Decius became Roman emperor in 249 as a result of military victories. He made efforts to revive Rome’s “Golden Age“, adding the name of one of his most admired predecessors, Trajan, to his own, revived the ancient office of censor and restored the Colosseum. Restoration of traditional Roman piety was another of his aims, and after performing the annual sacrifice to Jupiter on January 3, 250, he issued an edict, the text of which is lost, ordering sacrifices to the gods to be made throughout the Empire. Jews were specifically exempted from this requirement. There is no evidence that this edict was intended to target Christians or that persecution of Christians was even thought of as one of the effects this decree would have; rather, it was seen as a way of unifying a vast Empire and as a sort of loyalty oath. Nevertheless, this was the first time that Christians had faced legislation forcing them to choose between abandoning their religious beliefs and death.
The edict ordered that everyone in the Empire, with the exception of Jews, must sacrifice and burn incense to the gods and to the well-being of the Emperor in the presence of a Roman magistrate, and get a written certificate, called a libellus, that this had been done, signed by the magistrate and witnesses. Numerous examples of these libelli survive from Egypt, for instance:
To the commission chosen to superintend the sacrifices. From Aurelia Ammonous, daughter of Mystus, of the Moeris quarter, priestess of the god Petesouchos, the great, the mighty, the immortal, and priestess of the gods in the Moeris quarter. I have sacrificed to the gods all my life, and now again, in accordance with the decree and in your presence, I have made sacrifice, and poured a libation, and partaken of the sacred victims. I request you to certify this below.
There is nothing in these extant libelli about any necessity of denying being a Christian, in contrast to the letter the Roman provincial governor Pliny the Younger had written to the Emperor Trajan in 112, in which he reported that suspected Christians who cursed Christ were freed, an indication that targeting or persecuting Christians was not a goal of Decius’ edict.
Julius Caesar had formulated a policy of allowing Jews to follow their traditional religious practices, a policy which was followed, and extended, by Augustus. This gave Judaism the status of a religio licita (permitted religion) throughout the Empire. Roman authorities respected tradition in religion and the Jews were following the beliefs and practices of their ancestors. It was well understood that Jews would not perform sacrifices to the Roman gods or burn incense before an image of the Emperor. In contrast, the Christians were a new phenomenon, and one that did not seem like a religion to Roman authorities at all; both the earliest extant Roman references to Christianity, Pliny the Younger and Tacitus in his Annals about 116, refer to Christianity as superstitio, excessive and non-traditional religiosity that was socially disruptive. Christians had abandoned the religion of their forefathers, and were seeking to convert others, which seemed dangerous to the Romans; refusal to sacrifice for the Emperor’s well-being appeared seditious.
Christians were prohibited by their faith from worshipping the Roman gods or burning incense before an image of the Emperor. Refusal resulted in the deaths of some notable Christians, including Pope Fabian, Babylas of Antioch and Alexander of Jerusalem. It is not known how much of an effort was made by the authorities to check that everyone in the Empire had a libellus certifying that they had sacrificed but it is known that numerous Christians, including Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, went into hiding. The numbers of people put to death for refusing to obtain a certificate is unknown. Large numbers of Christians performed the sacrifices as required, so much so that authorities at Carthage were overwhelmed by the numbers seeking a certificate and were forced to issue a notice requesting people to come back the next day.
The effects of the edict on Christian communities, many of which had until then lived peacefully and undisturbed, was traumatic. Many lapsed in their faith, and their readmission into the Christian community was opposed by the schismatic Novatian. In most churches, those who had lapsed were accepted into communion. Some African dioceses, however, refused to re-admit them.
Indirectly, the Decian persecution led to the Donatist schism, because the Donatists refused to embrace those who had obtained the certificates.By 251, efforts to enforce the edict had died down, and although short-lived, the “Decian persecution” became in the collective memory of the church an episode of monstrous tyranny.
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