By Bart D. Ehrman, The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
State-sponsored persecutions against Christians began in the middle of the 3rd century. The Christian movement had begun to grow at an alarming rate. The officials, who were ardent supporters of the traditional Roman religions and the worship of their pagan gods, blamed the Christians for every calamity: famine, drought, epidemic, economic collapse, and even military disaster.
Rising Christian Population
Around the time the apologist Justin was writing in Rome in 150 CE, there may have been something like 30,000 to 40,000 Christians in the world out of the population of the Roman Empire of about 60 million. But by the end of the century, there were something like 2.5 or 3 million Christians, or simply put, one out of every 20 people. This was the Christian movement that the higher echelons of the Roman government began to take notice.
The officials, of course, were and always had been pagan. Whatever their personal beliefs or piety, leaders who have gained power under one system, are rarely eager to see any fundamental changes in society that might affect their standing.
Moreover, most people continued to think there were reasons to promote the traditional religions and stamp out any radically different opposition. People widely believed the gods could provide huge benefits not just to the individual but to the empire. Many of the Roman leaders thought so, too. As the Christian movement became increasingly known, the threat came to be taken very seriously indeed.
Christians as Scapegoats?
It was not simply that the old ways were starting to be challenged by this upstart religion, it was the growing sentiment that the pagan gods themselves were not happy. Consequently, what was a pagan in the face of calamities supposed to think, when major disasters started to occur one after the other with fatal results and startling frequency. Christians increasingly became the scapegoats.
For Christian history, the middle of the 3rd century may be significant because it’s when the numbers of the faithful began pouring in, as pagans started to convert in relative droves. But for Roman history, the period is significant for other reasons.
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The Crisis of the 3rd Century
Quite apart from anything having to do with the rise of Christianity, historians call the 50 years from 235 to 284 CE, the crisis of the 3rd century. It was a very bad time indeed when the empire appeared to be falling apart and its very existence was in serious peril. The empire became fragmented. With civil wars leading to two breakaway states, one in the east and the other in the west. The central part of what had been the entire Roman world was a much-reduced part of its earlier self.
In addition, natural disasters, too, took a devastating toll. An epidemic wiped out large populations of some major cities. A drought seriously reduced much needed agricultural productivity. As a consequence, economic disaster followed. To make matters worse, at the same time, barbarian invasions on the frontiers increased and threatened to affect the core of the empire.
Internally, too, there was complete political chaos. This half century witnessed repeated assassinations of emperors and usurpations, with 21 legitimately appointed emperors and 38 usurpers. There was no one leading the empire long enough, or competently enough, to bring stability in the midst of an incredibly destructive set of circumstances.
The Gods Were Unhappy
There were of course large numbers of reasons for these various calamities. Roman historians of modern times have had a field day trying to explain all of it, in terms of everything from weakened military support to climate change. And they may well be right. But many ancient people resorted to the kinds of explanation one can still find today. They appealed to religion, the problems are from above, the gods are not happy.
It’s not at all clear that most elite members of the aristocracy, including the Roman emperors actually believed that personally. Some almost certainly considered it uneducated superstition. But either because of their own personal religious convictions, or because they saw the political utility of embracing widespread assumptions and perceptions, this is a period when imperial authorities occasionally included a religious approach among their attempts to address the crisis.
This led to some rather serious persecutions of the Christians, thought by many of the populist to be part of the problem if not the entire problem.
Persecution of Decius
And then it began. The persecutions were not constant and everywhere, they were sporadic, but they did become empire wide at least in principle. The first Roman emperor who enacted a policy that led to serious repercussions for Christians was Decius, in the years 249 to 251 CE. This is often called the persecution of Decius, on the assumption that the policy he enacted was to root out and destroy the Christians.
However, recent scholarship, especially set forth by Roman historian James Rives, has argued that even though the policy affected Christians rather severely at times, it was not driven by a desire to destroy the church.
Common Questions about the Crisis of the 3rd Century and Growing Christian Population
In 150 CE, there may have been something like 30,000 to 40,000 Christians in the world out of the population of the empire of about 60 million. But by the end of the century, there were something like 2.5, or 3 million Christians, or simply put, one out of every 20 people.
For Christian history, the middle of the 3rd century may be significant because it’s when the numbers of the faithful began pouring in, as pagans started to convert in relative droves.
The first Roman emperor who enacted a policy that led to serious repercussions for Christians was Decius, in the years 249 to 251 CE. This is often called the persecution of Decius.