“The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” Chapter 16 by Edward Gibbon

“The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” Chapter 16 by Edward Gibbon

The Conduct of the Roman Government Towards the Christians From the Reign of Nero to that of Constantine

  • Christianity persecuted by the Roman Emperors – We don’t know why non-believers were so anti-Christian. But in the 80 years after Jesus’s death disciples were executed one-by-one by “amiable” and “philosophical” magistrates. Apologies came in claiming legal obedience but there was a lot of martyrdom and persecution.
  • Inquiry into Their Motives – We can’t really take their word for it but apparently, each emperor had his excuse. Christians often removed themselves from Roman society and tribute was a deciding factor in tolerance given to Christians.
  • Rebellious Nature of the Jews – From Nero to Antoninus Pius, Jews were impatient with Rome and disobedience resulted in in-fighting and massacres. It was immoral to pay taxes or tribute to idolaters. A prophesy promised a Messiah to deliver them from the oppressor. This was reason enough to resist.
  • Toleration of the Jewish Religion – After years of persecution, Antoninus Pius allowed freedom except to convert others. But synagogues sprout up everywhere but Jews began a practice of more tolerance for different beliefs within reason.
  • Jews were a People which followed, the Christians a sect which deserted, the Religion of their Fathers – Jews were a nation, while Christians were a sect. They had to preserve the laws, oracles and philosophy of their fathers. By claiming superiority, it meant others were inferior and to be avoided. Mosaic laws may be silly and frivolous but they were old and an example for all mankind. The early church was burdened but this attitude and the Gospels relieve them by breaking tradition but somehow, they still had a disdain for outsiders but welcomed them if they wanted in.
  • Christianity Accused of Atheism and Mistaken by the People and Philosophers – Pagans were surprised and then became resentful of Christianity. Accusations of impiety and Atheism flew for attacking the Roman religion. It was unclear to the Romans just what the Christians actually believed and worshipped since they avoided non-Christians. The Sages of Rome and Greece focused on the “First Cause” and uses of the senses to them any religion that avoided this was fanciful and fanatical. Through came from perception of human senses.
  • The founder of the faith was revered by his followers as a sage, a prophet and adored by God. Polytheists believed anything written about their various gods but didn’t understand why Christians would abandon the temples and monuments to heroes and gods who defeated tyrants and monsters for an obscure god who sacrificed his only song to the jealousy of his own people and Roman government.
  • They rejected Jesus’s offer of immortality and constancy throughout a shitty life, benevolence, sublime simplicity of actions and character. They chose the empire and its glory to “worship”.
  • The Union and Assemblies of Christians considered as a Dangerous Conspiracy – Their religion made them a target but so did hanging around criminals. Already an illegal sect, meeting at night and in secret. Also, claiming to have an authority higher than Rome worked against them. They had spread to almost every corner of the Empire. They broke up families and refused to participate and predicted disasters.
  • Their Imprudent Defense – Christians said there was no evidence against them and guilt would only be implied with any evidence. Believers in the Gospels could not evil while believing in such a good book. But heretical offshoots behaved in ways and Christians were lumped together, being indistinguishable to the untrained pagan eye.
  • Idea of the Conduct of Emperors Towards Christians – No excuses for tyrants though… But more modern rulers have been way worse. Avoiding Roman society and running a parallel nation made Emperors just want to enforce laws in order to avoid mayhem. We may conclude that:
    • It was a long time before the government saw them as a threat.
    • Persecution and conviction was often done with caution or reluctance.
    • Punishments were relatively moderate.
    • There were long stretches of peace and tolerances for them.
  • The Neglected Christian as a Sect – They blended in with Jews when it was convenient when the Romans had tolerance for them. But the phasing out of Jewish ceremonies made them stick out because they were now accepting Gentiles into the religion. Jews saw them as different enough to call them heretics. Since they had no control over public justice, they appealed to the Romans. The Romans were interested in maintaining peace and avoiding riots and strife.
