City of the Seven Hills - S. B. Harding

The Christians and the Empire

During the centuries that the Roman power was slowly weakening and dying, there was another power that was constantly growing stronger. This was the power of the Christian religion. It was to grow until it had conquered the Romans; then it was to conquer the Germans, who overthrew the Roman rule. In this way it was to go on, until it had conquered the world in a far wider sense than Rome had ever done; and at last it was to become the mightiest power that the world has ever seen.

Palestine, the land of the Jews, was first conquered by Pompey, before his war with Caesar, while he was setting the affairs of the East in order. There Christ was born during the time that Augustus was emperor, and he was put to death in the reign of the emperor who succeeded Augustus. Up to that time the teachings of Christ had not spread beyond that portion of the Jews who accepted them. After his death, however, the Apostles especially the Apostle Paul began to spread his teachings among other nations; and soon there were little bands of Christians to be found in many of the cities about the Mediterranean Sea.

Then it began to be a question as to how the Roman government would treat this new religion. Usually the Romans were very tolerant, and allowed the nations that they conquered to worship whatever gods they chose, and even to bring their worship with them to Rome. In this way, the Egyptians and Jews and other eastern nations had been allowed to build temples at Rome and worship their gods there with almost no disturbance.

It was different, however, with the Christians. There were many reasons why the Romans would not let them worship freely. The Jews were very bitter against the Christians, and they informed the Romans that the Christians were guilty of many horrible crimes in their meetings. These charges were not true, of course; but the Romans, and perhaps even the Jews themselves, believed them. Then, too, the Christians were charged with introducing a new and strange god, and with denying that the gods of the empire were gods at all. When the Christians would not offer sacrifice to the Roman gods—especially when they would not worship the statues of the emperors, who were now looked upon as gods they were charged with rebellion, and with plotting to overthrow the government. And whenever war, or famine, or disease, came upon the people, they were ready to blame it upon the Christians.

"The gods are angry with us for sheltering those who deny them!" they would cry at such times. "The Christians must be put to death! To the lions with the Christians!"

Then all persons who were suspected of being Christians would be seized and hurried off to the judges. If they admitted that they were Christians, they were promptly sentenced to death. If they denied it, they were asked to offer sacrifice to the statue of the emperor; and if they would not do this, that was taken as a sign that the charge was true, and they, too, were declared guilty.

In this way the prisons would be filled with Christians. It made no difference whether they were slaves or free, old or young, strong men or delicate women. Their fate was the same. When next the people were gathered to see the games in the great Circus, the Christians would be driven into the arena. Then lions, and leopards, and other wild beasts would be turned loose upon them, while the cruel Romans shouted and cheered from their seats around about.

The first persecution of the Christians at Rome took place while Nero was emperor. A great fire had broken out and burned more than two-thirds of the city. The Romans believed, whether rightly or wrongly, that Nero himself had given order to set the city on fire, so that he might rebuild it in a more splendid style than ever. There were ugly rumors, too, that while the waves of flame were sweeping over the city, Nero had been seen on a tower watching the sight, and unfeelingly singing and playing upon a harp.

The Roman people were, therefore, very angry with Nero, and for a while it looked as though there would be a rebellion. To quiet them, Nero had it reported that it was the Christians who had started the fire, and that while it was burning many of them had been seen going about with torches in their hands and setting fire to buildings which had not yet caught.

This changed the people's wrath from their emperor to the Christians. The cry arose, "To the lions with the Christians"; and many hundreds of them were hurried off to prison without any kind of trial. Nero also invented many new and cruel punishments for them. Some were covered with the skins of wild beasts, and then dogs were set on them. Others were wrapped in sheets of pitch and burned at night in Nero's gardens; and the name of "Nero's candles" was given to these. Others, more mercifully, were put to death in their prisons; and in later days it was said that among this number were the Apostles Peter and Paul.

It was not always, however, the evil emperors like Nero who persecuted the Christians. Sometimes the most severe persecutions were begun by orders of good emperors. They were ignorant of the real teachings of Christ, and believed that the charges made against the Christians were true. In this way it happened that Trajan, and Marcus Aurelius, and Diocletian all persecuted the Christians and had large numbers of them put to death.

The Christians did not burn the bodies of their dead, as the Romans did; they buried them instead. But in place of burying them in cemeteries, such as we all know, they dug out great tunnels and caves in the soft rock, and formed tombs along their sides in which they laid the bodies of their dead. In this way the hills of Rome came to be mined through and through with such tunnels, or "catacombs" as they were called.

