and the

 The Martyrdom of St. Matthew

1. DURING the first and second centuries persecution of Christians was generally sporadic, regional, and relatively short-lived.

[1.1] During the great fire of 64 A.D. the emperor Nero diverted attention from himself by blaming Christians; and many were tortured to death.

[1.2] A brief persecution near the end of Domitian's rule (96) seems to have been confined to Palestine and Asia Minor, and may have influenced the Book of Revelation.

It is probable that from Nero onwards Christianity was regarded as an unlawful religion; however persecutions were not specifically directed by imperial policy until the mid third-century.

2. THE prevailing imperial attitude during the first two centuries is summarized in Trajan's letter to Pliny: Christians may be punished by death if they refuse to sacrifice to the gods; however they are to be released if they sacrifice; and anonymous accusations are not to be heard.  [Ignatius of Antioch was executed during Trajan's reign]

[2.1] During the reigns of Antoninus Pius (which saw the death of Polycarp) and Marcus Aurelius (during which Justin was condemned by Rusticus, a friend of the emperor) executions of Christians increased;

[2.2] and it is probable that during this period informers were offered a share of the goods confiscated from convicted Christians.

These persecutions were generally less the result of imperial directives than of popular contempt and suspicion of “athiestic” Christianity (exemplified by the Alexamenos graffiti below): Christians were blamed and feared for their refusal to ensure that delicate stability and prosperity which could only be maintained through sacrifice to the gods.


3. AT the beginning of the third century, during the reign of Septimus Severus, conversion to Judaism and Christianity was legally proscribed: this forms the background to the martyrdom of Perpetua, Felicity, and the catechists who taught them the faith.

[3.1] As Christianity became more widespread and better-known, popular hostility slowly faded;

[3.2] but traditionalist and reform-minded emperors alike began to blame the “new religion” for the political and economic woes of a decaying empire.  In the mid-third century Decius became the first emperor to demand, throughout the empire, proof of pagan sacrifice in the form of a libellus (certificate). 

[3.3] His later successor, Valerian, similarly instigated a brief empire-wide persecution; but hostility then faded for over forty years (the so-called Peace of the Church)

[3.4] until the “Great Persecutions” of Diocletian, Gallerius and Maximin Daia.



 Alexamenos Graffiti

ca. 200



Scratched on a plaster wall in the city of Rome about 200 A.D. In the crude graffiti a human body, drawn from behind, is stretched on a stick cross. The head of a donkey sprouts from the naked torso. Below this scene a single figure raises his right arm in a salute. The unknown satirist offers the caption, "Alexamenos worships his god".


      Trajan on the Christians


Correspondence concerning the arrest and punishment of Christians between Pliny the Younger (Governor of Bythinia 111-113) and the Emperor Trajan.  Latin text based on Stout, 1962:354-57. 

TRAJAN: Emperor 98-117



Letter 10:96

Plinius Traiano Imperatori Ep. 10.96


        It is my practice, my lord, to refer to you all matters concerning which I am in doubt. For who can better give guidance to my hesitation or inform my ignorance?

Sollemne est mihi, domine, omnia de quibus dubito ad te referre. Quis enim potest melius vel cunctationem meam regere vel ignorantium instruere?

I have never participated in trials of Christians. I therefore do not know what offenses it is the practice to punish or investigate, and to what extent.

Cognitionibus de Christianis interfui numquam: ideo nescio quid et quatenus aut puniri soleat aut quaeri.

        And I have been not a little hesitant as to whether there should be any distinction on account of age or no difference between the very young and the more mature; whether pardon is to be granted for repentance, or, if a man has once been a Christian, it does him no good to have ceased to be one;

Nec mediocriter haesitavi, sitne aliquod discrimen aetatum, an quamlibet teneri nihil a robustioribus differant, detur paenitentiae venia, an ei qui omnino christianus fuit desisse non prosit,

whether the name itself, even without offenses, or only the offenses associated with the name are to be punished.

nomen ipsum, si flagitiis careat, an flagitia cohaerentia nomini puniantur.

