Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD REFERENCE ( (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2013. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single entry from a reference work in OR for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 19 September 2019

Christians, persecution of

The Oxford Dictionary of Late Antiquity
Oliver NicholsonOliver Nicholson

Christians, persecution of 

Until the early 4th century ad, Christians were regularly subjected to local pressure, backed by threats of torture and execution, to conform to the practice of civic worship which formed the core of public life in the cities of the Roman Empire. At three times such pressure was universal and directed from the centre by the imperial government, under the Emperor Decius (249–51), in 257–9 under the Emperor Valerian, and during the Great Persecution which began in 303 and lasted till 306 in Britain, Gaul, Spain, and Africa, but until the Letter of Licinius of 313 in Anatolia and Oriens (including Egypt). Thereafter commemoration of the persecutions was integral to the practice of Christianity.


Most martyr passions, descriptions of the sufferings of individual Christians, are romanticized accounts written long after persecution was a live threat. The Collection of Ancient Martyrdoms made by Eusebius of Caesarea is lost. No more than two dozen passions survive which on objective criteria can be said to reflect actual events and contemporary attitudes (Barnes, Hagiography, 357–9). There is, however, copious other evidence for the persecutions. An exchange of letters (X, 96–7) between the Emperor Trajan and Pliny the Younger, governor of Bithynia in the first decade of the 2nd century, lays down procedure for dealing with Christians. The treatises and over 80 letters of Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, are vivid evidence of attitudes and events during the Decian and Valerianic persecutions. The Festal Letter of Easter 306 from Peter, Patriarch of Alexandria, provides a (remarkably lenient) tariff for penance for Christians who had lapsed during the Great Persecution. Eusebius preserves contemporary documents from the 1st century onwards and information from the Great Persecution of his own time in his Church History (HE) and On the Martyrs of Palestine. LactantiusOn the Deaths of the Persecutors (Mort.) describes in vitriolic detail and with the insight of a political insider God’s venegeance on emperors who dared to persecute Christians. Further contemporary records of Christian attitudes and pagan motives are furnished by such writers as Justin Martyr, Tertullian (e.g. To the Martyrs), and Origen (e.g. Preparation for Martyrdom).

Pagan motives

The initital impetus to make Christians conform was local, as is indicated by the correspondence of Pliny and the letter concerning the Martyrs of Lyons (Eusebius, HE V, 1–2), and local concerns were apparent as late as the last stages of the Great Persecution. Romans were not particularly intolerant of unusual beliefs or religious practices, though they might find them funny (e.g. Apuleius, Metamorphoses, VIII, 24–IX, 10). But the only technology which cities had for securing the sustained cooperation of the forces of Nature was to perform the regular round of civic celebrations in honour of their public gods; the anger of the gods if they were ignored might give rise to ‘pestilence and droughts, wars, famines, locusts, mice and hailstorms’ (Arnobius, I, 3).

Christians considered the practice of public religion incompatible with their worship of the entity which had created the entire universe out of nothing. They were prepared to offer prayer for the emperor’s safety (salus) and for communal well-being, but were not willing to offer sacrifice to him or to the communal gods (e.g. Athenagoras, Legatio, 37; Tertullian, Ad Scapulam, 2). They were persecuted therefore not for what they did but for what they refused to do. It is true that they had occasionally to defend themselves against accusations that Christian worship involved orgies and the eating of babies (e.g. Eusebius, HE V, 1, 52; Athenagoras, Legatio, 3; Minucius Felix, 9 and 28–31), and accusations of immorality were manufactued by pagans as late as 311/13 (Eusebius, HE IX, 5), but Pliny had known that such flagitia cohaerentia amounted to nothing (ep. X, 96, 2 and 7–8). It was because they refused to participate in public worship of the community’s divine protectors that Christians were rounded up and brought before the governor as he made the rounds of his province trying capital cases. The treatment they then received might depend heavily on the personal predilections of the governor (Tertullian, Ad Scapulam, 3–5).

General persecutions

It is unclear why in 250 Decius decided to order that the entire population of the Empire should sacrifice and obtain a libellus certifying their compliance. He might have been seeking divine support in the campaign against Goths and Carpi (in which he was killed); whether or not he intended to entrap Christians he certainly did so. Bishops who suffered imprisonment and death included Babylas of Antioch, Alexander of Jerusalem, and Fabian of Rome (Eusebius, HE VI, 39, 1–4). Dionysius of Alexandria escaped and Cyprian of Carthage went into the country, from where he continued to direct church affairs. Decius’ successor, Trebonianus Gallus, threatened to sustain the persecution, but it ended with the accession of Valerian in 253.

However, Valerian came under pressure from his ambitious finance minister, and in 257 moved to enforce the practice of public worship. Dionysius of Alexandria describes how the judge at his trial pressed him to worship ‘the natural gods’, because other Christians would follow his lead (HE VII, 11). He was sent into exile, as was Cyprian of Carthage. A year later, an imperial rescript to the Senate and letters to governors initiated further executions, including those of Cyprian and Sixtus (Xystus) II of Rome (Cyprian, epp. 80–1). After the Persian capture of Valerian in 260 his son Gallienus explicitly restored ‘freedom of action’ and their buildings and cemeteries to Christian churches (Eusebius, HE VII, 13).

