Diocletianic Persecution

The Christian Martyrs' Last Prayer, by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1883)

The Diocletianic or Great Persecution was the last and most severe persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire.[1] In 303, the Emperors Diocletian, Maximian, Galerius, and Constantius issued a series of edicts rescinding Christians' legal rights and demanding that they comply with traditional religious practices. Later edicts targeted the clergy and demanded universal sacrifice, ordering all inhabitants to sacrifice to the gods. The persecution varied in intensity across the empire—weakest in Gaul and Britain, where only the first edict was applied, and strongest in the Eastern provinces. Persecutory laws were nullified by different emperors at different times, but Constantine and Licinius's Edict of Milan (313) has traditionally marked the end of the persecution.

Christians had always been subject to local discrimination in the empire, but early emperors were reluctant to issue general laws against the sect. It was not until the 250s, under the reigns of Decius and Valerian, that such laws were passed. Under this legislation, Christians were compelled to sacrifice to pagan gods or face imprisonment and execution. After Gallienus's accession in 260, these laws went into abeyance. Diocletian's assumption of power in 284 did not mark an immediate reversal of imperial inattention to Christianity, but it did herald a gradual shift in official attitudes toward religious minorities. In the first fifteen years of his rule, Diocletian purged the army of Christians, condemned Manicheans to death, and surrounded himself with public opponents of Christianity. Diocletian's preference for activist government, combined with his self-image as a restorer of past Roman glory, foreboded the most pervasive persecution in Roman history. In the winter of 302, Galerius urged Diocletian to begin a general persecution of the Christians. Diocletian was wary, and asked the oracle of Apollo for guidance. The oracle's reply was read as an endorsement of Galerius's position, and a general persecution was called on February 24, 303.

Persecutory policies varied in intensity across the empire. Where Galerius and Diocletian were avid persecutors, Constantius was unenthusiastic. Later persecutory edicts, including the calls for universal sacrifice, were not applied in his domain. His son, Constantine, on taking the imperial office in 306, restored Christians to full legal equality and returned property that had been confiscated during the persecution. In Italy in 306, the usurper Maxentius ousted Maximian's successor Severus, promising full religious toleration. Galerius ended the persecution in the East in 311, but it was resumed in Egypt, Palestine, and Asia Minor by his successor, Maximinus. Constantine and Licinius, Severus's successor, signed the Edict of Milan in 313, which offered a more comprehensive acceptance of Christianity than Galerius's edict had provided. Licinius ousted Maximinus in 313, bringing an end to persecution in the East.

The persecution failed to check the rise of the Church. By 324, Constantine was sole ruler of the empire, and Christianity had become his favored religion. Although the persecution resulted in death, torture, imprisonment, or dislocation for many Christians, the majority of the empire's Christians avoided punishment. The persecution did, however, cause many churches to split between those who had complied with imperial authority (the traditores), and those who had remained "pure". Certain schisms, like those of the Donatists in North Africa and the Meletians in Egypt, persisted long after the persecutions. The Donatists would not be reconciled to the Church until after 411. Some modern historians, such as G. E. M. de Ste. Croix, consider that, in the centuries that followed the persecutory era, Christians created a "cult of the martyrs", and exaggerated its barbarity. Such Christian accounts began to be criticized during the Enlightenment, most notably by Edward Gibbon.


Prior persecutions

From its first appearance to its legalization under Constantine, Christianity was an illegal religion in the eyes of the Roman state.[2] For the first two centuries of its existence, Christianity and its practitioners were unpopular with the people at large.[3] Christians were always suspect,[2] members of a "secret society" whose members communicated with a private code[4] and who shied away from the public sphere.[5] It was popular hostility—the anger of the crowd—which drove the earliest persecutions, not official action.[3] In Lyon in 177, it was only the intervention of civil authorities that stopped a pagan mob from dragging Christians from their houses and beating them to death. The governor of Bithynia–Pontus, Pliny, was sent long lists of denunciations by anonymous citizens, which Emperor Trajan advised him to ignore.[6]

