Roman Persecution of Christianity

Even in the New Testament, there are clear signs of awareness of antagonism on the part of the Roman authorities towards Christianity. The Roman historian Tacitus  provides some evidence of his popular resentment in the aftermath of the Great Fire of Rome, when he spoke of Christians as “a class hated for their abominations.” The Revelation of St. John, the final work in the New Testament canon, is widely regarded as reflecting active hostility towards Christian groups in the late first century. It is thought to reflect the situation during the final years of the reign of the Roman emperor Domitian, particularly around 95. Yet although Domitian was a strong supporter of traditional Roman religion, there are no historical records of any official persecution of Christianity at this time. Cultural hostility may have been supplemented by local vendettas of one sort or another. But this was not centrally organized or authorized.

Cultural suspicion towards Christianity was aroused for a number of reasons. Christians refused to take part in games and other public ceremonies, because of their quasi-religious nature. This led to Christians being seen as hostile to their fellow citizens. They were also widely regarded as “atheists” on account of their refusal to acknowledge the official state religion, regarding their loyalty to God as preventing them from swearing allegiance to any other deities or figures – such as the emperor. Many Romans believed that proper devotion to the traditional gods was necessary for the well-being of cities and populations, and believed that Christianity’s refusal to endorse such ceremonies was dangerous. The proverb “no rain, because of the Christians” was well-established by the fourth century.

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