What was Christian life like between the famous letter of Pliny until the reign of Constantine?
Roughly in the 112 AD, Pliny, a provencial governor in the Roman empire, wrote a letter to Trajan, current emperor, wanting a council from Trojan about how to handle the Christians he was encountering, because he could not see what is wrong with Christianity. He saw Christians as people who gather, worship and eat meals together, teaching each other principles like being kind to one another. Of course that did not seem wrong to him. It is true that they were not worshipping the Roman gods, but they are no causing any harm. And what about those who were Christians but are not any more?
Trojan replied that they should not seek them out, however, if they did any harm to the Romans, they would be executed. Christians were illegal, but how they are going to end up depended on their neighbours and regions – some regions were more accepting than others. This meant that there were Christians who worshipped and debated in the open, although they were always in danger of being denounced. St. Justin Martyr is a good example of this – he was a good writer, debater and controversialist who defended Christian teaching, but all of the sudden he was denounced by someone who he has criticised before.
This became kind of a policy for the next two centuries.
Mid third century persecution, under Decius – the first time Christians were going to be really sought out. There was a general edict published against nonconformists, which hit Christians especially hard. They must have subsided by spring 251. Another one came under Valerian in 257-258. Bishops had to sacrifice to the Roman gods and public Christian worship was outlawed. Bishops who refused to sacrifice would be executed.
Great persecution, the most important one, under Diocletian, happened in 303 and lasted till 305.
First edict stated that Christians could not assemble, their churches and sacred books were destroyed. Christians were forced to come out and required to sacrifice to emperor – if they did not, they were executed. West was not hit as hard because of the caesar, Consitantius Chlorus, who was more sympathetic.
In 305, Diocletian and Maximian both stepped down and persecution becomes lighter.
In 313, Constantine takes over, who thinks that he owes Jesus for winning, therefore made it better for Christians. Later, he passed some laws that helped Christians. On top of that, the public had grown weary of the persecutions, which helped them, too.