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from issue no. 04 - 2003

The first decree of persecution against the Christians

One thousand and seven hundred years after the great persecution

The first decree of persecution against the Christians made by the emperors Galerius and Diocletian was made in February 303. A decision dictated by fierce religious superstition. A paradox because, seen from the outside, the Roman Empire was already by then perceived as the empire of the Christians. For a decade the persecution seeded Christians but was also the cause of betrayal and splits within the Church. Even the Bishop of Rome, Pope Marcellinus, offered incense to the gods

by Lorenzo Cappelletti

Portrait of the emperor Diocletian, 
from Izmit, 4th cent. A.D. Archaeological Museum, Istanbul, Turkey

Portrait of the emperor Diocletian, from Izmit, 4th cent. A.D. Archaeological Museum, Istanbul, Turkey

At dawn on 23 February of 303 – the day of the Terminalia, the festival of “Jupiter of the frontiers” (Iuppiter Terminalis), that could well serve as symbolic occasion to get rid of the Christian faith once and for all – the Praetorian Guard raided and razed to the ground the Christian basilica of Nicomedia, the city where the emperors Diocletian and Galerius were dwelling at the time. That same day, or the day after, an edict was given out which decreed the destruction of the Christians’ places of worship and their sacred books; the expulsion from public appointments and the withdrawal of the right to defense against any kind of accusation whatsoever; the degrading of the most egregious Christians, who could thereafter be subjected to torture; and, as for Christian slaves, the impossibility of them ever being emancipated.
It was the beginning of the bloody persecution that for a decade not only seeded Christians but also caused betrayal and splits within the bosom of the Church (cf. Eusebius, Historia ecclesiastica VIII, 2-3), beginning with Rome, where Pope Marcellinus, as one reads set down in lapidary fashion in his official biography, ended by thurifying the pagan deities: «ad sacrificium ductus est ut turificaret, quod et fecit» (Liber pontificalis I, 162). Not for nothing does every believer beg every day in the Lord’s prayer: «et ne nos inducas in tentationem».
The one thousand and seven hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of this persecution, known as the great persecution or the persecution of Diocletian, got no mention in the cultural pages of the newspapers. And yet it’s not a matter of a minor episode lacking relevance for us moderns, “the first,” said Péguy, “after Jesus without Jesus”, who since we no longer catch the echo of the radical and mysterious struggle to which John’s ‘Apocalypse’ alludes, do not understand why faith in Jesus Christ should be hated and consider its persecution simply the outcome of primitive and barbarous customs or, at most, instrumental to other purposes. As we consider barbarous and/or instrumental, despite the facts, the conversion of Constantine.
We’ll make it our task to go over the issue. Making use of information provided by two writers contemporary with it, the Greek Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea of Palestine, and the rhetorician of the Latin language and culture Lucius Celius Firmianus Lactantius. Their standpoint is debatable since they wrote their historical works as champions of a Christianity by then victorious. But we are not interested in the more or less ideological and triumphalistic picture in which both include victors and vanquished, but rather in what actually occurred in the East between the 3rd and 4th centuries of which they were, at certain moments, eyewitnesses.

