Camping, Diocletian and The Great Persecution

Today I spent a great deal of money on some my camping supplies for my trip to America. Only fifteen more days to go! I’m super psyched now, also because on Monday I’m heading up to Reading to see Dave and to go old school at Sakura.

The featured article on Wikipedia today is on the Great Persecution, which in short was the last official persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire, infamously resulting in the deaths of many martyrs particularly in the Greek East. For Christians and lovers of antiquity alike the subject remains controversial; theologians of the day exaggerated the number of Christians killed and zealously praised Constantine for the rather erroneously titled Edit of Milan in 313.  To say that the ‘pagan’ Romans were vicious heartless persecutors of Christians would be an extreme sentiment, and to argue that Constantine was a truly devout follower of Christ is itself a hotly debated subject, and yet this is how the the matter is remembered. The following discussion on the causes of the persecution and its impact are in part derived from an essay I wrote on the subject back in March for which I received a first:

Why was the Great Persecution Launched and what was its Impact on the Christian Community?

The persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire reached its pinnacle under the emperor Diocletian, although it was not a result of any recent occurrences between pagan and Christian but rather the result of years of tension and strife. One important catalyst of this conflict lay in the emphatic traditionalism of an emperor that was a self-conscious inheritor of the spiritual legacy of Romanisation.1 Diocletian saw the crisis of the past century as being caused by the infidelity showed by Roman citizens to their gods. To a degree this was a logical conclusion to contemporaries. From the empires birth an importance had been placed on compelling all to worship the gods out of respect to traditionalism and piety;2 when this respect was diminished in the third century by consequence crisis was met.

There is no doubt that the immortal gods, as always friendly towards Rome, will be reconciled to us only if we ensured that everyone within out empire pursues a pious, religious, peaceful life, and one thoroughly pure in all regards…For our laws safeguard what is holy and venerable; and it is in this way that the majesty of Rome, by the favour of all the divine powers, has attained its greatness”.3

Roman religion was embedded in the concept of pietas, the deep obligations that tied a person to their social roots. Devotion to the city, state and empire was barely separable from devotion to the gods, and it was only though a religious act that “these loyalties could be sincerely and adequately expressed”.4 The authority of the Scriptures dictates that Christians cannot partake in such rituals and since one would be putting the civic stability of the empire at risk by ignoring the formal sacraments of the Roman religion, the issue of Christianity sat at ill with the policy of Diocletian from the moment he ascended to power.5 Eusebius records that during the persecution the Roman government would consider performing a sacrifice to the gods as a formal denouncement of Christianity.6 The two were mutually exclusive. Pliny the Younger for one thought that no genuine Christian could play a part in civic rituals as they were strictly opposed to the idea.7 Tertullian, a Christian himself, concurs that this refusal was at the heart of complaints made against his faith.8 The abstinence from pagan ritual that Christians advocated was a fundamental cause of the Great Persecution.

Christianity was at this point still a comparatively young religion. Suetonius had described it in his day as a “mere impious superstition”.9 Of course, to adherents of the faith even in its early days it was much more than this but to this historian and the Roman literati it was not of subsidence to threaten the empire. However, by Diocletian’s time it had spectacularly evolved into an established centralised entity and yet maintained its youthfulness. This would never sit well in the conservative world of classical Rome, especially with regards to the traditionalism of the new Augustus. Rome respected the ancient,10 the old, even with monotheists like the Jews.11 In retrospect, this young religion was radical and consequently a danger that needed to be dealt with.

The following parable of Williams succinctly summarises the threat that Christianity posed to the stability of Rome as perceived by the emperors.12 Consider in a modern world that Rome is a small state, the Pagan gods a neighbouring superpower and the Christians a radical minority within the small state. The radical minority vocally oppose an alliance the state has with the superpower, whose patronage maintains a favourable status quo. The small state fears that such opposition will ruin their alliance and put them at risk from other neighbours. Consequently they seek to subdue the minority. Such an argument Williams argues would have been used by the likes of Galerius to justify disrupting the peace of the empire by launching the persecution.

