Christians as Criminals Under Roman Law
While Christians were regarded as a sect of Judaism for the first few years, they were partially tolerated by the state. That soon changed. Nero used the Christians as scapegoats for the fire of AD 64 that burned large areas of Rome, killing many for his own entertainment in his private circus. Trajan expressed his approval of Pliny the Younger’s policy in Bithynia and Pontus of giving Christians three chances to recant and sacrifice to Caesar before executing them.
Why was being a follower of Jesus of Nazareth considered a heinous crime by the Roman authorities, condemning them to damnatio ad bestias in arenas around the Empire? There were several reasons based on Roman law.
Christians were considered guilty of treason (maiestas). When it became mandatory to honor images of the emperor with libations and incense, they refused. Jews also refused, but they were allowed to do so by special exception as members of an officially sanctioned religion. When enough Gentiles became Christians and believers broke with following the details of Mosaic Law, Christianity was no longer considered a sect of Judaism. Under the rules of the Twelve Tables, Christians followed a new, foreign, and unauthorized religion (religio nova, peregrina et illicita).
The Christians’ refusal to worship the state gods was considered a sacrilege that might bring down the wrath of the Roman gods, threatening the Empire with disaster. The state religion was dependent on the rituals being performed correctly, regardless of the personal beliefs of those celebrating. There was a strong element of magic in the rituals, and the slightest mistake could render the ritual ineffective. The refusal of Christians to participate was, therefore, totally unacceptable.
3) Unlawful assembly
Rome did not allow freedom of assembly. During the Republic, any meeting with political overtones had to be presided over by a magistrate. The distaste for unsupervised gatherings continued into the Empire. Guilds (collegia) and associations (sodalicia), especially secret societies, were suspect for political reasons. From the mid-50s BC on, guilds and associations had to obtain a license from the state and were not permitted to meet more than once a month. Christians gathered in secret and at night, which made their gatherings “unlawful assemblies,” throwing them into the same class of crime as riots.
The use of damnatio ad bestias for the offense of merely being a Christian was embraced by Nero, but the sentence was not applied at all times and in all parts of the Empire. Other methods of execution were employed where no arena was handy. The enthusiasm with which a particular province persecuted its Christians varied with the individual governor when there was no specific imperial edict in effect. Emperors who decreed Empire-wide persecution included Marcus Aurelius (AD 177), Trajan Decius (AD 249-251) Diocletian (AD 284-305), and Maximian (AD 286-305).
In Honor Bound, Licinia’s brother Sextus finds himself in a no-win situation. Not a Christian himself, he and their now-dead father had concealed her faith for many years to protect her. As a praetor who sits in judgement over people who break Roman law, it’s his job to deal with Roman citizens who have become Christians, with penalties ranging from loss of property and exile to execution. If he doesn’t want his beloved sister killed, he must send her far away from Rome, hoping she will be safe once she is where his political enemies can’t easily find her and expose her faith. But no matter how good that strategy had seemed, God had other plans.