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The Persecutions of
Maximinus Thrax and
During the first decades of the third century AD, Christianity again began
to appear within the ranks of the Imperial ruling family. Septimus Severus,
though having launched a persecution against Christianity himself, had a
Christian as foster-mother to his son and heir, Caracalla. Later, through
Septimus’ wife, Syrians were to rise to the Roman throne, one being
Alexander Severus at the age of thirteen in 222. His mother, the Empress
Julia Mammaea, had summoned Origen to preach to her on the Christian
mysteries while still in Antioch. St. Hippolytus also dedicated his treatise
On the Resurrection to her. As her son, Alexander also picked up some of
Julia’s interest in Christianity. Though always a syncretist, Alexander
admired the teachings of Christ, placed a statue of him next to those of
Orpheus and past Emperors in his oratory, and even planned to build a
temple in his honor.
Under such rulers, some modification to the Roman anti-Christian laws
was inevitable. Alexander abrogated the ancient law of Nero and granted
Christians for the first time the right to exist. Christians could now also
own property and erect places of worship. However, many within the ranks
of Roman power resented these changes, as well as Alexander’s general
weak and cowardly nature and the overbearing influence of his mother
Julia. The coup came from the ranks of the army, led by Maximinus Thrax,
a rough and illiterate soldier of huge stature who murdered Alexander and
seized the Emperorship of Rome in 235.
Maximinus was no lover of Christianity and immediately began reversing
the policies of his predecessor. He then decreed a persecution against it
aimed specifically at the hierarchy of Bishops. This persecution was novel
in two respects: the State itself would hunt down its targets without waiting
for denunciation; and it would apply universally throughout the Empire.
Two of the decrees’ first victims were Pope St. Pontian and his rival to the
papal throne Hippolytus. Both were sent to the salt mines of Sardinia.
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