  • The Fire of Rome Under Nero – In the 10th year of Nero, a major fire destroyed many monuments, trophies and buildings. Only 4 of 14 districts survived. There was some preparation but not enough. People lived in parks and temporary shelter. The city was rebuilt to be prettier and more prosperous. A rumor had Nero playing a lyre while it burned. Another rumor said that he set the fire himself.
  • Cruel Punishments of the Christians as Incendiaries of the City – Tacitus reported Christians were already unpopular but used as a scapegoat and torture and martyred for this. The places of torture and death eventually became pilgrimage sites, churches, cathedrals and papal palaces.
  • Remarks on the Passages of Tacitus Relative to the Persecution of Christians by Nero
    • It became famous because Tacitus claimed that Christians were blamed by Nero for the fire.
    • We’re not sure how much Tacitus saw or knew of it or what his sources’ intentions were.
    • Christians were small and obscure that it was more likely Jews were blamed and Jews pointed to the Christians.
    • The animosity for the fire ended with Nero’s death.
  • ­­Oppression of Jews and Christians by Domitian – It’s interesting that the fire in Rome was followed by the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem only a few year later. At this time, Rome also levied a tax on Jews. The moment the Christians saw that the Jews were being taxed, they made it clear that indeed they were not Jews and couldn’t be taxed. The Romans changed their mind and applied the tax to non-pagans. Neither group wanted to give money away to sinful idolaters. The Romans just wanted to preserve their form of order and the Christians found it convenient to emphasize their differences with the Jews. The Romans really couldn’t tell the difference.
  • Execution of Clemens the Consul ­– At first, Domitian seemed pleasant and harmless but then he started executing family members and Flavius Clemens, his cousin, was also executed for Atheism (Jewish or Christian). Domitian’s memory was condemned by the Senate.
  • Ignorance of Pliny Concerning the Christians – 10 years later, under Trajan, Pliny the Younger was governor of Bithynia and Pontus. There’s evidence that the Roman policy was not yet determined because there was a meeting between Pliny and Trajan where Trajan explained that typically anyone labelled as “Christian” was usually enough to convict but there were no explicit laws about them.
  • Trajan and his Successors Establish Legal Mode of Proceeding Against them – Trajan’s judgment was for protecting the innocent and not really to punish the guilty. The laws got on the books but were almost never enforced. It was required for accusers to declare their intentions and this prevented abuse and false accusations were punishable by death.
  • Popular Clamors – Sometimes expressing these laws resulted in Christians being placed into arenas and fed to lions to sacrifice a few particularly obnoxious Christians. But emperors rarely appealed to the public for any justice.
  • Trials of Christians – They usually didn’t show up with a pre-determined sentence on their heads. If Christians paid lip service to pagan traditions, they would be let off but only to reclaim traditions. Sometimes if they refused, it would mean death.
  • Humanity of the Roman Magistrates – Most later writing Roman magistrates were either exaggerated or made up. They were usually polished, well-educated and liberal men who respected justice and philosophy. Charges were often dropped or magistrates would even find ways for a Christian to escape punishment. In executing discretionary power, it was usually out of leniency. Very few were put to death – they more likely to be exiled, imprisoned or sent to work in mines. Martyrs were usually bishops and presbyters to scare others. Origen and Dionysus of Alexandria only recorded some 17 martyrs.
  • Example of Cyprian the Bishop – Around this time Cyprian the Bishop of Africa was popular with faithful but hated by pagans. In a span of 10 years, 4 emperors and their families had been murdered while he was Bishop. Angry and paranoid magistrates and pagans wanted him thrown to the lion but he was allowed to live in exile with regular communication with the Church. Some were upset that he had deserted them.
  • D. 257 – His Banishment – The African governor, Paternus, would allow him to come back if he’d switch back to paganism – he refused and was banished from Carthage for away but eventually was allowed to come back.
  • His condemnation – New governor, Galerius Maximus received orders to kill Christian teachers. Figuring that Bishops would be the first to go, he ran off for a while until he got the balls to face the music. He was held until he was taken to tribunal and was ordered to make a pagan sacrifice. He refused and was sentenced to death.
