The Roman authorities hesitated for a long time over how to deal with this new cult. They largely appreciated this new religion as subversive and potentially dangerous.
For Christianity, with its insistence on only one god, seemed to threaten the principle of religious toleration which had guaranteed (religious) peace for so long among the people of the empire. Most of all Christianity clashed with the official state religion of the empire, for Christians refused to perform Caesar worship. This, in the Roman mindset, demonstrated their disloyalty to their rulers.
Persecution of the Christians began with Nero’s bloody repression of AD 64. This was only a rash an sporadic repression though it is perhaps the one which remains the most infamous of them all.
The first real recognition Christianity other than Nero’s slaughter, was an inquiry by emperor Domitian who supposedly, upon hearing that the Christians refused to perform Caesar worship, sent investigators to Galilee to inquire on his family, about fifty years after the crucifixion. They found some poor smallholders, including the great-nephew of Jesus, interrogated them and then released them without charge.
The fact however that the Roman emperor should take interest in this sect proves that by this time the Christians no longer merely represented an obscure little sect. Towards the end of the first century the Christians appeared to sever all their ties with the Judaism and established itself independently.
Though with this separation from Judaism, Christianity emerged as a largely unknown religion to the Roman authorities. And Roman ignorance of this new cult bred suspicion. Rumours were abound about secretive Christian rituals; rumours of child sacrifice, incest and cannibalism.
Major revolts of the Jews in Judaea in the early second century led to great resentment of the Jews and of the Christians, who were still largely understood by the Romans to be a Jewish sect. The repressions which followed for both Christians and Jews were severe.
During the second century AD Christians were persecuted for their beliefs largely because these did not allow them to give the statutory reverence to the images of the gods and of the emperor. Also their act of worship transgressed the edict of Trajan, forbidding meetings of secret societies. To the government, it was civil disobedience. The Christians themselves meanwhile thought such edicts suppressed their freedom of worship. However, despite such differences, with emperor Trajan a period of toleration appeared to set in.
Pliny the Younger, as governor of Nithynia in AD 111, was so exercised by the troubles with the Christians that he wrote to Trajan asking for guidance on how to deal with them. Trajan, displaying considerable wisdom, replied:
‘The actions you have taken, my dear Pliny, in investigating the cases of those brought before you as Christians, are correct. It is impossible to lay down a general rule which can apply to particular cases. Do not go looking for Christians. If they are brought before you and the charge is proven, they must be punished, provided that if someone denies they are Christian and gives proof of it, by offering reverence to our gods, they shall be acquitted on the grounds of repentance even if they have previously incurred suspicion. Anonymous written accusations shall be disregarded as evidence. They set a bad example which is contrary to the spirit of our times.’
Christians were not actively sought out by a network of spies. Under his successor Hadrian which policy seemed to continue. Also the fact that Hadrian actively persecuted the Jews, but not the Christians shows that by that time the Romans were drawing a clear distinction between the two religions.
The great persecutions of AD 165-180 under Marcus Aurelius included the terrible acts committed upon the Christians of Lyons in AD 177. This period, far more than Nero’s earlier rage, was which defined the Christian understanding of martyrdom.
Christianity is often portrayed as the religion of the poor and the slaves. This is not necessarily a true picture. From the beginning there appeared to have been wealthy and influential figures who at least sympathised with the Christians, even members of court.
And it appeared that Christianity maintained its appeal to such highly connected persons. Marcia, the concubine of the emperor Commodus, for example used her influence to achieve the release of Christian prisoners from the mines.
Excerpt taken from roman-empire.net.