Little Bits of History

January 20

Posted in History by patriciahysell on January 20, 2017

250: Decius issues an edict. Trajan Decius was the 34th Roman Emperor and ruled from 249 until his death in June 251. In an effort to return Rome and her Empire to former glory days, the leader opted to return to the old ways and this included restoring public piety and adhering to the State religion. To that end, he sent out an impressive edict which is referenced in many surviving Egyptian texts. The gist of the edict was that all inhabitants of the Empire were compelled to make a sacrifice before the magistrate by a certain date which seemed to have been based on when the message arrived in a particular area. When the citizen made the appropriate sacrifice to the Roman gods, a certificate of libellus was issued, recording the sacrifice and the person’s loyalty to the old gods as demonstrated by eating and drinking the sacrificial food.

There is some supposition that Decius was not attempting to force the superiority of the Roman pantheon, but was simply trying to reaffirm his conservative vision of the Pax Romana and hoping to make all citizens of the Empire feel secure. The actual consequences were different. The newly flourishing sect, called Christians, were not totally aligned with the Old Testament but did adhere to the rule of not practicing idolatry. Because of this belief, many refused to perform the sacrifice and eat the blessed food and drink. For this offense, many were killed. Pope Fabian was among these, dying on this day although it does not seem he was executed, but rather that he died in prison.

Rather than being used to promote the State religion, the new edict was used to begin a pogrom to rid the region of the Christians. The edict remained in effect for eighteen months and while many Christians were killed, many more survived by simply performing the sacrifice and other rituals and then returning to their own faith. Fabian had miraculously been chosen as Pope in 236 when a dove descended and alit on his shoulder, a Christian symbol of selection by the Holy Spirit. During most of his reign as Bishop of Rome, he got along well with the secular rulers of the Empire.

During his time at the head of the Church, he divided Rome into deaconates in order to help with the task of cataloging all the activities of a growing religion. He is given credit for establishing four minor clerical orders in order to help with this work. He was also responsible for sending out apostles as missionaries. He got along well enough with the local rulers to assure that two previously exiled saints could be returned to Rome and given a proper burial. However, when Decius demanded that the leader of the Christians bow and sacrifice to the Roman gods, Fabian refused. He died as a martyr on this day and is now buried at St. Sebastian at the Catacombs in Rome (San Sebastiano fuori le mura) as Sebastian was also martyred on this day.

The Roman Empire was very, very much like us. They lost their moral core, their sense of values in terms of who they were. And after all of those things converged together, they just went right down the tubes very quickly. – Ben Carson

I got to thinking about the Book of Revelation that was written by a Jewish prophet who was also a follower of Jesus who hated the Roman Empire. I realized that the Book of Revelation could be a way to reflect on the issue of religion’s relationship to politics. – Elaine Pagels

The Papacy is not other than the Ghost of the deceased Roman Empire, sitting crowned upon the grave thereof. – Thomas Hobbes

I am utterly struck how, 300 years after his execution, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. – Peter Jennings

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