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The Great Persecution

April 7, 2012

Christianity may have begun as a small group of a few dozen followers of Jesus, but over the next two centuries it grew at a steady clip until by the late 3rd century AD the faith had exploded into a major religion within the Roman Empire. Many members of the upper classes had converted, especially women. Christians served in the army and held positions in the civil service. Christian churches were organized throughout the empire, with bishops in major cities and pastors leading local congregations throughout towns and villages. Churches sprung up in most cities as Christians moved out of meeting in private houses to create their own places of worship.[1]

Meanwhile, the Roman Empire was falling apart in fifty years of unrest known as the Third Century Crisis. The prosperous, largely peaceful empire of the Severan Emperors gave way to constantly changing governments, weak emperors and numerous military coups. Foreign invasions threatened the borders of the empire and some regions sought to secede and break away. The protracted unrest caused the economy to take a nose dive. The government sought to address the problem of low tax revenues by devaluing its currency, which made the problem worse. Poverty caused many people to leave cities and become semi-serfs, working land owned by large landowners.

Romans were looking for answers as to why their once powerful empire was in decline. As in so many similar cases throughout history, many of them answered these questions by blaming religious minorities. Traditional Roman religion did not recognize any such concept as the separation of church and state. The state employed numerous priests to conduct rituals, make sacrifices and read omens, all to ensure the state received the favor of the gods. If the state was experiencing ill fortune, then the gods must be displeased.

For many people, the obvious reason for the gods’ displeasure were the Christians, the Manichaeans, and other religious groups whose numbers were growing across the empire. The Christians argued that they were good citizens – they paid taxes, lived moral lives, obeyed the law, and served in the military – and this qualified them as loyal Romans despite their refusal to offer sacrifices to the Roman gods. Most of the time, the Roman authorities had tacitly if not officially accepted this argument. Sporadic persecutions had occurred before, but in the 3rd century they became more frequent and widespread. The emperors Decius and Valerian both issued decrees that Christians must sacrifice to the Roman gods or be executed.

This stage of persecution ended when Valerian was captured by the Persians in 260 and Christianity was again tolerated, but friction between pagans and Christians continued. The Christian church, with its hierarchical structure, social support networks, and ruling bishops of Rome, Alexandria and Antioch, was viewed as a threat to Imperial power, a sort of potential fifth column who did not follow the Roman gods and therefore was damaging the Roman state. To make matters worse, Christianity’s outlaw status made it an attractive religion for all those within the empire who hated Rome. Especially in Egypt and North Africa, Christianity became associated with local nationalism and anti-Roman sentiment.[2]

In short, Christianity was viewed as an internal threat to the unity and security of the empire. This view was especially strong amongst Imperial officials, whose hatred of Christians is evidenced by the numerous tortures many of them devised which went above and beyond their mandate. As is also often the case throughout history, leaders sought to pin blame on a disliked minority in order to divert attention from their own failings.

Late 3rd Century bust of Diocletian, now on display at the Museum of Archaeology in Istanbul.

Into this world stepped a 40 year old army officer named Diocles. Born in Salona, Dalmatia (modern day Solin in Croatia) to parents of low birth, he had enlisted in the army and worked his way up through the ranks. In 284, the reigning emperor Numerian was murdered by soldiers in Syria. The army then declared Diocles emperor, and he changed his name to the more Latin-sounding Diocletian. After defeating an army led by Numerian’s brother Carinus in modern day Serbia, in 285 he took control of the empire.

Diocletian set out to radically transform the Roman Empire. The first and most obvious problem to be rectified was the growth of military power: between 235 and 285 there had been no fewer than 13 military coups. To put a stop to this, in 293 he split the empire into four parts, called the Tetrarchy. Two sections of the empire would be governed by Augusti, theoretically ruling as equals but with Diocletian as the practical senior partner. Two other sections would be governed by lesser rulers given the title of Caesar, who would be trained to eventually succeed the Augusti. This system kept army commanders from gaining too much power, as each was under the control of a nearby ruler.

Diocletian named Maximian the Augustus of the western empire, ruling Italy, Africa and Spain with his capital at Milan. Constantius was named Caesar of Britain and Gaul with his capital at Trier. In the east, Diocletian himself took control of Egypt, Syria and Asia Minor, with his capital at Nicomedia. He named Galerius Caesar of the Balkans and Greece, with his capital at Sirmium on the Danube. All three of these men also hailed from the Balkans: Maximian came from Sirmium in modern Serbia, Galerius from Serdica in Dacia (modern Sofia, Bulgaria) and Constantius from Dardania in what is now Serbia. Rome was no longer the capital city of the empire that bore its name.[3]

Map of the Tetrarchy, as established in 293.

