Sacred Texts  Christianity  Early Church Fathers  Index  Previous  Next 

On Bk. VIII. chap. 2, § 4 (note 3, continued). The Causes of the Diocletian Persecution.

The persecution of Diocletian, following as it did a period of more than forty years during which Christianity had been recognized as a religio licita, and undertaken as it was by a man who throughout the first eighteen years of his reign had shown himself friendly to the Christians, and had even filled his own palace with Christian servants, presents a very difficult problem to the historian. Why did Diocletian persecute? The question has taxed the ingenuity of many scholars and has received a great variety of answers. Hunziker (in his Regierung und Christenverfolgung des Kaisers Diocletianus und seiner Nachfolger, Leipzig, 1869), Burckhardt (in his Zeit Constantins, Basel, 1853, 2d and improved edition, Leipzig, 1880), and A. J. Mason (in his Persecution of Diocletian, Cambridge and London, 1876), not to mention other investigators, have treated the subject with great ability and at considerable p. 398 length, and the student is referred to their works for a fuller examination of the questions involved. It is not my purpose here to discuss the various views that have been presented by others; but inasmuch as I am unable fully to agree with any of them, I desire to indicate my own conception of the causes that led to the persecution. We are left almost wholly to conjecture in the matter; for our only authority, Lactantius, makes so many palpably erroneous statements in his description of the causes which produced the great catastrophe that little reliance can be placed upon him (see Burckhardt’s demonstration of these errors, ibid. p. 289 sq.). Nevertheless, he has preserved for us at least one fact of deep significance, and it is a great merit of Mason’s discussion that he has proved so conclusively the correctness of the report. The fact I refer to is that the initiative came from Galerius, not from Diocletian himself. Lactantius states this very distinctly and repeatedly, but it has been argued by Hunziker and many others that the persecution had been in Diocletian’s mind for a long time, and that it was but the culmination of his entire policy. Having settled political matters, it is said, he turned his attention to religious matters, and determined as a step toward the restoration of the old Roman religion in its purity to exterminate Christianity. But, as Mason shows, this is an entire misconception of Diocletian’s policy. It had never been his intention to attack Christianity. Such an attack was opposed to all his principles, and was at length made only under the pressure of strong external reasons. But though Mason has brought out this important fact so clearly, and though he has shown that Galerius was the original mover in the matter, he has, in my opinion, gone quite astray in his explanation of the causes which led Diocletian to accede to the wishes of Galerius. According to Mason, Diocletian was induced against his will to undertake a course of action which his judgment told him was unwise. “But the Cæsar [Galerius] was the younger and the stronger man; and a determination to do has always an advantage over the determination not to do. At length Diocletian broke down so far as to offer to forbid the profession of the faith within the walls of his palace and under the eagles of his legions. He was sure it was a mistaken policy. It was certainly distasteful to himself. The army would suffer greatly by the loss. Diocletian would have to part with servants to whom he was attached,” &c. To my mind, it is impossible to believe that Diocletian—great and wise emperor as he had proved himself, and with an experience of over eighteen years of imperial power during which he had always shown himself master—can thus have yielded simply to the importunity of another man. Our knowledge of Diocletian’s character should lead us to repudiate absolutely such a supposition. Feeling the difficulty of his own supposition, Mason suggests that Diocletian may have felt that it would be better for him to begin the persecution himself, and thus hold it within some bounds, than to leave it for Galerius to conduct when he should become emperor two years later. But certainly if, as Mason assumes, Diocletian was convinced that the measure was in itself vicious and impolitic, that was a most remarkable course to pursue. To do a bad thing in order to leave no excuse for a successor to do the same thing in a worse way—certainly that is hardly what we should expect from the strongest and the wisest ruler Rome had seen for three centuries. If he believed it ought not to be done, we may be sure he would not have done it, and that neither Galerius nor any one else could compel him to. He was not such a helpless tool in the hands of others, nor was he so devoid of resources as to be obliged to prevent a successor’s folly and wickedness by anticipating him in it, nor so devoid of sense as to believe that he could. It is, in my opinion, absolutely necessary to assume that Diocletian was convinced of the necessity of proceeding against the Christians before he took the step he did. How then are we to account for this change in his opinions? Burckhardt attributes the change to the discovery of a plot among the Christians. But the question naturally arises, what motive can the Christians have had for forming a plot against an emperor so friendly to them and a government under which they enjoyed such high honors? Burckhardt gives no satisfactory answer to this very pertinent query, and consequently his theory has not found wide acceptance. And yet I believe he is upon the right track in speaking of a plot, though he has not formed the right conception of its causes and nature, and has not been able to urge any known facts in direct support of his theory. In my opinion the key to the mystery lies in the fact which Lactantius states and the truth of which Mason demonstrates, but which Burckhardt quite overlooks, that the initiative came from Galerius, not Diocletian, viewed in the light of the facts that Galerius had long been known to be a bitter enemy of the Christians, and that he was to succeed Diocletian within a couple of years. The course of events might be pictured somewhat as follows. Some of the Christian officials and retainers of Diocletian, fearing what might happen upon the accession of Galerius, who was known to be a deadly enemy of the Christians, and who might be expected, if not to persecute, at least to be a deadly enemy of the Christian officials that had enjoyed Diocletian’s favor (Galerius himself had only heathen officials in his court), conceived the idea of frustrating in some way the appointed p. 399 succession and secure it for some one who would be more favorable to them (possibly for the young Constantine, who was then at Diocletian’s court, and who, as we know, was later so cordially hated by Galerius). It may have been hoped by some of them that it would be possible in the end to win Diocletian himself over to the side of Christianity, and then induce him to change the succession and transmit the power to a fitter prince. There may thus have been nothing distinctly treasonable in the minds of any of them, but there may have been enough to arouse the suspicions of Galerius himself, who was the one most deeply interested, and who was always well aware of the hatred which the Christians entertained toward him. We are told by Lactantius that Galerius spent a whole winter with Diocletian, endeavoring to persuade him to persecute. The latter is but a conclusion drawn by Lactantius from the events which followed; for he tells us himself that their conferences were strictly private, and that no one knew to what they pertained. But why did the persecution of the Christians at this particular time seem so important a thing to Galerius that he should make this long and extraordinary visit to Nicomedia? Was it the result of a fresh accession of religious zeal on his part? I confess myself unable to believe that Galerius’ piety lay at the bottom of the matter, and at any rate, knowing that he would himself be master of the empire in two years, why could he not wait until he could take matters into his own hands and carry them out after his own methods? No one, so far as I know, has answered this question; and yet it is a very pertinent one. It might be said that Galerius was afraid that he should not be able to carry out such measures unless they had had the sanction of his great predecessor. But Galerius never showed, either as Cæsar or Augustus, any lack of confidence in himself, and I am inclined to think that he would have preferred to enjoy the glory of the great undertaking himself rather than give it all to another, had he been actuated simply by general reasons of hostility toward the Church. But if we suppose that he had conceived a suspicion of such a plan as has been suggested, we explain fully his remarkable visit and his long and secret interviews with Diocletian. There was no place in which he could discover more about the suspected plot (which he might well fancy to be more serious than it really was) than in Nicomedia itself; and if such a plot was on foot, it was of vital importance to unearth it and reveal it to Diocletian. We may believe then that Galerius busied himself during the whole winter in investigating matters, and that long after he had become thoroughly convinced of the existence of a plot Diocletian remained skeptical.