The mages
and the sign of the cross
Those who could not interpret a sheep’s liver or the flight of birds but could do so with happenings of the previous decade, may have imagined, well before this Kristallnacht of the 23 February, that the terminal solution was in preparation.
In the ’nineties of the previous century, in fact, there had been diverse purges of soldiers and imperial officials, although sporadic and without implications for the Christian faith, at least in appearance. These implications came to light just around the turn of the century when Caesar Galerius returned victorious from the second expedition against the Persians and swollen with pretension and the title of Persicus maximus, and through the decided influence of the caste of haruspices (the readers of omens). «Diocletian was in the East. Anxiously seeking, as was his wont, portents for the future, he sacrificed beasts and by examining the liver he sought to decipher the future. Some servants who were present at a ceremony and who knew the Lord signed their foreheads with the immortal sign [of the cross]. The evil powers were put to flight by this gesture and as a result the sacrifices were troubled. The haruspices were staggered at not finding in the entrails of the sacrificed victims the usual signs, and they several times began the sacrifice again, but the immolated victims continued not to offer omens. Until Tages, famous chief haruspex, either because he suspected or because he had seen something, declared that the sacred ceremonies were brought to nothing by the presence of profane men at the ritual sacrifices. In fury, Diocletian commanded that not only those appointed to the sacred ceremonies should offer sacrifice, but all those who were in the palace, and that they should be scourged if they offered resistance; with written dispatches to the commanders he ordered that the soldiers also should be obliged to perform the heinous sacrifices: those who disobeyed would be stricken from the army rolls» (Lactantius, De mortibus persecutorum, X).
As in many accounts of persecution ancient and modern the reasons may appear insufficient and therefore hard to credit: «It is difficult for those who have never known persecution, and have never known a Christian, to credit these accounts of Christian persecution», wrote Eliot in the VI chorus of The Rock (nowadays the ambition to resolve this difficulty in cultural terms arises from greater incredulity and in its turn fuels it). But a precedent comes in confirmation: the last generalized persecution of 257-58, that ordained by the emperor Valerian, who, as Diocletian was then to do, had gathered so many Christians round him that «his house was become a church of God [ecclesia theou]», says Eusebius (Historia ecclesiastica VII,10,3), was certainly determined by the fierce superstition of the adviser Macrian. Eusebius speaks of him thus: «His [Valerian’s] teacher [Macrian], who was the chief of the Egyptian mages, persuaded him to change course, induced him to kill and persecute those pure and saintly men, because they opposed and hindered the vile and repugnant incantations; there were in fact, and there are, nevertheless, Christians capable of foiling the designs of the heinous devils by their presence, by their gaze, by their breath only and by their voice. He suggested performing impure rites, abominable malignities, execrable sacrifices; cutting the throats of poor babes, immolating the children of unhappy parents, lacerating the entrails of the newly born, rending and cutting to pieces the creatures of God, as if he might attain happiness in that way» (Historia ecclesiastica VII,10,4).
So, around 300, measures aimed at cleansing the Palace and the army, motivated as fifty years earlier by fierce superstition, might well have signalled danger.

Other signs
But there had been signs even earlier. At the time of the first Persian war, in 297, Manicheism had been condemned and was to be punished most harshly, even by the beheading and burning of its leaders and writings, as «religio nova et inopinata» (Edict against the Manichees) and above all because «de Persica adversaria nobis gente progressa» (ibid.). This was the Manicheism that was later to fascinate Augustine. «The fact that Saint Augustine was for nine years auditor in the sect of Mani is proof that this heresy must have contained something very attractive that today for us, who know only a part of the anterior traditions gathered by Mani, is difficult to assess», Erik Peterson warns in conclusion of the corresponding entry in the Enciclopedia Cattolica . (A warning from a scholar of his calibre should advise us to assess Augustine’s relations – both with the Manichees of Rome [«amicitia eorum familiarius utebar quam caeterorum hominum qui in illa haeresi non fuissent»: Confessions V,10,19] and, later in Africa, with the Donatists, of whom he not was only the confuter but also an admirer [he respected Tyconius’s rules for interpretation of Holy Writ to the point of adopting them] – outside of a “schema of conversion”, because otherwise it turns out to be almost more difficult to credit accounts of conversion than those of persecution. Putting it in brackets, but not without a certain emphasis).
Now Christianity, although not such a nova religio and coming from a land not so hostile, had nevertheless come into being only recently in an eastern country, in Palestine, even then crucial. It could suffer the same fate.