Aside from this decentralization of power, the rest of Diocletian’s reform involved accumulating as much power as possible to the person of the emperor. Whereas Augustus and those who followed him had adopted the title princeps, claimed to be a “first among equals” and strove to preserve the fiction of the old Republic, Diocletian adopted the title dominus, formerly a term used by slaves to refer to their masters. Now, instead of a “first among equals” from among the free citizens, the Roman people were his slaves and he was their master. Visitors to the imperial court were required to prostrate themselves before him, and if they were lucky they were allowed to kiss the hem of his robe. Previously, the power and legitimacy of the princeps was said to be derived from the Senate and the Roman people. Diocletian instead declared himself to be the gods’ representative on earth. His legitimacy was derived from the gods, not from any earthly source. He gave himself the name Jovian, as the earthly representative of Jupiter. Maximian followed suit, calling himself Herculius to compare himself to Hercules. The Senate was almost completely ignored, reduced to ruling the now politically sidelined city of Rome.[4]

All this created an ideology that sought to unify the empire under one religion, one system of government and one ruler. Diocletian’s deputy Galerius was said to be an admirer of the system of government of the Sassanid Persian state, where “It is the manner and practice of the Persians for the people to yield themselves slaves to their kings, and for the kings to treat their people as slaves.”[5] Implementing the new system required transforming Rome from an authoritarian state to a totalitarian one. The hated frumentarii, or secret police, were abolished but quickly replaced by the Agentes in Rebus, a new force of couriers that also served as a domestic intelligence agency dedicated to keeping the emperor informed and snuffing out dissent within the empire.[6]

A two-denarius coin of Diocletian, showing him wearing the crown of Sol Invictus rather than the more traditional olive branch.

The first persecutions came in 297 AD. In that year, the Persians under Shah Narses invaded Syria. Under the circumstances, Diocletian viewed the Manichaeans, who followed the teachings of a Persian prophet named Mani, as a potential fifth column. He issued a proclamation to provincial governors that the Manichaeans would “attempt through the accursed morals and savage laws of the Persians to infect men of a less wicked nature, i.e. the modest and peaceful race of the Romans” with “the poison of a malignant serpent.” All copies of Manichaean scriptures were ordered burned, Manichaean religious leaders were to be executed, and followers were to be executed as well if they refused to convert. Property was to be confiscated and placed in the Imperial treasury.[7]

Although internal security had been restored within the empire, things had not gotten much better otherwise. The Persians were defeated in 298, but the economy had still not recovered from the third century crisis. The Tetrarchy system created a need for four armies instead of one, and as a result taxes were raised to pay for the expansions. More people joining the military further shrunk the tax base, causing more increases. Taxes were so high that many people had no incentive to produce goods for sale, and inflation continued to run rampant. Later on, Diocletian attempted to control inflation by instituting price controls, but this merely caused people not to sell at the decreed low prices and made the problem worse.[8]

Matters came to a head in 299 in the capital city of Nicomedia. Priests attempting to conduct a divination rite complained that their omens were cloudy. They blamed Christians for somehow obstructing the rites and causing the gods to not show their will. As a result, Diocletian ordered the palace staff to all make a sacrifice to the Roman gods or be flogged.[9]

A purge of the army followed. First, efforts were made to record the religion of every soldier in the ranks. Soldiers were then ordered to sacrifice to the Roman gods. If they refused, they were stripped of rank and discharged. Nevertheless, many Christians in the ranks refused to worship the Roman gods. Only a few of them were executed, as Diocletian feared a military rebellion.[10] Nevertheless, the purge of the army gave rise to many martyr’s tales of military saints. The stories and legends told about St. George, St. Acacius, St. Sebastian, Sts. Sergius and Baccus, and the other soldier-martyrs of Catholic and Orthodox tradition largely date to this time.

A Medieval fresco of St. George, one of the soldier martyrs of the great persecution, found in the Matskhvarishi church at Svaneti in the Republic of Georgia.

The ancient sources disagree somewhat on when Diocletian decided to initiate the general persecution of Christians. Eusebius believed that Diocletian had been planning the persecution from an early date, and was merely waiting for the correct time to put it into action. In Eusebius’ view, moves such as the purging of the palace and the army were done to ensure those institutions’ loyalty when the time came to carry out the general persecution. Lactantius on the other hand believed that Diocletian initially planned only to purge the military and the civil service with minimal bloodshed. Only later, at the urging of Galerius, did he decide to carry out the general persecution (although Lactantius hinted that Diocletian’s reluctance was somewhat of a front and that Galerius was being set up as a fall man in case the plan failed). The pagan historian Eutropius provides some support for this understanding of Diocletian’s character, calling him a man”of a crafty disposition” who “was willing to gratify his own disposition to cruelty in such a way as to thrown the odium upon others.” Both Lactantius and Eusebius were Christians who lived through the persecutions, but neither had access to the inner deliberations of Diocletian’s court, so his true thought process will likely never be known.[11]

What is clear is that in the winter of 302 Galerius traveled to Nicomedia and pushed Diocletian to act with force. He sought not simply to purge Christians from government but to exterminate Christianity from Roman territory. Most of the officials present endorsed Galerius’ proposal. Diocletian then inquired of the oracle of Apollo at Miletus, who also endorsed Galerius’ plan. Plans were then set in motion, to be launched the next spring. Diocletian did overrule Galerius in one aspect; he requested that the first stage of the plan be carried out without bloodshed.

