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Persecution – Holy Mother Church Invents Heroic Origins
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Persecution –

Holy Mother Church Invents Heroic Origins

"God protects us" says Church Father.

"God interposed His providence on behalf of believers, dispersing by an act of His will alone all the conspiracies formed against them; so that neither kings, nor rulers, nor the populace, might be able to rage against them beyond a certain point. A few engaged in a struggle for their religion, and these individuals who can be easily numbered, have endured death for the sake of Christianity."

– Origen of Alexandria (c184-254) (Contra Celsus, 3.8)

Mind of a  Fanatic

"There is a persecution of unrighteousness, which the impious inflict upon the church of Christ; and there is a righteous persecution, which the church of Christ inflicts on the impious ... Moreover she persecutes in the spirit of love, they in the spirit of wrath."

– St Augustine (Letter 185, 417 AD)

 

Psycho-Terrorism

The Roman Empire lasted more than a thousand years and persecuted Christians for fewer than twelve of them. The 'Christian Empire' also lasted more than a thousand years and persecuted non-Christians through all of them.

Until the early years of the 2nd century, Roman administrators were ignorant of the existence of the Christians. For a generation that followed they remained indifferent to this obscure 'Jewish' sect (and its many different factions) but, in time, this indifference gave way to contempt and then irritation.

The still marginal but growing numbers of Christians turned the misfortunes of the Roman world to their advantage. The radicals directed their energies towards frightened widows and abandoned children, towards the slave and criminal classes. Every defeat in battle, every pestilence and natural calamity, was seized upon as evidence of divine censure and retribution. With zeal and anticipation, the Christians predicted further ruin and desolation. Among the feckless peoples of the great cities, the fear of imminent judgement and the threat of eternal torment were spread like a contagion. Only by submission to Christ could the individual hope for salvation. "Babylon" would surely fall and most of humanity would perish.

Yet it was only when the empire was itself in peril that the Roman state acted violently against the enthusiasts of Christ, and only thenbecause the obstinate prejudices of the zealots undermined desperate measures taken to defend Roman civilization.

 

Bad is Good

By concerted psycho-terrorism the Christians demoralised a population immeasurably larger than their own diminutive numbers. Ultimately, the self-confidence and majestic pride of Rome, which had wrested a world from the barbarian, was sapped and eroded by the partisans of Christ. By the mid-years of the 3rd century the empire began fragmenting, with separatist regimes in Gaul and Syria, and its only recourse was to lurch into military despotism and a corporate state.

The 3rd century was an age of chronic instability for the Roman world. After the corruption introduced by the Syrian monarchs first the Praetorian Guard and then the frontier Legions intervened repeatedly in the making and breaking of emperors.

This militarisation of the state was reflected in the church itself, which, by the late 3rd century, had purged itself of independent minds and had replaced democratic elements by disciplined hierarchy. The defeated factions, like mutinous bodies of troops, seceded and continued a resistance. The main body of the church, committed to the 'orthodoxy' of international organisation if not yet the 'orthodoxy' of doctrine, confronted the Roman State as a "Republic within the Republic", with its own treasury, laws, magistrates and command structure.

When, in the early 4th century, reluctant emperors attempted to eradicate the public menace it was too late. Though the Christians constituted perhaps five per cent  of the population  they were concentrated in enclaves in the key cities of the east.  When the churches were closed the imperial palace at Nicomedia was twice fire bombed. When the zealots were arrested, an ambitious prince in the west, Constantine, made the fanatics of Christ the subject of his patronage and protection.

 

Rome and the Christians: The "Persecution" Myth

Emperor
Reign
Duration of Persecution / Location / Victims
Nero
54-68 
For several nights in 64 AD Nero's garden was illuminated by a "vast multitude" of torched Christians. Well, that's the myth.
Galba, Otho, Vitellius
69
No evidence that the Roman government was even aware of Christians, let alone bothered to persecute them.
Domitian executed his cousin Flavius Clemens and banished his niece Domitilla. The charge was 'atheism' and 'Jewish manners', which has allowed both Jews and Christians to claim them as 'martyrs'. Given that Domitilla's freedman subsequently assassinated the emperor the episode was clearly a matter of palace politics and not a 'persecution.'
Vespasian
69-79
Domitian
81-96
Nerva
96-98
Trajan
98-117
Famously told Pliny "not to seek out" Christians nor to act on anonymous charges.
Pliny's ignorance of the Christians other than awareness of their name is certain evidence that there were no laws directed at the sect. Nonetheless, the fable of Ignatius maintains that this supposed bishop of Antioch was sentenced to death by Trajan personally – and given an escorted tour of the eastern empire before "winning" his celebrated martyrdom in Rome. Utter baloney.
Hadrian
117-138
Hadrian had to wage a 3-year war with Jewish fanatics and was contemptuous of the Jews and, by extension, the Christians, but continued Trajan's policy of tolerance.
Antoninus Pius
138-161
Continued Trajan's policy of tolerance.

