The Decian-valerian Persecution
The first persecution which may fairly be said to have been general in
purpose and effect was that falling in the reigns of Decius (249-251) and
Valerian (253-260). Of the course of the persecution we have information
bearing directly upon Carthage, Alexandria, and Asia Minor. But it
probably was felt very generally throughout the Church.
Additional source material: Cyprian, De Lapsis, Epp. 14, 22, 43;
Eusebius, Hist. Ec., VI, 39-45, VII, 11, 15, 30: for original
texts see Preuschen, Analecta, I, §§ 16, 17; also R. Knopf,
Ausgewaehlte Maertyreracten (of these the most reliable are the
martyrdom of Pionius and of Cyprian).
(a) Origen, Contra Celsum, III, 15. (MSG, 11:937.)
Origen, writing about 248, observes the probable approach of a
period of persecution for the Church.
That it is not the fear of external enemies which strengthens our union is
plain from the fact that this cause, by God's will, has already ceased for
a considerable time. And it is probable that the secure existence, so far
as this life is concerned, which is enjoyed by believers at present will
come to an end, since those who in every way calumniate the Word [i.e.,
Christianity] are again attributing the frequency of rebellion to the
multitude of believers and to their not being persecuted by the
authorities, as in former times.
(b) Lactantius, De Mortibus Persecutorum, 3, 4. (MSL, 7:200.)
Lucius Caelius Firminianus Lactantius was of African birth. Having
obtained some local fame as a teacher of rhetoric, he was
appointed by Diocletian professor of that subject in his new
capital of Nicomedia. This position Lactantius lost during the
Diocletian persecution. He was afterward tutor of Crispus, the son
of Constantine. His work On the Death of the Persecutors is
written in a bitter spirit, but excellent style. Although in some
circles it has been customary to impeach the veracity of
Lactantius, no intentional departure from historical truthfulness,
apart from rhetorical coloring, which was inevitable, has been
proved against him. Of late there has been some doubt as to the
authorship of De Mortibus Persecutorum.
Ch. 3. This long peace, however, was afterward interrupted.
Ch. 4. For after many years there appeared in the world an accursed wild
beast, Decius by name, who should afflict the Church. And who but a bad
man would persecute righteousness? As if for this end he had been raised
up to sovereign eminence, he began at once to rage against God, and at
once to fall. For having undertaken an expedition against the Carpi, who
had then occupied Dacia and Moesia, he was suddenly surrounded by the
barbarians, and slain, together with a great part of his army; nor could
he be honored with the rights of sepulture, but, stripped and naked, he
lay as food for wild beasts and birds, as became the enemy of God.
(c) Eusebius, Hist. Ec., VI, 39. (MSG, 20:660.)
The Decian persecution and the sufferings of Origen.
Decius succeeded Philip, who had reigned seven years. On account of his
hatred of Philip, Decius commenced a persecution of the churches, in which
Fabianus suffered martyrdom at Rome, and Cornelius succeeded him in the
episcopate. In Palestine, Alexander, bishop of the church of Jerusalem,
was brought again on Christ's account before the governor's judgment seat
in Caesarea, and having acquitted himself nobly in a second confession, was
cast into prison, crowned with the hoary locks of venerable age. And after
his honorable and illustrious confession at the tribunal of the governor,
he fell asleep in prison, and Mazabanes became his successor in the
bishopric of Jerusalem. Babylas in Antioch having, like Alexander, passed
away in prison after his confession, Fabius presided over that church.
But how many and how great things came upon Origen in the persecution, and
what was their final result--as the evil demon marshalled all his forces
and fought against the man with his utmost craft and power, assaulting him
beyond all others against whom he contended at that time; and what and how
many things the man endured for the word of Christ--bonds and bodily
tortures and torments under the iron collar and in the dungeon; and how
for many days with his feet stretched four spaces of the stocks he bore
patiently the threats of fire and whatever other things were inflicted by
his enemies; and how his sufferings terminated, as his judge strove
eagerly with all his might not to end his life; and what words he left
after these things full of comfort to those needing aid, a great many of
his epistles show with truth and accuracy.
(d) Cyprian, De Lapsis, 8-10. (MSL, 4:486.)
The many cases of apostasy in the Decian persecution shocked the
Church inexpressibly. In peace discipline had been relaxed and
Christian zeal had grown weak. The same phenomena appeared in the
next great persecution, under Diocletian, after a long period of
peace. De Lapsis was written in the spring of 251, just after
the end of the severity of the Decian persecution and Cyprian's
return to Carthage. Text in part in Kirch, nn. 227 ff.
Ch. 8. From some, alas, all these things have fallen away, and have passed
from memory. They indeed did not even wait, that, having been apprehended,
they should go up, or, having been interrogated, they might deny. Many
were conquered before the battle, prostrated without an attack. Nor did
they even leave it to be said for them that they seemed to sacrifice to
idols unwillingly. They ran to the forum of their own accord; freely they
hastened to death, as if they had formerly wished it, as if they would
embrace an opportunity now given which they had always desired. How many
were put off by the magistrates at that time, when evening was coming on!
