Christian History Project. This site contains the text of 12 volumes on the history of mankind over the last 2,000 years written from a 'collectively-denominational' Christian perspective.

4. Diocletian |
Diocletian: the worst persecutor of them all

Diocletian is drawn from Chapter Four, beginning on page 95, of Volume Three, By This Sign of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

His deft reforms gave the empire one more century, but his sudden late-in-life turn against Christianity launched a decade of horror for the faithful

Diocletian - Diocletian: the worst persecutor of them all

Diocletian - Diocletian: the worst persecutor of them all
More than just natural aging registers in these two likenesses of the emperor Diocletian. The cares of nearly two decades at the helm of the Roman empire changed the vigorous, laurel-wreathed, idealistic, robust man (lower left) into a sad, perhaps disillusioned, version of himself (above).

It was a trial by the army; and even for the year 284, it was brief. The charge was murder of an emperor; and the verdict, announced in a raucous roar by the thousands of assembled troops, was guilty. All eyes now turned toward the judge, a tall, somber, intense man of forty, in the dress uniform of a top-ranking Roman officer. He rose, drew his sword, and raised it high. Swearing an oath to the god of the sun, he advanced upon the prisoner. With one thrust, he plunged the weapon deep into the man’s chest. Blood spewing with the last few spasms of his failing heart, the prisoner collapsed in a heap at the judge’s feet.

The cheer of the legions was deafening. “DIOCLES!” they thundered. “AUGUSTUS! AUGUSTUS!” And Diocles, or Diocletian as he restyled himself, dated his ascendancy to the imperial throne from that moment. He would be known to the Romans as the man who halted the disintegration of the imperial order, a disintegration that had been in process for fifty years. He would be known to history as the man who extended the life of that empire for another century. But he would be known to the Christians as the instigator and fastidious administrator of the worst persecution they would endure until the twentieth century.

Diocletian’s first rival now lay dead at his feet. The accused, Aper, had been prefect of the Praetorian Guard, charged with murdering the emperor Numerian–hardly remarkable, as it happened, since twenty-two of the last twenty-eight emperors had been killed by their own troops. But Aper had badly miscalculated. The troops preferred Diocletian. And anyway, had not the fate of the Praetorian prefect been foretold? Aper was the Latin word for “wild boar”; and had not a Druid priestess in Gaul prophesied years before that Diocletian would become emperor after spearing a wild boar? Why contest such inevitability?

Diocletian would give the empire a new constitution, revamp its civil service, reorganize its army, begin stabilizing its frontiers, and briefly rejuvenate its economy. Then, even more astonishing, having given the empire twenty years of stable government, he would leave office neither murdered nor killed in battle, nor even dead from natural causes. He would instead offer the unprecedented spectacle of a peaceful retirement, a retreat to his estate at Spalatum (modern Split in Croatia, see map page 131, D3), in his home province of Illyricum on the east coast of the Adriatic to content himself with raising prize cabbages.

But to the Christians, his name is blood-soaked. The Diocletian Persecution would strike the church like a tornado on a sunny day. Christians had enjoyed over forty years of official, if not social acceptance, ever since Gallienus’s Decree of Toleration in 261.

Saxons and Franks might sack the towns of Britain and Gaul, and Persians might annihilate Valerian’s army and plunder Antioch. But for at least a generation, Christians had been busy spreading the gospel, organizing charities, erecting beautiful churches, gradually penetrating society, and sometimes rising high in the army and civil service. In this process, they had largely acclimatized themselves to the pagan jungle in which they lived. A new generation of Christians grew up unmolested, arriving in the Diocletian era unconcerned about their safety. For the first eighteen or nineteen years of his twenty-one-year reign, he by and large left them alone, reflecting little or no hostility. Indeed, they saw him, as did most of his subjects, as Providence’s gift to their security and comfort. And with good reason. The boar-killer who became emperor was born, like most of the Christians, a man of humble beginnings, the son of a freedman, a former slave, on December 22, 244 (give or take a year), at Spalatum. He received little or no formal education, and like many of his fellow Illyrians, he early sought a career in the army. A bust found at his capital of Nicomedia (see map page 131, E3) shows a vigorous, wide-faced man, large-skulled, eyes set wide apart and watchful.

Illyricum was the Appalachia of the empire: rough and uncultured, but also the last repository of old-fashioned values–discipline, ambition, patriotism and traditional piety. During the third century, the Roman army had begun relying on the new mobile tactics of its cavalry. With this came the growth of a new corps of professional officers, the protectores, gradually taking over from the military amateurs of Rome’s senatorial class who had long provided the officer cadre. This caste was soon dominated by Illyrians, and that gave the rustics access to power. In 268, Emperor Gallienus was murdered by his cavalry officers, and a succession of short-lived, mostly Illyrian soldier emperors took over: Claudius, Aurelian, Probus and Carus. Each in his turn beat back new barbarian incursions, only to fall victim to his own officers.

Nothing is known of Diocletian’s career before 284, aside from his early posting as Dux Moesiae, commander of the major garrison on the lower Danube. But his subsequent career reveals his character: Though bold, restless and ruthless, he was no lover of war and violence. At work he was tireless, self-controlled though observably edgy. He was truly pious in a traditional, unquestioning way. Most important, he was ceaselessly wary, observant, ready to question supposed expertise, inexhaustible in deliberation, and a chronic planner. He mastered both the broad concept and all the details, especially the scope and workings of the diaphanous web of spies, informers and allies he wove throughout the empire. As a reliable officer, he quickly won the favor of the emperor Carus, who seized the imperium from Probus in 282. That led to command of the Protectores Domestici, the elite Household Cavalry, and in 283 to a consulship.

In 284, after briefly pacifying the Danube, Augustus Carus gambled on waging war against ever-threatening Persia. So he left his vicious elder son Carinus as caesar in the West, and at great risk to the other frontiers, marched an enormous army southeast, through Mesopotamia. With him was his bookish younger son, the caesar Numerian. Somewhere between the Tigris and Euphrates, Carus trounced the Persians. The great cities of Seleucia and Ctesiphon fell into his hands, and with them most of Persia west of the Iranian plateau.

