Bible History Online
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
I. DEVELOPMENT OF THE REPUBLICAN CONSTITUTION
1. Original Roman State
2. The Struggle between Patricians and Plebeians
3. The Senate and Magistrates
4. Underlying Principles
II. EXTENSION OF ROMAN SOVEREIGNTY
III. THE IMPERIAL GOVERNMENT
1. Imperial Authority
2. Three Classes of Citizens
IV. ROMAN RELIGION
2. Religious Decay
V. ROME AND THE JEWS
1. Judea under Roman Procurators and Governors
2. Jewish Proselytism
VI. ROME AND THE CHRISTIANS
1. Introduction of Christianity
2. Tolerance and Proscription
Rome (Latin and Italian, Roma; Rhome): The capital of the Roman republic and empire, later the center of Lot Christendom, and since 1871 capital of the kingdom of Italy, is situated mainly on the left bank of the Tiber about 15 miles from the Mediterranean Sea in 41 degrees 53' 54 inches North latitude and 12 degrees 0' 12 inches longitude East of Greenwich.
It would be impossible in the limited space assigned to this article to give even a comprehensive outline of the ancient history of the Eternal City. It will suit the general purpose of the work to consider the relations of the Roman government and society with the Jews and Christians, and, in addition, to present a rapid survey of the earlier development of Roman institutions and power, so as to provide the necessary historical setting for the appreciation of the more essential subjects.
I. Development of the Republican Constitution.
1. Original Roman State:
The traditional chronology for the earliest period of Roman history is altogether unreliable, partly because the Gauls, in ravaging the city in 390 BC, destroyed the monuments which might have offered faithful testimony of the earlier period (Livy vi.1). It is known that there was a settlement on the site of Rome before the traditional date of the founding (753 BC). The original Roman state was the product of the coalition of a number of adjacent clan-communities, whose names were perpetuated in the Roman genres, or groups of imaginary kindred, a historical survival which had lost all significance in the period of authentic history. The chieftains of the associated clans composed the primitive senate or council of elders, which exercised sovereign authority. But as is customary in the development of human society a military or monarchical regime succeeded the looser patriarchal or sacerdotal organs of authority. This second stage may be identified with the legendary rule of the Tarquins, which was probably a period of Etruscan domination. The confederacy of clans was welded into a homogeneous political entity, and society was organized for civic ends, upon a timocratic basis. The forum was drained and became a social, industrial and political center, and the Capitoline temple of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva (Etruscan pseudo-Hellenic deities) was erected as a common shrine for all the people. But above all the Romans are indebted to these foreign kings for a training in discipline and obedience which was exemplified in the later conception of magisterial authority signified by the term imperium.
The prerogatives of the kings passed over to the consuls. The reduction of the tenure of power to a single year and the institution of the principle of colleagueship were the earliest checks to the abuse of unlimited authority. But the true cornerstone of Roman liberty was thought to be the lexicon Valeria, which provided that no citizen should be put to death by a magistrate without being allowed the right of appeal to the decision of the assembly of the people.
2. The Struggle between Patricians and Plebeians:
A period of more than 150 years after the establishment of the republic was consumed chiefly by the struggle between the two classes or orders, the patricians and plebeians. The former were the descendants of the original clans and constituted the populus, or body-politic, in a more particular sense. The plebeians were descendants of former slaves and dependents, or of strangers who had been attracted to Rome by the obvious advantages for industry and trade. They enjoyed the franchise as members of the military assembly (comitia centuriata), but had no share in the magistracies or other civic honors and emoluments, and were excluded from the knowledge of the civil law which was handed down in the patrician families as an oral tradition.
The first step in the progress of the plebeians toward political equality was taken when they wrested from the patricians the privilege of choosing representatives from among themselves, the tribunes, whose function of bearing aid to oppressed plebeians was rendered effective by the right of veto (intercessio), by virtue of which any act of a magistrate could be arrested. The codification of the law in the Twelve Tables was a distinct advantage to the lower classes, because the evils which they had suffered were largely due to a harsh and abusive interpretation of legal institutions, the nature of which had been obscure (see ROMAN LAW). The abrogation, directly thereafter, of the prohibition of intermarriage between the classes resulted in their gradual intermingling.