"Antoninus is admitted by all to have been noble and good, neither oppressive to the Christians nor severe to any of his other subjects; instead, he showed the Christians great respect and added to the honour in which Hadrian had been wont to hold them." – Cassius Dio, Roman History, 70.3

"Local outburst" has to be conjured up to explain the claimed martyrdom of 86-year-old bishop Polycarp in either 155, 165 or 177!
Marcus Aurelius
161-180
Trying desperately to defend the empire against its enemies, Marcus threatened exile to those spreading morbid superstitions. Eastern Jews came under suspicion for support given Syrian usurper Avidius Cassius in 175.
"Local outburst" has to be conjured up to explain the lurid tale of "50 martyrs" in Lyons (Gaul) in 177.
Claimed trial and martyrdom for Justin Priscos aka Justin Martyr (100-165?) in Rome.
Commodus
180-192
Dissolute son of Marcus was unconcerned by the Christians. Perhaps he should have been. One of his concubines, Marcia, a Christian, was complicit in the murder of Commodus in 192.
A bogus tale exists of a "philosopher/senator" named Apollonius of Rome who supposedly presented an apology of  Christianity to the senate before suffering decapitation.
Pertinax, Didius Julianus
192-193
No evidence of persecution
Septimius Severus
septimius.jpg
Soldier-aristocrat from north Africa.
During his reign, churches became major land owners and adopted the practice of giving annual 'presents' to provincial governors.
193-211
In 202 Septimius issued a decree forbidding conversion to Judaism (Iudaeos fieri). Later Christian writers reinterpreted the edict – probably no more than an attempt to prohibit circumcision – as a "persecution of Christianity".
Clement of Alexandria (c150-215) makes the claim: "Many martyrs are daily burned, confined, or beheaded, before our eyes", though we have nothing to confirm this.
In a scene worthy of Monty Python, it seems the young Origen (182-251) was spared because his mother "hid his clothes". Apparently, his father, Leonides, lost his head. Later in life, Origen was visited by a curious Empress Mamaea.
Tertullian (160-220) in Carthage claimed:
"The Christians are to blame for every public disaster and every misfortune that befalls the people. If the Tiber rises to the walls, if the Nile fails to rise and flood the fields, if the sky withholds its rain, if there is earthquake or famine or plague, straightway the cry arises: ‘The Christians to the lions!’" (Bruce, p180)
Should we believe this? Tertullian's inventions include Marcus Aurelius honouring Christian soldiers and the emperor Tiberius being a closet Christian! Gibbon comments drolly how curious it is that the uncompromising fanatic did not himself suffer martyrdom!
Carthage also provides the tale of a young girl, cruelly tortured, then boiled in a kettle of burning pitch with her mother, and also the story of Perpetua, a young noblewoman, and Felicitas, a slave girl, holding hands and kissing before being thrown to wild beasts. (Interesting choice of names, don't you think?)
Caracalla
211-217
No evidence of persecution
(Some 25 emperors)
217-244
Maximinus Thrax
235-238
235 "Local outburst" again:

"About two-and-twenty years ago … there were many and frequent earthquakes, so that many places were overthrown throughout Cappadocia and Pontus … So that from this also a severe persecution arose against us of the Christian name; and this arose suddenly after the long peace of the previous age. But the faithful … fleeing and passing over into other regions … for the reason that that persecution was not over the whole world, but was local. "
– Firmilian, bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, epistle to Cyprian (74)
Philip
244-249
"It is reported, Philip was a Christian ... manifesting in his conduct a genuine and pious fear of God." – Eusebius, The History of the Church, 6.34.
"For a long time now ... believers are not being persecuted by the governors as they used to be." – Origen, Contra Celsum, 3.15
Decius
decius2.jpg
Soldier-aristocrat from the Balkans and first emperor to die fighting a foreign army in battle.

