Vol. 2, Chapter II (Cont’d) – Persecutions Under Marcus Aurelius. a.d. 161-180


Marcus Aurelius Antoninus: (b. 121, d. 180): Τῶν εἰς ἑαυτόν Βιβλία ιβ, or Meditations. It is a sort of diary or common place book, in which the emperor wrote down, towards the close of his life, partly amid the turmoil of war “in the land of the Quadi” (on the Danube in Hungary), for his self-improvement, his own moral reflections, together with striking maxims of wise and virtuous men. Ed. princeps by Xylander Zürich 1558, and Basel 1568; best ed with a new Latin trans. and very full notes by Gataker, Lond. 1643, Cambr. 1652, and with additional notes from the French by Dacier, Lond. 1697 and 1704. New ed. of the Greek text by J. M. Schultz, 1802 (and 1821); another by Adamantius Coraïs, Par. 1816. English translation by George Long, Lond. 1863, republ. Boston, revised edition, London, 1880. There are translations into most European languages, one in Italian by the Cardinal Francis Barberini (nephew of Pope Urban VIII), who dedicated his translation to his own soul, “to make it redder than his purple at the sight of the virtues of this Gentile.” Comp. also the letters of the famous rhetorician M. Corn. Fronto, the teacher of M. Aurelius, discovered and published by Angelo Mai, Milan 1815 and Rome 1823 (Epistolarum ad Marcum Caesarem Lib. V., etc.) They are, however, very unimportant, except so far as they show the life-long congenial friendship between the amiable teacher and his imperial pupil.

Arnold Bodek: Marcus Aurelius Antoninus als Freund und Zeitgenosse les Rabbi Jehuda ha-Nasi. Leipz. 1868. (Traces the connection of this emperor with the Jewish monotheism and ethics.)

E. Renan: Marc-Aurèle et la fin du monde antique. Paris 1882. This is the seventh and the last vol. of his work of twenty years’ labor on the “Histoire des Origines du Christianisme.” It is as full of genius, learning and eloquence, and as empty of positive faith as the former volumes. He closes the period of the definite formation of Christianity in the middle of the second century, but proposes in a future work to trace it back to Isaiah (or the “Great Unknown”) as its proper founder.

Eusebius: H. E. V. 1-3. The Letter of the Churches of Lyons and Vienne to the Christians of Asia Minor. Die Akten, des Karpus, des Papylus und der Agathonike, untersucht von AD. Harnack. Leipz., 1888.

On the legend of the Legio fulminatrix see Tertullian: Apol. 5; Euseb.: H. E V. 5.; and Dion Cass.: Hist. LXXI. 8, 9.

Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher on the throne, was a well-educated, just, kind, and amiable emperor, and reached the old Roman ideal of self-reliant Stoic virtue, but for this very reason he had no sympathy with Christianity, and probably regarded it as an absurd and fanatical superstition. He had no room in his cosmopolitan philanthropy for the purest and most innocent of his subjects, many of whom served in his own army. He was flooded with apologies of Melito, Miltiades, Athenagoras in behalf of the persecuted Christians, but turned a deaf ear to them. Only once, in his Meditations, does he allude to them, and then with scorn, tracing their noble enthusiasm for martyrdom to “sheer obstinacy” and love for theatrical display. His excuse is ignorance. He probably never read a line of the New Testament, nor of the apologies addressed to him.

Belonging to the later Stoical school, which believed in an immediate absorption after death into the Divine essence, he considered the Christian doctrine of the immortality of the soul, with its moral consequences, as vicious and dangerous to the welfare of the state. A law was passed under his reign, punishing every one with exile who should endeavor to influence people’s mind by fear of the Divinity, and this law was, no doubt, aimed at the Christians. At all events his reign was a stormy time for the church, although the persecutions cannot be directly traced to him. The law of Trajan was sufficient to justify the severest measures against the followers of the “forbidden” religion.

About the year 170 the apologist Melito wrote: “The race of the worshippers of God in Asia is now persecuted by new edicts as it never has been heretofore; shameless, greedy sycophants, finding occasion in the edicts, now plunder the innocent day and night.” The empire was visited at that time by a number of conflagrations, a destructive flood of the Tiber, an earthquake, insurrections, and particularly a pestilence, which spread from Ethiopia to Gaul. This gave rise to bloody persecutions, in which government and people united against the enemies of the gods and the supposed authors of these misfortunes. Celsus expressed his joy that “the demon” [of the Christians] was “not only reviled, but banished from every land and sea,” and saw in this judgment the fulfilment of the oracle: “the mills of the gods grind late.” But at the same time these persecutions, and the simultaneous literary assaults on Christianity by Celsus and Lucian, show that the new religion was constantly gaining importance in the empire.

