Persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire

Persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire occurred intermittently over a period of over two centuries between the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD under Nero Caesar and the Edict of Milan in 313 AD, in which the Roman Emperors Constantine the Great and Licinius legalised the Christian religion.

The persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire was carried out by the state and also by local authorities on a sporadic, ad hoc basis, often at the whims of local communities. Starting in 250 AD, empire-wide persecution took place by decree of the emperor Decius. The edict was in force for eighteen months, during which time some Christians were killed while others apostatised to escape execution.

These persecutions heavily influenced the development of Christianity, shaping Christian theology and the structure of the Church. Among other things, persecution sparked written explanations and defenses of the Christian religion.

Duration and extent

Persecution of the early church had occurred sporadically and in localised areas since its beginning. The first persecution of Christians organised by the Roman government took place under the emperor Nero in 64 AD after the Great Fire of Rome. With the passage in 313 AD of the Edict of Milan, persecution of Christians by the Roman state ceased.[1] The total number of Christians who lost their lives because of these persecutions is unknown; although early church historian Eusebius, whose works are the only source for many of these events, speaks of "great multitudes" having perished, he is thought by many scholars today to have exaggerated their numbers.[1][2]:217–233

There was no empire-wide persecution of Christians until the reign of Decius in the third century.[3] Provincial governors had a great deal of personal discretion in their jurisdictions and could choose themselves how to deal with local incidents of persecution and mob violence against Christians. For most of the first three hundred years of Christian history, Christians were able to live in peace, practice their professions, and rise to positions of responsibility. Only for approximately ten out of the first three hundred years of the church's history were Christians executed due to orders from a Roman emperor.[2]:129 Attempts at estimating the numbers involved are inevitably based on inadequate sources, but one historian of the persecutions estimates the overall numbers as between 5,500 and 6,500. [4]:536-537, a number also adopted by later writers including Yuval Noah Harari[5]:

In the 300 years from the crucifixion of Christ to the conversion of Emperor Constantine, polytheistic Roman emperors initiated no more than four general persecutions of Christians. Local administrators and governors incited some anti-Christian violence of their own. Still, if we combine all the victims of all these persecutions, it turns out that in these three centuries, the polytheistic Romans killed no more than a few thousand Christians.

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