Cyprian and the Decian Persecution - Christian History
Welcome to Quatr.us Study Guides!

Decian Persecution

About 249 AD, the situation of the Christians took a sharp turn for the worse. The year 247 AD marked 1000 years since the founding of the city of Rome: the Millennium. A lot of people were frightened and thought this might mean the end of the world. Many Christians thought it might mean the Second Coming of Christ. But the world did not end.

After the Millennium was over, the Roman Emperor Decius announced that every person in the Empire should sacrifice to the gods to show how thankful he or she was that the world hadn't ended. Decius seems to have meant this as a sort of nice idea, like announcing Grandparents Day.

But in some places in the Roman Empire, people were looking for any opportunity to hurt the Christians. This was especially true in Africa, in the city of Carthage.

Sacrifice certificate
Sacrifice certificate on papyrus
from Oxyrhynchus, in Egypt, dating to the Decian persecution
(about 3 inches wide)

In Carthage, the local town council used Decius' law to find out if people were Christians. Everybody had to come to the middle of town, to the forum, and sacrifice to the gods (by dropping some incense into a fire and saying a prayer). Then they would get a piece of papyrus saying they had done it (a certificate). But Christians would not sacrifice to another god. So anyone who didn't have a certificate was a Christian and could be killed for breaking the law.

Many Christians were frightened by this and went to sacrifice. Other Christians bribed someone to get a certificate without sacrificing, or they forged one. Some left town and moved somewhere that didn't take this law so seriously. But some Christians did stand up for their beliefs and refused to sacrifice. Many of them were thrown in jail, and some of them were actually killed.

Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage, insisted that if you wanted to go to heaven you could not get a fake certificate, or sacrifice, or even run away. But when the police came for him, he ran away to the hills. He said it was okay for the bishop to run away because he was so important, but a lot of people made fun of him anyway and called him a coward. Finally he came back and the Roman police cut off his head.

Peace for a while
Main Christianity page
Main religion page

LIMITED TIME OFFER FOR TEACHERS: Using this article with your class? Show us your class page where you're using this article, and we'll send you a free subscription so all your students can use Quatr.us Study Guides with no distractions! (Not a teacher? Paid subscriptions are also available for just $16/year!)
Please help other teachers and students find us: link to this page from your class page.
Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
Cite this page
  • Author: K.E. Carr
  • Title:
  • Site Name: Quatr.us Study Guides
  • Publisher: Quatr.us
  • Date Published:
Did you find what you needed? Ask your teacher to link to this page so other people can use it too! Send it in and win a Quatr.us "Great Page!" award!
Sign up for more free articles and special offers in Quatr.us' weekly newsletter:
We will never share your e-mail address unless you allow us to do so. View our privacy policy. Easy unsubscribe links are provided in every email.
Comment on This Article

Does your class page honor diversity, celebrate feminism, and support people of color, LBGTQ people, and people with disabilities? Let us know, and we'll send you a Diversity Banner you can proudly display!
Looking for more?
Quatr.us is loading comments...
(Comments will appear after moderation, if they are kind and helpful. Feel free to ask questions, and we'll try to answer them.)
Cite this page
  • Carr, K.E. . Quatr.us Study Guides, . Web. 29 March, 2017