Christians, Roman Persecution of

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Christians, Roman Persecution of

On November 20, 284 ce, Diocles, an Illyrian officer who had risen to high command in the Roman army, was elevated to the purple by the soldiers at Nicomedia. The new emperor took the name of Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus (284–305) and is known as Diocletian. Having been acclaimed by the military, Diocletian was the first emperor to disregard the Senate in Rome by not seeking its customary confirmation. Going a step further, he also pronounced that his elevation to the throne of Rome enjoyed divine sanction, having come about through the will of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, Rome's highest deity.

After defeating Carinus, the son of the former Emperor Carus, and warding off several attempts by would-be usurpers to seize power, the emperor implemented a program to restore the tottering empire. Diocletian was a superb administrator, but he was also an autocratic ruler. He expanded the army in order to better defend Rome's imperial borders; provinces were divided and grouped into new administrative units called dioceses. Most important, however, he separated military from civilian power and deprived the Senate of its right to govern provinces. In the economic sphere he legislated to stop rampant inflation by issuing his Edict of Prices that, being impossible to enforce, failed.

In order to govern the vast Roman Empire of late antiquity, he devised the tetrarchy, meaning rule by four men. To guarantee a trouble-free succession, the tetrarchs were bound in an artificial family relationship. A former comrade of Diocletian, Maximian, became Augustus in the West with Diocletian holding the senior position as Augustus in the East. Each man then adopted a "son," who bearing the title of Caesar, was designated as heir to move into the senior position when the first set of Augusti retired or died. Maximian took Constantius (the father of Constantine the Great), and Diocletian chose Galerius as Caesar. Diocletian subsequently placed his dynasty under the protection of Jupiter, while Maximian sought the favor of Hercules. Divine protection by the gods of Rome seemed to contemporaries a necessity if the Roman Empire was to survive. This belief remained constant throughout the reign of Diocletian, as attested to by imperial propaganda, and especially by the images on his coinage.

Besides the many military challenges and economic problems of the era, another source of concern was the growth of Christianity. By then, many Christians belonged to influential circles, including the army and the bureaucracy. This little understood religion had been first noticed, and persecuted briefly, during the time of Nero (54–68). There had also been a short-lived persecution under Maximinus the Thracian (235–238), which attempted to stop proselytizing and was mostly directed at the higher clergy. The Emperor Decius (249–251) tried to root out the Christian religion by issuing an edict ordering all citizens to worship the state gods or face dire consequences. This persecution had a measure of success, with many well-to-do Christians renouncing their beliefs to save themselves. It ended with the death of Decius in 251.

A more intense attempt to rid the empire of Christians in 257 under Valerian (253–260) renewed the policies of Decius. Meetings between Christians were prohibited, and the clergy was persecuted with much vigor. This effort to eliminate Christianity was once again foiled by the death of the emperor. Valerian's son and successor, Gallienus (253–268), had little sympathy for his father's policy, and under his rule the Christians enjoyed a period of toleration that lasted for forty years.

Diocletian ordered the last and cruelest persecution of the Christians in 305 after he had ruled the empire for twenty years. Why so late in his reign did he try to bring the Christians to heel? Some people have attempted to exonerate Diocletian by blaming the fanatical Galerius for the persecutions, whereas others proposed that the old and ailing emperor was no longer in command. Neither explanation is convincing to explain the final, great persecution of the Christians. There is a hint of Diocletian's attitute toward religions other than the accepted Roman pantheon in an edict of 297 against the Manichaeans. He considered them to be a danger to the state and viewed these followers of the Persian Mani as enemy agents. The first of three edicts against the Christians, issued in 304, aimed to destroy sacred books and churches. The second and third edicts ordered all Christian priests imprisoned unless they worshipped the gods of the Roman state by making appropriate sacrifices. The forth and last edict ordered all Christians to perform these sacrifices under pain of death.

What this meant to condemned Christians is mainly known from hagiographical texts that are by their very nature suspect. By Roman law the death penalty was rarely applied to members of the upper classes (honestiores); they were deported or exiled unless convicted of either treason or sacrilege. In the case of the lower classes (humiliores), a conviction could result in the prisoner being either burned alive or thrown to wild beasts in the amphitheaters of Roman cities, such as the Coliseum in Rome. In many cases, however, the prisoners would be sent to the mines or public works, which was essentially the same as being executed. Slaves found guilty of a crime faced death by crucifixion. The application of Roman law may have varied from region to region, from governor to governor.

There was no uniform enforcement of the law, but Africa and the eastern provinces, where Christians were numerous, seem to have suffered most. Provinces such as Bythinia, Syria, Egypt, Palestine, and Phrygia experienced great cruelties. In the western provinces, where Constantius held sway, the persecutions were light, giving rise to rumors that the father of Constantine I had been a secret Christian. Diocletian abdicated in 305 and retired to the fortress palace he had built for himself on the Adriatic. He forced an unwilling Maximian to do the same. Diocletian's tetrarchy did not last much beyond the abdication of its founder. The persecutions, too, did not produce the expected results. In 311, Galerius (305–311), who had succeeded Diocletian in the East and become mortally ill, was forced to issue an edict of toleration that granted the Christians freedom of worship but only as long as "they did not disturb or offend public order."

SEE ALSO Carthage


Barnes, T. D. (1981). The New Empire of Diocletian and Constantine. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Drake, H. A. (2000). Constantine and the Bishops: The Politics of Intolerance. Baltimore, Md.: John Hopkins University Press.

Eusebius (1989). The History of the Church from Christ to Constantine, revised edition, tran. G. A. Williamson. London: Penguin Books.

Jones, A. H. M. (1972). Constantine and the Conversion of Europe. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin Books.

Lane Fox, R. (1987). Pagans and Christians. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Williams, S. (1985). Diocletian and the Roman Recovery. New York: Methuin.

Franziska E. Shlosser

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