January 2015 Print

Bloodthirsty Indifferentism--Religious Persecution in the Roman Empire

by Dr. John Dredger

Throughout the history of the Roman empire, the Roman people came into contact with many different religious ideas. In the majority of these encounters the Romans assimilated the practices of the various sects while maintaining their own form of religion. Yet in the case of Catholicism, the Romans did not always show such indifferentism. On the contrary, ten times between A.D. 64 and A.D. 311 did Roman emperors persecute the early Catholics: Nero (64-68), Domitian (95-96), Trajan (112-117), Marcus Aurelius (161-180), Septimius Severus (202-211), Maximinus (235-238), Decius (249-251), Valerian (257-259), Aurelian (270-275), and Diocletian and Galerius (303-311).

Such a departure from the usually tolerant policy of the Roman government towards foreign forms of worship demands explanation. Why would a religiously indifferent people persecute the adherents of one religion and not those of any other? The answer lies in the purpose of religion for Roman rulers and citizens as well as the beliefs and practices of the early Catholics.

For most educated Romans during the late Roman republic and early empire, religion held a practical and political purpose. While the majority of the common people still believed in the various gods and goddesses of the Roman pantheon, the intellectual elites dismissed such beliefs as simplistic and superstitious. The Roman writer Marcus Terentius Varro stated the idea prominent among the Roman upper classes that religion held a secondary place to the foundation of society and thus served the already existing society and its political conditions.

Instead of worshipping apotheosized mortals in the form of the Roman pantheon, the Roman elite preferred the Greek philosophies of Epicure­anism and Stoicism. Epicureanism placed the source of joy in sense pleasure while Stoicism attributed human happiness to a reasonable life lived according to nature. These philosophies provided a more intellectually satisfying explanation for life and its vicissitudes than the unsophisticated veneration of superhuman divinities. The Greek philosophies also permitted the Roman upper classes to take a more individ­ual approach towards life and intellectual pursuits in general. This focus on the individual’s own ideas still allowed the Roman view of indifferentism towards religion, which Pontius Pilatus, the procurator of Judea, embodied in his infamous question to Our Lord, “What is truth?”

Therefore, with no regard for religion as an explanation of life or a means of happiness, what function did religion perform for the Roman intellectual elite? The Roman upper class viewed religion as a part of the political and social life of Rome. The most important priestly positions, the pontifices, including the Pontifex Maximus, though originally elected only by other priests, had become open to public election during the Republic. The augures, responsible for consulting the will of the gods concerning decisions of the Roman government, held great political importance with the power to affect war and foreign policy. As the Roman historian Titus Livius wrote around the time of the Incarnation, “Who is there who is ignorant of the fact that this city has been founded with auspices, that everything in war and peace, at home and in the army, is done with auspices?” Therefore, Romans attributed the greatest significance of the priesthoods to the political role that they played within the state. As elected offices, the priesthoods and the religion which they represented took on a position subordinate to the state in Roman society.

To a people imbued with the ideas of religious indifferentism and state-controlled religion, most other forms of worship did not pose a threat as long as these cults allowed for assimilation within the pre-existing Roman religion or at least peaceful co-existence. Thus, in most cases the Romans showed tolerance for other religions while not forcing conquered peoples to adopt Roman religious practices. When the Romans came into contact with new cults, they adopted many, such as the cults of Mithras and Isis, which became popular among the Roman people. The Romans did not replace their own religion with these cults but rather added new religious practices to their private worship. As long as the inhabitants of the Roman empire occasionally made a public act of adoration to the Roman gods or to the genius of the head of state, Roman officials considered the people loyal to the government. This requirement came from the fact that reverence for the Roman pantheon and the person of the ruler constituted a political act of patriotism because the state controlled religion in Rome.

For Catholics, however, the public act of adoration to false gods or to a human consisted of denial of the true faith. The early Christians could not worship false gods in an act of ecumenical indifferentism or tolerance. As G. K. Chesterton wrote in The Everlasting Man, “Nobody understands the nature of the Church, or the ringing note of the creed descending from antiquity, who does not realize that the whole world once very nearly died of broadmindedness and the brotherhood of all religions.” Catholics recognized the necessity of spreading the belief in one true God rather than continuing the spiritual death of religious indifferentism that the pagan world had suffered for hundreds of years. Therefore, the early Christians refused to perform these acts of pagan sacrifice for religious reasons, whereas the Romans interpreted the Catholic refusal to burn incense before the altars of the gods as a political deed and a statement of revolutionary intent. This political explanation comprises the main reason for Roman persecution of the early Church.

