Reading: The Age of the Great Persecutions: Victory of Christianity A.D. 250-324 (The Early Church, Chapter 9)

The Early Church by James Orr




It is an intriguing coincidence that the coming of the thousandth anniversary of Rome's founding should also mark the beginning of its downfall. The Gothic invasions had commenced in the reign of Philip; in that of Decius (A.D. 250-51) they spread frightful desolation through Rome's fairest provinces. The turning-point in the history of the Church is equally noteworthy. Everything seemed going prosperously. It appeared as if an easy and peaceful victory were about to be achieved. But observant eyes, like Origen's, saw that this season of respite was only the calm before the storm of a great final struggle. The signs of the arrival of that storm were on the horizon. Up till now there had been severe and distressing persecutions, but they had been more or less local and limited in range. Now the empire woke up to see that the very existence of paganism was at stake and for the first time we have systematically planned and strictly universal persecutions. 

The Decian and Valerian Persecutions

The Emperor Decius was a Roman of the old school. His two years' reign ended in a defeat by the Goths, in which he and his army perished miserably in chaos. The two years were filled with significant consequences for the Christians. Decius was a persecutor, not from impulse but from settled policy. He honestly believed that the salvation of Rome lay in its old institutions, and that Christianity, as a rival power, was to be speedily crushed. He is credited with the saying that he would rather have a second emperor at his side than the bishop of Rome. He was newly crowned emperor when he launched the edict which inaugurated what is labeled the seventh persecution (A.D. 250). At first, it seems, he did not desire the death of the Christians. His policy was to terrify them by citing them before the tribunals and requiring them to recant. Then, if they proved obstinate, to coerce them by imprisonment, confiscation of property, torture, or exile. It was only when these measures failed that the most extreme tortures and death were inflicted on those who professed faith in Christ, and especially on the bishops. 

The persecuting edict was sent throughout the empire and rigorously enforced. Christians who did not appear before the tribunals on an appointed day were to be sought after, and brought before a commission composed of the magistrate and five of the principal citizens. The edict fell like a thunderbolt on the Church. The Epistles of Cyprian, his Treatise on the Lapsed, and a letter of Dionysius of Alexandria give us vivid pictures of the persecution. They also demonstrate how ill-prepared the Church was to meet it. 

Multitudes in time of peace had joined the Church who had no deep-rooted piety; and these, especially the wealthier classes, now fell away in large numbers. Dionysius pictures them approaching the altar, pale and trembling, as if they were going to be sacrificed instead of to sacrifice, while the populace who thronged around jeered them. Special names had to be invented to designate the classes of the lapsed. There was a term for those who had sacrificed, and a different word for those who offered incense. Then there were those who purchased a certificate that they had sacrificed even though they had not done so.  Then there was a term to describe those who did not have certificates, but who pretended they had sacrificed.

Many, however, did not apostatize, but submitted to be tormented with heat, hunger, and thirst in their prisons, stretched on the rack, torn with hooks, burnt with fire, and finally put to death. 

One of the first victims of the persecution was the aged Fabian, Bishop of Rome. For more than a year after this no bishop of Rome could be elected. Other distinguished sufferers were Babylus of Antioch and Alexander of Jerusalem, Origen's friend. Origen himself, it will be remembered, was imprisoned and tortured. The death of the emperor set him free. The persecution broke out again under his successor, Gallus (A.D. 251-54). 

It is, however, under the more important reign of the next emperor, Valerian (A.D. 254-60), that we come to what is usually numbered as the eighth persecution. Valerian was a man of unblemished virtue, and for the first four years of his reign was neutral towards the Christians. His house is described by Dionysius as "filled with pious persons, and a house of God." The change seems to have been brought about by a dark-minded man, Macrianus, who had acquired great influence over him. The reign of Valerian was the most calamitous the empire had ever experienced. This tumultuous time certainly had its effects.  The persecution that ensued exceeded even that of Decius in severity. 

Its first stage was in A.D. 257, and went no farther than to remove bishops from their churches, and forbid Christian assemblies on pain of death. The second stage (A.D. 258) was far more drastic, decreeing that office-bearers of churches should immediately be put to death, persons of rank should be degraded, and, if they persevered, should be put to death. Noble women and persons of lesser rank should suffer confiscation of property and banishment. 

