There was absolutely nothing special about the persecution of Christians.
The Roman authorities saw Christianity as a potentially destabilizing force in exactly the same way it saw criminals and revolutionaries as a destabilizing force. The only reason we’re lead to believe the stories of the Christian martyrs are special is because we have a lot of them.
Having said that, I find it necessary to visit the place where that was not the case: the Great Persecution under Diocletian.
Now, if we remember the post on the tetrarchy, before Constantine the Great took over the Empire for himself there were four Emperors and, eventually, a massive struggle for dominance. At the beginning of the Fourth Century, though, things were more or less stable. Diocletian was based in the East and held sway as the more powerful Augustus, with Galerius holding the title of Caesar under him. Maximian was Augustus of the West, with Constantius his Caesar.
The story goes that the first persecutions under Diocletian were directed at the Manicheans in 296. Manichaeanism wasn’t exactly Christianity. It was a weird combination of Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and Gnostic Christianity that was even more alien to the pagan Romans than the monotheism of Judaism and Christianity. In 299, then, there was a story that the Emperor took part in a divination ceremony, but the attempts by his haruspices came to naught and the Christians were blamed. These were, specifically, Manichaeans, who were connected largely to Persia.
In 302, though, there was a massive hubbub. A church deacon in Caesarea named Romanus had his tongue cut out, then was strangled in one of the few martyr stories of Eusebius that doesn’t have a bunch of dodgy acts of god that save the martyr for some future torture that’s even worse.  There are a few different versions of the story, however. It basically boils down to this, though: Romanus did something that got the personal attention of Diocletian. It’s possible that Romanus insulted Diocletian personally, it’s also possible that Romanus did something to interrupt the state religious practices.
Diocletian and Galerius then argued about how best to handle things. They consulted the Oracle at Delphi, who said that the Christians were hindering Apollo’s work. Galerius jumped on this as an opportunity. He urged Diocletian to persecute the Christians, which lead to the razing of the new church in Nicomedia. A general persecution against Christians was then called and maintained by Galerius wherever his influence spread until he repealed it shortly before his death in 311.
Lactantius records that in his Edict of Toleration Galerius said, "wherefore, for this our indulgence, they ought to pray to their God for our safety, for that of the republic, and for their own, that the republic may continue uninjured on every side, and that they may be able to live securely in their homes." Of course, this was recorded in a book called De Mortibus Persecutorium, or “On the Deaths of the Persecutors, so we can hazard a guess as to what Lactantius’s bias was in the whole thing and, therefore, how trustworthy his appraisal of Galerius was.
This, meanwhile, leads to a series of interesting side discussions. The main theme is, of course, the question of whether or not the Great Persecution even happened. I believe we can say it did, as without the Great Persecution the specifics of the Edict of Milan do not make too much sense. In that document Constantine and Licinius legalized Christianity and declared a general religious tolerance in the Empire. But it then restored property taken from Christians in a step that would have been unnecessary had they not been singled out for persecution. Constantine also attempted to make political hay out of his resistance to the persecution when it looks like he basically did nothing to help or halt it.
However, we have to ask the question of how reliable the stories are of the Great Persecution. There’s the minor problem of its two main chroniclers: Lactantius and Eusebius. Let’s say for the sake of argument that I don’t trust them. Browse through The History of the Martyrs in Palestine for a while. If you manage to stay awake you’ll see an awful lot of torture porn and stories of martyrs surviving increasingly gruesome and sustained beatings and slow, painful deaths at the hands of their persecutors. It’s really rather tiresome and surreal.
And we know Eusebius’s bias. I’ve already talked about how he has two totally different stories of Constantine’s conversion to Christianity that don’t line up in any meaningful way with Lactantius’s tale.
But there’s another issue: the role of Galerius in the whole thing. Let us consider the relationship Constantine and Galerius had for a moment. They hated each other. Galerius did everything short of have Constantine assassinated in an attempt to get rid of Constantine early in his career. Constantine did not take that well.
