The Roman empire was generally tolerant toward the practice of other religions—as long as the practitioners incorporated worship of the emperor into their ceremonies. The Jews were actually the notable exception to this rule; they maintained sole worship of Yahweh during their time under the empire.
However, that attitude did not last for long.
As far as the empire was concerned, the new development of Christianity was yet another sect of Judaism, and its rise did not warrant any special attention from the empire. The Jews, however, did not share this perspective, and wanted the Christian movement eradicated.
“[The Christians] were out to make [followers] of the entire population of the empire, and the rapidity of their spread showed that this was no idle dream.” | Bruce Shelley
When Roman authorities learned that Christians were different than Jews regarding proselytization and frequently entered conflict with mainline Judaism, attitudes toward Christians in Rome began to shift. Acts 18:2 reports that the Romans emperor Claudius had ordered all the Jews to leave Rome. This is corroborated by the following quote from Suetonius, a Roman historian:
“Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he [the Emperor Claudius] expelled them from Rome.” | Suetonius, Divus Claudius 25
Here, “Chrestus” may refer to Jesus Christ (Chrestus was a common Roman slave name, and Suetonius may have thought Jesus was called “Chrestus” by his followers in Rome). According to some scholars, the cause of this disturbance was likely the preaching of Christians in Rome and their insistence that Jesus was the Messiah, resulting in tensions with the local Jews.
This expulsion of Christian Jews from
Rome was the first major persecution
that the Jesus movement faced.
Over time, Christians were considered by the Roman Empire to be dangerous and superstitious. Rumors of cannibalism (partaking of Jesus’ body and blood in communion) and sexual deviance (referring to each other as brother and sister) were common among non-Christians in Rome such as this Roman official named Octavius.
The Emperor Nero had a special hatred of Christians. The following quote from Tacitus (a Roman historian) summarizes the kinds of persecution Christians faced in the first century.
“Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.” | Tacitus
Nero’s disgust with the Christians peaked around 64 CE, with the Great Fire of Rome. According to historian Mike Licona, “Nero was responsible for burning the city of Rome. In order to save himself, he passed the blame on the Christians who were hated by the populace for promoting only one God and not participating in the multitude of pagan events.” (Read more here.)
While the Christians were initially ignored in the Roman empire, it didn’t take long for oppression from mainline Jews and Roman leadership to lead to widespread persecution that was quite brutal. In comparison, Christianity in the West today has abundant luxury and privilege.
So how did a movement that was so oppressed within 100 years of its inception, with a belief in “turning the other cheek,” become one of the most widely-practiced religions in the world?
We’ll explore that important question in a later church history post.
Church History in Plain Language, Bruce L. Shelley
Persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire
Judaism and Christianity in First-Century Rome, William L. Lane