To the followers of the traditional cults, Christians were odd creatures: not quite Roman, but not quite barbarian either.[7] Their practices were deeply threatening to traditional mores. Christians rejected public festivals, refused to take part in the imperial cult, avoided public office, and publicly criticized ancient traditions.[8] Conversions tore families apart: Justin Martyr tells of a pagan husband who denounced his Christian wife, and Tertullian tells of children disinherited for becoming Christians.[9] Traditional Roman religion was inextricably interwoven into the fabric of Roman society and state, but Christians refused to observe its practices.[10][notes 1] In the words of Tacitus, Christians showed "hatred of the human race" (odium generis humani).[12] Among the more credulous, Christians were thought to use black magic in pursuit of revolutionary aims,[13] and to practice incest and cannibalism.[14]

Nonetheless, for the first two centuries of the Christian era, no emperor issued general laws against the faith or its Church. These persecutions were carried out under the authority of local government officials.[15] At Bithynia–Pontus in 111, it was the imperial governor, Pliny;[16] at Smyrna in 156 and Scilli near Carthage in 180, it was the proconsul;[17] at Lyon in 177, it was the provincial governor.[18] When Emperor Nero executed Christians for their alleged involvement in the fire of 64, it was a purely local affair; it did not spread beyond the city limits of Rome.[19] These early persecutions were certainly violent, but they were sporadic, brief and limited in extent.[20] They were of limited threat to Christianity as a whole.[21] The very capriciousness of official action, however, made the threat of state coercion loom large in the Christian imagination.[22]

In the 3rd century, the pattern changed. Emperors became more active and government officials began to actively pursue Christians, rather than merely to respond to the will of the crowd.[23] Christianity, too, changed. No longer were its practitioners merely "the lower orders fomenting discontent"; some Christians were now rich, or from the upper classes. Origen, writing at about 248, tells of "the multitude of people coming in to the faith, even rich men and persons in positions of honour, and ladies of high refinement and birth."[24] Official reaction grew firmer. In 202, according to the Historia Augusta, a 4th-century history of dubious reliability, Septimius Severus (r. 193–211) issued a general rescript forbidding conversion to either Judaism or Christianity.[25] Maximin (r. 235–38) targeted Christian leaders.[26][notes 2] Decius (r. 249–51), demanding a show of support for the faith, proclaimed that all inhabitants of the empire must sacrifice to the gods, eat sacrificial meat, and testify to these acts.[28] Christians were obstinate in their non-compliance. Church leaders, like Fabian, bishop of Rome, and Babylas, bishop of Antioch, were arrested, tried and executed,[29] as were certain members of the Christian laity, like Pionius of Smyrna.[30][notes 3] The Christian theologian Origen was tortured during the persecution and died about a year after from the resulting injuries.[32]

The Decian persecution was a grave blow to the Church.[33] At Carthage, there was mass apostasy (renunciation of the faith).[34] At Smyrna, the bishop, Euctemon, sacrificed and encouraged others to do the same.[35] Because the Church was largely urban, it should have been easy to identify, isolate and destroy the Church hierarchy. This did not happen. In June 251, Decius died in battle, leaving his persecution incomplete. His persecutions were not followed up for another six years, allowing some Church functions to resume.[36] Valerian, Decius's friend, took up the imperial mantle in 253. Though he was at first thought of as "exceptionally friendly" towards the Christians,[37] his actions soon showed otherwise. In July 257, he issued a new persecutory edict. As punishment for following the Christian faith, Christians were to face exile or condemnation to the mines. In August 258, he issued a second edict, making the punishment death. This persecution also stalled in June 260, when Valerian was captured in battle. His son, Gallienus (r. 260–68), ended the persecution[38] and inaugurated nearly 40 years of freedom from official sanctions, praised by Eusebius as the "little peace of the Church".[39] The peace would be undisturbed, save for occasional, isolated persecutions, until Diocletian became emperor.[40]