On February 23, 303, the persecution began. The day was the festival day of Terminus, the Roman god of endings, and the date had been deliberately chosen to symbolize the day the Roman Empire would terminate Christianity. The Christians were not expecting further persecutions, they were instead preparing to celebrate Lent in preparation for Easter. At dawn in Nicomedia, soldiers and treasury officers broke down the gates to the church in the city. Copies of the scriptures were confiscated and burned. The church’s furniture and furnishings were looted. Fearing that fire would spread throughout the city, the soldiers decided not to fire the building and instead spent several hours razing it to the ground with axes and iron implements.[12]

Medival depiction of the beginnings of the persecution in Nicomedia.

The next day, a decree was published throughout the empire which ordered Christians stripped of all honors and titles. Churches were to be closed. Christians no longer had the right to sue in court, and if they were sued they could not defend themselves and a default judgment would be entered against them. Most importantly, all Christians were now stripped of the immunity from torture normally enjoyed by all Roman citizens.

In Nicomedia, a man named Euethius defiantly ripped down a public copy of the proclamation and tore it into pieces. He then proceeded to insult Diocletian and Galienus’ Balkan ancestry, saying scornfully that “these are the triumphs of Goths and Sarmatians.” Despite Diocletian’s orders to refrain from bloodshed at this stage, he was arrested and burned alive for his gesture of defiance.[12]

Galerius pushed Diocletian to lift his injunction against bloodshed. According to Lactantius, he had men set the imperial palace in Nicomedia on fire and then blamed the Christians. Diocletian instead ordered his palace staff tortured in order to find out who set the fire, of course none of them knew anything so this was pointless. Galerius’ men set another fire a short time later, and Galerius fled the city, pleading that his safety was in danger with so many saboteurs about. Eusebius mentions the fire but did not mention any “false flag” theories about its origin.

Orthodox icon of Anthimus, the bishop of Nicomedia who was executed in 303.

Whatever the truth of the matter, the immediate imperial response to the fire was a bloodbath in Nicomedia. According to Eusebius, “By Imperial command God’s worshipers there perished wholesale and in heaps.” Dorotheus and Gorgonius, two Imperial servants who were Christians, were executed by strangulation. Anthimus, the bishop of Nicomedia, was beheaded. Many other Christians were arrested, tied up, loaded onto boats and then dumped overboard into the Sea of Marmara to drown. The bodies of Dorotheus and Gorgonius were dug up from where they had been buried and dumped into the sea out of fear that their grave would become a shrine.

Another Christian of Nicomedia named Peter was dragged to a public square and ordered to make a sacrifice. When he refused, he was stripped naked, hung by ropes and flogged until many of his bones were exposed. His torturers then mixed salt and vinegar and poured it over his open wounds. When he still refused to sacrifice, they brought out a brazier with a lit fire, and slowly roasted him as if he were an animal. The fire consumed him slowly, so as to still give him an opportunity to give in and offer to make the sacrifices, but he steadfastly refused until his life gave out and he expired.[13]

That summer, Diocletian issued another decree ordering that all members of the Christian clergy were to be arrested throughout the empire. City prisons quickly became crowded with pastors and bishops who were rounded up and confined. Eusebius described the scenes of the summer of 303, reporting that “I saw with my own eyes the places of worship thrown down from top to bottom, to the very foundations, the inspired holy scriptures committed to the flames in the middle of the public squares, and the pastors of the churches hiding disgracefully in one place or another, while other suffered the indignity of being held up to ridicule by their enemies.”[14]

But the worst was yet to come. In November, A third decree was issued which stated that the clergy were to be allowed to go free if they agreed to make a sacrifice to the Roman gods. Many apparently did so and were released. One of the apostates happened to be Marcellinus, the bishop of Rome. The Christian authors tend to gloss over this point, so the number of people who caved in cannot be estimated. Eusebius mentioned them only in passing, saying he preferred to focus on “only those things by which first we ourselves, then later generations, may benefit.”[15]

For those who refused to partake in worshiping the Roman deities, a horrific ordeal usually awaited them. The authorities were directed to force them to make sacrifices using any means necessary. In practice, this generally meant extreme forms of torture were employed on the orders of local judges. Many began competing with each other in a race to the depths of sadism to come up with the most fanciful and painful torture methods. Some pastors were flogged until they bled to death. Others were broken on the rack, stretched and beaten and then had their skin scraped until they died.

Some lucky ones got off easy. In some cities such as Caesarea, the authorities simply wanted to get the job over with as quickly as possible and found as many loopholes as possible to accommodate the Christians so they could mark them off as having sacrificed and get them out of their hair. One man was seized by the arms and hauled to the altar, where the officials forcibly manipulated his hands into offering the sacrifices and then let him go. Another man was rumored to have sacrificed, and although he had done no such thing he did not deny the rumors and was marked down as having sacrificed. Another man who cried out that he would not offer any sacrifices was smacked upside the head and told to shut up, and was then marked down as having sacrificed even though he did not.[16]

Others were not so lucky. In Antioch, Romanus, a deacon from Caesarea, was visiting Antioch where he denounced Christians who were partaking in the sacrifices there. For his outburst, he was arrested and sentenced to be burned at the stake. As he was being tied to the stake, he mockingly asked “Where is the fire for me?” His captors then cut his tongue out of his mouth, but decided not to execute him and threw him back into prison. Two years later, he would be strangled to death at a time when many other prisoners were being released.[17]

The persecution became much more intense in early 304. A fourth imperial proclamation was issued which stated that all Christians – not just the clergy – were to be required to offer sacrifices. If they refused, they were to be coerced into doing so through whatever means the judges thought necessary.[18]

In Phrygia, one village whose population was entirely Christian refused as a body to offer sacrifices. A force of legionaries surrounded the town, set its major buildings on fire and then massacred its inhabitants. Lactantius actually praised the officer who ordered this massacre for his mercy, compared to those who preferred to cause death by slow torture. Another victim in Phrygia was the finance minister of the province, a man of Italian descent named Adauctus, who was executed despite an impeccable record of service to the empire.[19]

A bound man is attacked by a leopard in this mosaic showing an arena scene from Sollertiana Domus in North Africa from the late 3rd century. The same fate awaited Christians in Phoenicia during the persecutions.

