What impact did Diocletian have on Christian history?
Diocletian was Roman Emperor from 284 to 305 AD. He is most known for restructuring the Roman government and persecuting Christians towards the end of his reign. Here is an overview of Diocletian’s life and the impact he had on Christian history:
Diocletian came to power during a tumultuous time for the Roman Empire. There had been much instability with multiple emperors coming to power and quickly being overthrown or assassinated. Diocletian brought some stability by instituting a Tetrarchy, which had two senior emperors (Augusti) and two junior emperors (Caesars). This allowed for smoother succession as Caesars could be promoted to take the place of Augusti. Diocletian was the first Augustus in this system.
Early in his reign, Diocletian did not single out Christians for persecution. However, he did require sacrifices to be made to the Roman gods as a display of loyalty. Christians refused to do this, which started to bring them negative attention.
In 303 AD, Diocletian issued a series of edicts aimed at suppressing Christianity. These became known as the Diocletian Persecution or the Great Persecution. The edicts ordered Christian scriptures and places of worship to be destroyed. Christians holding positions in government were removed from those positions. Ultimately, all citizens were required to demonstrate their allegiance to Roman gods by making a sacrifice, which again Christians refused to do.
The persecution was most intense in the Eastern portion of the empire. Many Christians were imprisoned, tortured, or executed if they refused to renounce their faith. The persecution did succeed in getting some Christians to apostatize and worship Roman gods. Prominent Christians who were martyred during this time included Saint George, Saint Agnes, and Saint Lucy. Many others suffered before remaining steadfast in their faith.
There is debate among historians about why Diocletian suddenly targeted Christians so harshly. Some posit he felt Christianity was becoming too influential and threatening to traditional Roman values. The refusal of Christians to worship the gods may have been seen as cultish and dangerous. It’s also possible Diocletian was persuaded by those close to him who hated Christianity to take action against the growing religion.
Diocletian retired as Emperor in 305 AD due to poor health. His Tetrarchy system fell apart shortly thereafter due to infighting and civil wars. Constantine the Great came to power and in 313 AD issued the Edict of Milan, which granted religious tolerance to Christians and helped put an end to Roman persecution.
The Diocletianic Persecution had some lasting impacts:
– Many Christians achieved martyr status, which bolstered the faith for future generations
– Church leadership was disrupted, forcing local bishops to step up during the turmoil
– Christians had to be creative about how they worshipped, including meeting in secret or relying more on the domestic church based in the home
– Some pagans were converted, seeing the conviction Christians held to under suffering
– The number of Christians likely declined substantially but bounced back as soon as persecution let up
– Apologists like Lactantius wrote definitive works defending Christianity and criticizing the pointless violence against them
– The Donatists emerged as a schismatic group, opposed to any compromise with Roman paganism.
So in summary, Diocletian attempted to suppress Christianity and solidify traditional Roman values during the latter part of his reign as Emperor. This persecution was a definitive moment in Christian history that tested many believers but ultimately did not stem the rising tide of the Christian faith. Diocletian serves as an example of a pagan ruler who used force in vain to try to oppress adherents of the Gospel.
Further Details on Diocletian’s Reign and Policies
Diocletian was born around 244 AD in Dalmatia. He worked his way up the military ranks to become a Roman cavalry commander before being named Emperor by his legions in 284 AD.
Diocletian’s reign marked the end of the Crisis of the Third Century, a period of economic trouble and susceptibility to barbarian invasions that almost led to the collapse of the Roman Empire. Diocletian brought stability by instituting major political reforms:
– He divided the empire into four regions, each with its own Emperor (the Tetrarchy):
– Diocletian as Augustus of the East
– Maximian as Augustus of the West
– Galerius as Caesar under Diocletian
– Constantius as Caesar under Maximian
– This allowed for clearer lines of succession as the Caesars would take over as Augusti.
– The Empire was easier to defend with closer administration of these regions.
– Diocletian built up fortifications along the Empire’s borders to help repel barbarian attacks.
Diocletian also implemented economic reforms:
– Issued a new currency to combat inflation.
– Set maximum prices for goods to prevent price gouging, though enforcement of this was difficult.
– Increased taxes to pay for imperial expenses and defenses.
Socially, Diocletian tried to revive traditional Roman religious practices by forcing public sacrifices:
– Christians refusal to participate brought them into suspicion.
– Diocletian associated Christianity with the instability of previous decades.
– He believed Christians were weakening the Empire through their rejections of pagan rituals.
This background provides context on why Diocletian specifically targeted Christians as traitors of the Empire who needed to be purged to restore old Roman values.
