The 10 Great Persecutions
When we talk of persecution of Christians during the Roman period we generally
think of the 10 great persecutions of the Roman Empire. This
notion of ten persecutions dates from the fourth century and the lists
varies slightly. This list
is based on Foxe's Book of Martyrs. The Romans
were generally open on religious matters absorbing the various gods into
an ever expanding pantheon as they sauntered across the world.
That said, there were
other groups besides Christians who were persecuted by the Roman
Empire at various times for example; the Romans outlawed human sacrifice
in their domain. This was an issue of civility more than theology but the other main
thrust for the Romans was loyalty to the empire which is where the
problem generally arose for the Christians.
The Romans did not quite know how to take
the Jewish notion of one God that excluded other gods. As we said,
tendency was toward syncretism and the notion of the uniqueness of the God of
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob tended to run afoul of the prevailing wisdom. That being
said the, Jews were mostly let alone, apart for their occasional
were met with violent disapproval from the official Roman administration. There
is a school of thought that the Romans at various points could not tell
the difference between the Jews and the Christians. This is a
minority view but theology was always a secondary point for the Romans.
Loyalty to the Emperor was the primary issue. At any rate Jerusalem had been destroyed in 55 and the Jews scattered by
the time Christianity became a problem for the Roman Empire.
For the Christians, sometimes the persecution was overt and sometimes it was
subtle. Sometimes it was general (throughout the empire) and
sometimes local. Even when there were anti-Christian laws on the
books they were not enforced uniformly. There were 34 Emperors who ruled between 30 and 311 when Galerius issued
the "Edict of Toleration" which is the traditional end
of the last official persecution, what we call the Diocletian
Persecution. We note that 10 persecutions are far
fewer than 34 emperors.
Christianity drew its members from all ethnic groups and
social strata; it was especially popular among the slaves. It also spread rapidly, due in part to persecution
from the Jews but that is another story. The rate at which it spread
caused alarm in government as well prompting a Roman Governor, Pliny the Younger
(61-112) to write:
The contagion of this superstition has spread not
only in the cities but in the villages and rural districts as well;
yet it seems capable of being checked and set right.
Christianity violated the Roman notion of what a
religion should be and how it related to society in general.
Christians were considered atheists in some quarters because they were
worshiping a God that had no image. Christianity was branded a
superstition in others because the resurrection story had no precedent
in Roman thought. It was thought that Christianity was
generally not good for the society. In the third century, the Neoplatonist philosopher Porphyry wrote:
How can people not be in every way impious and
atheistic who have apostatized from the customs of our ancestors
through which every nation and city is sustained? ... What else are
they than fighters against God?
If this is the why for the persecution than the what of
it will follow. Here is a list of the Great Persecutions:
||Traditional martyrdoms of Peter and Paul.
||Christianity is outlawed but Christians are not sought out.
||Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity.
||Maximinus the Thracian
||A short-lived persecution under which he attempted
to stop proselytizing and was mostly directed at the higher
||Christians are actively sought out by requiring public
sacrifice. Could buy certificates (libelli)
instead of sacrificing. Martyrdoms of bishops of Rome, Jerusalem and
Cyprian of Carthage and
Sixtus II of Rome.
|| Diocletian and Galerius
||The Diocletian persecution: The last and one of the more
severe persecutions. How many Christians were killed in the persecution
is impossible to say. There is a tradition that 660 died in
Alexandria, Egypt alone.
The Coptic church's calendar begins in the year 284 on the
Gregorian calendar in
remembrance of the Diocletian persecution.
The motivation for Nero's persecutions is given to us by Tacitus, a
But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and
the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief
that the conflagration was the result of an order. Consequently, to
get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the
most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations,
called 'Chrestians' by the populace.
Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme
penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our
procurators, Pontius Pilate, and a most mischievous superstition,
thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the
first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous
and shameful from every part of the world find their center and
Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty;
then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted,
not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against
mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered
with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or
were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to
serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.
Tradition also has the martyrdom of Peter and Paul during Nero's
Domitian Roman emperor and persecutor of
the Church, son of Vespasian and younger brother and successor of the
Emperor Titus; b. 24 Oct., A.D. 51, and reigned from 81 to 96.
Domitian began to reign some 16 years after the end of Nero's reign.