Politics and economics
But one needs to add that the political and administrative reforms of the previous decade presaged nothing good themselves. Beginning with the fundamental constitutional reform of the Tetrarchy. From the early years of his rule Diocletian had associated with himself as Augustus, Maximian, a general and fellow Illyrian, though in subordinate position and giving him particular responsibility for the troublesome Gauls. The subsequent affiliation to the one and other respectively of Galerius and Constantius Clorus as Caesars, in 293, was to complete the tetrarchical reform meant to give the Empire more adequate government and unvexed succession. This reform, however, far from being a mere technical expedient, took on a highly ideological and religious character, as shown by William Seston in his classic Dioclétien et la tetrarchie, above all from when in 289, the first fateful Eighty-nine, Diocletian took the title of “familiar of Jove” (Jovius) and gave to Maximian that of “familiar of Hercules” (Herculius): their respective “sons” were also to be so known. The destinies of whom were bound up with the two Augusti by family ties, as well as by this “divine kinship”. It was because of this weaving of bonds that Constantius Clorus was forced to abandon Helena, the mother of Constantine, to wed the daughter of Maximian.
Group of Tetrarchs in porphyry, Venice, Doge’s Palace

Group of Tetrarchs in porphyry, Venice, Doge’s Palace

If, on the one hand, the chosen deities belonged to the traditional Roman pantheon, the “divine kinship” underpinning the constitutional system was not traditional. «This theocratic absolutism erected into a system and into true and proper ritual the marks of respect inherited from the eastern monarchies which had gradually entered into use and that culminated in the obligatory adoratio of the princes» (J. Moreau, La persecuzione del cristianesimo nell’Impero romano, p. 104). Paradoxically power in Rome (but Rome in reality had already been disqualified and abandoned as center of the Empire) behaved like those monarchies against which it exerted its greatest war effort. And the imitation of the symbolic apparatus was mutual. So it happened that Narseh, risen to power in Persia in 293, the very year in which Galerius and Constantius were elevated to Caesar, proclaimed himself “son” of the great Shahpur I.
The reorganization of the provinces and of the administration undertaken within the framework of the Tetrarchy, as well as the growing importance of the army, had made necessary a fiscal policy that, on the basis of the «principle of collective responsibility applied with iron rigor» (S. Mazzarino, L’Impero romano, II, p. 590), deprived citizens of even the species of freedom. The figure ordained for each administrative division had to be paid in any case by those belonging to the division. People were now assimilated and identified with the soil (we are at the origin of the servitude of the glebe): «a unit of labourers is equivalent, for tax purposes, to a taxable land unit; a poll of laborer-farmworker (caput) is equivalent to a unit of land surface workable by a laborer-farmworker (iugum). [...] The Roman Empire, ringed all about by enemies, come out of civil wars that were shaking its organism, was in this way disposed as a vast field of work, a worksite where a plebs rusticana hit by capitatio (which in principle never weighed on the city plebs) worked without rest on the maintaining of the Roman civilitas, worked to produce foodstuff for the annona militaris and for the civilis» (ibid., pp. 589-591).
Everything was in function of the maintaining of the standard of living won by the plebs of the great urban centers of the Empire and to the raising of that of an army quadrupled in numbers, so as to guarantee loyalty. At the cost, however, of rising inflation that led to the collapse of the currency and which the Edictum de pretiis of 301 did not even scratch. When the persecution began, the financial difficulties and the fiscal pressure that threw the poorest out on the street became worse.
One has to take this too into consideration when one comes to deal with the great persecution, because any serious economic crisis turns into a struggle for survival in which the sole governing principle becomes mors tua vita mea. Enough to be aware, in our day, of the way in which the grave slow-down in growth in Africa is not unconnected with the creations on that continent of forms of violence unknown in previous decades, not to speak of epidemics that, without need for biological warfare, are slaughtering whole peoples.
An unexpected persecution
Despite all of which the bloody persecution arrived unexpectedly.
