Church History Tuesday: The Great Persecution before the Peace

Warning this will have some pretty heavy history talk in it (and it might go on for more than one week)!

Early in the fourth century, the worst persecution of the early Church took place, but was also the last widespread persecution in the early Church.  The persecution took place under the Emperor Diocletian, who was actually a smart emperor.  He understood the vast Roman Empire was too much for one person to control.  So he shared power with three other people, he and Maximian took the title “augustus.”  Under these two were two junior emperors, Galerius under Diocletian and Constantius Cholrus under Maximian, with the title “caesar.”  It seems Diocletian also thought the best way for someone to be a good emperor was to train them, thus the junior emperors.  He also hoped that this would reduce the prospect of civil war when it came time for a caesar to succeed an augustus.  So this was part of the political situation the Empire found itself in before the Great Persecution broke out.

The start of the persecution started to arise with Galerius and his army.  Galerius was the only emperor who needed to engage in serious warfare.  He feared that the Christians in his army would refuse to follow orders because of some theological debates about wither Christians should be in the army.  So he asked Diocletian to order all Christians dismissed from the ranks of the army.  Diocletian granted the request and ordered all Christians dismissed from the army.  The edict did not call for any further punishment against the Christians.  However, in some areas, most likely because of zeal and officers not wanting their ranks thinned, they tried to get the Christians to deny their faith.  When the Christians refused they were executed, almost all of the executions were in Galerius’ army.

Galerius from this time on it seems had a grudge against Christians.  In 303 he asked Diocletian to pass another edict removing Christians from all positions of responsibility in the Empire.  Again this was not meant to be a violent action against the Christians.  But the problem was that the Christians were not just removed from government positions, but it was declared that all Christian buildings and books be destroyed as well.  However, most Christian leaders and deacons were unwilling to give up the sacred books.  In some cases when they refused to give up the books, they faced torture and execution.

Then fire broke out twice in the imperial palace.  The Christians were blamed; Galerius believed it was revenge for their books and churches being burned.  Some Christian writers of the period suggested Galerius might have set the fires himself.  This broke Diocletian’s calm nature towards the Christians.  He declared that all Christians in the imperial court must sacrifice to the gods.  Diocletian’s wife and daughter, who were Christians, complied with his orders and sacrificed.  However, the Grand Chamberlain Dorotheus and others suffered martyrdom for refusing to sacrifice.  Throughout the Empire churches and books were being burned, however, in some places throughout the Empire overzealous officials decided to follow the Emperor’s example and put Christians to death.  However, Constantius Chlorus’ area there was a slight respite, where persecution was limited to tearing down some church building (at least according to Eusebius).

I will end it here for this week and pick it up next week with Diocletian’s edicts and the some more information about the persecution.

About Jesse

I am a graduate of Asbury Theological Seminary with a Masters of Arts in Theology focusing on Church History. I am a Third Order Benedictine monk, in the Company of Jesus. I am married to a wonderful woman, we just had a baby Michaela Rose. You can follow me and be alerted of new blog post by following me on Twitter @jtalexanderiv. Or following this blog.
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1 Response to Church History Tuesday: The Great Persecution before the Peace

  1. Pingback: Church History Tuesday: The Great Persecution before the Peace Part 2 | Learning From the Saints

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