3. The Senate and Magistrates:
The kings had reduced the senate to the position of a mere advising body. But under the republican regime it recovered in fact the authority of which it was deprived in theory. The controlling power of the senate is the most significant feature of the republican government, although it was recognized by no statute or other constitutional document. It was due in part to the diminution of the power of the magistrates, and in part to the manner in which the senators were chosen. The lessening of the authority of the magistrates was the result of the increase in their number, which led not only to the curtailment of the actual prerogative of each, but also to the contraction of their aggregate independent influence. The augmentation of the number of magistrates was made necessary by the territorial expansion of the state and the elaboration of administration. But it was partly the result of plebeian agitation. The events of 367 BC may serve as a suitable example to illustrate the action of these influences. For when the plebeians carried by storm the citadel of patrician exclusiveness in gaining admission to the consulship, the highest regular magistracy, the necessity for another magistrate with general competency afforded an opportunity for making a compensating concession to the patricians, and the praetorship was created, to which at first members of the old aristocracy were alone eligible. Under the fully developed constitution the regular magistracies were five in number, consulship, praetorship, aedileship, tribunate, and quaestorship, all of which were filled by annual elections.
Mention has been made of the manner of choosing the members of the senate as a factor in the development of the authority of the supreme council. At first the highest executive officers of the state exercised the right of selecting new members to maintain the senators at the normal number of three hundred. Later this function was transferred to the censors who were elected at intervals of five years. But custom and later statute ordained that the most distinguished citizens should be chosen, and in the Roman community the highest standard of distinction was service to the state, in other words, the holding of public magistracies. It followed, therefore, that the senate was in reality an assembly of all living ex-magistrates. The senate included, moreover, all the political wisdom and experience of the community, and so great was its prestige for these reasons, that, although the expression of its opinion (senatus consultum) was endowed by law with no compelling force, it inevitably guided the conduct of the consulting magistrate, who was practically its minister, rather than its president.
When the plebeians gained admission to the magistracies, the patriciate lost its political significance. But only the wealthier plebeian families were able to profit by this extension of privilege, inasmuch as a political career required freedom from gainful pursuits and also personal influence. These plebeian families readily coalesced with the patricians and formed a new aristocracy, which is called the nobilitas for the sake of distinction. It rested ultimately upon the foundation of wealth. The dignity conferred by the holding of public magistracies was its title to distinction. The senate was its organ. Rome was never a true democracy except in theory. During the whole period embraced between the final levelling of the old distinctions based upon blood (287 BC) and the beginning of the period of revolution (133 BC), the magistracies were occupied almost exclusively by the representatives of the comparatively limited number of families which constituted the aristocracy. These alone entered the senate through the doorway of the magistracies, and the data would almost justify us in asserting that the republican and senatorial government were substantially and chronologically identical.
The seeds of the political and social revolution were sown during the Second Punic War and the period which followed it. The prorogation of military authority established a dangerous precedent in violation of the spirit of the republic, so that Pub. Cornelius Scipio was really the forerunner of Marius, Julius Caesar, and Augustus. The stream of gold which found its way from the provinces to Rome was a bait to attract the cupidity of the less scrupulous senators, and led to the growth of the worst kind of professionalism in politics. The middle class of small farmers decayed for various reasons; the allurement of service in the rich but effete countries of the Orient attracted many. The cheapness of slaves made independent farming unprofitable and led to the increase in large estates; the cultivation of grain was partly displaced by that of the vine and olive, which were less suited to the habits and ability of the older class of farmers.
The more immediate cause of the revolution was the inability of the senate as a whole to control the conduct of its more radical or violent members. For as political ambition became more ardent with the increase in the material prizes to be gained, aspiring leaders turned their attention to the people, and sought to attain the fulfillment o.f their purposes by popular legislation setting at nought the concurrence of the senate, which custom had consecrated as a requisite preliminary for popular action. The loss of initiative by the senate meant the subversion of senatorial government. The senate possessed in the veto power of the tribunes a weapon for coercing unruly magistrates, for one of the ten tribunes could always be induced to interpose his veto to prohibit the passage of popular legislation. But this weapon was broken when Tib. Gracchus declared in 133 BC that a tribune who opposed the wishes of the people was no longer their representative, and sustained this assertion.
