The third century, in sharp contrast to the widespread peace and prosperity of the second century, was rife with disaster, instability, and decline. Under the four Severans (193-235 C.E.), the empire moved toward military anarchy as pressure from the barbarians in the northern and eastern empire increased. Septimius Severus' wife Julia Domna and her sister Julia Maesa came to Rome bringing their native Syrian culture and a religious syncretism that was perpetuated in their sons and grandsons, rulers of the Severan dynasty. Elagabalus, Julia Maesa's grandson, proved to be a voluptuary on the scale of Nero; as a hereditary priest of the sun god of Emesa, his devotion to that deity had a long-term effect on Roman religion. He introduced the worship of the sun god to Rome when he transferred the black conical stone, the god's sacred symbol, from Emesa. After a sumptuous rich parade across the empire, he settled the stone in a huge temple he built to receive it on the Palatine Hill. This movement toward Henotheism (the belief in a single god while acknowledging others) in the form of a sun god would be revived under Aurelian (270-275 C.E.) and then again by Constantine who in some ways conflated the sun god with the God of the Christians. Severus Alexander, the cousin of the fanatical Elagabalus, returned the black stone of the sun god to Syria and promoted religious syncretism. He is said to have counted Jesus among the gods in his palace shrine, and his mother Julia Mamea summoned Origen, the great Alexandrian Christian theologian, to instruct her in Christian doctrine.
From the time ofStephen, the Christian "proto-martyr" who was stoned to death in Jerusalem just after Jesus' death, there were isolated instances of the persecution of Christians who refused to worship the gods of the state or the divinity of the Roman emperor. Under the Antonines, Justin Martyr was beheaded in Rome in 165 C.E. and under Marcus Aurelius several Christians were martyred in Lyon in 177 C.E. In 202 C.E., during the reign of Septimius Severus, a group of Christians was sent into the arena against wild beasts for refusing to worship the state gods at the celebrations for Geta's birthday in North Africa. Among these martyrs was the young noble woman Perpetua, whose martyrdom is unusual in that it was told in her own voice. In her passio, "suffering," Perpetua insisted that she could not recant, that she could not renounce Christianity, despite the fact that her father was beaten before her eyes and her newborn baby was wrenched away from her so that she could be taken to prison and then die in the arena fighting against wild beasts.
In the fifty years following the Severans, the fabric of the empire frayed. Barbarian invasions, depopulation, civil wars, and natural disasters led the emperors to attempt to restore the traditional forms of worship in order to win the favor of the gods. The emperors variously termed themselves reparatores, "restorers," or conservatores patriae, "preservers of the fatherland." In this period, a certain fear took root, that Christians were too active in all levels of the imperial government and that the old religion was being abandoned in favor of Christianity, to the empire's detriment. Under the emperor Philip (244-249 C.E.), coins issued in celebration of Rome's millennium (247 C.E.) bore the inscription Roma aeterna, "eternal Rome." The political ideal of Rome's sacred mission and her aeternitas, "eternity," gained momentum, the more so as Philip was considered by some contemporaries to be a practicing Christian. In fact, it was very likely the fear that the steady crumbling of the empire was retribution for the impiety of the Christians that led to his murder. The new emperor Decius, a Pannonian officer and Roman traditionalist, was welcomed by the senate and dubbed a new Trajan. He was staunchly anti-Christian; he even is said to have claimed that he would rather meet a rival emperor in the field than a Christian bishop in Rome. For Decius, only the restoration of the state religious practices could preserve the empire. In the first general persecution of the Christians, he insisted that all citizens obtain a libellus, "certificate," as proof that they had poured a libation and sacrificed to the gods of the state and then tasted the sacrificial meat before a specially appointed commission. For Christians, this meant a denial of their faith. His conservative radicalism typified the new group of Illyrian soldiers that stood for traditional Roman values of which Diocletian and the tetrarchy were more severe examples.
Diocletian (284-305 C.E.), the son of slaves in the house of a senator, finally transformed the principate of Augustus into a theocracy (disguised as an absolute monarchy). Almost immediately upon taking office he proclaimed himself Augustus and associated himself with a subordinate coruler, and he reinstated the ancient Roman gods, most importantly Juppiter, conservator Augusti, "Jupiter, the protector of Augustus." The corulers assumed the titles Jovius and Herculius, where Diocletian was the supreme ruler (like Jupiter) and Maximian his Herculian coruler. Shortly thereafter, Maximian was promoted to co-Augustus and a Caesar or coruler appointed to each. This was the beginning of the tetrarchy (from the Greek tetrarchia, "rule of four"): the Augustus Diocletian and his Caesar Galerius ruled in the east; the Augustus Maximian and his Caesar Constantius Chlorus ruled in the west. These were worshipped as though they were gods. They insisted upon a splendid court ceremonial and depicted themselves as personifications of the Roman virtues and of the Roman state. Their rare appearances featured the scepter and the orb and they wore purple robes embroidered with silk; an extravagant adoration gave rise to an aura of the divine supernatural that was reiterated in their building programs.
Highly successful in their various military campaigns, the tetrarchs reorganized the army and secured the empire's borders. From different and mobile locations around the empire, they regulated agriculture, industry, trade, and coinage. Moreover, this division of power was designed to ensure a peaceful succession.
Diocletian's first visit to Rome may have been on the occasion of his twenty-year anniversary, the vicennalia, in late 303 C.E. He seems not to have been present even to dedicate his ample baths project, the largest bath complex ever built in Rome. In May of 305 C.E., he abdicated and forced his co-Augustus Maximian to do the same. The world at that moment could fairly be described as at peace, yet the tetrarchs had launched the longest and worst persecution ever undertaken against the church (303313 C.E.). Why after nineteen years of reforms and military victories and toleration for Christianity Diocletian conceived of a superstitious fear that precipitated widespread persecution is unclear.
In February 303 C.E., by an edict of Diocletian, churches and scriptures were destroyed by fire; later that year, two more edicts were published requiring all ecclesiastics to make sacrifice to the gods. Only upon aposta-sizing could they be freed. In 304 C.E., a fourth edict required all Christians all over the empire to make sacrifices and pour libations to the gods. In a fifth and final edict in 308 C.E., all goods for sale in markets were polluted by sacrificial libations.
At Diocletian's abdication persecution in the west ended, partly because Constantius Chlorus had not implemented any but the first edict. In Rome, where Maximian's son Maxentius was quickly elected Augustus at his father's abdication, church property was restored immediately along with the freedom to worship the Christian God. Persecution continued in the east under Galerius until April of 311 C.E. When he knew he was dying, he freed confessors from prison and begged the Christians to pray to their God on his behalf. Maximinus Daia, however, the new Augustus in the east, continued the persecution even more horrifically. The church historian Eusebius (who cannot be considered unbiased) recorded seeing ninety-seven Christians, including children, en route to the mines, each missing the right eye and crippled in the left foot by hot irons.
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