When religious cults begin, they often attract suspicion, contempt, and concern.
It’s not new. Civilizations have been wary of new and unknown religious cults for centuries. In the early centuries of the Christian movement, the Roman Empire was one of many empires that distrusted the followers of “The Way” of Jesus Christ. The Romans viewed Christianity as a problematic cult that needed to be managed or even eliminated.
The Roman Empire sporadically persecuted Christians for two main reasons. First, it was a “new” and unknown religious movement. Christianity was a religion without land or a long history. At that time, what was older was trustworthy. Anything new or innovative was viewed with suspicion or perceived as a threat. This is why the Romans had a policy of tolerance towards the Jewish people. The Romans didn’t like Jews, but Jewish civilization was ancient and had a homeland. The Roman Empire granted Jews an exemption from worshiping Roman gods and goddesses as long as they submitted to the political laws of Rome.
Second, the Romans believed that Christian worship included subversive elements because Christians did not worship Roman gods and goddesses. In the early centuries of the first millennium, this was a big deal because the contemporary idea of a separation between religion and politics was laughable. The general feeling within the Roman Empire was that as long as the gods and goddesses were worshiped correctly, Rome would win wars, earn money, achieve dominion, and be protected from plagues, fires, and famine. If the gods and goddesses were not worshiped properly, Rome would lose wars, lose money, and suffer plagues, fires, famines, etc. Christians refused to offer sacrifices to Roman gods and goddesses or participate in imperial cults.
Christians and Romans agreed on one thing: what one did with one’s religious life had a direct impact on all other aspects of life and one’s community. So even though most Roman gods and goddesses were for peace and prosperity, for Christians worshiping gods and goddesses was not only idolatry, but also complicity and sanction for perpetuated evils. by the Roman Empire, such as endless war, infanticide, slavery, greed. , ruthless ambition and treating the poor and sick like disposable utensils. The Roman Empire and Christianity agreed that the “ways of Caesar” could not be reconciled with the “way of Christ”.
For these reasons, the Romans viewed Christianity as a seditious cult. Hence the persecutions under Nero and Domitian in the first century; under Septimius Severus, Decius and Valerian in the third century; and finally the infamous and most severe persecutions under Diocletian in the early 4th century. When Constantine rose to take power, the persecutions ended.
This article also appears in the July 2022 issue of US Catholic (vol. 87, no. 7, page 49). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
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