Then Carus died, struck in his tent, it was said, by a lightning bolt. It was an age of suspicion, often well-founded. So, genuine accident or not, the effect of his death on the army was to arouse it. His son, the gentle Numerian, was dutifully proclaimed the next augustus. The young man’s life expectancy was brief, as he no doubt knew; and as the legionaries began a sad retreat home, they bore the reportedly ailing new emperor in a litter, under the questionable care of the Praetorian Prefect Aper. When the contingent reached Nicomedia, some soldiers rushed Numerian’s litter, found him dead within, and arrested Aper. The army council, carefully cultivated by Diocletian, nominated Diocletian the next emperor, and that was the end of the wild boar.

At that point, Diocletian was effectively emperor only of the army in Asia Minor and nearby provinces. Predictably, the Western caesar, Carinus, declared himself augustus, and denounced Diocletian as an upstart usurper. In May, 285, the Western and Eastern legions met at Margus, south of Belgrade, to settle the issue. At the battle’s crisis, Diocletian’s ranks were broken, and all seemed lost. But Carinus’s troops dropped their arms and declared support for his enemy when they learned their general was dead, stabbed through the throat by a staff officer whose wife he had seduced. Thus Diocletian became undisputed ruler of the Roman world.

Along with his other notable qualities, Diocletian was superstitious. The victory at Margus had been narrow indeed. The gods had given him their favor, but that could be easily lost. Unless he moved quickly to master the fickle army and break the whole bloody cycle of military sedition, he himself would soon fall its victim.

The problem was plain enough. Though it was a powerless anachronism, the Senate clung to the fiction that it alone could choose the princeps (First Citizen), the augustus. But the augustus would be most importantly commander in chief of the army, and the army had first say. As Carus’s sons had discovered, the army was no respecter of the dynastic principle. Further, the Rhine, Danube and Persian fronts each required the presence of an emperor and an imperial army. If a general were appointed to Gaul with the resources to pacify the Rhine, his success would inevitably encourage him to revolt.

Yet if the right general were given political eminence in advance of his victories, he might maintain his loyalty to the emperor. Everything would depend on the man to whom the authority was given.

Immediately, Diocletian adopted as his heir his fellow Illyrian and longtime comrade Maximian, seven years his junior. He made him caesar and commander in the West. This was a shrewd, well-reasoned choice. Maximian was the son of a Balkan tradesman, a general with an energetic, boorish, tough and domineering character; but he was full of fierce loyalty, not given to subtle intrigue. As the historian Gibbon noted, even his vices were useful: “Insensible to pity and fearless of consequences, he was the ready instrument of every act of cruelty which the prince might at once suggest and disclaim.” Maximian needed delicate handling, but he recognized Diocletian’s political wisdom, and his own lack of it. He was content to defer on matters of policy, and in return, Diocletian lavished on him all appropriate honors.

Maximian’s first test came quickly. The peasantry of northern Gaul revolted, driven to despair by yearly barbarian raids. These Bagaudae had sacked sixty towns. Then came the consequences–grievous depopulation and ad hoc “taxation” by passing legions. There was no glory in putting down such a ragged rabble, but through early 286, Maximian’s cavalry harried rebellious peasants along dark forest tracks and soggy valleys. The next summer, a real campaign began, this one against the source of the trouble, the Franks on the other side of the lower Rhine. For his success in subduing the Franks, Maximian became a full augustus, or co-emperor. Diocletian took the divine name of Jupiter, father of the gods, and labeled Maximian as Hercules, the god who labored on Jupiter’s behalf.

In general, Diocletian had chosen well in Maximian. Unfortunately, Maximian made a poor choice in one of his own subordinates. To counter Saxon pirates pillaging the English Channel ports, he appointed a competent Gaul, Carausius, as commander of the channel fleet. Backed by the fleet and three legions, Carausius declared for British independence, and announced himself as augustus of Britain. Lacking the means to challenge him and facing problems everywhere else, Diocletian for the moment acquiesced.

Franks, Burgundians and Alamanni pushed against the Rhine. The Kabyles raided western North Africa and Spain. The Persians once again took Armenia. Rebellion shook Alexandria and Carthage, threatening the empire’s all-important granaries. The restoration of the empire could be delayed no longer. In 293, Diocletian instituted a four-man rule. Each of the two augusti announced a caesar and successor. Maximian at Milan would control Italy, Africa and the Rhine-Danube headwaters. Under him, Constantius at Trier would have Gaul, Britain and the Rhine. In the East, Diocletian himself, based at Nicomedia (see map page 131, E3), would hold Asia and Egypt. His heir, Galerius, would control Illyricum and the Danube.

With this new tetrarchy, the empire’s constitutional problem seemed solved. As long as the two augusti “brothers” stayed friendly, they could always rein in a rogue caesar. And when the augusti retired, their successor “sons” would need only concord and prudence to pick competent and loyal new caesars–presumably the children of the newly retired augusti.

The choice of one of these caesars would prove pivotal. Constantius, surnamed Chlorus, was another Illyrian, brave and mild-tempered but with a sickly constitution. He strongly heeded the advice of his wife Helena, a former tavern keeper (not an entirely honorable trade), who in the early 270s had borne Constantius a son–by name, Constantine. Helena was friendly to Christianity, and though Constantius would divorce her to make a dynastic marriage, she would retain profound influence over their son, upon whom great events would soon turn.

The other caesar, Galerius, stood in shocking contrast. He had been a plowman in Illyricum, a huge man, brutal and ignorant, who habitually belittled and bullied those around him. If Diocletian thought he had in Galerius another Maximian, he possibly mistook boorishness for simplicity. Galerius’s only enduring loyalty was to his mother, Romula, a German born priestess of the mountain gods with a fanatical hatred of Christianity.

In the case of Diocletian and Galerius, the boundaries between the augustus’s and the caesars’s territories were hardly observed, with the less warlike elder employing his violent subordinate as his field commander. This enabled Galerius, over the next decade, to cultivate a decisive influence over Diocletian, with disastrous consequences to the Christians.

