Decius and his Persecution of the Christian Church

Salah

Forum Staff
Oct 2009
23,284
Maryland
Gaius Messius Quintus Decius ruled the Roman Empire from September of 249 CE until June of 251. By his reign, the Empire was visibly entering into what has become known as the 'Crisis of the Third Century'. The Empire's frontiers were menaced by various Germanic peoples as well as the Sassanid Persians, and plagues and military usurpations caused internal trauma. It was Decius who adopted the novel policy of attempting to appease the gods - with disastrous results for at least one of the religious minorities within his troubled state.

Decius styled himself an old-fashioned Roman - he even took the name Traianus to commemorate one of Rome's greatest emperors. In January of 250, he decided to begin the new year by performing a sacrifice to Jupiter in Rome, and then publishing an edict calling for the entire free population of the Roman world to join him in sacrificing to the gods. Only the Jewish community, which had long been granted freedom of worship, was exempt from this mandatory sacrifice.

The Christian Church was originally regarded as a sect of Judaism - indeed, Jesus Christ and his disciples would have been observant Jews. By the second half of the 1st Century CE, however, they had come to be recognized as something else. The Biblical book of Acts would suggest that Christians had been subjects of discrimination and sporadic violence almost from the conception of their sect, but the first Roman emperor to unleash a persecution upon them was Nero. The last of the Julio-Claudians used the Christians as scapegoats after the Great Fire of Rome, but his persecution seems to have been short in duration and limited to Rome itself.

Some Christians also seem to have perished at the hands of Domitian, the third and last Flavian emperor. However, for the first two centuries after the life of Christ, Roman emperors seldom appear as persecutors of the Church. Localized persecutions continued, even in the glory days of the Adoptive and Antonine Emperors. It was Trajan who advised his friend Pliny, then governor of Bithynia et Pontus, to refrain from staging witch-hunts targeting Christians, only punishing those who were turned in by local authorities and refused to 'revile' the name of Christ.

The Christians of ancient Rome seem to have occupied about the same role in society that the Jews would play in medieval Europe, or that African Americans would play in the historic United States. Their existence was generally tolerated, but they were subjected to discrimination, and were commonly scapegoated; unsolved crimes were attributed to them and national misfortunes were blamed on them. The Christian writer Tertullianus cynically remarks that the moment anything went wrong in the Roman Empire, the mainstream populace began shouting 'the Christians to the lion!'

Christianity was nominally regarded as an illegal cult, some form of atheism or even magic. But it was not until Decius' Edict of January, 250, that the Christian community would be shaken to its core by the decree of a Roman ruler. Decius insisted that every free person, man or woman, burn incense to the Roman gods and pray for the health of the emperor. This had to be done in the presence of a Roman official, who then signed a paper along with the citizen to confirm that the ritual had been carried out. Surviving papyri from Egypt indicate that this was no literary embellishment on the part of our sources.

Such a ritual posed a serious problem for a practicing Christian. Decius was not launching an attack on Christianity - he presumably had no qualms about a Christian practicing their faith, so long as they fulfilled the demands of his Edict. But this was a dilemma for Christians, who staunchly refused to acknowledge the gods of Rome, let alone its emperor, as deities worthy of their adoration.

As was the case with all Roman persecutions, some Christians turned their back on their faith and compariots, sacrificing as the emperor demanded; a particularly large number of Christians in Carthage are said to have obeyed the Edict in spite of their personal beliefs. But other Christians refused to comply - some went into hiding, not returning until after the demise of Decius. Others perished as martyrs. Unless they were coming from good family, Christian martyrs were executed publically, and often with extreme savagery. Burning at the stake and being thrown to the beasts in the arena seem to have been the most common punishments, but sometimes men were sent to the mines and women to brothels - sentences which in ancient times were effectively death sentences.

There are no figures for how many Christians were killed or otherwise punished in the year and a half that elapsed between Decius' Edict and his death. The butcher's bill did, however, claim many of the most prominent figures in the Christian community, among them the church-leaders (bishops in modern terms) of several major cities. Origen, the famous theologian who had castrated himself to escape the temptations of the flesh, suffered from lengthy torture before dying in prison; similar fates befell Alexander, bishop of Jerusalem, and Babylas, bishop of Antioch. Fabianus, the bishop of Rome, was one of the first and most notable casualties of the persecution, allegedly being executed on January 20th, 250. Cyprianus, bishop of Carthage, escaped death only by going into hiding.

Decius himself was destined to suffer an unpleasant fate. In the summer of 251, he became the first Roman emperor to die fighting in battle, having entered into a disastrous engagement with the Goths of King Kniva at Abrittus in the province of Moesia inferior. His son died with him, and many prominent Romans were carried into captivity.

Though Decius' persecution was neither as long nor as bloody as those to follow half a century later, they made a formidable impact on the ancient Christian psyche. Lactantius, writing during the reign of Constantine described his death as a 'fit end for an enemy of God' after smugly observing that his corpse was left naked and eaten by wild animals.

Just how conscious Decius was of the persecution his Edict caused is unclear. Surely he must have been well aware that some Christians were defying the Edict, and he obviously either ordered their subsequent punishments, or at the very least did not try to stop them. The fact that the 'pope' was killed only a few weeks after the Edict was published would suggest that Fabianus was a high-profile figure who would have been readily identifiable in Rome - his execution is something Decius could have hardly failed to know about.

