Roman Persecution of the Early Church


In A.D. 64, when Rome was set ablaze, many blamed Nero for intentionally setting the city on fire while he was in a fit of rage. Nero soon discovered this provoked the wrath of the Roman citizenry; as a result, he attempted to divert the torrent of public outrage from himself, by blaming the Christians. They were already highly disliked and barely tolerated as the propagators of what was considered “a pernicious superstition,” and the tyrant Nero, no doubt, believed that the mob of the metropolis of Rome was prepared to believe any report to the discredit of these that belonged to the sect of the Nazarene. But even the pagan historian who records the commencement of this first imperial persecution, and who was deeply prejudiced against the disciples of Christ, bears testimony to the falsehood of the accusation.

Nero”, says Tacitus, “found wretches who were induced to confess themselves guilty; and, on their evidence, a great multitude of Christians were convicted, not indeed on clear proof of their having set the city on fire, but rather on account of their hatred of the human race. They were put to death amidst insults and derision. Some were covered with the skins of wild beasts, and left to be torn to pieces by dogs; others were nailed to the cross; and some, covered over with flammable matter, were lighted up, when the day declined, to serve as torches during the night. The Emperor lent his own gardens for the exhibition. He added the sports of the circus, and assisted in person, sometimes driving a curricle, and occasionally mixing with the rubble in his coachman’s dress. At length these proceedings excited a feeling of compassion, as it was evident that the Christians were destroyed, not for the public good, but as a sacrifice to the cruelty of a single individual.[1]

In the evening, it is reported, that Nero would walk through his gardens that would be illuminated by the burning bodies of Christians. Some writers have maintained that the persecution under Nero was confined to Rome; but various testimonies concur to prove that it extended to the provinces. Paul seems to contemplate its spread throughout the Empire when he tells the Hebrews that they had “not yet resisted unto blood striving against sin,” Hebrews 12:4, and when he exhorts them not to forsake the assembling of themselves together as they “see the day approaching” Hebrews 10:25. Peter also apparently refers to the same circumstance in his letter to the brethren “scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia,” when he announces “the fiery trial” which was “to try” them, I Peter 4:12, and when he tells them of  judgment beginning “at the house of GodI Peter 4:17.   The persecution by Nero was intense and horrific. Many Christians lost their lives by order of Nero including the Apostles Paul and Peter.[2] The horror with which his name was so long regarded by members of the Church in all parts of the Empire strongly corroborates the statement that the attack on the disciples in the capital was only the signal for the commencement of a general persecution.


After the death of Nero, the Church enjoyed a break from persecution, but when Domitian, in A.D. 81, succeeded to the government, the work of persecution recommenced. Domitian governed the Empire fifteen years, but his persecution of the Christians appears to have been limited to the latter part of his reign. About this time the Apostle John, “Who bare record of the word of God, and of the testimony of Jesus Christ” Revelation 1:2, was sent as an exile into Patmos, a small rocky island in the Aegean Sea not far from the coast of Asia Minor. It is said that he had previously survived unhurt from a cauldron of boiling oil into which he had been plunged into while in Rome by order of the Emperor;[3] but this account, from a writer who lived about a century afterwards is the earliest record of this, and has been questioned as authentic.

While Christianity during this time, though facing heavy persecution and disdain, was gradually attracting more and more attention, it was also at the same time nobly demonstrating its power as the great regenerator of society. The religion of pagan Rome could not satisfy the wants of the soul; it could neither improve the heart nor invigorate the intellect; and it was now rapidly losing its hold on the consciences of the people. The high places of idol worship often exercised a most demoralizing influence. The vices of some of its most distinguished professors were notorious; and they enjoyed neither the confidence nor the respect of the mass of the people. But, even under the most unpromising circumstances, it soon appeared that Christianity could accomplish social and spiritual changes of a very extraordinary character. The Church of Corinth was perhaps one of the least exemplary of the early Christian communities, and yet it stood upon a moral eminence far above the surrounding population; and, from the roll of its own membership, it could produce cases of conversion to which nothing parallel could be found in the whole history of heathendom.

Paul was able to say to this church “Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God” I Corinthians 6:9-11. The gospel proved itself sufficient to meet the basest needs of man and the highest aspirations of him too. It revealed to men a Friend in heaven who “sticketh closer than a brother;” Proverbs 18:24, and it assured him of eternal happiness in the enjoyment of fellowship with God, it imparted to him a peace that passeth all understanding. The Roman people witnessed an awe inspiring event when they saw the primitive followers of Christ dying for Him in the fires of martyrdom. The pagans did not so value their beliefs; but here was a religion which was accounted “better than life.” You must think that the flames which illuminated the gardens of Nero supplied some spiritual light to the crowds who were present at the sad scenes; and in the unshakable spirit of the first sufferers, the thoughtful citizen might have recognized a belief in a carpenter’s son from Nazareth, was much more than that, and that is was destined to yet shake the very foundations of the world for Christ. (Acts 17:6 – And when they found them not, they drew Jason and certain brethren unto the rulers of the city, crying, These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also;)

After Domitian, there was no officially sanctioned persecution of Christians, though persecution was still carried on by local governments, and many Christian leaders were put to death, including Ignatious, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Cyprian. [4]

When the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180 A.D.) came to power he issued a decree that those who would identify Christians to the Roman authorities would them in turn be given their property. As a result of this decree throughout the Roman Empire Christians were being turned in by their neighbors. Many were beheaded and thousands more were thrown to wild animals to provide entertainment for thousands of spectators who flocked to the Roman amphitheaters. [5] Many Christians were burned and their ashes were thrown into the wind “to prevent their resurrections”, was the reason given by the Romans as to why they took this extra step with their remains.