In 177, the churches of Lyons and Vienne, in the South of France, underwent a severe trial. Heathen slaves were forced by the rack to declare, that their Christian masters practised all the unnatural vices which rumor charged them with; and this was made to justify the exquisite tortures to which the Christians were subjected. But the sufferers, “strengthened by the fountain of living water from the heart of Christ,” displayed extraordinary faith and steadfastness, and felt, that “nothing can be fearful, where the love of the Father is, nothing painful, where shines the glory of Christ.”

The most distinguished victims of this Gallic persecution were the bishop Pothinus, who, at the age of ninety years, and just recovered from a sickness, was subjected to all sorts of abuse, and then thrown into a dismal dungeon, where he died in two days; the virgin Blandina, a slave, who showed almost superhuman strength and constancy under the most cruel tortures, and was at last thrown to a wild beast in a net; Ponticus, a boy of fifteen years, who could be deterred by no sort of cruelty from confessing his Saviour. The corpses of the martyrs, which covered the streets, were shamefully mutilated, then burned, and the ashes cast into the Rhone, lest any remnants of the enemies of the gods might desecrate the soil. At last the people grew weary of slaughter, and a considerable number of Christians survived. The martyrs of Lyons distinguished themselves by true humility, disclaiming in their prison that title of honor, as due only, they said, to the faithful and true witness, the Firstborn from the dead, the Prince of life (Rev_1:5), and to those of his followers who had already sealed their fidelity to Christ with their blood.

About the same time a persecution of less extent appears to have visited Autun (Augustodunum) near Lyons. Symphorinus, a young man of good family, having refused to fall down before the image of Cybele, was condemned to be beheaded. On his way to the place of execution his own mother called to him: “My son, be firm and fear not that death, which so surely leads to life. Look to Him who reigns in heaven. To-day is thy earthly life not taken from thee, but transferred by a blessed exchange into the life of heaven.”

The story of the “thundering legion” rests on the fact of a remarkable deliverance of the Roman army in Hungary by a sudden shower, which quenched their burning thirst and frightened their barbarian enemies, a.d. 174. The heathens, however, attributed this not to the prayers of the Christian soldiers, but to their own gods. The emperor himself prayed to Jupiter: “This hand, which has never yet shed human blood, I raise to thee.” That this event did not alter his views respecting the Christians, is proved by the persecution in South Gaul, which broke out three years later.

Of isolated cases of martyrdom in this reign, we notice that of Justin Martyr, at Rome, in the year 166. His death is traced to the machinations of Crescens, a Cynic philosopher.

Marcus Aurelius was succeeded by his cruel and contemptible son, Commodus (180-192), who wallowed in the mire of every sensual debauchery, and displayed at the same time like Nero the most ridiculous vanity as dancer and singer, and in the character of buffoon; but he was accidentally made to favor the Christians by the influence of a concubine, Marcia, and accordingly did not disturb them. Yet under his reign a Roman senator, Apollonius, was put to death for his faith.


21. Condition of the Church from Septimius Severus to Philip the Arabian. a.d. 193-249

Clemens Alex.: Strom. II. 414. Tertull.: Ad Scapulam, c. 4, 5; Apol. (a.d. 198), c. 7, 12, 30, 37, 49.

Respecting the Alexandrian martyrs comp. Euseb.: VI. 1 and 5.

The Acts of the Carthaginian martyrs, which contain their ipsissima verba from their diaries in the prisons, but bear a somewhat Montanistic stamp, see in Ruinart, p 90 sqq.

Lampridius: Vita Alex. Severi, c. 22, 29, 49.

On Philip the Arabian see Euseb.:VI. 34, 36. Hieron.: Chron. ad ann. 246.

J. J. Müller: Staat and Kirche unter Alex. Severus. Zürich 1874.

F. Görres: Kaiser Alex. Severus und das Christenthum. Leipz., 1877.

Jean Réville: La religion à Rome sous les Sévères. Paris, 1886 (vii and 302 pp.); Germ. transl. by Krüger, 1888.