Many cities within the empire had experienced invasion and bankruptcy during the third century. In the face of these calamities, citizens would be unable to pay for festivals, temples and sacrifices. With the demise of the traditional themes of the state religion, the civic cult found itself unable to fulfil the more personal and religious longings of the individual such as the wonder of the cosmos or the mysteries of creation and death. To satisfy answers to this, men looked towards cults with roots in the theological near-east:

Against the catastrophic realities of the third century it is tempting to see the great popularity of the mystery religions as people’s flight from civic insecurity into otherworldly promises and esoteric secret societies”.13

Persian Zoroastrianism held the belief that a universal cosmic war between good and evil was occurring on a day-to-day bases; such ideas soon became embedded in Judaism, Mithraism, Christianity and Manichaeism. Christianity saw in this ideology the daily struggle between God and Satan, Grace and Sin. Other gods and beliefs must have a place in this; there cannot be a neutral ground. Hence, Christians did not deny pagan gods but merely saw then as demonic entities. Diocletian’s anger towards Christianity and the Manicheans was due to the influence of Persian Zoroastrianism on them; Persia was the enemy after all. These affiliations did little to quell the notion that Christians had a barbarous and alien name.14 Since the barbarian is the antithesis to the citizen, the Christian was seen in an antithetical position to Roman society.15 Galerius, attributed by both Eusebius and Lactantius for being the primary instigator of the persecution,16 had built a reputation on engaging the Sassanid’s, which had culminated with a peace in 299. The subsequent launch of the Great Persecution against Christians in 303 then was in many ways a continuation of his aggressive policy to the barbaric east.

The assessment of these leaders by the likes of Lactantius and Eusebius are typical of the classical author; in their subjective narrative they have all the trappings of earlier works by such authors like Tacitus. The lamentation of the persecution however is not without merit considering the position of the historians. In the opinion of Lactantius Galerius’ hatred towards the faith originated from his barbaric mother,17 a Dacian that had fallen out of favour with the religion. This savagery consequently reached Diocletian via the medium of Galerius’ “inherent barbarism”.18 Although the proclamation of the Great Persecution will forever remain as an order of Diocletian as Augustus, the influence of Galerius on his senior was a potent factor. It would be erroneous to believe the rhetoric of Lactantius that suggested that Diocletian feared Galerius,19 although the fact remains that the elder Augustus was becoming an old man by contemporary standards when the persecution was launched, and soon became ill after.20 His retirement in 305 shows how he was unable to keep up with the demands of his reign and the conflict against the Christians; logic would dictate that Galerius’ sway over Diocletian would have increased during these final years.

Relations between Christians in the military had been particularly antagonistic during the final years of the third century. Diocletian’s advocacy for traditionalism as a foundation for civic stability was not excluded from the army; partaking in rituals and honouring the gods was critically important for a successful campaign. The story of the centurion Marcellus of Tangier, who was martyred by sword for refusing to sacrifice to the gods, has remained especially potent in Christianity. Maximilian of Thebeste, one of the first conscientious objectors, was another martyr that met his death after refusing to conscript. It is no surprise that Eusebius felt the need to comment on how the persecution began “with those brethren that were in the army”.21 The historian tells of a purge of men that had refused to observe religious rituals (he neglects to mention what rituals) along the Danube. The Christians in the army received punishment for this, although it is unknown whether they were the only minority targeted. Whether this purge was a tactical move by Galerius for the future persecution cannot be known although it is possible. Lactantius however offers a slightly different account of Christians being discharged from the military:

[Diocletian] was once sacrificing cattle and looking at their entrails for what was going to happen, when certain of his attendants who knew the Lord and were present at the sacrifice, placed the immortal sign on their foreheads; at this the demons were put to flight and the rites thrown into confusion…Diocletian then flew into a rage; he ordered that not only those who were attending the rites but all who were in the palace should do sacrifice, and that any who declined should be punished”.22

Lactantius’ colourful commentary is undoubtedly exaggerating the failure of the ritual. What is more likely is that the sacrifice went ahead successfully but the presence of the Christians coupled with their own religious sacrament angered the emperor and the haruspices, thus beginning the purge in the army. The risk posed by internal dissent in the military would anger any emperor; it is no surprise that shortly after this occurrence that the persecution was launched.

Diocletian’s misgivings regarding bloodshed in the persecution were not without merit. His preferred policy of targeting the centrality of the faith was a much more practical method of eradicating the perceived threat of Christianity. An entity cannot be threatening if it has no cohesion. The emperor’s preference of demolishing churches23 and destroying the civil rights of Christians would have successfully undermined their capacity to maintain an active administration, and furthermore would force the individual to turn back to the state for security. This was a simple solution to the Christian problem as in theory it would have given Jupiter his ritual respect and yet maintained a degree of civic peace- law and order were poignant aspects of the deity after all. In practice however violence was inevitable and would only serve to strengthen the Christian resolve. Lactantius reminds his reader of this so readily, having one Augustus say to the other “Christians…have the habit of dying gladly”.24 The impact of the persecution on the Christian community was not consistent across the empire. With only the First Edict being proclaimed the west enjoyed far fewer martyrdoms and brutalities. Africa saw the most brutal action although undoubtedly this was due to comparatively more fanatical individuals, as demonstrated by the examples above. Maximian was also more ruthless than Constantius in his purge, compelling Christians to sacrifice for the state and demanding the handing over of Scriptures.