For the next five years, each of the four emperors had a fight going on every frontier, the two augusti supporting their caesars by sending in reserve troops whenever necessary. Constantius defeated incursion after incursion by the ravenous Alamanni, subdued the rebellious Frisians between the Scheldt and Rhine, and settled his prisoners of war in the depopulated tracts of Gaul. When the upstart Carausius was assassinated in Britain, Constantius invaded and brought Britain back into the imperial fold. Maximian crossed the Mediterranean, pacified northwest Africa and restored the imperial presence at Carthage.

For eight months, Diocletian besieged rebellious Alexandria; and when it fell, he punished the city until, as he had vowed, “the blood reached his horse’s knees.” The brutish Galerius bungled. He tackled the Persians in Mesopotamia and lost most of a legion, jeopardizing Diocletian’s confidence in him. But he went back the following year and butchered the great Eastern enemy in a night attack on the Euphrates, restoring Armenia as a Roman buffer state and himself to the augustan approval.

By 300, the tetrarchy had shown what the empire could still do. Its sovereignty was secure and united. The Rhine-Danube tribes, though not quite crushed, had been whipped into submission, and the Persians were reduced to a sulky peace. Popular civic rebellion had been shown to be hopeless and military rebellion suicidal, all in sharp contrast to the preceding fifty years.

Any sustained recovery of the empire would have been impossible, however, without real constitutional reform, reaching down to the hundreds of great and small cities and their all-important agricultural districts. In the previous century, the empire’s municipalities had become impotent, and its huge provinces ungovernable. Wealthy provincial aristocrats fled the impoverishing demands of civic government; governors were wholly absorbed in defense. Taxation was accomplished by military pillaging; and in some areas, Roman law and peace was but a memory. Diocletian, quietly ignoring the venerable Senate, methodically replaced the old Roman governance of aristocratic amateurs with the rule of professional bureaucrats.1

After fifteen years, Romans awakened to the fact that the imperial government had been transformed. There were now a civil administration (called the militia) and a military administration (the militia arma). The forty-three old provinces had been subdivided into 120 smaller ones, ruled by presidents and grouped into twelve “dioceses,” overseen by vicars general.

All this allowed Rome’s cultured nobility to pursue professional careers without pretending to be warriors while energetic, uneducated Illyrians and barbarians could rise in the army without wrecking the civil administration and without gaining unfettered access to state revenues. The judicial and tax codes were standardized, and the provincial courts and finances were held strictly accountable (in theory, at least) to their dioceses.

The northern tribes were subdued because they had been stymied. Diocletian abandoned the old forward defense–in which the legions met the barbarian marauders on the frontier and avenged their raids with punitive counter-raids–and instead developed a defense in depth. Frontier legionary camps were replaced with great stone fortresses–the prototypes of medieval castles–to channel any tribal incursions into predetermined routes, hemmed in by a hundred-mile-deep band of fortified towns. Raiders would be harried by cavalry reserves–including the new, heavily armored lancers, ancestors of the medieval knights, until they either surrendered or were broken up into small bands of starving fugitives.

Economic problems proved much tougher to solve. For a century, the imperial coinage had been continually debased, causing runaway inflation. So the emperor closed the local mints and introduced new coins: the gold aureus and the copper folle. To resolve labor dislocation, Diocletian instituted what amounted to compulsory nepotism, decreeing that select occupations must henceforth be hereditary, that civil servants, soldiers, sailors, bakers, other tradesmen and especially farmers, must bequeath their jobs to their sons, all carefully identified and enumerated in the Great Census of 290. This legally tied tenant farmers and their sons to their land, prefiguring medieval feudalism.

For better or worse, these changes endured. One policy that failed for Diocletian (and would fail again under other leaders) was price control. His soldiers had lobbied him unceasingly for relief from continued inflation, so in a stern edict of 301, he set maximum prices on a wide range of commodities, under the threat of death. The result was predictable. In places where market prices were lower than the maximum, they jumped; where they were already higher, commodities vanished from the shelves and reappeared on the black market. Within a few years, the edict was allowed to lapse.

The hostile Christian historian Lactantius would later describe, acidly, the effect of Diocletian’s reforms. There were “more tax collectors than taxpayers,” he lamented, while “endless exactions from the provinces” financed the tetrarchy’s building spree in the new capitals of Trier, Milan, (see map page 131, C3), Sirmium (see map page 131, D3), and especially Nicomedia, where Diocletian “continually tried to match the city of Rome in magnificence.”

Farmers found conditions increasingly oppressive. Peace had been purchased at the price of prosperity. Diocletian brought stability; but in the following century, the civil service grew to thirty thousand officials, while the army doubled to 635,000. Moreover, ordinary citizens realized something was missing. What was the purpose of it all? What was the empire for? Those were spiritual questions, and the empire was spiritually bankrupt. To fill this void, the ever-practical Diocletian had himself declared Dominus, meaning “Lord.” He draped himself in purple, shod himself with jeweled slippers, wore a sacred diadem, and allowed his subjects to approach him only through an interminable hierarchy, and then to prostrate themselves when finally in his presence.

All this failed to accomplish its purpose. The void was still there, and Diocletian, who privately scoffed at all the hollow pomp, knew it. Even so, he took the old gods seriously. During the sack of Alexandria, when his horse slipped on the bloody cobbles and smeared its knees, he ordered an immediate halt to the carnage, as he had sworn to do (the wry Alexandrians later erected a bronze statue to his horse). In Egypt, he ordered books on alchemy and magic burned. He outlawed Manichaeism in 297 as a “Persian” superstition, burning both its books and its leaders. He became a champion of marital fidelity, issued a noble edict on marriage, thundering to his subjects that chaste and pious homes would bring the gods’ favor on Rome, while domestic vice, particularly incest, would attract divine vengeance.

The element in the populace best fulfilling this high rectitude was, obviously to many, the Christians. For most of his reign, Diocletian sustained the Roman tolerance of Christianity that had been decreed by Gallienus when he ended the Decian and Valerian persecutions. Indeed, a Christian influence pervaded Diocletian’s immediate family. His wife Prisca and daughter Valeria were known to favor the new faith. Peter, a trusted chamberlain in the imperial household, was a Christian, as were senior court financial and administrative officers like Adauctus and Gorgonius; like Lactantius, the future historian and Latin tutor in his court; like Dorotheus–a presbyter and a eunuch–the emperor appointed superintendent of the imperial dye works; and Philoromus, a senior functionary in Alexandria.

