A succession of intolerant emperors inflicts severe punishment on obstinate Christians who refuse to serve the Roman deities, culminating in the harshest of all persecutions of the first four centuries—that under Diocletian. The empire itself, meanwhile, faces near collapse under the weight of economic crises, internal political conflicts, civil war, and invasion from confederate barbarians pouring in from beyond the Rhine and the Danube.
Shalom, and welcome to our history podcast. This is a production of Kingdom Preppers.org. I’m your host, Kingdom Prepper, and you’re listening to: Churchianity: Two Thousand Years of Leaven. We continue with our history.
Part 5: Enemy Emperors
From the years 96 to 251 CE—between the reigns of Domitian and Decius—Christianity had been viewed as a religion separate from Hebraism, Messianic or otherwise. And because of this, together with the fact that it wasn’t based on ethnicity, the church had no right to Roman protection. It was therefore subject to sporadic, mostly localized persecutions that were based on Trajan’s policy, which was still in effect by the third century. But persecution increased under certain intolerant emperors, such as Marcus Aurelius and Septimius Severus. New policies aimed at Christians were also added by Emperors Septimius Severus and Decius, which had grave consequences for the church.
When Septimius Severus reigned as emperor early in the third century, he managed to end the civil wars that weakened the empire, though ruling the vast domain that now made up his dominion was no easy task. Beyond the borders of the realm, stretching past the Rhine and Danube were the “barbarians,” always ready to seize any opportunity to attack the Romans. Inside the realm, other problems persisted, which stemmed from dissident groups with other ideas on policy. And there was always the threat that a legion might split off, name its own emperor, and launch a new civil war.
With a decline in the empire’s strength, and faced with such internal problems and external threats, Septimius Severus decided to implement a new policy. He sought harmony among the many religions that had crept into the realm, so he promoted syncretism, which would combine the various beliefs and practices of all religions in the empire. This syncretism, however, would be centered on the worship of Sol Invictus, or “the Unconquered Sun.” This meant that everyone was free to worship whatever deity they choose, in whatever manner they choose, so long as they acknowledged that the Sun was ruler over all of them.
Not long after this policy was enforced did two groups immediately resist its adoption: the remaining Israelites and the Christians. Both had steadily gained converts to their particular movements over the years, thus the emperor decided to halt their spread by outlawing new conversions to either, under penalty of death. The result of this targeted policy was a round of new persecutions, this time aimed at new converts and their teachers. The very year that the edict was issued, 202 CE, the church father Irenaeus died—some believe by martyrdom—and Origen’s father Leonides was killed in Alexandria. It is also the year that Clement fled from Alexandria to escape the same persecution.
After Septimius Severus, other emperors came and went, and his policy was not generally enforced, thus persecutions on a broad scale abated for a time. The mother of one succeeding emperor, Alexander Severus—who was very tolerant of Christians—even went to hear Origen speak. But by the year 249, Emperor Decius, bent on restoring the ancient glory of Rome, donned the royal purple. His was a very different rule from that of his predecessors. The empire he inherited had abandoned its most ancient traditions, as he saw it, and economic problems plagued the realm. The “barbarians” beyond the borders, meanwhile, were steadily growing bolder as they became a greater threat. Philip Daileader, Associate Professor of History at the College of William and Mary, gives us a unique perspective on Rome’s vulnerability to invasion:
“The Roman Empire faced pressure on most of its widely extended borders during the course of the third century. The most serious dangers came from two regions, however. At the far eastern end of the Roman Empire, around Syria and Palestine and Mesopotamia, the Persian Empire was attacking the Roman Empire and trying to recover lands that had once been possessions of the Persian Empire. In Central Europe, along the Rhine/Danube frontier, the Roman Empire also faced pressure—albeit pressure of a somewhat different sort. In Central Europe, Germanic tribes were trying to enter the Roman Empire by crossing the Rhine river and, especially, the Danube river, and trying to settle within the Roman Empire. Unlike the Persians who were looking to make permanent annexations and gain Roman territory, the Germans were not trying to take over anything; they were simply trying to become residents of the Roman empire, but the Romans did not want them there, at least not in the numbers in which the barbarians presented themselves during the third century. And the Roman Empire had a very difficult time trying to deal with the simultaneous threat of Persian and Germanic invasion.”