With Septimius Severus (193-211), who was of Punic descent and had a Syrian wife, a line of emperors (Caracalla, Heliogabalus, Alexander Severus) came to the throne, who were rather Oriental than Roman in their spirit, and were therefore far less concerned than the Antonines to maintain the old state religion. Yet towards the close of the second century there was no lack of local persecutions; and Clement of Alexandria wrote of those times: “Many martyrs are daily burned, confined, or beheaded, before our eyes.”

In the beginning of the third century (202) Septimius Severus, turned perhaps by Montanistic excesses, enacted a rigid law against the further spread both of Christianity and of Judaism. This occasioned violent persecutions in Egypt and in North Africa, and produced some of the fairest flowers of martyrdom.

In Alexandria, in consequence of this law, Leonides, father of the renowned Origen, was beheaded. Potamiaena, a virgin of rare beauty of body and spirit, was threatened by beastly passion with treatment worse than death, and, after cruel tortures, slowly burned with her mother in boiling pitch. One of the executioners, Basilides, smitten with sympathy, shielded them somewhat from abuse, and soon after their death embraced Christianity, and was beheaded. He declared that Potamiaena had appeared to him in the night, interceded with Christ for him, and set upon his head the martyr’s crown.

In Carthage some catechumens, three young men and two young women, probably of the sect of the Montanists, showed remarkable steadfastness and fidelity in the dungeon and at the place of execution. Perpetua, a young woman of noble birth, resisting, not without a violent struggle, both the entreaties of her aged heathen father and the appeal of her helpless babe upon her breast, sacrificed the deep and tender feelings of a daughter and a mother to the Lord who died for her. Felicitas, a slave, when delivered of a child in the same dungeon, answered the jailor, who reminded her of the still keener pains of martyrdom: “Now I suffer, what I suffer; but then another will suffer for me, because I shall suffer for him.” All remaining firm, they were cast to wild beasts at the next public festival, having first interchanged the parting kiss in hope of a speedy reunion in heaven.

The same state of things continued through the first years of Caracalla (211-217), though this gloomy misanthrope passed no laws against the Christians.

The abandoned youth, El-Gabal, or Heliogabalus (218-222), who polluted the throne by the blackest vices and follies, tolerated all the religions in the hope of at last merging them in his favorite Syrian worship of the sun with its abominable excesses. He himself was a priest of the god of the sun, and thence took his name.

His far more worthy cousin and successor, Alexander Severus (222-235), was addicted to a higher kind of religious eclecticism and syncretism, a pantheistic hero-worship. He placed the busts of Abraham and Christ in his domestic chapel with those of Orpheus, Apollonius of Tyana, and the better Roman emperors, and had the gospel rule, “As ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them,” engraven on the walls of his palace, and on public monuments. His mother, Julia Mammaea, was a patroness of Origen.

His assassin, Maximinus the Thracian (235-238), first a herdsman, afterwards a soldier, resorted again to persecution out of mere opposition to his predecessor, and gave free course to the popular fury against the enemies of the gods, which was at that time excited anew by an earthquake. It is uncertain whether he ordered the entire clergy or only the bishops to be killed. He was a rude barbarian who plundered also heathen temples.

The legendary poesy of the tenth century assigns to his reign the fabulous martyrdom of St. Ursula, a British princess, and her company of eleven thousand (according to others, ten thousand) virgins, who, on their return from a pilgrimage to Rome, were murdered by heathens in the neighborhood of Cologne. This incredible number has probably arisen from the misinterpretation of an inscription, like “Ursula et Undecimilla” (which occurs in an old missal of the Sorbonne), or “Ursula et XI M. V.,” i.e. Martyres Virgines, which, by substituting milia for martyres, was increased from eleven martyrs to eleven thousand virgins. Some historians place the fact, which seems to form the basis of this legend, in connexion with the retreat of the Huns after the battle of Chalons, 451. The abridgment of Mil., which may mean soldiers (milites) as well as thousands (milia), was another fruitful source of mistakes in a credulous and superstitious age.

Gordianus (208-244) left the church undisturbed. Philip the Arabian (244-249) was even supposed by some to be a Christian, and was termed by Jerome “primus omnium ex Romanis imperatoribus Christianus.” It is certain that Origen wrote letters to him and to his wife, Severa.

This season of repose, however, cooled the moral zeal and brotherly love of the Christians; and the mighty storm under the following reign served well to restore the purity of the church.


22. Persecutions Under Decius, and Valerian. a.d. 249-260. Martyrdom of Cyprian

Dionysius Alex., in Euseb. VI. 40-42; VII. 10, 11.

