Christians And The Roman Government From Trajan To Constantine

The relationship between the early Christians and the Roman government between 112 AD and the reign of Constantine was interesting. The policy of the emperor Trajan on the Christians was spelled out in a reply to letter sent to him by a provincial governor named Pliny the younger.  Pliny asked in his letter what the proper method of dealing with the Christians was. He said that he could not see anything unlawful in their practices, and that he was not actively seeking them out for punishment. Trajan replied that Pliny was doing the correct thing in not seeking them out, but he should punish them if they spoke out that they were Christians. This relationship continued with few, sporadic persecutions but no planned empire-wide ones. Then, in 250, the emperor Decius persecuted nonconformists, and especially the Christians, until 251. After that, from 257 to 258 were the Valerian persecutions, in which Christian bishops were forced to sacrifice to Roman gods, or else be executed. Then came the great persecution under Diocletian, which lasted from 303 to 305. Under the first edict, Christians were not allowed to assemble, and sacred books and churches were destroyed. After a fire at the palace gates, the Christians were suspected and Diocletian cracked down. Christians had to sacrifice to images of the emperor, or be executed. This was the last and most devastating of the persecutions. After Diocletian stepped down, the persecutions became lighter until the emperor Constantine was told in a vision while preparing for battle, “in this sign, you shall conquer”. Believing this to be a message from the Christian God, he outfitted his soldiers’ shields with the letters Chi-Rho, the first two letters of God’s name in Greek. He won the battle, and created the edict of Milan, which extended toleration to the Christians, ending the long string of suffering they had bared for many years.

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