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The Diocletian Persecution

The last great persecution was preceded by a number of laws aimed to annoy
the Christians. On March 12, 295, all soldiers in the army were ordered to
offer sacrifice. In 296 sacred books of the Christians were sought for and
burnt at Alexandria. In 297 or 298 Christian persecutions began in the
army, but the great persecution itself broke out in 303, as described
below. Among other reasons for energetic measures in which Galerius took
the lead, appears to have been that prince's desire to establish the unity
of the Empire upon a religious basis, which is borne out by his attempts
to reorganize the heathen worship immediately after the cessation of the
persecution. In April, 311, the edict of Galerius, known as the Edict of
the Three Emperors, put an official end to the persecution. In parts of
the Empire, however, small persecutions took place and the authorities
attempted to attack Christianity without actually carrying on
persecutions, as in the wide-spread dissemination of the infamous "Acts of
Pilate," which were posted on walls and spread through the schools. In the
territories of Constantius Chlorus the persecution had been very light,
and there was none under Constantine who favored Christians from the

Additional source material: Eusebius, Hist. Ec., VIII, and IX,
9; his little work On the Martyrs of Palestine will be found
after the eighth book. Lactantius, De Mortibus Persecutorum. The
principal texts will be found in Preuschen's Analecta, I, 20,
21; see also R. Knopf, Ausgewaehlte Maertyreracten.

(a) Lactantius. De Mortibus Persecutorum, 12 ff. (MSL. 7:213.)

The outbreak of the persecution.

A fit and auspicious day was sought for the accomplishment of this
undertaking [i.e., the persecution of the Christians]; and the festival
of the great god Terminus, celebrated on the seventh calends of March
[Feb. 23], was chosen, to put an end, as it were, to this religion,

"That day the first of death, was first of evil's cause" (Vergil),

and cause of evils which befell not only the Christians but the whole
world. When that day dawned, in the eighth consulship of Diocletian and
seventh of Maximianus, suddenly, while it was hardly light, the prefect,
together with the chief commanders, tribunes, and officers of the
treasury, came to the church [in Nicomedia], and when the gates had been
forced open they sought for an image of God. The books of the Holy
Scriptures were found and burnt; the spoil was given to all. Rapine,
confusion, and tumult reigned. Since the church was situated on rising
ground, and was visible from the palace, Diocletian and Galerius stood
there as if on a watch-tower and disputed long together whether it ought
to be set on fire. The opinion of Diocletian prevailed, for he feared
lest, when so great a fire should once be started, the city might be
burnt; for many and large buildings surrounded the church on all sides.
Then the praetorian guard, in battle array, came with axes and other iron
instruments, and having been let loose everywhere, in a few hours they
levelled that very lofty building to the ground.

Ch. 13. Next day the edict was published ordaining that men of the
Christian religion should be deprived of all honors and dignities; and
also that they should be subjected to torture, of whatsoever rank or
position they might be; and that every suit of law should be entertained
against them; but they, on the other hand, could not bring any suit for
any wrong, adultery, or theft; and finally, that they should have neither
freedom nor the right of suffrage. A certain person, although not
properly, yet with a brave soul, tore down this edict and cut it up,
saying in derision: "These are the triumphs of Goths and Samaritans."
Having been brought to judgment, he was not only tortured, but was burnt
in the legal manner, and with admirable patience he was consumed to ashes.

Ch. 14. But Galerius was not satisfied with the terms of the edict, and
sought another way to gain over the Emperor. That he might urge him to
excess of cruelty in persecution, he employed private agents to set the
palace on fire; and when some part of it had been burnt the Christians
were accused as public enemies, and the very appellation of Christian grew
odious on account of its connection with the fire in the palace. It was
said that the Christians, in concert with the eunuchs, had plotted to
destroy the princes, and that both the emperors had well-nigh been burnt
alive in their own palace. Diocletian, who always wanted to appear shrewd
and intelligent, suspecting nothing of the deception, but inflamed with
anger, began immediately to torture all his domestics.

(b) Eusebius, Hist. Ec., VIII, 2; 6: 8. (MSG, 20:753.)

The edicts of Diocletian.

The first passage occurs, with slight variations, in the
introduction to the work On the Martyrs of Palestine.

Ch. 2. It was in the nineteenth year of the reign of Diocletian, in the
month Dystus, 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 levelled to the ground, the Scriptures be
destroyed by fire, and all holding places of honor be branded with infamy,
and that the household servants, if they persisted in the profession of
Christianity, be deprived of their freedom.

Such was the original edict against us. But not long after other decrees
were issued, commanding that all the rulers of the churches everywhere
should be first thrown into prison, and afterward compelled by every means
to sacrifice.

Ch. 6:8. Such things occurred in Nicomedia at the beginning of the
persecution. But not long after, as persons in the country called Melitina
and others throughout Syria attempted to usurp the government, a royal
edict commanded that the rulers of the churches everywhere be thrown into
prison and bonds. 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
grave-robbers, 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 sacrificed, should be permitted to depart from the
prison 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 those in Africa and Mauretania, and Thebais and

(c) Edict of Galerius, A.D. 311. Eusebius, Hist. Ec., VIII. 17. (MSG,
20:792.) Cf. Preuschen, Analecta, I, 21:5.