Other reasons, however, existed as well. One of the most prominent causes of Roman hatred for Christianity came from the financial danger that Catholicism presented to certain classes and occupations within the Roman empire. The various kinds of Roman priests, of course, earned their living from their official positions within the government. Other people, including artists, jewelers, artisans, and merchants, feared the loss of large sums of money because conversions to Christianity limited their business in providing religious objects and animals for pagan sacrifices. The head of each Roman household sacrificed daily to the penates or lares, the ancestral gods of each family. Similarly, the state offered larger sacrifices to the official Roman deities on a daily basis. Pliny the Younger, as governor of the province of Bithynia and Pontus, wrote to the Emperor Trajan that hardly anyone bought sacrificial animals since Christianity had so many adherents in that part of the empire. Thus, Romans who depended on pagan religious practices for their livelihood, reacted strongly against Catholicism because of monetary concerns.

In addition to the political and financial causes, individual Roman emperors persecuted the early Christians for personal reasons. In A.D. 64, Nero needed to divert suspicion from himself for the burning of Rome and found that the Catholics served him well as both scapegoats and victims for his neurotic pleasure. Maximinus in the third century desired to plunder the treasuries of the Christians. Sometimes emperors, such as Marcus Aurelius, as well as their pagan subjects, blamed famine, war, pestilence, and natural calamities on the Catholics. As the Christian author Tertullian wrote, “If the Tiber rises above its banks, if the Nile does not overflow, if the skies are not clear, if the earth quakes, if famine or pestilence come, up goes the cry, ‘The Christians to the lions.’”

Marcus Aurelius and other emperors also persecuted Catholics because of the Christian ‘atheism,’ or rejection of the false Roman gods, and belief in only one God. The Catholic rejection of other religions offended the Roman sense of indifferentism and tolerance of other cults. Even in the persecutions related to religious motives, however, the ‘atheism’ of the early Catholics contained a political threat for the pagan Romans as worship of the gods comprised an integral part of publicly displaying loyalty and obedience to the Roman state and rulers.

Later during the imperial stage of Roman history, worship of emperors while still alive became more common. Earlier rulers, such as Augustus and Vespasian, had resisted efforts to divinize the princeps, or head of state, although apotheosis started in the case of Julius Caesar during the first century B.C. Even during the reign of Augustus, the tendency to worship the emperor had existed in the eastern provinces. In addition, Augustus as well as his successors combined the role of princeps and pontifex maximus, rendering the connection between ruler and religion even greater. Thus, just as religion played an inferior role in Roman society, religion also served as a subordinate cause for the persecution of Catholics.

This situation continued throughout the history of Rome. In the third century the desire to form a perfectly unified state drove the emperor Decius to attempt to extirpate Christianity from the Roman empire. Similarly, Diocletian and Galerius instituted the last great persecution in an effort to create political unity led by divine rulers. The common theme among the persecutions remained the Roman view that Catholicism presented a threat to the political and social stability of the empire because of the Christian belief in one true God instead of the plethora of pagan divinities.

Therefore, during the years from A.D. 64 to A.D. 311, Roman emperors persecuted the early Christians in ten major as well as several minor persecutions. The pagan Roman concept of religion could not include the belief in one true God who required the worship of Him alone rather than a pantheon of gods. Acceptance of Catholicism would have meant an act of treason against the state and the ruler, as veneration of the Roman deities and even the emperor himself comprised an important part of Roman public displays of loyalty and patriotism. The inability of many Romans to realize that Christianity did not pose a threat to the state, however, led a usually tolerant people to persecute Catholics not so much for religious reasons but for political as well as financial fears. Thus, the religiously indifferent Romans spilled much Christian blood, which in turn brought about the conversions of those who sincerely sought the truth.


For further reading, Fr. A. Guggenberger’s A General History of the Christian Era provides a good overview of the early Church from a Catholic viewpoint. Both the letter of Pliny the Younger to Trajan and Trajan’s response display the attitude of the Roman government towards Catholics in the second century. The writings of early Christian authors, such as Origen and Tertullian, also show how pagans saw Catholics while describing the persecutions.

Dr. John A. Dredger currently holds the position of vice-principal at Assumption Academy in Walton, Kentucky, with over 20 years of experience in education from primary school to university. He obtained a B.A. in Education from St. Mary’s College, an M.A. in Classical Languages from the University of Kansas, and a Ph.D. in History from Kansas State University.