How many even asked that their destruction might not be delayed! What
violence can such a one plead, how can he purge his crime, when it was he
himself who rather used force that he might perish? When they came
voluntarily to the capitol--when they freely approached to the obedience of
the terrible wickedness--did not their tread falter, did not their sight
darken, their hearts tremble, their arms fall helplessly down, their
senses become dull, their tongues cleave to their mouths, their speech
fail? Could the servant of God stand there, he who had already renounced
the devil and the world, and speak and renounce Christ? Was not that
altar, whither he drew near to die, to him a funeral pile? Ought he not to
shudder at, and flee from, the altar of the devil, which he had seen to
smoke and to be redolent of a foul stench, as it were, a funeral and
sepulchre of his life? Why bring with you, O wretched man, a sacrifice?
Why immolate a victim? You yourself have come to the altar an offering,
yourself a victim; there you have immolated your salvation, your hope;
there you have burned up your faith in those deadly fires.
Ch. 9. But to many their own destruction was not sufficient. With mutual
exhortations the people were urged to their ruin; death was pledged by
turns in the deadly cup. And that nothing might be wanting to aggravate
the crime, infants, also, in the arms of their parents, being either
carried or conducted, lost, while yet little ones, what in the very
beginning of their nativity they had gained. Will not they, when the day
of judgment comes, say: "We have done nothing; nor have we forsaken the
Lord's bread and cup to hasten freely to a profane contract."
Ch. 10. Nor is there, alas, any just and weighty reason which excuses such
a crime. One's country was to be left, and loss of one's estate was to be
suffered. Yet to whom that is born and dies is there not a necessity at
some time to leave his country and to suffer loss of his estate? But let
not Christ be forsaken, so that the loss of salvation and of an eternal
home should be feared.
(e) Cyprian, De Lapsis, 28. (MSL, 4:501.)
Those who did not actually sacrifice in the tests that were
applied to Christians, but by bribery had procured certificates
that they had sacrificed, were known as libellatici. It was to
the credit of the Christian moral feeling that this subterfuge was
Nor let those persons flatter themselves that they need repent the less
who, although they have not polluted their hands with abominable
sacrifices, yet have defiled their consciences with certificates. That
profession of one who denies is the testimony of a Christian disowning
what he has been. He says he has done what another has actually committed,
and although it is written, "Ye cannot serve two masters" [Matt. 6:24], he
has served an earthly master in that he has obeyed his edict; he has been
more obedient to human authority than to God.
(f) A Libellus. From a papyrus found at Fayum.
The text may be found in Kirch, n. 207. This is the actual
certificate which a man suspected of being a Christian obtained
from the commission appointed to carry out the edict of
persecution. It has been preserved these many centuries in the dry
Egyptian climate, and is with some others, which are less perfect,
among the most interesting relics of the ancient Church.
Presented to the Commission for the Sacrifices in the village of Alexander
Island, by Aurelius Diogenes, the son of Satabus, of the village of
Alexander Island, about seventy-two years of age, with a scar on the right
I have at other times always offered to the gods as well as also now in
your presence, and according to the regulations have offered, sacrificed,
and partaken of the sacrificial meal; and I pray you to attest this.
Farewell. I, Aurelius Diogenes, have presented this.
[In a second hand.]
I, Aurelius Syrus, testify as being present that Diogenes sacrificed with
First year of the Emperor Caesar Gaius Messius Quintus Trajanus Decius,
pious, happy, Augustus, 2d day of Epiphus. [June 25, 250.]
(g) Cyprian, Epistula 80 (=82). (MSL, 4:442.)
The date of this epistle is 257-258, at the outbreak of the
Valerian persecution, a revival of the Decian. It was therefore
shortly before Cyprian's death.
Cyprian to his brother Successus, greeting. The reason why I write to you
at once, dearest brother, is that all the clergy are placed in the heat of
the contest and are unable in any way to depart hence, for all of them are
prepared, in accordance with the devotion of their mind, for divine and
heavenly glory. But you should know that those have come back whom I sent
to Rome to find out and bring us the truth concerning what had in any
manner been decreed respecting us. For many, various, and uncertain things
are currently reported. But the truth concerning them is as follows:
Valerian has sent a rescript to the Senate, to the effect that bishops,
presbyters, and deacons should be immediately punished; but that senators,
men of rank, and Roman knights should lose their dignity and be deprived
of their property; and if, when their property has been taken away, they
should persist in being Christians, that they should then also lose their
heads; but that matrons should be deprived of their property and banished.
Moreover, people of Caesar's household, who had either confessed before or
should now confess, should have their property confiscated, and be sent in
chains and assigned to Caesar's estates. The Emperor Valerian also added to
his address a copy of the letters he prepared for the presidents of the
provinces coercing us. These letters we are daily hoping will come, and we
are waiting, according to the strength of our faith, for the endurance of
suffering and expecting from the help and mercy of the Lord the crown of
eternal life. But know that Sixtus was punished [i.e., martyred] in the
cemetery on the eighth day of the ides of August, and with him four
deacons. The prefects of the city, furthermore, are daily urging on this
persecution; so that if any are presented to them they are punished and
their property confiscated.
I beg that these things be made known by you to the rest of our
colleagues, that everywhere by their exhortations the brotherhood may be
strengthened and prepared for the spiritual conflict, that every one may
think less of death than of immortality, and dedicated to the Lord with
full faith and courage, they may rejoice rather than fear in this
confession, wherein they know that the soldiers of God and Christ are not
slain, but crowned. I bid you, dearest brother, ever farewell in the Lord.
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