Cyprian: De Lapsis, and particularly his Epistles of this period. On Cyprian’s martyrdom see the Proconsular Acts, and Pontius: Vita Cypriani.

Franz Görres: Die Toleranzedicte des Kaisers Gallienus, in the “Jahrbücher für protest. Theol.,” 1877, pp. 606-630. By the same: Die angebliche Christenverfolgung zur Zeit der Kaiser Numerianus und Carinus, in Hilgenfeld’s “Zeitschrift für wissenschaftl. Theologie.” 1880 pp. 31-64.

Decius Trajan (249-251), an earnest and energetic emperor, in whom the old Roman spirit once more awoke, resolved to root out the church as an atheistic and seditious sect, and in the year 250 published an edict to all the governors of the provinces, enjoining return to the pagan state religion under the heaviest penalties. This was the signal for a persecution which, in extent, consistency, and cruelty, exceeded all before it. In truth it was properly the first which covered the whole empire, and accordingly produced a far greater number of martyrs than any former persecution. In the execution of the imperial decree confiscation, exile, torture, promises and threats of all kinds, were employed to move the Christians to apostasy. Multitudes of nominal Christians, especially at the beginning, sacrificed to the gods (sacrificati, thurificati), or procured from the magistrate a false certificate that they had done so (libellatici), and were then excommunicated as apostates (lapsi); while hundreds rushed with impetuous zeal to the prisons and the tribunals, to obtain the confessor’s or martyr’s crown. The confessors of Rome wrote from prison to their brethren of Africa: “What more glorious and blessed lot can fall to man by the grace of God, than to confess God the Lord amidst tortures and in the face of death itself; to confess Christ the Son of God with lacerated body and with a spirit departing, yet free; and to become fellow-sufferers with Christ in the name of Christ? Though we have not yet shed our blood, we are ready to do so. Pray for us, then, dear Cyprian, that the Lord, the best captain, would daily strengthen each one of us more and more, and at last lead us to the field as faithful soldiers, armed with those divine weapons (Eph_6:2) which can never be conquered.”

The authorities were specially severe with the bishops and officers of the churches. Fabianus of Rome, Babylas of Antioch, and Alexander of Jerusalem, perished in this persecution. Others withdrew to places of concealment; some from cowardice; some from Christian prudence, in hope of allaying by their absence the fury of the pagans against their flocks, and of saving their own lives for the good of the church in better times.

Among the latter was Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, who incurred much censure by his course, but fully vindicated himself by his pastoral industry during his absence, and by his subsequent martyrdom. He says concerning the matter: “Our Lord commanded us in times of persecution to yield and to fly. He taught this, and he practised it himself. For since the martyr’s crown comes by the grace of God, and cannot be gained before the appointed hour, he who retires for a time, and remains true to Christ, does not deny his faith, but only abides his time.”

The poetical legend of the seven brothers at Ephesus, who fell asleep in a cave, whither they had fled, and awoke two hundred years afterwards, under Theodosius II. (447), astonished to see the once despised and hated cross now ruling over city and country, dates itself internally from the time of Decius, but is not mentioned before Gregory of Tours in the sixth century.

Under Gallus (251-253) the persecution received a fresh impulse thorough the incursions of the Goths, and the prevalence of a pestilence, drought, and famine. Under this reign the Roman bishops Cornelius and Lucius were banished, and then condemned to death.

Valerian (253-260) was at first mild towards the Christians; but in 257 he changed his course, and made an effort to check the progress of their religion without bloodshed, by the banishment of ministers and prominent laymen, the confiscation of their property, and the prohibition of religious assemblies. These measures, however, proving fruitless, he brought the death penalty again into play.

The most distinguished martyrs of this persecution under Valerian are the bishops Sixtus II. of Rome, and Cyprian of Carthage.

When Cyprian received his sentence of death, representing him as an enemy of the Roman gods and laws, he calmly answered: “Deo gratias!” Then, attended by a vast multitude to the scaffold, he prayed once more, undressed himself, covered his eyes, requested a presbyter to bind his hands, and to pay the executioner, who tremblingly drew the sword, twenty-five pieces of gold, and won the incorruptible crown (Sept. 14, 258). His faithful friends caught the blood in handkerchiefs, and buried the body of their sainted pastor with great solemnity.