When the Acts of Nero's reign were reversed after his death, an
exception was made as to the persecution of the Christians (Tertullian,
Ad Nat., i, 7). The Jewish
revolt (81-96) brought upon them fresh unpopularity, and the
subsequent destruction of the Holy City deprived them of the last shreds
of protection afforded Christians by being confounded with the Jews. To
observe Jewish practices was no longer lawful; to reject the national
religion, without being able to plead the excuse of being a Jew, was
atheism. On one count or the other, as Jews or as atheists, the
Christians were liable to punishment. Among the more famous martyrs in
this Second Persecution were Domitian's cousin, Flavius Clemens, the
consul, and M' Acilius Glabrio who had also been consul. Flavia
Domitilla, the wife of Flavius, was banished to Pandataria. But the
persecution was not confined to such noble victims. We read of many
others who suffered death or the loss of their goods (Dio Cassius, LXVII,
iv). The book of the Apocalypse was written in the midst of this storm,
when many of the Christians had already perished and more were to follow
them (St. Irenæus, Adv. Hæres., V, xxx). It would seem that
participation in the feasts held in honor of the divinity of the tyrant
was made the test for the Christians of the East. St. Clement's
Epistle to the Corinthians was also written about this time; in we read
of the terrible of the Christians.
Trajan (18 September 53 – 9 August
117), was Roman Emperor from 98 to 117 AD.
As an emperor, Trajan's reputation has endured — he is one of the few
rulers whose reputation has survived nineteen centuries. Every new
emperor after him was honored by the Senate with the wish felicior
Augusto, melior Traiano ("[be] luckier than Augustus and better than
Trajan"). Among medieval Christian theologians, Trajan was considered a
virtuous pagan, while the 18th century historian Edward Gibbon
popularized the notion of the Five Good Emperors, of which Trajan was
Pliny the Younger served under Trajan and his correspondence is some
of the earliest we have on the interaction of Christians with the Roman
Authorities. In his letter, Pliny seeks approval for his current
policy as relating to Christians:
It is my practice, my lord, to refer to you all matters
concerning which I am in doubt. For who can better give guidance to
my hesitation or inform my ignorance? I have never participated in
trials of Christians. I therefore do not know what offenses it is
the practice to punish or investigate, and to what extent. And I
have been not a little hesitant as to whether there should be any
distinction on account of age or no difference between the very
young and the more mature; whether pardon is to be granted for
repentance, or, if a man has once been a Christian, it does him no
good to have ceased to be one; whether the name itself, even without
offenses, or only the offenses associated with the name are to be
Meanwhile, in the case of those who were denounced to me as
Christians, I have observed the following procedure: I interrogated
these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I
interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with
punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed. For I had no
doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and
inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished. There were
others possessed of the same folly; but because they were Roman
citizens, I signed an order for them to be transferred to Rome.
(Pliny, Letters 10.96)
The following is the reply Pliny receives from Trajan:
You observed proper procedure, my dear Pliny, in sifting the
cases of those who had been denounced to you as Christians. For it
is not possible to lay down any general rule to serve as a kind of
fixed standard. They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced
and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation,
that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves
it--that is, by worshiping our gods--even though he was under
suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance. But
anonymously posted accusations ought to have no place in any
prosecution. For this is both a dangerous kind of precedent and out
of keeping with the spirit of our age. (Pliny, Letters 10.97)
The Catholic Encyclopedia reports:
The most distinguished martyrs under Trajan were
Ignatius, Bishop of
Antioch, and Simeon, Bishop of Jerusalem. Legend names many others,
but there was no actual persecution on a large scale and the
position of the Christians was in general satisfactory. (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15015a.htm
(Latin: Marcus Aurelius Antoninus
Augustus; 26 April 121 – 17 March 180 AD), was Roman Emperor
from 161 to 180 AD. He ruled with Lucius Verus as co-emperor from 161
until Verus' death in 169. He was the last of the "Five
Good Emperors," so called because of their administrative prowess.
Aurelius is also considered one of the most important Stoic
philosophers. The Stoics taught that emotions were generally
destructive and resulted from errors in judgment. A person of
"moral and intellectual perfection," would not suffer such emotions.
Stoics were often seen as stern or detached. In his Meditations,
Marcus Aurelius describes parts of stoic spiritual practices. For
example, in Book II, part 1:
Say to yourself in the early morning: I shall meet
today ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men.