        Meanwhile, in the case of those who were denounced to me as Christians, I have observed the following procedure: I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed.

Interim in iis qui ad me tamquam Christiani deferebantur hunc sum secutus modum. Interrogavi ipsos an essent Christiani. Confitentes iterum ac tertio interrogavi, supplicium minatus; perseverantes duci iussi.

For I had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished. There were others possessed of the same folly; but because they were Roman citizens, I signed an order for them to be transferred to Rome.

Neque enim dubitabam, qualecumque esset quod faterentur, pertinaciam certe et inflexibilem obstinationem debere puniri. Fuerunt alii similis amentiae quos, quia cives Romani erant, adnotavi in urbem remittendos.

        Soon accusations spread, as usually happens, because of the proceedings going on, and several incidents occurred. An anonymous document was published containing the names of many persons. Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ-- none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do-- these I thought should be discharged.

                Mox ipso tractatu, ut fieri solet, diffundente se crimine plures species inciderunt.Propositus est libellus sine auctore multorum nomina continens. Qui negabant esse se Christianos aut fuisse, cum praeeunte me deos appellarent et imagini tuae, quam propter hoc iusseram cum simulacris numinum adferri, ture et vino supplicaarent, praeterea maledicerent Christo, quorum nihil posse cogi dicuntur qui sunt re vera Christiani, dimittendos putavi.

        Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years..

Alii ab indice nominati esse se Christianos dixerunt et mox negaverunt; fuisse quidem, sed desisse, quidam ante triennium, quidam ante plures annos, non nemo etiam ante viginti.

They all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ

Hi quoque omnes et imaginem tuam deorumque simulacra venerati sunt et Christo male dixerunt.

        They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food--but ordinary and innocent food. Even this, they affirmed, they had ceased to do after my edict by which, in accordance with your instructions, I had forbidden political associations.

                Adfirmabant autem hanc fuisse summam vel culpae suae vel erroris, quod essent soliti stato die ante lucem convenire carmenque Christo quasi deo dicere secum in vicem seque sacramento non in scelus aliquod obstringere, sed ne furta, ne latrocinia, ne adulteria, committerent, ne fidem fallerent, ne depositum appellati abnegarent: quibus peractis morem sibi discedendi fuisse rursusque coeundi ad capiendum cibum, promiscuum tamen et innoxium; quod ipsum facere desisse post edictum meum, quo secundum mandata tua hetaerias esse vetueram.

Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called ministrae (deaconesses?). But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition. Quo magis necessarium credidi ex duabus ancillis, quae ministrae dicebantur, quid esset veri et per tormenta quaerere. Nihil aliud inveni quam superstitionem pravam, immodicam.

        I therefore postponed the investigation and hastened to consult you. For the matter seemed to me to warrant consulting you, especially because of the number involved. For many persons of every age, every rank, and also of both sexes are and will be endangered. For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms. But it seems possible to check and cure it. It is certainly quite clear that the temples, which had been almost deserted, have begun to be frequented, that the established religious rites, long neglected, are being resumed, and that from everywhere sacrificial animals are coming, for which until now very few purchasers could be found. Hence it is easy to imagine what a multitude of people can be reformed if an opportunity for repentance is afforded.

Ideo dilata cognitione ad consulendum te decurri. Visa est enim mihi res digna consultatione, maxime propter periclitantium numerum; multi enim omnis aetatis, omnis ordinis, utriusque sexus etiam, vocantur in periculum et vocabuntur Neque civitates tantum, sed vicos etiam atque agros superstitionis istius contagio pervagata est; quae videtur sisti et corrigi posse. Certe satis constat prope iam desolata templa coepisse celebrari et sacra sollemnia diu intermissa repeti pastumque venire victimarum, cuius adhuc rarissimus emptor inveniebatur. Ex quo facile est opinari, quae turba hominum emendari possit, si sit paenitentiae locus.


