The Great Persecution

Persecution01By Brian Culliton

In 284 AD, Caesarea Palestine was a predominantly pagan city of 100,000 with a large Jewish population rivaled by an almost equally large Samaritan community. But a smaller Christian community was growing fast. The Gospel of Jesus Christ was rapidly spreading through Caesarea largely due to a thriving Christian academy begun by the great theologian Origen some fifty years earlier. Origen journeyed to Caesarea from Alexandria in Egypt where he was a student of the great catechetical school of Alexandria and was instructed by respectable Christian philosopher Clement of Alexandria. Origen remained in Caesarea for the next twenty years during which time he built his academy and library attracting pupils from all over the east. He died a martyr in 254.

Sometime after Origen’s death, Pamphilus, a presbyter and scholar of Caesarea and a great admirer of the theologian, carried on Origen’s legacy and preserved much of his works. Pamphilus went on to become the mentor of Eusebius who in turn has preserved a great deal of Christian history that would have been lost if not for his dedicated effort to compile it. It is from this Eusebius that we learn the triumphs and tragedies of the Christian church during his own time – a time when peace and prosperity created the perfect atmosphere for disaster.

In 285 Diocletian, just one year into his reign as Roman Emperor, established the diarchy system of government. He appointed Maximian as his Augustus and co-emperor in the west while he himself ruled in the east. Under these two emperors Christians were allowed to hold important offices in government including overseeing Roman providences. As a result of the esteem they received, the church experienced rapid growth. Christians, who once gathered in houses to worship, were now purchasing land and building elaborate church buildings to accommodate their growing numbers and elevated status. Even Diocletian’s wife Prisca and his daughter Valeria had purportedly joined the faith.

However, rapid growth and prosperity in the hands of fallible man spelled trouble for the Christian faith. Organization and maintaining orthodoxy became extremely difficult as tranquility turned to chaos and compassion to greed. The malignant disease of discontent grew like a cancer from within the church as Eusebius recounts:

“No envy hindered the progress of these affairs which advanced gradually, and grew and increased day by day. Nor could any evil demon slander them or hinder them through human counsels, so long as the divine and heavenly hand watched over and guarded his own people as worthy. But when on account of the abundant freedom, we fell into laxity and sloth, and envied and reviled each other, and were almost, as it were, taking up arms against one another, rulers assailing rulers with words like spears, and people forming parties against people, and monstrous hypocrisy and dissimulation rising to the greatest height of wickedness, the divine judgment with forbearance, as is its pleasure, while the multitudes yet continued to assemble, gently and moderately harassed the episcopacy.”1

There were even reports of newly baptized believers being ushered into leadership offices, including the office of bishop, because of their reputation in society.

While the church was slowly dismantling from within, Diocletian was expanding his diarchy to a tetrarchy by adding two junior rulers called Caesars. The senior rulers Diocletian and Maximinus considered themselves brothers and each adopted a Caesar to assist in ruling their immense territories. In 293 Maximinus adopted Constantius, the father of Constantine the Great, to help rule in the west, while Diocletian adopted the iniquitous antichristian Galerius in the east.

In 299, in Diocletian’s primary residence in the city of Antioch, he and his Caesar Galerius took part in a common Roman ritual where haruspicespredicted the future. Haruspices were a type of fortuneteller that ascertained whether the gods approved of some suggested coarse of action by reading the entrails of an animal that had been sacrificed. The ritual took place in Diocletian’s palace where some of his household servants were Christians. On this occasion the haruspices claimed not to be able to read the entrails and blamed the Christians in the imperial household saying, “There are profane persons here, who obstruct the rites.It was later suspected by the Christians that Galerius, who desired to see the Christian faith meet its end, was behind the accusation.

