Outbreak of the Decian Persecution Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Roman emperor Decius organized the first systematic attack on Christianity that encompassed the entire empire.

Summary of Event

The persecution of the church under Decius was the first systematic attack on Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. The earlier attacks, beginning with that of the emperor Nero, had been sporadic, local efforts, often prompted by mob pressure. Except for a brief outburst under Maximinus in 235 c.e., the church had enjoyed peace since the reign of Septimius Severus, a period of about forty years. In fact, the first half of the third century was so favorable to the expansion of Christianity that a tradition grew up claiming that the emperor during that time was Christian. Decius Fabian, Saint Cyprian of Carthage, Saint Cornelius, Saint Novatian Valerian

While the church was prospering, the empire was collapsing. Philip the Arabian celebrated the one thousandth anniversary of the founding of Rome in 248 with great magnificence, but the pageantry did not match the reality of the situation. The Goths on the Danube and the Parthians in the east were threatening a complete breakthrough, and the economy of the empire was in chaos. Decius, proclaimed emperor by his Illyrian troops in 249, interpreted the dire times to be the result of neglect and profanation of the traditional gods of Rome.

There were two phases to the persecution of Christians under Decius. The actual decrees are not extant, but their contents can be reconstructed from various sources. The first action was arrest of the higher clergy, and the first martyr was Saint Fabian, bishop of Rome, in January, 250 c.e. Many, such as Saint Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, chose to flee and to direct the affairs of their churches from hiding. Decius’s second order was a universal command that all inhabitants of the empire participate in sacrifice to the gods by pouring a libation, burning incense, or tasting sacrificial meat. Commissions were set up throughout the state to supervise the sacrifices and to grant certificates of participation to those who complied. More than forty of these libelli, mostly from Egypt, have survived. In form, they are petitions to the authorities asking that by signing their name they witness the individual’s declaration of loyalty to the gods and that they attest the sacrifice duly performed in their presence.

Thousands refused to comply with Decius’s order and were martyred. In some localities, large numbers of the Christians “lapsed” by participating in the sacrifices or by securing a certificate of sacrifice through bribery or subterfuge. Others fled or went into hiding. Only a small percentage of the Christian population stood firm in confessing its faith or dying for it; however, this might reflect more a laxity in enforcing Decius’s order on the part of officials than a lack of steadfastness on the part of Christians.

Confusion reigned in the churches, but the government did not follow up its initial advantage, and the following year, 251 c.e., Decius was killed on the frontier. A plague spread over the empire, and Christians distinguished themselves in ministering to the needs of the populace while the “lapsed” flocked back to the church lest they die outside it without grace. Confessors, by virtue of their merits, claimed the right to reconcile their weaker brethren and freely restored them to communion. This practice, strangely suggestive of later indulgences, threatened the disciplinary authority of the bishops because it was carried out by unauthorized personnel and without established liturgical forms. Veneration of martyrs during the persecution became so popular that the practice entrenched itself permanently.


Decius’s persecution, the first great confrontation with Christianity and the model for the still more drastic attack by Diocletian, did much to encourage the development of the penitential system of the church. Cyprian’s correspondence reveals conditions in North Africa and Rome. On his return from hiding, Cyprian found himself challenged by “laxists” who wanted to readmit apostates to communion and by “rigorists” who would deny reconciliation to them. Cyprian was able to reestablish his authority and gain support for a middle course. Apostasy was now added officially to the list of forgivable sins. All deserters were placed under discipline, the duration of which varied according to the gravity of their sin as judged by the bishop and presbyters. At Rome, the issue of granting forgiveness for apostasy caused a more serious schism. When the moderate Saint Cornelius was elected to succeed Fabian, Novatian, who as a leading local presbyter had dominated the Roman see after Fabian’s death, placed himself at the head of the rigorist party and had himself ordained as a rival bishop in Rome. The Novatianists, holding that only God could forgive the sin of apostasy, demanded that the lapsed remain permanently excluded from the church. Their puritan stand won a considerable following, and the Novatianist church remained for several centuries as a rival to the more lenient catholic body.

The Roman emperor Valerian in 257 c.e. resumed the persecution. His first edict sent all bishops into exile and forbade assemblies of the Christians. In 258, more stringent measures ordered the execution of all bishops and other clergy. Christians of high rank were to be degraded and their property seized. Christians in the imperial service were sent in chains to work the imperial estates. Among the victims was Cyprian, long chided for his flight under Decius. His martyrdom is still commemorated in the canon of the Roman Mass.

Valerian’s son, Gallienus, in 260 c.e. issued a rescript that, in effect, is the first official declaration of toleration for Christianity. The policy of suppression had failed, but it was not until Constantine that Caesar came to terms with the Galilean.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bowersock, G. W. Martyrdom and Rome. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. A collection from the Wiles lectures at the Queen’s University of Belfast on martyrdom, Rome, and the early Christian church.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ferguson, Everett, ed. Church and State in the Early Church. New York: Garland, 1993. A collection of articles on the early church, originally published 1935-1987. Bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Frend, W. H. C. Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church. 1965. Reprint. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1981. Frend’s massive work amounts to a full-scale history of the early church organized around the theme of martyrdom and persecution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lesbaupin, Ivo. Blessed Are the Persecuted: Christian Life in the Roman Empire, a.d. 64-313. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1987. A look at the early persecution of Christians, including the Decian persecution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Workman, H. B. Persecution in the Early Church. 1906. Reprint. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980. An old but still widely read history centering around the disunion caused by Christianity within the state.

Categories: History