Uniformity was the rule. As in the reign of Decius, the Christians were seen as the great non-conformists.
There hadbeen ample warnings ofthe conflict to come. The decade 290-300 had witnessed a vigorous propaganda war against the Christians represented by Porphyry of Tyre's fifteen books Against the Christians (Kata Christianon).101 The genesis of the Great Persecution, however, lay in a trivial incident in Antioch in 298. Christians were blamed for the absence of entrails in animals sacrificed to the gods in honour of the successful conclusion ofthe Persian war, and the emperor ordered them removed from the army and civil services.102 Thereafter, Eusebius records, 'little by little persecution against us began.'103 The attitude of the emperors had already been foreshadowed in their decree against the Manichaeans, directed to the proconsul of Africa.104 The gods had made Rome great. Innovation might bring divine wrath upon the empire. Disciplina must be observed in all aspects of life. Manichaean books would be seized and adherents of the sect burnt alive. The example was there when the time came to act against the Christians.
That moment arrived late in 302. There was still an immense belief in the authority of oracles, when Diocletian and Galerius visited the oracle of Apollo at Didyma near Miletus. But they found its utterances confused and demoralised by the influence of Christianity.105 So their minds were made up. They would strike to remove the Christian challenge to the gods. The day set was 23 February, the feast of Terminalia. It would mark the end of the rival religion.
Eusebius could find no logical reason for the persecution.106 On 23 February 303, Diocletian issued an edict requiring that Christians hand over their scriptures on pain of imprisonment, their churches be destroyed, and they be banned from pleading in the courts. Upper class Christians (the honestiores) were to lose their social status; the Caesariani (imperial freedmen), as under Valerian, reduced to slavery; and Christian slaves barred from being manumitted. But, according to Lactantius, who was at Nicomedia at the time, Diocletian opposed the shedding of blood.107 No martyrs were to be made,
101 See Frend, 'Prelude'.
103 Chron., at the year 301.
104 English translation of Diocletian's decree against the Manichaeans (dated c.297 or by others to 31 March 302), in Stevenson and Frend, New Eusebius, no. 236, pp. 267-8.
106 Euseb. HE 8.1.1-6, points instead to the church's great prosperity and apparent enjoyment of imperial favour.
107 Mort. 10; see Moreau's commentary (SC), vol. 11, 264.
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