The Christians, with some complications involving a “Trinity” that Diocletian did not pretend to understand, worshiped One God. Traditional Roman religion was moving that way, singling out Sol (the sun) as god and reinterpreting Jupiter and other traditional political gods as divine emanations of the One Sol. The centrist Diocletian could see the sense in that; and under that schema, Christians could be regarded as worshiping the One God too, with their Jesus just another emanation like Jupiter.

Then, too, some nineteen years earlier, after his hairbreadth victory at Margus, Diocletian had sensed a divine mission. He must put things right, the gods had told him. Relatively speaking, things were right–on the frontiers and in the provinces anyway. But at home, in the soul of the empire, there was a void.2 Things were plainly not right with the gods. Somehow, for a reason that has never been clear, Diocletian became convinced that the way to placate the gods was to exterminate the Christians. The result was the Great Persecution, the Age of Martyrs that many would see as the worst Christian ordeal since Good Friday.

It would last for ten years, 303 to 313, and historians ever since have tried to account for it. They discern three general causes. The first they describe as cultural. Diocletian’s was an era of orderliness. The old slogans on the imperial coinage–concordia and libertas–were replaced by a new one: disciplina. Into this new era of centrally directed imperial discipline, the Christians never quite fit. Though they made fine soldiers, for instance, they resisted military oaths that carried pagan implications. Obviously, those in charge declared, discipline must be more sternly applied.

The second cause was personal–the violent Galerius, whose pagan priestess mother had bequeathed to him her venomous loathing of the Christians. The third lay within the church itself. Years of comfort had softened it. “As always happens when there is an abundance of liberty, our lives became indolent and careless,” wrote the Christian historian Eusebius, who survived imprisonment in the Great Persecution. “We envied one another and did harm to our brethren. . . . Pretense and damned hypocrisy seemed to reach the limit of their evil height. . . . Those who were supposed to be our pastors disdained divine piety and inflamed their hearts in contests with one another.”

There had been a noticeable relaxation of the old Christian rules. Christians now attended the brutal games they had once shunned. Many intermarried with pagans. No great Christian leaders of the stature of Origen, Dionysius, or Cyprian had appeared in forty years. Pagan intellectuals like Porphyry and Hierocles wrote highly influential rants against Christianity; and little attention was paid to Christian attempts to reply to them. When Diocletian gave the order to persecute the Christians, it had some eager supporters; and many devout Christians saw behind it the hand of God himself.

The persecution began with a purge of the armed forces. During his campaign in 286, Maximian demanded that his Theban Legion, which had many Christians, swear a pagan oath in preparation for the fight against the Gallic Bagaudae, many of whom were Christian. The legion’s Christian commander, Maurice, and some of his officers who were also Christian, refused the oath. The result was a mass martyrdom (see sidebar, page 107). The legion was disbanded, and a purge of the entire army followed.

Diocletian’s personal suspicion of a subversive Christian influence in the army had begun with an incident in the East several years before. He was attending a ritual sacrifice of animals from whose entrails his pagan priests were supposed to foretell the future. Some Christian court officials made the sign of the cross on their foreheads, and the chief priest, who had been unable to foretell anything, blamed his failure on the presence of profane persons. They were displeasing to the gods, he said. An angry Diocletian commanded everyone present to sacrifice immediately under pain of flogging, and ordered that all soldiers in his army should sacrifice or be cashiered. Many chose to be ousted. It seemed, at first, that the matter ended there. “Diocletian offended no further,” writes the Christian historian Lactantius.

But it did not end there. That same year, a centurion named Marcellus refused to burn incense in honor of Augustus Maximian’s birthday. He flung down the marks of his rank and declared, “I am a soldier of Jesus Christ! If being a soldier means sacrificing to gods and emperors, behold, I cast away my staff and belt and refuse to serve!” He was condemned to die by the sword for his refusal. Witnessing his trial, the court secretary, a Christian named Cassian, threw down his pen, declared the sentence unjust, and was himself executed.

Two years later, Galerius undertook to purify the legions under his command. His chief personnel officer, Veturius, ordered all soldiers to sacrifice or to face a reduction in rank or dishonorable discharge; the latter entailed the loss of veteran status and economic ruin. In the West, not wanting to be outdone by the younger Galerius, Maximian imitated the order. Many Christian soldiers resisted and paid with their lives, writes Eusebius–not because they were Christians, however, but for insubordination. What had changed was the enforcement of oaths that had been long relaxed to accommodate Christians who otherwise made excellent troops.

Soon, however, the impatient Galerius found that purification of the army was progressing too slowly. In the West, the moderate Constantius wasn’t enforcing it at all. The problem, Galerius well realized, was Diocletian himself, who felt that wholesale bloodshed would interfere with orderly government. Diocletian passed the winter of 302—303 at the palace in his beloved Nicomedia, and Galerius joined him there. They remained closeted for weeks. Galerius badgered unceasingly, and the cautious Diocletian was “unable to break down the obstinacy of that furious man,” writes Lactantius. Galerius “wanted all those who refused to sacrifice to be burned,” but Diocletian held firm to moderation. There would be a general persecution, but no deaths.

Thus came the First Edict of February 24, 303: Christians refusing to sacrifice would be stripped of political privileges and tortured. Their churches would be demolished, their meetings forbidden, and their sacred books burned.

The church in Nicomedia was visible from Diocletian’s palace, and the day before publication of the First Edict was the feast of the old Roman god Terminus, guardian of the field boundaries. That was a symbolic opportunity too good to be missed, so the emperors turned the household troops loose a day early. Bursting into the church, “they burned all the books of Scriptures they could find and ravaged and looted everything,” Lactantius records. “Diocletian and Galerius were watching all this from a high window.”

A Christian known as John, finding the posted edict, tore it down and shredded it. For this bravado he was arrested, tortured over a slow fire, and then burned to death. The record of his identity is sketchy, perhaps because Christian leaders at the time generally did not approve of such open defiance. Conscious that most of their flocks were not ready to die martyrs’ deaths, they urged them to remain calm, and either hide or flee.

