The Persecution of the Christians under Diocletian

After twenty years of a (mostly) peaceful coexistence, the persecution of the Christians by Diocletian seemed an inexplicable cruelty. It really began in 298 C.E., when several Christian soldiers were seen making the sign of the cross in the presence of Diocletian, Galerius, and the haruspices (priests who read the entrails of sacrificial animals) who were taking the auspices before a battle. Christians were blamed for interrupting the traditional rites by blessing themselves to ward off the demons of the pagans. Diocletian is reported to have been enraged by the Christians for interfering with this imperial religious ritual and to have ordered them to make a sacrifice to the pagan gods. The incident seems to have ended here, however, when the Christians either sacrificed or were discharged from the army.

No one is quite sure why, several years later, a series of edicts beginning on February 23, 303, were issued that led to a large-scale imperial persecution of Christians. The patristic writer Lactantius dedicated an entire work, called On the Deaths of the Persecutors (DMP), to the persecution. In that work he suggested (DMP 11) that Galerius' mother, Romula, had instigated her son's hatred of the Christians. A superstitious woman, she was a priestess in Dacia and presided over religious rites there. She noticed that Christians often refused to attend her elaborate banquets and that when they did attend they would pray and fast rather than eat and drink to excess. Moreover, Galerius had been very successful in his military operations and had even reconquered Persia (298 C.E.), a longstanding enemy of Rome. This would have earned him the good will and respect of Diocletian. Banking on the leverage he had earned by these military victories, Galerius approached Diocletian with buoyant confidence on the subject of the Christian menace. His objectives were to persuade Diocletian to consider Christians dangerous subversives and to take action against them. After consultations with his ministers, Diocletian agreed to send an haruspex to the oracle of Apollo at Didyma in Asia Minor to inquire about the allegations of Galerius (and his mother Romula) against the Christians. He received the reply that the "just" upon the earth were the cause of false oracles. Interpreting the "just" to mean the Christians, Diocletian finally issued the edict that Galerius had sought: Christians were required to give up their sacred books and scriptures; their worship was forbidden; and all churches were to be destroyed. The main Christian church in Nicomedia, opposite the imperial palace, was leveled in a day by axes and other iron tools as Diocletian and Galerius watched (DMP 12). On the next day, February 24, by a second edict, Christians who did not obey the first edict were deprived of their rank, which meant they had no legal rights.

On November 20, 303 C.E., Diocletian was in Rome to celebrate his vicennalia. Just after his arrival, he passed another edict, ordering the clergy to sacrifice and demanding the arrest of bishops and clergy who refused. When the jails were too full to hold them all, another edict announced that they could be released on the condition that they apostatize by sacrificing to the pagan gods. This concession seems to have been at least partly motivated by the upcoming vicennalia celebration. In order to empty the prisons, bishops and clergy were tortured and bullied into making sacrifices, either by scattering incense on pagan altars or by eating sacrificial meat.

Galerius, who was now the lead tetrarch since Diocletian had become ill, issued the edict of304, almost a year after the first edict had been issued. This edict decreed a universal sacrifice without distinction. Everyone— men, women and children—had to sacrifice or face death or the mines. These edicts were no longer directed solely at the church leaders, but at all Christians. We have contemporary accounts of the persecution from the patristic period in the works of Lactantius and Eusebius and we have more modern iterations of the "passions" (accounts of the trials and deaths) of the martyrs from the liturgical and literary traditions. We read in these accounts that lists were made of individuals who then had to come forward and sacrifice, and that the penalties for not sacrificing were executed by local governors. According to these sources, the persecution of Christians who refused to participate in the universal sacrifice was horrific (see Primary Document 3.2).

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