Decius saw all these problems as an outgrowth of national rebellion against the Roman deities, which the citizens of the realm had abandoned. A resurgence of the ancient Roman religion, and unified worship of the deities, would perhaps appease them, and cause the glory of Rome to be restored. Such was the reasoning that led to Decius’s particular religious policy, which differed altogether from any that came before it. Decius wasn’t interested in punishing a particular religious group for what they believed or practiced; his was an empire-wide campaign to see that everyone in the realm would serve the deities according to the ancient pagan religion. The future of the Roman empire itself, in Decius’s view, hinged on the enforcement of his policy. With that, persecutions would take on an entirely new form, with the empire effectively declaring war on the ancient catholic church.
Gone were the sporadic, local persecutions of the old days. Decius intended to persecute subjects in every corner of the realm who refused his order to sacrifice to the deities by burning incense, pouring a libation, or tasting of the sacrificial meat. Those who abided by the policy and performed these rites would receive certificates, or libellum, attesting that they had sacrificed to the deities. With this, Decius’s persecutions were unlike those that flowed from the emperors before him. He wasn’t out to make martyrs of Christians, he would instead create Christian apostates, by forcing them to accept his religion and abandon their own.
Since there had been a period of abatement of prolonged persecutions prior to Decius’s reign, the generation of those who had been martyred gave way to a new generation of Christians unaccustomed to witnessing fellow believers being killed for their faith. This meant that many Christians fell under the pressure of Decius’s campaign, obeying the command to sacrifice to pagan deities. Other fearful Christians purchased fake certificates declaring that they had performed the sacrifices, when they had done no such thing.
Beyond that, as part of Decius’s policy, which sought to enforce the worship of the pagan deities, rather than exact death as a first order of business, the number of Christians who died as martyrs were few. The task of the Roman authorities was to arrest Christians (who were the most obstinate among the empire’s citizens), threaten and torture them, and force them to abandon the Christian movement. Late in life, Origen was imprisoned and suffered this kind of torture, which was the fate of many Christians at the time. As proof of how widespread and systematic was the enforcement of Decius’s policy, certificates verifying the performance of sacrifices to the deities have been discovered in some of the most remote parts of the Roman Empire.
Because few martyrdoms resulted from Decius’s persecution, rather than consider all who endured it “martyrs,” the term “confessor” went into official use and bore new significance as part of the Christian vocabulary to denote those who resisted but lived. Decius’s persecution, while brief, lasting only to 251, was still devastating. Gallus, the emperor who succeeded him, set aside his policy and persecutions ceased for another six years, until Valerian took the throne. He was once a companion of Decius and brought on a new round of persecutions before being captured by the Persians and taken prisoner. For the next forty years, Christians would enjoy relative peace. But prior to that time, the restless barbarians were continually amassing strength.
In his book, The Conversion of Europe, Richard Fletcher elaborates on those developments:
“Crippled by instability, civil war, fiscal chaos—and, just to make matters worse, by intermittent outbreaks of bubonic plague—the empire was in no position to defend its frontiers. From 224 onwards the new Persian dynasty of the Sassanids constituted a well-organized and hostile presence to the east, bent upon regaining the Syrian territories which Persian kings of old had ruled. For the Roman empire, the most humiliating moment of this time of troubles occurred in 260 when the Emperor Valerian was captured by the Persians. The Germanic tribes of the Goths, settled at this period on the northern shores of the Black Sea in today’s Ukraine, took to the sea to strike deep into Asia Minor. By land, they pressed hard on the Danube frontier, launching raids into the Balkans and Greece. The Emperor Decius was defeated and killed by them in Thrace in the year 251. Along the Rhine frontier new Germanic confederations, those of the Alamans and of the Franks, took shape. In 257 they broke into Gaul to plunder it at will. Some of them even penetrated as far as northeastern Spain, where they sacked the city of Tarraco (Tarragona). Berbers along the Saharan fringes attacked the long, thin, vulnerable littoral of Roman north Africa. In far-flung Britain the construction of coastal defenses witnessed to new enemies from overseas—Saxons from Germany and Scots from Ireland. One of the most telling signs of the times was the building of town walls throughout the western provinces of Gaul, Spain, and Britain, furnishing defenses for settlements which had never needed them before.”