But Galerius was not satisfied. To him, the edict was not forceful enough, the persecution not intensive enough. Christians still openly worshiped. They still seemed everywhere present. More needed to be done. Diocletian refused, until what became known as the incident of the fires changed his mind. A few days after the publication of the First Edict, part of Diocletian’s palace burned down. Only circumstantial evidence connects the edict with the fire, but Galerius certainly made the connection, accusing the Christians of plotting with palace servants. Terrified, the old augustus ordered an investigation of his household, with the free use of torture and his personal presence at the interrogation. Galerius’s servants were excused from questioning.

Then, a few days later, the palace caught fire again. Galerius “had not stopped inflaming the madness of the unthinking old man,” Lactantius writes. Galerius thereupon left the palace and Nicomedia. He was fearful, he said, of these Christians; and he took his servants with him.

Diocletian, more terrified still, fell into a paroxysm of rage. His wife Prisca and daughter Valeria, friendly to Christians, were immediately given the choice of sacrificing to the gods or dying. They sacrificed and lived. The trusted chamberlain Peter did not, but died slowly and terribly. The Christian record of his death says that he was whipped until his bones protruded. Still conscious, he felt his torn flesh doused with vinegar and salt. His limbs were roasted over a stove, one small part at a time. “He conquered these dreadful torments,” records Eusebius, “and gave up his spirit without once being shaken in fortitude.” When the servants Dorotheus and Gorgonius protested Peter’s treatment, they were ordered to sacrifice. They refused and were immediately beheaded. Lactantius, the court’s Latin tutor and future Christian historian, was expelled.

Once the dam broke, there was no holding back the flood. Nicomedia’s Bishop Anthimus was beheaded. Priests and ministers were executed with their whole families. People were bound together in groups and cast into huge fires. Slaves were flung into the sea with stones around their necks. The bodies of earlier martyrs were exhumed and dumped into the sea. Altars to the gods and incense burners were set up, not only in the temples but also in the law courts, to sift the population. Those who would sacrifice were spared; those who refused were doomed.

This ferocity did not immediately extend much beyond the emperor’s range of view. But Diocletian soon sent formal orders to his fellow augustus, Maximian, and the Western caesar Constantius, to follow his example. Maximian dutifully intensified his efforts; Constantius restricted his to the destruction of a few churches; the sacred Scriptures he is said to have left alone. Still, the junior caesar had to promulgate the order, even without pressing for its execution; so a few of his more zealous governors harvested some isolated martyrs.

The First Edict was directed primarily at the Scriptures, and while the ensuing book-burning was not complete, it was extensive. That’s why no complete edition of the Bible today dates earlier than the fourth century, though portions and fragments of the New Testament go back to the early second (see earlier volume, A Pinch of Incense, page 34). For generations after, Christians would distinguish the persecution’s first phase, “the days of surrender of the books,” from the second, “the days of incense burning.” Anyone who obeyed the order to surrender the Scriptures, fell into the category of traditor, traitor. Many, however, foiled the edict, hiding the rolls or carrying them to distant places. Some women made this their special work.

In the village of Abitina, not far from Carthage, Bishop Fundanus handed over the Scriptures, but a number of Christians, including some Carthaginian visitors, continued to meet in secret for the Eucharist, celebrated by the aged priest Saturninus. One day, the police surprised about fifty of them, including eighteen women and at least one boy, Hilarianus. One by one, they were stretched on a rack and their flesh torn by iron hooks, the blood of each mingling with that of those who had gone before. And when the boy Hilarianus was seized, he cried cheerfully, “Do what you like; I am a Christian.” Though one, Felix, is known to have died from flogging, the fate of the rest remains unknown. They are presumed to have succumbed to their wounds immediately or in prison. When the Christians’ host was asked why he had allowed Christians in his house, he replied, “They are my brethren and came to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, without which we cannot live.”

Not surprisingly, however, where the First Edict was strictly applied, many, possibly most, Christians either did not resist it or circumvented it. The clever Bishop Mensurius of Carthage replaced all his sacred Scriptures with heretical works and then obligingly ushered the officials into his library to destroy them. Bishop Donatus of Calama slyly handed in a stack of medical treatises. But beginning the persecution with Scripture burning might have been almost diabolically calculated to compromise the flabbier consciences of those tempted to dismiss the order as pertaining not to a test of faith, but rather to a matter of “mere books.”

In one well-documented case, the magistrate of Cirta (see map page 130, B4) in North Africa showed up at the door of its Bishop Paul, demanded all his sacred writings, and thus provoked a round of obstruction by the ecclesiastical hierarchy. The bishop said three or four presbyters kept the books. The presbyters said a half-dozen deacons and subdeacons were in charge of them. These in turn referred the magistrate to the four or five lectors who actually held most of the volumes. No one was particularly cooperative, but when the officials were done, they had seized thirty-five volumes–a treasure in the days when books were hand-copied.

In mid-303, there were minor military mutinies in Cappadocia (or western Armenia) and Syria. Diocletian crushed them without discrimination–all the magistrates of Antioch and Seleucia lost their heads, regardless of their religion. But the emperor, still excited by the double arson of his Nicomedian palace, also saw the hand of Christianity in these new troubles, and concluded that the persecution must be intensified. This time, he would attack the church’s organization. The Second Edict, issued that year, required that all officials of the Christian church be jailed.

“Everywhere numberless people were imprisoned,” said Eusebius, speaking of the Eastern provinces he knew so well. “Jails built for murderers were so full of bishops, priests, deacons, lectors and exorcists that there was no longer any room for common criminals. . . . No one can say how many suffered martyrdom.” Shortly thereafter, once all the jails were filled, the palace issued the Third Edict, decreeing that Christian bishops, priests and deacons could be freed only if they sacrificed to the traditional gods, and they should be tortured if they refused.