All of these things have come upon them through ignorance of real
good and ill... I can neither be harmed by any of them, for no man
will involve me in wrong, nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate
him; for we have come into the world to work together...
Foxe reports extreme brutality:
The cruelties used in this persecution were such
that many of the spectators shuddered with horror at the sight, and
were astonished at the intrepidity of the sufferers. Some of the
martyrs were obliged to pass, with their already wounded feet, over
thorns, nails, sharp shells, etc. upon their points, others were
scourged until their sinews and veins lay bare, and after suffering
the most excruciating tortures that could be devised, they were
destroyed by the most terrible deaths. (http://www.ccel.org/f/foxe/martyrs/fox102.htm
It seems that this is one instance where there may be a
theological or at least philosophical reason for the persecution of
Christians. Christianity was seen to be a rival to the Stoic philosophers.
At the time of Aurelius the stoics occupied the position of spiritual
directors. Moral purity being a key part of Stoic practice they
now found themselves brought into contact with men of a purer morality.
(2) A trace of this bitterness is found in his own Meditations (xi. 3).
Just as Epictetus (Arrian, Epict. iv. 7) had spoken of the "counterfeit
apathy" which was the offspring not of true wisdom, but "of madness or
habit like that of the Galileans," so the emperor contrasts the calm
considerate preference of death to life, which he admired, with the
"mere obstinacy of the Christians."
At any rate the martyrdom of
Justin Martyr at Rome (A.D. 166) and
Polycarp at Smyrna
(A.D. 167) as well a the lesser known Blandina, Pothinus and the other
sufferers at Lyons (A.D. 177) occurred under Arelius.
Septimus Severus (April 11,
145-February 4, 211 Reign: 193-211) He was declared emperor by his
troops in Pannonia on April 9, 193. The civilian Roman authorities
had actually supported Didius Julianus, but eventually came around to
support Severus. Meanwhile the troops in the East proclaimed
Syria's governor, Pescennius Niger, emperor, and the British legions,
their governor, Clodius Albinus. Severus had to deal with his rival
Foxe reports that:
Severus, having been recovered from a severe fit of
sickness by a Christian, became a great favorer of the Christians in
general; but the prejudice and fury of the ignorant multitude
prevailing, obsolete laws were put in execution against the
Christians. The progress of Christianity alarmed the pagans, and
they revived the stale calumny of placing accidental misfortunes to
the account of its professors, A.D. 192. (http://www.ccel.org/f/foxe/martyrs/fox102.htm
Tertullian says that if the Christians had collectively withdrawn
themselves from the Roman territories, the empire would have been
His reign was also considered bloody and according to
the Catholic Encyclopedia, he may have been involved in the murder of
his predecessor, Pertinax. The Catholic Encyclopedia also says he
persecuted the Christians and forbade conversion to Judaism and to
Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity
The Martyrdom or Perpetua an Felicity is remembered in large part
because of the survival of Perpetua's prison
In her diary Perpetua tells of conversations with family
members, some of her are supportive of her in her martyrdom. It
tells of a vision the she had while in prison and how she gladly
accepted her sentence of being fed to the animals.
Maximinus I (The Thracian)
Emperor 235 - 238
According to Herodian, Maximinus could
drink sixty pints of wine and eat forty pounds of meat a day. The
popular barbarian soldier was also reputed to be over eight feet tall
and to have worn his wife' bracelet as a ring. The stories of his
physical feats were astounding. He even won a race running on foot
against the old emperor Septimius Severus who was on horseback! He was a
warrior but not a good general or statesman. He led his armies against
the Germans but fought as a foot soldier, slaying enemy soldiers easily
due to his immense size and strength. He ran the government in much the
same way, often exiling or murdering senators who dared to oppose him.
On the persecution of the church Eusebius reports:
... On account of his hatred toward the household of
Alexander, which contained many believers, he began a persecution,
commanding that only the rulers of the churches should be put to
death, as responsible for the Gospel teaching. Thereupon
composed his work On Martyrdom, and dedicated it to
Ambrose and Protoctetus, a presbyter of the parish of Cæsarea, because in the
persecution there had come upon them both unusual hardships, in
which it is reported that they were eminent in confession during the
reign of Maximinus, which lasted but three years. Origen has noted
this as the time of the persecution in the twenty-second book of his
Commentaries on John, and in several epistles. (christianbookshelf.org 6/15/12)
Decius was emperor from 249-251. Not
much is known about his early life but he spent most of it in the Army.
