Now, in the year 303, began the most severe persecution which Christianity had yet experienced. On the imperial throne was Diocletian, one of the strongest of the Emperors. He was from the vigorous peasant stock of Illyria, east of the Adriatic, from which had sprung his three immediate predecessors. In the interests of greater effectiveness he had reorganized the administration of the Empire.
Why Diocletian became a persecutor must be a matter of conjecture. He was then in his late fifties, at a time when he might have been supposed to be past undertaking any drastic change in programme. In addition to the Christians in his household, his wife and his daughter, wife of Galerius, one of the two men who, under the title of C^sar, he had associated with himself and his imperial colleague in the top ranks of the government, were either Christians or favourably disposed to Christianity. Galerius is generally supposed to have been the instigator. An ardent pagan, he is said to have been ambitious to succeed Diocletian and for this needed the support of the army, which was still predominantly non-Christian.
Whatever the motives, the persecution was instituted by a decree in 303 which ordered the destruction of the church buildings, the burning of the sacred books, the demoting of Christians from places of honour, and the enslavement of Christian household servants who would not abjure their faith. Other decrees followed which ordered the imprisonment of the rulers of the churches, offered release to Christians who sacrificed to the old gods, and commanded torture for those who were obdurate. In 304 a fourth edict seems to have been issued by Maximian, joint Emperor with Diocletian.
The storm was Empire-wide, from Britain to Arabia, but was particularly severe in the East, where Christianity had its chief numerical strength. It lasted more than a decade and endured longer in the East than in the West. Apparently the death penalty was inflicted only as a last resort, but torture was freely applied to induce the victims to recant and through it many perished. It was to this time that the martyrdom of Alban, not far from London, famous for the fashion in which his memory was revered, is ascribed. On occasion there was wholesale slaughter. Thus in Asia Minor a Christian town was surrounded by soldiers and burned, together with its inhabitants. An eye witness declares that he saw wild beasts leave unharmed the Christians who had been exposed to them and turn upon those who were goading them on. In Rome the property of the church was confiscated and many of the members perished. In Egypt, Palestine, and Syria, the persecution was renewed again and again in the vicissitudes of the political situation and did not die out until the defeat (about 323) of the last of the persecutors.
As was to be expected, the response of the Christians varied. Some recanted under pressure of torture and imprisonment. Some sent pagans or friends to sacrifice for them. Others wavered, but eventually gave themselves to the authorities. Still others sought martyrdom, and that in spite of the general policy of the church officials which discouraged what was regarded as fanaticism. The courage of the victims made so great an impression on pagans that we hear of at least two of the latter, educated men, becoming Christians.
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