PERSECUTION BY THE ROMAN EMPIRE
Governments, in the Bible, are represented under the emblems of beasts. "And I stood upon the sand of the sea, and saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his ten horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy. And the beast which I saw was like unto a leopard, and his feet were as the feet of a bear, and his mouth as the mouth of a lion: and the dragon gave him his power, and his seat (throne) and great authority" (Revelation 13:1-2). John here sees a composite of the beasts Daniel saw (Daniel 7:1-8). Daniel was told that these four beasts he saw represented four kings and kingdoms (Daniel 7:17-23). The point that I wish to make is that the kingdoms of this earth get their power, thrones and authority from Satan.
"Again, the devil taketh Him up into an exceeding high mountain, and showeth Him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; and saith unto Him, All these things will I give Thee, if Thou wilt fall down and worship me" (Matthew 4:8-9). Earthly kingdoms or governments belong to Satan. He is the prince of this world (John 12:31). He is the god of this world (II Corinthians 4:4). These kingdoms and the glory of them were his to give to Christ in exchange for the worship of Christ.
The Roman Empire was one of the beasts Daniel saw and John wrote about (Revelation 13:3; 17:9-11). So when the Roman Empire persecuted the children of God and the churches of our Lord Jesus Christ, it was really Satan behind it all. It is the spiritual warfare breaking out in the physical realm where God's rule was being exhibited in life. As we look at the reasons for those persecutions and examples of the suffering, please remember, that whatever the earthly reasons for it, Satan is behind it all.
Reasons for the Persecutions
Since the Christians denied the gods of the Romans and other nations the Christians were called and considered
"atheists". They were the first people to be so-called. Since they observed the Lord's Supper they were called "cannibals" because it was said they ate the body and blood of Christ. They were considered guilty of treason because they had no king but Christ. There were many other reasons which we will list in the quotes of the historians. The Romans, since they believed these charges, found it very easy to blame the Christians for every evil which befell them and so sought to kill them all.
For those who would like to read the charges made against the Christians by the Empire and how the Christians responded, please read the Apologies of Justin Martyr: 1 Please also read A Plea for the Christians by Athenagoras;2 See also Tertullian's Apology:3 All these Apologies were written during the times of the persecutions and therefore are very valuable to the student of Baptist History.
Neander gives several reasons for the persecution during this age (I value Neander most of the non-Baptist historians - bh). Following are two of his reasons:
"The Christians were often victims of the popular rage. The populace saw in them the enemies of their gods; and this was the same thing as to have no religion at all. The deniers of the gods, the atheists, was the common name by which the Christians were designated among the people: and of such men the vilest and most improbable stories could easily gain belief: - that in their conclaves they were accustomed to abandon themselves to unnatural lust; that they killed and devoured children; - accusations which we find circulated, in the most diverse periods, against religious sects that have once become objects of the fanatic hatred of the populace. The reports of disaffected slaves, or of those from whom torture had wrung the confession desired, were next employed to support these absurd charges, and to justify the rage of the populace. If in hot climates the long absence of rain brought on a drought; if in Egypt the Nile failed to irrigate the fields; if in Rome the Tiber overflowed its banks; if a contagious disease was raging; if an earthquake, a famine, or any other public calamity occurred, the populace rage was easily turned against the Christians. "We may ascribe this,"
was the cry, "to the anger of the gods on account of the spread of Christianity." Thus it had become a proverb in North Africa, according to Augustine, "If there is no rain, tax it on the Christians." And what wonder is it that the people so judged, when one who claimed to be a philosopher, when a Porphyry assigned as the cause why no stop could be put to a contagious and desolating sickness, that by reason of the spread of Christianity, Esculapius' influence on the earth was over.
