Emperor Diocletian’s Palace on the Dalmatian Coast
A brief overview of the last public persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire may help shed light on the public and private attack on Christianity and Christian conduct in 2015.
Recent court ruling on same sex marriage and even the video revelations about Planned Parenthood are both examples of government policies that politically resemble some of the actions taken in the name of preserving the “imperial state” during the time of the Tetrarchy and Constantinian dynasty.
Roman persecution came under the guise of, “universal sacrifice to the emperor” and was clearly designed to place the edicts and wishes of the State (and its rulers) as superior to the moral conscience of Christians and Christian teachings.
The purpose of this overview is to highlight the tension State Edicts create when they conflict with religious beliefs, and that resistance or compliance to such “imperial mandates” carry consequences for both parties.
The four Roman leaders mentioned in this article:
Diocletian: Reign form November 20, 284 AD – May 1, 305 AD Proclaimed emperor by the army after the death of. Marcus Aurelius Numerius.
Constantius I Chlorus: Reign from, May 1, 305 AD – July 25, 306 AD Adopted as junior co-emperor
Galerius: Reign from May 1, 305 AD – May 311 AD Adopted as junior co-emperor (‘Caesar’) and heir by Diocletian in 293 AD, son-in-law of Diocletian.
Constantine I: Reign from July 25, 306 AD – May 22, 337 AD Son of Constantius I Chlorus, proclaimed emperor by his father’s troops; accepted as Caesar by Galerius in 306 AD; promoted to Augustus in 307 AD.
(During this time in Roman history for political and geographic reason there was often more than one emperor and/or co-regent)
Date Line Rome: February 24, 303 AD
Christians had lived in relative peace during most of the rule of Diocletian. The persecutions that began with an edict of February 24, 303, were credited by Christians to Galerius work, as he was the fierce advocate of the old ways and of the old gods.
Diocletian was not considered anti-Christian during the first part of his reign, (a peculiar assessment considering he was purging the army of Christians) (See PDF at conclusion for modern parallels) and historians have claimed that Galerius decided to prod him into persecution by secretly burning the Imperial Palace and blaming it on Christian saboteurs.
Regardless of the source, Diocletian’s in his rage began one of the last and greatest Christian persecutions in the history of the Roman Empire.
Christian houses of assembly were destroyed, for fear of sedition in secret gatherings.
Later edicts targeted the clergy and ordered all inhabitants to sacrifice to the Roman gods (a policy known as universal sacrifice). The persecution varied in intensity across the empire—weakest in Gaul and Britain, where only the first edict was applied, and strongest in the Eastern provinces.
The persecution failed to check the rise of the Christianity. Constantus Chlorus eventually became sole ruler of the empire and after his death in 305 his succesor and son Constantine became the first emperor to stop Christian persecutions and to legalize Christianity
Although the persecution resulted in death, torture, imprisonment,and dislocation for many Christians, the majority of the empire’s Christians avoided punishment.
Sovereign Intervention: Initially one of the leading figures in the persecutions, Galerius later admitted that the policy of trying to eradicate Christianity had failed, saying: “wherefore, for this our indulgence, they ought to pray to their God for our safety, for that of the republic, and for their own, that the republic may continue uninjured on every side, and that they may be able to live securely in their homes.”
The persecution did, however, cause many churches to split between those who had complied with imperial authority (the traditores), and those who had remained “pure”.
Traditores (Lat), is a term meaning the one(s) who had handed over and defined as “one of the Christians giving up to the officers of the law the Scriptures, the sacred vessels, or the names of their brethren during the Roman persecutions”.
This refers to bishops and other Christians who turned over sacred scriptures or betrayed their fellow Christians to the Roman authorities under threat of persecution.
During the persecution of Diocletian between AD 303-305, many church leaders had gone as far as turning in Christians to the authorities and “handed over” sacred religious texts to authorities to be burned.
Conflict between the “traditories” and the “purist” continued long after the end of persecution and created strife and ill will between the two groups.
Planned Parenthood, Kim Davis and such things as purge of the US military of Christian influence may be new to this generation, but are old hat in the long view of western worlds continuous conflict between Faith and the dictates of the State.
Though the breadth and depth of the present persecution is unknown and only speculation can be made as to its outcome historically and biblically, the destiny of the United States and the liberties it represents still hinge on the foundation of a biblical worldview and on the application of the gospel of Christ taken by the church and in the culture at large.