In fear that his servants had angered the gods, Diocletian ordered all who resided in the palace to sacrifice in order to appease the gods or else face punishment by scourging. Once the emperor was convinced the palace was cleansed, he extended his order to the military, thereby threatening to discharge any who refused to comply. This action was clearly designed to target Christians for whom Diocletian believed angered the Roman gods for he knew the Christians would not offer sacrifice. Having purged the Christians from his military, Diocletian was satisfied, but Galerius, who harbored deep bitterness towards the faith, felt that the penalty failed to even scratch the surface. Thus, he focused all his efforts on attempting to convince Diocletian that he aught to continue his campaign.

Galerius’ odious attitude towards Christians was perhaps, as Lactantius suggests, the result of his upbringing. His mother was devoted to the Roman gods and highly superstitious. She offered sacrifice daily and fed her family and servants the sacrificial meat. But the Christians in her family refused to eat meat sacrificed to idols, as doing so, they would have surly exclaimed, would make them partakers of the devil’s table. This greatly angered Galerius’ mother to the point that she developed an absolute distain towards the faith and instituted the same malevolence in her son.But as much as Galerius, from the depths of his ingrained hatred, tried to convince Diocletian to raise a persecution against the Christians, Diocletian refused fearing that it would not be prudent to shed so much blood. But he did agree, however, to remove Christians from the court and thoroughly purge his army of any who was found to practice the faith. It is for this reason that Eusebius explains, “This persecution began with the brethren in the army.”Thus began the great persecution of the Christians.

Christian Persecution Ensues

Galerius relentlessly continued to ware down Diocletian with eventual success. In time Diocletian resolved to confer with some of his magistrates and military commanders on the matter of persecuting the Christians. His character was such that he would seek the advice of others whenever he believed that taking certain action might bring about ill results. This allowed him to impute the blame to someone else if for any reason the outcome reflected poorly on him. All his advisors, whether sincere or acting out of fear, consented to a campaign of persecution against the Christians. In spite of Galerius’ demands to immediately launch the persecution, Diocletian withheld his command until conferring with a soothsayer to inquire the advice of the Roman god Apollo. The soothsayer confirmed the expected answer and Diocletian was at last convinced to accept Galerius’ petition, but commanded that it be done without bloodshed.

At daybreak on February 23, 303, Diocletian’s army busted in the doors of a large newly constructed church in Nicomedia in Asia Minor and confiscated the sacred writings. Once found, the Scriptures were consumed by fire and the church was pillaged. The church was located on a hill and in full view from one of Diocletian’s palaces where he and Galerius stood watching the assault. Galerius insisted that the church be burned to the ground, but Diocletian argued that doing so might cause a greater fire consuming part of the city and possibly his palace. Being defeated by reason, Galerius was forced to concede and the church was destroyed without fire.

The next day Diocletian published an edict, posting it throughout the city for public viewing. The edict denied Christians of their rights, removed them from positions of authority and subjected them to various kinds of torture. One Christian man when he saw the edict tore it into pieces.He was subsequently tortured and eventually burned alive.

“It was in the nineteenth year of the reign of Diocletian, in the month Dystrus, called March by the Romans, when the feast of the Savior’s passion was near at hand, that royal edicts were published everywhere, commanding that the churches be leveled to the ground and the Scriptures be destroyed by fire, and ordering that those who held places of honor be degraded, and that the household servants, if they persisted in the profession of Christianity, be deprived of freedom. Such was the first edict against us. But not long after, other decrees were issued, commanding that all the rulers of the churches in every place be first thrown into prison, and afterwards by every artifice be compelled to sacrifices.”7

Soon after the edict was published a fire broke out in Diocletian’s palace. Eusebius states that he does not know how it happened, but Lactantius claims that Galerius, in an effort to urge Diocletian to enact crueler persecutions on the Christians, employed private emissaries to set the palace on fire and placed blame on the Christians.Two dignitaries were among the victims claimed by the fire. This infuriated Diocletian who upon hearing about it commanded that all his domestics be tortured in order to force a confession of the plot, but none was forthcoming. Word of the incident and the blame accompanying it spread far and wide, inciting more widespread hatred of Christians in the east.