There was, besides, no want of individuals who were ready to excite the popular rage against the Christians; priests, artisans and others, who, like Demetrius in the Acts, drew their gains from idolatry; magicians, who beheld their juggling tricks exposed; sanctimonious Cynics, who found their hypocrisy unmasked by the Christians. When, in the time of the emperor Marcus Aurelius, the magician whose life had been written by Lucian, Alexander of Abonateichus, observed that his tricks had ceased to create any sensation in the cities, he exclaimed, "The Pontus is filled with atheists and Christians;" and called on the people to stone them, if they did not wish to draw down on themselves the anger of the gods. He would never exhibit his arts before the people, until he had first proclaimed, "If any Atheist, Christian or Epicurean has slipped in here as a spy, let him begone!" An appeal to popular violence seems, at this time, to have been considered the most convenient course, by the advocates of religion among the pagans. Justin Martyr knew that Crescens, -one of the common Pseudo-cynics of the period, who were sanctimonious demagogues, - attempted to stir up the people against the Christians; and that he had threatened Justin's own life, because he had stripped him of his disguise."4
In the next few pages we will look at how God's people and the churches of Jesus Christ fared under the different Emperors. You must remember that, at this time; all churches were, for the most part, alike. The Catholic church existed only in the plan of Satan. It seems reasonable, therefore, to think that the Christians all belonged to true
churches even though a few errors had begun to creep in among some of the churches.
Nero 54-68 A. D.
It is hard to believe that Nero wasn't demon possessed. He surely made Adolf Hitler look like a kitten. It is no wonder that many, in those days, felt he was the man of sin, the son of perdition, the antichrist. Some even looked for his resurrection after his death.
Dr. John Henry Kurtz, the German Lutheran Historian, says of Nero:
"There may have been some historical foundation for the legend (however absurd at first sight it may appear), that TIBERIUS (14-37 A. D.), moved by the report of Pilate, had made a proposal to the senate to elevate Christ among the Roman deities, and when baffled in this, had threatened with punishment those who accused the Christians. At least, there is nothing in the character of Tiberius to render such a circumstance incredible. - At first the Christians were simply regarded as Jews; and therefore a number of them (Acts xviii. 2) were expelled from Rome when, in consequence of a tumult, the Emperor CLAUDIUS (41-54) banished the Jews from the capital. Much more serious were the persecutions of Christians (A. D. 64) which took place under NERO (54-68), on the occasion of a great fire which lasted nine days, and which was commonly imputed to incendiarism on the part of the Emperor himself. Nero threw the whole blame on the hated Christians, and visited them with exquisite tortures. They were sewn into skins of wild beasts, and thrown to the dogs to be torn to pieces; they were covered with wax and pitch, nailed to sharp poles, and set on fire to illuminate the imperial gardens at night. The persecution was not confined to Rome, and lasted to the end of Nero's reign. Peter and Paul obtained at that time the martyr's crown. Among the Christians the legend spread that Nero had retired to the banks of the Euphrates, whence he would return as Antichrist."5
The next quote is from Tieleman J. van Braght. His book is a must for every Baptist history student. On pages
78-86, he tells of Nero and his persecutions. He lists individuals who fell under Nero. The following quote deals with Nero's persecutions in general:
"Touching the manner in which the Christians were tortured and killed at the time of Nero. A. Mellinus gives the following account from Tacitus and other Roman writers: namely, that four extremely cruel and unnatural kinds of torture were employed against the Christians:
Firstly, that they dressed them in the skins of tame and wild beasts, that they might be torn to pieces by dogs or other wild animals.
Secondly, that they, according to the example of their Saviour, were fastened alive on crosses, and that in many different ways.
Thirdly, that the innocent Christians were burned and smoked by the Romans, with torches and lamps, under the shoulders and on other tender parts of their naked bodies, after these had been cruelly lacerated with scourges or rods. This burning was done also with shavings and fagots, they (the Christians) being tied to stakes worth half a stiver. Therefore they called the Christians sarmentieii, that is, fagot people, and semissii, that is, half stiver people; because they stood fastened to half stivers stakes, and were thus burned with the slow fire of fagots.
Fourthly, that these miserable, accused Christian martyrs were used as candles, torches, or lanterns, to see by them at night.
Of those who were burned, some were tied or nailed to stakes, and held still by a hook driven through the throat, so that they could not move the head when the pitch, wax, tallow, and other inflammable substances were poured boiling over their heads, and set on fire, so that all the unctuous matter of the human body flowing down made long, wide furrows in the sand of the theatre. And thus human beings were lighted as torches, and burned as lights for the wicked Romans at night.
