Scores of gods and goddesses and innumerable spirits and demons, filled the minds of the millions under Roman rule. The rulers themselves, unusually Stoics with a philosophic, though scornful toleration of mass superstitions, were willing to tolerate them all as part of the nature of things. The emperor was deified and simple rites of sacrifice to him were added to local religions and local rites. The Christians, however, were as rigid monotheists as the Jews; they could not sacrifice to the emperor any more than the Jews of old could sacrifice to Baal. This resulted in the martyrdom and oppression of the faithful.

By going underground, by glorifying the memory of the martyrs, by persistent proselytizing the church grew stronger and its members more numerous. It has been said that the lives of the early Christians consisted of persecution above ground and prayer below ground. Their lives are expressed by the Coliseum and the catacombs. Beneath Rome are the excavations which we call the catacombs, which were at once temples and tombs, both pagans and Christians buried here. The early church might be called the church of the catacombs, some 60 catacombs are beneath Rome, in which some 66 miles of galleries have been traced. In these the dead bodies were placed and the front closed with marble slabs, on these slabs or tiles, epitaphs or symbols are engraved or painted.

The 2nd and 3rd centuries witnessed an accelerating decline of the Roman Empire. In the hundred years following the reign of Septimus Severus (198-211), thirty emperors claimed the throne, sons or relatives of one Caesar usually found themselves in jeopardy of speedy execution or assassination when the next emperor took over. Chaos and anarchy spread throughout the empire, and when one Caesar was killed - few of them died natural deaths - the next was chosen by acclamation of the troops.

Jesus - If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they have kept my saying, they will keep yours also. They shall put you out of the synagogues: yea, the time comes, that whosoever kills you will think that he does God service.

Christianity, unlike other religions was both an exclusive and universal religion. Consequently, its triumph would have meant the end of the worship of the traditional Roman gods; were not the gods the divine guardians of the empire? Was not the emperor, Pontifex Maximus? Christianity was incompatible with ancient views of religion and would have frustrated the power and injured the prestige of the emperor, who claimed for himself divine honors. Christians balked at the idea of giving him honor due to God alone. Jews also, but they were too few in number. Confronted with the choice of offering incense to the emperor or martyrdom, they chose the latter.

Romans regarded the Christian church as an illegal society, since the members refused to recognize the religion of the Empire by worshipping Caesar. The loyalty to the state took precedence over all other virtues. Christians were called atheists because they offered no sacrifices and as such were blamed for many of the misfortunes and catastrophes which befell Rome. They frequently met in secret and at night, and their practices gave rise to all sorts of rumors; they were accused of violent practices, their immorality constituted a public menace. They preached a doctrine of exclusive salvation through the church, saying all those on the outside were doomed to eternal punishment and they were unsparing in their condemnation of pagan beliefs and customs.

So the Christians were described as enemies of the human race. It was said that at their assemblies they ate the flesh of children killed for the purpose, adored the head of an ass, poisoned wells, indulged in shameful orgies. The base heresies of the Nicolaitans, Carpocratians, and others, sometimes gave color to the slanders. These feelings created an atmosphere of hatred and intolerance among the masses and explains the ferocity of the mobs.

To be a Christian in the centuries prior to Constantine was a perilous adventure. Old ties had to be severed, insults had to be endured, vile accusations had to be met, intense suffering had to be borne Thousands perished at the hands of the executioners. Only the courageous and devoted were willing to run the risks. Noble lives, crowned by heroic deaths, were the best arguments of the infant church, their enemies themselves not infrequently acknowledged it. These early centuries produced a long line of martyrs, most of whose names have not been preserved and whose heroic deeds remain unsung. The courage and sacrificial devotion manifested by multitudes of Christians was a primary cause of its rapid expansion. The blood of the martyrs was indeed the seed of the church.

Christ excited the Jews to frequent tumults. Furthermore, Gentile superstition came to the increase of persecution; the heathen could not endure a sect which aimed at the destruction of the worship of their gods. They boldly called on men to turn from their vanities and serve the true God alone. Thus it was that they were called atheists as enemies of the gods. The Gentile religion was interwoven with that of the state; and men like Trajan, who conscientiously believed it their duty to uphold existing institutions, regarded Christianity as a hostile, and therefore a dangerous principle. Its professors were denounced as the enemies of kings, of laws, and of the human race.

Christians, in the course of their intestine dissensions, have inflicted far more greater severities on each other than they had experienced from the zeal of infidels. John XXII adopted a policy toward the Spiritual Franciscans in which beginning in 1318, a systematic campaign was initiated to suppress and exterminate these humble and devoted followers of St. Francis. They were brought before the Inquisition and many of them were burned at the stake. Their sole offence was that, by insisting upon the faithful observance of the rule of their order, they were challenging papal authority, and this could not be tolerated. From the very beginning of the Reformation, however, the possibility of free choice among competing faiths was limited by persecution. Lutherans, Zwinglians, Calvinists, Anglicans, and Catholics all forcibly repressed dissent. Anabaptists were the first martyrs of Protestant persecution. Even the great Augustine gave the policy of persecution his personal approval and supplied a theological justification for it, though his concern was rather with heresy and schism than with paganism. Both Luther and Calvin favored the killing of heretics and Protestant and Catholic alike killed each other for the sake of truth.
[01, 03, 18, 25, John, 29, 68, 112, 377]

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