In Antioch, some Christians were roasted over braziers while others took an easier way out and threw themselves off of the tops of buildings to avoid being tortured. Also in Antioch was a wealthy woman named Domnina who had two unmarried daughters. All three of them were arrested. They were very afraid, only of physical torture but of the potential for sexual violence. The three women made a scheme to escape. As they were being moved from one place to another, they asked the soldiers to excuse them as they passed by a river, pleading the need to relieve themselves. When they went down to the river, they dove in, were carried away downriver and escaped. Two other girls in Antioch were not so lucky, there were dumped overboard from a ship to drown. In Pontus, local judges devised a method of driving reeds under the fingernails of those who refused to offer sacrifices, others had molten lead poured over their backs.[20]

Further south in the province of Phoenicia, Tyrannion, the bishop of Tyre and Zenobius, presbyter of the church in Sidon, were executed by beheading.[21] In Tyre, most Christians were Egyptian expatriates, and here the Roman authorities decided to use the executions as a spectator sport. Rather than dumping people into the sea, the authorities in Tyre sent a steady stream of victims to die at the hands of wild animals in the arena. So many were sent to the arena that it seems the animals grew tired of killing them. Eusebius was in Tyre during some of the executions there and was an eyewitness to some of the arena executions, where animals hung back and did not attack the victims.

You would see a youngster not yet twenty, standing without fetters, spreading out his arms in the form of a cross, and with a mind unafraid and unshakable occupying himself in the most unhurried prayers to the Almighty; not budging in the least and not retreating an inch from the spot where he stood, though bears and panthers breathing fury and death almost touched his very flesh. Yet by some supernatural, mysterious power their mouths were stopped, and they ran back again to the rear. Again you would have seen others – there were five altogether – thrown to an infuriated bull. When others approached from outside he tossed them with his horns into the air and mangled them, leaving them to be picked up half-dead; but when in his fury he rushed head down at the lonely group of holy martyrs, he could not even get near them, but stamped his feet and pushed with his horns in all directions. Provoked by the hot irons he breathed rage and threats, but divine providence dragged him back. So, as he too did his intended victims no harm whatever, other beasts were set on them. At last, when these animals had launched their terrible varied assaults, the martyrs were one and all butchered with the sword, and instead of being buried in the earth were given to the waves of the sea.[22]

Silvanus, the bishop of Gaza, was sent to the copper mines of Phaeno in the Arabian desert. There, Silvanus and 39 other Christians were executed by beheading. Others in Gaza found death by burning at the stake or in the arena. Six other young men from the region volunteered to take to the arena, they instead were taken to Caesarea and all beheaded on the same day in March 304.[23]

Scenes of the persecution in Egypt as depicted in a 13th century icon of St. Catherine in the monastery of St. Catherine in Egypt. Clockwise from the top left: Christians are flogged, taken to prison, given the opportunity to sacrifice to the pagan gods, burned en masse, beaten by guards, and roasted on a brazier over an open flame.

In Egypt, persecution descended into a massive bloodbath. Before the persecution, Christians were numerous in Egypt and even held high ranking positions in the provincial government. Once the persecutions began, bishop Phileas of Thumis said that the judges and soldiers “were not to show the least consideration for us but to regard us and treat us as if we no longer existed.” Many Christians were executed by beheading, drowning, crucifixion, flogging or breaking on the rack. Some were hung from crosses but supported so they did not suffocate and were instead left to die of starvation and exposure. In Thebes, some had their skin peeled off with pieces of broken pottery. Others had their ankles tied to machines that sprung in opposite directions, ripping their legs off. Some had their arms and legs bound to ropes and had all four limbs pulled in different directions. When the ropes were taunt and the victims helpless, they could be tortured with other implements. Still others were hung from buildings from a nail driven through one wrist, allowing their body weight to tear and dislocate their joints. Some were bound to pillars, and as their body weight sagged it drew the ropes tighter and tighter around their bodies.

Orthodox icon of St. Juliana of Nicomedia, another victim of the persecutions.

Eusebius estimated the daily death toll as ranging between twenty and a hundred executions per day in Thebais alone. Axes sometimes broke due to the number of beheadings per day, and executioners became to fatigued and horrified to continue. Those who were near death from the torture methods were cut down and then dumped into the streets to die. The church leadership in Egypt was decimated, with many bishops executed. Phileas himself was beheaded.[24] These actions – the torture of Roman citizens, the beheading of government officials – would have been unheard of in the early years of the Roman empire, when exile and condemnation of memory were the worst punishments given to a high ranking official for even the worst of crimes. Now, all semblances of the rights of citizens had been swept away by Diocletian, who ruled as a demi-god whose word was law.