He was the first of the great soldier-emperors. Upon his rise to
power, he tried to institute many reforms. Among his chief
concerns was the moral decay of the empire. He tried to force (and
then enforce) a
return to the traditional religion of the empire.
By this time, however, a growing number of professing Christians had
produced a growing Christian Church. This combined with influence
from other groups made a return to the paganism of old Rome an
impossible thing to enforce.
Various reasons have been given for the emperor's
hatred of Christianity, some seeing it as evidence of his innate cruelty,
others think it was a desire to be avenged on the friends of his
predecessor (Philip the Arab); but there can be little doubt that the main motives for his
hostility were political, not religious. The scope of the
anti-Christian legislation of Decius was broader than that of his
predecessors and much more far-reaching in its effects. The text
of most of his edicts is lost to us
but but this excerpt has survived.
Decius' edicts were renewed under Valerius in 253 and repealed under his
son, Gallienus, in 260-1.
The religious edicts of Decius did not single out
Christians. He simply demanded that every citizen of the empire should
make sacrifice to the state gods. Anyone who refused faced execution.
This did not prove to be problematic for many outside the Christian
The Church had enjoyed a 40 reprieve from persecution
and the new attacks were unexpected. The Catholic Encyclopedia
says that the Church had grown complacent during this time. At any
presented themselves to the magistrates to express their compliance with
the imperial edict were subsequently issued tickets (libelli) attesting
the fact that they had offered sacrifice (sacrificati) or burned incense
(thurificati.) These Llibelli were also available for the
appropriate bribe without actually performing these rites. There
multitudes who suffered death, exile, confiscation, or torture in all
parts of the empire. The Decian persecution was the severest trial to
which the Church up to that time. The problem of deciding on what conditions
the lapsi should be admitted to the church
and what weight was to be attached to the pardon of confessors, produced
much division in the Church.
Philip the Arab
(c. 204 – 249) was Roman Emperor from 244 to 249. He came from Syria,
and rose to become a major figure in the Roman Empire. He achieved power
after the death of Gordian III, quickly negotiating peace with the
Sassanid Empire. During his reign, Rome celebrated its millennium.
Among early Christian writers Philip had the reputation of being
sympathetic at least. Indeed there are stories that converted to
Christianity and was baptized by Pope Fabian, becoming the first
Christian emperor. Philip and his wife received letters from
Philip was overthrown and killed following a rebellion led by his
Edict of Decius In January 250, Decius issued an edict for the suppression of
Christianity. The edict itself was fairly clear:
All the inhabitants of the empire were required to sacrifice
before the magistrates of their community 'for the safety of the
empire' by a certain day (the date would vary from place to place
and the order may have been that the sacrifice had to be completed
within a specified period after a community received the edict).
When they sacrificed they would obtain a certificate (libellus)
recording the fact that they had complied with the order. (Wikipedia)
libelli The word Libelli is
plural of libellus. An libellus was a document given to a Roman
citizen to certify that they had performed the required sacrifice, hence
demonstrating loyalty to the authorities of the Roman Empire.
Lapsi are those who
have lapsed or fallen away from their faith and decide later in life to
come back to it. The name given to apostates in the early Christian
Church, when Christians were persecuted by the Roman authorities to
renounce their faith. There was quite a bit of controversy within
the Church as to under what circumstances the lapsi should be
There was not a neat rise and fall of the Roman Empire. There
were times of triumph and times of turmoil. Times when it was
two or even three empires. There was a great crisis in the empire in the third
century. This time is sometimes called the time of "Military Anarchy" or "The
Imperial Crisis." It was a period in which the Roman Empire
nearly collapsed under the combined pressures of invasion, civil war,
plague, and economic depression. The Crisis began with the assassination
of Emperor Alexander Severus at the hands of his own troops, initiating
a fifty-year period in which 20–25 claimants to the title of Emperor,
mostly prominent Roman Army generals, assumed imperial power over all or
part of the Empire. By 258–260, the Empire split into three competing
states: the Gallic Empire, including the Roman provinces of Gaul,
Britannia and Hispania; the Palmyrene Empire, including the eastern
provinces of Syria Palaestina and Aegyptus; and the Italian-centered and
independent Roman Empire, proper, between them. The Crisis ended with
the ascension and reforms of Diocletian, although it was his predecessor
Aurelian who reunited the empire.
