Why Did the Roman Emperors Persecute Christians?

Advertiser Disclosure: TheWitness.org earns commissions from qualifying purchases.

There are several myths about the beginnings of Christianity. A prevalent belief is that Romans began hunting down followers of the Christian movement as soon as the movement began. But why did the Roman emperors persecute Christians?

 

Christianity has always been a persecuted faith in Israel, even since its inception. The Romans executed as many Christians as they could find; they had no tolerance for them.

 

History – How it All Started

Jesus was crucified and buried by Roman soldiers. Pontius Pilate, the Roman Prosecutor of Judea, ordered his death. However, to interpret that as the beginning of a long campaign to eradicate all Christians would be wrong.

 

Christians were saved from certain death on numerous occasions by Roman soldiers, as recorded in the New Testament book of Acts. Claudius Lysias, a Roman tribune, saved Paul when a group of Jews swore an oath to kill him because of his preaching (Acts 23:12–33). In other words, even when given the chance, the Romans did not always execute Christians.

 

Why Were the Romans After Christians?

This is not to say that things didn’t alter in the last few decades of the first century. There is a logical reason for Roman anti-Christian sentiment, though. The Romans had a problem with the Christian faith because it teaches individuals to be good citizens, live morally honest lives, and do good deeds for others whenever feasible.

 

Rome’s religious beliefs are very complex and difficult to understand. However, the pax deorum, a key Roman notion, is likely the basis of the Romans’ hostility toward Christianity (peace of, or with, the gods).

 

The Pax Deorum

Latin phrase “pax deorum” relates to the core Roman concept that their empire and the gods were intertwined. Many Romans believed that their country had been especially well-favored by the gods, as evidenced by its rapid rise to power and prosperity. Rome’s fast climb to world dominion cannot be explained in any other way.

 

In 753 BC, when seven minor towns on the Tiber River came together, they formed a little town called Rome. The Etruscans, a bigger northern power, pushed south and overran the nascent city soon after this incorporation. Etruscan lords ruled Rome for the next two centuries.

 

How Did Rome Rise to Power?

Before conquering the Mediterranean, Rome expanded fast following its independence in 509 BC, annexing other towns on the Italian neck of land. Rome grew from a loose confederation of towns to global power in a matter of a few hundred years. The quick rise to fame and fortune begs different questions.

 

The answer was obvious: the gods had a soft spot for the Romans. Like previous conquered cultures, the Romans had a good relationship with the gods. The Romans had the appropriate religious technology to ensure that the pax deorum was maintained, and Rome’s growth proceeded.

 

The Story of Hannibal

Throughout Roman history, this notion has flowed through it like a thread. History demonstrates an example.

 

During the Second Punic War (218–201 BC), Livy paints a picture of the city in a state of turmoil. Because of Hannibal’s victory at Lake Trasimene, the way to Rome had been opened. With a simple march southward, Hannibal encircled the city and starved it to death.

 

The narrative of the Carthaginian forefathers would have been an interesting footnote in Western Civilization studies had he done so.

 

At this moment, the Romans were on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Everyone believed the city’s demise was imminent because no one could overcome Hannibal. They nominated Quintus Fabius Maximus to be the city’s ruler and organize the defenses.

 

It was possible for the Roman state’s whole authority to be consolidated in the hands of one person — the dictator — to save the people from dangerous conditions.

 

How Did the Religion Come into the Picture?

Maximus was handed a dangerous situation. Rome could be destroyed with a single sneeze from Hannibal. However, on his first day in office, he convened the Senate and immediately began discussing religion.

 

Modern readers might find this choice odd. In any case, Hannibal was on the road, and the city was waiting to hear the sounds of his forces. The city’s defenses were supposed to be strengthened first, and new troops were to be mobilized. The discussion of religion here seemed out of place.

 

That belief was not shared by Quintus Fabius Maximus, though. According to Livy, “he made it obvious that Gaius Flaminius’ fault rested much more in his contempt of the auspices and of his religious responsibilities than in bad generalship and foolishness.

 

To say that the loss of Hannibal’s army by Gaius Flaminius (the Roman commander who lost the fight) was due to flaws in his leadership is an understatement. The Romans had somehow offended the gods. There had been a breach in the most important pact of the people, the pax deorum. For this reason, ten senators were tasked with studying the Sibylline Books to determine what was displeasing the gods.

 

The report revealed that the people had failed to build the temples they had committed to honor their gods. The Romans were able to defeat Hannibal thanks to the recommendations for a series of reparations, which were swiftly implemented.

 

It is common in Roman history for a calamity to be regarded as a breach of peace between people and gods. Suitable reparation, the healed breach, and the Romans accomplishing greater victories than had previously been seen in Roman history are common practices among Romans.

 

The Romans had a firm belief that the well-being of their nation and the fortunes of its citizens rested with the gods. To them, it was evident that they were the best at maintaining this important relationship with the gods because of their indisputable success.

 

How Did the Christians Offend Romans?

Christians posed a threat to maintaining that sense of tranquility. There was only one deity to the early Christians. As a result of this, the Roman gods, those deities that had protected the state and delivered nearly 1,000 years of success, no longer existed. There was absolutely no need for them to be given offerings or adoration.

 

Romans thought they would be doomed once again if Christians were successful in persuading their people to accept this bizarre belief, which would lead to the reappearance of Hannibal-like calamities. Christians were a serious challenge to the Roman Empire, not just a religious one. Romans thought that they would be destroyed if the peace deorum got lost.

 

Inflexible Christian Adherents

The belief that Christians were persecuted because they were followers of Jesus Christ is a popular misconception. No matter what gods a person worshipped, the Romans didn’t give a hoot. For a large portion of the Empire’s populace, particularly those in the provinces, unusual deities were revered.

 

Christians had difficulty since they didn’t show adequate respect to the Roman gods and encouraged others to do the same. Christianity was emancipated under the persecution of the emperors Decius and Valerian if they offered sacrifices to the Roman gods in the presence of magistrates.

 

Christians were killed by the Romans for refusing to worship the Roman gods. Those Christians who could think of a way to honor the gods while praising Jesus were allowed to go.

 

Our Final Thoughts

That’s a wrap on Why Did the Roman Emperors Persecute Christians. Rather than honoring the gods who had made Rome great, Christians opposed them. The Romans resented them, which was why they persecuted them. Taking a stance on religion challenged more than just the Romans’ religious views; it also threatened the Roman state’s success and its dependency on pax deorum.