4. Underlying Principles:
It would be foreign to the purpose of the present article to trace the vicissitudes of the civil strife of the last century of the republic. A few words will suffice to suggest the general principles which lay beneath the surface of political and social phenomena. Attention has been called to the ominous development of the influence of military commanders and the increasing emphasis of popular favor. These were the most important tendencies throughout this period, and the coalition of the two was fatal to the supremacy of the senatorial government. Marius after winning unparalleled military glory formed a political alliance with Glaucia and Saturninus, the leaders of the popular faction in the city in 100 BC. This was a turning-point in the course of the revolution. But the importance of the sword soon outweighed that of the populace in the combination which was thus constituted. In the civil wars of Marius and Sulla constitutional questions were decided for the first time by superiority of military strength exclusively. Repeated appeals to brute force dulled the perception for constitutional restraints and the rights of minorities. The senate had already displayed signs of partial paralysis at the time of the Gracchi. How rapidly its debility must have increased as the sword cut off its most stalwart members! Its power expired in the proscriptions, or organized murder of political opponents. The popular party was nominally triumphant, but in theory the Roman state was still an urban commonwealth with a single po1itical center. The franchise could be exercised only at Rome. It followed from this that the actual political assemblies were made up largely of the worthless element which was so numerous in the city, whose irrational instincts were guided and controlled by shrewd political leaders, particularly those who united in themselves military ability and the wiles of the demagogue. Sulla, Crassus, Julius Caesar, Antony, and lastly Octavian were in effect the ancient counterpart of the modern political "boss." When such men realized their ultimate power and inevitable rivalry, the ensuing struggle for supremacy and for the survival of the fittest formed the necessary process of elimination leading naturally to the establishment of the monarchy, which was in this case the rule of the last survivor. When Octavian received the title Augustus and the proconsular power (27 BC), the transformation was accomplished.
The standard work on Roman political institutions is Mommsen and Marquardt, Handbuch der klassischen Altertumer. Abbott, Roman Political Institutions, Boston and London, 1901, offers a useful summary treatment of the subject.
II. Extension of Roman Sovereignty.
See ROMAN EMPIRE AND CHRISTIANITY, I.
Only the most important general works on Roman history can be mentioned: Ihne, Romische Geschichte (2nd edition), Leipzig, 1893-96, English translation, Longmans, London, 1871-82; Mommsen, History of Rome, English translation by Dickson, New York, 1874; Niebuhr, History of Rome, English translation by Hare and Thirlwall, Cambridge, 1831-32; Pais, Storia di Roma, Turin, 1898-99; Ferrero, Greatness and Decline of Rome, English translation by Zimmern, New York, 1909.
III. The Imperial Government.
1. Imperial Authority:
Augustus displayed considerable tact in blending his own mastery in the state with the old institutions of the republican constitution. His authority, legally, rested mainly upon the tribunician power, which he had probably received as early as 36 BC, but which was established on a better basis in 23 BC, and the proconsular prerogative (imperiurn proconsulare), conferred in 27 BC. By virtue of the first he was empowered to summon the senate or assemblies and could veto the action of almost any magistrate. The second title of authority conferred upon him the command of the military forces of the state and consequently the administration of the provinces where troops were stationed, besides a general supervision over the government of the other provinces. It follows that a distinction was made (27 BC) between the imperial provinces which were administered by the emperor's representatives (legati Augusti pro praetore) and the senatorial provinces where the republican machinery of administration was retained. The governors of the latter were called generally proconsuls (see PROVINCE). Mention is made of two proconsuls in the New Testament, Gallio in Achaia (Acts 18:12) and Sergius Paulus in Cyprus (Acts 13:7). It is instructive to compare the lenient and common-sense attitude of these trained Roman aristocrats with that of the turbulent local mobs who dealt with Paul in Asia Minor, Judea, or Greece (Tucker, Life in the Roman World of Nero and Paul, New York, 1910, 95).
