Persecution: Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 16

 

Christ’s Death must have been hard to cope with for his followers

“Imagine no religion, it’s easy if you try.”

So sang John Lennon.  I miss you John.  It would be really nice to think you were up there somewhere and could know how much we all love you.  I imagine that the followers of Jesus felt much the same.  Their much loved charismatic leader was dead.  Who can blame them for wishing him back to life, in some form or another.  It is very human and very understandable.

So that is how I think Christianity got started.  Jesus was a man who inspired a lot of love, and deep down that is what it is all about.  It has been twisted into some pretty evil forms since then, but there is still something good and wholesome buried extremely deeply at its core.  But why was this originally harmless cult persecuted so ferociously from its very origin?

It isn’t as if the Romans were routinely intolerant, far from it.  They were happy to respect other people’s Gods.  New ones acquired abroad could often become very fashionable.  You were welcome to embrace as many or as few as suited your taste.  You could have none at all if you wished like many Epicureans. The philosophic emperor Marcus Aurelius chose to believe in them all, but thought that they had better things to do than bother with the affairs of puny humans.  Religious persecution was not so much rare as simply not really something that would occur to anyone.  And yet as soon as Christianity appeared its adherents fell foul of the authorities, if the Acts of the Apostles detailed in the Bible are to be believed.

But perhaps they aren’t to be believed.  They were written a long time after the event, and have been extensively modified over the years.  Gibbon starts his history of the impact of Christianity with the first independent accounts of persecution in the reign of Nero.  These by contrast to the Bible, seem reliable enough.  Rome had burnt down, there were mutterings that Nero had been behind it.  Nero looked around for a scapegoat and the Christians fitted the bill.  The problem is that it is hard to believe that only some 30 years after the death of Christ there were already enough Christians in Rome to make them viable scapegoat material.

Gibbon comes up with an ingenious theory to get round this.  Nero’s wife Poppaea may have been Jewish. If so, she might have been aware of the Christians in their capacity as a troublesome Jewish sect.  There were plenty of Jews around and they would have made much more credible scapegoats.  Maybe Poppaea diverted Nero towards the Christians as a way of saving the Jews.  But although Nero’s persecution is attested to by Tacitus and others, we don’t really know too much about it.

The fire in Rome took place in 64 AD.   We hear very little about the Christians for the next couple of centuries.  Pliny corresponded with Trajan about how to deal with the Christians in Asia Minor.  Gibbon wrings the maximum amount of information from the account.  Pliny was a man of the world with plenty of contacts and experience of the legal system but nonetheless he had no precedent to draw on to deal with the new sect.  They must have been pretty rare.  (This kind of inference is what historians call reading the unwitting text.  Gibbon worked it out himself without any professional training, but he was a natural.)

There is some very dubious evidence that Philip the Arab might have been a sympathiser, but he was pretty discrete about it if he was.  It was only in the reign of Decius that there was any unambiguous and systematic persecution of Christians.  This started in January 250.

As persecutions go, it was on the mild end of the spectrum.  This is evident by looking at the career of Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage.  As the leading Christian in North Africa he was obviously going to be a target.  When things kicked off he was faced with the choice between martyrdom or dishonour.   Luckily he was spared this by some divine inspiration in the form of a vision telling him what to do.  So as instructed, he went into hiding but carried on running his diocese via letters.  His exile wasn’t very long lived and he was soon back with his flock.  Some of them had bowed to the authorities, but others had stuck to their principles.  This led to an argument, but the fact that there were enough of them to fall out at the very least shows that they hadn’t been massacred to a man.  And it is strongly suggestive that they felt pretty secure too. You don’t have internal arguments when you feel yourself under threat.

Cyprian did get martyred in the end, but let’s have a quick look at his character first.  He was an upper class Roman who converted to Christianity as an adult, after some success in public life.  He was well educated and an able writer many of whose writings have survived.  He seems to have been a very able leader – certainly according to his own writing but also by the position he held in the face of a lot of competition.  He was also pretty political taking a position in the internal arguments of the Christians at the time.

Cyprian’s martyrdom seems to have been a surprisingly dignified and well ordered business when it finally came about. The persecution of Decius did not continue after his death battling with the Goths.  This enabled Cyprian to return to his Bishop’s role in Carthage.

A few years later Valerian started it up again. Now Cyprian had been able to deflect criticism of his less than heroic tactics in the face of the earlier persecution.  But he couldn’t get away with it twice.  There are only so many times you can pull the ‘I had a vision’ line.  This time he was going to have to accept martyrdom.

But the whole affair seems to have been run almost as a publicity stunt on behalf of Christianity.  Okay he was to be beheaded – but by Roman standards that was a pretty civilised version of the death penalty.  But with the possible exception of the getting his head cut off bit, most of the circumstances must have been pretty much just how Cyprian would have wanted them.

Cyprian was held under house arrest for about a year while the authorities decided what to do about him.  They don’t seem to have been particularly anxious to get rid of him, and even when the final instructions came through, they gave him the option of a last minute recantation.

