Front Page Titles (by Subject) 3.: PERSECUTIONS OF THE CHRISTIANS IN THE FIRST AND SECOND CENTURIES, — ( C. XVI .) - The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. 3
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3.: PERSECUTIONS OF THE CHRISTIANS IN THE FIRST AND SECOND CENTURIES, — ( C. XVI .) - Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. 3 
The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, ed. J.B. Bury with an Introduction by W.E.H. Lecky (New York: Fred de Fau and Co., 1906), in 12 vols. Vol. 3.
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PERSECUTIONS OF THE CHRISTIANS IN THE FIRST AND SECOND CENTURIES, — (C. XVI.)
A considerable literature has sprung up in recent years regarding the attitude of the Roman government to Christianity from Nero to Marcus Aurelius (Th. Keim, Rom und das Christenthum, ed. Ziegler, 1881; K. J. Neumann, der römische Staat und die allgemeine Kirche, vol. i. 1890; Th. Mommsen, der Religionsfrevel nach römischem Recht, in Sybel’s Hist. Zeitschrift, 1890; Professor Ramsay’s The Church in the Roman Empire, 1893; may be mentioned). A thorough and instructive discussion of the whole question will be found in Mr. E. G. Hardy’s Christianity and the Roman Government, 1894. A summary of some of his results will illustrate the sixteenth chapter of Gibbon.
From a review of the practical policy of the Roman state towards foreign cults Mr. Hardy concludes that they were tolerated in so far as they did not (1) injure the national religion, (2) encourage gross immoralities, (3) seem likely to lead to political disaffection (p. 35-6). Various considerations led to the toleration of Judaism, and Mr. Hardy points out that its toleration would by no means logically lead to that of Christianity, a religion “claiming to overstep all limits of nationality” (p. 37). The contact between the state and the Christians at Rome in 64 , on the occasion of the conflagration, was accidental. The charge of incendiarism broke down at the trials, but it was converted into a charge of odium generis humani (a brief summary of the antisocialism and other characteristics of Christianity). It was for this that they were punished; and Suetonius does not bring their punishment into connection with the fire, which was the occasion, not the ground, of their condemnation (Ner. 16: adflicti suppliciis Christiani genus hominum superstitionis nouæ ac maleficæ). Mr. Hardy seems to have quite made out his point that in the Neronian persecution the Christians were condemned as Christians, not on any special charge.
This charge odium generis humani, for the use of which the Neronian episode set a precedent, did not come under maiestas of the formula of any regular quæstio. According to Mommsen, whose view in this respect Mr. Hardy accepts, it was a matter for police regulation, to be dealt with by virtue of the coercitio vested in magistrates. In Rome, such cases would come under the jurisdiction of the prefect of the city (Tac. Ann. vi. 11); and the provincial governor was empowered to deal with them by his instructions to maintain the peace and tranquillity of his province, “which he will find no difficulty in effecting, if he be careful ut malis hominibus provincia careat cosque conquirat” (e.g., sacrilegi, latrones, &c.). Mr. Ramsay holds that a new principle was introduced into the State policy towards Christians between 65 and 95 , namely that whereas under Nero they were attacked by charges of special and definite crimes (incendiarism), under the Flavians Christianity itself became a punishable offence. But if Mr. Hardy is right as to the Neronian persecution, this change in attitude would disappear. “As soon as the Christians were once convicted of an odium generis humani, they were potentially outlaws and brigands and could be treated by the police administration as such, whether in Rome or the provinces” (p. 82). That the distinction between Judaism and Christianity had been clearly recognised in the East as early as 70 , is proved by the speech of Titus in Sulpicius Severus, ii. 30 (taken from a lost book of Tacitus, as we may with some confidence assume); one of the advantages of the destruction of Jerusalem will be, that prince is reported to say, the extirpation of the Jewish and the Christian religion. We need not infer, as Mr. Hardy points out, that Titus had special designs against the Christians: “the persecution of the Christians was a standing one like that of brigands” (Mommsen).
“With Roman citizens,” however, “of standing and importance a more definite charge was necessary, and this we find from Dio Cassius was primarily ἀθεοτης, i.e., not so much sacrilegium as a refusal to worship the national gods of the state” (p. 88). This was applied in the case of Flavius Clemens, cousin of Domitian, who was executed, and his wife Domitilla, who was banished, 95 The reign of Domitian introduced no new principle, but a very convenient test — e.g., the observance of the imperial cult — for discovering whether a person suspected of the crime of Christianity (a crime, that is, in the eyes of the police administration, not of the law) was justly suspected.