We may suppose that at the same time whatever vague plans were in the minds of any of the Christians were crystallizing during that winter, as they began to realize that Galerius’ hold upon the emperor was such that the latter could never be brought to break with him. We may thus imagine that while Galerius was seeking evidence of a plot, the plot itself was growing and taking a more serious shape in the minds at least some of the more daring and worldly minded Christians. Finally, sufficient proof was gathered to convince even Diocletian that there was some sort of a plot on foot, and that the plotters were Christians. The question then arose what course should be pursued in the matter. And this question may well have caused the calling together of a number of counsellors and the consultation of the oracle of Apollo of which Lactantius tells us. Galerius naturally wished to exterminate the Christians as a whole, knowing their universal hostility to him; but Diocletian just as naturally wished to punish only such as were concerned in the plot, and was by no means convinced that the Christians as a whole were engaged in it. The decision which was reached, and which is exhibited in the edict of the 24th of February, 303 seems to confirm in a remarkable manner the theory which has been presented. Instead of issuing an edict against Christians in general, Diocletian directs his blows solely against Christians in governmental circles,—public officials and servants in official families (cf. the interpretation of the edict given above in Bk. VIII. chap. 2, note 6). This is certainly not the procedure of an emperor who is persecuting on religious grounds. The church officers should in that case have been first attacked as they had been by Decius and Valerian. The singling out of Christians in official circles—and the low as well as the high ones, the servants as well as the masters—is a clear indication that the motive was political, not religious. Moreover, that the edict was drawn in such mild terms is a confirmation of this. These men were certainly not all guilty, and it was not necessary to put them all to death. It was necessary to put an end to the plot in the most expeditious and complete way. The plotters should be shown that their plot was discovered, and the whole thing should be broken up by causing some of them to renounce their faith, by degrading and depriving of citizenship all that would not renounce it. It was a very shrewd move. Executions would but have increased the rebellious spirit and caused the plot to spread. But Diocletian was well aware that any one that renounced his faith would lose caste with his fellow-Christians, and even if he had been a plotter in the past, he could never hope to gain anything in the future from the accession of a Christian emperor. He was p. 400 careful moreover to provide against any danger from those who refused to renounce their faith, by putting them into a position where it would be impossible for them to accomplish anything in that line in the future. He knew that a plot which had no support within official circles would be of no account and was not to be feared. The action, based on the grounds given, was worthy of Diocletian’s genius; explained in any other way it becomes, in my opinion, meaningless. A further confirmation of the view which has been presented is found in the silence of Lactantius and Eusebius. The former was in Nicomedia, and cannot have failed to know the ostensible if not the true cause of the great persecution. Diocletian cannot have taken such a step without giving some reason for it, and doubtless that reason was stated in the preambles of his edicts, as is the case in the edicts of other emperors; but as it happens, while we know the substance of all the edicts, not a single preamble has been preserved. May it not be possible that the Christians, who preserved the terms of the edicts, found the preambles distasteful because derogatory to some of themselves and yet unfortunately not untrue? The reasons which Lactantius gives are palpable makeshifts, and indeed he does not venture to state them categorically. “I have learned,” he says, “that the cause of his fury was as follows.” Doubtless he had heard it thus in Christian circles; but doubtless he had heard it otherwise from heathen or from the edicts themselves; and he can hardly, as a sensible man, have been fully satisfied with his own explanation of the matter. Eusebius attempts no explanation. He tells us in chapter I, above, that the Church just before the persecution was in an abominable state and full of unworthy Christians, and yet he informs us that he will pass by the unpleasant facts to dwell upon the brighter side for the edification of posterity. Was the cause of the persecution one of the unpleasant facts? He calls it a judgment of God. Was it a merited judgment upon some who had been traitors to their country? He gives us his opinion as to the causes of the persecution of Decius and Valerian; why is he silent about the causes of this greatest of all the persecutions? His silence in the present case is eloquent.