Gibbon describes the martyrdom of Cyprian with circumstantial minuteness, and dwells with evident satisfaction on the small decorum which attended his execution. But this is no fair average specimen of the style in which Christians were executed throughout the empire. For Cyprian was a man of the highest social standing and connection from his former eminence, as a rhetorician and statesman. His deacon, Pontius, relates that “numbers of eminent and illustrious persons, men of mark family and secular distinction, often urged him, for the sake of their old friendship with him, to retire.” We shall return to Cyprian again in the history of church government, where he figures as a typical, ante-Nicene high-churchman, advocating both the visible unity of the church and episcopal independence of Rome.

The much lauded martyrdom of the deacon St. Laurentius of Rome, who pointed the avaricious magistrates to the poor and sick of the congregation as the richest treasure of the church, and is said to have been slowly roasted to death (Aug. 10, 258) is scarcely reliable in its details, being first mentioned by Ambrose a century later, and then glorified by the poet Prudentius. A Basilica on the Via Tiburtina celebrates the memory of this saint, who occupies the same position among the martyrs of the church of Rome as Stephen among those of Jerusalem.


23. Temporary Repose. a.d. 260-303

Gallienus (260-268) gave peace to the church once more, and even acknowledged Christianity as a religio licita. And this calm continued forty years; for the edict of persecution, issued by the energetic and warlike Aurelian (270-275), was rendered void by his assassination; and the six emperors who rapidly followed, from 275 to 284, let the Christians alone.

The persecutions under Carus, Numerianus and Carinus from 284 to 285 are not historical, but legendary.

During this long season of peace the church rose rapidly in numbers and outward prosperity. Large and even splendid houses of worship were erected in the chief cities, and provided with collections of sacred books and vessels of gold and silver for the administration of the sacraments. But in the same proportion discipline relaxed, quarrels, intrigues, and factions increased, and worldliness poured in like a flood.

Hence a new trial was a necessary and wholesome process of purification.


24. The Diocletian Persecution, a.d. 303-311

I. Sources

Eusebius: H. E. Lib. VIII. — X; De Martyr. Palaest. (ed. Cureton, Lond, 1861); Vita Const. (ed. Heinichen, Lips. 1870).

Lactantius: De Mortibus Persec. c. 7 sqq. Of uncertain authorship.

Basilius M.: Oratio in Gordium mart.; Oratio in Barlaham mart.


II. Works

Baronius: Annal. ad ann. 302-305.

Gibbon: Chrs. XIII., XIV. and XVI.

Jak. Burckhardt: Die Zeit Constantins des Gr. Basel, 1853, p. 325.

Th. Keim: Der Uebertritt Constantins des Gr. zum Christenthum. Zürich 1852. The same: Die römischen Toleranzedicte für das Christenthum (311-313), in the “Tüb. Theol. Jahrb.” 1852. (His. Rom und das Christenthum only comes down to a.d. 192.)

Alb. Vogel: Der Kaiser Diocletian. Gotha 1857.

Bernhardt: Diokletian in s. Verhältnisse zu den Christen. Bonn, 1862.

Hunziker: Regierung und Christenverfolgung des Kaisers Diocletianus und seiner Nachfolger. Leipz. 1868.

Theod. Preuss: Kaiser Diocletian und seine Zeit. Leipz. 1869.

A. J. Mason: The Persecution of Diocletian. Cambridge, 1876. Pages 370. (Comp. a review by Ad. Harnack in the “Theol. Literaturzeitung” for 1877. No. 7. f. 169.)

Theod. Zahn: Constantin der Grosse und die Kirche. Hannover, 1876.

Brieger.: Constantin der Gr. als Religionspolitiker. Gotha, 1880. Comp. the Lit. on Constantine, in vol. III., 10, 11.


The Diocletian Persecution

The forty years’ repose was followed by the last and most violent persecution, a struggle for life and death.

“The accession of the Emperor Diocletian is the era from which the Coptic Churches of Egypt and Abyssinia still date, under the name of the ‘Era of Martyrs.’ All former persecutions of the faith were forgotten in the horror with which men looked back upon the last and greatest: the tenth wave (as men delighted to count it) of that great storm obliterated all the traces that had been left by others. The fiendish cruelty of Nero, the jealous fears of Domitian, the unimpassioned dislike of Marcus, the sweeping purpose of Decius, the clever devices of Valerian, fell into obscurity when compared with the concentrated terrors of that final grapple, which resulted in the destruction of the old Roman Empire and the establishment of the Cross as the symbol of the world’s hope.”