One can surely marvel at the incredible, otherworldly fortitude displayed by those who refused to break under such pain. Modern military counter-interrogation training teaches that everyone has a breaking point that they will eventually reach, after which they will crack mentally and cooperate in some way. Eusebius and Lactantius both imply that many Christians reached their breaking point, but they also list a surprising number who did not, despite being subjected to horrific pain. How does someone avoid breaking under such circumstances? To answer the question, let us look to another era, that of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago:

So what is the answer? How can you stand your ground when you are weak and sensitive to pain, when people you love are still alive, when you are unprepared?

What do you need to make you stronger than the interrogator and the whole trap?

From the moment you go to prison you must put your cozy past firmly behind you. At the very threshold, you must say to yourself: “My life is over, a little early to be sure, but there’s nothing to be done about it. I shall never return to freedom. I am condemned to die — now or a little later. But later on, in truth, it will be even harder, and so the sooner the better. I no longer have any property whatsoever. For me those I love have died, and for them I have died. From today on, my body is useless and alien to me. Only my spirit and my conscience remain precious and important to me.”

Confronted by such a prisoner, the interrogation will tremble.

Only the man who has renounced everything can win that victory.

But how can one turn one’s body to stone?

Well, they managed to turn some individuals from the Berdyayev circle into puppets for a trial, but they didn’t succeed with Berdyayev. They wanted to drag him into an open trial; they arrested him twice; and (in 1922) he was subjected to a night interrogation by Dzerzhinsky himself. Kamenev was there too (which means that he, too, was not averse to using the Cheka in an ideological conflict). But Berdyayev did not humiliate himself. He did not beg or plead. He set forth firmly those religious and moral principles which had led him to refuse to accept the political authority established in Russia. And not only did they come to the conclusion that he would be useless for a trial, but they liberated him.

A human being has a point of view!

N. Stolyarova recalls an old woman who was her neighbor on the Butyrki bunks in 1937. They kept on interrogating her every night. Two years earlier, a former Metropolitan of the Orthodox Church, who had escaped from exile, had spent a night at her home on his way through Moscow. “But he wasn’t the former Metropolitan, he was the Metropolitan! Truly, I was worthy of receiving him.” “All right then. To whom did he go when he left Moscow?” “I know, but I won’t tell you!” (The Metropolitan had escaped to Finland via an underground railroad of believers.) At first the interrogators took turns, and then they went after her in groups. They shook their fists in the little old woman’s face, and she replied: “There is nothing you can do with me even if you cut me into pieces. After all, you are afraid of your bosses, and you are afraid of each other, and you are even afraid of killing me.” (They would lose contact with the underground railroad.) “But I am not afraid of anything. I would be glad to be judged by God right this minute.”

There were such people in 1937 too, people who did not return to their cell for their bundles of belongings, who chose death, who signed nothing denouncing anyone.[25]

Many more Christians likely survived by fleeing to the hills. By fleeing urban areas for rural locations they would be harder to find. Others took to the wilderness and lived in the desert or the hill country. Ironically, the persecution served to spread Christianity into new areas as Christians moved to places they had never lived in to before and preached to the people there.[26]

Outside of the Near East, the persecution raged as well. Harsh measures were taken in Galerius’ tetrarchy in the Balkans and Maxentius implemented Diocletian’s edicts in Italy, North Africa and Spain. The exception was Constantius, who largely ignored Diocletian’s orders in Gaul and Britain and merely pulled down a few churches for the sake of appearing to comply.[27]

In December of 304, Diocletian traveled to Rome to celebrate his 20th year in power. After a few days there he appears to have suffered a sudden illness, and was carried to Dalmatia to recuperate. He remained there until summer, before returning to Nicomedia where he hid in his palace and only made one public appearance that year. He was reported to be disoriented and prone to fits of rage, which could indicate he had received brain damage from a stroke. Rumors swirled that he had died, but he made another public appearance in March 305, albeit gaunt and nearly unrecognizable.

The peristyle hall at Diocletian’s palace in modern-day Split, Croatia. Diocletian spent the last six years of his life living as a recluse inside the vast complex.

Galerius pressured him to retire for health reasons, and may have hinted that he would overthrow him if he did not. Diocletian agreed, and convinced Maxentius to retire with him. The two men promoted Galerius and Constantius to the rank of Augustus. Despite gaining new titles, the two new Augusti kept their original territories. Diocletian then shocked everyone by not naming Constantius’ son Constantine Caesar, instead choosing Galerius’ nephew Maximin Daia to rule the East and Galerius’ old friend Flavius Valerius Severus to rule Italy and Africa. Diocletian then faded into the background, to spend his last years in seclusion inside his fortress-like palace on the shores of Dalmatia.[28]

This ended the persecution of Christians in the western empire, but Galerius continued the persecution in the east with the same vigor. In Caesarea, a 19 year old man named Apphianus stopped a man named Urbanus from sacrificing. He was promptly arrested, held in the stocks for a night and then taken before a judge. When he refused to recant his faith, he was flogged and beaten until many of his bones were exposed, then his feet were wrapped in oil rags and set on fire. “The fire consumed his flesh and penetrated to his bones, so that the humors of his body were melted and oozed out and dropped down like wax.”[29]

Orthodox icon of St. Theodora (Theodosia) of Palestine, martyred in Caesarea at age 17.