At last these catacombs made a great network of passages, miles and miles in length, which crossed and recrossed one another, under the city, just as the Roman streets did on the surface of the ground above. When the persecutions would begin, and danger would come, the Christians would hide themselves in these streets of the dead below the surface of the ground; and there, too, they would often hold their church services to comfort one another in their times of trial and distress. These catacombs still exist at Rome, and they are one of the sights that every visitor to that city is sure to want to see.

In these persecutions, many hundreds of Christians were put to death because of their religion; and many more were imprisoned, or suffered in other ways for their faith. But through it all they were brave and glad, for they suffered for Christ as Christ had suffered for them.

The persons who suffered in this way were called "martyrs," which means "witnesses" for the Truth. Many Christians eagerly sought to receive a martyr's death, and mourned when they did not succeed. Even boys and girls became heroes in these persecutions, and endured death without flinching. At Rome a thirteen-year-old girl named Agnes was brought before the judges on the charge of being a Christian. She refused to deny the charge, and was put to death by the sword; and after that her name was honored as that of a saint. And in Gaul, a young slave girl endured the most cruel tortures and at last was thrown to the wild beasts in a net, because she would not give up Christianity; and a boy fifteen years old was also put to death there, at the same time and for the same reason.

One of the noblest of the martyrs was a man named Polycarp, who was put to death in Asia Miner while Marcus Aurelius was emperor. He was then an old, old man, of ninety years, and all the Christians of the East looked up to him with love and admiration, for he was a disciple of the Apostle John. When the soldiers came to arrest him, their commander took pity on him, and tried to persuade him to sacrifice to the Roman gods, and so save his life.

"What harm can there be in saying the emperor, our Lord,' and in offering sacrifices to him?" he asked.

At first Polycarp was silent; but when they went on to urge him, he said mildly:

"I will not do as you advise me."

When he was brought before the Roman governor of that province, he, too, urged him to swear by the emperor as by a god, and give proof of his repentance by saying, with the people, "Away with the godless." But Polycarp looked with a firm eye at the crowd that stood by; then with his eyes lifted up to heaven, and pointing at them with his finger, he cried:

"Away with the godless."

And when the governor urged him further, and said, "Curse Christ, and I will release you;" Polycarp answered:

"Eighty-six years have I served him, and he has done me nothing but good, and how could I curse him, my Lord and Saviour? If you wish to know what I am, I tell you frankly I am a Christian."

Even then the Roman governor wished to save the brave old man, if he could; but Polycarp would not yield. At last the governor turned to the people, and a herald proclaimed:

"Polycarp has confessed that he is a Christian." When the people heard these words, they cried out that he was the father of the Christians, that he was the enemy of their gods, and that he had taught many to turn from their worship and cease to sacrifice in their temples. They demanded that Polycarp should be burned at the stake, and they themselves brought wood for this purpose from the workshops and baths. Then the Roman governor gave his consent, and it was done as they had desired; and Polycarp met his death with the same steadfastness and courage which he had shown at his trial.

In this way men and women of all classes, young and bid, noble and slave, suffered and were put to death. But still the number of the Christians increased with each persecution.

"Go on," said one of the Christian writers to the Roman rulers; "go on, torture us and grind us to dust. Our numbers increase more rapidly than you mow us down. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church."

At last the time came when the persecutions were to cease altogether, and the emperors themselves, and all of their officers were to become Christians.

This happened, as you have already seen, while Constantine was on the throne. During the first part of his reign, he had to struggle against several rivals in the empire. At one time, the story goes, while he was marching rapidly from Gaul into Italy to attack one of his enemies, he saw a flaming cross in the sky in broad day, and on the cross were these words:

"In this sign, conquer."

In the battle which followed, Constantine did conquer; and he believed that he owed his victory to the god of the Christians. So one of the first things that he did after that was to issue an order to stop the persecutions, and permit the Christians to practice their religion openly and in peace.

After this, Constantine became a Christian himself, and did all that he could to favor their cause. Temples were taken away from the priests of the old gods and given to the Christians, to use as churches; and only Christians were appointed to offices under the empire. And when Constantine died, his sons followed the same religion; and the number of the Christians grew rapidly under them. And though Julian, the nephew of Constantine, ceased to be a Christian when he became emperor, and tried to bring the people back to the worship of Mars and Jupiter once more, he did not succeed. The task was too great for him. After him, all of the emperors were Christians; and at last a time came when the old worship was put down altogether.

Then the altars of the old gods were thrown down and their images were broken; and the sacred fire in the temple of Vesta, which had burned without interruption for eleven centuries, was extinguished forever. And after that all persons were punished who dared to sacrifice to the old gods who had so long been worshiped by the Roman people.