  • His martyrdom – Many Christians wished to die with him and tried to get in to the building. The presbyters were allowed to stay and scrounge for relics. His head was cut off
  • Various Incitements to Martyrdom – Cyprian had a choice between martyrdom and apostasy. If he’d chosen the latter, the Christians would have destroyed him for that. It also set an example for Bishops to bear the brunt of the Romans’ need to crack the whip.
  • Ardor of the First Christians – We wouldn’t like the fervor of early Christians because of their martyrdom. Ignatius tells of prisoners asking the executioners to hurry up, outrunning lions, jumping into fires and seeming to enjoy the torture. But magistrates were loath to try Christians with little evidence and no benefit to doing so, especially when they seemed to enjoy it.
  • Gradual Revelation – Church leaders wanted to scale back ardor in order to attract less attention and fewer martyrs. There were 4 main ways to escape punishment:
    • Magistrates often accepted certificates bought be the accused attesting a following of laws and sacrificing to pagan gods.
    • The accused was given time to settle personal affairs and prepare a defense – He could run away.
    • Christians could renounce their faith and later ask the Church for forgiveness.
    • Hope that you live in a time and place where magistrates weren’t too concerned about Christians. Warning of things like the 10 plagues of Egypt often scared magistrates.
  • Supposed Edicts of Tiberius and Marcus Antoninus – The Apology of Tertullian mentions suspicious examples of clemency. Alleged edicts from Tiberius and Marcus Antoninus may have had slight “admissions” of miracles and references to the Gospels. This doesn’t really add up when you look at everything else they have said. They both seemed to hate Christianity from a philosophical point of view.
  • State of Christians in the reigns of Commodus and Severus A.D. 180 – When Marcus Antoninus died, Commodus changed the policy on Christians. His mistress has a soft spot for them and with her patronage there were 13 years of peace for them. Severus started employing them and laws about them were ignored. During this time, regional strife began between Christians but this was ignored by the Romans.
  • Of the Succession of Severus – Churches were usually someone’s house. Now with acceptance, they started buying land, building churches and consecrating them. Asian princes were often friendly. Empress Mamaea thought of converting and her son began placing statues of Abraham and Jesus alongside Orpheus and Apollonius. But the successor, Maximin massacred some Christians.
  • Of Maximin Philip and Decius – The Bishop/Theologian, Origen was often brought in to explain Christianity to emperors and staff. Philp was receptive and nearly converted. But Decius was restoring the sanctity of the Roman religion. Many bishops were killed or exiled.
  • Of Valerian Gallienus and his Successors 253-260 – Valerian became fascinated and friendly toward Christians but after a trip to Egypt, became taken with Egyptian religion and followed Decius’s example. When Gallenius allowed Bishop to exercise power over their flock, it actually worse for Christians than Roman persecutions.
  • Paul of Samosata – Paul was Bishop of Antioch and made lots of money for the church and himself, extracting money from the faithful. They were more suited to civil service than the church and sinned a lot.
  • He is Degraded from the See of Antioch – He began to preach Monarchianism – that God is 1, not 3 like the Trinity. Other Bishops wanted him out for this. Emperor Aurelian listened to both sides and determined the best thing for peace for him to be removed from his post. Peace lasted for 40+ years.
  • Peace and Prosperity of the Church Under Diocletian 284-303 – Under Diocletian, Christians began to hold high positions in the government. His wife and daughter were patrons. The number of Christians was too much for the churches, so new ones were built and Christianity expended along with Bishops’ power.
  • Progress of Zeal and Superstitions Among the Pagans – The growth and zeal of the Church caused pagans to panic. They went from persecuting Christians to being overrun by them. Pagans worried about the claims of the Church. But at the same time, they emulated Christians with new ceremonies and sacrifices. Pagans turned against Philosophy and Philosophers. The Philosophers ran to the Church for a new home as Platonicians.
  • Maximin and Galerius Punish a Few Christian Soldiers – Maximian and Galerius had a complete to aversion to Christianity. Maximian was primarily a soldier and maintain their superstitions. At this point, every new Emperor meant some sort of change in policy towards Christians. He had Christian soldiers executed. Galerius had many dismissed and considered Christianity a danger to public safety.