Following Decius’s reign, the church was faced with a new problem: what to do about those who had “lapsed” in their Christian faith by bowing to the pressures of the persecution. What complicated the decision was that not all Christians had lapsed in the same way. Some immediately offered sacrifices to the Roman deities the minute they were told to, not considering their faith at all. It was agreed that they could not be viewed in the same light as the Christians who purchased fake certificates to prove that they had sacrificed but really had not, or others who weakened momentarily but repented and sought to rejoin the church while the persecution still raged.
Those who were newly minted as “confessors” enjoyed the same privileges as presbyters in the church and were given the authority to forgive sins. This is because they were believed to have received a special portion of the Set Apart Spirit after they refused to give in to their persecutors. So, the confessors were thought to be the ones with the authority to decide on the fate of the lapsed, such as who should be restored to communion status within the church.
You see, communion, or what they refer to as the eucharist (Greek for “thankfulness” or “thanksgiving”) was among the most important celebrations to Christians of this era. It meant that you were still a member of the Kingdom of Heaven in the eyes of the church leaders. To be denied the weekly elements of bread and wine meant certain spiritual death and damnation. And that bread and wine, through the supposed miracle of transubstantiation, was believed to literally transform into the body and blood of the Messiah after being blessed.
In North Africa, some confessors stepped forward and claimed the authority to decide on the fate of the lapsed. Thereafter, they began restoring some to communion status by dispensing letters of pardon. Many bishops opposed this action and claimed that only the church hierarchy was vested with the authority to decide on such matters, and they alone could restore the lapsed in a just manner. Others thought that both the confessors and bishops were lax in allowing those who had become apostates such easy reinstatement. This crisis led to schisms of the churches in Carthage and Rome. Decisions on the fate of those who had been immersed but had fallen away, would continue to plague and divide the church. The system of penance grew from crises of the lapsed, and the Protestant Reformation itself was a massive protest against that very system.
To give you an idea of what the system of penance would grow to become in the time of the ancient church, we turn to Richard Fletcher once more, who writes:
“The penitential discipline of the early church as administered by, let us say, Gregory of Pontus was of an exceptional harshness. Its characteristics were as follows. It could be administered only by a bishop, and it could be undergone by the penitent only once in a lifetime. It was public and it was shaming. The penitent sinner formally entered an ‘order of penitents’ in a ceremony which took place before the entire congregation of his or her Christian community. Penitents were thereafter segregated into a special part of the church building for future services, where they had to listen to the communal intercessions for them of their neighbors. The penitent had to observe lifelong chastity thereafter and was debarred from ever holding any public office: a seventh-century king of Spain who underwent penance had to abdicate. Penance thereby aimed mortal blows at family and civil life. The penitent became in effect a nonperson.”
We’ll be back with more exciting scriptural history . . . in a moment.
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In the year 284, a new emperor would enter the imperial palace and, before the end of his reign, order the most vicious persecution of Christians to date. Roughly thirty emperors sat the throne in the third century, and the Roman senate took the business of electing Caesars more lightly than in times past. Kinship meant hardly anything as well, since being a close relation to a recent Caesar probably meant that you would be assassinated if a rival ascended the throne, which was not unheard of. In one account of life in the time of Diocletian, the book, 20 Centuries of Christianity, by authors Paul Hutchinson and Winfred Garrison, tells us that,
“Chaos and anarchy spread throughout the empire. The slaying of one Caesar was a signal to Roman troops somewhere to acclaim a new ruler. Sometimes the Praetorian Guards stationed in Rome itself made the choice; sometimes it came from the armies on the frontiers. As the third century drew toward its close, most thoughtful Romans were in despair. They saw the empire on a swift slide into ruin and the once proud civilization about to plunge into a barbarian sea.”