Sporadic persecution in Spain and Italy ended in 305 when Constantius became Augustus of the west. Britain and Gaul saw limited confrontations; Lactantius claimed that only churches were destroyed.25 Eusebius denies this in the Ecclesiastical history26 but ambiguously confirms it in his commentary in the Martyrs of Palestine.27 Regardless, Constantius was a much more moderate persecutor than any of his contemporaries, with Christian authors attributing this to Constantius’ secret adherence to their faith. This is of course nothing more than highly unlikely propaganda perpetrated under the rule of Constantine.28 Truthfully, Constantius took measures with Christians only as far as what was expected of him:

Constantius prudently took nominal measures, but in practice went little further than purging his court of Christians, and demolishing some churches…Unlike Maximian, he did not interpret the demand for surrender of scriptures and suspension of worship as enforceable by capital punishment, and so nobody under his jurisdiction was executed”.29

It was in the east that the Christian community felt the greatest impact from the persecution. The tortures experienced by Christians are plentiful in Eusebius’ commentary, ranging from beatings, beheadings, imprisonment, starvation, execution by burning and even crucifixion.30 The historians respect and admiration for the martyrs is ample and would have been felt across the Christian community. What is particularly interesting is that Eusebius does not neglect any particular class in his narration; men, women and children from all walks of life are mentioned.31 One can infer from this that the persecution strengthened the communal nature of the Christian society. That is to say, Christians from more prestigious backgrounds did not ignore the plights of those from more humble origins. Suffering and miracles for Christians go hand in hand, in imitation of the torture, death and subsequent rebirth of Jesus Christ. It should come as no surprise that during the Great Persecution Eusebius records cases of miracles and divine intervention. The historian records one particular anecdote where wild animals refused to attack and kill Christian prisoners that had been condemned to death, as though they were being drawn back by “divine interposition”.32 By consequence such stories would reaffirm the belief of the individual. The value of martyrs and saints was copious to the community as they earned the faith merit in the eyes of God. Furthermore, the persecution only served to confirm the validity of the Scriptures. Eusebius comments that since the Bible specifically includes passages damning the act of sacrificing to other gods, the Great Persecution must have been foreseen and subsequently the whole ordeal had been “anciently prescribed” by God.33

Works by Eusebius and Lactantius are designed to show that God was on the side of the Christians throughout the persecution so that the community could strengthen its resolve and tenacity. It has been pointed out however by modern scholarship that during the persecution the exact number of those martyred was small, although the lamentation of the event by contemporaries leaves little doubt as to the shock that was experienced in the eastern communities.34 There is no evidence to suggest that the bravery of the martyrs encouraged pagans to adopt the faith in awe and respect, so we cannot say that the persecution caused the Christian community to find new adherents:

The courage with which numerous Christians faced torture and death made their religion noteworthy…But according to Eusebius, Christianity did not spread because of the persecutions. It spread in spite of them. Its greatest progress occurred, as he saw it, during the long periods of peace it enjoyed”.35

Christianity had indeed spread during the years of peace since the last persecution had been ended by emperor Gallienus in 260, and it would continue to do so after the Edict of Milan in 313. Peace is what the faith needed to spread, not conflict. The Great Persecution did much to strengthen the core values of the faith and the community thrived on the cases of glorious martyrdoms, whether or not they were as common as Eusebius claims. Gibbon felt that such claims were highly exaggerated, claiming that “the interest as well as vanity of the captives prompted them to magnify the merit of their respective suffering”.36 Whether deaths were small or large in number is ultimately redundant; either would only serve to reinforce the determination of a community that grew stronger every time a Christian was slew.37 The impact of the Great Persecution on the Christian community was not one that Galerius had envisioned. Yes, it shocked contemporaries and killed many but ultimately gave the rhetoricians and theologians of the age fuel from which to proclaim the authority of the sacraments of their faith more so.

