Roman Persecution of Chrisitians

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During the first half century after the crucifixion of Jesus, the Roman government including governors in the eastern provinces took no active measures against Christians. The attitude of the higher Roman authorities had always been that Christianity was merely a sect of Judaism, and as such, were entitled to share in its privileges as a recognized religion. In 64 A.D. this attitude suffered a severe alteration. On July 19, 64 A.D. occurred the great fire of Rome. Half a million people were left homeless. Popular rumor persistently asserted that the fire was started by incendiaries acting under the orders of the Emperor Nero. It was said that Nero wanted the city burnt down so he could build a new city which was to be re-named after himself. Nero felt that something must be done to deflect the public indignation against him. To do this he contrived that accusations should be brought against the Christians. So Nero began an aggressive persecution of the Christians in Rome. Those who confessed their guilt were brought to trail. During these trials a great number of other Christians were uncovered and were also brought to trial. Oddly enough, these people were not charged with starting the great fire of Rome, but rather for "hatred of the humankind." Adding mockery to their death, the Christians were dressed in the skins of wild beasts and torn to pieces by crazed dogs. Others were put on crosses and set on fire so that when the sun set they would serve as illumination for the night. As a general rule, from this time forward Christians were dealt with by the Roman authorities as a matter of policy by the ordinary laws in force, rather than as a result of any definite edict issued against them. Therefore the first act of persecution on the part of the state was due to the personal act of the Emperor himself. In the closing years of the 1st century, Roman authorities executed a sufficient number of Christians. In general, the provincial governors had wide discretionary powers of jurisdiction, but knowledge of Nero's actions may have set a precedent in regards to the handling of Christians and may have also encouraged local enemies of Christians to try to persuade a governor to accept their accusations and proceed against the accused on the assumption that they were guilty of conduct detrimental to the interest of the Roman State. Pliny was faced with this problem when he was sent as Legatus Augusti to reorganize the troubled province of Bithynia-Pontus in 110 A.D. In a letter to the Roman Emperor at the time Trajan, Pliny asked for a clarification or more definite instructions regarding Christians. Specifically he wanted to know if they should be punished because he had never taken part in a trial concerning Christians. At the onset of his governorship he executed anyone who had been accused of being a Christian. He released those who denied they were Christians and those wiling to invoke the Gods, sacrifice to them and to the Emperor's statue, and to curse Christ. But he was unsure if he should release them, hence he asked Trajan for his opinion. Trajan's reply did not lay out any universal rule. Instead his reply was as such: "…it is not possible to lay down some general rule to serve as a kind of fixed standard. They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced and proved to be guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and quite clearly proves it, that is by worshiping our gods, he shall gain pardon because of his change of mind, despite having been under suspicion in the past. But anonymously posted accusations ought to have no place in any prosecution, since they set the worst precedent and are unworthy of our times." Trajan adhered blindly to the principle of the routine administrator, that a practice once covered by precedents, must continue. He missed the opportunity to regulate an official position regarding Christians,...
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