The most notorious persecutor of the early Christians was Emperor Diocletian (r.284-305).
The Persecution of Christians
During the reign of Diocletian the Roman Empire was divided between the four powerful men referred to as the Tetrarchy:
- Diocletian was Augustus of the East: Ruling Asia, Egypt and Thrace
- Galerius: Controlled the legions of the Danube
- Maximian was Augustus of the West: Ruling Italy and Africa
- Constantius: Britain, Spain and Gaul
The Tetrarchy and the Persecution of Christians
Diocletian was esteemed the most just and kind of the Emperors; Maximian, the fiercest and most savage. Maximian had a bitter hatred of the Christian name, which was shared by Galerius; but, on the other hand, the wife of Diocletian was believed to be a Christian, and Helena, the wife of Constantius, was certainly one. However, Maximian and Galerius were determined to put down the faith. Maximian is said to have had a whole legion of Christians in his army, called the Theban, from the Egyptian Thebes. These he commanded to sacrifice, and on their refusal had them decimated, that is, every tenth man was slain. The Theban Legion were called on again to sacrifice, but still were staunch, and after a last summons were, every man of them, slain as they stood with their tribune Maurice, whose name is still held in high honor in the Engadine.
Christian Martyrs at the Colosseum
Emperor Diocletian and the Persecution of Christians
Diocletian was slow to become a persecutor, until a fire broke out in his palace at Nicomedia, which caused great destruction in the city, but spared the chief Christian church. The enemies of the Christians accused them of having caused it, and Diocletian required every one in his household to clear themselves by offering sacrifice to Jupiter, so starting the Persecution of the Christians by Diocletian. His wife and daughter yielded, but most of his officers and slaves held out, and died in cruel torments. One slave was scourged till the flesh parted from his bones, and then the wounds were rubbed with salt and vinegar; others were racked till their bones were out of joint, and others hung up by their hands to hooks, with weights fastened to their feet. A city in Phrygia was surrounded by soldiers and every person in it slaughtered; and the Christians were hunted down like wild beasts from one end of the empire to the other, everywhere save in Britain, where, under Constantius, only one martyrdom is reported to have taken place, namely, that of the soldier at Verulam, St. Alban. This period was the worst of all the persecutions of Christians and lasted the longest.
The Persecution of the Christians and the Edict of Diocletian
Diocletian passed laws or Edicts to force people who lived in the Roman Empire to worship the ancient gods of the Romans. The Edict of Diocletian relating to the persecution of Christians were as follows:
- The edict of Diocletian ordered the destruction of Christian scriptures
- The destruction of Christian places of worship
- The Edict of Diocletian prohibited Christians from assembling for worship
- The arrest of the Christian clergy
- The Edict demanded acts of sacrifice and homage to be paid to the Roman gods and goddesses
- Sentences of Torture and Death passed on Christians who refused to renounce the Christian Faith
The persecution of Christians began A.D. 303, and continued for nearly ten years, after the death of Diocletian. The persecution of Christians eased in 311 when the general edict of toleration was issued. So many Christians perished that the emperors of the Tetrarchy boasted that they had totally eliminated the sect. Many Christian Martyrs were later canonised. Details of these Saints, their tortures and deaths are detailed in the following section: