Mythbusting Ancient Rome – Throwing Christians to the Lions
CHRISTIANS TO THE LIONS! rang without end through all quarters of the city.
So writes Henryk Sienkiewicz in his novel Quo Vadis (1895). By the end of the 19th century, the image of cowering Christians huddled in the arena awaiting their deaths as lions prowled towards them was the defining symbol of Roman religious persecution and the subject of many famous paintings.
The 1951 Hollywood version of Quo Vadis, starring Peter Ustinov and Deborah Kerr, enshrined this grisly scenario in popular culture. Today, the prevailing modern conception of the relationship between the Roman state and the Christians is that a number of emperors, including Nero and Marcus Aurelius, were responsible for introducing policies of persecution.
We would like to tackle two important questions about the treatment of Christians in the Roman Empire. Was persecution a consistent imperial policy, and what types of punishments were inflicted on Christians?
Blaming the Emperors
The myth of constant persecution largely stems from two works written in the early fourth century A.D., On the Deaths of the Persecutors by Lactantius, a Christian professor of Latin, and the Church History of Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea in modern-day Israel.
These authors were living in the reign of Constantine, the first Christian emperor, and tasked themselves with charting the history of Christian suffering up to this glorious moment. In both their works, the torture and execution of Christians in preceding centuries is associated with the emperors under whom they occurred. But the reality is that the punishment of Christians in the first three centuries A.D. was largely haphazard and not directed by imperial policy.
The emperor Nero is referred to as the first persecutor of the Christians by Lactantius. After the Great Fire of Rome in A.D. 64, when rumours swirled that the emperor himself was responsible, Nero blamed the Christians instead. According to the Roman historian Tacitus, Nero had the Christians covered in wild beast skins and torn to death by dogs.
Tacitus described Christianity as a “pernicious superstition” and the Christians themselves as degraded and sordid. However, no ancient writer suggests that these Christians were persecuted for their faith alone. They were charged with committing the crime of arson.
The unpopularity of the Christians with other Romans is made clear by letters exchanged between Pliny the Younger, governor of Bithynia (modern-day north Turkey) and the emperor Trajan in the early second century A.D. Pliny reported that the provincials had been denouncing others to him and even anonymously posting the names of suspected Christians. Trajan replied as follows:
They must not be searched for, but if they are denounced and found guilty they must be punished…
Polycarp was persecuted before an enthusiastic crowd in Smyrna. Polycarp from S. Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna/Wikimedia Commons
In the event that a Christian agreed to sacrifice to the Roman gods, the emperor decreed that all would be forgiven.
Trajan’s letter effectively expressed the Roman state policy regarding Christians – a sort of ancient “don’t ask, don’t tell” – which lasted until A.D. 250. However, this did not put an end to denunciations by provincials who felt uneasy or threatened by Christians in their communities.
We can see this in the case of Polycarp of Smyrna and the martyrs of Lyons and Vienne, who were harassed by members of the local population and subsequently brought to trial. This is how emperors such as Marcus Aurelius earned the label of persecutors.
However, the initiative to punish Christians did not come from the emperors at all, but from below. In the case of Polycarp, who was burned alive, the people of Smyrna are even said to have joined in enthusiastically to find wood for the fire. This was mob violence at its finest.
Not Just Lions…
The punishments meted out to Christians who admitted their religion and refused to sacrifice varied enormously. In the first and early second centuries A.D., Christians who were Roman citizens, including the apostle Paul, were executed by beheading, which was a quick and merciful end.
Later in the second century, beheading was a privilege to which only the highest-ranking citizens were automatically entitled. The “lesser sort”, as they were known, were subject to more violent punishments. These included being crucified, burned to death, and attacked by beasts.
Being condemned to the beasts was a particularly grisly end. It meant that you and your companions would be exposed in the arena to a variety of wild and ferocious animals, such as leopards, boars, and yes, lions, and required to fight for your lives.