Imperial Decrees, Animal Sacrifices, and Christian Persecution

Jennifer Cromwell

On 17 June 250 CE, Aurelius Sakis had a certificate drawn up that proved he and his children Aion and Heras had participated in the sacrifice of an animal to pagan gods. Two other men, Aurelius Serenus and Aurelius Hermas witness the declaration, confirming that they had actually witnessed the sacrifice.

“To those appointed to oversee the sacrifices, from Aurelius Sakis from the village of Theoxenis, with his children Aion and Heras, staying in the village Theadelphia. We have always sacrificed to the gods and now, too, in your presence, in accordance with the decree we have sacrificed and we have poured a libation and we have eaten of the sacrificial offering, and we ask you to undersign. May you continue to prosper.

We, Aurelius Serenus and Aurelius Hermas, saw you sacrificing.

The Year 1 of the Emperor Caesar Gaius Messius Quintus Traianus Decius Pius Felix Augustus, Pauni 23.”

(P.Mich. III 157; translation by A. D. Lee)
pMich III 157.jpg
P.Mich. III 157 (c) University of Michigan (P.Mich. inv. 262)

Over forty such certificates written in the same year survive from Egypt and provide the only contemporary evidence of the edict ordered by emperor Decius (249–251 CE) that everybody in the Roman Empire was to perform a sacrifice to the Roman gods and the well-being of the emperor. Why would the emperor introduce such a policy? On one hand, the sacrifices were proof of loyalty to Decius, but they also were the first example of legislation that persecuted against Christians, as whoever refused to sacrifice would be punished. This leads to the question of who had to demonstrate that they were sacrificing: everybody, or just those accused of being a Christian? We don’t have enough information to answer this particular question.

Map – Barrington Atlas.jpg
Map showing the Fayum and Oxyrhynchus (from Barrington Atlas, Map 75)

The majority of the known Decian libelli (a word used to refer to short documents, especially official ones) come from the Fayumic town Theadelphia (modern Batn el-Harit), located 30 km northwest of Medinet al-Fayum. Smaller numbers, however, do survive from other sites, including Narmouthis and Oxyrhynchus – for the locations of all known libelli, see the table at the end of this post. P.Oxy. IV 658 is an example from Oxyrhynchus. Most of the man’s name is lost, but his children’s names survive, his son Dioscorus and his daughter Lais. The witness statements from this text are also now lost – only the smallest of traces survive of them.

“To the commissioners in charge of the sacred victims and sacrifices of the city. From Aurelius L[…]thion son of Theodorus and his mother Pantonymis, of the same city. Always have I continued sacrificing and pouring libations to the gods, and now in your presence in accordance with what has been ordered I have poured a libation and I have sacrificed and I have tasted of the sacrifices, together with my son, Aurelius Dioscorus, and my daughter Aurelia Lais. I request you to certify this for me below.

The year one of the Emperor Caesar Gaius Messius Quintus Traianus Decius Pius Felix Augustus, Pauni 20.”

(P.Oxy. IV 658; translation from Blumell & Wayment)

This certificate shares many of the same features as the text from Theadelphia. Note that gods generally are mentioned – there is no specificity regarding to which gods sacrifices should be made. Imperial officials recording these sacrifices probably weren’t concerned about the identity of the gods, which almost certainly changed from place-to-place across the empire, only that the sacrifices took place.

pOxy IV 658 (Yale).jpeg
P.Oxy. IV 658 (c) Beinecke Library, Yale University (P.CtYBR 65)

The similarities between the texts indicate that the process of monitoring and recording the sacrifices was highly organised. The two examples given here are also very close in date – the Oxyrhynchus text was written only three days before the one from Theadelphia. In fact, nearly all of the known libelli date to June 250, approximately six months after Decius issued his decree. This six-month gap may suggest that the decree was not immediately adhered to, and so increased monitoring of sacrifices took place to ensure the emperor’s command was being carried out. However, it may simply be a case that communication of the order took this long to reach Egypt. Whatever the reason, these documents mark the beginning of a period of persecution of Christians across the empire, before the adoption of Christianity as its official religion in the fourth century.

*Note that the designation ‘Aurelius’ (‘Aurelia’ for a woman) marked somebody as a citizen of the Roman empire. Following the Edict of Caracalla (or Antonine Constitution) of 212, all free men in the empire were granted full Roman citizenship.