The worst persecution came under the reign of Diocletian, who devoted the full resources of the military to hunt down and destroy all Christians. It is estimated that millions of Christians died during that period![6] Diocletian’s successor, Galerius, condemned this persecution and shortly before the end of his life ordered the end of it. Galerius was succeeded by Constantine who officially adopted Christianity as the religion of the empire; though there is no solid evidence he ever became a Christian himself. Constantine began to mix the teachings of Christianity with that of various pagan religions that had significant numbers of followers. Constantine was trying to offer something for everyone but in reality this began to hasten the pollution that had already began creeping into the church’s doctrines and practice. Also, this practice of mixing some of the teachings and traditions of local pagan religions with that of the church, was adopted by the Catholic church as a standard practice.


Genesis 50:20 “But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive.”

It has been noted all throughout church history that some of the greatest times of expansion and growth of Christianity have come while it was under some form of persecution. If you look at the explosion of growth, mission works, evangelization that occurred after the crucifixion of Christ: what prompted the Apostles and other believers to scatter from Jerusalem and go into the uttermost parts of the world? – You would have to say that Persecution was a big factor.

Now look at the Christians of the Roman empire, while they were being persecuted and fearing for their life, would not they think of leaving this area and going someplace safe? This in turn would spread their belief and witness to this new area and spread the gospel. Under mild persecution some would leave and take the good news of the Gospel with them, but under heavy persecution most of them that could leave would leave and spread the Gospel even further and greater.

How the Lord works is something we cannot always comprehend, we just need to trust Him through the hardships and trials. Isaiah 55:8-9 “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” The Lord has a reason for everything and can used anything for the advancement of His plan, including persecution.

As a result of the heavy Roman persecution, think of all the remote locations, mountain top villages, faraway lands, that these Christians fled to, then all these places now had devout Christians living with them, testifying of Christ. God only knows of the countless millions that were saved and in Heaven today as a result of this horrific chapter in church history. God took what men meant for evil and used it for good (Genesis 50:20) and countless souls are in Heaven as a result. All those that had their lives taken and their blood spilt for the name of Christ by the hands of the Romans were not in vain. God honored their efforts and sacrifice, just as His word says, and used this dark time in church history as an opportunity to shine His light of redemption even farther and greater as a result.


The early church suffered heavy persecution, yet it flourished and grew rapidly. Times of heavy persecution are often times of great expansion in the church. Times of trial in a Christians life are often times of great spiritual growth. So too God has used times of trial of the church in general to bring about great growth in the church.

The Emperor Nero persecuted the early Christians in a devastatingly way, yet they kept living for Christ, they kept evangelizing, they kept growing, they kept doing missionary work. It should not depend on who is in charge of government, we should just keep working and witnessing for Christ. It should not matter the laws they put in place, if those laws violate Scripture we need to follow Scripture. God and His word is the ultimate authority and because of that “we ought to obey God rather than man” Acts 5:29.

Nero died A.D. 68, and the war which involved the destruction of Jerusalem and of upwards of a million of the Jews, was already well underway. The holy city fell in A.D. 70; and the Mosaic economy, which had been virtually abolished by the death of Christ, now reached its practical termination. At the same, as stated earlier, the prophecy of Daniel was literally fulfilled; for “the sacrifice and the oblation” were made to cease, Daniel 9:25-27.

The worst persecution came under the reign of Diocletian who devoted the full resources of the military to hunt down and destroy all Christians. It is estimated that millions of Christians died during that period![7] Diocletian’s successor, Galerius, condemned this persecution and shortly before the end of his life ordered the end of it. Galerius was succeeded by Constantine who officially adopted Christianity as the religion of the empire.


[1] Killen, W. (1859). The Ancient Church. New York, NY

[2] Paul was beheaded, and Peter was crucified by order of Nero according to the ancient historian Eusebeius

[3] Killen, W. (1859). The Ancient Church. New York, NY

[4] Dr, P. S. (2011). The Faithful Baptist Witness. Cleveland, GA: The Old Paths Publications.

[5] Dr, P. S. (2011). The Faithful Baptist Witness. Cleveland, GA: The Old Paths Publications.

[6] Dr, P. S. (2011). The Faithful Baptist Witness. Cleveland, GA: The Old Paths Publications.

[7] Dr, P. S. (2011). The Faithful Baptist Witness. Cleveland, GA: The Old Paths Publications.



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