The aged Bishop Philip of Heraclia in southern Thrace, the southern Balkans, had watched his church sealed in response to the First Edict but had continued to preach to his flock sitting on its steps, encouraging them to prepare for worse to come. Bassus, Thrace’s prefect, had a wife who “had served God for some time,” but orders were orders, so he had Philip seized and tortured together with his loyal priest Severus and deacon Hermes. Wherever the ancient bishop was imprisoned, however, crowds of Christians gathered, once even tunneling into his cell for instruction, while the prefect Bassus looked the other way. After seven months, though, Bassus was replaced by the less lenient Justinus, who transferred the three to Adrianople, where the old bishop was first flogged until his bowels were exposed, and then burned to death with the two others.

Not by any means, however, did all clergy stand so resolutely. “I will not mention those who failed the test of persecution, those who made a shipwreck of their salvation,” writes Eusebius. Indeed, a “large number” surrendered. As a longtime resident of Syria and Palestine, Eusebius would have known well the twenty bishops of Palestine; but he does not mention any being martyred. What attitude to take toward “the lapsed” would divide the Christians after the persecution. Should they be readmitted? If so, subject to what conditions? The answers were to prove deeply divisive.

In September 303, Diocletian began his twentieth year of rule, an extraordinary achievement when the average reign of his half-dozen immediate predecessors had been under three years. To mark this anniversary, he agreed to hold his triumphal celebration in Rome, although it was a city he loathed. The procession, November 20, was impressive, marking victories on all the borders of the empire, from Persia and Africa to the Rhine and Britain, complete with trophies, shuffling captives and marching veterans.

But the purple-draped, bejeweled Diocletian was visibly unenthusiastic. The inevitable games in the circus proved to be less garish than expected. The emperor had stinted on them; the crowd knew it, and let him know. A curious incident is recorded of his visit–how reliably, historians dispute. A comedian named Genesius was entertaining a crowd of dignitaries, including Diocletian. In one part of his act, he staged a mock baptism, intended to ridicule the Christians. At this command performance, however, something went wrong. He emerged from the “baptism” act startled and bewildered, then abruptly announced that he had indeed become Christian. The crowd at first chuckled, thinking it part of the act. Rapidly, however, it became evident that Genesius was dead serious. Outraged, Diocletian ordered him tortured and beheaded.3

Perhaps this was the incident that threw him into a deeper depression. He dreaded the week-long, midwinter orgiastic feast of the Saturnalia that was just ahead. A week before the feast, without warning and heedless of the weather, he fled Rome for Ravenna in a litter. Some said he had gone mad. By the end of his eight-month journey back to Nicomedia, he had contracted a chronic disease, and reached his palace gravely ill.

Meanwhile, the furious Galerius was wielding the highest authority in the empire. His wish was now Rome’s command, and he fervently wished the annihilation of Christianity. The Fourth Edict, issued in the spring of 304, was manifestly Galerius’s, and designed to pummel Christianity out of existence. All Christians of any age, sex or rank were obliged to sacrifice to the gods. In the whole empire, there must be no one who could not produce, on demand, a certificate stating that he had made the sacrifice that faithful Christians abhorred. The heavy bureaucratic efficiency built by Diocletian now fell into Galerius’s ready hand. Police squads with census rolls cordoned off city blocks, calling out the inhabitants by name and marching them off to the temple to burn a little pinch of incense.

How thoroughly it worked, how many were martyred, how many lapsed, how many somehow escaped the test, how many defiantly continued to preach the gospel–all this is left to be guessed. Nobody was counting. Many bought faked certificates or sent their slaves to sacrifice for them. Flight may have seemed pointless when the Roman Empire covered almost the whole known world, but many fled to the deserts, forests and mountains, often to die there. Others escaped to Armenia or the nominally Roman territory on the upper Tigris, where they were well received. The administration tortured, executed or consigned those they caught to the mines by the hundreds, to a total, over ten years, in the thousands.

The territory of the moderate Constantius–Gaul, Britain and the Rhineland–was another partial refuge. Imperial edicts were still the law there, but the junior emperor showed little enthusiasm for them. Some Christians were undoubtedly martyred, but few enough that there is almost no reliable history, neither from later Christian historians nor from the normally voluminous court transcripts of the times. Ironically, the West was the one area where the empire might have been able to eradicate the church. Christians were few there, one person in five or even one in ten. Because many of these were in the army or civil service, it would have meant officers and judges singling out often well-respected colleagues; most neglected to do it.

In Maximian’s Italy, Sicily, and Africa, the persecution bogged down for another reason: bureaucratic procrastination. Christianity was still in part an upper-class phenomenon, so again friends were in no hurry to annihilate friends. Still, some had no friends in high places–like the twelve-year-old Agnes and the gallant soldier Sebastian in Rome, the Sicilian martyrs Agnes and Lucy, and the African girls Maxima, Donatilla and Secunda. All these perished and their names now grace churches all over the world.4

In the East, where the church had been spreading much longer, it was much more rooted in the dispossessed and rebellious agricultural population, making it easy to persecute, but impossible to destroy. There was a little town in Phrygia, for instance, where even the magistrates were Christians. After refusing to sacrifice, they fled to their church. Roman officials dispensed justice by burning it down with the agonizing Christians trapped inside. On the other hand, the bustling city of Edessa had only three martyrs because there were so many Christians in its civic government.

Egypt’s Christians were particularly hard hit, since that province had recently mutinied and been subdued, and the imperial machinery was still in place to launch a crackdown. “There, thousands and thousands of people, men with their wives and children, despising temporal life according to the teaching of our Savior, suffered all sorts of death,” records the eyewitness Eusebius. “After enduring the iron hooks, the racks, the whips and other torments innumerable, they were consigned to the flames or drowned in the sea. Others bravely offered their heads to the executioners, or died from torture or hunger; some were crucified like criminals.”

Yet throughout the Eastern empire, Christians had been relatives, neighbors, shopkeepers and customers of pagans for two hundred years; and many pagans did their best to protect those they could. Athanasius, destined to become bishop of Alexandria and to play a decisive role in the Christian story, was a child in those days. He later recalled hearing his parents speak of pagans who hid Christians, who saw their own goods confiscated, and went to prison rather than betray them. Except in particular cases of envy or spite, the general population does not seem to have taken much part in the persecutions.

