Perhaps it is the fierce loyalty that accompanied these Christians. They believed in something with such fervor that they gave up their lives, their children, and their communities. Until Christianity became a state religion under Constantine and persecution ended, Christians did not fight for their religion. They felt that it was a stronger witness to suffer and die than to fight. Is there anything in my life that I believe with such strength? Family, community, friends… are all things that come to mind, but if it came down to dying for someone I love, could I do it?
Ironically I’m sitting in a youth hostel filled with incredibly privileged people who are traveling the world. We are all extremely independent and if I can project, extremely selfish… hmm.
Perhaps my obsession is rooted in a childhood where such a sacrificial faith was revealed. Today I found myself on the set of Bernard Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion. My father showed me a film of Shaw’s work when I was a child and it became one of my favorite stories. For those of you who are unfamiliar. Androcles is a Christian of the Roman Empire who when out hunting one day stumbles across a lion who is caught in a snare. Being the good Christian that he was, Androcles risked his own life to free the lion. Once free, the lion runs off. Roman persecution of Christian increases as the years go by and Androcles finds himself among those who are to be thrown to the lions in the Colosseum in front of thousands of spectators. When it is Androcles turn to face the beast, the lion turns out to be the same one whom he saved years ago. The two dance across the arena and scare the people of Rome by dancing throughout the bleachers.
Two things first: Where was Andocles from where he would have encountered a lion on a hunting trip? And secondly, Christians weren’t killed in the Colosseum (or at least according the tour I took today there isn’t any archeological proof) but they were killed though in similar fashion in other parts of the Empire. So regardless of these two things, which as a child were non-issues, I returned once again to the story of Androcles and the Lion as I walked around the Colosseum.
The Colosseum wasn’t the only place today that invoked my interest in Christian persecution. Many of the Roman Emperors that I studied also have monuments in Rome dedicated to their glory. Over and over as I heard the Roman history of my tour, the parallel history of Christianity reveled brutality, corruption, and horror. A bit of my history essay accompanied with pictures from my day:
In 64 A.D. Emperor Nero, while away from Rome, was called back because a fire had broken out and consumed the city. Although Nero opened up his palace (below) to people displaced by the tragic fire, rumors spread quickly that Nero himself was responsibility for the fire; people thought he had set the fire to improve his reputation. Nero needed a scapegoat on which to blame the fire. Christians were a new minority and therefore were targeted.
Ironically this backfired on Nero and four years later he committed suicide to escape the persecution by his own citizens. What follows is a year of four emperors and the Colosseum is begun to appease the disgruntle population. Nero’s palace and pool are deconstructed to create the arena and when the Colosseum was opened, ten years after construction had begun, a bronze statue of Nero, almost the height of the Colosseum, graced its entrance.
Persecution in the form of mass inquisition and execution did not appear until Emperor Domitian. Domitian did not care much about the Christians at the beginning of his time as emperor but for some unknown reason he became convinced that they were dangerous and turned to persecuting them. At this point there was still little distinction between Jews and Christians so both communities suffered under Domitian. It was during this time of persecution when the Book of Revelation was written. Consequently Revelation has a distinctly negative view of Rome which can be contrasted to a more positive opinion of Rome that can be found in some of Paul’s letters.
In the 2nd century, persecution of the Christians has become a normal part of political positions. Pliny the younger, a governor of a region of what is now part of Turkey, was required as part of his political position to persecute Christians. He did some of his own research in inquiry of Christian crimes and discovered that the Christians were not committing any crimes. He inquired to Emperor Trajan, about the required persecution, who replied with a 2nd century version of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” The state would not ask people if they were Christians but the state would persecute Christians if such religious identity was revealed or discovered. (The forum of Trajan below)
Therefore the method of persecution changed from the 1st century but the results were similar. Regardless of the new policy, many Christians were persecuted and executed. Christians who died as martyrs often took the opportunity to publicize their teachings and their faith. Ignatius was one of these Christians and his writings are still part of foundational church writings.
Under the rule of Emperor Septimius Severus, the motive for Christian persecution changed. Rather than persecuting Christians because of rumors of uncivilized behaviors and social crimes, or because of established state policies, Septimius wanted to unite his extremely large physical territory under the worship of Sol invictus. This was a political motive and faced with consistent Christian resistance (and consequential martyrs) Septimius worked at a merging portions of Christianity with pieces of paganism in order to convince more Christians to join the state religion. This syncretism continued through the rule of several other Emperors and after a while the state lost interest in persecuting Christians altogether. (Triumphal arch of Septimius Severus --> )
In the second half of the 3rd century, persecution regained popularity under the rule of Decius. Decius wanted to restore Rome to classic Roman paganism. Decius thought that the problems of the empire, which included political, economic, and social turmoil, were direct effects of a country that had lost its true religion. Therefore rather than persecuting Christians for immoral behavior, or for disobeying the state, or even for fragmenting the empire, Decius persecuted the Christians as an appeal to the Gods. He hoped to restore the empire to the good graces of the Olympic house.
The methods also changed. Decius was not interested in people dying for their faith and making the Christian community stronger. Decius wanted people to return to the ancient religion. Since it had been over 50 years since persecution had resulted in mass martyrdom, the Christian communities were unprepared for the new imperial decree to worship the ancient gods. The result was that many people recanted their beliefs in fear, while others worshiped in secret. Although the persecution of Decius was brief, it caused a lot of problems within the Christian communities as those who recanted tried to return to the Christian faith. The Christian community then had figure out a way to deal with it all. (Remnants of the Temple of Zeus, the Pantheon- dome and alters, which was a Temple of all the Gods)
Constantine was at the end of a lot of fighting over the throne. His arch (the last of set of pictures below) is one of three triumphal arches still standing that people would have to process through after victory in battle. There is little that is Christian on this arch, but it stands for many as a symbol of an end of an era and the beginning to some of the downfall of Christianity.