The End of Persecution

In the third century, local, sporadic, and occasional hostility against Christians combined with the pervasive anxiety about divine protection of the empire to produce the first widespread and systematic legal proscription of Christianity: the Emperor Decius, in 250 C.E., declared the religion illegal and demanded proof of loyalty to the official gods of Rome. For sacrificing at a public altar, a Roman citizen would receive a certificate of proof (a libellus). Those who refused to sacrifice (including Christians) were subject to punishment, including execution. After Decius died in 251, there was a swift parade of emperors; some favored Christianity, some ignored Christianity, some sought to reinstitute local, sporadic persecution of the Christians.

When Diocletian became emperor, in 284, he set out to restructure the Roman Empire politically, economically, and militarily. In addition, he instituted an empirewide attempt to root out nontraditional religious practices, which Christians came to call the "Great Persecution." Diocletian most likely viewed this action along the lines of his other social reforms: the reinstitution of religious unity among an increasingly fragmented Roman population. Toward this end, he attempted to close churches, confiscate books of Scripture, and coerce the publie renunciation of Christian leaders. The persecution lasted approximately ten years but was unevenly enforced because of a shared form of imperial governance that Diocletian had instituted (he shared power with a senior co-emperor and two junior emperors).

The Great Persecution came to a sudden and unpredictable end with the rise to power of Constantine, who was declared emperor by his troops in York in 306 C.E. Over the course of the next ten years, Constantine pursued an aggressive reunification of the empire under shared rule with his colleague Licinius. When the two achieved victory over the other emperors in 313, they reversed many of the policies of their predecessors, including religious persecution. Theirjoint resolution granting official toleration to Christians became known as the "Edict of Milan." The legalization of Christianity and its eventual ascendance to quasi-official status in the Roman Empire over the course of the fourth century marks a turning point not just for Christianity, but for the Roman Empire and Mediterranean history in general.

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