3.1. The grave crisis of the third century (200-300)

The Third Century saw Rome in very deep crisis. The relationship between Christianity and the roman empire changed (even though not all noticed it).

This great crisis is described by the greek historian Herodian: «In the previous 200 years, there never was such a quick succession of rulers, of civil wars, of wars against tribes on the borders and of great migrations of peoples. There were innumerable attacks on cities within the Empire and in many barbarian countries, earthquakes and pestilence, rulers and usurpers. Some were in charge for a long time, others held power for the briefest of periods. Some were proclaimed emperor and crowned one day and overthrown the next.»

The Roman Empire had been gradually extended by the conquest of new provinces. This continuing expansion allowed the exploitation of ever new and greater territory (Egypt was the granary of Rome, Spain and Gaul were its vineyards and olive groves). Rome had seized ever newer mines (Dacia was conquered for its gold mines). The wars of acquisition produced countless multitudes of slaves (prisoners of war), unpaid manpower. 

Towards the middle of the 3rd century (ca 250) the party was over. In the East was formed the mighty Sassanid empire which launched strong attacks on the Romans. In 260, the emperor Valerian and his whole army of 70,000 men were captured and the provinces of the East laid waste. Plague devastated the surviving legions and overflowed the empire. In the North was formed another alliance of strong peoples: the Goths spread over Malaya and Dacia. The Emperor Decius and his army were massacred. The Goths spread devastation from the North as far as Sparta, Athens and Ravenna. The piles of rubble they left were terrible. Most of the people of culture lost their lives or were taken into slavery, and could not be replaced. Life returned to a primitive and savage state. Agriculture and commerce were wiped out.

In this time of great uncertainty, the security guaranteed by the State collapsed. Now were the gentiles (=pagans) to become “irrational”, no longer having confidence in the imperial order but in the protection of the strangest and most mysterious gods. On the Quirinal rose a temple to the Egyptian goddess Isis. The emperor Elagabulus imposed the worship of the sun-god, the people had recourse to magical rites to drive away plague. Yet even in the Third Century there were terrible persecutions of the Christians. No longer was it because of their “irrationality” (in a sea of people confiding in magical rites, Christianity was the only rational system) but in the name of renewed ethnic cleansing. Many emperors (although barbarians by birth) saw in a return to centralised unity the only hope of salvation. So they decreed the extermination of the ever more numerous Christians so as to expel from the roman ethnic group, this “extraneous body” which was more and more seen as a different ethnic group ready to take over the empire founded on force of arms, robbery and violence and now in decline.

3.2. Septimius Severus, Maximin the Thracian, Decius and Gallus.

With Septimius Severus (193-211), founder of the Syriac dynasty there seemed to be announced for Christianity a phase of undisturbed development. Christians occupied influential positions at court. Only in the tenth year of his reign (202) did the emperor radically change his stance. In 202 appeared an edict of Septimius Severus which prescribed grave penalties for those who became converts to Judaism or to Christianity. The emperor’s sudden change can only be understood by assuming that he realized that in striving strongly for religious unity for the whole of society throughout the world. They were therefore suspect.

The damage was most obvious in the abolition of the celebrated Christian School of Alexandria and the Christian communities of North Africa.

Maximin the Thracian (235-238) reacted violently and coarsely against the friends of his predecessor Alexander Severus, who had been tolerant towards Christians. He threw the Church of Rome into confusion with the deportation to the mines in Sardinia of the two leaders of the Christian community, bishopPontian and the presbyterHippolytus.

The attitude of the mob towards Christians had not changed. There was launched in Cappadocia a true and proper hunt for Christians when they seemed to be to blame for an earthquake. This popular reaction tells us that the Christians were still considered in general as “strangers and malefactors” (cf. K Baus, Le origini, p 282-287).

Under the emperor Decius (249-251) there was let loose the first systematic persecution of the Church, aimed at finally wiping them out. Decius (successor of Philip the Arab who was very favourable to Christians and may even have been one himself), was originally a senator from Pannonia, and was very attached to roman traditions. Being deeply conscious of the pollitical and econbmic break up of the empire, he believed that would restore unity by gathering all the energies of the protectors of the state. All the inhabitants were required to sacrifice to the gods, after which they would receive a certificate. Those who refused this act of submission were arrested, tortured and executed. At Rome at Roòe were executed bishopFabian and with him many priests and laity. At Alexandria there was a persecution accompanied by plundering. In Asia the martyrs were numerous: the bishops of Pergamum, Antioch and Jerusalem. The great scholar Origen was subjected to inhuman torture and survived the sufferings for four years (reduced to a mere human shell).

Not all Christians endured suffering. Many agreed to sacrifice. Others, by bribes, secretly obtained the famous certificates. Among them, according to letter 67 of Cyprian, there were two Spanish bishops. The persecution which had seemed the death blow for the Church, ended with the demise of Decius in battle against the Goths on the plains of Dobrugia (Romania). (cfr. M Clèvenot, I Cristiani e il potere, p. 179s). The next seven years (250-257) were ones of tranquillity for the Church, disturbed only at Rome by the outbreak of persecution when Trebonianus Gallus (251-253) had the head of the Christian community,Cornelius, arrested and exiled to CentumCellae (Civitavecchia). The conduct of Gallus was probably a giving in to the mood of the people, who blamed the Christians for the outbreak of disease devastating the empire. The Christians were still seen as “superstitious”, strange and malicious! (cf. K. Baus, Le Orgini, p 292).

3.3. Valerian and the financial state of the empire.

In the fourth year of the reign of Valerian (257) something unforeseen occurred, a severe and bloody persecution of the Christians, However, it was not due to religion but rather to money. Because of the precarious situation of the Empire, the imperial counsellor (and later usurper)Macrianus persuade Valerian to confiscate the goods of wealthy Christians. There were illustrious martyrs (from bishop Cyprian and Pope Sixtus II, to the deacon Lawrence). However, it was simply robbery under the pretext of ideological motives, and ended with the tragic death of Valerian. In 259 he and all his army fell prisoners to the Persians. He was reduced to life as a slave and died.

The forty years of peace which followed, favoured the internal and external development of the Church. Several Christians reached high office in the State and proved themselves capable and honest.

3.4. Financial disaster falls into the lap of Diocletian

In 271, the emperor Aurelian ordered his soldiers and roman citizens to abandon to the Goths the vast province of Dacia with its gold mines. The defence of this territory would cost by then too much blood.

Since there were no more provinces to conquer and despoil, all attention was focused on the ordinary citizen. On them fell taxes, the ever-more onerous chores (maintenance of aqueducts, canals, sewers, roads, public buildings. . .). They literally did not know how they would manage to survive and pay the taxes. In 284, after a brilliant military career,Diocletian, of Dalmatian origin, was proclaimed emperor. Now the taxes would have to be paid per testa (head)and per jugero i.e. for each individual and for each unit of land under cultivation.

The collection was entrusted to a shrewd and lumbering bureaucracy, which ensured it was impossible to avoid the payment. It punished inhumanly those who tried and was very costly to the state.

The taxes were so heavy that they took away all incentive to work. Remedy: it was forbidden to abandon one’s job, the piece of soil one cultivated, the workshop or military service.
«This was just the beginning – wrote F. Oertel, professor of ancient history at the University of Bonn – of the oppressive measures of the State which squeezed the last drop from the population. . . Under Diocletian, a complete socialist state was brought into being: terrorism by officials, severe limitation of individual freedom, progressive state interference, heavy taxation.»