During the first century Christianity was to a great extent confounded with Judaism in the eyes of the Roman officials, and since the latter was a religio licita, the former shared the same privilege. The persecutions under Nero and Domitian were local and occasional; no systematic design of extirpating Christianity dictated them. Gradually, partly because the Jews took pains to sever their cause from that of the Christians, partly because, in proportion as Christianity was better understood, the universality of its claim on human thought and conduct, and its essential incompatibility with pagan ideas, came out into stronger relief, the antagonism grew sharper, and the purpose of repression more settled. Charges, various in their nature, were brought against the Christians; they were treasonable men (majestatis rei) who denied to the emperors a portion of their attributes and dignity; they were atheists, who, so far from honoring the gods of the empire, declared that they were devils; they were dealers in magic; lastly, they practiced a foreign and unlawful religion (religio perigrina illicita). Possessed by such conceptions, a high Roman official, especially if he were a man of arbitrary or brutal character, or if Christians were indiscreet, could not lack pretext in abundance for persecution, even before any general edict of proscription had appeared. The rescript of Trajan (98117) directed the policy of the government for a hundred years. "Search," he said, "is not to be made for Christians; if they are arrested and accused before the tribunals, then if any one of them denies that he is a Christian, and proves it by offering sacrifice to our gods, he is to be pardoned." The implication was, of course, that those who avowed their Christianity and refused to sacrifice were to be executed, as the adherents of an unlawful religion. All through the second century, the popular sentiment, whenever a Christian was put on his trial, raged against the accused; the mob, still for the most part pagan, believed every wild and monstrous calumny that was afloat against the sect. "If the Tiber overflows," says Tertullian, "if the Nile does not overflow, if there is a drought, an earthquake, a scarcity, or a pestilence, straightway the people cry, `The Christians to the lions.'" This popular aversion is noticed in the reports of the persecution in Asia Minor, in which St. Polycarp suffered (probably about 155, under Antoninus Pius), and of the terrible slaughter of Christians at Lyons and Vienna under Marcus Aurelius. In 202 Severus issued a formal edict forbidding conversions either to the Jewish or the Christian religion under heavy penalties. The persecution which ensued lasted ten or eleven years; but from about 212 to the reign of Decius (249251) was a time of comparative peace, and Christians multiplied in every direction. Even upon the general population an impression was by this time made; and the attitude of the mob in the persecutions of Christians which happened after the middle of the third century, was at first apathetic, then respectful, finally even compassionate. Under Decius, who was an enthusiast for the ancient glories of the republic and empire, the systematic general persecutions began, which aimed at stamping out Christianity altogether. Fabian, the bishop of Rome, and St. Agatha in Sicily, were among the victims of the Decian storm. Fortunately it was short; but when it had passed over, the number of the lapsi, or those who in various degrees had given way under the pressure, was found to be very great. Under Gallus there was peace, but Valerian (257) renewed the persecution. The martyrdoms of St. Lawrence, St. Cyprian, and St. Fructuosus of Tarragona, date from about this time. Again, from 260 (in which year an edict of Gallienus declared Christianity to be a legal religion), to 300 the government left the Christians undisturbed except for a few months (270) under Aurelian. In 303, the terrible persecution of Diocletian was ushered in by the destruction of the great church at Nicomedia On the next day appeared an edict, ordering that all buildings used for religious worship by the Christians should be destroyed, and that their sacred books should be given up to the authorities and burnt. Christians themselves were declared to be outlawed and civilly dead; they were to have no remedy in the courts against those who did them wrong; and they were to be subject in every rank, to torture. A second edict ordered that all bishops and priests should be imprisoned; a third, that such prisoners should be compelled by every possible means to offer sacrifice to the gods. The extreme violence of this persecution did not last beyond two years; but in that time the blood of martyrs flowed abundantly in Palestine, Italy, Gaul, Spain and Britain. A detailed account of the sufferings of the Christians in Palestine may be read in the Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius. For some years after the abdication of Diocletian (305) civil war desolated the empire; but, after the fall of Maxentius, Constantine and Licinius, about the beginning of 313, published the famous edict of Milan, by which complete toleration was given to the Christians, and Christianity was placed on a footing of perfect equality with what had been till now the State religion. This edict was published some months later at Nicomedia, so that both in East and West the period of martyrdom was closed.
The persecution of Julian (361363) although martyrdoms were not wanting, e.g. those of SS. John and Paulconsisted rather in a studied exclusion of Christians from the favor of the Court and government, together with a prohibition of teaching rhetoric, literature, and philosophy, than in actual measures of coercion.
The cruel persecution of the Catholics in Africa by their Vandal conquerors, under Geiseric (Genseric), Hunneric, and his successors (439523) was motivated partly by the hatred and contempt which these Teutons bore to all of Roman blood or nurture, partly by the inevitable antagonism between the Arian heresy which they professed and the Catholic creed, and partly by the policy of humbling and weakening those whom they could not hope to attach sincerely to their government.
The persecutions of the Spanish Catholics by the Arian Visigothic kings Euric and Leovigild, in the fifth and sixth centuries, were of no great intensity.
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