Apphianus’ brother Aedisius was sentenced to slavery in the mines. In Tyre, another young man named Ulpianus was flogged, tied inside an oxhide bag with a dog and an asp, and thrown into the sea. In Caesarea, a 17 year old girl from Tyre named Theodosia waved at some prisoners awaiting judgment and asked them to remember her to God when they arrived at their destination. She was seized “as if she had committed a profane and impious act” and taken before the governor, who “tortured her with dreadful and most terrible torments in her sides and breasts, even to the very bones.” Still living, she was then thrown into the sea to drown. Many other Christians in Tyre were sent back to labor in the desert copper mines, except this time many had their foot burned with a hot iron to cripple them.[30]

Some other incidents that have been preserved include 97 men from Thebais who were maimed by having their left foot burned with a hot iron and their right eyes cut out and cauterized. Shortly thereafter, a gathering of Christians in Gaza studying the scriptures was raided and everyone arrested there received the same treatment.[31]

An early 4th century bust of Galerius. The sculptor has chosen to only hint at the emperor’s reported morbid obesity.

Despite being crowned emperor, Galerius had never even been to Rome. In fact, according to Lactantius, as a Dacian whose people had been conquered by Trajan 200 years prior, he held strong anti-Roman views and sometimes said he intended to rename the Roman empire the “Dacian empire.” In addition, he “so acted, in imitation of the Persian kings, as to bereave men of their liberties…not only were inferior magistrates put to the torture by him, but also the chief men in cities, and persons of the most eminent rank, and this too in matters of little moment, and in civil questions.” A brutal tax assessment was carried out during which many citizens of all religious backgrounds were tortured when they were suspected of holding back property from the assessors. His private life was sadistic and debauched. Lactantius recorded that “He kept bears, most resembling himself in fierceness and bulk, whom he had collected together during the course of his reign. As often as he chose to indulge his humor, he ordered some particular bear to be brought in, and men were thrown to that savage animal, rather to be swallowed up than devoured; and when their limbs were torn asunder, he laughed with excessive complacency.” [32] Overall, under Galerius the empire became not only brutal, but inefficient as well:

But these were slight evils in the government of Galerius, when compared with what follows. For eloquence was extinguished, pleaders cut off, and the learned in the laws either exiled or slain. Useful letters came to be viewed in the same light as magical and forbidden arts; and all who possessed them were trampled upon and execrated, as if they had been hostile to government, and public enemies. Law was dissolved, and unbounded license permitted to judges,— to judges chosen from among the soldiery, rude and illiterate men, and let loose upon the provinces, without assessors to guide or control them.[33]

13th century Coptic icon of St. Catherine, from St. Catherine’s monastery in the Siniai, Egypt. Catherine was a wealthy woman of Alexandria who was killed for refusing Maximin’s sexual advances.

Meanwhile in the rest of the empire events were fast outpacing any one leader’s ability to keep ahead of them. Constantius died in 306 and appointed Constantine to be Caesar. Severus moved up to Augustus of the western empire. When Galerius attempted to levy a tax on the city of Rome in 307 the Praetorian Guard staged a coup in that city and declared Maxentius, son of the former emperor Maximian, to be a Caesar as well.

Maximian then came out of retirement and supported his son. Maximian, Maxentius and Constantine then each declared themselves Augusti and made a pact to oppose Galerius. Severus attempted to invade Italy to defeat them, but was defeated, captured and executed. Galerius responded by invading Italy himself, but was defeated before Rome and forced to retreat while his undisciplined troops ran wild looting the  Italian peninsula. Galerius justified this by invoking the atrocities Italians under Trajan had done to his native Dacia two centuries earlier.

His defeat left four different Augusti and only one Caesar. Maximian then tried to depose his son, but his son’s troops remained loyal and he was forced to flee. In the fall of 308, Galerius appointed Licinius as Augustus of the western empire, despite the fact that he did not control any of the western empire. Licinius was given control of Thrace, Illyricum and Pannonia instead.

War quickly fractured the rebel coalition, however. Maximian took refuge with Constantine, then stabbed him in the back by taking his troops in Gaul and attempting to overthrow him. Most of the troops remained loyal to Constantine and chased Maximian to Marseilles, which they quickly captured the city. Maximian hanged himself shortly thereafter.[34]

In 310, Galerius became ill with what appears to have been some form of colorectal cancer. Writing of a man who had taken much pleasure in causing suffering to others, Lactantius wrote with some schadenfreude in giving a detailed description of his slow death from the disease, how ulcers in his nether regions began to bleed profusely, scab over and bleed again, until gangrene and diverticulitis set in and maggots began to eat away at his flesh.

While in this state, he issued a proclamation calling for an end to the persecution of Christianity while simultaneously defending the need for ordering the persecution in the first place, claiming the need to “return to sound ideas.” His proclamation, however, was basically an admission that the persecution had failed. It noted that many Christians refused to recant their faith even in the face of death, and the empire was nowhere near eradicating Christianity.[35]

Replica of a bust of Maximin Daia, at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow.

