Wednesday, June 18, 2008
By the time of Augustus’s death in a.d. 14, the RomanEmpire stood as by far the most influential politicalunit of the ancient world. Rome’s religious tolerance musthave been a central fact in this overwhelming political success.The Romans were not looking for trouble and onlyused persecution when absolutely necessary. Necessity includedputting a stop to the suspected barbarism of theDruids and the activities of the Christians. The first Christianpersecutions occurred during the reign of the emperorNero who, after the fire of a.d. 64, declared that Christianswere responsible for the arson. Persecutions continued in afairly half-hearted way until the Trojan Dedius came intopower in the third century, when authorities acting underthe emperor’s orders began a series of persecutions throughoutthe Empire. The number of persecutions began to increase,culminating in the reigns of Diocletian in the Eastand Maximianus in the West, when an Empire-wide manhuntfor Christian blood began. Although most historiansclaim that the persecutions were simply due to a misunderstandingof the Christian religion, some researchers havesuggested a more practical motive. By the late third century, Rome’s political prowess wasunder constant threat and, in order to be able to fight thecompeting nations, it urgently needed to control its increasinglyunruly inhabitants. The Roman authorities searchedfor some distraction, something that would occupy thepopulace. The policy had already been put into action butrelied on the cooperation of the slaves who participated inthe events. During the third century Roman slaves increasinglyrevolted against their often violent destiny, much tothe distress of the emperors, who recognized the publicneed for mass entertainment and so the Roman populace,now lacking an outlet for its pent-up frustrations, begantaking to the streets in acts of violence. As a solution, theChristians, whose population in Rome was enormous, wereused as unwitting sacrifices for Roman entertainment. Inaddition, their being burnt alive served to light Romanstreets at night, bringing safety and warmth to the city. Witnessingthe fate of the Roman Christians served its purposeof distracting the citizens and stabilizing the populace ofRome. Thus its continued survival was ensured into thethird century. It was not until the reign of Constantine thatChristianity was legalized and the persecutions stopped.