This may also be found in Lactantius. De Mortibus Persecutorum,
ch. 34. It is known as the "Edict of Three Emperors," as it was
issued from Nicomedia in the name of Galerius, Constantine, and
Licinius. The date is April 30, 311. By it the persecution was not
wholly ended. Galerius died in the next month, but Maximinus Daza
resumed the persecution. There was for six months, however, some
mitigation of the persecutions in the East, granted at the request
of Constantine.

Amongst our other measures, which we are always making for the use and
profit of the commonwealth, we have hitherto endeavored to bring all
things into conformity with the ancient laws and public order of the
Romans, and to bring it about also that the Christians, who have abandoned
the religion of their ancestors, should return to sound reason. For in
some way such wilfulness has seized the Christians and such folly
possessed them that they do not follow those constitutions of the
ancients, which peradventure their own ancestors first established, but
entirely according to their own judgment and as it pleased them they were
making such laws for themselves as they would observe, and in different
places were assembling various sorts of people. In short, when our command
was issued that they were to betake themselves to the institutions of the
ancients, many of them were subdued by danger, many also were ruined. Yet
when great numbers of them held to their determination, and we saw that
they neither gave worship and due reverence to the gods nor yet regarded
the God of the Christians, we therefore, mindful of our most mild clemency
and of the unbroken custom whereby we are accustomed to grant pardon to
all men, have thought that in this case also speediest indulgence ought to
be granted to them, that the Christians might exist again and might
establish their gatherings, yet so that they do nothing contrary to good
order. By another letter we shall signify to magistrates how they are to
proceed. Wherefore, in accordance with this our indulgence, they ought to
pray their God for our good estate, for that of the commonwealth, and for
their own, that the commonwealth may endure on every side unharmed and
that they may be able to live securely in their own homes.

(d) Constantine, Edict of Milan, A. D. 313, in Lactantius, De
Mortibus Persecutorum, 48. (MSL, 7:267.) See also Eusebius. Hist. Ec.,
X, 5:2. (MSG, 20:880.)

The so-called Edict of Milan, granting toleration to the
Christians, is not the actual edict, but a letter addressed to a
prefect and referring to the edict, which probably was much
briefer. The following passage is translated from the emended text
of Lactantius, as given in Preuschen, op. cit., I, 22:4.

When I, Constantine Augustus, and I, Licinius Augustus, had happily met
together at Milan, and were having under consideration all things which
concern the advantage and security of the State, we thought that, among
other things which seemed likely to profit men generally, we ought, in the
very first place, to set in order the conditions of the reverence paid to
the Divinity by giving to the Christians and all others full permission to
follow whatever worship any man had chosen; whereby whatever divinity
there is in heaven may be benevolent and propitious to us, and to all
placed under our authority. Therefore we thought we ought, with sound
counsel and very right reason, to lay down this law, that we should in no
way refuse to any man any legal right who has given up his mind either to
the observance of Christianity or to that worship which he personally
feels best suited to himself; to the end that the Supreme Divinity, whose
worship we freely follow, may continue in all things to grant us his
accustomed favor and good-will. Wherefore your devotion should know that
it is our pleasure that all provisions whatsoever which have appeared in
documents hitherto directed to your office regarding Christians and which
appeared utterly improper and opposed to our clemency should be abolished,
and that every one of those men who have the same wish to observe
Christian worship may now freely and unconditionally endeavor to observe
the same without any annoyance or molestation. These things we thought it
well to signify in the fullest manner to your carefulness, that you might
know that we have given free and absolute permission to the said
Christians to practise their worship. And when you perceive that we have
granted this to the said Christians, your devotion understands that to
others also a similarly full and free permission for their own worship and
observance is granted, for the quiet of our times, so that every man may
have freedom in the practice of whatever worship he has chosen. And these
things were done by us that nothing be taken away from any honor or form
of worship. Moreover, in regard to the Christians, we have thought fit to
ordain this also, that if any appear to have bought, either from our
exchequer or from others, the places in which they were accustomed
formerly to assemble, and concerning which definite orders have been given
before now, and that by letters sent to your office, the same be restored
to the Christians, setting aside all delay and dispute, without payment or
demand of price. Those also who have obtained them by gift shall restore
them in like manner without delay to the said Christians; and those,
moreover, who have bought them, as well as those who have obtained them by
gift, if they request anything of our benevolence, they shall apply to the
deputy that order may be taken for them too by our clemency. All these
must be delivered over at once and without delay by your intervention to
the corporation of the Christians. And since the same Christians are known
to have possessed not only the places where they are accustomed to
assemble, but also others belonging to their corporation, namely, to the
churches and not to individuals, all these by the law which we have
described above you will order to be restored without any doubtfulness or
dispute to the said Christians--that is, to their said corporations and
assemblies; provided always, as aforesaid, that those who restore them
without price, as we said, shall expect a compensation from our
benevolence. In all these things you must give the aforesaid Christians
your most effective intervention, that our command may be fulfilled as
soon as may be, and that in this matter also order may be taken by our
clemency for the public quiet. And may it be, as already said, that the
divine favor which we have already experienced in so many affairs, shall
continue for all time to give us prosperity and successes, together with
happiness for the State. But that it may be possible for the nature of
this decree and of our benevolence to come to the knowledge of all men, it
will be your duty by a proclamation of your own to publish everywhere and
bring to the notice of all men this present document when it reaches you,
that the decree of this our benevolence may not be hidden.

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