Jesus Christ gave His disciples a very clear message as to what was to come. It was clear to all that the work ahead of them was not going to be easy. He taught them plainly that they were to seek comfort in heaven and not to expect comfort on earth:
“Blessed are ye when they shall revile you, and persecute you, and speak all that is evil against you, untruly, for my sake: Be glad and rejoice, for your reward is very great in heaven. For so they persecuted the prophets that were before you.”
From the time the Church was founded, powerful non-Christians tried to crush it. We have discussed the persecution the Apostles faced at the hands of the Jews and rulers in Israel, but as the Christian Church spread through the Roman Empire, persecution came from foreign rulers as well. In this lesson, we will learn something of the most terrible persecutions and what came of them.
Persecution in the Church
From the time of Christ’s ministry until the rise of the Roman emperor Nero, the Church had little trouble from Rome. However, the Church was growing and slowly began to become too powerful to ignore. As smaller cities had learned further east, Christianity was taking over the world one city at a time. By 60 AD, Christianity had begun to move strongly into Rome, where the emperor could feel the tide rising.
The emperor in power in Rome was Nero, a man hated by his own people, who was known to have killed his own mother. He imagined himself to be a god on earth and desired to join Homer and Vergil as one of the great poets and musicians, but he lacked the gifts of the greats. His excellence was imaginary.
In 64 AD, Nero set the city of Rome on fire. He wanted to create a new Rome to satisfy his artistic genius and the only way to create was by first destroying. After the fire had ended, when the people seemed to be realizing that it was Nero’s doing, Nero blamed the fire on the Christians and led a terrible persecution against them in Rome. Some Christians were forced to confess their sins after being tortured, although they had done nothing. This convinced the people more that it was the Christians who burned their city. As his persecution of Christians continued, Nero also took the lives of St. Paul and St. Peter. This was the first great persecution of Christians by Rome.
Persecution in the 2nd-3rd Centuries
The warnings and promises Our Lord made to His followers were surely fulfilled as the Church spread through the world. In a letter written by a Christian in the early 2nd century, the character of Christians is beautifully described:
“For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life.
They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all others; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death and restored to life. They are poor yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things and yet abound in all; they are dishonored and yet in their very dishonor are glorified. They are evil spoken of and yet are justified; they are reviled and bless; they are insulted and repay the insult with honor; they do good yet are punished as evildoers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred. To sum it all up in one word — what the soul is to the body, that are Christians in the world.”
-Epistle to Diognetes (130 AD)
Thus, the Christians were a people who loved all men yet were persecuted by all, just like their Lord. Surely the devil was behind this unreasonable malice and while persecutions flared up locally in different places, the first imperial persecution was that ordered by the emperor Maximinus Thrax in the 230s. The emperor called for the execution of Christian clergymen (bishops, priests, etc.).
A more terrible and complete persecution was called for by the emperor Decius in 250. The emperor ordered that Romans be required to make public sacrifices to the gods of Rome and pledge their allegiance to Rome. Strangely, when Christians refused to honor the gods they were called impious and atheists. The faithful Christians were arrested, tortured and killed for endangering Rome.
Persecution in the 4th Century
We have to realize that the Roman leaders who persecuted Christians weren’t all wicked men like Nero. Outside of crazy, murdering tyrants, emperors were of two sorts. Some emperors were more interested in maintaining political peace. These rulers, like Augustus, granted people in the Empire to worship their own gods and follow their own local customs so long as they obeyed the laws and paid taxes. Other rulers believed that there was no true peace wherever traditional Roman religious beliefs were not strictly observed. These emperors believed that Rome was made to be the greatest city of the world by her gods and by the religious customs of their ancestors, known in Latin as the mos maiorum. Leaders sometimes believed that if religious groups rejected the Roman gods and ways of the ancestors, they would anger the gods and bring evils upon Rome.
In 284 AD, Diocletian became emperor of Rome. He seems to have been one such emperor. His first important move was to purge his army of Christians, for it would be foolish to pray to the gods for help in battle and then enter battle with soldiers who anger those gods. Not content with this, Diocletian’s advisors suggested that he make Christianity illegal and punishable by death throughout the Empire. The emperor consulted the ancient oracle of the god Apollo and, receiving a positive response, ordered that all Christians in the Empire be put to death. This gave local officials the authority to hunt out and put Christians to death. Thousands and thousands of Christians were killed during the time of suffering, but the Church grew and grew. This period of Church history is called The Great Persecution.