Persecution and Tetrarchic ideology

Head from a statue of Diocletian at the Istanbul Archaeological Museum

Diocletian, acclaimed emperor on November 20, 284, was a religious conservative, faithful to the traditional Roman cult. Unlike Aurelian (r. 270–75), Diocletian did not foster any new cult of his own. He preferred older gods, Olympian gods.[41] Nonetheless, Diocletian did wish to inspire a general religious revival.[42] As the panegyrist to Maximian declared: "You have heaped the gods with altars and statues, temples and offerings, which you dedicated with your own name and your own image, whose sanctity is increased by the example you set, of veneration for the gods. Surely, men will now understand what power resides in the gods, when you worship them so fervently."[43] Diocletian associated himself with the head of the Roman pantheon, Jupiter; his co-emperor, Maximian, associated himself with Hercules.[44] This connection between god and emperor helped to legitimize the emperors' claims to power and tied imperial government closer to the traditional cult.[45]

Diocletian did not insist on exclusive worship of Jupiter and Hercules, which would have been a drastic change in the pagan tradition. For example, Elagabalus had tried fostering his own god and no others, and had failed dramatically. Diocletian built temples for Isis and Sarapis at Rome and a temple to Sol in Italy.[42] He did, however favor gods who provided for the safety of the whole empire, instead of the local deities of the provinces. In Africa, Diocletian's revival focused on Jupiter, Hercules, Mercury, Apollo and the Imperial Cult. The cult of Saturn, the Romanized Baal-hamon, was neglected.[46] In imperial iconography, too, Jupiter and Hercules were pervasive.[47] The same pattern of favoritism affected Egypt as well. Native Egyptian deities saw no revival, nor was the sacred hieroglyphic script used. Unity in worship was central to Diocletian's religious policies.[46]

Diocletian, like Augustus and Trajan before him, styled himself a "restorer". He urged the public to see his reign and his governing system, the Tetrarchy (rule by four emperors), as a renewal of traditional Roman values and, after the anarchic third century, a return to the "Golden Age of Rome".[48] As such, he reinforced the long-standing Roman preference for ancient customs and Imperial opposition to independent societies. The Diocletianic regime's activist stance, however, and Diocletian's belief in the power of central government to effect major change in morals and society made him unusual. Most earlier emperors tended to be quite cautious in their administrative policies, preferring to work within existing structures rather than overhauling them.[49] Diocletian, by contrast, was willing to reform every aspect of public life to satisfy his goals. Under his rule, coinage, taxation, architecture, law and history were all radically reconstructed to reflect his authoritarian and traditionalist ideology. The reformation of the empire's "moral fabric"—and the elimination of religious minorities—was simply one step in that process.[50]

The unique position of the Christians and Jews of the empire became increasingly apparent. The Jews had earned imperial toleration on account of the great antiquity of their faith.[51] They had been exempted from Decius's persecution[52] and continued to enjoy freedom from persecution under Tetrarchic government.[notes 4] Because their faith was new and unfamiliar[51] and not typically identified with Judaism by this time, Christians had no such excuse.[54] Moreover, Christians had been distancing themselves from their Jewish heritage for their entire history.[55]

Persecution was not the only outlet of the Tetrarchy's moral fervor. In 295, either Diocletian or his Caesar (subordinate emperor), Galerius,[56] issued an edict from Damascus proscribing incestuous marriages and affirming the supremacy of Roman law over local law.[57][notes 5] Its preamble insists that it is every emperor's duty to enforce the sacred precepts of Roman law, for "the immortal gods themselves will favour and be at peace with the Roman name...if we have seen to it that all subject to our rule entirely lead a pious, religious, peaceable and chaste life in every respect".[58] These principles, if given their full extension, would logically require Roman emperors to enforce conformity in religion.[59]

