By Bart D. Ehrman, The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Ruling only for two years, from 249 to 251 CE, the Roman emperor, Decius, passed a legislation that required everyone to perform an animal sacrifice to the gods. One had to taste the sacrificial meat and swear in the presence of a state-appointed official who then signed a document for the person as proof. What prompted Decius to push this legislation? How did it affect the Christians?
The First Attempt to Stamp Out Christianity
One explanation that the Roman historian, James Rives, puts forth is that at this time of severe crisis, Decius saw the need for the entire empire to come together in its worship of the powerful gods who had once made Rome great, so that they could, so to say, make Rome great again.
He did so in the form of gods being worshipped with sacrifice. Any public animal sacrifice to any of the gods, which was certified as such was acceptable. It did not have to be to any god or any groups of gods in particular. The point of the sacrifice was to show the divine realm that Romans, including Christians, were committed to them, to a person, and faithful to their worship. It was a stark move. Anyone who did not sacrifice was subject to prosecution.
Some Christians caved in and made the sacrifice. Others bribed their way out or took flight and flew under the imperial radar. Some fell afoul of the regime, and suffered exile, confiscation of property, torture, and death. Even if the policy was not meant simply to force Christians to engage in a pagan practice, it did cause suffering and is often considered the first empire wide attempt to stamp out Christianity.
Unfortunately, we don’t know the full extent to which the decree was enforced. Decius died in battle, in 251 CE, and with his death came an end to the enforcement of his legislation.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Triumph of Christianity. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Valerian Targets Christians
Valerian appeared on the imperial throne in 253 CE. He was an older man at the time; a Roman senator with a grown son, Galenius, who ruled along with him.
For the first several years, there were no imperial actions against the Christians. That changed in 257 CE when Valerian issued a decree with two major anti-Christian aims; it required church leaders everywhere to participate in pagan rituals, and it disallowed large public Christian meetings.
This was the first time an emperor of Rome had ever issued a decree specifically targeting Christians.
Cyprian, the Bishop of Carthage
The following year, Valerian ordered the execution of all Christian bishops, presbyters, and deacons in the city of Rome itself. Lay Christians among the aristocracy were to be deprived of their status and have all their goods confiscated. Anyone who refused to abandon their faith was to be executed. This persecution extended beyond the city of Rome into the provinces.
We have several verbatim accounts of the trials of Christian leaders from the period. One involves a transcript of a prominent Christian spokesperson and author of the time—Cyprian, bishop of the city of Carthage, the largest church of North Africa.
Cyprian was an important figure. He had been raised as a pagan, came from a wealthy family, and received an advanced education. He was highly talented, and was a public figure. When Cyprian converted to the Christian faith as an adult in 245 CE, Christians immediately latched onto him as a prize convert. A mere two years after his conversion, he was ordained the bishop of Carthage.
Christian Persecution Sanctioned by State
We have a number of Cyprian’s letters that have come down to us, dealing with all sorts of practical matters alongwith an account of the events leading up to his martyrdom. Just 11 years after his elevation to the bishopric, Cyprian fell afoul of Valerian’s persecution. He was arrested on September 1st, 258, and put on trial two days later. The magistrate’s summary of Cyprian’s capital offense shows the logic behind the persecution. Here’s the literal text recorded by the court stenographer:
You have long persisted in your sacrilegious views, and you have joined to yourself many other vicious men in a conspiracy. You have set yourself up as an enemy of the gods of Rome and of our religious practices; and the pious and venerable emperors have not been able to bring you back to the observance of their sacred rites. … Discipline shall have its sanction in your blood. … Cyprian is sentenced to die by the sword.
The sentence was carried out immediately. Cyprian was beheaded. His crime, refusing to worship the gods of Rome.
Some Relief for Christians
In many ways, more stunning, is the transcript of what is probably the quickest judicial trial on record set forth in a book called, the Acts of Fructuosus. A bishop was brought up on charges and his trial before the magistrate required four words: Episcopus es? Sum. Fuisti. Literally, “Are you a bishop?” “I am.” “You were.”
Valerian’s imperial rule came to an ignominious end. In 260 CE, the empire was experiencing heightened problems from invasions on the eastern front. Valerian himself headed the army attacking the Persians. It did not go well. During an attempt to negotiate, Valerian was personally captured, the first emperor in the history of Rome to be taken alive by the enemy. His son, the ruler Gallienus, chose not to try to rescue or ransom him. He apparently preferred to rule the empire without sharing power with his father. Valerian in the end died in captivity.
It was a significant event for the empire obviously, but also for the fate of the Christian church. Galleinus put an end to the persecution. And remarkably, there were no more persecutions for 43 years and during that time, Christians lived in peace as the church grew by leaps and bounds.
Common Questions about the Persecution in 3rd Century
The point of the sacrifice was to show the divine realm that Romans, including Christians, were committed to them, to a person, and faithful to their worship.
When Cyprian converted to the Christian faith, as an adult, in 245 CE, Christians immediately latched onto him as a prize convert.
Valerian ordered the execution of all Christian bishops, presbyters, and deacons in the city of Rome itself.