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An Edict to End All Persecutions

A common misconception is that Christians were constantly persecuted by the Roman Empire: Just as Jesus had died a Roman-style death, so his followers were hounded, persecuted, and martyred by the Roman emperors. Yet the Roman Empire did not constantly persecute Christians, instead the reaction of the Roman Emperors was one of ebb and flow; one Roman Emperor might threaten Christianity, while the next barely noticed it. And this back and forth attitude lasted until one emperor became a Christian, and decreed that Christians would never be persecuted again.

Jesus was put to death under the rule of the emperor Tiberius, however, the news made little or no impact on the emperor. It was a local matter which the local Roman leader (Pilate) handled; those situations did not bubble up to the level of emperor.

The first emperor to persecute Christians was Nero (54-68). In the year 64 a fire swept through Rome. Many blamed Nero and, attempting to avoid suspicion, he blamed Christians. What resulted was a local (Rome only) persecution of Christians. The persecution was so severe, though, that the Roman Tacitus wrote, "Although they were criminals who deserved the most severe punishment [because they practiced a ‘new’ religion not because they started the fire], yet a feeling of pity arose since they were put to death not for the public good but to satisfy the rage of an individual [Nero]."

The first empire-wide persecution occurred under Domitian (81-96)(The Apostle John was placed on the island of Patmos during the reign of Domitian.). This persecution included torture, exile, and death. The following emperor, Nerva (96-98), reversed Domitian’s policy.

The next 200+ years continued in this manner: periods of persecution interspersed with periods of apathy. To be sure, a few Christians were persecuted and even martyred under almost every emperor, but many of these were local and the emperor played no part. If individual Christians drew notice to themselves then they could be "disciplined." But as long as they practiced their faith quietly, they went unpunished. Only a few emperors developed a hatred of Christians.

Those emperors who did actively persecute Christians were scattered over a long period: Domitian (81-96), Marcus Aurelius (161-180), Decius (249-151), Valerian (253-259), and finally Diocletian (284-305)/Galerius (died 311). These final two carried out one persecution; Diocletian initiated the persecution in 303 and Galerius continued it. But, in an odd twist of history, Galerius became ill and issued a new policy of toleration on Apr 30, 311. He included the following request: "In return for our tolerance, Christians will be required to pray to their god for us." He died five days later.

After some infighting among potential successors, Constantine eventually became Emperor in 312: the first Christian Emperor. And in 313 he issued the edict to end all persecutions, the Edict of Milan: "We therefore announce that, notwithstanding any provisions concerning the Christians in our former instructions, all who choose that religion are to be permitted to continue therein, without any let or hindrance, and are not to be in any way troubled or molested."

After 290 years, Christians could finally practice their faith in peace. And 65 years later, in 380, Emperor Theodosius I decreed that Christianity was the only accepted religion in the Roman Empire.

©2004 Mark Nickens

Questions/comments contact Mark at drnickens@triad.rr.com.

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