The Christian Church reached a pivotal point as the 3rd century blended into the 4th century. The Great Persecution under Roman Emperor Diocletian and his co-rulers went after Christians with a vengeance. It began in the early part of the 4th century (303 AD) and continued for several years. Their intent was to destroy Christianity.
It is this story of the Great Persecution and its impact on the Christian Church that we now take up in our special series A Reading Plan for Christian Apologists.
[Podcast version available to listen to at the end of this post.]
The history of Christianity, beginning in Jerusalem and moving throughout the Roman Empire, was one of great difficulty. Jesus Christ was crucified by the Roman government and His followers would suffer greatly for the next three centuries.
Here is a list of primary persecutions during the first three centuries of Church history. The dates are approximate to the beginning of each persecution.
- Persecutions under Jewish leaders (e.g. Acts 4 – 8 .. 33 AD)
- Persecution under Emperor Nero (64 AD)
- Persecution under Emperor Domitian (81 AD)
- Persecution under Emperor Trajan (108 AD)
- Persecution under Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (162 AD)
- Persecution under Emperor Severus (192 AD)
- Persecution under Emperor Maximus (235 AD)
- Persecution under Emperor Decius (249 AD)
- Persecution under Emperor Valerian (257 AD)
- Persecution under Emperor Aurelian (274 AD)
- Persecution under Emperor Diocletian (303 AD)
As we have seen in many of the earlier parts of this study, Christian apologists often addressed the accusations of Romans, Greeks and Jews that Christians were part of a “secret society” and couldn’t be trusted because of their “strange” beliefs and practices. Many people accused Christians of refusing to bow to the Roman gods while using “black magic” to gain their ends and practicing cannibalism and incest in their “secret” meetings.
Many of the early persecutions were fomented by the anger of citizens and local governors, but the official Roman government became more deeply involved in the empire-wide persecution during the 3rd century. We have addressed that at some length in a previous article. Emperor Severus issued an edict in 202 that made converting to Christianity a criminal offense. What followed was a strong persecution of Christians until Severus’ death. There were further persecutions in the 3rd century under emperors Maximinus, Decius, and Valerian.
Emperor Diocletian ruled from 284-305 AD and pursued Christians with a vengeance toward the end of his reign (some historians believe at the urging of Galerius who was a member of the Tetrarchy). Diocletian purged the Roman Army of soldiers who were Christians and surrounded himself with people who opposed Christianity. The anti-Christian perspective eventually led to Diocletian’s and the Empire’s attempt to destroy Christianity, known historically as the Great Persecution. This persecution included the arrest of Christian leaders and members, the threat of death if Christians did not make a pagan sacrifice, the outlawing of Christian meetings, the destruction of buildings owned by Christians, and the surrender of all sacred writings for burning.
Church historian Eusebius of Caesarea (est. 260-339 AD) was an eyewitness of the Great Persecution and wrote about what he saw –
“It was in the nineteenth year of the reign of Diocletian, in the month Dystrus, called March by the Romans, when the feast of the Saviour’s passion was near at hand, that royal edicts were published everywhere, commanding that the churches be leveled to the ground and the Scriptures be destroyed by fire, and ordering that those who held places of honor be degraded, and that the household servants, if they persisted in the profession of Christianity, be deprived of freedom.
It was in the nineteenth year of the reign of Diocletian, in the month Xanthicus, which is called April by the Romans, about the time of the feast of our Saviour’s passion, while Flavianus was governor of the province of Palestine, that letters were published everywhere, commanding that the churches be leveled to the ground and the Scriptures be destroyed by fire, and ordering that those who held places of honor be degraded, and that the household servants, if they persisted in the profession of Christianity, be deprived of freedom.
Such was the force of the first edict against us. But not long after other letters were issued, commanding that all the bishops of the churches everywhere be first thrown into prison, and afterward, by every artifice, be compelled to sacrifice.
Entire families of the pious in that place were put to death in masses at the royal command, some by the sword, and others by fire. It is reported that with a certain divine and indescribable eagerness men and women rushed into the fire. And the executioners bound a large number of others and put them on boats and threw them into the depths of the sea.
