Diocletian and Galerius

The Diocletian persecution was the final official persecution of Christians by 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 (the Edict of Toleration), 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 tables below which rely especially on the fourthcentury.com tables linked below the table.

Date The story Source 
(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 Persecutorum19.1Socrates, 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 History2.22
19 September 324 Constantine receives the surrender of Licinius at Nicomedia.  

 

It is also true that he persecution was not consistant across the whole of the Empire. 

Diocletian Persecution Chart

Chronology of the Persecution of Christians from 299-324

The table below gives a separate column for each of the four prefectures of the Roman Empire from 299-324. The rows give a brief summary of the events which occurred each year in the given prefecture. You can click on the “Source Cited” to read an English translation of the original source of the information, usually taken from the Nicene-Post Nicene Father series, but updated into modern English. The colors represent official persecution, i.e., the legal status of Christians, and not necessarily the enforcement of those laws. Though laws against Christians were on the books, they were enforced differently by the various local governments, some of which tried to ignore the edicts, and some of which tried to show their zeal for the empire by taking their persecutions above and beyond what was called for. This caveat is not intended to lessen the severity of the persecution when it was enforced. The succession of Caesares and Augusti of this time period can be quite confusing, but the following two charts will help to clarify the chronology:

White background represents no imperially-mandated persecution.
Green represents a mild or limited form of imperially-mandated persecution (e.g., the loss of certain rights for certain groups of Christians).
Yellow background represents more virulent persecution (e.g., destruction of Christian property; burning of Scripture and churches).
Red background represents total persecution (widespread imprisonment and loss of life).

 

Date

Prefecture of Gaul
 Spain, Gaul, Britian

Prefecture of Italy
 Africa (Carthage), Rome, Italy

Prefecture of Illyricum
Macedonia (including Greece), Dacia

Prefecture of the East 
Egypt, Palestine, Pontus, Asia (Turkey), Thrace

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 Persecutorum10.6

Eusebius,Historica Ecclesiasica 8appendix

300          
301          
Autumn 302          
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 Ecclesiastica8.4

Early Spring 303

Constantius allows no executions, but did burn churches.

Maximian enforces the edict more strictly than Constantius.

 

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 Ecclesiastica8.2.5
Autumn 303    

Eusebius says that the number of martyrs was uncountable, and that martyrdom was occurring all over in cities and towns across the empire.

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 Ecclesiastica8.6.10
early 304      

4th edict orders all inhabitants to gather and sacrifice and pour libations, making it increasingly difficult for Christians to hide.

Eusebius, De Martyribus Palestinae3.1

1 May 305 Constantius is named Augustus. Maximian retires. Severus is named Caesar. Galerius is named Augustus Diocletian retires, Maximinus is named Caesar.

Lactantius,De Mortibus Persecutorum19.1Socrates,Historia Ecclesiastica1.2

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 Constantine1.21

Socrates,Historia Ecclesiastica 1.2.1

28 October 306  

The Praetorian Guard proclaims Maxentius princeps of Rome. Shortly afterwards, he proclaims toleration in his realms.

   

Lactantius,De Mortibus Persecutorum26.1

307

Constantine is promoted to Augustus and assumes the title of “Pontifex Maximus,” a title he will keep until death.

Severus marches on Rome to quell Maxentius’ uprising, but instead is captured and killed.

   

Lactantius,De Mortibus Persecutorum26.1

11 November 308  

Licinius is named Caesar in place of the now dead Severus, and attempts to overthrow Maxentius.

   

Lactantius,De Mortibus Persecutorum29.1

309          
310          
311  

Maxentius provides restitution of property to Christians under his rule.

     
30 April 311    

Galerius rescinds persecution edicts with a deathbed letter. This allows the release of prisoners, freedom of assembly, etc., with no restrictions.

 

Eusebius, Vita Constantine1.57

Fall 311    

Maximinus takes over Galerius’s territory after his death and continues the persecution.

He 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 Persecutorum36.1
26 November 311       Maximinus has the Bishop of Alexandria arrested and executed, thus restarting the martyrdoms in the East. Eusebius,Historia Ecclesiastica7.32, 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 Persecutorum37.1
28 October 312  

Constantine defeats Maxentius at the Milvian bridge using the Christian labarum. He afterwards offers no pagan sacrifices.

     
early 313  

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 Ecclesiastica9.9.12
30 April 313     Licinius defeats Maximinus near Adrianople.   Lactantius,De Mortibus Persecutorum47.1
May 313      

Maximinus issues an edict restoring privileges and property to the Christians.

Eusebius, Vita Constantine1.59
July 313     Licinius declares religious freedom. Maximinus kills himself at Tarsus. 1.Concerning Licinius: Lactantius, c.f. Eusebius

2.Concerning the death of Maximinus: Lactantius, Eusebius,

314          
315          
c. late 316      

Licinius, now at Nicomedia, purges his court of Christians.

Eusebius, Vita Constantine1.52
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 Constantine1.51-2.2
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 Constantine2.1
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.

 

How many Christians were killed in the persecution? It is impossible to say. Timothy Barnes notes a tradition that 660 died in Alexandria alone (Constantine and Eusebius [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981], p. 201). To this day the Coptic church’s calendar begins in the year 284 in remembrance of the Diocletian persecution.

http://www.fourthcentury.com/diolectian-persecution-chart/ 1/25/17 

http://www.roman-empire.net/decline/galerius.html  4/14/12

http://www.livius.org/di-dn/diocletian/diocletian.html  4/14/12

http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05007b.htm  4/14/12

http://www.fourthcentury.com/notwppages/persecution-timeline.htm  4/14/12