This set up a great dramatic scene. The officials’ visit to Cyprian’s villa became a public occasion with crowds of onlookers.  When he refused to recant a huge cry went up.  The sentence was carried out, and that very night the body of the newly made martyr was borne in a torch lit procession by his followers to be buried in the Christian cemetery.

To our modern media savvy brains the whole thing just cries of ineptitude. The emperors never seemed to realise what they were dealing with. The rules for dealing with the Christians were designed to encourage them to desist not to drive them underground.  Torture was used not to extract confessions or information but to encourage them to recant.  Witnesses risked punishment themselves if they didn’t make the charge stick.

All in all, the risk of embracing Christianity was not particularly great.  If you did get caught, a quick sacrifice to a god got you off the hook.  There were certainly not a steady stream of Christians being thrown to the lions.  The Roman Empire was a shockingly brutal and violent place which showed scarcely any respect for human rights and dignity, yet somehow faced with this huge internal threat to its traditions and its internal order it turned into a cute little pussy cat rolling over and waiting for its tummy to be tickled.

You feel like yelling, get a grip!  These guys are going to take over if you don’t get real about your persecuting practices.

Like a lot of other issues, it took Diocletian to take a calm look at the situation and get some kind of plan into operation.  With his organisational skill and awareness of human nature, he was the first emperor to finally get the persecution set up on a reasonably effective basis.  Like most his activities his good sense can be detected.  He ended the legal protection of the Christians. He also took action against the organisation – it was the organised nature of the Christians that was after all the basic problem.  He had churches destroyed, Bibles burnt and funds seized.

Even now, actual killings were still a rarity. And Diocletian seems to have limited the early stages to the Nicomedia area where he could personally supervise it.  You can’t help thinking that his heart wasn’t really in it.

Shortly after the programme was initiated the imperial palace caught alight.  Twice.  Diocletian’s life itself was at risk.  Was this revenge by the fanatical Christians?  It is a possibility.  It was certainly seized on as a justification by Galerius, who had taken a deep dislike to the cult.  It has even been suggested that he may have been behind it as a justification for stiffer measures. Galerius was to continue Diocletian’s persecutions with more enthusiasm during his own short reign.

At this distance in time we’ll never know if the fire was the work of the Christians. It seems most likely that the fire was an accident.  These things usually are but conspiracies are so much more fun aren’t they.

But even Galianus gave up his crusade against the Christians in the end.  He carried on despising them but he did issue a general pardon.

Not long afterwards the newly minted emperor Constantine, who seems to have been a sincere if maybe somewhat flexible Christian himself issued the famous edict of Milan formally allowing religious freedom.  It is tempting to imagine relieved Christians emerging from their places of hiding blinking in wonder at a world that they were finally safe in.

But it wasn’t really like that at all.  By this time active persecution in the West of the empire was a distant memory. And it had been over for several years in the East.  It seems a lot more significant with hindsight than it must have done at the time. Christians were now safe from persecution by pagans. I dare say the majority of pagans were probably glad that religious strife was now over and were looking forward to a more peaceful era ahead where nobody would be killed simply because of what they believed.  If only.

The idea that the Christians in the Roman Empire suffered continual and relentless persecution is a deep seated one, and one which was still being taught even when I was at school.

Well as we have seen it wasn’t like that at all. One view you hear quite a lot from non believers is that religion always causes war and conflict.  But the Roman Empire was full of religious diversity and even though there was plenty of violence, religion was rarely the pretext for it.

You could make a case that the Jewish rebellions were motivated by religious zeal, but given that the Jews were tolerated before and after them, it clearly was possible to get by in the empire even with a very extreme aversion to the official cult.

But there were people killed.  How many were killed in the persecutions initiated by Diocletian?

Gibbon has tried to come up with a figure.  He uses some figures by Constantine’s friend and biographer Eusebius.  He says that 92 Christians were martyred in Palestine.  As Palestine was 1/16 th of the Eastern Empire this gives a total number killed over the whole 10 years of the period of persecution of about 1500.  Or as Gibbon puts it, an annual consumption of around 150.

Looking at the way he makes his calculation it is pretty clear that Gibbon has, quite deliberately, overestimated the true total.  But his number is low enough to justify his next point.  The violence perpetrated by Christians on other Christians has a body count vastly greater.

It still feels controversial to say it, but the facts are stark.  The pre-Christian world was full of religion, and it was full of wars.  But there was no particular connection between the two.  The link between violence and religion first emerged during the persecution of the early church, when some Christians chose to start dying for their faith.

It was a short step from dying for it to killing for it.  With the arrival of Christianity a new level of fanaticism enters history.  Men had fought, killed and carried out unspeakable atrocities before, and would continue to do so.  But now, in addition to killing to take away other people’s property and sometimes their liberty, they would additionally be killed for having the wrong ideas in their heads.

We will be seeing a lot of this gruesome addition to history in the chapters ahead.

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2 Comments

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2 Responses to Persecution: Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 16

  1. Ken

    Pliny was a man of the world with plenty of contacts and experience of the legal system but nonetheless he had precedent to draw on to deal with the new sect. They must have been pretty rare.

    Do you mean, 'he had no precedent'?

  2. Whoops! Thanks for spotting that. I have corrected it.

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