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§ 24. The Diocletian Persecution, a.d. 303–311.


I. Sources.


Eusebius: H. E. Lib. VIII. – X; De Martyr. Palaest. (ed. Cureton, Lond, 1861); Vita Const. (ed. Heinichen, Lips. 1870).

Lactantius: De Mortibus Persec. c. 7 sqq. Of uncertain authorship.

Basilius M.: Oratio in Gordium mart.; Oratio in Barlaham mart.


II. Works.


Baronius: Annal. ad ann. 302–305.

Gibbon: Chrs. XIII., XIV. and XVI.

Jak. Burckhardt: Die Zeit Constantins des Gr. Basel, 1853, p. 325.

Th. Keim: Der Uebertritt Constantins des Gr. zum Christenthum. Zürich 1852. The same: Die römischen Toleranzedicte für das Christenthum (311–313), in the "Tüb. Theol. Jahrb." 1852. (His. Rom und das Christenthum only comes down to a.d. 192.)

Alb. Vogel: Der Kaiser Diocletian. Gotha 1857.

Bernhardt: Diokletian in s. Verhältnisse zu den Christen. Bonn, 1862.

Hunziker: Regierung und Christenverfolgung des Kaisers Diocletianus und seiner Nachfolger. Leipz. 1868.

Theod. Preuss: Kaiser Diocletian und seine Zeit. Leipz. 1869.

A. J. Mason: The Persecution of Diocletian. Cambridge, 1876. Pages 370. (Comp. a review by Ad. Harnack in the "Theol. Literaturzeitung" for 1877. No. 7. f. 169.)

Theod. Zahn: Constantin der Grosse und die Kirche. Hannover, 1876.

Brieger.: Constantin der Gr. als Religionspolitiker. Gotha, 1880. Comp. the Lit. on Constantine, in vol. III., 10, 11.


The forty years’ repose was followed by, the last and most violent persecution, a struggle for life and death.

"The accession of the Emperor Diocletian is the era from which the Coptic Churches of Egypt and Abyssinia still date, under the name of the ’Era of Martyrs.’ All former persecutions of the faith were forgotten in the horror with which men looked back upon the last and greatest: the tenth wave (as men delighted to count it) of that great storm obliterated all the traces that had been left by others. The fiendish cruelty of Nero, the jealous fears of Domitian, the unimpassioned dislike of Marcus, the sweeping purpose of Decius, the clever devices of Valerian, fell into obscurity when compared with the concentrated terrors of that final grapple, which resulted in the destruction of the old Roman Empire and the establishment of the Cross as the symbol of the world’s hope."4545    So Arthur James Mason begins his book on thePersecution of Diocletian.4

Diocletian (284–305) was one of the most judicious and able emperors who, in a trying period, preserved the sinking state from dissolution. He was the son of a slave or of obscure parentage, and worked himself up to supreme power. He converted the Roman republican empire into an Oriental despotism, and prepared the way for Constantine and Constantinople. He associated with himself three subordinate co-regents, Maximian (who committed suicide, 310), Galerius (d. 311), and Constantius Chlorus (d. 306, the father of Constantine the Great), and divided with them the government of the immense empire; thereby quadrupling the personality of the sovereign, and imparting vigor to provincial administration, but also sowing the seed of discord and civil war4646    Maximian (surnamed Herculius) ruled in Italy and Africa, Galerius (Armentarius) on the banks of the Danube, and afterwards in the East, Constantius (Chlorus) in Gaul, Spain, and Britain; while Diocletian reserved to himself Asia, Egypt, and Thrace, and resided in Nicomedia. Galerius married a daughter of Diocletian (the unfortunate Valeria), Constantius a (nominal) daughter of Maximian (Theodora), after repudiating their former wives. Constantine, the son of the divorced Helena, married Fausta, the daughter of Maximian as his second wife (father and son being married to two sisters). He was raised to the dignity of Caesar, July 25, 306. See Gibbon, chs. XIII and XIV.5. Gibbon calls him a second Augustus, the founder of a new empire, rather than the restorer of the old. He also compares him to Charles V., whom he somewhat resembled in his talents, temporary success and ultimate failure, and voluntary retirement from the cares of government.

In the first twenty years of his reign Diocletian respected the toleration edict of Gallienus. His own wife Prisca his daughter Valeria, and most of his eunuchs and court officers, besides many of the most prominent public functionaries, were Christians, or at least favorable to the Christian religion. He himself was a superstitious heathen and an oriental despot. Like Aurelian and Domitian before him, he claimed divine honors, as the vicar of Jupiter Capitolinus. He was called, as the Lord and Master of the world, Sacratissimus Dominus Noster; he guarded his Sacred Majesty with many circles of soldiers and eunuchs, and allowed no one to approach him except on bended knees, and with the forehead touching the ground, while he was seated on the throne in rich vestments from the far East. "Ostentation," says Gibbon, "was the first principle of the new system instituted by Diocletian." As a practical statesman, he must have seen that his work of the political restoration and consolidation of the empire would lack a firm and permanent basis without the restoration of the old religion of the state. Although he long postponed the religious question, he had to meet it at last. It could not be expected, in the nature of the case, that paganism should surrender to its dangerous rival without a last desperate effort to save itself.