2. Three Classes of Citizens:
Roman citizens were still divided into three classes socially, senatorial, equestrian, and plebeian, and the whole system of government harmonized with this triple division. The senatorial class was composed of descendants of senators and those upon whom the emperors conferred the latus clavus, or privilege of wearing the tunic with broad purple border, the sign of membership in this order. The quaestorship was still the door of admission to the senate. The qualifications for membership in the senate were the possession of senatorial rank and property of the value of not less than 1,000,000 sesterces ($45,000; œ9,000). Tiberius transferred the election of magistrates from the people to the senate, which was already practically a closed body. Under the empire senatus consulta received the force of law. Likewise the senate acquired judicial functions, sitting as a court of justice for trying important criminal cases and hearing appeals in civil cases from the senatorial provinces. The equestrian class was made up of those who possessed property of the value of 400,000 sesterces or more, and the privilege of wearing the narrow purple band on the tunic. With the knights the emperors filled many important financial and administrative positions in Italy and the provinces which were under their control.
IV. Roman Religion.
(1) The Roman religion was originally more consistent than the Greek, because the deities as conceived by the unimaginative Latin genius were entirely without human character. They were the influences or forces which directed the visible phenomena of the physical world, whose favor was necessary to the material prosperity of mankind. It would be incongruous to assume the existence of a system of theological doctrines in the primitive period. Ethical considerations entered to only a limited extent into the attitude of the Romans toward their gods. Religion partook of the nature of a contract by which men pledged themselves to the scrupulous observance of certain sacrifices and other ceremonies, and in return deemed themselves entitled to expect the active support of the gods in bringing their projects to a fortunate conclusion. The Romans were naturally polytheists as a result of their conception of divinity. Since before the dawn of science there was no semblance of unity in the natural world, there could be no unity in heaven. There must be a controlling spirit over every important object or class of objects, every person, and every process of nature. The gods, therefore, were more numerous than mankind itself.
(2) At an early period the government became distinctly secular. The priests were the servants of the community for preserving the venerable aggregation of formulas and ceremonies, many of which lost at an early period such spirit as they once possessed. The magistrates were the true representatives of the community in its relationship with the deities both in seeking the divine will in the auspices and in performing the more important sacrifices.
(3) The Romans at first did not make statues of their gods. This was partly due to lack of skill, but mainly to the vagueness of their conceptions of the higher beings. Symbols sufficed to signify their existence, a spear, for instance, standing for Mars. The process of reducing the gods to human form was inaugurated when they came into contact with the Etruscans and Greeks. The Tarquins summoned Etruscan artisans and artists to Rome, who made from terra cotta cult statues and a pediment group for the Capitoline temple.
The types of the Greek deities had already been definitely established when the Hellenic influence in molding Roman culture became predominant. When the form of the Greek gods became familiar to the Romans in works of sculpture, they gradually supplanted those Roman deities with which they were nominally identified as a result of a real or fancied resemblance.
See GREECE, RELIGION IN ANCIENT.
(4) The importation of new gods was a comparatively easy matter. Polytheism is by its nature tolerant because of its indefiniteness. The Romans could no more presume to have exhaustive knowledge of the gods than they could pretend to possess a comprehensive acquaintance with the universe. The number of their gods increased of necessity as human consciousness of natural phenomena expanded. Besides, it was customary to invite the gods of conquered cities to transfer their abode to Rome and favor the Romans in their undertakings. But the most productive source for religious expansion was the Sibylline Books. See APOCALYPTIC LITERATURE, sec. V. This oracular work was brought to Rome from Cumae, a center of the cult of Apollo. It was consulted at times of crisis with a view to discover what special ceremonies would secure adequate divine aid. The forms of worship recommended by the Sibylline Books were exclusively Greek As early as the 5th century BC the cult of Apollo was introduced at Rome. Heracles and the Dioscuri found their way thither about the same time. Later Italian Diana was merged with Artemis, and the group of Ceres, Liber, and Libera were identified with foreign Demeter, Dionysus, and Persephone. Thus Roman religion became progressively Hellenized. By the close of the Second Punic War the greater gods of Greece had all found a home by the Tiber, and the myriad of petty local deities who found no counterpart in the celestial beings of Mt. Olympus fell into oblivion. Their memory was retained by the antiquarian lore of the priests alone.