Diocletian had been reigning since 284 and Christianity seemed to prosper even under his rule, thanks to an edict of 260, granted by Valerian’s son, Galienus, after his father had been captured in the war against the Parthians of Shahpur I and his skin, in the literal sense, was hung in their temple as a trophy. The edict had and did guarantee to Christianity a fully legitimate position perhaps already from that moment. So much so that, as Marta Sordi remarks, «in the East, romanization and Christianity went ahead, in some cases, side by side. And one can understand how [...] in the eyes of the easterner Mani, Christianity might seem the religion characteristic of the Roman world» (Il cristianesimo e Roma, p. 479). Mazzarino adds details that bring out the unsustainable contradiction of a «state of Christians with anti-Christian policy»: «The Chronicle of Seert was to say that “the Roman deportees [there was the bishop of Antioch Demetrian and some priests among those captured in one of Shahpur’s incursions] in Persia gained greater standing than in their own country and through their works Christianity made proselytes in the East”. The Roman Empire was thus in a paradoxical situation: constituted of Christians, above all in its eastern regions, it appeared the Empire of the Christians to those who looked at it from outside; and nevertheless its emperor was a persecutor. [...] Strange situation of a state of Christians (especially in its eastern portion) with anti-Christian policy» (L’Impero romano, II, 529).
As we have seen, however, up to 303 there had been nothing but the odd provision in the sphere of the army and Palace, and those not applied in any systematic way, if certain Christian officials such as Peter, Dorotheus, Gorgonius could enjoy the trust of the emperor and still be in his service in Nicomedia at the time the persecution broke out. Lactantius himself, who gives an account of it, came from Africa and landed up, on Diocletian’s invitation, in Nicomedia towards the end of 3rd century, and perhaps converted to Christianity precisely there, without thereby ceasing to lend his service as rhetorician in the imperial palace. It seems that even Prisca and Valeria, Diocletian’s wife and daughter, had sympathies with Christianity.
Furthermore the same first edict of the 23 February and the other dispositions given out during that year of 303, though increasing in harshness, did not institute the death penalty through the express wish of Diocletian.
But at a certain point, at the beginning of 304, all people everywhere were required, without distinction, to publicly perform a sacrifice and a libation to the gods on pain of death.
Why did things come to a head? Because politics, by their nature tending to compromise, and moderation, had had to give way to religious hostility. «The struggle thus took on a political significance, but only to the extent to which politics themselves became a religious fact» (M. Sordi, Il cristianesimo e Roma, p. 340). Diocletian, who had sufficient political sense to understand that persecution of the Christians would worsen the problems, had to bow to Galerius. The latter, victoriously returned from the Balkan front and then the eastern front, the only general to have managed to tame the Germani and the Parthians, the Empire’s enemies par excellence, was increasingly the strong man of the regime. It was thus the prevailing of Galerius, as our sources testify (cf. De mort. pers. XI and XIV; and Historia eccl. VIII, appendix), that led to the terminal challenge. It seems among other things that one must recognise he was behind two fires that broke out in Nicomedia and which led already, after the first edict, to the death of many local Christians, among them the bishop Antimus. Diocletian was not only a political victim of this activity but, becoming suspicious of everything and everybody, he fell prey to real brain sickness and abdicated the following year.
Was Galerius then to Diocletian what Macrian was to Valerian? In a certain sense yes. But alone he would have been no more than the plump energumen of whom the sources tell us. In reality he was himself under the influence of his fiercely superstitious mother and of a neo-Platonism by then reduced to theurgic practices that saw in the Christian faith its chief obstacle to the spreading of his magic. Against the Christians by Plotinus’ favourite disciple, Porphyry, had already prepared the ground for the persecution before the end of the 3rd century. The true discourses of Hierocles, in the same mould but a generation later, accompanied its taking place. Hierocles, for that matter, as governor first of Bithynia and then Egypt, was active not merely through his writings. And the same with the philosopher Theotechnos, appointed overseer in Antioch of Syria, and others. In Syria, Phoenicia, Palestine and Egypt and in the provinces of the Anatolian peninsula, they were hounding as executors of the edicts of persecution almost up to the peace of 313.
Saint Barlaam, victim of Diocletian’s persecution, is dragged before the altar, where to force him to sacrifice to the gods, the executioner puts burning charcoal and incense into his hand. But the saint resists the pain and doesn’t withdraw his hand. Illumination from the Menologe of Basil II.

