Throughout the Church’s history, Christians have suffered under the hands of many different empires and leaders. There have been Christian persecutions in the Middle East under various Islamic empires and leaders. Even during the French Revolution, there was massive persecution of people professing the Christian faith, especially those practicing Catholicism. However, one persecution has stood out in history as one of the most brutal campaigns ever undertaken against Christians in history. This persecution happened during the Roman Empire, under Emperor Diocletian. But before we can discuss what happened and why he so ardently sought to extinguish the Christian faith, we must understand a little about Diocletian and the Rome he inherited.
When Diocletian rose to the position of Roman emperor in 284 A.D., Rome had gone through nearly a hundred years of chaos and anarchy. First, Rome had burned through 20 emperors before Diocletian’s reign. This quick succession of emperors was due to the collapse in Roman governmental authority, caused by the military seizing political power. Second, Rome was in the grip of a severe economic depression where inflation had become so bad that Roman money had become worthless. Quite literally, people of the Empire had to return to the barter system in order to perpetuate the semblance of an economy. The unintended result of the depression and return to the barter system was the decentralization of Rome. Citizens across the Empire could no longer trust the stability of their government, so they adapted and became able to exist self-sufficiently. Although this would mean that its citizens wouldn’t starve, the consequences were that Rome became fragmented. If you would like to read more about this period of Roman history, click here.
Piece by piece, the Roman Empire gradually began to snap under the political and economic unrest. Then, Emperor Aurelian took control of the Empire, and, with his military capabilities, he managed to reunite the Roman Empire in 270-274 B.C. Although Aurelian did much to help Rome through the crisis, in 275 B.C. he was assassinated before he could continue his work. Fortunately for Rome, Diocletian rose to power. Through incredible political maneuvering, Diocletian managed to restore credibility and trust to the government, and more importantly, to the throne. And, like the rest of the Roman citizens under the authority of the Empire, Christians welcomed the return to stability that characterized Diocletian’s reign.
However, towards the end of his reign, Diocletian became progressively anti-Christian. As for why exactly this happened, there are many possibilities. The most widely agreed-upon reason was the return to worshipping the old Roman pantheon among citizens of all classes, which was encouraged by Diocletian because it meant he could claim the status of godhood like the emperors of old and further increase his grip on the Empire. Thus began the Great Persecution.
With the passing of the first of Diocletian’s Edicts against the Christians in 303 A.D, Christians were declared persona non grata in the Roman Empire. According to Eusebius, a Christian scholar who lived during the time of the Great Persecution, recalled,
“… [the] royal edicts were published everywhere, commanding that the churches Should be razed to the ground, the Scriptures destroyed by fire, those who held positions of honor degraded, and the household servants, if they persisted in the Christian profession, be deprived of their liberty.”
It was a time of catastrophe and fear for Christians across the Empire, as the entire Roman Empire turned against them. Once again, Christianity had to go underground to protect itself from the predations of Roman governmental and military officials. As the Church moved underground the Empire turned its attention upon prominent Christians, and systematically hunted down Christian leaders. Of the thousands of Christians who died during the Great Persecution, many were Church leadership.
Fortunately, before Rome utterly decimated the leadership structure of the Church, Diocletian stepped down from his position as Emperor due to illness. Without Diocletian’s iron hand driving the persecution from the heights of the Roman Empire, the will to pursue the Great Persecution began to wane. In 313 A.D, ten years after the Persecution began, the Roman Emperor Galerius declared an end to the Great Persecution. Christians were allowed to resume open worship in the Empire.
Although the massacre had ended, it had permanently left its mark upon the Christian world. Thousands of men and women were dead, and priceless manuscripts had been burned in fires that had raged across the Empire. As Christians today, we are fortunate to live in a time where Christianity is widely accepted. Nevertheless, life will still throw at us tough times and tragedies. 1 Peter 4:12 reminds us, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” When life heaps troubles upon us, we should remember the suffering our ancestors endured in the name of Jesus Christ, and draw strength from Him. If the Lord took care of His children through all of the cruelty the Roman Empire could muster, He will surely take care of us now because we are called to live our lives for Him.