Fear spread through the Christian communities enticing some to attempt a usurpation of the government in Syria and Melitina. In response, an imperial edict was issued commanding that all the heads of the Christian churches everywhere be bound and imprisoned. Once carried out, the prisons were bursting with bishops, presbyters and deacons, such that there was no room for real criminals. Soon after, a second edict was issued permitting the prisoners to gain back their liberty by sacrificing to the Roman gods. But if they refused to sacrifice they would be subject to unspeakable tortures. The decision facing these Christian leaders was a true test of their faith. If they were to choose to save their lives by sacrificing, they knew they were choosing eternal damnation. For in their minds, prepared to pierce their conscience, resides the words of Christ who said, “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.”9

Countless martyrs were thus created by torturous means. Christian leaders along with their families were burned alive. Others were committed to death by wild beasts in the arena as entertainment for the masses. Other martyrs throughout the Roman Empire met with death in various other ways such as scourging, drowning, torn apart on racks, starvation, and crucifixion.

Diocletian’s illness and Galerius’ Grab for Power

With the execution of his plan well underway, Diocletian set out to Rome to celebrate his twentieth anniversary as emperor. But Rome, a city whose people held little respect for supreme authority, was not enthused, so he abruptly left the city to celebrate in Ravenna. From there, he joined with Galerius who was engaged in a campaign against the Carpi. There he was met with an illness that steadily worsened over time and eventually confining him to be carried in a litter.

Diocletian traveled to his palace in Nicomedia and remained there three months. At the end of the three months, in December 304, he appeared in public to dedicate the opening of a circus in Nicomedia. Soon after the ceremonies ended, he collapsed and was resigned to his palace for the rest of the winter. With Diocletian incapacitated, Galerius saw opportunity to pursue his ambition of rising to the rank of supreme ruler. In his shrewdness, Galerius risked civil war by marching against the Augustus Maximian in an effort to force him to abdicate. His campaign was successful and thus his focus turned to Diocletian.

Rumors spread that Diocletian had died and that the news was being kept secret until Galerius arrived to assume power. For this reason, Diocletian remerged to the public in March 305, but he was so deformed by his illness he was barley recognizable. Within a few days of Diocletian’s public appearance, Galerius arrived at the palace prepared to gently compel Diocletian to the same fait he previously forced on Maximian.

Approaching him tenderly, Galerius strove to convince Diocletian that his physical condition was not best for the commonwealth. But Diocletian feared stepping down from power because he believed he had obtained many enemies over the years, so Galerius suggested that Diocletian fill his imperial office with compliant men to protect him. Diocletian remained firm under Galerius’ pressure until he learned the fait of Maximian and the report that Galerius was augmenting his army. Helpless to withstand the inevitable, Diocletian finally burst into tears and said to Galerius, “Be it as you will.10

As it was procedure that Caesars be chosen by common consent, Diocletian called an assembly of representatives from various regions. Addressing them with tears, he informed the assembly that due to his physical health he was abdicating his office and passing the duty as emperor to someone more fit to perform the responsibilities of that office. The obvious and expected choices were Maxentius and Constantine, the sons of emperors Maximian and Constantinus respectively. Surprisingly, however, what was expected was not to be so.

Galerius protested the choice of Maxentius claiming that he does not deserve the office because Maxentius treated him with disrespect, and worried what he might do if he received power as emperor. As far as Constantine, Galerius accused him of being amiable. He believed that Constantine would rule after the peoples will with mild virtues that would surpass his father’s. Neither of these situations proved comfortable for Galerius who wanted someone who shared his inclinations and judgment. When Diocletian asked “Whom then shall we appoint?” Galerius answered “Severus.” But Diocletian protested pointing out that Severus was a drunkard. Galerius adamantly defended Severus’ reputation and informed Diocletian that he had already sent him to Maximian to receive the title. Diocletian could do little else but consent.

