Diocletian, Persecution of

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Diocletian's persecution of Christians ceased with his retirement in 305, but his policy had inaugurated the severest repressive measures against Christianity. This article deals with (1) the religious policy of Diocletian,(2) the Edicts of 303, (3) the persecutions to 311 and the Edict of Toleration, and (4) the final persecution under Licinius.

Religious Policy of Diocletian. Of peasant stock and naturally religious if not superstitious, Diocletian at first tolerated Christianity along with the Oriental mystery religions, the Egyptian, Mithraic, and other cults then flourishing in the empire. In an attempt to bring external security and internal peace to his realm, he had spent the first 20 years of his reign reorganizing the frontier defenses and civil administration. He then attempted to restore the religious practices of the old Roman cults as a stabilizing factor in the everyday life of the empire, and in this he was influenced by the revival of religiosity that marked the end of the 3d century among all classes of Roman society. Nevertheless, in introducing the tetrarchy as a means of controlling the vast expanse of the empire and defending its frontiers, Diocletian had recourse to the mechanism of the ruler-cult; he proclaimed himself and galerius, his Caesar in the East, as the sons or representatives of Jupiter, and his colleague Maximian, with Constantius Chlorus, his Caesar in the West, as sons of Hercules.

Christian Reaction. This move was bound to cause difficulty for the Christians, who by the end of the 3d century formed a large and ubiquitous group, well represented in the army, the imperial household, and civil administration, with well-organized communities and notable churches in the greater cities of the empire. Christians were suspected of atheism because of their refusal to participate in many phases of civic life, and in the pagan religious ceremonies, which they maintained were dominated by demons. They were accused of moral turpitude because of the secrecy with which they generally surrounded their religious rites. In 295 Diocletian had issued an edict on marriage designed to strengthen its moral force, and in 297 he inaugurated a savage persecution of the Manichees (see manichaeism) as disruptors of the public peace and morality because of the dualistic attitude they had toward marriage.

As a result of strong anti-Christian propaganda on the part of intellectuals, such as Porphyry and particularly Sossianus Hierocles (250308), who opposed the exclusive monotheistic claims of the Christians, as well as of popular prejudices based on the ascetical and antipagan attitudes of many Christians, Diocletian finally decided upon a policy of extermination. In this he was encouraged by the Caesar Galerius whose mother, a pagan priestess, was fanatically anti-Christian. The thesis, however, advanced by Eusebius and Lactantius blaming Galerius as the principal instigator of the persecution does not seem tenable.

The Army. The first difficulties arising from the renewal of the ruler-cult were experienced in the army. Hitherto, Christian soldiers had not refused to participate in the adoratio of the emperor as Dominus, nor had they refused to take the oath of loyalty on the royal standards; and no attempt had been made to have them participate in the sacrifice to the gods. But with the emperors proclaimed as gods or the sons of gods, difficulties began. In Numidia in 295 a Christian recruit named Maximilian refused to accept the leaden tag signifying his dedication to military service because it contained the image of the emperor as god; and on July 21, 298, during the ceremony commemorating the epiphany or appearance of the emperors as Jupiter and Hercules, the centurion Marcellus threw down his sword before the standards, stating that he could acknowledge only one "sacramentum," or religious oath, that binding him to Christ. The veterans Tipasius, in 298, and Julius, at Durostorum in 302, refused to accept the imperial donativum because the coins depicted the emperors as gods; there were instances of similar insubordination on the frontiers in Africa and on the Danube between 295 and 298. Hence, the following year Diocletian instituted a purge of the military, giving soldiers and officers the choice between offering sacrifice or resigning from the army.

Finally, influenced by a pamphlet of anti-Christian propaganda emanating from the imperial circle, and encouraged by the priests and soothsayers, Diocletian instituted a purge of the imperial household, extending evidently even to his wife Prisca, his daughter Valeria, and several high officials in the fiscal section, all of whom were Christians or Christian-sympathizers.

Edicts of 303. On Feb. 23, 303, an imperial edict bearing the signature of the two emperors and the two Caesars was promulgated. It ordered the destruction of Christian churches and books, prohibited gatherings of Christians for worship, and deprived Christians generally of their civil rights. This ordinance was executed with severity in the East; at Nicomedia a Christian who mutilated a copy of the edict was burned alive, and the church that bordered on the imperial palace was destroyed. When uprisings broke out in Mytilene and Syria, two more edicts were published, one ordering the imprisonment of all Christian clerics, the other stating that a cleric who offered sacrifice would be freed, while any who refused should be tortured and put to death. Toward the end of 303, Diocletian celebrated the 20th anniversary of his reign in Rome, exacting a profession of loyalty to the gods as part of the religious ceremony; and in 304, after recovering from a critical illness at Nicomedia, he released a fourth edict ordering death for all Christians who refused to offer sacrifice.

