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Introduction & Map

Roman Emperors Persecute Christians

A.D. 30 to 313

Some accounts of Christian persecutions say that believers were thrown to wild animals in Roman amphitheaters—as depicted in this 19th century painting.
Some accounts of Christian persecutions say that believers were thrown to wild animals in Roman amphitheaters—as depicted in this 19th century painting.
Photograph of painting by Eugene Thirion copyright Bonhams, London, UK/Bridgeman Art Library

The Roman Empire could be a dangerous place for early Christians, whose emerging doctrine flew in the face of established Roman religion.

Hostility toward Christians fluctuated throughout the empire due to local events or individual officials' actions. Periods of peace were shattered by incidents like the great Rome fire of A.D. 64, which Emperor Nero blamed on Christians, or by the threat of external invasion, which often caused communities to close ranks.

Christianity was punishable by death during this era, yet pardon was available to those willing to renounce their religion by offering sacrifice to the emperor or Roman gods. The offering of sacrifices became a particularly contentious issue and a kind of religious litmus test. Honoring Rome's gods and goddesses was considered a civic obligation and, at times, a law.

But many Christians refused to break with their faith. They were often executed and then hailed by their coreligionists as martyrs.

During Emperor Decius's short reign (A.D. 249 to 251), all Christians were required not only to offer sacrifice, but also to acquire official certificates from witnesses to their offering.

Perhaps the most comprehensive of such anti-Christian hostilities were the early fourth century persecutions by the co-emperors Diocletian and Galerius. Fortunately for the Christian faithful, they were to be the last.

In 313 Constantine I and Eastern Roman Emperor Licinius ratified the Edict of Milan, which finally ensured tolerance for Christians throughout the Roman Empire.