Overview of the Persecution
Diocletian’s persecution of Christians occurred in several stages:
303 AD – First Edict
This edict ordered the destruction of Christian scriptures and places of worship across the empire. Christian civil servants also lost their jobs. The goal was to eliminate materials and spaces Christians needed to practice their faith. Many priceless early biblical manuscripts were burned.
304 AD – Second and Third Edicts
These increased the persecution. All inhabitants of the empire were required to demonstrate loyalty through sacrifice to Roman gods. Christians who refused, including the clergy, were imprisoned until they performed the sacrifice. Executions followed for those who continue to refuse.
306 AD – Fourth Edict
This last edict called for universal sacrifice across the empire to the Roman gods. Christians were told to sacrifice or face torture and death. Violent enforcement ensued, especially in the Eastern empire under Diocletian’s successor Galerius. Some renounced Christianity out of fear, while many others held strong in their faith.
311 AD – Edict of Toleration
With the Tetrarchy dissolved due to civil wars, Galerius issued this edict from his eventual deathbed. It granted Christians the right to practice their religion again without punishment, admitting the persecution had failed to bring Christians back to Roman gods.
So the persecution progressed in phases from destroying scripture and demolishing churches to imprisonment, torture, and execution of clergy and lay people who refused to make sacrifices. The Eastern empire saw the worst abuses before Galerius finally relented.
Martyrs and Impact on the Church
The Diocletianic Persecution resulted in many martyrs:
Saint George – Soldier tortured for refusing to make sacrifices before being executed in Palestine c. 304 AD.
Saint Agnes – Young girl beheaded for refusing to marry a Roman official in Rome c. 304 AD.
Saint Lucy – Killed for consecrating her virginity to God and helping Christians hiding in Roman catacombs in 304 AD.
Saint Sebastian – Captain of palace guards who subtly encouraged Christian prisoners. He survived initial execution by arrows but was beaten to death c. 288 AD.
The stories of martyrs like these inspired future generations of Christians to remain strong in their faith. However, the loss of many leaders was a blow to the early Church. Bishops in particular were targeted, disrupting governance and pastoral care of congregations. This led to local leadership teams taking greater responsibility until new bishops could be appointed. House churches on estates also became more important centers of worship with public Christian buildings destroyed.
While some Christians apostatized to avoid death, this persecution bolstered the faith of those who did not waver. The willingness to suffer fueled the growth of Christianity in subsequent generations.
Reasons for the Persecution
Scholars propose several factors that motivated Diocletian’s persecution of Christians:
– Christians rejecting Roman gods threatened stability and tradition in Diocletian’s eyes. Their “blind” faith did not align with pagan rationality.
– As a military man, Diocletian saw obedience to the state and its rituals as essential for order and security. The Christian “cult” flouted this by putting religion first.
– Pagan priests complained about the influence Christianity was gaining, persuading Diocletian to see them as subversives rather than a harmless sect.
– Diocletian associated the recent instability in the empire with growth of this strange new religion. He hoped pagan rituals would restore traditional virtue.
– Galerius and other co-Emperors disliked Christianity and convinced the aging Diocletian to authorize the purge.
– Diocletian was generally tolerant but was persuaded this minority needed to be forcefully corrected once it began impacting society.
The refusal to worship Roman gods was seen as undermining the authority of the state. Diocletian hoped severe penalties would make Christians comply, not realizing their faith could withstand brutality.
Aftermath and Implications
The aftermath of the Great Persecution included:
– Christianity continued to spread despite the oppression, though apostasy temporarily reduced numbers.
– Donatism emerged as a breakaway sect in North Africa, consisting of Christians who refused to welcome lapsed Christians back into the fold. This schism lasted centuries.
– Lactantius wrote “On the Deaths of the Persecutors” linking the Emperors’ horrific fates to their violence against Christians. A weighty apologetic work.
– Constantine became sole Emperor by 324 AD. He converted to Christianity after winning the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 AD, where he attributed victory to Christian God.
– Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313 AD marked the end of persecution, granting Christians freedom of worship. Paganism declined in ensuing decades.
– The Christian Church was consolidated under papal and doctrinal authority in Rome rather than regional networks.
– Martyrs were venerated as Saints, their relics enshrined. Accounts of their sufferings strengthened the faith through the example they set.
So while persecution failed to achieve Diocletian’s goal of eliminating Christianity, it did reinforce the courage and solidarity of Christians. With Constantine’s ascendance just a few years later, Christianity established itself as a enduring religious force in the Roman Empire it would one day take over.
Diocletian’s Retirement and Death
Diocletian retired as Emperor on May 1, 305 AD due to poor health, becoming the first Roman Emperor to voluntarily step down. He lived out his remaining years in his palace near Split on the Adriatic coast.