Juvenal and Martial, both Roman poets, and Tertullian, state this in different manner, namely, that the Romans wrapped them in a painful or burning mantle, which they wound around their hands and feet, in order to melt the very marrow in their bones.
Futhermore, it is stated by A. Mellinus (from the aforementioned authors), concerning those mantles, that they were made of paper or linen, and, having been thickly coated with oil, pitch, wax, rosin, tallow, and sulphur, were wrapped around their whole body, and then set on fire.
For this spectacle Nero gave the use of his gardens, and appeared himself among the people in the garb of a charioteer, taking an active part in the Circusian games; himself standing in the circus, and, as charioteer, guiding a chariot.
These proceedings, according to the testimony of Tacitus, although it had the appearance that the Christians were punished as malefactors who had deserved the extremest penalty, nevertheless moved the people to compassion; for they understood well enough that the Christians were not exterminated for the good of the common weal, but simply to gratify the cruelty of one man, Nero."6
Remember, while these quotes come mainly from Kurtz and van Braght, all the historians, almost, have something to say about them. Let us hear Kurtz:
"Under the reign of TRAJAN (98-117) commenced a new stage in the persecution of Christians. He renewed the former interdict against secret associations (the "Heteriae"), which was soon applied to those of Christians. In accordance with this law, Pliny the Younger, when Governor of Bithynia, punished with death those who were accused as Christians and persisted in their profession. But, partly staggered by the great number of persons accused, who belonged to every rank and age, and to both sexes - partly convinced by strict judicial investigation that the tendency of Christianity was morally pure and politically harmless, and that, as it appeared to him, Christians could only be charged with unyielding superstitiousness, the Governor applied for fresh instructions to the Emperor. Trajan approved both of his conduct and his proposals; and accordingly commanded that Christians should not be sought out, that no notice should be taken of anonymous accusations, but that if parties were formerly
accused and found guilty, they should be put to death if they obstinately refused to sacrifice to the gods. This persecution extended as far as Syria and Palestine. There Symeon. Bishop of Jerusalem, the successor of James and a relative of the Lord, after cruel scourging, died a martyr's death on the cross, at the advanced aged of 120 years (107). Ignatius also, the excellent Bishop of Antioch, after an audience with the Emperor was, by his command, sent in chains to Rome, and there torn by wild beasts (115)."7
One of many illustrations that comes to us from van Braght:
"Phocus, a some of Pamphilius, the first bishop of the church in Pontus in the city of Sinope, on being brought, in the time of Trajan, before Africanus, the Governor of Pontus, who urged him to sacrifice upon the alter of Neptune, steadfastly refused to do this; on account of which he was sentenced by the Governor to die for the name of Christ; which death he suffered after many pains and torments, and was thus numbered with his slain fellow brethren. Regarding the death of this man, see A. Mell., 1st book of the Hist, der vervolg. in Marti, fol. 27, col. 1, ex Adone, in comment At. 6 Aster. Oral, de Phoca. Also, concerning the time of his death, for the year 118, see Joh. Gysii Hist. Mart., fol. 15, col. 4. Touching the manner of his death, P.J. Twisck gives the following account: "Phocus, in Pontus, refusing to sacrifice to the gods, was thrust, according to the command of Emperor Trajan, and for the name of Christ, into a lime-kiln full of glowing coals, then cast into boiling water and thus killed. P.J. Twisck. Chronicles. 2nd book, for the year 118; p. 37, col. 2 from Adon. Vinnens, lib. 6, fol. 166, Vinefol 159."8
Septimus Severus 193-211
Let us hear Kurtz again:
"Septimus Severus (193-211), whom Proculus, a Christian slave, had healed from dangerous illness by anointing him with oil (James v. 14), was at first friendly to Christians. But political suspicions or the extravagances of Montanism changed this disposition. He forbade conversion to Christianity (203); and in Egypt and North Africa,
persecution again raged. In Alexandria, Leonidas, the father of Origen, was beheaded. Potamiaena, a virgin equally distinguished for moral purity and beauty, suffered the most exquisite tortures, and was then to be given up to the gladiators for the vilest purposes. The latter indignity she knew to avert; but she and mother Marcella were slowly immersed in boiling pitch. Basilides, the soldier who had been commissioned to lead her to martyrdom, himself became a Christian and was beheaded on the day following. Not less searching and cruel was the persecution of Carthage. Perpetua, a lady of noble descent, and only twenty-two years old, with a babe in her arms, remained stedfast, despite the entreaties of her father, imprisonment, and tortures. She was gored by a wild cow, and finally dispatched by the dagger of a gladiator. Felicitas, a slave, who in prison became a mother, dispatched equal constancy in suffering."9
Note to Albert Henry Newman in his excellent work:
"Septimus Severus (193-211) was not intensely hostile toward Christianity. In fact, it has been commonly supposed that up to 202 he was somewhat favorably disposed, ft is related by Spartianus that on his return from a victorious campaign against the Armenians and the Parthians (202), while sojourning in Palestine, he enacted a law forbidding conversions to Judaism or Christianity. It does not appear to have been his purpose to attempt the extermination of Christianity, but simply to put a check upon proselytizing. But the enforcement of the Trajanic law against Christianity as an unauthorized religion involved many Christians in severe suffering. It does not appear that the emperor issued an edict of persecution; but he no doubt encouraged the local officials diligently to enforce the old laws.