One of the first to suffer was again the bishop of Rome, Sixtus, who was beheaded in his episcopal chair. We saw that Cyprian suffered in this persecution. In Spain we read of a bishop and two deacons being burned alive in the amphitheater. The persecution came to an end with the captivity of Valerian in Persia (A.D. 260). How little all these persecuting edicts had done to destroy Christianity is shown by the fact that the first step of his frivolous son and colleague, Gallienus (A.D. 254-68), was to restore to congregations their right to worship, and give bishops permission to return to their charges. Christianity thus became once more practically a permitted religion. 

Effects of the Persecutions 

Schisms of Felicissimus and Novatian

 A delicate and difficult question for the Church, as soon as the severity of the persecutions had abated, was the restoration of the lapsed. These formed a wide class, and the degree of falling away included many shades and degrees of guilt. Multitudes had little real sense of their sin in apostasy, and were impatient with any delay in restoration. The evil was aggravated by division into factions, and by a practice which had grown up of allowing the confessors (those who had endured persecution but had not fallen) a right of intercession for the fallen, and even of granting certificates of peace with the Church. In Carthage especially this privilege was abused beyond all bounds. The result was two schisms -- one at Carthage, the other at Rome.  The schism at Rome, at least, had important historical consequences. 

Cyprian's views on the restoration of the lapsed tended to strictness. He was opposed to taking action till a council of the church in North Africa could be called to settle terms of re-admission after careful deliberation. It will be remembered that a party of opposition to Cyprian existed in Carthage -- the result of jealousy at his ordination. The head of this party was a presbyter, Novatus, who, previous to this time, had shown his disregard for Cyprian by ordaining one Felicissimus as his deacon. These threw in their influence with the advocates of lenity, and received back any who so desired to Church fellowship. Novatus shortly after went to Rome, where we find him assuming the opposite title of a leader of the strict party. 

Cyprian gradually softened in his views, but without effect on the opposition. Felicissimus openly revolted against his authority, and refused to receive a delegation which Cyprian had sent to relieve the trials of sufferers in the persecution. At a council held A.D. 251 Felicissimus was condemned, and at a second council (A.D. 252) milder rules were adopted. The party of Felicissimus now set up a bishop of their own, named Fortunatus, and the schism was complete.    It seems to have had no permanent success. 

At Rome a much graver contest was being waged. Cornelius, the bishop-elect, was opposed by Novatian, a man of somber temper and rigorous principles, who resisted all re-admission of the lapsed to Church communion. He did not deny that the penitent might receive mercy from God, but held that the Church had no power to grant it. Novatus, from Carthage, threw himself into this new strife, and, on the rejection by the Church of Rome of Novatian’s position, persuaded his party not to accept Cornelius as their bishop, but to elect a bishop for themselves. Novatian was chosen opposition bishop, and a rival Church was formed which developed into a great organization, spread into many regions such as France (then known as Gaul), Africa, and Asia Minor. It continued for centuries, with a great reputation for piety. Epiphanius, e.g., mentions that in Thyatira there were no Catholics for a hundred and twelve years. Novatian was a genuinely able and learned man, as his work on the Trinity shows. 

Following on the schisms, embittered disputes arose on the rebaptism of heretics. These, as mentioned earlier, brought Cyprian into collision with Stephen, Bishop of Rome (A.D. 255-56). Cyprian, with the North African Church, took the stricter view (insisting on re-baptism); Stephen took the milder. The more charitable view ultimately prevailed. 

Empire and Church till Diocletian  


The death of Gallienus in A.D. 268 left the empire in a state bordering on ruin. From this period a rapid succession of emperors held sway whose main task it was to clear the provinces from the barbarians that infested them. They were mostly men of obscure rank, of Illyrian extraction (hence known as the Illyrian Emperors), and of great bravery and skill. The only one that need be mentioned here was Aurelian (A.D. 270-75), who achieved a series of brilliant triumphs in east and west, but made himself odious by his pride and severity. He was zealous for the maintenance of pagan rites (he was himself a devoted worshipper of the sun). Aurelian was on the point of issuing an edict for the persecution of the Christians when he was cut off by conspirators. Some allege that the edict was actually issued. It is this, nevertheless, which is reckoned as the ninth persecution-- a persecution, it will be seen, only on paper. The murder of the Emperor Numerian in A.D. 284 opened the way for Diocletian, with whom a new era in the empire begins. 

