Traditional Roman religious practice we are told by Cassius Dio did not tolerate atheists, which the Jews and the Christians were seen to be. Also, the Romans did not like new divinities to be introduced which might cause ‘conspiracies’ and ‘factions’. These were Roman fears and the determination by various emperors to assert the priority of Roman religion brought them into conflict with both religions.
It was said by Philo the Alexandrian that it was the emperor Gaius’s demand to be worshipped as a divine figure that brought him to persecute the Jews. Philo, who represented the Jews in an embassy to Gaius, states that Gaius thought that the Jews wished to counter his desires. When Gaius ordered a statue to be placed in the Temple at Jerusalem, a decision later rescinded, the Jews felt that their whole nation was under threat. This setting for conflict was exacerbated by the procurator Florus, sent to Judea by the emperor Nero in 64 C.E.. Josephus writes that he thought it a petty offense to get money out of single people, therefore he spoiled whole cities and forced many people to flee to other provinces. Florus was considered a criminal by Josephus who wished to hide his crimes by inciting revolt amongst the Jews. When Florus marched against Jerusalem the high priests could not contain their outrage and these acts were used by Florus to attempt to seize the Hebrew Temple in Jerusalem.
Such poor political policies could be said to have driven the Jews into conflict with the Roman state. Cassius Dio, the second century Roman historian and politician, also wrote that the cause of the revolt in Judea was heavy taxation, as there was similar unrest in the Roman provinces of Gaul and Britain. After the destruction of the Temple by Vespasian in 66C.E. great animosity and another cycle of violence were generated. Cassius Dio states that in the time of the emperor Trajan, Jews in the regions of Cyrene, Egypt and Cyprus were destroying both Roman and Greeks. Various papyri from 117-118 C.E. from Egypt and Cyrene also attest to the results of such discord and anger. Some of them refer to the acts of ‘impious Jews’, a serious accusation of disrespect for Roman authority.
The Christians also came into conflict with the Roman state at this time. In 64 C.E. the city of Rome suffered a great fire and Nero, who was in need of a convenient scapegoat, blamed the infant sect of Christianity which was growing in the city. Tacitus, who was nine at the time of the fire, wrote that Nero fastened guilt and enacted the most ‘exquisite tortures’ upon a class that were hated for their ‘abominations’. They were convicted of the crime of hatred of mankind because they spoke of the end of the world, rather than the conflagration of the city. Nero opened up his palace gardens and, covered with the skins of beasts, an ‘immense multitude’ of Christians were torn to pieces by dogs, crucified or burnt as torches to illuminate the spectacle.
The confusion of Roman state policy to Christianity, which was seen as a branch of Judaism, can be seen through the actions of Pliny. While he was governor of the province of Bithynia-Pontus in the early second century, Pliny came into contact with anti-Christian sentiment. He was perplexed as to what to do with the Christians or why they were to be considered criminals worthy of execution. Pliny knew that Rome had earlier dealt with troublesome religious sects, such as the Bacchae, the Jews and the Druids, however he felt he could only accuse them and punish them for stubbornness and obstinacy, which was considered offensive to Roman sensibilities. Because of these convictions the amount of denunciations grew. The only thing he could accuse them of was having illegal political associations, but even that they ceased to do. Pliny found all he could accuse them of was ‘depraved, excessive superstition’ and that concerned not what one might do privately but that the state and status quo be upheld, and that the economy of a city dependent upon feasts and community religion be stabilised. Pliny saw the Christians as a destabilising influence on his province and punished them for that.
This may also have been a reason for the emperor Decian to issue an edict of sacrifice across the Empire in the mid-third century. His aim was to appeal to the conservative aristocracy in Rome and the troops that were responsible for helping him to power. Although this was considered usual for the accession of a new emperor, participation in such festivals was considered an obligatory duty and a demonstration of loyalty to the empire. It was such participation in sacrifice and idol worship that was to bring a marked conflict between the Roman state and the growing Christian community. Another source of conflict could have been the Christians refusal to serve in the Roman army at a time when the borders of the Empire were under threat. One of Christianity’s chief critics in the late second century was the conservative philosopher Celsus, who urged Christians to help and cooperate with emperor and to fight and be fellow-soldiers if it was commanded. Christians refused to do military service which is confirmed by the Christian apologist Origen who stated that Christians do more for the empire by forming ‘an army of piety’ that prays for the well-being of the emperor and the safety of the empire.
Just as the Jews were able to refuse military service because of their upholding of the Sabbath, the Christians also demanded this exemption. It was likely then that in the beginning the Christians were seen as a sect of the Jews. Later, however, under different persecutions of Christians, they were accused of apostatising Judaism and rebelling against the laws of Moses. However, it was considered the lack of piety for the authority of Rome that brought the Christians and the Jews into conflict with the Roman state. The allegation of ‘impiety’ was brought against both religions and this was followed by defiance against the state to the situation where the Romans saw such behaviour as treasonous and seditious. Although religious pluralism was a part of the Roman Empire, the ultimate authority was the emperor and over the period of the first to the third centuries the apparent lack of respect for Roman religious beliefs, especially the imperialist cult, were a source of insecurity and conflict.