The Crisis resulted in such profound changes in the Empire's
institutions, society, economic life and, eventually, religion, that it
is increasingly seen by most historians as the transition period between
the historical periods of Classical antiquity and late antiquity.
Here is a list of the Emperors of this time and as this is an
interesting footnote rather than the main story this table will have to
suffice. At the end of this period Diocletian established a
Tetrarchy that is not to be confused with the Tetrarchy of Herod that is
familiar to the Bible student.
||Soldier. Killed in battle against "barbarians."
||Soldier. Assassinated by own troops.
||Co-emperor. Dies of the plague in 251.
||Co-emperor. Son of Gallus. Assassinated by own troops.
||Soldier. Assassinated by own troops.
||Soldier. Taken prisoner by the Persians in 260.
||Co-emperor. Son of Valerian. Assassinated in 268.
||Soldier-emperor for Gaul, Spain, Germany and Britain. Killed
by his troops in 268.
||Soldier. Died of plague.
||Soldier. Assassinated by subordinate.
||Soldier. Assassinated in 275.
||Soldier. Assassinated by own troops.
||Soldier. Died of unknown causes during military campaign.
||Senator-soldier. Assassinated in 285.
||Co-emperor. Soldier. Son of Carus.
Dies in 284.
||soldier, ends the crisis of the third century, abdicates in
took the throne in 253, all Christian
clergy were required to sacrifice to the gods. In a 257 edict, the
punishment was exile; in 258, the punishment was death. Christian
senators, knights and ladies were also required to sacrifice under pain
of heavy fines, reduction of rank and, later, death. Finally, all
Christians were forbidden to visit their cemeteries. Among those
executed under Valerian were St. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, and Sixtus
II, Bishop of Rome. According to a letter written by Dionysus during
this time, "men and women, young and old, maidens and matrons, soldiers
and civilians, of every age and race, some by scourging and fire, others
by the sword, have conquered in the strife and won their crowns." The
persecution ended with the capture of Valerian by Persia. Valerian's son
and successor, Gallienus, revoked the edicts of his father.
Aurelian Lucius Domitius Aurelianus (214 - 275) was Roman
Emperor from 270 to 275. During his reign, he defeated the Alamanni
after a devastating war. He also defeated the Goths, Vandals, Juthungi,
Sarmatians, and Carpi. Aurelian restored the Empire's eastern provinces
after his conquest of the Palmyrene Empire in 273. The following year he
conquered the Gallic Empire in the west, reuniting the Empire in its
Aurelian strengthened the position of the Sun god, Sol (Invictus)
or Oriens, as the main divinity of the Roman pantheon. His intention was
to give to all the peoples of the Empire, civilian or soldiers,
easterners or westerners, a single god they could believe in without
betraying their own gods. The center of the cult was a new temple, built
in 271 in Campus Agrippae in Rome, with great decorations financed by
the spoils of the Palmyrene Empire.
The Wikipedia article says:
Aurelian did not persecute other religions. However, during his short
rule, he seemed to follow the principle of "one god, one empire", that
was later adopted to a full extent by Constantine. On some coins, he
appears with the title deus et dominus natus ("God and born ruler"),
also later adopted by Diocletian. Lactantius argued that Aurelian would
have outlawed all the other gods if he had had enough time.
The Catholic Encyclopedia says:
As soon as he was at liberty to carry out his
schemes for internal reform Aurelian revived the polity of his
predecessor Valerian, threatened to rescind the Edict of Gallienus,
and commenced a systematic persecution of the followers of Christ.
Fox's Book of Martyrs says:
The principal sufferers [of this persecution] were:
Felix, bishop of Rome. This prelate was advanced to the Roman see in
274. He was the first martyr to Aurelian's petulancy, being beheaded
on the twenty- second of December, in the same year.
Agapetus, a young gentleman, who sold his estate, and gave the money
to the poor, was seized as a Christian, tortured, and then beheaded
at Praeneste, a city within a day's journey of Rome.
These are the only martyrs justify upon record during this reign, as
it was soon put to a stop by the emperor's being murdered by his own
domestics, at Byzantium.
