Graeco-Roman Antiquities & the New Testament
There are things you can tell about an entire ocean even if you have only one cup of water from it.  Naturally a scientist would like to have as many cups and as broad a sampling as possible, but even a single cup is of some help.  The same is true when investigating the world of the New Testament.  You can learn something even from one ancient document, though the explorer of the ancient world would like to have as many documents as possible. 
I hope once a week to present a small sample of information that mirrors some aspect of the ancient world surrounding nascent Christianity.
A student of Revelation might assume that Christians were the only religious group harassed and persecuted by the Romans.  However, the historical record testifies otherwise.  On more than one occasion in the 1st century AD Jews felt the brunt of Rome’s ability to punish religious dissent.  In the Graeco-Roman period there are even examples of one polytheistic, pagan religion persecuting another polytheistic, pagan religion.  Probably the best documented example of the Roman Senate persecuting and suppressing a pagan religion comes from the 2nd century BC.  This episode is usually referred to as the “Senatorial Decree concerning the Bacchanalia” (Senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus), occurring 186 BC.  This event is documented by an important bronze inscription coming from the time of the Senatorial decree itself as well as by the narrative of the later Roman historian Livy, writing during the reign of the first Emperor Augustus (27 BC-AD 14).
Part of the reason for Rome’s pogrom against these worshippers of Bacchus was because they corrupted traditional Roman moral values and traditional Roman religion by their worship and activities; the spread of their religion was considered anti-Roman.  Livy notes (Roman History 39.8, 13)
Wild female worshipper of
Bacchus known as Maenad

To their religious performances were added the pleasures of wine and feasting, to allure a greater number of proselytes. When wine, lascivious discourse, night, and the intercourse of the sexes had extinguished every sentiment of modesty, then debaucheries of every kind began to be practiced, as every person found at hand that sort of enjoyment to which he was disposed by the passion predominant in his nature. Nor were they confined to one species of vice—the promiscuous intercourse of free-born men and women; . . . .  From the same place, too, proceeded poison and secret murders, so that in some cases, not even the bodies could be found for burial. . . . .  There were more frequent pollution of men with each other than with women. If any were less patient in submitting to dishonor, or more averse to the commission of vice, they were sacrificed as victims. To think that nothing was unlawful was the grand maxim of their religion. The men, as if bereft of reason, uttered predictions, with frantic contortions of their bodies; the women, in the habit of Bacchantes, with their hair disheveled, and carrying blazing torches, ran down to the Tiber.

Wild female worshipper of
Bacchus known as Maenad
In order to rescue Italy from the religious and moral chaos associated with these Bacchic celebrations, the Senate ordered the cessation of these festivals and an order “was then given to demolish all the places where the Bacchanalians had held their meetings; first in Rome, and then throughout all Italy; excepting those wherein should be found some ancient altar or consecrated statue” (Roman History 39.18).  Once this senatorial decree had been posted throughout Rome and Italy, these Bacchic worshippers had ten days to comply, on threat of death.
All students of Revelation need to remember that Rome had been suppressing “undesirable groups” for generations prior to the advent of the Christian faith and had whetted its skills in eliminating enemies of the Roman status quo.
Wild female worshipper of
Bacchus known as Maenad


  1. So I've always assumed the Roman persecution of Christians was due to the fact that Christianity was seen as anti-Roman threat to the Roman way of life. Would the persecution also have been a result of the Roman Senate believing Christians to be group of "undesirables"? If so, why did they consider the Christians undesirable?Grace and Peace,K. Rex Butts

  2. Rex, great question!The Christians were undesirable in many ways. Since they did not believe in the traditional gods and the state gods they were regarded as atheists; they were are also accused of "hatred of humanity" for rejecting social and cultural customs, values, and beliefs. By the second century they were thought to participate in cannibalism and incest. A Christian was often a "wet blanket" regarding cultural entertainment and activities (gladiator combat, going to theater, etc). The persecutions of Christians usually began because of local officials and issues and not due to decrees of Roman Senate.

  3. Hmmm…That makes sense. That also raises all sorts of moral/ethical questions about the way we relate to our own culture. In John 17.17-18, Jesus's prayer for his disciples if for them to be both "sanctified" and "sent" into the word; there is so much tension there. Nevertheless, Praise be to God for the faithfulness of these early Christians and all Christians today who remain faithful to Jesus in the face of persecution.Grace and Peace,Rex

  4. Rex: The modern western church often does not embrace the blessing known by the primitive church regarding "Blessed are you when men hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man [NIV], Lk. 6:22. In part this is the result of choices that the contemporary church makes about its public image.

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