But the chief instigator of the renewal of hostility, according to the account of Lactantius, was Diocletian’s co-regent and son-in-law, Galerius, a cruel and fanatical heathen.4747    Lactantius (De Morte. Persec. c. 9), calls him "a wild beast, " in whom dwelt "a native barbarity and a savageness foreign to Roman blood." He died at last of a terrible disease, of which Lacantius gives a minute account (ch. 33).6 He prevailed at last on Diocletian in his old age to authorize the persecution which gave to his glorious reign a disgraceful end.

In 303 Diocletian issued in rapid succession three edicts, each more severe than its predecessor. Maximian issued the fourth, the worst of all, April 30, 304. Christian churches were to be destroyed; all copies of the Bible were to be burned; all Christians were to be deprived of public office and civil rights; and at last all, without exception, were to sacrifice to the gods upon pain of death. Pretext for this severity was afforded by the occurrence of fire twice in the palace of Nicomedia in Bithynia, where Diocletian resided 4848    Lactantius charges the incendiarism on Galerius who, as a second Nero, endangered the residence for the purpose of punishing the innocent Christians. Constantine, who then resided at the Court, on a solemn occasion at a later period, attributes the fire to lightning (Orat. ad Sanct. c. 25), but the repetition of the occurrence strengthens the suspicion of Lactantius.7. It was strengthened by the tearing down of the first edict by an imprudent Christian (celebrated in the Greek church under the name of John), who vented in that way his abhorrence of such "godless and tyrannical rulers," and was gradually roasted to death with every species of cruelty. But the conjecture that the edicts were occasioned by a conspiracy of the Christians who, feeling their rising power, were for putting the government at once into Christian hands, by a stroke of state, is without any foundation in history. It is inconsistent with the political passivity of the church during the first three centuries, which furnish no example of rebellion and revolution. At best such a conspiracy could only have been the work of a few fanatics; and they, like the one who tore down the first edict, would have gloried in the deed and sought the crown of martyrdom.4949    Gibbon, ch. XVI., intimates the probability of a political plot. In speaking of the fire in the imperial palace of Nicomedia, he says: "The suspicion naturally fell on the Christians; and it was suggested, with some degree of probability, that those desperate fanatics, provoked by their present sufferings, and apprehensive of impending calamities, had entered into a conspiracy with their faithful brethren, the eunuchs of the palace, against the lives of two emperors, whom they detested as the irreconcilable enemies of the Church of God." The conjecture of Gibbon was renewed by Burkhardt in his work on Constantine, pp. 332 ff, but without any evidence. Baur rejects it as artificial and very improbable. (Kirchengesch. I. 452, note). Mason (p. 97 sq.) refutes it.8

The persecution began on the twenty-third day of February, 303, the feast of the Terminalia (as if to make an end of the Christian sect), with the destruction of the magnificent church in Nicomedia, and soon spread over the whole Roman empire, except Gaul, Britain, and Spain, where the co-regent Constantius Chlorus, and especially his son, Constantine the Great (from 306), were disposed, as far as possible, to spare the Christians. But even here the churches were destroyed, and many martyrs of Spain (St. Vincentius, Eulalia, and others celebrated by Prudentins), and of Britain (St. Alban) are assigned by later tradition to this age.

The persecution raged longest and most fiercely in the East under the rule of Galerius and his barbarous nephew Maximin Daza, who was intrusted by Diocletian before his retirement with the dignity of Caesar and the extreme command of Egypt and Syria5050    See Lactant., De Morte Persec. ch. 18 and 19, 32, and Gibbon, ch. XIV. V. (vol. II. 16 in Smith’s edition). The original name of Maximin was Daza. He must not be confounded with Maximian (who was older and died three years before him). He was a rude, ignorant and superstitious tyrant, equal to Galerius in cruelty and surpassing him in incredible debauchery (See Lact. l.c. ch. 37 sqq.). He died of poison after being defeated by Licinius in 313.9. He issued in autumn, 308, a fifth edict of persecution, which commanded that all males with their wives and servants, and even their children, should sacrifice and actually taste the accursed offerings, and that all provisions in the markets should be sprinkled with sacrificial wine. This monstrous law introduced a reign of terror for two years, and left5151    See on this edict of Maximin, Euseb. Mart. Pal. IX. 2; the Acts of Martyrs in Boll., May 8, p. 291, and Oct. 19, p. 428; Mason, l.c. 284 sqq.0 the Christians no alternative but apostasy or starvation. All the pains, which iron and steel, fire and sword, rack and cross, wild beasts and beastly men could inflict, were employed to gain the useless end.

