Before the third century CE, Romans were fearful of the rising popularity of Christainity. They viewed Christiainity as a cult that could weaken the Empire and ultimately lead to the destruction of Rome. The Romans had a right to fear the Chrstians because they recognized the possibility of a political revolution. In order to guarantee the stability of the Empire, Romans began persecuting Christians. Although some think that persecuting Christians was an extreme measure, the Romans took necessary precautions in order to ensure the survival of their Empire because the threat that Chrstians present.
Many Romans recognized that the rising numbers of Christians could present a problem to the. With its rapidly growing popularity, if something was not done, Chrisitanity would soon have more followers and supporters than the Empire itself. Howard Spodek writes that “The Roman government clashed with the early Christians, followers of Jesus, much as it did with Judaism, on the grounds of its monotheism, resistance to emperor worship, and potential as a force for political revolution” (Spodek, 188). It is clear that the Roman government and Chirstianity could not coexist, at least for the meantime. The Romans believed that their only option was to eliminate the threat of Christians.
For the first three hundred years of Christianity’s existence, the Romans viewed it as atheistic since Chrisitans did not accept the divinity of the emperor (Spodek 188). This conflicted with one of Rome’s models of power where the emperor is the head of the church. In this case, the Christians believed Jesus was the head of the church. Therefore, the Romans believed the Christians were resenting Roman rule. Romans also convicted Christians for treason since they believed in the kingdom of God rather than the Roman Empire. With much apprehension and suspicion Pontius Pilot, the governor of Judea, decided to crucify Jeses because “he was a threat to the religious and political stability of the imperial colony” (Spodek 188).The Romans also feared Chrisitanity because it encouraged the freedom of women and started to include intellectuals in its leadership. The incorporation of Greek philosophy drew in the wealthy and educated members of society which took them away from participating in the Roman Empire.
Not only does Spodek explain the conflict between the Romans and Christians, but Pliny also offers his thoughts on the conflict in a letter to Emperor Trajan. In Pliny’s letter he writes that “I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed” (Pliny, Letters 10.96-97). Pliny explains that he would interrogate Romans until they confessed to being Christian so he could then persecute them. Pliny feared the power of the growing Christian population so he took action. Emperor Trajan responds, “They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished” (Trajan). Although the Romans did not seek out Christians, they were still punished if found.
While today people think that church and state are separate, the Romans believed it to be one. Romans believed the emperor was also the head of the church. Therefore, any citizens believing in another religion was against the Empire. The Romans persecuted many Christians because they feared they were radicals since their religious views did not align with those of the Empire. Although the Romans took their actions to the extreme by executing Christians, they did have the right to be fearful of Chrisitanity weakening the Empire.
Pliny’s Letter to Trajan
Rome and the Barbarians by Howard Spodek