Magistrates had great leeway in how they handled Christians, and many opted to break spirits rather than bodies. They would torture, but in small doses over long periods, sending their victims home in between. Or they would care for the wounds of today that they might be more painful when reopened tomorrow. One such magistrate boasted that in many years in office, he had not executed a single Christian, but had always succeeded in breaking their constancy.

To enhance their records, some judges would sometimes claim false victories. The accused would proclaim his faith, while his friends shouted him down, and assured the magistrate that he had already sacrificed. Sometimes scuffles would take place between Christians and their friends, and the magistrate would record the loudest shouts as proving the accused’s apostasy from Christianity. Sometimes, Christians would deny all recognition of the court by maintaining silence; and a well-meaning neighbor would suddenly recall their having sacrificed–duly recorded and no retractions permitted. Sometimes, the soldiers in the court would strike Christians on their mouths repeatedly until they could not answer, and when they could not deny that they had sacrificed, they were tossed out onto the street.5

Not everyone embraced death unresisting. In Gaza, one Valentina had been watching one of her sisters, another vowed virgin, being tortured with iron hooks, and was inspired to tell the judge what she thought of him. When she refused his order to sacrifice, he had her dragged to the altar, only to watch her upend the altar and the tripod holding the fire. She was then ordered burned to death. Similarly, Edesius of Caesarea in Palestine, after watching another group of Christian matrons and virgins being consigned to the brothels, went up to the judge and began kicking and punching him–a satisfaction that quickly earned him excruciating torture and death by drowning.

Meanwhile, after Diocletian’s long trip from Rome, he had remained cloistered in his palace. “At times he was actually insane,” observes Lactantius. In early 305, he was at last seen at his window, so altered in his appearance by illness that he was recognized only with difficulty. By then, Galerius was fully in charge, the forces at his command larger than the combined forces of Maximian and Constantius in the West. In the expected event of Diocletian’s retirement, Galerius warned Maximian in a letter, Maximian would be expected to retire as well.

Finally, in April 305, that day drew near. The blustering Galerius appeared before the man who had made him caesar. He pointed out, for Diocletian’s enlightenment, his patron’s advancing years and disabilities, the loss of his physical strength and power of command, and the fact that Maximian would resign rather than risk civil war with him, Galerius. So why not retire now?

Diocletian, shocked but shrewd as ever, objected. If he resigned, there were many who would seek vengeance against him for his past wrongs. However, he proposed, if he made both of the present caesars, Galerius and Constantius, into full augusti, then perhaps he could enjoy a tranquil retirement. Galerius firmly rejected this counteroffer. He was not prepared to spend another fifteen years fighting barbarians in Persia and on the Danube, he insisted angrily, simply to remain the least important of the four emperors.

This response truly horrified Diocletian. After all his work, here was Galerius, actually threatening to return the empire to anarchy. Maximian had already written him, warning him of Galerius’s military buildup. And now, here he was. The old man burst into tears and agreed to do whatever Galerius wanted.

What Galerius wanted made Diocletian weep more copiously yet. Galerius asked that he, in Nicomedia, and Constantius, far off in Gaul, would become the new augusti. However, by the unwritten rule of the tetrachy, Maximian’s son Maxentius (married to Galerius’s daughter) should have become Constantius’s caesar, and Constantius’s son Constantine, Galerius’s. But Galerius already had his candidates for the two new caesars: his own general Severus, loyal only to himself, to wine and to debauchery, would become Constantius’s caesar in Italy; Galerius’s great brute of a nephew, Daia, would become Galerius’s caesar in Asia.

When Diocletian saw Galerius’s choices for his caesars, the decrepit emperor was uncontrollably distraught. The old man had made his mistakes–the biggest being the attempted destruction of the Christians. However, it was with genuine patriotism that he had restored the Roman Empire to stability and unity. Now his own choice for a successor was going to overturn everything he had accomplished. “I’ve worked long and hard to keep the empire together,” he pleaded pathetically. “If things go wrong now, the fault will be all yours.”

The changeover took place in May 305. Very much against their wills, Maximian abdicated in Milan, and Diocletian in Nicomedia. The teary-eyed old augustus spoke weakly to his soldiers about age and weariness, passing on the burden, and so forth. Then, much to the surprise of the army–it being fond of young Constantine–Galerius came forward with besotted Severus and brutish Daia as the next caesars, and threw the purple over them. Constantine, a longtime unofficial hostage in Diocletian’s court and now in imminent danger, watched impassively from the back of the stage. Then, the old emperor was lifted into his coach and driven off to retirement among his famous cabbages, at his palace at Split.

Since Maximian had always obeyed the senior augustus Diocletian, this new tetrarchy marked the first real division of the empire into East and West. But to Galerius, it was unthinkable that the augustus of the wealthier, more populated and militarily stronger East should obey his nominal superior, Constantius. So from 305, while the persecution of Christians virtually ended in Constantius’s West, it became even more ferocious in Galerius’s, and especially in Daia’s East.

Daia labeled himself Maximin, “the Greatest,” and helped himself to what he considered the due fruits of office. These began with women. According to the Christian Lactantius, he introduced a “custom” whereby virgins within range of his vision could marry only with his permission, and he then skimmed off the most attractive, presenting them to his slaves when he was done with them. High-born women he requested as gifts, and some pagan officials committed suicide rather than face the humiliation of handing over their wives. And he allowed his officers, most of them barbarians, the same privileges.

Daia was particularly violent against the church in Palestine and Egypt. Apparently, he simply enjoyed inflicting suffering. He issued edicts in 306, 307 and 309, ordering ever-increasing pressures on the church, even to the point of ordering food sold in the markets to be sprinkled with the wine and blood of temple sacrifices, so that all would be forced to taste of them.

Alexandria suffered badly, as the eyewitness Phileas of Thmuis reports:

Liberty to persecute was given to anybody. Some they beat with clubs, some with straps and cords. . . . Some, with their hands tied behind their backs, were hung from posts, and their limbs pulled in all directions by winches; and while they were hanging, executioners used tools on their bodies, bellies, legs and faces. Others were hung by one hand from a doorway. . . . to stretch their joints and limbs. Others were bound to columns in pairs, face-to-face, in such a way that their feet were off the ground, the cords tightened by the weight of their bodies.

