Christianity in Third-Century Alexandria
A gem of an essay not often noted today on Christianity in third-century Alexandria: Aline Rousselle, “La persécution des chrétiens à Alexandrie au IIIe siècle,” Revue historique de droit français et étranger 52 (1974): 222-51.
Rousselle considers the references to how Christians were treated, with particular focus on the difficulties experienced in response to imperial edicts in 202 (Septimius Severus), 250 (Decius), and 257 (Valerian). She highlights the different punishments meted out to various Christians, and proposes that they reflect Roman judicial policy, in which distinctions were made between Roman citizens, Alexandrian citizens, and mere (!) Egyptians. This means that we can identify the social ranks of the various Christians by looking at the punishments they were given. Some, especially among the higher clergy it seems, suffered punishments that correspond with higher “honourable” social levels. This tallies with other indications that by the third century (and likely well before that), individuals of higher social ranks were becoming Christian adherents.
In my forthcoming book, Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Baylor University Press, Sept, 2016; publisher’s link here), I’ve proposed that the extended critique of Christianity by Celsus, and the lampooning of Christians by writers such as Lucian (The Passing of Peregrinus) likely reflect anxieties in upper-class Roman circles about the spread of Christianity among their circles. Upper-class Romans seem to have been less concerned about what the lower social levels got up to religiously, but were more concerned about perceived deviance in their own social levels.
Returning to Rousselle’s essay, another interesting observation is that, ironically, the flight of Christians in these outbreaks of persecution resulted in the geographical spread of Christianity more widely in Egypt. From its initial concentration in Alexandria, Christianity thus spread to sites in the Egyptian “chōra“. Although the essay is now over 40 years published, it illustrates how one shouldn’t neglect older publications.