Lesallan Bostron

Ohio Christian University

THE2300 Historical Theology I (ONLSP242)

Dr. Trent Lambert

May 21, 2024

Preconceptions of the Historical Realities of Persecution

It is often assumed that Christians in the Roman Empire faced constant and widespread persecution. Many envision Christians being thrown to lions in arenas or being systematically hunted down and executed for their faith. This image is often reinforced by popular culture and media (Shelley, 2021).

Contrary to these preconceptions, historical evidence suggests that the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire was generally intermittent, contained, and dependent on each emperor’s political climate and temperament (Shelley, 2021The Roman Empire, initially a polytheistic society, faced ideological conflict as Christianity gained ground within its borders, clashing with the imperial cult of ancient Rome. Christians frequently faced punishment on charges of treason, alleged crimes, illegal assembly, and for introducing a foreign religious practice that was seen as leading to Roman apostasy (Shelley, 2021).

The initial localized persecution took place during Emperor Nero’s reign in Rome, while a broader persecution occurred during the rule of Marcus Aurelius. Following a period of respite, persecution was reignited under Emperors Decius and Trebonianus Gallus. The ultimate widespread persecution of Christians commenced during Diocletian’s reign and persisted until the issuance of the Edict of Milan, which granted tolerance to all religions, including Christianity (Shelley, 2021).

The historical reality contrasts with the preconception that Christian persecution was a constant, empire-wide phenomenon. While there were indeed periods of intense persecution, these were often localized and dependent on the specific policies of individual emperors. The notion of Christians being systematically hunted down across the entire empire is essentially a myth (Shelley, 2021).

Based on the historical context, a key takeaway might be the resilience and growth of Christianity despite periods of persecution. Despite facing significant adversity, the spread of the faith throughout the Roman Empire stands as a testament to the strength and conviction of its early followers (Shelley, 2021).

Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna, is a significant figure in early Christian history. He was a disciple of the Apostle John and is thought to have been ordained as the Bishop of Smyrna by John. Polycarp’s martyrdom is a poignant example of the trials faced by early Christians (Polycarp, 2008).

In summary, understanding the historical context of Christian persecution in the Roman Empire helps dispel common misconceptions and provides a more nuanced view of early Christian history. It underscores the resilience of the early church and the profound impact of figures like Polycarp in shaping the course of Christianity (Polycarp, 2008; Shelley, 2021).




Polycarp. (2008, August 8). Christian History | Learn the History of Christianity & the Church;

 Christian History.


Shelley, B. (2021). Church History in Plain Language Workbook. Zondervan Academic.