Aurelian died before he could fully persecute the
Church if that was indeed his intent.
Diocletian and Galerius
The Diocletian persecution was the final official persecution of
Christians in the Roman Empire. By some accounts it was also the
most severe. This was a time of great turmoil in the Roman Empire
so it is tricky to tell the story briefly. We start by looking at some
emperors involved and then try to tell the story.
Diocletian (245 - 313) became emperor of the Eastern part of
the Roman world from 284 to 305 when he retired. He was the last of the
Soldier Emperors. He was proclaimed emperor by the troops after
the death of Numerian, son of Carinus. That is an over
simplification as it took many battles before he gained control of the
rest of the Roman Empire of his time. As these were turbulent times so
his reign was turbulent: From 20 November 284 – 1 April 286 he
reigned alone; from 1 April 286 – 1 May 305 he had the title of Augustus
of the east, with Maximian as Augustus of the west.
(c. 263 – 325), was Roman Emperor from 308 to 324. Duriing this time the
Empire was divided east and west. Licinius ruled as Augustus in
the west, with Galerius in the east from November 308 – 311; from 311 –
313 he was Augustus in the west, joint Augustus with Maximinus in the
east; 313 – 324 (Augustus in the east, with Constantine in the west – in
314 and 324 in competition with him). With Constantine I he
Edict of Milan that granted official toleration to Christians in the
Roman Empire. He was finally defeated at the Battle of Adrianople,
before being executed on the orders of Constantine I.
Galerius Gaius Galerius Valerius Maximianus
(c. 250 - 311) was born in a little Danubian village near
Florentiana in Upper Moesia. His father was a simple peasant and his
mother, called Romula, came from beyond the Danube. At first it appears
he worked as a herdsman, before joining the army.
Once in the army though, Galerius enjoyed a successful career, rising to
be a senior officer during the reign of Diocletian.
In AD 293 at the establishment of the tetrarchy Galerius was chosen from
the senior military leaders to be Caesar (junoir emperor). Being the
eastern Caesar he fell under the authority of Diocletian and was
entrusted with rule of the powerful Balkan provinces in the Dioceses of
Pannonia, Moesia and Thraciae and the Diocese of Asiana in Asia Minor
In AD 305 Diocletian and Maximian abdicated. The Caesars
Galerius and and Constantius thereby became Augusti and Severus II and
Maximinus II Daia acceded to the vacant positions of Caesar.
From his sick-bed at Nicomedia on 30 April AD 311 Galerius issued an
edict, which was confirmed by his fellow emperors, cancelling the
persecution of the Christians.
Much has been made of this change of mind by Galerius. Religious leaders
have ascribed his illness to the wrath of god. Others believe
that the illness combined with Galerius' guilty conscience might have
led him to doubt if he wasn't suffering some form of divine retribution.
Again other theories point toward Licinius or Constantine for having
been the true initiators of the edict, Galerius only having confirmed
It is very likely that Galerius did in the end conclude that his policy
of persecution had failed. Rather than suppress the Christian faith,
their fate had won them sympathies throughout the empire.
After only a few days following the signing of the decree to stop
Christian persecution, Galerius succumbed to his illness (May
The story of the persecution is presented in more detail in the table below which relies
heavily on some of the references linked below the table.
(click to read)
||In Antioch, Diocletian, calls
upon fortune tellers, who are unable to predict the future, claiming
that the presence of Christians is making it impossible to read the
omens correctly. Under the influence of Galerius, he orders all
members of the imperial court and all soldiers to either make pagan
sacrifices or leave their place in the army/imperial court.
Lactantius, De Mortibus Persecutorum 10.6
Eusebius, Historica Ecclesiasica 8 appendix
|23 Feb. 303
||Galerius convinces Diocletian to
start persecuting the Christians. Christian assembly is made
illegal, all churches and houses with Christian contents are to be
burned. Christians who refuse to recant lose legal status and can be
tortured. Anyone coming to court has to first make a pagan
Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica 8.4
|Early Spring 303
||Deacon Romanus, in Caesarea,
offends Diocletian at Antioch. Apparently some churches had been
destroyed, and Romanus made a scene, publicly denouncing former
Christians who were on their way to make pagan sacrifices. His
tongue is cut out and he is imprisoned (and later executed in Nov.