During all this period (apart from the danger under Aurelian), as well as during the first nineteen years of the reign of Diocletian (till A.D. 303), the Church enjoyed peace. This is known as the forty years' Peace, and, while it lasted, the Church continued to grow in numbers, wealth and influence, but also in worldliness and corruption. Large and magnificent churches began to be erected, greater splendor was introduced into the services, church offices were multiplied, etc. Christians were found in the highest positions in the palace. In the same proportion Church discipline was relaxed, and the old evils from which the Decian persecution had done much to purify the Church returned in full tide. 

We can make reference here to a new form of opposition which had sprung up on the philosophical and literary side, viz., Neo-Platonism. This philosophical form of faith, while bitterly hostile to Christianity, is the strongest testimony to its influence. It no longer poured unqualified ridicule on Christianity, as Celsus had done, but dealt with it in an eclectic spirit, condemning only its exclusive claims. "We must not," said Porphyry, "make derogatory statements about Christ, but only pity those who worship Him as God." The founder of this school, Ammonius Saccas of Alexandria (died A.D. 243), was born of Christian parents, and, indeed, for a time himself professed Christianity. A trace of Christian influence may be seen in the Neo-Platonic doctrine of the Trinity. The Neo-Platonic understanding, however, has little in common with the Christian doctrine; instead it is developed entirely from Platonic elements. The problem which Neo-Platonism set itself to solve was the union of the finite and infinite; and its means of bridging the opposition of the two was "ecstasy." 

The most illustrious teachers of the school after Ammonius were Plotinus (died c. A.D. 270) and Porphyry (died A.D. 304). Porphyry wrote a book entitled Discourses against the Christians of which fragments are preserved in the Fathers who replied to it. Some of his objections to the books of Scripture (e.g., to the book of Daniel) are early forerunners of the attacks on Scripture by the higher criticism school in the late 1800’s and 1900’s. A literary opponent of a coarser stamp, generally reckoned to this school, was Hierocles, prefect of Bithynia (afterwards of Alexandria), a cruel persecutor of the Christians. His book, Truth- loving Words to the Christians (!), attempts to disparage the character and miracles of Jesus by comparison with those of Aristotle, Pythagoras, and the pagan miracle-worker, Apollonius of Tyana. Eusebius wrote a reply to it. The school afterwards degenerated into theurgy, a system of "white” magic. An example is Iamblichus of Chalcis, who died c. A.D. 330. Its last famous teacher was Proclus of Constantinople, the commentator on Plato (died A.D. 485). 

The Diocletian Persecution

The last and most violent of all the persecutions that overtook the Christians, the tenth persecution, was that in the reign of Diocletian (A.D. 303-13). Diocletian, the son of a slave, introduced changes into the organization of the empire of far-reaching importance. He assumed personally the style of an Oriental despot. He divided the empire into two parts (West and East), with an "Augustus" for each; changed the seat of empire from Rome to the new capitals, Milan in the West and Nicomedia in the East. Further, Diocletian subdivided the empire by associating with each "Augustus" a "Caesar," who was in due course to succeed to the higher dignity.

In the establishment of these arrangements, Diocletian in the East associated with himself, in A.D. 286, Maximian, a rude but able soldier as Augustus in the West.  Then, in A.D. 292 he added, as the two "Caesars," Galerius, originally a herdsman,and Constantius Chlorus, father of Constantine the Great. To consolidate the relations, Constantius was required to put away his wife Helena, the mother of Constantine, and become son-in-law of Maximian. Meanwhile Galerius became the son-in-law of Diocletian. Constantius received the rule of Gaul and Britain, and Galerius had Illyria. 

Diocletian did not molest the Christians during the first nineteen years of his reign (his own wife, Prisca, and daughter, Valeria, were reputed Christians).  It was not from any love of the faith, rather Diocletian was a wary, political man. He knew better than most what a conflict with Christianity which was to end in its suppression would mean. The real instigator of the persecution was the low-bred, ferocious Galerius. Diocletian long held back, but, plied with arguments by Galerius and the pagan nobles, he at length gave way.  A persecution was agreed on, to take effect on the 23rd of February, A.D. 303. 