Nevertheless, once Galerius died in 311 Maximin Daia succeeded him as emperor and within six months reversed this decree and resumed persecution. Christians were released from prison and the mines only to be re-arrested and ordered to offer sacrifices again. Many more were executed, and many others were maimed by having one eye gouged out and the tendons of one foot burned off with a red-hot iron.[36]

This last stage of the persecution was a replay of the most vicious scenes of brutality from previous persecutions. People were flogged, burned, and sometimes cut to pieces and staked out as food for wild dogs. Many women were seized and forced to satisfy Maximin’s sexual appetite. Maximin claimed in a proclamation that all this was necessary because the human mind must recognize that “the beneficient providence of the almighty gods governs it and keeps it secure,” asking that “who can be found so stupid or devoid of all sense as not to see that it is thanks to the beneficent activity of the gods that the soil does not refuse the seeds committed to it and disappoint the expectations of the farmer?…And that the sea does not rage and swell under the blasts of the squally winds? And that typhoons do not burst without warning, bringing destruction in their wake?” Since good things came from the favor of the gods, Christians were imperiling the gods’ favor and thereby constituted a threat to the security of the state.[37]

Maximin’s logic was put to the test when plague and famine both came that winter. This was compounded when Maximin’s forces were defeated in war by Armenia, at the time the world’s only officially Christian nation.[38] In the meantime, open war had broken out in Italy between Constantine and Maxentius. In 312, Constantine defeated Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge and seized control of the empire. Now the master of the western Roman world, Constantine ordered Maximin to cease the persecution of Christians and issued the famous Edict of Milan ordering religious toleration throughout the empire and the restoration of property confiscated from Christians.

Cameo showing the coronation of Constantine.

Constantine then made an alliance with Licinius against Maximin. In 313, Licinius and Maximin clashed at Tzirallum in Macedonia and Maximin was defeated. Maximin died of an illness later that year and Licinius took control of the eastern Empire.

Relations between Licinius and Constantine quickly deterioriated. Fearing that Christians would support Constantine instead of him, Licinius began passing laws banning Christians from assembling and controlling the communication of bishops. His governors used this as a pretext for executing more Christians, including the bishop of Pontus. War broke out in 324, with Constantine winning a succession of quick victories and taking sole control of the empire.

Without a doubt, the Great Persecution was an abysmal failure. Not only did it fail in eradicating Christianity, it spread the faith to new places. The harsh measures used generated sympathy for Christians even amongst pagans such as Constantius. Instead of eliminating internal divisions, the persecution aggravated them and in the process accelerated the decline of the Tetrarchy system. In the civil wars that tore apart the Tetrarchy, Christians rallied to Constantine as their deliverer. Christian intellectuals such as Eusebius would later heap praise on Constantine as a model ruler who delivered them from persecution.

The number of dead in the persecutions cannot be known. Orthodox church tradition speaks of 20,000 dead in Nicomedia alone. Eusebius recorded 91 deaths in Palestine, but these were primarily deaths of people that he knew or deaths that he observed. Eusebius also reports that in the second year of the persecution in Egypt there were up to 100 people executed per day in Thebais alone, and he indicated that the bloodshed in North Africa was comparable to this number. If we accept Eusebius’ numbers the total number of dead must have been at least in the tens of thousands.

Amongst Christians, the Great Persecution is remembered as the worst and most severe of the Roman persecutions of Christianity. Numerous martyrs and saints killed in the persecutions are venerated by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. The fortitude displayed by those who refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods is held up as a paragon of virtue. On the other hand, the legends of many of the martyrs grew with time and passed from the realm of history to the realm of folklore. The straightforward accounts of Eusebius were supplanted by more fanciful stories involving miraculous occurrences and extremely dramatic situations. Both the real persecutions and the legends served to reinforce the identity of suffering and martyrdom amongst Christians.

Amongst modern western atheists on the other hand, there has been a tendency to minimize or deny the persecution. In the 18th century, Edward Gibbon famously discarded all the reports of the Christian writers about the persecution, claiming they were biased. In the early 20th century, Joseph McCabe argued that the persecution was both completely justified and vastly exaggerated, claiming that “only a few hundred” people were killed throughout the entire empire, they were “largely zealots who demanded death” and the persecution was a justified response to Christian “anti-patriotic teaching” that was needed in order to preserve “the welfare of the state.”

It’s very hard to offer a sound moral justification for the murder and extermination of minority groups in service of the cause of national unity and the aggrandizement of power to a totalitarian dictator. This is something that has generally been recognized as wrong across numerous cultures and religions throughout history.