See ROMAN EMPIRE AND CHRISTIANITY, III, 1.
2. Religious Decay:
Roman religion received with the engrafted branches of Greek religion the germs of rapid decay, for its Hellenization made Roman religion peculiarly susceptible to the attack of philosophy. The cultivated class in Greek society was already permeated with skepticism. The philosophers made the gods appear ridiculous. Greek philosophy gained a firm foothold in Rome in the 2nd century BC, and it became customary a little later to look upon Athens as a sort of university town where the sons of the aristocracy should be sent for the completion of their education in the schools of the philosophers. Thus at the termination of the republican era religious faith had departed from the upper classes largely, and during the turmoil of the civil wars even the external ceremonies were often abandoned and many temples fell into ruins. There had never been any intimate connection between formal religion and conduct, except when the faith of the gods was invoked to insure the fulfillment of sworn promises.
Augustus tried in every way to restore the old religion, rebuilding no fewer than 82 temples which lay in ruins at Rome. A revival of religious faith did occur under the empire, although its spirit was largely alien to that which had been displayed in the performance of the official cult. The people remained superstitious, even when the cultivated classes adopted a skeptical philosophy. The formal religion of the state no longer appealed to them, since it offered nothing to the emotions or hopes. On the other hand the sacramental, mysterious character of oriental religions inevitably attracted them. This is the reason why the religions of Egypt and Syria spread over the empire and exercised an immeasurable influence in the moral life of the people. The partial success of Judaism and the ultimate triumph of Christianity may be ascribed in part to the same causes.
In concluding we should bear in mind that the state dictated no system of theology, that the empire in the beginning presented the spectacle of a sort of religious chaos where all national cults were guaranteed protection, that Roman polytheism was naturally tolerant, and that the only form of religion which the state could not endure was one which was equivalent to an attack upon the system of polytheism as a whole, since this would imperil the welfare of the community by depriving the deities of the offerings and other services in return for which their favor could be expected.
Marquardt, Romische Staatsverwaltung, III, 3, "Das Sacralwesen"; Wissowa, Religion u. Kultus der Romer, Munich, 1902; Boissier, La religion romaine, Paris, 1884.
V. Rome and the Jews.
1. Judea under Roman Procurators and Governors:
Judaea became a part of the province of Syria in 63 BC (Josephus, BJ, vii, 7), and Hyrcanus, brother of the last king, remained as high priest (archiereus kai ethnarches; Josephus, Ant, XIV, iv, 4) invested with judicial as well as sacerdotal functions. But Antony and Octavius gave Israel (40 BC) as a kingdom to Herod, surnamed the Great, although his rule did not become effective until 3 years later. His sovereignty was upheld by a Roman legion stationed at Jerusalem (Josephus, Ant, XV, iii, 7), and he was obliged to pay tribute to the Roman government and provide auxiliaries for the Roman army (Appian, Bell. Civ., v.75). Herod built Caesarea in honor of Augustus (Josephus, Ant, XV, ix, 6), and the Roman procurators later made it the seat of government. At his death in 4 BC the kingdom was divided between his three surviving sons, the largest portion falling to Archelaus, who ruled Judea, Samaria and Idumaea with the title ethnarches (Josephus, Ant, XVII, xi, 4) until 6 AD, when he was deposed and his realm reduced to the position of a province. The administration by Roman procurators (see PROCURATOR), which was now established, was interrupted during the period 41-44 AD, when royal authority was exercised by Herod Agrippa, grandson of Herod the Great, over the lands which had been embraced in the kingdom of his grandfather (Josephus, Ant, XIX, viii, 2), and, after 53 AD, Agrippa II ruled a considerable part of Israel (Josephus, Ant, XX, vii, 1; viii, 4).