Diocletian (284-305) was one of the most judicious and able emperors who, in a trying period, preserved the sinking state from dissolution. He was the son of a slave or of obscure parentage, and worked himself up to supreme power. He converted the Roman republican empire into an Oriental despotism, and prepared the way for Constantine and Constantinople. He associated with himself three subordinate co-regents, Maximian (who committed suicide, 310), Galerius (d. 311), and Constantius Chlorus (d. 306, the father of Constantine the Great), and divided with them the government of the immense empire; thereby quadrupling the personality of the sovereign, and imparting vigor to provincial administration, but also sowing the seed of discord and civil war. Gibbon calls him a second Augustus, the founder of a new empire, rather than the restorer of the old. He also compares him to Charles V., whom he somewhat resembled in his talents, temporary success and ultimate failure, and voluntary retirement from the cares of government.

In the first twenty years of his reign Diocletian respected the toleration edict of Gallienus. His own wife Prisca, his daughter Valeria, and most of his eunuchs and court officers, besides many of the most prominent public functionaries, were Christians, or at least favorable to the Christian religion. He himself was a superstitious heathen and an oriental despot. Like Aurelian and Domitian before him, he claimed divine honors, as the vicar of Jupiter Capitolinus. He was called, as the Lord and Master of the world, Sacratissimus Dominus Noster; he guarded his Sacred Majesty with many circles of soldiers and eunuchs, and allowed no one to approach him except on bended knees, and with the forehead touching the ground, while he was seated on the throne in rich vestments from the far East. “Ostentation,” says Gibbon, “was the first principle of the new system instituted by Diocletian.” As a practical statesman, he must have seen that his work of the political restoration and consolidation of the empire would lack a firm and permanent basis without the restoration of the old religion of the state. Although he long postponed the religious question, he had to meet it at last. It could not be expected, in the nature of the case, that paganism should surrender to its dangerous rival without a last desperate effort to save itself.

But the chief instigator of the renewal of hostility, according to the account of Lactantius, was Diocletian’s co-regent and son-in-law, Galerius, a cruel and fanatical heathen. He prevailed at last on Diocletian in his old age to authorize the persecution which gave to his glorious reign a disgraceful end.

In 303 Diocletian issued in rapid succession three edicts, each more severe than its predecessor. Maximian issued the fourth, the worst of all, April 30, 304. Christian churches were to be destroyed; all copies of the Bible were to be burned; all Christians were to be deprived of public office and civil rights; and at last all, without exception, were to sacrifice to the gods upon pain of death. Pretext for this severity was afforded by the occurrence of fire twice in the palace of Nicomedia in Bithynia, where Diocletian resided. It was strengthened by the tearing down of the first edict by an imprudent Christian (celebrated in the Greek church under the name of John), who vented in that way his abhorrence of such “godless and tyrannical rulers,” and was gradually roasted to death with every species of cruelty. But the conjecture that the edicts were occasioned by a conspiracy of the Christians who, feeling their rising power, were for putting the government at once into Christian hands, by a stroke of state, is without any foundation in history. It is inconsistent with the political passivity of the church during the first three centuries, which furnish no example of rebellion and revolution. At best such a conspiracy could only have been the work of a few fanatics; and they, like the one who tore down the first edict, would have gloried in the deed and sought the crown of martyrdom.

The persecution began on the twenty-third day of February, 303, the feast of the Terminalia (as if to make an end of the Christian sect), with the destruction of the magnificent church in Nicomedia, and soon spread over the whole Roman empire, except Gaul, Britain, and Spain, where the co-regent Constantius Chlorus, and especially his son, Constantine the Great (from 306), were disposed, as far as possible, to spare the Christians. But even here the churches were destroyed, and many martyrs of Spain (St. Vincentius, Eulalia, and others celebrated by Prudentins), and of Britain (St. Alban) are assigned by later tradition to this age.

The persecution raged longest and most fiercely in the East under the rule of Galerius and his barbarous nephew Maximin Daza, who was intrusted by Diocletian before his retirement with the dignity of Caesar and the extreme command of Egypt and Syria. He issued in autumn, 308, a fifth edict of persecution, which commanded that all males with their wives and servants, and even their children, should sacrifice and actually taste the accursed offerings, and that all provisions in the markets should be sprinkled with sacrificial wine. This monstrous law introduced a reign of terror for two years, and left the Christians no alternative but apostasy or starvation. All the pains, which iron and steel, fire and sword, rack and cross, wild beasts and beastly men could inflict, were employed to gain the useless end.