Diocletian asked Galerius for his recommendation to fill the last vacancy in the tetrarch. Galerius looked out over the assembly and pointed to his adopted nephew, Maximinus. Maximinus, whose birth name was Daia, was the son of Galerius’ half sister. Maximinus was a man of no reputation. He was a common soldier in Galerius’ army who a short time earlier was working as a herdsman. He was chosen by Galerius specifically to be his puppet Caesar. Finally it had become painfully obvious to Diocletian what Galerius was doing. In a gesture of overwhelming defeat, Diocletian sharply rebuked Galerius saying, “Then you look to it, who are about to assume the administration of the empire: as for me, while I continued emperor, long and diligent have been my labors in providing for the security of the commonweal; and now, should anything disastrous ensue, the blame will not be mine.11

Diocletian and Galerius went in procession to the place where twenty-one years earlier Diocletian received his title, three miles outside of Nicomedia where a statue of the Roman god Jupiter stood. There they prepared to announce their decision to the assembly. The crowd looked to Constantine, who was standing among the multitude, as the certain choice to receive the honor, but when Diocletian proclaimed Severus and Maximinus as their selection the crowd was stunned! Many wondered if perhaps Constantine had received the name Maximinus because no one knew who Maximinus was, but all doubt was clearly dowsed when Galerius waved Constantine aside and motioned for Maximinus to come forward.

Hence, as a puppet at the end of Galerius’ string, Maximinus was set to enact Galerius’ evil persecutions on Christians without hesitation.

The New Tetrarch and the Rise of Constantine

The tetrarch now consisted of Galerius and Maximinus in the east and Constantius and Severus in the west. Galerius had cleverly and forcefully tipped the scales in his ambitious plan to be the sovereign ruler of the Empire. The only thing standing in his way was the compassionate, and aging, Constantius. By virtue of his rank, Constantius was elevated from Caesar to Augustus when Maximinus was forced to abdicate, but declining health made ridding him of his title an all too alluring scheme for Galerius to resist.

A long-time friend of Galerius named Licinius, was also part of Galerius’ grand scheme. Galerius had forced his hand in making Severus and Maximinus Caesars, but Licinius he purposed to make a brother emperor in the place of Constantius. If the plan were to be fulfilled, Galerius would certainly possess the level of supreme authority he desired. But the hand of God, as the Christians under his relentless persecutions would attest, would deliver Galerius a blow that would end his devilish ambitions, but not before Galerius’ iniquitous fury gained vigor.

It would be impossible for most to comprehend the depth of Galerius’ evil mind. With in it resided a hatred for Christians so powerful Satan himself must have envied his wicked imagination. Lactantius describes the horrifying reality of Galerius’ indiscriminate evil directed at God’s people.

“Men of private station were condemned to be burnt alive; and he began this mode of execution by edicts against the Christians, commanding that, after torture and condemnation, they should be burnt at a slow fire. They were fixed to a stake, and first a moderate flame was applied to the soles of their feet, until the muscles, contracted by burning, were torn from the bones; then torches, lighted and put out again, were directed to all the members of their bodies, so that no part had any exemption. Meanwhile cold water was continually poured on their faces, and their mouths moistened, lest, by reason of their jaws being parched, they should expire. At length they did expire, when, after many hours, the violent heat had consumed their skin and penetrated into their intestines. The dead carcasses were laid on a funeral pile, and wholly burnt; their bones were gathered, ground to powder, and thrown into the river, or into the sea.”12

Under the emperor Constantius in the west, Christians were there were spared Galerius’ evil executions, but even they wouldn’t be safe for long. Constantius laid helplessly sick, and clinging to life by a thread. When Galerius learned that Constantius’ health was worse than he realized, he decided to bide his time and wait for the inevitable, rather than force Constantius to abdicate. While upon his deathbed, as his final breath crept closer, Constantius wrote a letter to Galerius requesting that his son Constantine be sent to him. News of Constantius’ request spread through the empire quickly which meant that Galerius could not refuse Constantine without risking an uprising, so Galerius reluctantly granted the petition.