There was to be no halting or turning back. Measures were to be taken for the entire suppression of Christianity. Proceedings began at daybreak on the appointed day by the demolition of the magnificent church at Nicomedia which was one of the architectural ornaments of the city. It included the burning of all copies of the Scriptures found in the church. The next day an edict was issued giving the signal for a general persecution. All churches were to be demolished; all copies of the Scriptures were to be burned; Christians holding official positions were to be degraded and deprived of civil rights; others were to be reduced to the condition of slaves; and slaves were made incapable of receiving their freedom. 

This first edict in A.D. 303 was aimed, it should be noted, at the church buildings and the Scriptures, a new idea, rather than the persons of the Christians. Disobedience was punished by humiliation, not by death. A second edict in A.D. 303 ordered all clergy, without option of sacrifice, to be thrown into prison. After a short time, a third edict was issued, which was more severe. The clergy in prison were required to sacrifice. If they did not, they were to be compelled by every means of torture. Finally, in A.D. 304, a fourth edict extended this law to the whole body of the Christians. The most fearful tortures were inflicted on the Christians to compel them to submit. Though death was not mentioned in the edict, it was, as we learn from Eusebius, freely inflicted. 

The sweeping severity of this persecution is obvious from just the review of these edicts. Their publication, as in the Decian persecution, caused indescribable consternation. Immediately on the publication of the first edict, a soldier rashly tore it down with reproachful words, for this act he was roasted over a slow fire. Fires that broke out in the palace were blamed on the Christians, and led to many being burned, beheaded and drowned. Formerly trusted chamberlains of the palace were put to death. Diocletian's own wife and daughter had to clear themselves by sacrifice. 

Special panic was created by the order for the surrender and destruction of the Sacred Scriptures. The scenes of the Decian persecution were repeated in new forms. Multitudes hastened at once to give up their copies of the Scriptures; some palmed off on the officers worthless and heretical writings; others, more enthusiastic, not only retained their Scriptures, but boasted of their possession, and challenged the magistrates to do their worst. Those who for any reason gave up their Scriptures were branded with the name traitors, and the antagonism to these afterwards gave rise to a new schism -- that of the Donatists (there will be more on that issue later). The later edicts still further tried the faith and patience of the Christians. In Gaul and Britain, first under Constantius, then under Constantine, the Christians enjoyed comparative peace. But throughout the rest of the empire the persecution raged with dreadful cruelty. Egypt and Palestine were specially afflicted. 

In A.D. 305 Diocletian relinquished the crown, but this made matters worse for the Christians. Galerius, the chief promoter of the persecution, was now emperor, and his creatures, Severus and Maximin, in West and East respectively, were entirely devoted to his interests. The revolt of Maxentius in Italy (A.D. 306) was favorable to the Christians in so far as it was in his interest to attach them to his side in the conflict. With the defeat of Maxentius by Constantine at the Milvian Bridge, A.D. 312, persecution in the West may be said to have ended. In the East, under the savage Maximin, it went on with intensified severity till A.D. 311, when a welcome relief came. In that year the arch-persecutor, Galerius, smitten with a dreadful internal disease, was moved to make peace with the Christians, and issued an edict of toleration, granting full liberty of opinion and worship. 

This was followed in A.D. 313, after a provisional edict in A.D. 312, by the famous Edict of Milan of Constantine and Licinius. Maximin himself, defeated by Licinius, likewise issued an epistle in which he granted full liberty of worship. One reason he gives for the persecution is that the emperors "had seen that almost all men were abandoning the worship of the gods, and attaching themselves to the party of the Christians.” Thus on every hand the persecution was admitted to have failed, and Christianity emerged triumphant. 

Career and Character of Constantine 

Victory of Christianity

To judge fairly of Constantine, distinction should be made between the period before he arrived at supreme power and the period that succeeded. In the early period his character and conduct stand before us in a most favorable light. The son of Constantius Chlorus and Helena, he was born at Naissus, in Dacia, probably in A.D. 274. After his mother's divorce, he continued to reside at Nicomedia as a hostage for his father's loyalty. He joined his father in Gaul in A.D. 305, and was proclaimed emperor by the troops in Britain on the death of Constantius in A.D. 306. Galerius, however, only granted him the rank of ''Caesar." At the courts of Diocletian and Galerius he seems to have been a general favorite. His high reputation was maintained in Britain and in Gaul. He was tall and commanding in appearance, affable in manners, just and tolerant in his rule, and pure in his personal morals. He was a man undoubtedly of large ambitions, but these rested on a conscious ability to rule. 

