Valerian overthrew the emperor and assumed power in 253. Four years later, he launched a persecution of Christians. Several high profile Christian leaders and several Roman bureaucrats fell in the purge. Essentially, the emperor declared the church a criminal enterprise along the lines of the modern mafia. Valerian wished to remove Christians from positions of power within the empire. The persecution ended with a new emperor in 260.
Emperor Valerian spent little time in Rome. Persia threatened Roman borders resulting in a direct response from the emperor. Valerian traveled to meet the Persians in combat. However, he worried about Christians within the empire while fighting the foreign enemy.
In 257, Valerian wrote the Senate providing instructions on how to deal with Christians. He ordered all clergy to sacrifice to the Roman gods. Later that year, he ordered the execution of church leaders and turned on Christian nobles. He stripped Christian nobleman of their titles and property. Valerian also banned Christian ceremonies and gatherings in cemeteries.
The persecution indicated the traditional Roman concern over Christian ascendancy. The emperor hoped to wipe out the church leadership in a single stroke. This would decapitate the organization in the way Rudy Giuliani’s mob trials demolished La Cosa Nostra 2,000 years later. Indeed, Valerian viewed the church in this vein. He saw them as a perversion and criminal enterprise, which infiltrated government the same way the mob did in the mid-twentieth century. As a result, the emperor stripped Christians of power, enslaved them, and killed their leaders.
The Romans executed several high profile Christians. Pope Sixtus II and Bishop Cyprian of Carthage fell to the Roman axe. Saint Lawrence also perished in the pogrom. The inquisitors accused the victims of living “irreligious lives” and being part of an “unlawful organization.” This was a third century version of the RICO statutes used to break up the mafia.
The Persians defeated, captured, and possibly executed Valerian. He died in their custody and Gallienus became emperor. Gallienus ended the purge in 260. The empire ignored Christians for the next couple decades before Diocletian’s reign brought one of the worst persecutions in history.
Valerian viewed Christians with suspicion. He considered the church an outlaw organization and its members subversive. As a result, he launched a pogrom, which lasted until his own demise. The assault on Christianity resembled America’s efforts to break the mob in the twentieth century. In the end, Christianity survived, Valerian died, and the empire staggered on.