After the fall of Jerusalem and the termination of the great revolt in 70 AD, Israel remained a separate province. Henceforth a legion (legio X Fretensis) was added to the military forces stationed in the land, which was encamped at the ruins of Jerusalem. Consequently, imperial governors of praetorian rank (legati Augusti pro praetore) took the place of the former procurators (Josephus, BJ, VII, i, 2, 3; Dio Cassius lv.23).
Several treaties are recorded between the Romans and Jews as early as the time of the Maccabees (Josephus, Ant, XII, x, 6; XIII, ix, 2; viii, 5), and Jews are known to have been at Rome as early as 138 BC. They became very numerous in the capital after the return of Pompey who brought back many captives (see LIBERTINES). Cicero speaks of multitudes of Jews at Rome in 58 BC (Pro Flacco 28), and Caesar was very friendly toward them (Suetonius Caesar 84). Held in favor by Augustus, they recovered the privilege of collecting sums to send to the temple (Philo Legatio ad Caium 40). Agrippa offered 100 oxen in the temple when visiting Herod (Josephus, Ant, XVI, ii, 1), and Augustus established a daily offering of a bull and two lambs. Upon the whole the Roman government displayed noticeable consideration for the religious scruples of the Jews. They were exempted from military service and the duty of appearing in court on the Sabbath. Yet Tiberius repressed Jewish rites in Rome in 19 AD (Suetonius Tiberius 36) and Claudius expelled the Jews from the city in 49 AD (Suetonius Claudius 25); but in both instances repression was not of long duration.
2. Jewish Proselytism:
The Jews made themselves notorious in Rome in propagating their religion by means of proselytizing (Horace Satires i.4, 142; i.9, 69; Juvenal xiv.96; Tacitus Hist. v. 5), and the literature of the Augustan age contains several references to the observation of the Sabbath (Tibullus i.3; Ovid Ars amatoria i.67, 415; Remedium amoris 219). Proselytes from among the Gentiles were not always required to observe all the prescriptions of the Law. The proselytes of the Gate (sebomenoi), as they were called, renounced idolatry and serious moral abuses and abstained from the blood and meat of suffocated animals. Among such proselytes may be included the centurion of Capernaum (Lk 7:5), the centurion Cornelius (Acts 10:1), and the empress Poppea (Josephus, Ant, XX, viii, 11; Tacitus Ann. xvi.6).
On "proselytes of the Gate," GJV4, III, 177, very properly corrects the error in HJP. These "Gate" people were not proselytes at all; they refused to take the final step that carried them into Judaism--namely, circumcision (Ramsay, The Expositor, 1896, p. 200; Harnack, Expansion of Christianity, I, 11).
See DEVOUT; PROSELYTE.
Notwithstanding the diffusion of Judaism by means of proselytism, the Jews themselves lived for the most part in isolation in the poorest parts of the city or suburbs, across the Tiber, near the Circus Maximus, or outside the Porta Capena. Inscriptions show that there were seven communities, each with its synagogue and council of elders presided over by a gerusiarch. Five cemeteries have been discovered with many Greek, a few Latin, but no Hebrew inscriptions.
Ewald, The Hist of Israel, English translation by Smith, London, 1885; Renan, Hist of the People of Israel, English translation, Boston, 1896; Schurer, The Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, English translation by MacPherson, New York.
VI. Rome and the Christians.
1. Introduction of Christianity:
The date of the introduction of Christianity into Rome cannot be determined. A Christian community existed at the time of the arrival of Paul (Acts 28:15), to which he had addressed his Epistle a few years before (58 AD). It is commonly thought that the statement regarding the expulsion of the Jews from Rome under Claudius on account of the commotion excited among them by the agitation of Chrestus (Suetonius Claudius 25: Iudaeos impulsore Chresto assidue tumultuantis Roma expulit), probably in 49 AD, is proof of the diffusion of Christian teaching in Rome, on the ground that Chrestus is a colloquial, or mistaken, form of Christus. It has been suggested that the Christian faith was brought to the capital of the empire by some of the Romans who were converted at the time of Pentecost (Acts 2:10,41). It would be out of place to discuss here the grounds for the traditional belief that Peter was twice in Rome, once before 50 AD and again subsequent to the arrival of Paul, and that together the two apostles established the church there. Our present concern is with the attitude of the government and society toward Christianity, when once established. It may suffice, therefore, to remind the reader that Paul was permitted to preach freely while nominally in custody (Phil 1:13), and that as early as 64 AD the Christians were very numerous (Tacitus Ann. xv.44: multitudo ingens).