It is difficult to assess the results of these edicts despite the evidence supplied by the acts of the mar tyrs; eyewitnesses, such as lactantius and eusebius of caesarea; and later Christian writers, including Optatus of Milevis, prudentius, St. Basil, and John Chrysostom. Diocletian and Maximian retired in May 305, but in the Orient Galerius and Maximinus Daia pursued the persecution with passion, and there were numerous martyrs in Illyria, Asia Minor, and Egypt.

Persecutions to 311 and Edict of Toleration. In Cappadocia and Pontus the persecutors distinguished themselves by their cruelty, and in Phrygia a small, totally Christian village was burned to the ground. In Syria, Phoenicia, and Palestine, despite the large number of martyrs, there were apostates and traditores those who handed over the sacred bookseven among the clergy. Egypt, where the Christians were particularly numerous, suffered most under the anti-Christian polemicist Hierocles, whose aides employed refinements of cruelty. Eusebius testifies that on many days from 10 or 20, or even 60 to 100, Christians were condemned to death or to the mines, to have an eye plucked out or a foot hacked off. Nevertheless, many judges and officials attempted to protect Christian relatives and friends, and to reduce the severity of the persecution.

In the West. Constantius and later his son Constantine seem to have put the first edict into effect in Britain and Gaul, but not to have implemented the others, perhaps because of the relatively small number of Christians there. Martyrs were numerous in Spain, Africa, and Numidia where Maximian saw to the execution of the imperial edicts. In Rome, Pope marcellinus was put to death in 304, and it was impossible to provide a successor until 307. The difficulties that broke out among the Christians because of apostates and traditores caused so much trouble that the Caesar Maxentius continued repressive measures, although he was apparently not a convinced persecutor. In fact, after peace was restored in 312, he returned Church properties to the Christians.

Edict of Toleration. In 311 Galerius acknowledged the uselessness of the persecution; and at Sardica, in April, in the name of the regents he promulgated an Edict of Toleration that acknowledged the right of Christians to exist (ut denuo sint christiani ), allowed them to assemble for worship, and urged them to pray for the empire and their rulers. In the West this ordinance merely legitimized a situation that already prevailed; in the East it restored Christianity as a religio licita among others tolerated by the state. Prisoners were freed; exiles were returned from the mines, and religious ceremonies were jubilantly restored. Licinius, who took control of the Danube and Balkans after the death of Galerius, continued this policy, and Maximinus Daia was forced to comply with it in Asia Minor. In Syria and Egypt, however, Maximinus made a final attempt to suppress the Church in 311 and 312, making martyrs of bishops and other Christians, and attempting to organize pagan churches and develop a defamation campaign against Christians.

In 312 Constantine attacked Maxentius, and after the victory of the Milvian Bridge turned to the support of Christianity. At Milan in February 313, he achieved a farreaching agreement with Licinius that has been erroneously referred to as the Edict of milan, but which was rather a series of stipulations whereby Christians were to be gradually given back confiscated properties and restored their civil rights. As upholder of Christian rights, Licinius attacked Maximinus at Adrianople (April 30, 313), and shortly before he died, Maximinus promulgated an edict of toleration for Christians. When Licinius became master of the East he supplemented the Milan agreement.

Final Persecution. In the West, Constantine had actually favored the Christian cause, gradually making Christianity the religion of the state. Hence, when war broke out between the two emperors in 321, Licinius returned to a policy of persecution of the Christians whom he rightly suspected of favoring the Constantinian cause. He drove Christians from his court, forced civil officials and soldiers to sacrifice to the gods, forbade the holding of synods, and curtailed religious assemblies. Some of his subordinates burned churches, imprisoned confessors, and gave the impression that a large persecution had begun. Thus, the Licinian revolt took on the proportions of a religious war that ended with Constantine's victory in 324 at Chrysopolis.

Recent historical investigation tends to reduce greatly the number of martyrs in comparison with traditional estimates. The authority of many of the legends of the saints (see saints, legends of the) connected with the persecutions has been challenged also. Modern scholarship, however, has ascertained the reliability of many of the Acts of the Martyrs and the basic records of both Lactantius and Eusebius without denying their natural bias and exaggerations. Of Diocletian it must be said that he was fully responsible for the persecutions perpetrated during his reign; but that he embarked on this policy in good faith.

Bibliography: n. h. baynes, The Cambridge Ancient History, 12 v. (London and New York 192339) 12:646677. h. grÉgoire et al., Les Persécutions dans l'Empire romain (Brussels 1950). w. seston, Dioclétien et la tétrarchie (Paris 1946); Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum, ed. t. klauser (Stuttgart 1941 [1950]) 3:104553.

[e. g. ryan]