  • Galerius Prevails on Diocletian to Begin a General Persecution – Galerus and Diocletian met in Nicomedia and discussed Christianity. Diocletian was annoyed by them but didn’t want to kill them. Galerius convinced him that it was necessary by claiming that the Christians were trying to create a parallel government of their own with their own officials and laws.
  • Demolition of the Church of Nicomedia (2/23/303) and Edict (2/24/303) – Galerius wanted instant blood but Diocletian thought it would be best if all churches were destroyed and only the meeting in secret killed. All Christian property was confiscated and Christians weren’t to be protected by the law.
  • Zeal of Punishment of a Christian – The edict was issued to the public and a Christian tore it down and later tried for treason and burnt to death. While they didn’t support tearing down the edict, they felt execution was going too far. They began to hate Diocletian.
  • Fire of Nicomedia Imputed to the Christians – 15 days later, the palace was set on fire twice. Christians were suspected and were tortured for information and confessions.
  • Execution of the 1st Edict – The edict was meant for the whole empire but since it took so long for news to travel, it couldn’t be forced quickly or uniformly. The executions of Christians were mostly about disobedience in Nicomedia. Other bishops and disobedient Christians were tried for refusing to hand over Bibles.
  • Demolition of the Churches – Copies of the Bible were everywhere and any real effort would be impossible to get them all. Some magistrates were happy just closing official churches. In a Phrygian town, there was a stand-off against the army and many were martyred.
  • Subsequent Edicts – A series of edicts were issued to arrest all clergy and force them to renounce Christianity or die. This applied to all Christians later. Many pagans thought this went too far and helped hide Christians.
  • General Idea of the Persecution – Diocletian retired from being Emperor and Christianity was on the run in general.
  • In Western Provinces Under Constantius and Constantine – As a governor, Constantius didn’t like all the killing an oppression and made many Christians officers. However, he couldn’t stop the destruction of churches, he could shield Christians from harm. Upon his promotion to Emperor, he adopted a system of toleration which eventually led to his son, Constantine, converting and making it the official religion of the empire.
  • In Italy and Africa – Maximian and Severus – Maximian enforce the edicts and hated Christians as an agent of Diocletian. However, after Diocletian, further persecution occurred in Italy and Africa.
  • Under Maxentius – Son of Maximian, Maxentius restored peace to the churches of Italy and Africa which got him a lot of fans. A high-ranking clergyman, Marcellus, pursued those who renounced Christianity under the persecutions, which led to a violent chaos. He was sent into exile. Mensurius of Carthage libeled Maxentius was only given a slap on the wrist. Christians began entering the favor of the government.
  • In Illyricum and the East Under Galerius and Maximin and the Edict of Tolerance – Galerius, who had been torturing and killing Christians, began to realize it wasn’t working and opted for a policy of tolerance. This may have been an old man regretting his past actions. Maximin was the new boss and kept it light for the first 6 months but ramped it up until he realized that the Christians were indomitable due to something about the religion. He stopped the persecution.
  • End of Persecution – Asian Christians were skeptical about this. A civil war broke up resulting in the death of Maximin and making Licinius emperor.
  • Probably Account of the Sufferings of Martyrs and Confessors – Gibbon doesn’t describe all the shit they went through because he doesn’t know what to believe. He thinks a fair amount of what was written had been exaggerated to glorify the Church and its martyred. 2 examples typify the punishments:
    • Confessors worked mines but were allowed to practice their religion in these mines.
    • Bishops were required to scale back the zeal of Christians who wanted to be martyred.
  • Number of Martyrs – Difficult to say because accounts weren’t well kept, exaggerated or made up. In the time of Diocletian and Galerius about 1500 martyrs (150/year).
  • Conclusion – Christians were and have been way worse to each other than the Romans ever were to them. Wars of Religion during the Reformation were way worse in one province in the Netherlands by Charles V than the Romans were in their entire history to the Christians.

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