The Rise of Constantine
Fortunately, for the Christians, the wishes of the emperor were not always carried out and in some parts of the Empire (particularly the northwest), Christians were able to escape death. Many other Christians, were eager to die for Christ and, rather than run from the danger, challenged the Romans and died gloriously. The courage of the martyrs led many to convert to Christianity, and in many places, the goal of exterminating Christians backfired. The Church grew faster.
Nevertheless, persecution kept Christianity underground and private in many places and that was not good for the Gospel. The Roman world needed the Church and persecution was a serious obstacle to the Church in many places. It is interesting to note that while Our Lord promised His disciples that the Christian life would not be easy, He also promised that the Church would fill the earth. In the Gospel of St. Matthew, Our Lord spoke figuratively of the kingdom of heaven, foretelling the days of glory that would come:
“The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field. Which is the least indeed of all seeds; but when it is grown up, it is greater than all herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come, and dwell in the branches thereof. “
What this parable suggests is that the days will come in which the Church would grow from the most humble people into the greatest. In God’s goodness, the time for this change had come in the 4th century. There was a humble woman in Rome, an inn-keeper, who would prove to be quite an important person in the history of the Christian Church.
Helena was of humble birth, yet married (not really) a man who would become very great in the Roman Empire–Constantius Chlorus. For her husband, in 274 AD, Helena bore a son, named Constantine. Unfortunately, to become great, Constantius had to marry (really) another woman who gave him good political connections. He married the step-daughter of the emperor Maximian.
The Empire was ruled at the time by four “co-emperors”, called tetrarchs, a system that was established by Diocletian. Really this was a duarchy (like in ancient Sparta), where the successors were named in advance and assigned to rule other parts of the Empire. When one of the senior co-emperors (called Augusti) died, one of the junior co-emperors (called Caesari) would replace him and a successor named to take the place of the former junior emperor. Diocetian named Maximian his senior co-emperor and Galerius his junior co-emperor and successor. Maximian named Constantius his junior co-emperor and successor. The tetrarchy, then, was made up of Diocletian, Maximiam, Galerius and Constantius.
Because of this political marriage, Constantius was named his successor, and was appointed to rule in the western part of the Empire (Gaul and Britain). When Maximian died, Constantius took his place as senior co-emperor and his son Severus was named his successor. However, when Constantius died in 306, his army insisted that Constantine be his successor and pledged their allegiance to Constantine. This began the break-down of Diocletian’s system and led to a battle for power. At the end of this battle, there would be one emperor.
The battle ultimately came down to Maxentius and Constantine–and it was a battle for control of the Empire. Constantine led his troops toward Rome to face Maxentius himself. However, before going into battle, one of the most wonderful events in world history occurred. Constantine was well aware of the fact that he was outnumbered and unlikely to win his battle against Maxentius. This led him into a deep personal struggle. He wanted to pray for divine help, but didn’t know who to pray to. He knew that many rulers had prayed to the gods and suffered miserable deaths–and that his enemies would be praying to those same gods. Why pray, he thought, to gods who cannot save? As he wrestled with this difficult question, he thought of his father Constantius. Constantius had enjoyed great success but differed from all of the other Roman rulers. He differed in that he did not persecute the Christians. The reason, in fact, why Christians enjoyed greater safety in the western part of the Empire was because Constantius did not carry out Diocletian’s orders to kill them. This led Constantine to wonder whether the god of the Christians might be the god he should pray to for help against Maxentius. The problem was that Constantine knew nothing about the god of the Christians.
God, however, made Constantine’s decision easy. Eusebius, who live with Constantine in the 4th century, narrated for us the story of Constantine’s decision:
“He called on him with earnest prayer and supplications that he would reveal to him who he was, and stretch forth his right hand to help him in his present difficulties. And while he was thus praying with fervent entreaty, a most marvelous sign appeared to him from heaven…Constantine said that about noon, when the day was already beginning to decline, he saw with his own eyes the trophy of a Cross of light in the heavens, above the sun, and bearing the inscription, “IN HOC SIGNO VINCES”. At this sight he himself was struck with amazement, and his whole army also, which followed him on this expedition, and witnessed the miracle.
He said, moreover, that he doubted within himself what the import of thisapparition could be. And while he continued to ponder and reason on its meaning, night suddenly came on; then in his sleep the Christ of Godappeared to him with the same sign which he had seen in the heavens, and commanded him to make a likeness of that sign which he had seen in the heavens, and to use it as a safeguard in all engagements with his enemies.
At dawn of day he arose, and communicated the marvel to his friends: and then, calling together the workers in gold and precious stones, he sat in the midst of them, and described to them the figure of the sign he had seen, bidding them represent it in gold and precious stones.