Clement of Alexandria, who was at the head of the Catechetical school, wrote some time before the close of the second century: "Many martyrs are daily burned, crucified, and beheaded before our eyes." About 202 or 203 he was obliged to abandon his work and retire from the city. The father of Origen suffered martyrdom at this time. Origen himself, then a zealous and brilliant youth, was saved from a like fate by the tact of his mother, who hid his clothes and thus
prevented him from publicly proclaiming himself a Christian and gaining the martyr's crown. About 200, a number of Christians, including three women, suffered joyfully in Scillte, in Numidia, falling on their knees and praising God. At Carthage two young women, Perpetua and Felicitas, won the highest admiration of their contemporaries and of posterity by resolutely refusing to yield to the entreaties of parents and friends or to the promptings of material affection, to save their lives by denying the faith, and by cheerfully confronting the maddened beasts. These last and their companions in suffering are supposed to have been Montanists. Tertullian refers to the persecutions in Numidia and Mauritania about 211."10
Decius Trajan 249-251
Of this Emperor, Kurtz has the following: "But with the accession of DECIUS (249-251) commenced a fresh, and indeed the first general persecution, surpassing in extent, combination, continuance, and severity, all that had preceded it. In other respects Decius was an able monarch, who combined the ancient Roman earnestness with firmness and energy of purpose. But this very circumstance induced him to resolve on wholly exterminating Christianity as a religion equally hostile to the commonwealth and to the gods. Every conceivable means - confiscation, banishment, exquisite tortures, and death - were employed to induce Christians to apostatize. In too many cases these measures proved successful, the more so as the long period of peace had led to false security. On the other hand, a longing after the martyr's crown led many of their own accord to rush into prison or to the scaffold. Those who recanted (lapsi) were either 1. thurificati or sacnficati, who, in order to preserve their lives, had sacrificed to the gods; 2. libellatici. who without having actually sacrificed, had bribed the magistrates to give them a certificate of having done so; or 3. acta facientes. who made false depositions in reference to their Christianity. Again, those who openly confessed Christ even amid tortures, but escaped with their lives, were called confessors (confessores); while the name of martyrs was given
to those who, for their profession, had suffered death."11
Dr. Newman gives us a concise statement concerning Decius:
"Decius Trajan (249-251), an Italian soldier, was raised to the throne by the Danubian army after the battle with the Goths at Verona, in which Philip lost his life. He seems to have had an earnest desire to restore the empire to its pristine order and vigor. The millennium of the city was being celebrated with great splendor when Decius returned from the Gothic war. Special occasion was doubtless afforded thereby for remaking the decay of the State religion. The fact that Christians had been especially favored by the predecessor probably led Decius to suspect them of disloyalty to himself. It may be assumed from what we know of this ruler that his exterminating measures against Christianity did not proceed from sheer wantonness, but were, from his point of view, a political necessity. Only by the extermination of the State religion could the unity and the stability of the empire be secured. In 250 was issued the first imperial edict aiming at the universal suppression of Christianity. Christians everywhere were required to conform to the State religion by participating in its ceremonies, and officials were commanded, under heavy penalties, rigorously to enforce the requirement. In each official district all Christians were required within a definite time to appear before the magistrates and to offer sacrifices to the gods. The flight of Christians before the expiration of the time allowed was not hindered, but the property of fugitives was confiscated and death was the penalty of returning. Those who were not in a position to prove that they had fulfilled the requirement were brought before a commission composed of officials and citizens. First they were threatened with the direst punishments in case of obstinacy. Threats were followed by torture. This failing, imprisonment and repeated tortures, including hunger and thirst, were resorted to as a means of breaking down the wills of the victims. All the influence and machinery of the imperial government were employed to prevent laxity on the part of the officials. The magistrates were enjoined to use special severity toward bishops and other influential leaders.
