The Roman Empire was in a state of decline. The military had conquered lands as far north as the Germanic tribes, and even crossed the English Channel into the British Isles. They had traveled east to the mountains of modern day Turkey, and west to the arid sand of Spain. As far as the known world stretched, so walked the red clad praetorian guard of the roman legion. However, as the political will to expand the empire waned, and the military discovered that they had reached the end of their supply lines, another war appeared on the horizon. At the heart of the empire, civil war of another kind was developing. The Christian church was expanding throughout the Roman Empire. These Christians talked about an everlasting kingdom, and a returning king. They did not bow to the statues in Ephesus, Corinth, or Colosse, and declared allegiance to another King. In the kingdom of Rome, the most powerful political enterprise in the world, the Christians did not show the allegiance one would expect to the emperor of the entire known world.
What were the social, political, and social influences which unleashed the persecution in rabid fury under Diocletian's reign? This paper evaluates how the political structure, which began to decline in the waning years of the Roman Empire, turned its energy to the growing church. Why was the Christian church singled out, while other religious movement, such as the Jews, was left to practice their religious beliefs without opposition?
Due to the size of the empire, Diocletian initiated a formal division of power and responsibilities for administrative purposes into two spheres, eastern and western. The division was enforced sporadically during the 4th century and became permanent with Arcadius and Honorius in 395 AD. Diocletian devised a tetrarchic system, which included two co-ruling senior emperors, one in the east, and the other in the west. Each senior emperor also chose an assistant who would eventually become his successor. Imperial edicts could be issued in the names of all four of the tetriarchs. As leassions to the military, four praetorian prefects served under each of the four rulers and administered the four provinces: Gaul, Italy, Illyricum, and the east. (bartlebys.com)
As the power was divested among the different provinces and between the sometimes cooperative, sometimes competitive leaders, the sense of absolute ruler was slipping away. In the Eastern territory, possibly because of its distance from Rome, Diocletian took steps to firmly establish his reign. The roman emperor has always walked a fine line between secular authority, and assumed divine inspiration. The pantheon of roman gods and goddesses was slowly evolving to include the emperor, and his divine royalty. In the west the consulship became the personal power block of a narrow circle of aristocratic Roman families. In the East, the office tended to be monopolized by emperors, or used by them to reward both military and civic service. As Diocletian established himself in the east, with Constantinople as the government seat:
The emperor was chosen by the army and ruled absolutely. Beginning with Diocletian, the pomp and ceremony of the Persian court was adopted. The emperor was lord and everything surrounding him sacred. He wore a diadem, purple and gold robes, and jeweled slippers. Subjects prostrated themselves in his presence." (Bartlebys.com)
Rome has always flirted with the divine. The Roman emperor's words were unchangeable, as were the desires of the God's. The Roman peoples worshiped a pantheon of gods, who at times helped people and at other times played with their fates for their own morbid pleasures. But those that ascended the throne were said to be blessed by the Gods, and cared for especially by them, for the well-being of the empire.
In the east, another cultural influence was at work. Constantinople soon was chosen for the seat of the empire in the east. Located on the land bridge between the east and the west, Constantinople was a thoroughfare for travelers to and from the Middle East. As the center of land travel to the east, the message of a new religion, king, and kingdom was soon heard in the streets. The problem for Diocletian was that roman citizenship precluded participation in other religions. Roman citizenship was exclusive, that is, incompatible with the exercise of another citizenship. According to Guterman,
The official Roman cult was exclusive; membership in a foreign and unauthorized religion was barred to Roman citizens... The religious crime, that is, the violation of the cult of the gods of Rome, still existed, albeit in a modified form, in the late Republic.... The foreign pagan cults were often repressed under the Republic because they were practiced by Roman citizens, and that it was precisely this practice which constituted the religious crime or religionsfrevel... The Jews adapted themselves better to the classical conception of religion than the Christians because their religious organization was more national and less conspicuously given to proselytism and to doctrinal definition than the Christian" (Guterman, 1951, p. 14)
Roman law definitely forbade membership in foreign countries to any of its citizens. The direct evidence for the rule comes from many rulers, including Cicero, Nepos, Gaius, and it is implicit in the whole Roman law of exile. A large portion of public law is unintelligible without a clear comprehension of this principle. The following is from Cicero, oration for Balbus,
No citizen of ours may, according to the civil law, be a citizen of two states.... Oh Laws, prepared by our forebears, forbidding anyone to be a member of more than one state... jurisconsults regarded Roman citizenship as incompatible with any other." (Guterman, 1951, p 19-20)
That the crime for which Christians were liable often had something to do with the civic cult is indicated by the fact that they were asked to worship before the statues of the gods as well as before that of the Emperor.
Why were the Christians singled out? Possibly because of their cloistered approach to life. The Christians were withdrawing from the every day pagan lifestyle of Rome, and no one likes the outcasts of a social order. Another reason the Christian churched raised the ire or Rome, while other sects, the Jews for example, were allowed to live peacefully was the dedication of the Christian church to evangelistic efforts. The Jewish traditions were perceived as a national cultural heritage, which Rome had learned to tolerate. But he Christians were determined to spread their message, and 'convert' the world to their mindset.
Finally, a distinction was usually made between citizens and non-citizens. Pliny, himself, sentenced the non-citizens to death and sent Roman citizens for judgment to Rome.
In the trial of the Christians at Lyons, the Roman citizens were decapitated after the approval of the Emperor had been secured, non-citizens were executed in the arena. In view of the fact that the law of Maiestas which, according to Mommsen, provided the basis for the charge, abolished all the ordinary distinctions between citizen and non-citizen, it is strange to find traces of the distinction in so many instances of the persecution.
These Christians a strange group. Unlike the philosophical leaders of Rome, and Greece before her, the Christian preachers were Illiterate men, were responsible for writing the 'tales' of Jesus. Christian scripture was the product therefore of simpletons and deceivers. The main purpose of this... (roman opposition)... was to convince the Christians that a greater religious teacher (Apollonius) had come years before Jesus, the tradition about him was scientifically reliable and written for the love of mankind, and Graeco-Roman pagan culture was superior to Christian teaching because it alone possessed the truth." (Simmons, 1995p. 26)
These factors slowly built up first an intolerance, which grew to a dislike and finally ethical and political animosity toward the Christian church. But a group of illiterate fisherman and wizards was hardly worth the efforts and attentions of Rome. It was not until the ranks of the Church began to advance in significant numbers that the roman emperor took notice.
During the 300's AD, the churches efforts reached out of the poor and vagabond into the wealthy class. Many wealthy families in the kingdom were changing allegiance to the King of kings. Roman guards were proselytized, and converted. So The Great Persecution was not born out of the Empire's fear of the Christians, but rather (the confidence gained) because of its recent military success, particularly over the Persians. Diocletian therefore began the campaign against the Christians from a position of strength, not of weakness... Be that as it may, it is known that trouble started brewing in the army in North Africa... After being informed that there were Christians in the imperial bodyguard of Diocletian, the young man persisted in his obstinacy and was later executed" (Simmons, 1995, p. 39)
The story of a young soldier is demonstrative of the awkward situation which the presence of Christianity placed the Roman emperor. Marcellus was a centurion who served in the…