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Roman Persecutions in the Second and Third Centuries

The brutal Roman persecutions lasted for three hundred years. The most severe persecutions in the second and third centuries were those under Trajan (A.D. 98–117), Septimius Severus (A.D. 193–211), Maximinus Thrax (A.D. 235–238), and Diocletian (A.D. 284–305). In A.D. 286, the Roman Empire was divided into East and West, but Diocletian reigned as emperor of the Eastern Empire until A.D. 305.


During these persecutions, Christians who refused to disown their faith or to worship the Roman gods (or idols) were thrown into cauldrons of boiling oil, crucified, beheaded, or cast into the arena to be devoured by lions. Some were thrown into the Tiber. Others were burned to provide light for their games at the Colosseum. Entire families, including children and women, were tortured beyond description. Those were terrible times. Rome, the seat of paganism and monstrous idolatry, was drenched in the blood of Christians. The bones of Christians who suffered martyrdom in that city can still be seen to this day in the underground catacombs where their fellow Christians buried them.

The period of Roman persecution was at the same time the Age of Martyrs. It was during this time that St. Ignatius of Antioch was devoured by lions at the amphitheater. St. Polycarp was burned at the stake and then stabbed to death when the fire failed to consume him. Saints Perpetua and Felicitas were slain by a sword. St. Lawrence was roasted on a gridiron. The names are too numerous to mention. But here is the thing: Had Christianity been a purely human invention, it would have been destroyed during these terrible Roman persecutions. But being the work of God, the torments suffered by Christians for their faith, instead of putting an end to Christianity, became the catalyst that propelled the further expansion of Christianity. The more Christians were persecuted, the more pagan people were converted. For this reason, Tertullian did not hesitate to say that the blood of Christians was the seed of Christianity. See Tertullian, The Apology, Chapter 50.

The Christian Martyrs' Last Prayer

A painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904)

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Of course, not all Christians died for their faith or became martyrs. For fear of being tortured or killed, some of them renounced their faith and became apostates. To save their lives, some even offered sacrifices to the Roman gods.

The Heresies

The persecutions, first by the Jews and later by the Romans, were not the only challenges faced by the early Christians. They also had to face the more important challenges to the Faith, known as heresies, which were unorthodox teachings by false teachers in the early Christian communities.

Although the seeds of heresy started in Palestine during the time of Simon Magus, the second and third centuries saw the rise of (a) Gnosticism, which taught that the world was eternal, and (b) Manicheism, which affirmed the existence of two eternal principles—one good and the other evil. Gnosticism has its roots in first-century Palestine, even before the Christian era. It is a mixture of various belief systems, predominantly pantheistic and idealistic, but with some elements copied from the Judaeo-Christian religion. Its errors persisted beyond the second century, and its influence may be seen even in present-day New Age belief systems.

In addition to these heresies, the third century witnessed the rise of three heresies against the Blessed Trinity. First, there was Sabellianism, which denied that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit were distinct Persons, but were merely three different modes or aspects of the same divine Substance. Another heresy, known as tritheism, did not merely deny the distinction between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit but went so far as to say that they were three different gods! Origen, a brilliant ecclesiastical writer of the third century, started as a great defender of Christianity but later became a heretic because of his unorthodox ideas. For example, he taught the doctrine of subordinationism (aka Origenism), which affirms that the Son and the Holy Spirit are subordinate rather than equal to the Father in being and nature.

Just as God raised martyrs to be heroic witnesses to the Faith during times of persecution, He also sent saintly scholars and men of learning to defend the Faith during the time of heresies. These were the great Fathers of the Church. For example, Saint Dionysius the Great opposed Sabellianism, while St. Gregory Thaumaturgus defended the Church against Sabellianism and tritheism. In the west, St. Irenaeus defended the Church against the Gnostics, who claimed to possess a secret revelation from Christ. Many of these heresies, such as Gnosticism, Manicheism, and Origenism, persisted after the third century and were opposed by future Church Fathers and Doctors.(The list of Fathers and Doctors of the Church is under the Charts Menu of this website.)

The Easter Controversy

In A.D. 155, Saint Polycarp of Smyrna and Pope St. Anicetus discussed the date of Easter. The Church of Smyrna and the Churches of the East calculated and celebrated Easter in a different way than the Church of Rome and the Western Churches. So, they each tried to persuade the other to agree on a common method of figuring out the date of Easter so that there would only be one Easter date for all of Christendom. But neither Saint Polycarp persuaded the pope nor the pope, Polycarp.

Saint Polycarp

An illustration from the Nuremberg Chronicles

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Pope St. Anicetus

His portrait in the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls

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Pope St. Anicetus and the Churches of the West desired to always celebrate the Lord's Resurrection on a Sunday. Saint Polycarp, following the custom of the Eastern Churches, wanted to link Easter with the Jewish Passover, which is the fourteenth day of the month of Nisan, regardless of the day of the week. Pope Anicetus insisted that we don't have to follow Jewish customs anymore, but St. Polycarp said that his method was the method of St. John the Apostle, whose disciple he was. Failing to persuade the pope, Saint Polycarp went back to Smyrna disappointed, but he at least got the pope's permission to continue celebrating Easter in their customary way.

Through the centuries, several proposals have been made to resolve this difference between the Eastern and Western Churches, but to this day, the controversy has not been fully resolved. Although most Christian Churches today agree to celebrate Easter on a Sunday, a fixed date for Easter has not been established.

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