Immunity from persecution had brought into the churches multitudes of people who had no proper idea of the obligations of the Christian life and many who cannot be regarded as possessing a saving knowledge of the truth. Lamentable worldliness characterized many of the clergy, who were spending their energies in secular pursuits rather than in the ministry of the word. The imperial edict struck terror to the hearts of all whose faith was weak. "Before the battle," writes Cyprian, "many were conquered, and without having met the enemy, were cut down; they did not even seek to gain the reputation of having sacrificed against their will. They indeed did not wait to be apprehended ere they ascended, or to be interrogated ere they denied. Many were conquered before the battle, prostrated before the attack. Nor did they even leave it to be said for them that they seemed to sacrifice to idols unwillingly. They ran to the market place of their own accord." Many were so impatient to deny their faith that they could hardly wait their turn. Cyprian himself retired before the fury of the persecution and thereby greatly injured his reputation among the stricter sort. Many who would neither flee nor sacrifice suffered the most terrible tortures and died in prison or were at last cruelly executed. Some, by bribing the officials, procured certificates of having sacrificed without committing the overt act. Some allowed others to say that they had sacrificed or to procure certificates for them. Holders of these fraudulent certificates were called libellatici and were regarded as scarcely less culpable than the Lapsi, or those who actually denied their faith. Decius was, after a few months, called away by a fresh Gothic invasion and was slain in 251, but not until he had spread desolation throughout the churches. There was a slight lull in the storm of persecution from Callus, but a year of public disasters (plague, drought, famine, barbarian invasions) drew the attention of the populace afresh to the Christians, whose hostility to the gods was supposed to be responsible for the calamities. Many were sent to the mines, which involved the direst hardship and often death."12
There were other emperors who persecuted Christians. Most of them did in one manner or another. The last one we will consider in this Notebook is Diocletian. We will let Kurtz speak again:
"In 284 DIOCLETIAN and Maximianus Herculius became joint Emperors. In 292 the two caesars, Galerius and Constantius Chlorus (in the West), were associated with them. Diocletian was an excellent monarch; but being zealously attached to the old faith, he hated Christianity as introducing an element of disturbance. Still the edict of toleration issued by Gallienus, political considerations in regard to the large number of Christians throughout the empire, and a certain amount of natural kindness, for some time retarded decisive measures. At last the continued urgency of his son-in-law and colleague, Galerius, led to the most terrible of all persecutions. As early as the year 298, Galerius commanded that all soldiers in his army should take part in the sacrifices, - a measure by which he obliged all Christians to leave the ranks. At a meeting between the two monarchs, at Nicomedia in Bithynia (303), he prevailed on the Emperor to disregard what had formerly been the causes of his toleration. An imperial ordinance to pull down the splendid church at Nicomedia was the signal for the persecution. Soon afterwards an edict was affixed which forbade all Christian meetings, and ordered that the churches should be pulled down, the sacred writings destroyed, and all Christians deprived of their offices and civil rights. A Christian who tore down this edict was executed. A fire broke out in the imperial palace, when Galerius immediately accused the Christians of incendiarism. The persecution which now commenced extended over the whole empire, with the exception of Gaul, Spain, and Britain, where the protection of Constantius Chlorus shielded the Church. Whatever tortures or modes of death ingenuity could devise were put in requisition. When, in 305, Diocletian and Maximianus abdicated, Maximinus, the colleague of Galerius, proved quite as bitter an enemy as his predecessors, and raised anew the storm of persecution. In the year 308 Galerius even caused all articles of food or drink, sold in the market, to be moistened or mixed with sacrificial water or wine. At last, when a fearful disease brought Galerius to a different state of