 

 

249-251
250-251
After a half century of chaos, Decius tried desperately to restore stability and unity to the empire and the ‘peace of the gods' (pax deorum). He appointed roving commissioners, who required all citizens to honour the traditional state gods by sprinkling incense on a brazier or pouring a libation for the health of the emperor. Loyal subjects received a certificate of compliance (libellus).
The real consequence of Decius's policy (which was not directed specifically at Christians) was to cause division within the ranks of the brethren, isolating the extremists.
Christian historians gleefully regard this as the "first real persecution" because some fanatics refused to toast the emperor's health and provoked the state into retaliation.
Decius died fighting the Goths and the empire returned to chaos.
Martyrs: Bishops Fabianus of Rome, Babylos of Antioch, and Alexander of Jerusalem and the x-rated martyrdom of St. Agatha, apparently at the hands of a senator! For just over a year, Rome was without a bishop.
Gallus
251-253
252 Arrest and imprisonment of Pope Cornelius.
Plague ravages Rome.
Loss of Syrian provinces to Persia.
Valerian

valerian.jpg

Aristocrat who entrusted the western empire to his son Gallienus. Suffered the ignominy of being used as a foot stool by Sapor I, before being flayed – much to the glee of the Christians.
253-260
Bishop Dionysius of Rome wrote of Valerian's early years: "He had been mild and friendly towards the men of God... and received Christians with manifest hospitality." – Eusebius, The History of the Church, 7.10.
Disaffection in the army was a serious concern and Valerian tried to expropriate the wealth of the church for the war effort. Valerian fought a desperate war on the Persian front in which he himself was captured and killed.
257 Edict required the clergy to sacrifice to the State gods on pain of exile, and property sequestrated.
258 Summary execution of clergy who refused to sacrifice.
Martyrs: Pope Sixtus II, his deacon Lawrence, and 6 other deacons. Apparently, Lawrence was slowly roasted on a grill and as a result (really!) became the patron saint for cooks. Legend says he found the strength to tell his executioners "Turn me over. I am done on this side." Well we wouldn't want a half-cooked saint, would we?
At Carthage St. Cyprian, exiled under the first edict, was now recalled and publicly beheaded. As a yardstick of these troubled times, during Cyprian's reign as bishop, 4 Roman emperors and their families had perished.
"It is remarkable that, of so great a multitude of bishops in the province of Africa, Cyprian was the first who was esteemed worthy to obtain the crown of martyrdom." – Gibbon.
Gallienus
253-268
No evidence of any persecution for half a century. Celebrated by the Church as the "Peace of Gallienus". Church becomes a property and land owner. Bishops appear at the imperial court.
"The emperors allowed the Christians in their service to make the freedom of the faith almost a matter of glory." – Eusebius of Caesarea.

 

So acrimonious was the dispute between rival clergy and the metropolitan bishop of Antioch, Paul of Samosata, that the bishops petitioned Aurelian, the pagan emperor, to eject Paul from the church buildings!
"The rulers of this world can never find an opportunity against the churches of Christ, except the hand that defends them permits it, in divine and heavenly judgment, for the sake of discipline and correction, at such times as it sees best."
 Eusebius of Caesarea (HE 7.30.21).

 

Claudius Gothicus
268-270
Aurelian
270-275
(Several more emperors)
275-284
Diocletian
diocletian.jpg
Diocletian, son of a freed slave who became a Roman Emperor. For 18 of his 20 year reign he tolerated the Christians. Even his wife and daughter took an interest in the cult.

 

"The western provinces, which were under the control of Maximian and Constantius, were scarcely affected"
– Ferrill ( p202)
284-305
303-305
After the Persian war of 297-298, the caesar Galerius became increasingly concerned with disaffected Jews and fanatical oriental cults, notably Christian ones. Even his own wife (Diocletian's daughter) had been mixing with the Christ followers! He adopted a policy that soldiers and administrators in his service had to affirm their loyalty by a sacrifice to the old gods. Those who refused were obliged to quit their posts.
During the winter of 302/303 Galerius urged upon Diocletian a tougher stance on Christianity. As a result, Diocletian and Maximian met in Rome and jointly issued their infamous laws.
In February 303 an edict was promulgated for the destruction of churches and sacred books, the death penalty for secret assembly, and for the punishment of leading Christians by loss of public office and civil rights.
An African bishop, Felix, was beheaded for failing to hand over books. This led to a stampede of others who did so, the so-called 'Traditors'. Some martyrs are reported from Spain but none from Britain.
Later in 303 a further edict required the arrest and imprisonment of all Christian clergy, who, none the less, were to be released after sacrifice to the old gods.
In April 304 a final edict required that all Christians – clergy and laity – were to sacrifice on pain of death. But only one year later, in May 305, after a lifetime of service to the empire, the ailing emperor retired and the persecution was halted.
Galerius