Some were taken back to prison and lay half-dead for a few days, until they died from their wounds. Others survived in a long imprisonment, and became even braver; when they were again commanded to choose between touching the unclean sacrifice and being freed, or refusing to sacrifice and being killed, they cheerfully went to their deaths.

The historian Eusebius described the horrors visited on the Christians in the area south of the Egyptian city of Thebes: “Women were tied by one leg, hauled into the air and left hanging naked, a cruelly inhuman spectacle. . . . Strong trees were bent together by winches until they met at the top, and a martyr’s legs were then tied to each tree, and the trees allowed to spring back. . . . These things were done not for a few days or a short time, but for years. Sometimes, ten were killed at once, sometimes twenty or thirty, sometimes sixty. Once in the space of a day, a good hundred men, women and children were all executed after enduring prolonged tortures.” He continues, “We ourselves were witness. . . . One day, the orgy went on so long that the blade became blunt and killed with its weight. The executioners themselves became exhausted and took turns at their work. We also saw the most marvelous inspiration, a force that was truly divine, and the readiness of those who had faith in the Christ of God. Immediately, when sentence had been pronounced on one group, another party came forward from the opposite side, acknowledging themselves Christians. . . . They sang hymns and offered thanksgiving to the God of all until their last breath.”

As the exterminations continued month after month, with no sign of success, some administrators may have wondered what was the point of all this slaughter, of citizens who made little resistance. But for the typically ambitious or semibarbarian Roman official, the path of advancement was made perfectly clear by Galerius’s ascendance as the first augustus, and Daia as his successor.

What’s more, the persecution was now starting to pay for itself. Whether from fatigue or pragmatism, magistrates increasingly began commuting the death sentence for Christians to forced labor: in the mines for the men, in the brothels for the women.

Eusebius records a few cases of saintly virgins like Irene of Thessalonica, who was condemned to sit naked in a brothel but was left undisturbed, because no pagan was shameless enough to disturb her; so she was burned to death. Or the fifteen-year-old Pelagia of Antioch, who was visited by soldiers one day when she was alone in her family house; aware of what being alone with these soldiers would mean, she flung herself from the roof. But for the most part, the later chroniclers pass over the experience in the brothels with a chaste and sympathetic silence.

By now, the Galerian Tetrarchy began dissolving into the usual chaos of competing generals that Diocletian had once repaired and then foreseen. Both Galerius and Daia, scourge of the Christians, met dismal ends. In the ninth year of the persecution, Galerius was stricken by a spreading infection, a hemorrhaging ulcer that began in his sexual organs and then spread throughout his trunk. As the disease ate his flesh and exposed his bowels, it was said the stink of his putrefaction filled the palace and spread to the neighborhood. In vain, he called on the gods. Asclepius, god of good health, failed him. So did Apollo. In his despair, he turned to the only people he thought might help–the indomitable Christians.

Would they pray for him, he pleaded? They doubtless did, and on April 30, 311, Galerius issued an Edict of Toleration. It was a strange document. On the one hand, it blamed the Christians for having abandoned the gods of the fatherland, and explained that punishments inflicted upon them had been designed to bring them back. On the other hand, it deemed them now sufficiently chastised and granted them freedom to worship “in accordance with our normal indulgence,” requiring them only to pray to their God for the health of their emperors. For Galerius, however, it was too late. He died a few days later, reeking and in agony.

But for the Christians, “a great light burst out in the midst of the darkest night,” wrote Eusebius. Prison doors were opened, and the confessors came out into the light, praising God. The survivors of the mines and brothels limped home, quietly triumphant. Once again, the Christians held public worship; and many of their pagan neighbors, awed by so sudden a change, joined in the celebrations.

Daia lived on, largely ignoring Galerius’s edict. Christians may not be killed, he said; but he encouraged their mutilation instead. Nostrils may be slit, hands and feet lopped off, eyes dug out. Meanwhile, he published and distributed what he entitled The Acts of Pilate, a collection of coarse slanders against Jesus Christ. Damascus streetwalkers were induced to publish filthy things Christians had done to them. The pagan temples were reorganized with professional priests, bishops and archbishops, all with administrative authority to promote the old gods and obstruct the Christians. Daia even undertook a punitive campaign against the Armenians, for no other reason, apparently, than that they had been harboring Christian fugitives.

Nothing worked. People scoffed at his propaganda. The pagan temples had “bishops,” but their priests did not tend the sick, feed the poor or comfort the dying. Then the crop failed, famine spread, and with it, pestilence. Whole villages died, the dogs eating the bodies in the streets. Into this desolate territory wandered Diocletian’s wife Prisca and daughter Valeria, Galerius’s widow. To shore up his sagging political fortunes, Daia proposed to marry Valeria. She refused. He harried her and her mother unceasingly, killing their servants, menacing their friends, confiscating their goods, and finally exiling them to the Syrian Desert.

By now, the internecine wars for the succession caught up with him. His army fought a rival contender at Adrianople (see map page 131, E3), and crumbled before his eyes. Disguised as a slave, he fled the battlefield, escaped across Asia Minor, and was finally trapped at Tarsus, birthplace of St. Paul. Here he took poison, said the Christian chronicler Lactantius, and died in agony. The year was 313.

Meanwhile, in his splendid retreat at Split in Illyricum, the aging Diocletian was dying too, of a long and painful illness. Some said he was actually starving himself. On his deathbed, he heard not only that Daia was defeated, but that in the aftermath of the battle, Prisca and Valeria had been beheaded. All over the empire, he learned, his successors had thrown down or defaced his statues and monuments. He was buried in a stone sarcophagus he had prepared, bearing on its lid a carving of a boar being speared in the hunt, an ironic memorial to the fate of the luckless Aper.

For the Christians, the night was over, and the sun was in the sky. The great change in their fortunes had begun eight years before in Nicomedia, on that first day of May 305, when old Diocletian had announced his retirement. That launched an era destined to change the empire, change the church, and change the whole course of the Western world. For it was the day when the name Constantine entered the pages of history.

This is the end of the Diocletian category article drawn from Chapter Four, beginning on page 95, of Volume Three, By This Sign. To continue reading more about Diocletian from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at