mind, he ordered in 311 a cessation of this persecution, and in return demanded the prayers of the Church for the Emperor and the empire. During those eight years of unceasing and unprecedented persecution, Christians had given the brightest proofs of moral heroism and of enthusiastic readiness to suffer as martyrs. In proportion, the number of lapsi was much smaller than it had been during the Decian persecution. But the command to give up sacred writings had originated a new kind of recantation. Those who had complied with this demand were called traditiores. Some, instead of delivering the sacred, handed in heretical writings, on pretence that they were the sacred books. But the spiritual earnestness of that period was such that these parties were ranked with the ordinary traditores, and, like them, were excommunicated."13
Let us look at one example from the pen of Thieleman J. van Braght:
"Not long afterwards, under the same Emperor and Proconsul, and in the same year, Zenobius, Bishop of the church of Aegaea in Cilicia, and his sister, were apprehended; and when there were held out to him on the one hand, great wealth, honor, and position, if, in accordance with the command of the Emperor, he would serve the gods, but on the other hand, manifold torments, Zenobius answered: "I love Jesus Christ more than all the riches and honor of this world. Death and torments with which you threaten me, I do not consider a disadvantage, but my greatest gain."
Having received this answer from the martyr, Lysias caused him to be suspended on the rack, and inhumanly tormented his whole body.
While the executioners were busy with Zenobius, his sister Zenobia, having learned of it, came running, crying with a loud voice: "Thou tyrant, what villainy has my brother committed, that thou dost thus cruelly torment him?"
Having thus addressed Lysjas, and set at naught his entreating as well as his threatening words, she, too, was seized by the servents, stripped naked, and stretched out, and roasted beside her brother on a red-hot iron bed, or roasting pan. The tyrant, deriding the martyrs said: "Now let Christ come and help you, seeing you suffer these torments for Him."
Zenobius replied: "See, He is already with us, and cools, with His heavenly dew the flames of fire on our bodies; though thou, surrounded as thou art with the thick darkness of wickedness, canst not perceives it on us."
Lysias, almost beside himself, commanded that they should be put naked into boiling caldrons. But seeing that the boiling water did not injure them, or at least, that they could not thereby be made to apostatize, he had them taken out of the city and beheaded. Their dead bodies were buried by Cauis and Hermogenes in the nearest cave. This happened in A.D. 285, on the 30lh day of October, in the city of Aegaea in Cilicia."14
These were terrible days for the churches of God. Many a saint gained a martyr's crown. Of this period Dowling says, "For three centuries after the ascension of Christ, His disciples were exposed, with but few and brief intermissions, to a succession of cruel and bitter persecutions and sufferings. The pampered wild beasts, kept for the amusement of the Roman populace, fattened upon the bodies of the martyrs of Jesus in the amphitheaters of Rome or of other cities of the empire, and hundreds of fires were fed by the living frames of those who loved not their lives unto death."15
Days of Strength
Those bitter persecutions of Satan upon Christians by the use of the Roman Empire served to strengthen the churches in the faith. No one dared unite with one of the churches unless he or she really meant business for God. The result was that churches were stronger. Persecution would surely thin our ranks today but would be a spiritual medicine for our churches. Most church members of today are settled on their lees. Our ancestors brought the truth down to us at a great personal cost. We shouldn't take that lightly or for granted.
Notes on Chapter 3
1 The Anti-Nicene Fathers: Volume 1, pages 163-193.
2 The Anti-Nicene Fathers: Volume 2, pages 129-148.
3 The Anti-Nicene Fathers: Volume 3, pages 17-55.
4 History of the Christian Religion and Church,Volume 1, pages 92-93.
5 Church History, page 86.
6 Martyrs Mirror, page 79.
7 Church History, pages 86-87.
8 Martyrs Mirror, pages 108-109.
9 Church History, page 88.
10 A Manual of Church History, pages 160-161.
11 Church History, page 89.
12 A Manual of Church History, pages 164-166.
13 Church History, pages 90-91.
14 Martyrs Mirror, page 145.
15 History of Romanism, page 26.
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