One of the perks of refereeing books for university presses is that you get to pick some books in lieu of money. I try to get stuff that I can’t really justify buying, such as interesting but expensive scholarly books from well outside my field. Which explains why I’ve been reading G.E.M de Ste. Croix’s Christian Persecution, Martyrdom, and Orthodoxy, a posthumously edited collection of papers. (Ste. Croix’s Big Red Book, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World, is terrific, by the way, and rather cheaper.) One of the essays is a classic paper from 1963 on Christian persecution under the Romans. From it, I learned this:
It was not so much the positive beliefs and practices of the Christians which aroused pagan hostility, but above all the negative element in their religion: their total refusal to worship any god but their own. … I shall call this exclusiveness, for convenience, by the name the Greeks gave to it, ‘atheism’ (ἀθεότης); characteristically, the Latin writers refer to the same phenomenon by more concrete expressions having no philosophical overtones, such as “deos non colere” (not paying cult to the gods): the word atheus first appears in Latin in Christian writers of the early fourth century, Arnobius and Lactantius …
… [U]ntil the advent of Christianity no one ever had any reason for refusing to take part in the ceremonies which others observed—except of course the Jews, and they were a special case, a unique exception … [because] their religious rites were ancestral, and very ancient. … The gods would forgive the inexplicable monotheism of the Jews, who were, so to speak, licensed atheists … Matters were very different with the Christians, who had ex hypothesi abandoned their ancestral religions … The Christians asserted openly either that the pagan gods did not exist at all or that they were malevolent demons. Not only did they themselves refuse to take part in pagan religious rites: they would not even recognize that others ought to do so. As a result … the mass of pagans were naturally apprehensive that the gods would vent their wrath at this dishonour not upon the Christians alone but on the whole community; and when disasters did occur they were only too likely to fasten the blame on to the Christians. …. Tertullian sums it all up in a brilliant and famous sentence in the Apologeticus: the pagans, he says, “suppose that the Christians are the cause of every public disaster, every misfortune that happens to the people. If the Tiber overflows or the Nile doesn’t, if there is a drought or an earthquake, a famine or pestilence, at once the cry goes up, “The Christians to the lion.”
The essential point I want to make is that this superstitious feeling on the part of the pagans was due above all to the Christians’ “atheism,” their refusal to acknowledge the gods and give them their due by paying them cult.
… We must not confuse the kind of atheism charged against the Christians with philosophical skepticism … The vital difference was, of course, that the philosophers, whatever they might believe, and even write down for circulation among educated folk, would have been perfectly willing to perform any cult act required of them—and that was what mattered.
Part of Ste. Croix’s larger argument is that pretty soon the boot was on the other foot, the persecuted became enthusiastic persecutors, .