Eusebius was a witness of this persecution in Caesura, Tyre, and Egypt, and saw, with his own eyes, as he tells us, the houses of prayer razed to the ground, the Holy Scriptures committed to the flames on the market places, the pastors hunted, tortured, and torn to pieces in the amphitheatre. Even the wild beasts, he says, not without rhetorical exaggeration, at last refused to attack the Christians, as if they had assumed the part of men in place of the heathen Romans; the bloody swords became dull and shattered; the executioners grew weary, and had to relieve each other; but the Christians sang hymns of praise and thanksgiving in honor of Almighty God, even to their latest breath. He describes the heroic sufferings and death of several martyrs, including his friend, “the holy and blessed Pamphilus,” who after two years of imprisonment won the crown of life (309), with eleven others — a typical company that seemed to him to be “a perfect representation of the church.”

Eusebius himself was imprisoned, but released. The charge of having escaped martyrdom by offering sacrifice is without foundation.

In this, as in former persecutions, the number of apostates who preferred the earthly life to the heavenly, was very great. To these was now added also the new class of the traditores, who delivered the holy Scriptures to the heathen authorities, to be burned. But as the persecution raged, the zeal and fidelity of the Christians increased, and martyrdom spread as by contagion. Even boys and girls showed amazing firmness. In many the heroism of faith degenerated to a fanatical courting of death; confessors were almost worshipped, while yet alive; and the hatred towards apostates distracted many congregations, and produced the Meletian and Donatist schisms.

The number of martyrs cannot be estimated with any degree of certainty. The seven episcopal and the ninety-two Palestinian martyrs of Eusebius are only a select list bearing a similar relation to the whole number of victims as the military lists its of distinguished fallen officers to the large mass of common soldiers, and form therefore no fair basis for the calculation of Gibbon, who would reduce the whole number to less than two thousand. During the eight years of this persecution the number of victims, without including the many confessors who were barbarously mutilated and condemned to a lingering death in the prisons and mines, must have been much larger. But there is no truth in the tradition (which figures in older church histories) that the tyrants erected trophies in Spain and elsewhere with such inscriptions as announce the suppression of the Christian sect.

The martyrologies date from this period several legends, the germs of which, however, cannot now be clearly sifted from the additions of later poesy. The story of the destruction of the legio Thebaica is probably an exaggeration of the martyrdom of St. Mauritius, who was executed in Syria, as tribunus militum, with seventy soldiers, at the order of Maximin. The martyrdom of Barlaam, a plain, rustic Christian of remarkable constancy, and of Gordius, a centurion (who, however, was tortured and executed a few years later under Licinius, 314) has been eulogized by St. Basil. A maiden of thirteen years, St. Agnes, whose memory the Latin church has celebrated ever since the fourth century, was, according to tradition, brought in chains before the judgment-seat in Rome; was publicly exposed, and upon her steadfast confession put to the sword; but afterwards appeared to her grieving parents at her grave with a white lamb and a host of shining virgins from heaven, and said: “Mourn me no longer as dead, for ye see that I live. Rejoice with me, that I am forever united in heaven with the Saviour, whom on earth I loved with all my heart.” Hence the lamb in the paintings of this saint; and hence the consecration of lambs in her church at Rome at her festival (Jan. 21), from whose wool the pallium of the archbishop is made. Agricola and Vitalis at Bologna, Gervasius and Protasius at Milan, whose bones were discovered in the time of Ambrose Janurius, bishop of Benevent, who became the patron saint of Naples, and astonishes the faithful by the annual miracle of the liquefaction of his blood, and the British St. Alban, who delivered himself to the authorities in the place of the priest he had concealed in his house, and converted his executioner, are said to have attained martyrdom under Diocletian.


25. The Edicts of Toleration. a.d. 311-313

See Lit. in § 24, especially Keim, and Mason (Persecution of Diocletian, pp. 299 and 326 sqq.)

This persecution was the last desperate struggle of Roman heathenism for its life. It was the crisis of utter extinction or absolute supremacy for each of the two religions. At the close of the contest the old Roman state religion was exhausted. Diocletian retired into private life in 305, under the curse of the Christians; he found greater pleasure in planting cabbages at Salona in his native Dalmatia, than in governing a vast empire, but his peace was disturbed by the tragical misfortunes of his wife and daughter, and in 313, when all the achievements of his reign were destroyed, he destroyed himself.

