The Roman Republic transitioned to the Roman Empire shortly before the birth of Christ. With the rise of the empire, the men who became emperors gained great power to the point of godlike status.
Decius’ mandate represented an ultimatum rather than a choice, and Christians paid dearly.
Decius’ edict was unique. He mandated that all Romans worship the Roman gods. Each Roman was to offer a sacrifice to the gods and burn incense to a statue of Decius. As proof of compliance they received a certificate. With an approximate population split of 10 per cent Christians and 90 per cent pagans, there was friction on the issue of certificates.
Christians understood offering a sacrifice to the gods conflicted with their love and trust for their Lord and Saviour. Besides, they knew the mandate was useless. How could Roman gods compete with the one true God of the universe? Christian rejection of pagan acts would not bring down the displeasure of the gods. Paganism was not the ultimate answer for an individual Roman or the empire.
Decius’ mandate represented an ultimatum rather than a choice, and Christians paid dearly. Without the certificate they were outlaws disobedient to the state. They failed to do their part for society. There were arrests, tortures and executions. One well-known martyr was Fabian, the bishop of Rome. It was a perilous time for Christians unwilling to comply with the state.
The historical record is incomplete, but it appears Christians received little sympathy from pagan Romans. The pagans were often a fearful people – their gods fell short in giving them lasting security and peace of mind. But they accepted their duty to be obedient to the state. Romans believed the Christians deserved persecution for their obstinacy and lack of civic-mindedness.
Christians did not respond in unison. As was the case in earlier Roman history, there were some who submitted to the state. Paul made it clear in his letter to the Romans (chapter 13) that followers of Christ were "to submit to the authorities." Of course, it was never an easy decision. Was there a legitimate limit to someone’s allegiance to a pagan state?
This episode of faith, fear and state power was brief. In AD 251 the Decian persecution ended. His reign was cut short prematurely when he died on the battlefield. He was emperor less than two years.