Public support

Christian communities grew quickly in many parts of the empire (and especially in the East) after 260, when Gallienus brought peace to the Church.[60] The data to calculate the figures are nearly non-existent, but the historian and sociologist Keith Hopkins has given crude and tentative estimates for Christian population in the 3rd century. Hopkins estimates that the Christian community grew from a population of 1.1 million in 250 to a population of 6 million by 300, about 10% of the empire's total population.[61][notes 6] Christians even expanded into the countryside, where they had never been numerous before.[63] Churches in the later 3rd century were no longer as inconspicuous as they had been in the first and second. Large churches were prominent in certain major cities throughout the empire.[64] The church in Nicomedia even sat on a hill overlooking the imperial palace.[65] These new churches probably represented not only absolute growth in Christian population, but also the increasing affluence of the Christian community.[66][notes 7] In some areas where Christians were influential, such as North Africa and Egypt, traditional deities were losing credibility.[63]

It is unknown how much support there was for persecution within the aristocracy.[68] After Gallienus's peace, Christians reached high ranks in Roman government. Diocletian appointed several Christians to those positions himself,[69] and his wife and daughter may have been sympathetic to the church.[70] There were many individuals willing to be martyrs, and many provincials willing to ignore any persecutory edicts from the emperors as well. Even Constantius was known to have disapproved of persecutory policies. The lower classes demonstrated little of the enthusiasm they had shown for earlier persecutions.[71][notes 8] They no longer believed the slanderous accusations that were popular in the 1st and 2nd centuries.[73] Perhaps, as the historian Timothy Barnes has suggested, the long-established Church had become another accepted part of their lives.[71]

Within the highest ranks of the imperial administration, however, there were men who were ideologically opposed to the toleration of Christians, like the philosopher Porphyry of Tyre, and Sossianus Hierocles, governor of Bithynia.[74] To E.R. Dodds, the works of these men demonstrated "the alliance of pagan intellectuals with the Establishment".[75] Hierocles thought Christian beliefs absurd. If Christians applied their principles consistently, he argued, they would pray to Apollonius of Tyana instead of Jesus. Hierocles considered that Apollonius's miracles had been far more impressive and Apollonius never had the temerity to call himself "God".[76] He saw the scriptures were full of "lies and contradictions" and Peter and Paul had peddled falsehoods.[77] In the early 4th century, an unidentified philosopher published a pamphlet attacking the Christians. This philosopher, who might have been a pupil of the Neoplatonist Iamblichus, dined repeatedly at the imperial court.[78] Diocletian himself was surrounded by an anti-Christian clique.[notes 9]

Porphyry was somewhat restrained in his criticism of Christianity, at least in his early works, On the Return of the Soul and Philosophy from Oracles. He had few complaints about Jesus, whom he praised as a saintly individual, a "humble" man. Christ's followers, however, he damned as "arrogant".[81] Around 290, Porphyry wrote a fifteen-volume work entitled Against the Christians.[82][notes 10] In the work, Porphyry expressed his shock at the rapid expansion of Christianity.[84] He also revised his earlier opinions of Jesus, questioning Jesus' exclusion of the rich from the Kingdom of Heaven,[85] and his permissiveness in regards to the demons residing in pigs' bodies.[86] Like Hierocles, he unfavorably compared Jesus to Apollonius of Tyana.[87] Porphyry held that Christians blasphemed by worshiping a human being rather than the Supreme God, and behaved treasonably in forsaking the traditional Roman cult. "To what sort of penalties might we not justly subject people," Porphyry asked, "who are fugitives from their fathers' customs?"[88]

Pagan priests, too, were interested in suppressing any threat to traditional religion.[89] The Christian Arnobius, writing during Diocletian's reign, attributes financial concerns to provisioners of pagan services:

The augurs, the dream interpreters, the soothsayers, the prophets, and the priestlings, ever vain...fearing that their own arts be brought to nought, and that they may extort but scanty contributions from the devotees, now few and infrequent, cry aloud, 'The gods are neglected, and in the temples there is now a very thin attendance. Former ceremonies are exposed to derision, and the time-honoured rites of institutions once sacred have sunk before the superstitions of new religions.'[90]

They believed their ceremonies were hindered by the presence of Christians, who were thought to cloud the sight of oracles and stall the gods' recognition of their sacrifices.[89]

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