Letter 10:97

Traianus Plinio
Ep. 10.97


You observed proper procedure, my dear Pliny, in sifting the cases of those who had been denounced to you as Christians. For it is not possible to lay down any general rule to serve as a kind of fixed standard. They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it--that is, by worshiping our gods--even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance. But anonymously posted accusations ought to have no place in any prosecution. For this is both a dangerous kind of precedent and out of keeping with the spirit of our age.

Actum quem debuisti, mi Secunde, in excutiendis causis eorum qui Christiani ad te delati fuerant secutus es. Neque enim in universum aliquid quod quasi certam formam habeat constitui potest. Conquirendi non sunt; si deferantur et arguantur, puniendi sunt, ita tamen ut qui negaverit se Christianum esse idque re ipsa manifestum fecerit, id est supplicando dis nostris, quamvis suspectus in praeteritum, veniam ex paenitentia impetret. Sine auctore vero propositi libelli in nullo crimine locum habere debent. Nam et pessimi exempli nec nostri saeculi est.


        Hadrian on the Christians


LETTER of {EMPEROR H}Adrian CONCERNING the Christians
Ἀδριανοῦ ὑπὲρ Χριστιανῶν ἐπιστολή. 
(appended to Justin's Apology)

HADRIAN: Emperor 117-138


Christians are to be executed if won't recant; but false informants to be dealt with harshly


   I have received the letter addressed to me by your predecessor Serenius Granianus, a most illustrious man; and this communication I am unwilling to pass over in silence, lest innocent persons be disturbed, and occasion be given to the informers for practising villany.

Μινουκίῳ Φουνδανῷ. 68.6Ἐπιστολὴν ἐδεξάμην γραφεῖσάν μοι ἀπὸ Σερηνίου Γρανιανοῦ, λαμπροτάτου ἀνδρός, ὅντινα σὺ διεδέξω. 68.7 οὐ δοκεῖ οὖν μοι τὸ πρᾶγμα ἀζήτητον καταλιπεῖν, ἵνα μήτε οἱ ἄνθρωποι ταράττωνται καὶ τοῖς συκοφάνταις χορηγία κακουργίας παρασχεθῇ.

     Accordingly, if the inhabitants of your province will so far sustain this petition of theirs as to accuse the Christians in some court of law, I do not prohibit them from doing so. But I will not suffer them to make use of mere entreaties and outcries. For it is far more just, if any one desires to make an accusation, that you give judgment upon it.

68.8 ἂν οὖν σαφῶς εἰς ταύτην τὴν ἀξίωσιν οἱ ἐπαρχιῶται δύνωνται διϊσχυρίζεσθαι κατὰ τῶν Χριστιανῶν, ὡς καὶ πρὸ βήματος ἀποκρίνεσθαι, ἐπὶ τοῦτο μόνον τραπῶσιν, ἀλλ' οὐκ ἀξιώσεσιν οὐδὲ μόναις βοαῖς. 68.9 πολλῷ γὰρ μᾶλλον προσῆκεν, εἴ τις κατηγορεῖν βούλοιτο, τοῦτό σε διαγινώσκειν.

     If, therefore, any one makes the accusation, and furnishes proof that the said men do anything contrary to the laws, you shall adjudge punishments in proportion to the offences. And this, by Hercules; you shall give special heed to, that if any man shall, through mere calumny, bring an accusation against any of these persons, you shall award to him more severe punishments in proportion to his wickedness.

68.10 εἴ τις οὖν κατηγορεῖ καὶ δείκνυσί τι παρὰ τοὺς νόμους πράττοντας, οὕτως διόριζε κατὰ τὴν δύναμιν τοῦ ἁμαρτήματος· ὡς μὰ τὸν Ἡρακλέα, εἴ τις συκοφαντίας χάριν τοῦτο προτείνοι, διαλάμβανε ὑπὲρ τῆς δεινότητος, καὶ φρόντιζε ὅπως ἂν ἐκδικήσειας.

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