My masters program at Washington University in St. Louis involved a series of seminars that focused heavily in the history and religion areas. Two courses, “Athens and Jerusalem” and “History of the Early Church,” shared a number of themes and readings. And one of those themes had to do with persecution of the early Christians in the Roman Empire during the period from Nero (circa 64 A.D.) to Constantine and the legalization of Christianity in 312 A.D.
The persecutions tended to be local or regional, and they tended to be sporadic. They were certainly not ongoing and empire-wide, with a few exceptions, notably toward the end of the period, when the Emperor Diocletian did authorize a persecution across the breadth of the empire (his wife and daughter, as it turns out, were Christians). But most of the persecutions were local or, at most, regional. (I can recall doing a research paper on the persecution in 177 A.D. at Lugdunum, what is now Lyon in France.)
As Douglas Boin notes in Coming Out Christian in the Roman World: How the Followers of Jesus Made a Place in Caesar’s Empire, Christianity didn’t just “emerge” legally with the Emperor Constantine at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 A.D. Nor was Christianity the cause of the empire’s fall, as Edward Gibbon (and others) argued. The story is more complex,
and Boin takes a painstaking view of rather disparate events and people from all over the Roman world to help explain what happened.
An assistant professor of Ancient and Late Antique Mediterranean History at Saint Louis University, Boin received a B.A. in Classics from Georgetown University and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in Classics from the University of Texas at Austin. He’s does extensive archaeological research at Ostia, once the seaport for the city of Rome.
He relies upon the writings of the early church fathers Tertullian, Cyprian, Ignatius of Antioch, among many others; original Latin / Roman sources, including like Tacitus, Trajan, and Cicero; and Jewish sources like 2 Maccabees and Philo of Alexandria. He ranges the empire, from Ostia and Rome to Alexandria and what is now Iraq.
And he goes beyond the period of Constantine and Christianity’s legalization, coming to the question of how Christianity, once an illegal and unpatriotic “cult,” managed to outlaw traditional Roman and other religions within a century of its own legalization (Ambrose of Milan, a figure connected to St. Augustine, plays a significant role in influencing imperial policy).
Coming Out Christian is an academic work but written in an accessible, sometimes almost entertaining style. And because it’s an academic work, and not a theological one, Boin does not accept traditionally ascribed authorship of a number of parts of the New Testament.
But even from my own evangelical perspective, I find it a valuable book, not the least reason being how contemporary scholarship is employed to understand ancient questions and events.
Photograph by Enzo Abramo via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.