And into that sea the empire did plunge, and it did see ruin, but not until the fifth century. In fact, Diocletian, despite his ill repute, managed to turn the empire around, and in effect revive it. Turning once more to Professor Philip Daileader, he says that:
“During this period, the Roman Empire was reeling from a series of political and military and economic crises, and indeed became very close to collapse. It probably should have fallen at this point in time. However, a Roman Emperor, by the name of Diocletian, was going to stave off collapse by a few centuries, and despite his intense conservatism, and his love of Roman tradition, Diocletian was going to reshape the Roman Empire and to make it a far more openly autocratic state than it had been previously.”
With that, Diocletian altered the basis for imperial rule and reorganized the entire empire in order to strengthen it.
Diocletian was born to slaves in Dalmatia, a Roman province in Illyricum, or what is now the western portion of the Balkan peninsula north of Greece. After setting his mind on the Roman army, he enjoyed a successful military career and rose to become commander of the army before reaching the age of forty. An election held by certain generals and officers proclaimed Diocletian emperor following the murder of the previous emperor. Diocletian quickly, and brutally, dispatched a rival for the throne in the presence of the tribunal of the Senate, and then he made his first order of business securing the Roman borders, setting off a series of battles that drove back the barbarians. He even recaptured territory from distant Britain and Persia, and civil wars were also repressed within the realm.
To militate against any future threats of invasion, Diocletian, switching modes from able general to shrewd statesman, implemented a plan to divide the realm.
“Known for his administrative skill, Diocletian divided the empire bureaucratically into West and East, with an emperor (or Augustus) and vice-emperor (Caesar) for each vast region.”
—Kevin Madigan, Medieval Christianity
Prior to this division, a single emperor governed, and succession ordinarily passed from father to son, though that rule had been violated on numerous occasions. Frequent civil wars were produced by power-hungry generals who, with the backing of their armies, fought to secure the throne. Diocletian’s plan was to establish a more orderly means of succession to the throne, which would begin with top military commanders, who would be succeeded by the Caesars they choose. By dividing the empire into two bureaucratic halves, with two administrative divisions in each, the idea was that ambitious generals could enjoy supreme rule without launching civil wars to attain it. Also, the realm would be protected by invested leaders enthroned in various quarters.
A man named Galerius was named one of the two Caesars, and he ruled the prefecture of Illyricum. Of the four emperors, Galerius saw the greatest military action along the borders, fending off barbarians and Persians alike. Because several Roman soldiers within the legions were confessed Christians, this created a degree of friction. Many of them refused to obey orders and some tried to leave the army. Other Christians refused to join. Galerius developed a disdain for them and took the matter to Diocletian in an attempt to convince him to expel them all. Diocletian’s edict did just that, but some officers refused to lose soldiers within the ranks. They tried to force some Christian soldiers to deny their faith rather than face expulsion, and this resulted in the execution of various Christians in the army stationed at the Danube, which was under Galerius’s command.
Following this event, Galerius grew all the more determined to push for a new edict, according to the Christian historian Eusebius. Not only was a new edict issued, but it was followed by three others. With that, Diocletian would declare another veritable, but more decisive war on Christians.
“It was he who launched the fiercest, longest, and most systematic purge of the Christians, traditionally called ‘the Great Persecution,’ ”
. . . Says Kevin Madigan.
“Persuaded that the Christians were the cause of bad omens and also to blame for a deteriorating economy, the emperor issued a series of edicts. . . .”
The first of these edicts ordered that all palace and military officials perform sacrifices to the deities to prove their faithfulness to the empire. Christians were therefore weeded out and removed from high office.
“. . . [H]e then decided to ‘terminate’ the Christian community for its refusal to participate. In November 303, Roman soldiers destroyed and looted a church in Nicomedia . . .”
And they proceeded to burn all the Scriptures they could find.
“Soon an edict was published requiring the destruction of all churches and sacred scriptures. In response, Christians in the East revolted and burned some imperial buildings. Diocletian retaliated by burning almost three hundred Christians in Nicomedia. Another edict was issued: all higher clergy were to be imprisoned, but a third edict allowed them reprieve on the condition that they would sacrifice. A fourth edict raised the stakes by requiring all to sacrifice. The penalty was hard labor or death. This time, thousands, not hundreds, were tortured, mutilated, enslaved, incarcerated, or put to death.”