1 Williams (1985: 153)

2 “Worship the divine Power everywhere and in every way in accordance with the traditions of our fathers…compel all others to honour it”. Cass. Dio 52.36

3 Codex Iustinianus 5.5.2 op. cit. Williams (1985: 162)

4 Ibid 155

5 Cameron (1993: 45)

6 Eusebius Historia ecclesiastica 8

7 Pliny the Younger Epistulae ad Traianum 10.96.5

8 Tertullian Apology 10.1 op. cit. Rives (2005: 18)

9 “Superstitionis novae et maleficae” are the words used by Suetonius Nero 16.

10 Aurelius Victor Caesares 39.33

11 Cf. commentary of Varro in Augustus The City of God 4.31

12 Williams (1985: 173)

13 Ibid 158

14 Tertullian Apology 3

15 For commentary on Christians as barbarians cf. Antonova (2005: 76-83)

16 Lactantius De Mortibus Persecutorum 9,11 Eusebius Vita Constantini 1.57

17 Lactantius De Mortibus Persecutorum 11

18 Ibid 9

19 Ibid

20 Ibid 11, 17, 18

21 Eusebius Historia ecclesiastica 8.1

22 Lactantius De Mortibus Persecutorum 10

23 Eusebius Historia ecclesiastica 8.2

24 Lactantius De Mortibus Persecutorum 11.3

25 Ibid 15.7

26 Eusebius Historia ecclesiastica 8.13

27 Ibid The Book of The Martyrs of Palestine 13

28 Ibid Vita Constantini 1.13-17 Lactantius De Mortibus Persecutorum 15.7

29 Williams (1983: 179)

30 Eusebius Historia ecclesiastica 8.6

31 Ibid 8.8

32 Ibid 8.7

33 Ibid 8.10

34 Cameron (1993: 44)

35 Kyrtatas (2003: 61)

36 Gibbon (1998: 348)

37 “The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed”. Tertullian Apology 50


Primary Sources

Codex Iustinianus (1985) Diocletian And The Roman Recovery, ed. by Williams, S London: Batsford Ltd

Augustine (1998) The City of God Against the Pagans, ed. and trans. by R. W. Dyson. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press.

Aurelius Victor (1994) Liber de Caesaribus, ed. and trans. by H. W. Bird, Liverpool, Liverpool University Press

Cassius Dio ‘Roman History’ William P. Thayer LacusCurtius Cassius Dio’s Roman History URL: [19 March 2009]

Eusebius ‘Historia ecclesiastica’ (1847) An Ecclesiastical History To 324 A.D, ed. and trans. by Rev. C. F. Cruse, London: John Wertheimer And Co.

Eusebius ‘The Book of The Martyrs of Palestine’ (1847) An Ecclesiastical History To 324 A.D, ed. and trans. by Rev. C. F. Cruse, London: John Wertheimer And Co.

Eusebius ‘Vita Constantini’ (2002) Eusebius’ Life of Constantine, ed. and trans. Averil Cameron and Stuart G. Hall, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Lactantius (1984) De Mortibus Persecutorum, ed. and trans. by J. L. Creed, Oxford: Clarendon Press

Pliny the Younger ‘Epistulae ad Traianum’ (1990) Correspondence with Trajan from Bythinia (Epistles X), ed. and trans. by Wynne Williams, Warminster: Aris and Phillips

Suetonius (1962) The Twelve Caesars, ed. and trans. by Graves, R, London: Cassel

Tertullian ‘Apologecticus’ (2001) Christian and pagan in the Roman Empire : the witness of Tertullian, ed. and trans. by Robert D. Sider, Washington D.C: Catholic University of America Press

Secondary Sources

Antonova, S. E (2005) ‘Barbarians and the Empire-Wide Spread of Christianity’ The Spread of Christianity in the First Four Centuries Essays in Explanation, ed. W.V. Harris Leiden: Brill

Cameron, A (1993) The Later Roman Empire, London: Fontana Press

Gibbon, E (1998) The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire 28 Selected Chapters, ed. by Anthony Lentin and Brian Norman London: Wordsworth Classics

Kyrtatas, D.J (2005) ‘The Significance of Leadership and Organisation in the Spread of Christianity’ The Spread of Christianity in the First Four Centuries Essays in Explanation, ed. W.V. Harris Leiden: Brill

Rives, J.B (2005) ‘Christian Expansion and Christian Ideology’ The Spread of Christianity in the First Four Centuries Essays in Explanation, ed. W.V. Harris Leiden: Brill

Williams, S (1985) Diocletian And The Roman Recovery, London: Batsford Ltd


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