Eusebius was a witness of this persecution in Caesura, Tyre, and Egypt, and saw, with his own eyes, as he tells us, the houses of prayer razed to the ground, the Holy Scriptures committed to the flames on the market places, the pastors hunted, tortured, and torn to pieces in the amphitheatre. Even the wild beasts, he says, not without rhetorical exaggeration, at last refused to attack the Christians, as if they had assumed the part of men in place of the heathen Romans; the bloody swords became dull and shattered; the executioners grew weary, and had to relieve each other; but the Christians sang hymns of praise and thanksgiving in honor of Almighty God, even to their latest breath. He describes the heroic sufferings and death of several martyrs, including his friend, "the holy and blessed Pamphilus," who after two years of imprisonment won the crown of life (309), with eleven others—a typical company that seemed to him to be "a perfect representation of the church."

Eusebius himself was imprisoned, but released. The charge of having escaped martyrdom by offering sacrifice is without foundation.5252    Lightfoot vindicates him in his learned art. Euseb. in Smith and Wace, Dict. of Christ. Biogr. II. 311.1

In this, as in former persecutions, the number of apostates who preferred the earthly life to the heavenly, was very great. To these was now added also the new class of the traditores, who delivered the holy Scriptures to the heathen authorities, to be burned. But as the persecution raged, the zeal and fidelity of the Christians increased, and martyrdom spread as by contagion. Even boys and girls showed amazing firmness. In many the heroism of faith degenerated to a fanatical courting of death; confessors were almost worshipped, while yet alive; and the hatred towards apostates distracted many congregations, and produced the Meletian and Donatist schisms.

The number of martyrs cannot be estimated with any degree of certainty. The seven episcopal and the ninety-two Palestinian martyrs of Eusebius are only a select list bearing a similar relation to the whole number of victims as the military lists its of distinguished fallen officers to the large mass of common soldiers, and form therefore no fair basis for the calculation of Gibbon, who would reduce the whole number to less than two thousand. During the eight years5353    Or ten years, if we include the local persecutions of Maximin and Licinius after the first edict of toleration (311-313).2 of this persecution the number of victims, without including the many confessors who were barbarously mutilated and condemned to a lingering death in the prisons and mines, must have been much larger. But there is no truth in the tradition (which figures in older church histories) that the tyrants erected trophies in Spain and elsewhere with such inscriptions as announce the suppression of the Christian sect.5454    As "Nomine Christianorum deleto; superstitione Christiana ubique deleta, et cultu Deorum propagato." See the inscriptions in full in Baronius (ad. ann. 304, no. 8, 9; but they are inconsistent with the confession of the failure in the edict of toleration, and acknowledged to be worthless even by Gams (K. Gesch. v. Spanien, I. 387).3

The martyrologies date from this period several legends, the germs of which, however, cannot now be clearly sifted from the additions of later poesy. The story of the destruction of the legio Thebaica is probably an exaggeration of the martyrdom of St. Mauritius, who was executed in Syria, as tribunus militum, with seventy soldiers, at the order of Maximin. The martyrdom of Barlaam, a plain, rustic Christian of remarkable constancy, and of Gordius, a centurion (who, however, was tortured and executed a few years later under Licinius, 314) has been eulogized by St. Basil. A maiden of thirteen years, St. Agnes, whose memory the Latin church has celebrated ever since the fourth century, was, according to tradition, brought in chains before the judgment-seat in Rome; was publicly exposed, and upon her steadfast confession put to the sword; but afterwards appeared to her grieving parents at her grave with a white lamb and a host of shining virgins from heaven, and said: "Mourn me no longer as dead, for ye see that I live. Rejoice with me, that I am forever united in heaven with the Saviour, whom on earth I loved with all my heart." Hence the lamb in the paintings of this saint; and hence the consecration of lambs in her church at Rome at her festival (Jan. 21), from whose wool the pallium of the archbishop is made. Agricola and Vitalis at Bologna, Gervasius and Protasius at Milan, whose bones were discovered in the time of Ambrose Janurius, bishop of Benevent, who became the patron saint of Naples, and astonishes the faithful by the annual miracle of the liquefaction of his blood, and the British St. Alban, who delivered himself to the authorities in the place of the priest he had concealed in his house, and converted his executioner, are said to have attained martyrdom under Diocletian.5555    For details see the Martyrologies, the "Lives of Saints, " also Baronius Annal. This historian is so fully convinced of the "insigne et perpetuum miraculum sanguinis S. Januarii," that he thinks; it unnecessary to produce; my witness, since "tota Italia, et totus Christianus orbis testis est locupletissimus!"Ad ann. 305 no. 6.4



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