11 Roman Rulers Who Tried to Destroy Christianity (and Failed)

“It is a persistent evil to persecute a man who belongs to the grace of God,” said the martyr St. Cyprian of Carthage. “It is a calamity without remedy to hate the happy.”

Carl Theodor von Piloty, “Nero Views the Burning of Rome,” ca. 1861
Carl Theodor von Piloty, “Nero Views the Burning of Rome,” ca. 1861 (photo: Public Domain)

Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar suggested, not without historical proof, that the early Christians were considered dangerous to the Roman Empire — which was on its last legs without even realizing it — and thus they were persecuted since “right from the beginning Christianity was seen as a total, highly dangerous revolution.” Part of this comes from the fact that the Roman hierarchy considered its Greek-imported polytheistic panoply of gods as necessary to maintaining public order. 

However, as we all know, it didn’t take long for the leaders of Rome to go from looking askance at these new Jewish “converts” to Christianity to murdering them wholesale.

Why this swing to the extreme?

Well, for one thing it’s always good for a single-party demagogue to have a scapegoat when things go wrong, and traditionally the Jewish people have had that role thrust on them. For another: if the rulers are also murderers, it makes elimination of their enemies much easier on their non-existent conscience. 

But who were these lunatic leaders? Here are 11 of the worst:

 

1. Nero (37-68)

The first, worst and best-known of the psychopathic Caesars, it didn’t hurt his successors that he’d committed such atrocities, as it made them easier to re-institute, or simply to continue with the carnage. His story and legend is so well-known that there’s no need to repeat it here, save that he began a blanket persecution of Christians. However, as Socialists like to find nice things to say about mass-murdering maniacs like Stalin (e.g., that he “industrialized the Soviet Union”), it has been attributed to Trajan that “Nero’s rule excelled all other emperors.” While it is true that Nero’s reign began well enough and he did get a lot of building done, he also commenced the full-blown slaughters of believers in Christ, and carried out atrocities that even our jaded post-modern sensibilities cringe at.

 

2. Vespasian (69-79)

Another emperor whose legacy included not only the persecution of Christians but the demolition of the beloved Temple of Jerusalem in AD 70. His decade-long rule saw Rome plant boots (or at least footprints) in both Bavaria and Britain. Vespasian was unique in that he’d been a senator and a soldier, so perhaps it’s no surprise he was Machiavellian before there was a term for it. He saw the formation of his dynasty, whose main legacy was the lunatic Domitian.

 

3. Domitian (81-96).

Almost every major writer of the time from Pliny to Suetonius claims that Domitian, who wound up ruling longer than almost any other Roman ruler in that period, was a tyrant. St. John the Apostle and Evangelist would agree, as he was immersed in a tub of boiling oil in AD 95 at the explicit command of this emperor. However, as we are told by Butler’s, the oil acted only as a refreshing bath, and Domitian had St. John, the Beloved Disciple, exiled to the isle of Patmos by Domitian, where he wrote the Book of Revelation (The Apocalypse) under inspiration.

 

4. Trajan (98-117)

According to the ancient writer Pliny, Trajan was at best a monarch, at least an autocrat, and at worst a tyrant. Even-handed in dealing with the Roman Senate during his lifetime — no small feat, as the emperors had at best a “stressed” relationship with that once-august body — the senators officially deified him upon his death, hence the famous “Trajan’s Column” in Rome, which stands to this day. For all of the publicity as being one of “Good Caesars,” he continued the persecution of the Christians unabated, and for good measure, expanded the Roman Empire more than any other ruler since Caesar Augustus by military conquest. He was also a fan of the bloody displays of horror of the gladiatorial games.

 

5. Hadrian (117-138)

Like Trajan, he was of Spanish descent (and perhaps Trajan’s cousin) and famous for his wall in northern Britain. Hadrian kept Trajan’s policy on Christians in place — there was no active house-to-house hunting out of them, but those who flouted the norms of the Roman polytheistic belief-system were persecuted. A poet-warrior, he took the fight to Britain (hence the wall), Africa, and ordered another brutal bulldozing of the Palestinian Jews. 

 

6. Marcus Aurelius (161-180)

Made famous in his time for being the Stoic philosopher-warrior and in our time by Richard Harris’ portrayal of him in the 2000 movie Gladiator, unquestionably Christian persecution increased during his reign, though some historians are quick to point out that this can’t be directly traced back to the emperor himself. “It’s good to remember that Christian persecution during this era was not quite as centralized as we think it to be: it was sporadic, and based more on various states and provinces rather than within Rome itself,” notes one professor of history. Regardless, Marcus Aurelius, for all his many military conquests, philosophical brilliance and centralization of Rome did nothing to prevent the persecution of Christians and perhaps much to foster it.

 

7. Maximinus the Thracian (235-238)

With Maximinus Thrace, we are on surer grounds of Christian killings on the part of the centralized Roman state, particularly in the person of the emperor. An authority no other than Eusebius states in his watershed history of the early Church that in the persecution of 235 Maximinus sent Sts. Hippolytus and Pope St. Pontian into exile, where they were reconciled and died on the Isle of Sardinia.

 

8. Decius (249-251)

One of two of the later Roman emperors (the other was Diocletian) who put their boots on the throat of Christian believers. In 250 Decius decided that all Christians had to pay homage to the Roman gods or be killed and he was as good as his evil words. This carnage became known as “The Decian Persecution” as it came directly from the Emperor himself. This persecution took the life of no less a personage than Pope St. Fabian. The persecution went so far as to prohibit Christian worship in the empire — period. Mercifully, Decius died one year after his edict had been in effect.

 

9. Valerian (253-260)

Valerian was a man whose reign (and reign of terror) got out of hand. Like Decius before him, he continued the killing of Christians, including such great saints as Lawrence the Deacon, Denis of Paris, Cyprian and Pope Sixtus II. However, he was continuously at war with the Persians, who wound up capturing the emperor who died in their captivity — which sent shockwaves throughout the empire, and was a harbinger that the Empire itself was beginning to show signs of dry-rot.

 

10. Diocletian (284-305)

Even worse than Decius, Diocletian brought about the “Great Persecution” which took the killing of Christians to all areas of the far-flung Roman empire. In one refreshing change of pace, Diocletian, who created so many early-martyr/saints by his sheer blood-lust, actually retired from office toward the end of his life. However, the damage was done and his pogrom against Christians was one of the all-time worst.

 

11. Constantius and Galerius (early 4th century)

These count as one selection, as the former ruled in the West and the latter in the East. Both continued a reign of terror which included, at the very least, the destruction of Christian churches, as well as the destruction of Christians themselves. However, Christian history has been kinder to Constantius since (a) he was “married” to St. Helena, who found the True Cross in the Holy Land, and (b) was the father of Constantine the Great (272-337), whose Edict of Milan in 313 established “tolerance” of Christianity — and, according to legend, he was baptized by St. Eusebius of Nicomedia. His father, however, was not, as some have maintained, a “closet-Christian” — and, worse, Galerius made up for Constantius’ diffidence on Christianity with all-out full-bore persecutions.

It’s worth noting that this list is incomplete on a number of levels. For one, the transition from one emperor to another was almost never a smooth transition of power in pre-Christian Rome. For another, there were often several competing combatants for the throne, sometimes lasting years at a time. Finally, there was the “tetrarchy,” where there were four rulers simultaneously.

But these are the men who, for good or ill, ruled the Roman empire while it tried its best to put-down the “heresy” of Christianity. We can all be glad that ultimately, by God’s grace, they failed, and Christianity went from being a persecuted sect to the state religion by the end of the 4th century.

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