Galerius, Emperor of Rome

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Galerius, Emperor of Rome

The emperor Galerius (c. 250-311 A.D.) ruled over a disintegrating Roman Empire in the years just prior to its conversion to Christianity. The six-year period of his reign, from 305 to 311, marked the last official persecution of Christians in the Roman world. In the work De Mortibus Persecutorum (Of the Manner in Which the Persecutors Died), the historian Lactantius, a contemporary of the emperor, described Galerius as “worse than all the bad princes of former days. In this wild beast there dwelt a native barbarity and a savageness foreign to Roman blood.”

Galerius's full Latin name is Gaius Galerius Valerius Maximianus, but he was not born a citizen of Rome proper, nor was he of noble status. Historians place the date of his birth around the year 250, in Serdica, which is near Sofia, the present-day capital of Bulgaria. At the time, Serdica was the capital of Dacia Aureliana, a Roman province comprising the area south of the Danube River. The region was populated by Thracians, an Indo-European people who were influenced by contact with ancient Greece. Galerius's father was Thracian and a herdsman by profession, a job that Galerius apparently took up in his younger years. It is known that Galerius's mother was called Romula, and was of Dacian birth, meaning that she had originally come from what is now Romania after the region was subject to raids by Carpians, a Dacian tribe that often attacked Roman settlements.

Proclaimed Caesar

Joining the Roman legion was almost the sole avenue for professional advancement during Galerius's time, and historical records hint that he served in the army under the emperors Lucius Domitius Aurelianus (214–275) and Marcus Aurelius Probus (c. 232–282). He apparently advanced rapidly through the ranks, for on March 1, 293, a new Tetrarchy, with four joint rulers, was set up by Diocletian (c. 236–316). In this scheme, Diocletian ruled as Augustus with the general Marcus Aurelius Valerius Maximianus Herculius, known as Maximian (c. 250–310), over respective Eastern and Western regions of the empire, with two junior emperors, known as Caesars. Galerius was designated one of these Caesars, that of the East, with Constantius Chlorus (c. 250–306) named to be Caesar of the West. With the honor came Galerius's betrothal to Diocletian's daughter, Valeria.

Galerius was responsible for overseeing Illyricum, the Roman provinces comprising lands that include presentday Albania, Croatia, Slovenia, and Bosnia. When the Romans went to war with their Sassanid neighbors in the east at the renewal of the Persian Wars in 296, Galerius commanded a legion that took to the field near the Euphrates River region. The first major battle of the war was here at Callinicum (also called Carrhae), near Turkey's border with Syria, but Galerius's troops lost heavily, and with that loss the Roman Empire was divested of its holdings in Mesopotamia. A year later, however, came a significant reversal of fortunes, as Galerius led troops into Armenia and won a decisive victory against the Persian shah. He seized the ancient city of Ctesiphon near Baghdad as well as a large cache of goods plundered from the enemy, including the shah's extensive harem. The victory returned Roman rule to Mesopotamia for the time being, and the lands taken east of the Tigris River marked the furthest eastern boundary ever touched by Roman rule.

Urged Persecution of Christians

Galerius was a pagan, and his mother Romula's intense devotion to certain pagan cults and distrust of the new religion of Christianity was said to have greatly influenced him. For much of Diocletian's rule, Christians had been allowed to practice their religion, but Galerius urged the aging emperor to launch a renewal of persecutions. In an edict dated February 24, 303, Christian scriptures were ordered to be destroyed, as were Christian houses of assembly. Later that year, Diocletian's palace in Nicomedia—at that time the eastern capital of the empire and now the city of ızmit, Turkey—was engulfed by flames, and harassment of the minority sect intensified as a result. All Christians in the city were ordered to be put to death as punishment, but some scholars posit that Galerius himself was behind the arson attack as a way to incite further attacks on Christians.