galerius2.jpg

Galerius, son of a Greek shepherd who became a Roman Emperor.
293-311
303-311
Persecution confined to eastern provinces and a period of 3 years. An edict issued by Galerius in 308 ordered that all men, with wives, children, and servants, were to offer sacrifice to the gods, "and that all provisions in the markets should be sprinkled with sacrificial wine." Cruel, eh?!
Shortly before his death, Emperor Galerius issued an Edict of Toleration in April 311.
"We have been especially anxious that even the Christians, who have abandoned the religion of their ancestors, should return to reason."
Maximinus Daia
max-daia.jpg
305-313
Resumed persecution after death of Galerius but within months had to abandon the policy to fight a civil war with Licinius. Lost, fled and died.
"The defeat of Maximin soon delivered the church from the last and most implacable of her enemies." – Gibbon
Constantine
306-337
The "Saviour" of the Christians triumphs.

 

 

5-4-3-2-1

In 286, Diocletian promoted his trusted colleague Maximian to the rank of Augustus. Seven years later he appointed two new Caesars, Constantius, given Gaul and Britain in the west, and Galerius, assigned the Balkans in the east. The intention was to provide an imperial presence in all sectors of the empire and provide for orderly succession. On 1 May 305, Diocletian abdicated, compelling his co-Augustus Maximian to do the same. Constantius and Galerius became the new Augusti, and two new Caesars were chosen,Severus in the west and Maximinus Daia – nephew of Galerius – in the east.

Maximinus Daia (Maximin) based his court at Caesarea and ruled Egypt, Syria, and Asia Minor. Though these were among the richest provinces of the empire they also presented Maximin with the most contentious problem of Jewish and Christian radicals.

In 306 the orderly management of the empire fell apart. The sickly Constantius died. Severus became Augustus but the ambitious son of Constantius – Constantine – compelled his acceptance as Caesar from his fortress at Trier. Then another malcontent, Maxentius, the son of Maximianus, proclaimed himself Augustus in Rome.

Galerius, the senior monarch, convened a conference at Carnuntum in late 308 to resolve matters. Severus had fallen in battle against Maxentius and Galerius appointed Licinius, another army colleague, in his stead. But Licinius chose to remain with his troops in the Balkans rather than move against Maxentius in Italy.

Thus, in the years immediately before that celebrated "Battle of the Milvian Bridge"5 pagan princes contended for mastery of the Roman world: in the west, Constantine in Gaul, Maxentius in Italy, Licinius in the Balkans, Galerius in Nicomedia, and Maximin in Caesarea.

Galerius and Maximin, confronting a "Christian problem" demoralising their forces and causing commotion in the cities, adopted a hard line policy towards the obstinate fanatics. Licinius back-pedalled on the official policy. In the west, where factions of the church in Rome and Carthage were themselves in conflict, Maxentius adopted a policy of toleration, hoping for Christian support for his rebellion. Constantine, in pagan Gaul where no Christian problem existed, not to be outflanked, proclaimed himself "protector of the Christians."

And then, in 311, Galerius died. Licinius and Maximin divided the east along the Bosphorus, with Maximin taking possession of the heart of the empire. His emissaries sought an alliance with Maxentius in Italy. The following year Constantine made his move and trounced Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge.

Now three princes wrestled for supremacy.

At this late hour, Maximin tried to defeat his Christian adversaries in the great eastern cities by hastily organising the disparate pagan priesthoods into a hierarchy to match the Christians. Pontiffs and Metropolitan High Priests, chosen from noble families, were granted the powers of magistrates to enforce the edicts on sacrifice. Temples were restored and invigorated ceremonials introduced. The governor of Antioch, Theotecnus of Antioch, even circulated forged "memoirs of Pontius Pilate" casting Christ in an unfavourable light.

"The zeal and rapid progress of the Christians awakened the Polytheists from their supine indifference in the cause of those deities whom custom and education had taught them to revere," – GibbonDecline & Fall, 16.


