forbade Christians from assembling to worship and confiscated Christian scriptures. Subsequent edicts called for the arrest of bishops and priests, offered clemency in return for publicly sacrificing to the gods, and called for mass public sacrifices of entire urban communities to target the Christians living within these communities.
This level of persecution was not sustainable, especially as by some estimates Christians made up roughly 10% of the empire’s population by the end of the third century. Emperor Galerius ended the persecution in the eastern half of the empire in 311 CE, and in 313 CE the Edict of Milan was issued by the Emperors Constantine and Licinius, legalising all religions within the empire, including Christianity. Constantine would go on to become the first Christian emperor, and while Christianity would not become the state religion of the empire until the Edict of Thessalonica in 380, the Church immensely benefited from the largesse that came with being the favoured religion of an emperor. Church properties were restored, and in 325 CE Constantine organised the first ecumenical (universal) church council, the Council of Nicaea. This was how Christianity moved from being a subversive sect of Judaism to becoming a distinctly Roman religion.