From the first he was a protector of the Christians, and, as he sped on from victory to victory in their interests, it is perhaps not surprising that in their eyes, and in his own, he should come to be regarded as a sort of second Cyrus -- a special instrument raised up by God for the deliverance of His Church. In A.D. 305 Maxentius, the son of Maximian, had (with his father) usurped the supreme power in Italy. His reign was one of intolerable oppression. An historic battle was fought between Constantine and Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge, about nine miles from Rome, A.D. 312, which issued in the defeat and drowning of Maxentius. 

It was on the march to this battle that Constantine had his famous Vision of the Cross, which some speak of as his "Conversion." He saw, or believed he saw, a cross in the sky, above the brightness of the sun, bearing on it the words "By this conquer." The same night Christ appeared to him in sleep, and directed him to make a standard of the same pattern, which should be a symbol predicting victory. It is probable that the emperor may have seen an appearance in the heavens which his eager imagination interpreted as a cross. Also, in the agitation of his mind, on the eve of so critical a contest, he may have had a dream as he describes. If his mind was already pondering personal acceptance of Christianity, this becomes even more probable. The sacred standard -- the Labarum -- was at least made, and the monogram of Christ was displayed on shields and helmets of soldiers, and on gems and coins. However, at this point, Constantine was only minimally instructed in the real nature of Christianity. Christianity, indeed, was never much more to him than a system of Monotheism and providence. 

The Roman world was now divided between Constantine and Licinius (an "Augustus" of Galerius), and the final struggle could not be long delayed. In A.D. 313 the two emperors issued jointly the Edict of Milan, which was mentioned earlier. In A.D. 314 two battles were fought, in which Licinius was vanquished. A truce of eight years followed. In this interval the mind of Constantine was clearing, and several of his laws show a Christian impress. Licinius, on the other hand, took the side of paganism. The last war between the two, in A.D. 323, was said to be waged in the interests of the old religion and the old gods. "The issue of this war," said Licinius, "must settle the question between his god and our gods." The decisive victory at Adrianopole (A.D. 323), therefore, was well understood to be a victory for Christianity. In the following year, A.D. 324, the Christian religion was established.

The nature of this settlement, and some of the later events of Constantine's reign, on which dark shadows rest, are touched on in the next chapter. 

The Donatist Schism

 Even before arriving at full power Constantine had been asked to adjudicate in an ecclesiastical dispute arising out of the persecution in Carthage. Mensurius, Bishop of Carthage, had given offence to the stricter party by evasive conduct when called on to surrender his Scriptures and in other ways. The stricter party could accomplish nothing in his lifetime, but when his successor, Caecilian, was elected, in A.D. 311, they broke out in revolt under the leadership of one Donatus. They accused Caecilian of having been ordained by a “traditor” Felix, and, at a synod attended by seventy bishops, set up a rival bishop in the person of Majorinus. Appeal was made by the Donatists to Constantine to have the question determined whether Felix was really a “traditor” - that is, one who had given up the Scriptures during persecution. A series of investigations were held (A.D. 313-16), including one by the Council of Arles which met in A.D. 314. A final inquiry by the emperor himself (A.D. 316) concurred with the Council in clearing Felix and upholding Caecilian. Majorinus died in A.D. 315, and was succeeded as bishop by a second and greater Donatus, from whom the sect specially takes its name. Donatus proved utterly irreconcilable, and, in A.D. 316, Constantine was provoked to order the party into banishment. He recalled the edict next year (A.D. 317). Donatism continued to spread, and, by the end of Constantine's reign, was able to summon a synod of 270 bishops. It became a rallying point for all the forces of discontent in the district, and gave rise to outrageous manifestations in the roaming bodies of Circumcellions which means "round the cottages,” whose violence spread terror through the country. The better Donatists, of course, repudiated these abuses. The party was still powerful in the days of Augustine a century later. 


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