What was to be seen after this exceeds all description. A vast multitude were imprisoned in every place; and the prisons everywhere, which had long before been prepared for murderers and robbers of graves, were filled with bishops, presbyters and deacons, readers and exorcists, so that room was no longer left in them for those condemned for crimes.
And as other decrees followed the first, directing that those in prison if they would sacrifice should be permitted to depart in freedom, but that those who refused should be harassed with many tortures, how could any one, again, number the multitude of martyrs in every province, and especially of those in Africa, and Mauritania, and Thebais, and Egypt? From this last country many went into other cities and provinces, and became illustrious through martyrdom” Eusebius Pamphilius, Church History
Galerius became emperor after Diocletian’s death and continued the Great Persecution against Christians for several years until shortly before his death in 311 AD. Galerius was very ill and wrote the Edict of Toleration in April 311 and asked Christians to pray for him. He died six days later. Here is a translation of that edict –
“Among other arrangements which we are always accustomed to make for the prosperity and welfare of the republic, we had desired formerly to bring all things into harmony with the ancient laws and public order of the Romans, and to provide that even the Christians who had left the religion of their fathers should come back to reason; since, indeed, the Christians themselves, for some reason, had followed such a caprice and had fallen into such a folly that they would not obey the institutes of antiquity, which perchance their own ancestors had first established; but at their own will and pleasure, they would thus make laws unto themselves which they should observe and would collect various peoples in diverse places in congregations. Finally when our law had been promulgated to the effect that they should conform to the institutes of antiquity, many were subdued by the fear of danger, many even suffered death. And yet since most of them persevered in their determination, and we saw that they neither paid the reverence and awe due to the gods nor worshipped the God of the Christians, in view of our most mild clemency and the constant habit by which we are accustomed to grant indulgence to all, we thought that we ought to grant our most prompt indulgence also to these, so that they may again be Christians and may hold their conventicles, provided they do nothing contrary to good order. But we shall tell the magistrates in another letter what they ought to do.
Wherefore, for this our indulgence, they ought to pray to their God for our safety, for that of the republic, and for their own, that the republic may continue uninjured on every side, and that they may be able to live securely in their homes.
This edict is published at Nicomedia on the day before the Kalends of May, in our eighth consulship and the second of Maximinus.— Lactantius, De Mort. Pers. ch. 34, 35. Opera, ed. O. F. Fritzsche, II, P. 273. (Bibl. Patt. Ecc. Lat. XI, Leipzig, 1844.)”
Eusebius wrote this about the edict –
“The author of the edict very shortly after this confession was released from his pains and died. He is reported to have been the original author of the misery of the persecution, having endeavored, long before the movement of the other emperors, to turn from the faith the Christians in the army, and first of all those in his own house, degrading some from the military rank, and abusing others most shamefully, and threatening still others with death, and finally inciting his partners in the empire to the general persecution. It is not proper to pass over the death of these emperors in silence.”
The End of Persecutions
The Roman Empire’s persecutions of Christians slowed with Galerius’ deathbed Edict of Toleration in 311 AD, but did not officially end until two years later. Emperor Constantine I of the Western Empire and Licinius of the Eastern Empire agreed to a proclamation known as the Edict of Milan in 313 AD. It changed the course of Christian history by establishing religious toleration for Christians and all other people to worship the deity of their choice. The proclamation also returned legal rights to Christians along with their property confiscated during the persecutions.
Eusebius was both a witness and historian of those events and wrote this in his Church History –
“All men, then, were freed from the oppression of the tyrants, and being released from the former ills, one in one way and another in another acknowledged the defender of the pious to be the only true God. And we especially who placed our hopes in the Christ of God had unspeakable gladness, and a certain inspired joy bloomed for all of us, when we saw every place which shortly before had been desolated by the impieties of the tyrants reviving as if from a long and death-fraught pestilence, and temples again rising from their foundations to an immense height, and receiving a splendor far greater than that of the old ones which had been destroyed.” Eusebius, Church History, Book X, Chapter II
We will learn more about Christianity in the 4th century AD in the next part of A Reading Plan For Christian Apologists.