Eusebius, De Martyribus Palestinae 2
||2nd new edict orders Christian
clergy to be arrested and imprisoned. They are to be compelled by
torture to make pagan sacrifices.
Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica 8.2.5
||3rd edict declares release for
all prisoners who sacrificed to the gods, and torture and death for
all who refuse. Many are martyred all throughout the three
tetrarchies, especially in north Africa and Egypt.
Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica 8.6.10
||4th edict orders
all inhabitants to gather
and sacrifice and pour libations, making it increasing
difficult for Christians to hide.
Eusebius, De Martyribus Palestinae 3.1
|1 May 305
||Diocletian retires, Maximinus
Lactantius, De Mortibus Persecutorum 19.1Socrates,
Historia Ecclesiastica 1.2
|25 July 306
||Constantius dies at York, Constantine is
immediately named his successor. Constantine immediately declares
the end of Christian persecution in his realm and restores their
former privileges. Full restitution of property is given to those
who had lost it during the persecution.
Eusebius, Vita Constantine 1.21Socrates, Historia
|28 October 306
||The Praetorian Guard proclaims Maxentius
princeps of Rome. Very soon after, he proclaims toleration in
Lactantius, De Mortibus Persecutorum 26.1
||Constantine is promoted to Augustus and assumes
the title of "Pontifex Maximus," a title he will keep until death.
Lactantius, De Mortibus Persecutorum 26.1
|11 November 308
||Licinius is named Caesar in place of the
now dead Severus, and attempts to overthrow Maxentius.
Lactantius, De Mortibus Persecutorum 29.1
||Galerius rescinds persecution edicts with a
deathbed letter. This allows the release of prisoners, freedom of
assembly, etc., with no restrictions.
|30 April 311
||Maximinus takes over Galerius's territory after his
death and continues the persecution.
Eusebius, Vita Constantine 1.57
||Dioclecian orders the mutilation of
Christians who refuse to sacrifice to the pagan gods, and orders the
burning of churches. (The mutilations account for the amount of
crippled and disfigured bishops at Nicaea in 325).
Lactantius, De Mortibus Persecutorum 36.1
|26 November 311
||Maximinus has the Bishop of
Alexandria arrested and executed, thus restarting the martyrdoms in
Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica 7.32, 9.6.2
|7 January 312
||In Nicomedia, Maximinus executes
the scholar Lucian after hearing a lengthy defense of Christianity
Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica , 9.6.3
||Constantine writes a letter, asking Maximinus to
stop the persecution in the East, and briefly Maximinus eased the
intensity of the persecution, only throwing a few Christians into
Lactantius, De Mortibus Persecutorum 37.1
|28 October 312
||Constantine defeats Maxentius at the Milvian bridge
using the Christian
labarum. He afterwards offers no pagan
Lactantius, De Mortibus Persecutorum 44.9
||Constantine issues the "Edict of Milan," tolerating
Christians, beginning a series of laws which restored their
property. He and Licinius immediately send a letter to Maximinus
demanding that he stop the persecution of Christians.
Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica 9.9.12
|30 April 313
||Licinius defeats Maximinus near Adrianople.
Lactantius, De Mortibus Persecutorum 47.1
||Maximinus issues an edict restoring privileges and
property to the Christians.
Eusebius, Vita Constantine 1.59
||Maximinus kills himself at Tarsus.
1.Concerning Licinius: Lactantius, c.f. Eusebius 2.Concerning the
death of Maximinus: Lactantius, Eusebius,
|c. late 316
||Licinius, now at Nicomedia,
purges his court of Christians.
Eusebius, Vita Constantine 1.52
||Licinius enacts all sorts of laws
against Christians, forbidding bishops to communicate, banning
assemblies of bishops, forbidding men and women to worship together,
and decreeing that Christian assemblies must meet outside the city
walls in the open air.
Eusebius, Vita Constantine 1.51-2.2
use these laws as a pretext for martyring Christians. The Bishop of
Pontus is put to death with severe torture.
Eusebius, Vita Constantine 2.1
|25 December 323
||Constantine, at Sirmium, issues a letter
threatening Licinius and all those who force Christians to
Theodosian Code, 16.2.5
||Constantine prepares for war against Licinius
Zosimus, New History 2.22
|19 September 324
||Constantine receives the surrender of Licinius at