2. Tolerance and Proscription:
At first the Christians were not distinguished from the Jews, but shared in the toleration, or even protection, which was usually conceded to Judaism as the national religion of one of the peoples embraced within the empire. Christianity was not legally proscribed until after its distinction from Judaism was clearly perceived. Two questions demand our attention: (1) When was Christianity recognized as distinct from Judaism? (2) When was the profession of Christianity declared a crime? These problems are of fundamental importance in the history of the church under the Roman empire.
(1) If we may accept the passage in Suetonius cited above (Claudius 25) as testimony on the vicissitudes of Christianity, we infer that at that time the Christians were confused with the Jews. The account of Pomponia Graecina, who was committed to the jurisdiction of her husband (Tacitus Ann. xiii.32) for adherence to a foreign belief (superstitionis externae rea), is frequently cited as proof that as early as 57 AD Christianity had secured a convert in the aristocracy. The characterization of the evidence in this case by the contemporary authority from whom Tacitus has gleaned this incident would apply appropriately to the adherence to Judaism or several oriental religions from the point of view of Romans of that time; for Pomponia had lived in a very austere manner since 44 AD. Since there is some other evidence that Pomponia was a Christian, the indefinite account of the accusation against her as mentioned by Tacitus is partial proof that Christianity had not as yet been commonly recognized as a distinct religion (Marucchi, Elements d'archeologie chretienne I, 13). At the time of the great conflagration in 64 AD the populace knew of the Christians, and Nero charged them collectively with a plot to destroy the city (Tacitus Ann. xv.44). The recognition of the distinctive character of Christianity had already taken place at this time. This was probably due in large measure to the circumstances of Paul's sojourn and trial in Rome and to the unprecedented number of converts made at that time. The empress Poppea, who was probably an adherent of Judaism (Josephus, Ant, XX, viii), may have enlightened the imperial court regarding the heresy of the Christians and their separation from the parent stock.
(2) In attempting to determine approximately the time at which Christianity was placed under the official ban of the imperial government, it will be convenient to adopt as starting-points certain incontestable dates between which the act of prosecution must have been issued. It is clear that at the time of the great conflagration (64 AD), the profession of Christianity was not a ground for criminal action. Paul had just been set at liberty by decree of the imperial court (compare 2 Tim 4:17). Moreover, the charge against the Christians was a plot to burn the city, not adherence to a proscribed religion, and they were condemned, as it appears, for an attitude of hostility toward the human race (Tacitus Ann. xv. 44). While governor of Bithynia (circa 112 AD), Pliny the younger addressed Trajan in a celebrated letter (x.96) asking advice to guide his conduct in the trial of many persons who were accused as Christians, and inquiring particularly whether Christianity in itself was culpable, or only the faults which usually accompanied adherence to the new faith. The reply of the emperor makes quite plain the fundamental guilt at that time of adherence to Christianity, and it supposes a law already existing against it (x.97). It follows, therefore, that the law against Christianity which was the legal basis for persecution must have been issued between the conflagration in 64 AD and Pliny's administration of Bithynia.
We cannot define the time of this important act of legislation more closely with absolute certainty, although evidence is not wanting for the support of theories of more or less apparent probability. Tradition ascribes a general persecution to the reign of Domitian, which would imply that Christianity was already a forbidden religion at that time. Allusions in Revelation (as 6:9), the references to recent calamities in Rome by Clement in his letter to the Corinthians (1 Ad Cor.), the condemnation of Acilius Glabrio (Dio Cassius lxvii.13), a man of consular rank, together with the emperor's cousin Flavius Clemens (Dio Cassius, xiii) and Flavia Domitilla and many others on the charge of atheism and Jewish customs (95 AD), are cited as evidence for this persecution. The fact that a number of persons in Bithynia abandoned Christianity 20 years before the judicial investigation of Pliny (Pliny x. 96) is of some importance as corroborative evidence.
