During the years from 30 AD to 313 AD, the majority of the Jesus followers were located somewhere within the Roman Empire. The imperial government was bent on extinguishing the new belief, and persecuted the Jesus followers, arresting, jailing, beating, and killing them by the thousands and by the tens of thousands.
Why did the Roman officials feel so threatened by the Jesus followers? One reason, perhaps, is that they misunderstood this new group.
The words of Jesus included terms like ‘kingdom’ and ‘king’ and ‘judge’ and others which were prima facie political vocabulary. Jesus had used them, however, in a metaphorical sense. He claimed to have, e.g., a kingdom which was ‘not of this world.’ He was referring to an invisible and metaphysical kingdom.
Roman bureaucrats had no inclination or patience for parsing and interpreting the words of suspicious groups. The Jesus followers seemed like a potential political power movement, and should be eliminated.
Adding to the tension was the fact that the Jesus followers not only worshipped their own God, but that they refused to also worship the Roman gods. For the Romans, worship was not merely a personal preference, but rather a public civic gesture of national participation.
The importance of this civic religion to the Romans can be seen in the fact that they attributed sustained national defense to the Roman deities. The fact that many of the Romans didn’t believe in these gods and goddesses was not relevant to the fact that the Romans saw this communal practice as essential to the fabric of society.
The failure to honor the Roman deities was, in the eyes of the Romans, not a spiritual violation but rather a political one. The Roman officials didn’t care if you believed in their gods - because many of these officials themselves didn’t believe - but they cared greatly if you were willing to participate in communal festivities. Failure to thus participate was a rejection of the community. Historian Ernest Gottlieb Sihler writes:
This aloofness of the Christians, as we clearly see, was officially and by the foremost representative of Rome in that province branded as civil or political treason or sedition, treason in the underlying convictions, sedition in the practice of religious dissent and non-conformity with the rites of the commonwealth. When in 271 A.D. the Marcomanni had invaded northern Italy, the Emperor Aurelian sent orders to Rome to have the Sibylline books consulted, and the Senate subsequently recorded its official conviction, that the gods had aided the state in recognition of the sacrifices prescribed by the Sibylline records. Aurelian had inherited from his mother the cult of the Sun. To it at Rome he dedicated a huge temple with anniversary games and on one of his own coins antiquarians still read: “The Sun, Lord of the Roman Empire.”
Aurelian managed, according to most sources, to restore a level of stability to empire after it threatened to break into three separate empires in the mid 200s. He became emperor in 270 AD and solidified imperial unity.
The civic religion was part of Aurelian’s unification program. He instituted universal worship of the Roman sun god. Citizens were free to worship any of the other Roman deities alongside this sun god, but some acknowledgement of Sol Invictus was mandatory.
Aurelian’s effort to unify Roman society by means of civic religion intensified the already harsh persecution of Jesus followers.