Over the past several decades, scholars have challenged longstanding assumptions about Christian narratives of persecution. In light of these revisionist trends, a number of scholars have reconsidered the “Great Persecution” of Christians under the fourth-century Sasanian king Shapur II. Where scholars previously argued that the cause of Sasanian imperial violence against Christians was a perceived connection between them and the increasingly Christian Roman Empire, these new accounts reject this explanation and downplay the scope of violence against Christians. This article reexamines Sasanian violence against Christians in the fourth century, navigating between the proverbial Scylla and Charybdis of positivist and revisionist approaches. It argues that the accusations against Christians must be situated within the broader Roman-Sasanian conflict. In this context, fifth-column accusations were a pervasive anxiety, animated—and deployed—by empires and inhabitants alike. Yet, rather than inexorably leading to indiscriminate violence against all Christians, fifth-column accusations operated in a variety of ways, resulting in targeted violence but also, it is argued, in imperial patronage. Seen in this light, concerns for Christian disloyalty were responsible for the drastic vacillations in Christian experience under Sasanian rule during the fourth and early fifth centuries, unparalleled for other non-Iranian Sasanian communities, such as Jews. It was the particular circumstances of Christians, caught between the Sasanian and Roman Empires, that account for their experience under Sasanian rule.
Being Roman in the Sasanian Empire: Revisiting the Great Persecution of Christians under Shapur II*
I want to thank Clifford Ando, Ra‘anan Boustan, Aaron Butts, Mark Letteney, Avigail Manekin-Bamberger, Sergey Minov, Yakir Paz, Salam Rassi, and Seth Schwartz for their critical feedback and encouragement at various stages of the conceptualization and drafting of this paper.
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Simcha Gross; Being Roman in the Sasanian Empire: Revisiting the Great Persecution of Christians under Shapur II. Studies in Late Antiquity 1 August 2021; 5 (3): 361–402. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/sla.2021.5.3.361
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