But there are grounds worthy of consideration for carrying the point of departure back of Domitian. The letter of Peter from Babylon (Rome ?) to the Christians in Asia Minor implies an impending persecution (1 Pet 4:12-16). This was probably in the closing years of the reign of Nero. Allard cleverly observes (Histoire des persecutions, 61) that the mention of the Neronian persecution of the Christians apart from the description of the great fire in the work of Suetonius (Ner. 16), amid a number of acts of legislation, is evidence of a general enactment, which must have been adopted at the time of, or soon after, the proceedings which were instituted on the basis of the charge of arson. Upon the whole theory that the policy of the imperial government was definitely established under Nero carries with it considerable probability (compare Sulpitius Severus, Chron., ii.41).
Although the original enactment has been lost the correspondence of Pliny and Trajan enables us to formulate the imperial policy in dealing with the Christians during the 2nd century. Adherence to Christianity was in itself culpable. But proceedings were not to be undertaken by magistrates on their own initiative; they were to proceed only from charges brought by voluntary accusers legally responsible for establishing the proof of their assertions. Informal and anonymous information must be rejected. Penitence shown in abjuring Christianity absolved the accused from the legal penalty of former guilt. The act of adoring the gods and the living emperor before their statues was sufficient proof of non-adherence to Christianity or of repentance.
The attitude of the imperial authorities in the 3rd century was less coherent. The problem became more complicated as Christianity grew. Persecution was directed more especially against the church as an organization, since it was believed to exert a dangerous power. About 202 AD, Septimius Severus issued a decree forbidding specifically conversion to Judaism or Christianity (Spartianus, Severus, 17), in which he departed from the method of procedure prescribed by Trajan (conquirendi non sunt), and commissioned the magistrates to proceed directly against suspected converts. At this time the Christians organized funerary associations for the possession of their cemeteries, substituting corporative for individual ownership, and it would appear that under Alexander Severus they openly held places of worship in Rome (Lampridius, Alexander Severus, 22, 49). The emperor Philip (244-49) is thought to have been a Christian at heart (Eusebius, HE, VI, 34). A period of comparative calm was interrupted by the persecution under Decius (250-51 AD), when the act of sacrifice was required as proof of non-adherence to Christianity. Several certificates testifying to the due performance of this rite have been preserved.
Under Valerian (257 AD) the Christian organizations were declared illegal and the cemeteries were sequestrated. But an edict in 260 AD restored this property (Eusebius, VII, 13). A short persecution under Aurelian (274 AD) broke the long period of calm which extended to the first edict of persecution of Diocletian (February 24, 303). The Christians seem to have gained a sort of prescriptive claim to exist, for Diocletian did not at first consider them guilty of a capital crime. He sought to crush their organization by ordering the cessation of assemblies, the destruction of churches and sacred books, and abjuration under pain of political and social degradation. (Lactantius, De Morte Persecutorum, x.11, 12, 13; Eusebius, VIII, 2; IX, 10). Later he ordered the arrest of all the clergy, who were to be put to death unless they renounced the faith (Eusebius, VIII, 6). Finally the requirement of an act of conformity in sacrificing to the gods was made general. This final persecution, continuing in an irregular way with varying degrees of severity, terminated with the defeat of Maxentius by Constantine (October 29, 312). The Edict of Milan issued by Constantine and Licinius the following year established toleration, the restoration of ecclesiastical property and the peace of the church.
See ROMAN EMPIRE AND CHRISTIANITY, III, IV, V.
Allard, Histoire des persecutions, Paris, 1903; Le christianisme et l'empire romain, Paris, 1903; Duchesne, Histoire ancienne de l`eglise, Paris, 1907 (English translation); Marucchi, Elements d'archeologie chretienne, Paris, 1899-1902; Hardy, Christianity and the Roman Government, London, 1894; Renan, L'eglise chretienne, Paris, 1879; Ramsay, The Church in the Roman Empire, London, 1893.
George H. Allen
Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. "Definition for 'ROME'". "International Standard Bible Encyclopedia". bible-history.com - ISBE
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