Diocletian reportedly struggled with depression in retirement. Witnessing his reforms fall apart with civil war breaking out must have been disheartening. Maximian’s rebellion against Constantius may have also angered Diocletian given his loyalty to the Tetrarchy system he created.
Diocletian remained convinced paganism would help restore the Empire’s greatness. The Christianization of Rome following Constantine’s ascention represented a repudiation of all Diocletian believed would make Rome strong again.
The Emperor died in obscurity in 311 AD. With Constantine as the new Emperor based in the West, Diocletian lived his final years seeing his pagan restoration undone by the growing influence of the Christian faith.
Constantine’s Rule and His Embrace of Christianity
Constantine I, or Constantine the Great, ruled as Roman Emperor from 306 to 337 AD. He emerged from the Tetrarchy system and its eventual breakdown as the sole Emperor through civil wars culminating in his defeat of Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 AD.
This fateful battle prompted Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, as he attributed his victory to the Christian God. He reportedly had a vision the night before the battle instructing him to paint Christian symbols on his soldier’s shields, after which he saw a cross in the sky accompanied by the Greek words “By this sign, conquer.”
Once he became sole Emperor, Constantine enacted several policies favorable to Christians:
– In 313 AD, he and co-Emperor Licinius issued the Edict of Milan decriminalizing Christian worship. This marked the formal end of Diocletian’s persecution.
– Constantine restored property confiscated from Christians during the persecutions and granted them exemptions from certain public duties.
– He helped fund the building of grand cathedrals such as St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
– Public Christian worship was encouraged, with Sundays made into a day of rest.
– Constantine did not make Christianity the official state religion (that came later), but he clearly favored it and ended anti-Christian policies.
– He convened the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD to settle doctrinal disputes, showing imperial involvement in Church affairs.
So Constantine pivoted away from Diocletian’s vision of pagan revival and instead moved the Empire towards officially embracing Christianity, which accelerated the influence its clergy gained.
Scholars debate what motivated Constantine to favor Christianity so suddenly after its suppression under the Tetrarchy:
– His vision before the Battle of Milvian Bridge sincerely converted him, making him devote his reign to the Christian God who delivered him victory.
– He saw the growing numbers of Christians throughout the Empire and realized embracing this faith was astute politics.
– He knew he needed a force to unify the fracturing Empire and thought Christianity could provide that, binding the people together under one religion.
– He hoped embracing this previously persecuted faith would increase his legitimacy and distance him from other warring emperors.
– He found the Christian clergy could give his reign divine sanction that pagan priests could not.
Whatever his reasons, Constantine proved a decisive turning point for Christianity to become fully accepted in Roman society, whereas it faced suspicion and hostility under Diocletian. The two emperors illustrate the dramatic change in fortunes for Christianity.
Impact on the Growth of Christianity
Diocletian failed to suppress the growth of Christianity, while Constantine enabled its flourishing. Some key effects on the Christian faith were:
– The number of Christians declined during Diocletian’s persecution but recovered and increased under Constantine. Christianity spread rapidly in the 4th century.
– Church leadership that was disrupted under Diocletian was consolidated under the Bishop of Rome, laying the foundation for the medieval Papacy.
– Public display of Christianity went from dangerous to encouraged seemingly overnight once Constantine took power.
– Church infrastructure expanded thanks to imperial funding, facilitating larger congregations.
– Doctrinal disputes within the faith were settled through greater central authority instead of regional variability.
– Paganism went into rapid decline, with temples even being closed or converted into churches.
So in just a few decades around the turn of the 4th century, Christianity went from facing intense persecution to imperial patronage, ensuring its dominance in the Roman world.
Diocletian attempted to save paganism and suppress Christianity in the late 3rd century through edicts banning scripture and demanding public sacrifice. This persecution strengthened the resolve of many believers but disrupted the early Church’s leadership and infrastructure. After abdicating due to illness, Diocletian had to watch his reforms undone from retirement as Constantine embraced Christianity instead. Constantine allowed the Christian faith to flourish across the Empire and start down the path towards becoming the state religion. So Diocletian represented the last gasp of anti-Christian policies in the Roman Empire before Constantine ushered in an era of imperial favor that allowed Christianity to spread rapidly. Diocletian’s persecution left lasting martyr legends but failed to achieve its objective of eliminating the disruptive influence of Christ’s followers. Instead, the bloody campaign showed the conviction of early believers and how a Judean peasant crucified 300 years before could inspire such faith. By highlighting the stark contrasts Christianity posed with traditions of Roman state religion, the persecution ultimately quickened the pace of Christianity establishing itself throughout the Empire.