The course of events after the publication of the First Edict is not difficult to follow. Fire broke out twice in the imperial palace. Lactantius ascribes it to Galerius, who was supposed to have desired to implicate the Christians; but, as Burckhardt remarks, Diocletian was not the man to be deceived in that way, and we may dismiss the suspicion as groundless. That the fires were accidental is possible, but extremely improbable. Diocletian at least believed that they were kindled by Christians, and it must be confessed that he had some ground for his belief. At any rate, whether true or not, the result was the torture (for the sake of extorting evidence) and the execution of some of his most faithful servants (see Bk. VIII. chap. 6). It had become an earnest matter with Diocletian, and he was beginning to feel—as he had never had occasion to feel before—that a society within the empire whose claims were looked upon as higher than those of the state itself, and duty to which demanded, in case of a disagreement between it and the state, insubordination, and even treason, toward the latter, was too dangerous an institution to tolerate longer, however harmless it might be under ordinary circumstances. It was at about this time that there occurred rebellions in Melitene and Syria, perhaps in consequence of the publication of the First Edict; at any rate, the Christians, who were regarded with ever increasing suspicion, were believed to be in part at least responsible for the outbreaks, and the result was that a second edict was issued, commanding that all the rulers of the churches should be thrown into prison (see above, Bk. VIII. chap. 6). Here Diocletian took the same step taken by Decius and Valerian, and instituted thereby a genuine religious persecution. It was now Christians as Christians whom he attacked; no longer Christian officials as traitors. The vital difference between the first and second edicts is very clear. All that followed was but the legitimate carrying out of the principle adopted in the Second Edict,—the destruction of the Church as such, the extermination of Christianity.

Next: Note 22