This series has three easy 5 minute installments. This first installment: Diocletian’s Persecutions.
Three major players for the Roman Empire:
- Caesar Augustus who made the transition from Republic to Empire but kept the old forms.
- Diocletian who stripped the old offices of their powers, for all practical purposes making the empire became an oriental sovereignty.
- Constantine who made the Empire Christian.
This account shows how Christianity first became tolerated and then how it mounted the throne of the Caesars.
This selection is from An Ecclesiastical History, From The Birth of Christ to the Beginning of the Eighteenth Century by Johann L. Von Mosheim published in 1842. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Johann L. Von Mosheim was a Lutheran church historian.
Place: Milvian Ridge
In the beginning of the fourth century the Roman Empire had four sovereigns, of whom two were superior to the others and bore the title of Augustus, namely, Diocletian and Maximianus Herculius; the two inferior sovereigns, who bore the title of Caesars, were Constantius Chlorus and Galerius Maximianus. Under these four emperors the state of the Church was peaceful and happy. Diocletian, though superstitious, indulged no hatred toward the Christians. Constantius Chlorus, following only the dictates of reason in matters of religion, was averse to the popular idolatry, and friendly to the Christians. The pagan priests, therefore, from well-grounded fears lest Christianity, to their great and lasting injury, should spread far and wide its triumphs, endeavored to excite Diocletian, whom they knew to be both timid and credulous, by means of feigned oracles and other impositions, to engage in persecuting the Christians.
These artifices not succeeding very well, they made use of the other emperor, Galerius Maximianus, who was son-in-law to Diocletian, in order to effect their purpose. This Emperor, who was of a ferocious character and ill-informed in everything except the military art, continued to work upon his father-in-law, being urged on partly by his own inclination, partly by the instigation of his mother, a most superstitious woman, and partly by that of the pagan priests, till at last, when Diocletian was at Nicomedia, in the year 303, he obtained from him an edict by which the temples of the Christians were to be demolished, their sacred books committed to the flames, and themselves deprived of all their civil rights and honors. This first edict spared the lives of the Christians; for Diocletian was averse from slaughter and bloodshed. Yet it caused many Christians to be put to death, particularly those who refused to deliver up their sacred books to the magistrates. Seeing this operation of the law, many Christians, and several even of the bishops and clergy, in order to save their lives, voluntarily surrendered the sacred books in their possession. But they were regarded by their more resolute brethren as guilty of sacrilege.
Not long after the publication of this first edict, there were two conflagrations in the palace of Nicomedia; and the enemies of the Christians persuaded Diocletian to believe that Christian hands had kindled them. He therefore ordered many Christians of Nicomedia to be put to the torture and to undergo the penalties due to incendiaries. Nearly at the same time there were insurrections in Armenia and in Syria; and as their enemies charged the blame of these also upon the Christians, the Emperor by a new edict ordered all bishops and ministers of Christ to be thrown into prison; and by a third edict, soon after, he ordered that all these prisoners should be compelled by tortures and punishments to offer sacrifice to the gods; for he hoped, if the bishops and teachers were once brought to submission, the Christian churches would follow their example. A great multitude, therefore, of excellent men, in every part of the Roman Empire, Gaul only excepted, which was subject to Constantius Chlorus, were either punished capitally or condemned to the mines.
In the second year of the persecution, A.D. 304, Diocletian published a fourth edict, at the instigation of his son-in-law and other enemies of the Christians. By this edict the magistrates were directed to compel all Christians to offer sacrifices to the gods, and to use tortures for that purpose. And as the governors yielded strict obedience to these orders, the Christian Church was reduced to the last extremity. Galerius Maximianus therefore no longer hesitated to disclose the secret designs he had long entertained. He required his father-in-law, Diocletian, together with his colleague, Maximianus Herculius, to divest themselves of their power, and constituted himself emperor of the East; leaving the West to Constantius Chlorus, whose health he knew to be very infirm. He also associated with him in the government two assistants of his own choosing, namely, Caius Galerius Maximinus, his sister’s son, and Flavius Severus; excluding altogether Constantine, the son of Constantius Chlorus. This revolution in the Roman Government restored peace to Christians in the Western provinces, which were under Constantius; but in the Eastern provinces the persecution raged with greater severity than before.
But divine Providence frustrated the whole plan of Galerius Maximianus. For, Constantius Chlorus dying in Britain, in the year 306, the soldiery by acclamation made his son Constantine, who afterward by his achievements obtained the title of “the Great,” Augustus or Emperor; and the tyrant Galerius was obliged to submit, and even to approve this adverse event. Soon after a civil war broke out. For Maxentius, the son-in-law of Galerius Maximianus, being indignant that Galerius should prefer Severus before him, and invest him with imperial power, himself assumed the purple, and took his father, Maximianus Herculius, for his colleague in the empire. In the midst of these commotions Constantine, beyond all expectation, made his way to the imperial throne. The western Christians, those of Italy and Africa excepted, enjoyed a good degree of tranquillity and liberty during these civil wars. But the oriental churches experienced various fortune, adverse or tolerable, according to the political changes from year to year. At length Galerius Maximianus, who had been the author of the heaviest calamities, being brought low by a terrific and protracted disease, and finding himself ready to die, in the year 311, issued a decree which restored peace to them, after they had endured almost unbounded sufferings.
After the death of Galerius Maximianus, Caius Galerius Maximianus and Caius Valerius Licinius divided between themselves the provinces which had been governed by Galerius. At the same time Maxentius, who held Africa and Italy, determined to make war upon Constantine, who governed in Spain and Gaul, in order to bring all the West under his authority. Constantine anticipated his designs, marched his army into Italy in the year 312, and in a battle fought at the Milvian bridge, near Rome, routed the army of Maxentius. In the flight the bridge broke down, and Maxentius fell into the Tiber and was drowned. After this victory Constantine, with his colleague Licinius, immediately gave full liberty to the Christians of living according to their own institutions and laws; and this liberty was more clearly defined the following year, A.D. 313, in a new edict drawn up at Milan. Caius Galerius Maximinus, indeed, who reigned in the East, was projecting new calamities for the Christians, and menacing the emperors of the West with war; but being vanquished by Licinius, he put an end to his own life, in the year 313, by swallowing poison, at Tarsus.
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