Galerius, the real author of the persecution, brought to reflection by a terrible disease, put an end to the slaughter shortly before his death, by a remarkable edict of toleration, which he issued from Nicomedia in 311, in connexion with Constantine and Licinius. In that document he declared, that the purpose of reclaiming the Christians from their wilful innovation and the multitude of their sects to the laws and discipline of the Roman state, was not accomplished; and that he would now grant them permission to hold their religious assemblies provided they disturbed not the order of the state. To this he added in conclusion the significant instruction that the Christians, “after this manifestation of grace, should pray to their God for the welfare of the emperors, of the state, and of themselves, that the state might prosper in every respect, and that they might live quietly in their homes.”

This edict virtually closes the period of persecution in the Roman empire.

For a short time Maximin, whom Eusebius calls “the chief of tyrants,” continued in every way to oppress and vex the church in the East, and the cruel pagan Maxentius (a son of Maximian and son-in-law of Galerius) did the same in Italy.

But the young Constantine, who hailed from the far West, had already, in 306, become emperor of Gaul, Spain, and Britain. He had been brought up at the court of Diocletian at Nicomedia (like Moses at the court of Pharaoh) and destined for his successor, but fled from the intrigues of Galerius to Britain, and was appointed by his father and proclaimed by the army as his successor. He crossed the Alps, and under the banner of the cross, he conquered Maxentius at the Milvian bridge near Rome, and the heathen tyrant perished with his army of veterans in the waters of the Tiber, Oct. 27, 312. A few months afterwards Constantine met at Milan with his co-regent and brother-in-law, Licinius, and issued a new edict of toleration (313), to which Maximin also, shortly before his suicide (313), was compelled to give his consent at Nicomedia. The second edict went beyond the first of 311; it was a decisive step from hostile neutrality to friendly neutrality and protection, and prepared the way for the legal recognition of Christianity, as the religion of the empire. It ordered the full restoration of all confiscated church property to the Corpus Christianorum, at the expense of the imperial treasury, and directed the provincial magistrates to execute this order at once with all energy, so that peace may be fully established and the continuance of the Divine favor secured to the emperors and their subjects.

This was the first proclamation of the great principle that every man had a right to choose his religion according to the dictates of his own conscience and honest conviction, without compulsion and interference from the government. Religion is worth nothing except as an act of freedom. A forced religion is no religion at all. Unfortunately, the successors of Constantine from the time of Theodosius the Great (383-395) enforced the Christian religion to the exclusion of every other; and not only so, but they enforced orthodoxy to the exclusion of every form of dissent, which was punished as a crime against the state.

Paganism made another spasmodic effort. Licinius fell out with Constantine and renewed the persecution for a short time in the East, but he was defeated in 323, and Constantine became sole ruler of the empire. He openly protected and favored the church, without forbidding idolatry, and upon the whole remained true to his policy of protective toleration till his death (337). This was enough for the success of the church, which had all the vitality and energy of a victorious power; while heathenism was fast decaying at its root.

With Constantine, therefore, the last of the heathen, the first of the Christian, emperors, a new period begins. The church ascends the throne of the Caesars under the banner of the once despised, now honored and triumphant cross, and gives new vigor and lustre to the hoary empire of Rome. This sudden political and social revolution seems marvellous; and yet it was only the legitimate result of the intellectual and moral revolution which Christianity, since the second century, had silently and imperceptibly wrought in public opinion. The very violence of the Diocletian persecution betrayed the inner weakness of heathenism. The Christian minority with its ideas already controlled the deeper current of history. Constantine, as a sagacious statesman, saw the signs of the times and followed them. The motto of his policy is well symbolized in his military standard with the inscription: “Hoc signo vinces.”

What a contrast between Nero, the first imperial persecutor, riding in a chariot among Christian martyrs as burning torches in his gardens, and Constantine, seated in the Council of Nicaea among three hundred and eighteen bishops (some of whom — as the blinded Confessor Paphnutius, Paul of Neocaesarea, and the ascetics from Upper Egypt clothed in wild raiment — wore the insignia of torture on their maimed and crippled bodies), and giving the highest sanction of civil authority to the decree of the eternal deity of the once crucified Jesus of Nazareth! Such a revolution the world has never seen before or since, except the silent, spiritual, and moral reformation wrought by Christianity itself at its introduction in the first, and at its revival in the sixteenth century.