Decius must have agreed with the general belief that the Christians were 'unpatriotic'. Their failure to acknowledge tangible gods caused mainstream Roman society to few them as anti-establishment, perhaps even anarchists in modern terminology. Early Church fathers zealously attacked this notion; Tertullian and Eusebius claiming that Christians prayed for the health of the emperor and the succcess of his legions on the battlefield. The devotion of the Christians, praying privately or in modest churches to their invisible God, was hardly visible to their 'pagan' neighbors - who thus assumed they were atheists.

The Emperor Decius published his 250 Edict not to harass the Christians, but in an attempt to restore old-fashioned Roman pietas. It proved to be the most terrible misjudgment of his short reign, as it secured his everlasting infamy as one of history's villains. History is written by the winners, and Decius unleashed a persecution on the very religious community that would win the heart of Rome in the following centuries.
 
Mar 2010
424
Any interest here?
Interest? Sure. First, a source for your piece would be nice, if only for Internet protocol.

I read nothing inconsistent with my understanding of the period. I do think the major persecutions of the Christians began in earnest under Diocletian. The Synaxarion of the Orthodox Church is filled with saints glorified from that time.
 

Otranto

Ad Honorem
May 2013
2,083
Netherlands
Any interest here?
Nothing new here for me, as I have read quite a bit about the history of this period of the Church, but it is good a summary. Sources are always nice, but the complaint is not valid in my opinion, because Salah's claims are accompanied by names and dates which can be easily verified with a Google search.
 
Sep 2012
932
Prague, Czech Republic
Decius must have agreed with the general belief that the Christians were 'unpatriotic'. Their failure to acknowledge tangible gods caused mainstream Roman society to few them as anti-establishment, perhaps even anarchists in modern terminology. Early Church fathers zealously attacked this notion; Tertullian and Eusebius claiming that Christians prayed for the health of the emperor and the succcess of his legions on the battlefield. The devotion of the Christians, praying privately or in modest churches to their invisible God, was hardly visible to their 'pagan' neighbors - who thus assumed they were atheists.
I don't think Christians were assumed to be atheists in the modern sense, as in someone who doesn't believe in a deity. I have read that 'atheism' meant something different in classical times. An atheist was not necessarily someone who didn't believe in gods, but rather someone who refused to participate in the public worship. Atheism was not a belief, but an action, and in this sense Christians were atheists - they refused to sacrifice to the gods of Rome.
 

Kookaburra Jack

Ad Honorem
May 2011
2,961
Rural Australia
Domitian?

Some Christians also seem to have perished at the hands of Domitian, the third and last Flavian emperor.
What evidence exists for a Christian persecution under Domitian?


Acts of John the Theologian:

The Emperor Domitian receives written complaints by the Jews in a codex about a new and strange nation of Christians.

This source reads like a Monty Python script ....

[I said:
Translated by Alexander Walker][/I]

And some of the Jews took courage, and gave Domitian a book, in which was written as follows:—
O Domitian, Cæsar and king of all the world, as many of us as are Jews entreat thee, as suppliants we beseech of thy power not to banish us from thy divine and benignant countenance; for we are obedient to thee, and the customs, and laws, and practices, and policy, doing wrong in nothing, but being of the same mind with the Romans. But there is a new and strange nation, neither agreeing with other nations nor consenting to the religious observances of the Jews, uncircumcised, inhuman, lawless, subverting whole houses, proclaiming a man as God, all assembling together [2435] under a strange name, that of Christian. These men reject God, paying no heed to the law given by Him, and proclaim to be the Son of God a man born of ourselves, Jesus by name, whose parents and brothers and all his family have been connected with the Hebrews; whom on account of his great blasphemy and his wicked fooleries we gave up to the cross. And they add another blasphemous lie to their first one: him that was nailed up and buried, they glorify as having risen from the dead; and, more than this, they falsely assert that he has been taken up by [2436] clouds into the heavens.
At all this the king, being affected with rage, ordered the senate to publish a decree that they should put to death all who confessed themselves to be Christians. Those, then, who were found in the time of his rage, and who reaped the fruit of patience, and were crowned in the triumphant contest against the works of the devil, received the repose of incorruption.

The "new and strange nation" looks like a very distinctive trope of Eusebius,
who writes in the 4th century about the nation of Christians that is "neither new or strange"


But what other sources exist for a persecution under Domitian?

One mention is Dio Cassius (67.14.1-2); execution of Flavius Clemens, a Roman consul and cousin of the Emperor, and the banishment of his wife, Flavia Domitilla, to the island of Pandateria, for "atheism" ("athotes") and practising Jewish customs ("ta ton Ioudaion").

But the Christians don't appear to be explicitly mentioned here at all.

http://historum.com/ancient-history/61219-does-cassius-dio-mention-christians.html
 
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AlpinLuke

Forum Staff
Oct 2011
27,365
Italy, Lago Maggiore
How do you evaluate the correspondence between Pliny the Young and Emperor Trajan about how to deal with Christians?


Just a link with Latin texts and English translation

Pliny and the Christians
 
Dec 2009
918
according to a (modern) Baptist Preacher, the Baptist sect sees itself, as the successors, of the Donatists, who never recanted their Christianity, during Decius' persecutions of circa 250 AD. If so, then Decius did indeed induce a fracture & fission w/in Christianity, which was worked into apparently-permanent schism, centuries (~1300 years) later... to wit, Decius' decrees did indeed (eventually) become profoundly politically important