The first followers of Jesus had a very rough time. As we have seen, their rabbinical Jewish brethren disapproved of Jesus and proselytism by apostles and their associates.
Then the full weight of the Roman state was thrust against the Christians. To Roman officials, the Christian refusal to publicly worship the deified Imperator and the approved gods of Greece and Rome was an affront to the social order.
A similar confrontation had arisen in the Jewish War of 66-73, which was a replay of the Maccabean Revolt of 167 to 160 BCE against a branch of Alexander the Great's empire. (An episode in the latter revolt is still recalled in the Jewish feast of Hannukkah.)
There was a Judaic obduracy in the Christians' refusal to bow to the Greco-Roman syncretism, which was capable of absorbing almost any belief or god. Indeed, in Rome there still stands the ancient Pantheon, the temple where Romans worshiped all foreign or unknown gods.
To Romans, after all, worship was a cultus, a propitiatory set of rituals to seek benefit from superhuman powers ruling the world. The word "agriculture" comes from the Roman cult to gods of fertility, to make crops abundant and cattle plentiful. In contrast, both to Jews and Christians, worship was and remains a grateful acknowledgment of the one God under whom all exists, with whom one dares not make trades.
The first Roman persecution was that of Nero in the year 64. A list of major campaigns of roving arrests, trials and executions of Christians would include the following persecutions, named by the reigning emperor:
- Domitian, 89-96, believed to inspire the book of Revelation;
- Trajan, 109-111, mostly near the Caucasus region;
- Marcus Aurelius, notably in 117 in Lyons, with crowds joining in vicious attacks; notable victim, Polycarp in 167.
- Septimius Severus (emperor 193-211), who issued a decree against Christians, notable victims were Sts. Perpetua and Felicity;
- Decius, starting decree in 250 requiring all but Jews to worship the gods;
- Valerian, ordered all Christian priests to worship the gods in 247;
- Diocletian, the last and one of the fiercest persecutions, 303-311.
Persecution molded the Early Church in keeping its rituals, such as the Eucharist, secret and confined to private homes, inspiring the popular notion that Christians were atheists, as they worshipped no god that anyone could see.
Another effect was to prompt Christian communities to keep lists of those killed in persecution—becoming martyrs (witnesses, per ancient Greek) of the faith—that were read in Eucharistic prayers, commending them to God's care. This is the original source of the veneration of saints.
Persecution was also viewed as a sign of the "last days" foretold by Jesus Christ and inspired apocalyptic thought. Revelation is one of several texts from the second century that dwell on the turmoil thought to precede the return of the Lord in glory.
Christians' secrecy led to suspicion of casual converts, especially those thought likely to give Christian communities away, and also inspired non-Christians to accuse Christians of rumored evil practices, such as drinking the blood of children they had killed.
Moreover, as Rome's military fortunes reversed and the Barbarian onslaught was felt in Rome and throughout the empire, Romans blamed the Christians and their talk of love and peace for corrupting society and causing its decline.
In response, there arose Christian writers who launched apologetics, or discourses to defend the faith against slurs or misunderstandings. These were mostly written for Christians—by then literate and including members of the nobility—to aid them in their self-defense, only later becoming a form of Christian advocacy.
To my mind the persecutions remain the strongest evidence that the Christian faith is not merely a matter of feel-good spirituality but of principles that require strength and perseverance. The martyrs stand as people from another time and another place who thought their faith was something for which it was worth dying.