Technical Details (Text 1)
Provenance: Theadelphia, Fayum (Egypt)
Date: 17 June 250 CE
Language: Greek
Collection: Papyrus Collection, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (P.Mich. inv. 262)
Designation: P.Mich. III 157 (according to the Checklist of Editions)
Bibliography: Clifford Ando, Imperial Rome, A.D. 193 to 284 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012), pp. 134–141; Régis Burnet, L’Égypte ancienne à travers les papyrus. Vie quotidienne (Paris: Flammarion, 2003), #28; A. Doug Lee, Pagans and Christians in Late Antiquity: A Sourcebook (London: Taylor and Francis, 2001), pp. 50-51

Technical Details (Text 2)
Provenance: Oxyrhynchus (Egypt)
Date: 14 June 250 CE
Language: Greek
Collection: Beinecke Library, Yale University, New Haven (P.CtYBR 65)
Designation: P.Oxy. IV 658 (according to the Checklist of Editions)
Bibliography: Clifford Ando, Imperial Rome, A.D. 193 to 284 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012), pp. 134–141; Lincoln H. Blumell & Thomas A. Wayment (eds.), Christian Oxyrhynchus: Texts, Documents, and Sources (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2015), pp. 380–384 [#106]; John R. Knipfing, “Libelli of the Decian Persecution,” The Harvard Theological Review 16 (1923), pp. 365­–366; J. B. Rives, “The Decree of Decius and the Religion of Empire,” The Journal of Roman Studies 89 (1999), pp. 148–149

Further bibliography:
Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians in the Mediterranean World from the Second Century AD to the Conversion of Constantine(Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986)
Paul Keresztes, “The Decian libelli and contemporary literature”, Latomus 34 (1975), pp. 761–781
John R. Knipfing, “Libelli of the Decian persecution”, Harvard Theological Review 16 (1923), pp. 363–390
James B. Rives, “The Decree of Decius and the Religion of Empire,” The Journal of Roman Studies 89 (1999), pp. 135–154

List of Decian Libelli
The following table provides a list of all published certificates. It has been compiled from the Trismegistos archive database (Decian libelli from Theadelphia) and a search of the papyrological website




SB I 4439Theadelphia26 May – 24 June 250
P.Wisc. II 87Narmouthis4 June 250
Tyche 30 (2015), 13–18Theadelphia4 June–14 July 250
SB I 4435Theadelphia12 June 250
P.Hamb. I 61aTheadelphia13 June 250
SB I 4436Theadelphia14 June 250
SB I 4437Theadelphia14 June 250
P.Oxy. IV 658Oxyrhynchus14 June 250
P.Ryl. I 12Theadelphia (written in Crocodilopolis)14 June 250
PSI V 453Theadelphia14–23 June 250
SB I 4438Theadelphia15 June 250
SB I 4440Theadelphia16 June 250
SB I 5943Theadelphia16 June 250
P.Lips. II 152Theadelphia (written in Euhemeria)16 June 250
P.Mich. III 157Theadelphia17 June 250
SB I 4441Theadelphia17 June 250
SB VI 9084Theadelphia17 June 250
SB I 4442Theadelphia19 June 250
SB I 4443Theadelphia19 June 250
P.Ryl. II 112aTheadelphia20 June 250
P.Mich. III 158Theadelphia21 June 250
P.Hamb. I 61bTheadelphia21 June 250
SB III 6827Theadelphia21 June 250
SB I 4444Theadelphia21 June 250
SB I 4445Theadelphia22 June 250
P.Ryl. II 112cTheadelphia22 June 250
SB I 4446Theadelphia23 June 250
SB I 4447Theadelphia23 June 250
SB I 4448Theadelphia23 June 250
SB I 4449Theadelphia23 June 250
BGU I 287Theadelphia (written in Alexandrou Nesos)26 June 250
PSI VII 778Fayum(?)26 June 250
P.Meyer 15Theadelphia27 June 250
P.Oxy. XII 1464Oxyrhynchus27 June 250
SB I 4450Theadelphia14 July 250
P.Meyer 16Theadelphia250
P.Meyer 17Theadelphia250
SB III 6828Theadelphia250
P.Ryl. II 112bTheadelphia250
SB I 4451Theadelphia250
SB I 4452Theadelphia250
SB I 4453Theadelphia250
SB I 4454Theadelphia250
Chr.Wilck. 125Ptolemais Euergetis (written in Crocodilopolis)250
P.Oxy. XLI 2990Oxyrhynchus

Published by JCROMWELL

Senior Lecturer in Ancient History at Manchester Metropolitan University and member of the Manchester Centre for Youth Studies.

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