The 10 Great Persecutions

When we talk of persecution of Christians during the Roman period we generally think of the 10 great persecutions of the Roman Empire. This notion that there were ten great persecutions dates from the fourth century and the lists vary slightly. This list is based on Foxe's Book of Martyrs via the sites listed at the bottom. The Romans were generally open on religious matters absorbing the various gods into an ever expanding pantheon as they sauntered across the world. That said, there were other groups who were persecuted and practices banned, for example; the Romans outlawed human sacrifice in their domain. This was actually more an issue of civility rather than theology. The other main thrust for the Romans was loyalty to the empire which is where the problem generally arose for the Christians and and to a lesser extent Jews.

The Romans did not quite know how to take the Jewish notion of one God that excluded other gods. As we said, the Romans tendency was toward syncretism and the notion of the uniqueness of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob tended to run afoul of the prevailing wisdom. That being said the, Jews were mostly let alone, apart for their occasional uprisings which were met with violent disapproval from the official Roman administration. There is a school of thought that the Romans at various points could not tell the difference between the Jews and the Christians. This appears to be a minority view but as theology was always a secondary point for the Romans seems likely to me. As stated, loyalty to the Emperor was the Romans primary issue. At any rate Jerusalem had been destroyed in 55 and the Jews scattered by the time Christianity became a "problem" for the Roman Empire.

For the Christians, sometimes the persecution was overt and sometimes it was subtle. Sometimes it was general (throughout the empire) and sometimes local. Even when there were anti-Christian laws on the books they were not enforced uniformly. There were 34 Emperors who ruled between about 30 when Christianity began and 311 when Galerius issued the "Edict of Toleration" which marked the end of the last official persecution, what we call the Diocletian Persecution. We note that clearly 10 persecutions are far fewer than 34 emperors.

It is also important to note here that during this time the Christian movement spread rapidly. Christianity drew its members from all ethnic groups and social strata; it was especially popular among the slaves. It also spread rapidly, due in part to persecution from the Jews but that is another story. The rate at which it spread caused alarm in government as well prompting a Roman Governor, Pliny the Younger (61-112) to write:

The contagion of this superstition has spread not only in the cities but in the villages and rural districts as well; yet it seems capable of being checked and set right.

Christianity violated the Roman notion of what a religion should be and how it related to society in general. Christians were considered atheists in some quarters because they were worshiping a God that had no image. Christianity was branded a superstition in others because the resurrection story had no precedent in Roman thought. The Romans thought that Christianity was generally not good for the society. In the third century, the Neoplatonist philosopher Porphyry provided an interesting perspective:

How can people not be in every way impious and atheistic who have apostatized from the customs of our ancestors through which every nation and city is sustained? ... What else are they than fighters against God?

If this is the why for the persecution than the what of it will follow. Here is a list of the Ten Great Persecutions:

Date Emperor In Brief
c. 64-68 Nero Traditional martyrdoms of Peter and Paul.
r. 81-96 Domitian  
112-117 Trajan Christianity is outlawed but Christians are not sought out.
r. 161-180 Marcus Aurelius Martyrdom of Polycarp.
202-210 Septimus Severus Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity.
235-38 Maximinus the Thracian A short-lived persecution under which he attempted to stop proselytizing and was mostly directed at the higher clergy.
250-251 Decius

Christians are actively sought out and required to make a public sacrifice to the Roman gods. They could also buy certificates (libelli) stating that they had made the required sacrifice instead of making a public sacrifice. After this persecution there was great controversy in the Church as to the re-admittance of those that made the sacrifices even if under torture. 

Martyrdoms of bishops of Rome, Jerusalem and Antioch.

257-59 Valerian Martyrdoms of Cyprian of Carthage and Sixtus II of Rome.
r. 270–275 Aurelian  
303-324 Diocletian and Galerius

The Diocletian persecution: The last and one of the more severe persecutions.  How many Christians were killed in the persecution is impossible to say. There is a tradition that 660 died in Alexandria, Egypt alone.

The Coptic church's calendar begins in the year 284 on the Gregorian calendar in remembrance of the Diocletian persecution.


When Christianity became the official religion of the empire it was the pagans turn for official persecution. 9/16/12 9/16/11 4/13/10 4/22/12