More information is available about the causes and course of the Great Persecution which began on 23 February 303 and persisted till 306 in the western half of the Empire and, in fits and starts, until 313 in the East. Lactantius describes how the insubordinate Caesar Galerius was able to bring political pressure to bear on Diocletian (Mort. 9–11). Edicts ordered the destruction of church buildings, the confiscation of scriptures, and the dismissal of Christians from the imperial service, and then the imprisonment of clergy who were to be coerced into sacrificing (HE VIII, 2, 4–5; VIII, 5, 1; VIII, 6, 8–10). Lactantius describes the demolition of the church at Nicomedia (Mort. 12), documents in the Optatan Appendix record the confiscation of Christian books in Africa which gave rise to the Donatist schism, and two copies of the report of proceedings in the trial of Phileas, Bishop of Thmuis, by the Praefectus Augustalis survive on papyrus. The Fourth Edict of the persecution issued early in 304 enjoined universal sacrifice (MartPal 3, 1; Mort. 15, 4). It was not enforced in the West. Indeed, persecution ceased altogether in the West in 306 with the accession of Constantine I in Britain, Gaul, and Spain (Mort. 24, 9) and the usurpation of Maxentius at Rome (Eusebius, HE VIII, 14, 1).

Eusebius recounts the trials and martyrdoms which continued in fits and starts in the East, in general in the Church History (HE VIII) and in the two recensions of his chilling memoir On the Martyrs of Palestine which describes their effect on his own comrades and his teacher, the martyr Pamphilus. In the spring of 311, on his deathbed the Emperor Galerius issued an edict, reproduced in full by Lactantius (Mort. 34) and Eusebius (HE VIII, 17), stating his motives for starting the persecution and decreeing that there might be Christians once more and that they might assemble in their conventicles. Eusebius evokes the lights in the churches that Eastertide (HE IX, 1). The lull was not to last. From the autumn of 311 onwards Maximinus Daza resumed persecution in Anatolia and Oriens. He was responding in part to local pressure, apparent from the petitions sent to him from places as disparate as Antioch, Tyre, Lycia, and Pisidia (Eusebius, HE IX, 2 and 7) and to the oracles uttered by a statue of Zeus Philios set up at Antioch by Theotecnus, the city’s Curator Rei Publicae. Peter of Alexandria, the biblical scholar Lucian of Antioch, and Methodius, Bishop of Olympus in Lycia, were all martyred. Persecution ceased only when Maximinus Daza was eliminated by Constantine’s ally, the Emperor Licinius, who issued the Letter of Licinius on 13 June 313 promising the resumption of toleration and the restitution of Christian property (Mort., 48; Eusebius, HE X, 5, 2–14).

Thenceforth, methodical persecution of Christians ceased in the Roman Empire. The name of only one martyr is known from the reign of Licinius, and the Emperor Julian (361–3) was too canny to enforce a centrally planned persecution as he knew that martyrdoms simply stiffened Christian resistance. In the late 4th century Basil could look back on the persecutions as ‘the good old times when God’s churches flourished, rooted in faith, united in love’ (ep. 164, 1). The persecution of Christians in Gothic territory in the time of S. Sabas, in the Persian Empire under Shapur II, and in Najran in the early 6th century, however, were to evoke comparable spiritual strength expressed in martyr passions whose literary manner resembled those composed in the Roman Empire.

Christian reaction

From the pagan point of view the persecutions could be deemed successful. Cyprian describes queues snaking up the side of the Capitol at Carthage keen to do their public duty and sacrifice (De Lapsis, 8–9, cf. 24–6). Furthermore persecution generated division within the Church between the lapsed and rigorists who resented them, such as the Novatianists after the Decian Persecution, and after the Great Persecution the Donatists in Africa and the Meletians in Egypt. Documents generated by bishops regulating reconciliation, such as Cyprian’s On the Lapsed and Peter of Alexandria’s Easter Letter of 306, reveal a broad range of stratagems adopted by Christians to frustrate the authorities, from bribery and feigning an epilectic seizure to sending pagan friends, or even Christian slaves, to sacrifice in their place (Peter, Canons, 12 and 5–7). Simply running away, however, becoming a refugee for Christ, was commended (e.g. de Lapsis, 10; Peter, Canon 13), not least because Christ himself (Matt. 10: 23) advocated it. But the heroes of the Church were the martyrs, those who were prepared to sustain their witness to Christ despite torture and intimidation up to the point of execution. The terror and trauma of persecution and the spirit of their resistance to it ensured that their stories were told, their relics venerated, and their sufferings continued to be formative in the development of Christian spirituality.

Oliver Nicholson


G. Clark, Christianity and Roman Society (2004), 38–59.Find this resource:

G. E. M. de Ste. Croix, Christian Persecution, Martyrdom, and Orthodoxy, ed. [L.] M. Whitby and J. Streeter (2006).Find this resource:

Barnes, Hagiography.

R. Darling Young, ‘In Procession before the World’: Martyrs’ Sacrifices as Public Liturgy in Early Christianity (Père Marquette Lecture, 2001).Find this resource:

J. B. Rives, ‘The Piety of a Persecutor’, JECS 4/1 (1996), 1–25.
Find this resource:

J. B. Rives, ‘The Decree of Decius and the Religion of Empire’, JRS 89 (1999), 135–54.Find this resource:

Barnes, CE 16–65, 148–63.

O. [P.] Nicholson, ‘Laws Ending Persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire’, in N. Schlager, ed., Milestone Documents in World History, vol. 1: 2350 bce–1058 ce (2010), 295–307.Find this resource:

D. Vincent Twomey SVD and Mark Humphries, eds., The Great Persecution: Proceedings of the Fifth Patristic Conference Maynooth 2003 (2009).Find this resource:

O. [P.] Nicholson, ‘Flight in Persecution as Imitation of Christ: Lactantius Divine Institutes IV, 18, 1–2’, JTS 40 ns (1989), 48–65.Find this resource:

Saxer, Morts, martyrs, réliques.