Fortunately more recent historians have stood up to correct such loose interpretations. They have also charitably noted that Gibbon, McCabe and others like him were writing in the early part of the 20th century, before the horrors of the modern totalitarian state exploded into the popular consciousness. The Holocaust, the Stalinist gulag system, the death camps and prison systems of Cambodia and North Korea all showed the modern world the folly of seeking any accommodation with totalitarian states. As Stephen Williams wrote in his 1985 book Diocletian and the Roman Recovery, “Even allowing a margin for invention, what remains is terrible enough. Unlike Gibbon, we live in an age which has experienced similar things, and knows how unsound is that civilised smile of incredulity at such reports. Things can be, have been, every bit as bad as our worst imaginings.”[39]


[1] Dale T. Irvin, Scott W. Sunquist, History of the World Christian Movement, Volume 1: Earliest Christianity to 1453 (New York: Orbis, 2007), 111; Carl Roebuck, The World of Ancient Times (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1966), 681; Eusebius, The History of the Church, trans. by G.A. Williamson (London: Penguin,1965), 8.1.

[2] Roebuck, The World of Ancient Times, 681; Irvin and Sunquist, History of the World Christian Movement, Vol. 1, 111, 160-161.

[3] Roebuck, The World of Ancient Times, 696-697.

The empire was first split in two, with Diocletian and Maximian ruling east and west, respectively, from 286 until the Tetrarchy system was introduced in 293.

[4] Roebuck, The World of Ancient Times, 697-698; Eutropius, Abridgment of Roman History, trans. by John Selby Watson, 1853, (accessed April 7, 2012), 9.26.

[5] Lactantius, Of the Manner in Which the Persecutors Died, trans. by. William Fletcher, (accessed April 5, 2012), 21.2.

[6] The Cambridge Ancient History, Vol. 12, 288; G.W. Bowersock, Peter Brown and Oleg Grabar, Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Post-Classical World (Harvard University Press, 1999), 178.

[7] “Diocletian’s Edict against the Manichees,” in A New Eusebius: Documents Illustrating the History of the Church to AD 337, ed. by J. Stevenson(London: SPCK, 1957), 267-268.

[8] Lactantius, Of the Manner in Which the Persecutors Died, 7.1-2.

[9] Lactantius, Of the Manner in Which the Persecutors Died, 10.1; Eusebius, The History of the Church, 8.4.

[10] Lactantius, Of the Manner in Which the Persecutors Died, 10.1; Eusebius, The History of the Church, 8.4.

[11] Lactantius, Of the Manner in Which the Persecutors Died, 10.1-11.1; Eusebius, The History of the Church, 8.4; Eutropius, Abridgment of Roman History, 9.26.

[11] Lactantius, Of the Manner in Which the Persecutors Died, 11.1-12.2.

[12] Lactantius, Of the Manner in Which the Persecutors Died, 13.1; Eusebius, The History of the Church, 8.5.

[13] Eusebius, The History of the Church, 8.6.

[14] Eusebius, The History of the Church, 8.2.

[15] Eusebius, The History of the Church, 8.2; “Pope St. Marcellinus,” The Catholic Encyclopedia (accessed April 6, 2012).

[16] Eusebius, The History of the Church, 8.3; Eusebius, The Martyrs of Palestine,trans. by. Arthur Cushman McGiffert, (accessed April 6, 2012), 1.4.

[17] Eusebius, The Martyrs of Palestine, 2.1-5.

[18] Eusebius, The Martyrs of Palestine, 3.1.

[19] Eusebius, The History of the Church, 8.11; Lactantius, Divine Institutes, trans. by. William Fletcher, (accessed April 6, 2012), 5.11.

[20] Eusebius, The History of the Church, 8.12.

[21] Eusebius, The History of the Church, 8.13.

[22] Eusebius, The History of the Church, 8.7.

[23] Eusebius, The History of the Church, 8.13; Eusebius, The Martyrs of Palestine, 3.2-4.

[24] Eusebius, The History of the Church, 8.8-10, 13.

[25] Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, trans. by Thomas P. Whitney (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), 130-131.

[26] Eusebius, Life of Constantine, trans. by Ernest Cushing Richardson, (accessed April 6, 2012), 2.2; Irvin and Sunquist, History of the World Christian Movement, Vol. 1, 111.

[27] Eusebius, The Martyrs of Palestine, 13.13; Lactantius, Of the Manner in Which the Persecutors Died, 15.1.

[28] Lactantius, Of the Manner in Which the Persecutors Died, 17.1-20.1; Roebuck, The World of Ancient Times, 697-698.

[29] Eusebius, The Martyrs of Palestine, 4.3-11.

[30] Eusebius, The Martyrs of Palestine, 5.2-7.3.

[31] Lactantius, Of the Manner in Which the Persecutors Died, 21.1, 23.1, 27.1.

[32] Eusebius, The Martyrs of Palestine, 8.1-4.

[33] Lactantius, Of the Manner in Which the Persecutors Died, 22.1.

[34] Roebuck, The World of Ancient Times, 698-702.

[35] Lactantius, Of the Manner in Which the Persecutors Died, 33.1-35.1; Eusebius, The History of the Church, 8.17.

[36] Eusebius, The History of the Church, 8.16, 9.1-2.

[37] Eusebius, The History of the Church, 9.7.

[38] Eusebius, The History of the Church, 9.8.

[39] Stephen Williams, Diocletian and the Roman Recovery (New York: Routledge, 2000), 179 (originally published in 1985).

Image Sources: (banner) (“The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer,” 1883 painting by Jean-Leon Gerome; (body);;,_Svaneti,_Georgia.jpg;;;;;;;;;;;

Articles © Christopher Jones 2012.

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