Galerius was largely out of Constantine’s reach, however. He was in the East, spending most of his time in Nicomedia, Antioch, or down in Egypt while Constantine was consolidating his power in Gaul and marching on Rome. Then Galerius died in 311 while Constantine was still dealing with Maxentius. So the only way for Constantine to possibly get his revenge on Galerius was posthumously.
So let’s say that the Christians in the East managed to make a nuisance of themselves. Diocletian and Galerius then moved to try to get them to stop, using violence and persecution where they thought necessary. These persecutions were, ultimately, unsuccessful. Christianity proved itself resilient. It’s also entirely possible that the Romans who had to carry out the persecutions weren’t particularly interested in doing so and the lack of a strong, central authority after 305 meant they didn’t have to.
Still, the laws that set off the Great Persecution stayed on the books until Galerius rescinded them in 311. With the Edict of Milan in 313 the Christians had a struggle, a villain, and a champion. This dovetailed nicely with Constantine’s own story, wherein he was the champion and Galerius was the villain. Constantine and Christianity, then, were in accord on the necessity for a good story that makes the bad guys really bad, the good guys really good, and leaves a lot of inconvenient facts on the cutting room floor.
This, again, doesn’t say that there was no Great Persecution. It does, however, say that the Great Persecution might not have been all it was cracked up to be. The villains in the story, Diocletian and Galerius, did not have all that much to gain. But the good guys, well, they had an entire Empire just there for the taking.
This, in turn, got me a link over at Unreasonable Faith. That link then ended up at some random Christian apologetics blog. On that blog, wherein the author quoted the text quoted at Unreasonable Faith without actually bothering to link to my blog, the response was this: “I couldn’t be an atheist. I’m not inconsistent enough with my beliefs. Reference this article by VorJack of Unreasonable Faith fame. He quotes Geds of the Accidental Historian[.]”
Okay, then, might I make the same claim about the Crusades and the Inquisitions? “There was absolutely nothing special about the persecution of indigent tribes of nonbelievers, witches, or heretics. The Christian authorities saw them all as potentially destabilizing forces in exactly the same way as it saw criminals and revolutionaries as a destabililizing force. The only reason we’re lead to believe the stories of the nonbelievers, witches, and heretics’ torture and death are special is because critics of Christianity try to use them to argue against the faith.”
This is spectacularly absurd reasoning. The persecution of Christians as part of a general overall system of persecution of any destabilizing force in the Roman Empire was not special specifically because the Romans did not single Christians out. The Inquisition, however, did single Jews out for special treatment. And the Crusades, well, the Crusades were not what everyone seems to think they were. This will be a huge part of the later bits of this series, so I should be able to get a long explanation some time in 2013. But, suffice it to say, the treatment of Christians as criminals by the Roman authorities is different than the Inquisition and the Crusades because they were three completely different things.
Also, notice the projection. Nowhere in the original quote did I say anything about the Inquisition or the Crusades. I do not get the impression that the author of the blog post ever bothered to read anything I have ever written. But he just assumed that I would follow my statement with arguments X and Y and reacted accordingly. Also, note how he completely missed the possibility that “not special” might not mean the same thing as “justifiable” or “defensible.”
In case you were wondering, in 381 the Manichaeans were stripped of citizenship under Theodosius I as part of a general move against the Arians, specifically, and non-Nicene Christians in general. At this time, by the by, the First Council at Constantinople finally established the Nicene Creed as the Christian confession of faith in the Empire and more or less established the doctrine of the Trinity, some sixty-five years after the Council of Nicaea. For those doing the math at home, this was three and a half centuries after the death of Christ, three centuries after the writing of the Pauline Epistles, and between two and a half and three centuries after the earliest dates given for the writing of the Gospels.
Guys who read entrails.
There is, however, a bit where Romanus’s tongue was cut out, after which he continued to praise god and witness. That’s a bit sketchy.