The persecution, which was not that brutal in the beginning, became systematic and cruel in nature. Diocletian, who primarily governed the prefecture of Oriens from its capital, Nicomedia, took his government reforms seriously and decided to step down as Augustus. He convinced Maximian, the Augustus who ruled the prefecture of Italy from its capital, Milan, to step down as well. That allowed the two Caesars, Galerius and Constantius Chlorus, who governed the prefectures of Illyricum and Gaul, respectively, to assume the top two positions in the realm, becoming the new Augusti. Two new Caesars were chosen: a man named Severus was given control of Italy and another named Maximinus Daia controlled Oriens.
Persecutions resumed in the east, with Maximinus Daia resorting to capital punishment to enforce the original edicts. Civil war erupted in the west instead. Maximian, the Augustus who abdicated the throne in Milan, supported his son Maxentius in an overthrow of the new Caesar, Severus, who now ruled the prefecture of Italy. Severus soon committed suicide, and Galerius, who had rushed to aid his Caesar, was forced to retreat to the east as Maxentius secured his rule in Italy. Constantius Chlorus, the ruler of Illyricum, died in the interim. His loyal troops refused to yield to the supremacy of Galerius, so they proclaimed Constantius Chlorus’s son, Constantine, their new Augustus. A man named Licinius, who allied himself with Constantine, gained control of the east.
And . . .
“In the end, the persecution failed.”
. . . Says Kevin Madigan.
“By the fourth century, many Christians had non-Christian friends or relatives who were disgusted by their torture or death. Western officials were notably reluctant to carry out the harsh decrees mandating death, willing only to comply with the edicts demanding the burning of scriptures. In the East, suffering was more severe. We have the names of about one hundred martyrs who died in Palestine alone; there must have been more. Still, the Roman state could not carry out a mass extermination of Christians, as there was far too much social resistance. In addition, the numbers of Christians had grown to the point where attempted liquidation would have been futile.”
When Constantine and Maxentius assumed power, neither kept up the persecutions, which were credited to Galerius, their mutual rival. At last, Galerius himself grew ill and, as the story goes, he issued a final edict on April 30, 311, but one of toleration this time around. Perhaps believing that his illness was in fact some punishment being meted out for his vicious treatment of the Christians, he finally pardons them, and, to the astonishment of not a few, asks them to pray to their deity for him, and “for the public good.” Thus ended the most brutal persecution in the time of the ancient church.
The Christians who survived the persecutions were released from their prisons, signs of torture marking them. But all were thankful to be alive. Galerius met his demise five days later. The Roman Empire was now divided between four principals: Licinius, Maximinus Daia, Constantine, and Maxentius. The first three named among these rulers recognized one another as legitimate leaders, but the fourth, Maxentius, was viewed as a usurper. Of the four, Maximinus Daia was the sole ruler to resume the persecution of Christians that Galerius had overturned with his final edict. Nonetheless, the winds of change were already stirring, and Constantine was about to embark on a campaign of war that would end persecutions outright, and alter the political landscape of Europe and the Near East. In the end, he would sit as the sole and supreme ruler of a Christian empire.
That wraps it up for this episode of Churchianity: Two Thousand Years of Leaven. A production of Kingdom Preppers.org, this episode was written, produced, and hosted by yours truly, Kingdom Prepper. All praise, honor, and glory are due to my boss, Yah Elohim, and to his right hand, Yahushua HaMashiach. You can access the transcript for this episode on our website. Yah willing, our history will continue in the next podcast. Shalom.
Keywords: Domitian, Trajan, Marcus Aurelius, Septimius Severus, Decius, Gallus, Varian, Diocletian, Constantine, sol Invictus, libellum, persecution, confessor, martyr, Dalmatia, Illyricum, Galerius, churchianity, two thousand years of leaven, history of Christianity, church history, Hebrew history, kp, kingdom preppers