Nor does the Bithynian persecution introduce (according to Mr. Hardy) any new principle. The letter of Trajan to Pliny is described (p. 117) as “the decision of a practical statesman who declined on the one hand to be led into severe repressive measures against a body which was only remotely and theoretically dangerous to the state, while he, on the other, refused to give up on humanitarian grounds the claim of the state to absolute obedience on the part of all its subjects.” It is in no sense an edict of proscription or of toleration, but it is “an index of the imperial policy” (p. 122).1 As to Hadrian’s rescript to Minucius Fundanus (whose genuineness is by no means above suspicion), Mr. Hardy considers (143) that it “was intended, as indeed it naturally would be, for the special circumstances of Asia: it does not in any way, as I interpret it, rescind the decision of Trajan that the nomen was a crime, but to avoid any miscarriage of justice . . . it lays down more stringent conditions for the proof of punishable crime.” Under M. Antoninus and his successor things remained theoretically the same. In the reign of the former there were some persecutions, — Ptolemæus and Lucius were executed at Rome (Justin Apol. ii. 2) and (according to M. Waddington’s date) Polycarp at Smyrna. The remarkable point in the persecutions of Aurelius is that they take place in the western as well as the eastern provinces, and not so much their extent or the number of victims (p. 147). In general tenor these conclusions agree with the view of Mommsen and Ramsay that there were no laws against the Christians. I cannot see that this has been made out, for the second century at least, though it may be true of the Flavian period. It does not appear that the explicit statement of Sulpicius Severus in ii. 29, post etiam datis legibus religio vetabatur (referring to the whole period after Nero), is definitely disproved. Some of Mr. W. T. Arnold’s criticisms (Eng. Hist. Review, 1895, p. 546 sqq.) are very much to the point.
Gibbon’s general view of the slight extent of the early persecutions, resting as it does on the strong testimony of Origen (c. Cels. 3, 8), is commonly admitted. Compare Hardy, p. 131: “There seems good reason to suppose that this state of things — a general indulgence and toleration on the part of the emperors, occasionally interrupted by violent manifestations of popular feeling, which provincial governors had either not the will or not the strength to resist — continued throughout the second century: that the Christians were still punished for the name, but that the initiative in the way of searching them out was not taken by the governors, while accusers had to come forward in their own name; and finally, that the number of victims was on the whole a comparatively small one.” It must at the same time be remembered that it was the policy of the Apologists (on whose evidence our knowledge is largely based) “to accentuate and in a measure to exaggerate the indulgent attitude of the government, especially in the period preceding their own, or at any rate to omit anything unfavourable to their own cause” (p. 132).
Two important documents give a notion of the proceedings adopted in the trials of Christians in the second century: (1) the Acts of Martyrs of Scili in Numidia, in 181 (ed. Usener, 1881, and Robinson in Texts and Studies, vol. i.), and (2) the Acts of Apollonius, tried at Rome in the first years of Commodus (Armenian version of a lost Greek original, discovered by Mr. Conybeare, who has given a translation in his Acts and Monuments of Early Christianity). The credit of these documents as trustworthy rests chiefly on the circumstance that miracles are conspicuously absent. Mr. Hardy gives an account of them in an Appendix. Cp. Mommsen, Der Process des Christen Apollonios, in the Sitzungsberichte of the Berlin Academy, xxvii. 1894.
B. Aubé has written several books dealing with the subject of the persecutions of the Christians: Les persecutions de l’église jusqu’à la fin des Antonins; Les Chrétiens dans l’empire romain; L’église et l’état dans le 2me moitié du 3me siècle.
On Nero’s persecution also see C. F. Arnold, Die neronische Christenverfolgung, and an article by Hilgenfeld in his Zeitschrift, vol. xxxiii. p. 216 sqq.
On church and state from Decius to Diocletian: Görres, Jahrb. für protest. Theologie, xvi. 1890, p. 454 sqq.
On Diocletian’s persecution: Mason’s The Persecution of D., 1876; Hunziker, Zur Reg. u. Christenverfolgung des K. Diokletian und s. Nachfolger, in Büdinger’s Untersuch. zur römischen Kaisergeschichte; papers of F. Görres in Hilgenfeld’s Zeitsch. f. wiss. Theol., xxxiii. p. 314 sqq. (cp. 469 sqq.). I. Belser, Zur Diokl. Christenverfolgung, 1891. Cp. also Schwarze, Unters. über die äussere Entwicklung der afrik. Kirche, 1892.
On church and state in fourth century: A. de Broglie, L’église et l’empire romain au quatrième siècle. Some other works have been mentioned in the footnotes.
An important memoir has been published as a supplement to the Acta Sincera of Ruinart by E. Le Blant: Les actes des martyrs, in Mém. of the National Institute of France (Acad. d. Belles lettres, t. xxx., 1883, p. 57-347). Le Blant is too anxious to rescue apocryphal lives, and overdoes his criticism of technical terms of Roman procedure. But he has done good work here (as well as in his essay, Sur les bases juridiques des poursuites dirigées contre les martyrs, in Comptes rendus of Académie des Inscriptions, N.S., ii. 1866), and any one studying martyrological Acta will do ill to neglect this memoir.
[1 ]It is to be observed that the condemnation of Christians in Bithynia had nothing to do with the general laws or special regulations against collegia.