Saint Barlaam, victim of Diocletian’s persecution, is dragged before the altar, where to force him to sacrifice to the gods, the executioner puts burning charcoal and incense into his hand. But the saint resists the pain and doesn’t withdraw his hand. Illumination from the Menologe of Basil II.

Pax romana and pax christiana
Peace is a topic to postpone. What we have to interest ourselves in here is only bloodshed, not least for obvious reasons of current history. But one thing must immediately be said. If Constantine’s conversion might seem the coming true of Origen’s dream of an overlapping of Church and Empire, of a welding together of pax romana and pax christiana in the pax constantiniana, the situation of the Christians in the other Empire, the Empire of the Parthians – because one must remember that there were Christians there and elsewhere, well beyond the confines of the Roman Empire, from the apostolic age onwards – was there as reminder of the illusory and tragic nature of the expectation. They were subjected to persecution that became more embittered in ratio to the success of Constantine’s pacification. In the previous century, as we have seen above, Christians coming from the Roman Empire had found on Persian soil conditions much more favorable than at home for the exercise and transmission of the faith. Now that romanization and Christianity were identified, the Christians were felt, and were in danger of feeling themselves, to be enemies, to the point of breaking off communion with the Church of Rome. From this point of view the organization of peace for all, in place of a policy made up of treaties, turned into a violent claim, the first effect of which was that of condemning some to persecution. In a recent contribution Raffaele Farina, the present Prefect of the Vatican Library, writes: «The organization of peace, then [4th century], instead of being a superstructure of the international order, as we may think it today [how out-of-date this statement of fact from less than two years ago!], was the task and prerogative of the universal state, the Roman Empire, to which, because of its ethical and religious nature, it was thought the destiny of the whole of mankind was entrusted. [...] That the Empire was not truly universal, in the sense that it did not materially embrace all the known world, was obvious to men at the time. Nevertheless, common opinion saw the Empire as the stronghold of civilization and the emperor as patron of all peoples. With Constantine claims were made for the theory that even the lands of the foederati belonged to the Empire. The organization of the world thus merged with that of the Empire. The organization of a pax romana, the only one that could then be conceived, thus gradually replaced the “system of treaties that Rome had built in the previous period and that had had as premise the establishment of a political superiority in function of activity to be directed towards the outside rather than the concern to maintain peace at any price that later became dominant”» (La concezione della pace nel IV secolo, in Chiesa e Impero. Da Augusto a Giustiniano, pp. 185-186).
But already at the beginning of the 5th century, on the eve of the proclamation of the Nicene faith as orthodoxy within the Roman Empire, this vision showed its contingent nature and «pax romana and pax christiana were to be counterposed. It would be Leo the Great to do so, not so much in hostility to the Rome of the past, but to the “new Rome”, Constantinople» (ibid., pp. 195).
Leo the Great was not the lone hero that so pleases the romantic and populist image of the popes and which his name might evoke, he was instead the expression of a faithful apprenticeship in which he was preceded, accompanied and followed by others. «Innocent I, Leo the Great, Gelasius are the three men who heaped up the stones of the freedom of the western Church, [...] the theological genius of Augustine squared off the stones» (H. Rahner, Chiesa e struttura politica nel cristianesimo primitivo, p. 105). Whether Roman, Tuscan or African, what bound these men and many others together in the 5th century was that they stood by the faith and the tradition of Rome (part of which were also the uneliminable ties with the Jewish community, as was respect for Roman legal culture and, paradoxically, the weaknesses of so many of its bishops). It was from there that they took the stones, it was from there that they learned to distinguish between the workings of nature and the workings of grace, between pax romana and pax christiana. The greatness of Augustine’s theology lies precisely in its being congruent to those stones, in not having gone in quest of the philosopher’s stone. That is why Innocent I and Celestine I, Leo and Gelasius felt it connatural and made it their own.
But we’ll hear each other another time on this.

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