Meanwhile, the wily Constantine forged an alliance with Licinius to divide the world. Meeting at Mediolanum, Constantine married his sister to his erstwhile rival and together they promulgated the so-called 'Edict of Milan', granting Christians (and others) freedom of religion. It was a policy designed to cause Maximin the greatest difficulty. Enraged, he forced-marched his troops across Asia Minor in the depths of winter to take Byzantium by siege.

Licinius' counter-stroke with fresh troops routed Maximin's exhausted troops and he fled back to Tarsus. He took ill and died – to the jubilation of the Christian bishops. Licinius' triumph was short-lived. Having eliminated Constantine's most implacable enemy, Constantine returned the favour by destroying Licinius' army and executing his unloved brother-in-law. Thus did an eminently qualified 'Christian' monarch emerge as master of the world.

 

Body Count

"From the history of Eusebius it may however be collected that only nine bishops were punished with death; and we are assured, by his particular enumeration of the martyrs of Palestine, that no more than ninety two Christians were entitled to that honourable appellation ...

Palestine may be considered as the sixteenth part of the Eastern empire ... it is reasonable to believe that the country which gave birth to Christianity produced at least a sixteenth part of the martyrs who suffered death within the dominions of Galerius and Maximin; the whole might consequently amount to about fifteen hundred ... an annual consumption of 150 martyrs."

– Gibbon, Decline & Fall, 16.

 

Gibbon calculated 1500 martyrs for the whole climatic decade of persecution in the more populous east. The western provinces were little affected and such persecutions as occurred were of brief duration. In total, then, the pagan assault on the Christians, throughout a 300 year period, claimed "somewhat less than two thousand persons."

We might set this number against any number of comparisons. Victims of the witch trials, burnings and lynchings during the period 1300-1800 are conservatively put at 35-65,000 (and many estimates are much higher). Victims of the Inquisition, though sometimes speculatively put in the millions, in any event far exceeded anything dreamed of by the cruellest of Roman emperors. Gibbon himself draws a contrast with the 100,000 Protestant Netherlanders committed to the executioner by the Catholic Charles V of Spain.

But the real comparison is between the thousand years of Greco-Roman civilisation and the fifteen centuries of darkness that were to follow ...

 

Pay Back Time: The Christian Torture Garden

'Wherever we look, bishops were encouraging the landed elites... to take firm and coercive action to make the peasantry Christian ...

Like it or not, this is what our sources tell us over and over again. Demonstrations of the power of the Christian God meant conversion. Miracles, wonders, exorcisms, temple-torching and shrine-smashing were in themselves acts of evangelisation."

– Richard Fletcher (The Conversion of Europe, p45)


With the triumph of Constantine the inmates came into possession of the asylum. Their insanities were to become the only acceptable world view. Demonic nonsense, dreamed up in the psychotic mind of the pious theologian, populated the natural world with monstrous phantoms and set Satan's familiars at every cherished spring and venerable grove. Ever more lurid descriptions of Hell instilled dread and terror. Every town and hamlet was polluted by limitless malevolence – from which the only deliverance was complete submission to Holy Mother Church and her rapacious agents.

Constantine placed himself at the head of the collective of Christian fraternities, rewarded their bishops and obtained their fawning adoration. Fanaticism was now pressed into service as the propaganda of a divine monarch; zealotry was directed, not merely at the pagan and the skeptic, but also at the brethren who had failed to understand the true nature of the political revolution, had failed to adapt to servitude in the kingdom of the world and still cast their eyes, wistfully, on an anticipated kingdom of heaven.

Christian monarchs would far surpass in resolution and cruelty the mild attempts of the pagan caesars to eliminate such unacceptable thoughts:

"In the century opened by the Peace of the Church, more Christians died for their faith at the hands of fellow Christians than had died before in all the persecutions."

– Ramsay MacMullen, Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries, p14.

 

Sources:
Michael Walsh, Roots of Christianity (Grafton, 1986)
Arthur Ferrill, The Fall of the Roman Empire (Thames & Hudson, 1986)
Edward Gibbon, The Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire (1799)
Michael Grant, The Climax of Rome (Weidenfeld& Nicolson, 1996)
Chris Scarre, Chronicle of the Roman Emperors (Thames & Hudson, 1995)
Robert Wilken, The Christians As the Romans Saw Them (Yale UP, 1984)
Keith Hopkins, A World Full of Gods (The Free Press, 1999)
J. D. Randers-Pehrson, Barbarians & Romans (BCA, 1983)
Robin Lane Fox, Pagans & Christians (Viking, 1986)



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