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, the Romans 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 uprisings which 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:

Date Emperor In Brief
c. 64-68 Nero Traditional martyrdoms of Peter and Paul.
r. 81-96 Domitian  
112-117 Trajan Christianity is outlawed but Christians are not sought out.
r. 161-180 Marcus Aurelius Martyrdom of Polycarp.
202-210 Septimus Severus Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity.
235-38 Maximinus the Thracian A short-lived persecution under which he attempted to stop proselytizing and was mostly directed at the higher clergy.
250-251 Decius Christians are actively sought out by requiring public sacrifice. Could buy certificates (libelli) instead of sacrificing. Martyrdoms of bishops of Rome, Jerusalem and Antioch.
257-59 Valerian Martyrdoms of Cyprian of Carthage and Sixtus II of Rome.
r. 270–275 Aurelian  
303-324 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. 9/16/12 9/16/11 4/13/10 4/22/12


The motivation for Nero's persecutions is given to us by Tacitus, a Roman historian:

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 become popular.

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. 9/30/12

Tradition also has the martyrdom of Peter and Paul during Nero's reign.

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. 6/18/12

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 the second.

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 punished.

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.  ( 6/18/12) 6/18/12 6/18/12 6/18/12

Marcus Aurelius (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. (  6/15/12)

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. 6/19/12 6/19/12 6/19/12

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 claimants.

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. ( 9/16/12)

Tertullian says that if the Christians had collectively withdrawn themselves from the Roman territories, the empire would have been greatly depopulated.

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 Christianity. 9/16/12

Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity The Martyrdom or Perpetua an Felicity is remembered in large part because of the survival of Perpetua's prison diary

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 Origen 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. ( 6/15/12) 6/15/12 4/23/12


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 community.

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 rate multitudes 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 were also 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.  8/9/11 8/9/11 8/9/11

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 Origen.

Philip was overthrown and killed following a rebellion led by his successor Decius. 4/22/12


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 readmitted.



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 really one, 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.

Years Name Comment
249-51 Decius Soldier. Killed in battle against "barbarians."
251-53 Gallus Soldier. Assassinated by own troops.
251 Hostilian Co-emperor. Dies of the plague in 251.
251 Volusianus Co-emperor. Son of Gallus. Assassinated by own troops.
253 Aemilian Soldier. Assassinated by own troops.
253-60 Valerian Soldier. Taken prisoner by the Persians in 260.
253-68 Gallienus Co-emperor. Son of Valerian. Assassinated in 268.
260-68 Postumus Soldier-emperor for Gaul, Spain, Germany and Britain. Killed by his troops in 268.
268-69 Claudius II Soldier. Died of plague.
269 Marius Soldier. Assassinated?
269-70 Victorinus Soldier. Assassinated by subordinate.
270-75 Aurelian Soldier. Assassinated in 275.
275-73 Tetricus Soldier. Assassinated.
276 Florianus Soldier. Assassinated.
276-82 Probus Soldier. Assassinated by own troops.
282-83 Carus Soldier. Died of unknown causes during military campaign.
283-85 Carinus Senator-soldier. Assassinated in 285.
283-84 Numerian Co-emperor. Soldier. Son of Carus. Dies in 284.
284-305 Diocletian soldier, ends the crisis of the third century, abdicates in 305. 9/13/11


Valerian 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. 6/15/12


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 entirety.

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. 4/22/12 4/22/12 4/22/12


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 of the 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.

Licinius I (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 co-authored the 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 (Turkey).

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.  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 311).

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. 

Date The story Source Cited
(click to read)
299 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 sacrifice. 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. 303). Eusebius, De Martyribus Palestinae 2
Spring/Summer 303 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
Autumn 303 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
early 304 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 named Caesar. 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 Ecclesiastica 1.2.1
28 October 306 The Praetorian Guard proclaims Maxentius princeps of Rome. Very soon after, he proclaims toleration in his realms. Lactantius, De Mortibus Persecutorum 26.1
307 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
311 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
Fall 311 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 the East. 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 from him. Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica , 9.6.3
Early 312 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 the sea. 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 sacrifices. Lactantius, De Mortibus Persecutorum 44.9
late 312 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
May 313 Maximinus issues an edict restoring privileges and property to the Christians. Eusebius, Vita Constantine 1.59
July 313 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
317-c. 320 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
late 323 Licinius' governors 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 sacrifice. Theodosian Code, 16.2.5
spring 324 Constantine prepares for war against Licinius Zosimus, New History 2.22
19 September 324 Constantine receives the surrender of Licinius at Nicomedia. 4/14/12 4/14/12 4/14/12 4/14/12