As Diocletian's health declined, Galerius likely persuaded him to resign jointly with Maximian. They abdicated on May 1, 305, and with that, Galerius received the title of Augustus along with Constantius Chlorus. Below them were two newly appointed Caesars, Flavius Valerius Severus and Galerius's nephew, Maximinus Daia. Constantius died the following year in York, England, during a campaign against the Picts in Britain, and Galerius reportedly planned to become sole emperor. But Constantius had appointed his son Constantine to serve as his successor, which the Roman troops with him immediately recognized. Galerius's ambitions were further thwarted by Maximian Herculius and his son Marcus Aurelius Valerius Maxentius (c. 278–312), who also supported the rise of Constantine as Emperor of the West.

In direct conflict with Constantine's claim to the throne, Galerius made Severus the new Augustus in the West, and ordered him to Rome to suppress a rebellion led by Maxentius. Severus's forces invaded Italy in 307, but failed to take the imperial city, and Severus was put to death on orders of Maxentius. In the midst of the disarray, Galerius ordered a reorganization of the empire in 308 at a conference in Carnuntum, a Roman army camp in what is presentday Austria. There he named his friend Licinius as the new Augustus in the East, and retired to a city he was in the process of building in honor of his mother, which he called Felix Romuliana (Gamzigrada, Serbia).

Died Gruesome Death

The Roman historian Lactantius wrote about Galerius and his turbulent reign in De Mortibus Persecutorum, noting that the emperor considered himself a Dacian, not a Roman—an important distinction in an empire when Roman ideals were the strongest common bond for denizens of the far-flung empire and its long line of rulers. Lactantius wrote that Galerius called himself the enemy of the Roman name, and wanted the empire to be renamed the Dacian empire. In the work, Galerius was described as “tall, full of flesh, and swollen to a horrible bulk of corpulency; by his speech, gestures, and looks, he made himself a terror to all that came near him,” and the historian also noted that Diocletian “dreaded him excessively.”

The persecutions of Christians begun under Diocletian continued under Galerius. They continued for eight years until a general edict of tolerance was proclaimed by Galerius at Nicomedia in April 311, just a month before his death. By this point he had been ill for some time in what appears to have been bowel cancer. Lactantius wrote that “a malignant ulcer formed itself low down in his secret parts, and spread by degrees.” Galerius underwent operations, but his condition worsened. Lactantius claimed that this illness was so dire that it compelled Galerius to revise his beliefs about Christianity and issue the new edict of tolerance.

The Last Pagan Emperor

Galerius died on May 5, 311. He was succeeded by Constantine I, his longtime rival. Constantine's rule marked a significant turning point for the Roman Empire, for he was the first emperor to convert to Christianity, but even prior to that had strengthened the original 311 edict of tolerance with his own Edict of Milan in 313, which banned all forms of religious persecution in the empire. Galerius was buried in Felix Romuliana, where the ruins of his palace were designated a World Heritage site in 2007. In Thessaloniki, Greece, the Arch of Galerius that commemorates his victory over Persia still stands. That Greek city is also home to the Church of St. Dimitrios, named for an early Christian martyr. Dimitrios was a Greek-born officer in the Roman army who was a secret convert to Christianity. When this was discovered, he was arrested and jailed, and while incarcerated came to know another Christian and urged him to battle a well-known gladiator. The gladiator died, and when Galerius learned of Dimitrios's role in it, he ordered the prisoner to be executed by spear. Legend holds that Dimitrios's body was then thrown into a well, which then began to emit holy oil, and miracles were attributed to site, which became the crypt of St. Dimitrios, the patron saint of Thessaloniki.

Another tale of Christian persecution related to Galerius supposedly concerns two of his bodyguards, Sergius and Bacchus. They, too, were accused of secretly practicing Christianity. They confessed when confronted by the emperor, and were paraded through the streets while dressed in women's clothing. In prison, Bacchus was beaten to death over several hours, and when Sergius refused to recant his faith, nails were driven into his boots and he was ordered to run. Some historians believe the pair of martyrs were actually lovers, and a group of gay Roman Catholic activists now uses their image as a symbol during their community events.


Costelloe, M. J., “Galerius, Roman Emperor,” New Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume 6, second edition, Gale, 2003.


New York Times, July 2, 1982; September 17, 1995.

Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), February 26, 2005.


Lactantius, Of the Manner in Which the Persecutors Died,∼vandersp/Courses/texts/lactant/lactpers.html (December 27, 2007).

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