Now it was made in the following manner. A long spear, overlaid with gold, formed the figure of the cross by means of a transverse bar laid over it. On the top of the whole was fixed a wreath of gold and precious stones; and within this, the symbol of the Saviour’s name, two letters indicating the name of Christ by means of its initial characters, the letter P being intersected by X in its centre: and these letters the emperor was in the habit of wearing on his helmet at a later period. From the cross-bar of the spear was suspended a cloth, a royal piece, covered with a profuse embroidery of most brilliant precious stones; and which, being also richly interlaced with gold, presented an indescribable degree of beauty to the beholder. This banner was of a square form, and the upright staff, whose lower section was of great length, bore a golden half-length portrait of the pious emperor and his children on its upper part, beneath the trophy of the cross, and immediately above the embroidered banner. The emperor constantly made use of this sign of salvation as a safeguard against every adverse and hostile power, and commanded that others similar to it should be carried at the head of all his armies.
-Eusebius, The Life of Constantine
Thus, in a moment, Constantine was led to pray to Our Lord. It was 312 AD when he received a vision in answer to his desire to know the truth and Constantine went forward, with the sign of the Cross before his army and destroyed the army of Maxentius, winning complete control of the Roman Empire.
The Edict of Milan
After witnessing the saving power of God, Constantine was not unfaithful in giving thanks. In 313, once his power was established in Rome, Constantine met with a remaining co-emperor, Licinius, in the Italian city of Milan and celebrated a marriage between Licinius and his younger sister. There, Constantine and Licinius issued the famous Edict of Milan. This edict (law) ended the persecution of Christians throughout the entire Roman Empire. Constantine granted to the Christians (and other religions) freedom to worship publicly, so long as the peace of Rome was sought by them. Moreover, in restitution for the wrongs done to Christians in recent years, Constantine ordered that all lands and buildings that had been wrongfully taken away from the Christians–even if they had been bought by others–should be returned to them at no cost. By the grace of God, the years of terror had ended for the Christians.
As we conclude this lesson, it is important for us to return to Helena, who was mentioned earlier. When Constantine became emperor, he honored his mother publicly and gave her the title of “Augusta”. This is a beautiful story considering how she had been abandoned by her husband Constantius for a more prominent woman. Now, there was no woman more prominent in the Empire. Helena converted to Christianity as a result of her son’s experience and not only became a Christian, but reached the perfection of sainthood. She used her influence to do great things for the honor of Christ, paying for the building of churches throughout the Empire and funding special projects in the land of Israel. She had a church built on the spot where Christ was believed to have been born and on the mountain from which He was believed to have ascended into heaven. She is now celebrated in the Church throughout the world as St. Helena.
Constantine went on to fulfill a complicated role as pagan emperor and slowly maturing Christian convert. He accomplished great military conquests and strengthened the Roman Empire greatly. In 330, he moved the capital from Rome to the ancient city Byzantium, which he renamed Constantinopolis, the “City of Constantine”. His thoughts were thoroughly pagan, yet his heart was Christian and that heart slowly transformed his thoughts. Modern Christians often judge Constantine unfairly, expecting of him a faith of the 21st rather than the 4th century. He was, after all, a convert in quite a strange position! It’s easy to criticize a man whose burden and experience we do not have to bear. Some complain that he really didn’t care about Christianity, but simply tried to make Christians happy to keep the peace during his rule. However, when we consider the world in which he lived and the fact that he single-handedly transformed the life of Christians in a moment, how can anyone question whether or not God was with him? He had nothing to gain politically from Christians, but believed in their God, who had appeared to him, spoken to him and given him victory. To spend too much time criticizing his imperfect Christian behavior is ridiculous. Let us consider his Christian contributions:
Constantine ended the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire and set all of the imprisoned Christians free.
He made restitution to the Christians for lands and property that had been taken away from them.
He freed the Church from paying taxes or performing any services for the state.
Constantine was generous in giving alms to the poor and in the building and adornment of Christian churches.
He surrounded himself with the Church’s bishops as his advisors.
Constantine arranged the Council of Nicea in 325, which produced for us the Nicene Creed, which we recite at Mass.
He built the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople in 300 BC and was buried there.
Now, how is it possible that a man with such a list of achievements could possibly be dishonored by modern men who suggest he was no Christian? Yes, he was baptized just before his death, but this was one approach to baptism in his day and is not unreasonable if one focuses on the ability of baptism to wash away one’s sins. The fact that he wasn’t baptized as we baptize today doesn’t mean that he rejected our idea of baptism and criticisms of his life because of this are unfair. Today, Constantine is honored as a saint by some parts of the Church, but is referred to as “Constantine the Great” throughout the entire world.