Galerius suddenly found himself in a precarious situation, though he must have known Constantius would grant his son the honor of emperor, especially since he had previously requested it from Galerius. If Galerius could not find a way to secretly keep Constantine from power, his plans would be severally hindered or perhaps all together destroyed.

As Constantine set out on his journey, Galerius laid snares in his path, but Constantine, being made aware of Galerius’ plans, escaped the traps and returned to his father. When he arrived, he found his father at the brink of death. Constantius recommended his son to his army who happily proclaimed him emperor. Upon their acceptance, Constantius delivered his authority to Constantine and shortly thereafter expired.

True to his character, Constantine made his first official proclamation as emperor a comforting declaration to the Christians, promising to reinstate the legality of the religion. With the strength of his father’s army now his own, Constantine sent news of his acquired status to Galerius by having his portrait delivered to him. When Galerius received the portrait he was beside himself with rage and desired to burn the portrait and Constantine along with it. But his advisors warned him that if Constantine came with his army he might draw Galerius’ own solders away because of his unpopular instatement of Maximinus and Severus. So Galerius withheld his hand and requested that Severus, by virtue of his age, by made Augustus in the second position, which would reduce Constantine to Caesar in the fourth position. All came to agreement with the request satisfying Galerius for the time being.

The Tetrarch in Turmoil

The success of Constantine’s acquisition to power set a precedent; for the other son of an emperor rejected by Galerius, Maxentius, son of Maximian, was soon after declared emperor in Rome. Upon receiving the news, Galerius was troubled. It was not possible to bestow the rank upon Maxentius when there was no room in the tetrarch for five governors. Besides, Galerius hated Maxentius and had already begrudgingly bequeathed that honor to Constantine. Desiring to put a quick end to the chaos, Galerius encouraged Severus, who now commanded Maximian’s former army, to regain his dominion by attacking the usurper Maxentius.

Maxentius became informed about the impending attack and contemplated how it would play out; if Severus attacked with his father’s former army, many of the soldiers might be persuaded to abandon Severus and join him, but if Galerius considered the same scenario he might come against Maxentius with his own army. Desperately, Maxentius called upon his retired father to resurrect his former title in hopes that his former solders would abandon Severus and join him.

His gamble paid off; Galerius apparently did not consider the blunder of sending Severus with his acquired army against their former commander, Maxentius. When Severus arrived at Rome his army was met by Maxentius’ luxurious persuasion, offering them the Roman lifestyle they once enjoyed under his father. Enticed by his offer, many of the soldiers abandoned Severus prompting him and a small regiment of soldiers still loyal to him to urgently flee the scene.

When Severus reached Ravenna he was met by Maximian whose forces greatly outnumbered his. Severus was doomed and he knew it. In a desperate attempt to plead for mercy, Severus, acting in official capacity, reinstated Maximian to his previous rank of Augustus. However, the only mercy Severus would receive from Maximian was dearth by bleeding.

Fearing that Galerius would seek retaliation, Maximian went to Rome to help his son fortify the city. After readying his defenses, he traveled to Gaul (France) to attempt to draw Constantine to his side by offering him his youngest daughter in marriage. In the mean time Galerius assembled his army and set out for Rome bent on destroying all its inhabitants. Galerius, however, had never been to Rome and badly misjudged the scale of the ancient city. Once he arrived, he found the city heavily fortified and his army too insufficient to infiltrate its walls. Galerius not only miscalculated the immensity of Rome, but also the patriotism of his own men, many of whom were greatly disturbed by his plan to invade a Roman city with such savagery. In protest, many of his soldiers defected and joined with Maxentius. Galerius became nervous and fearing that his remaining men would turn on him, he issued permission that they may pillage all they desired throughout the region. With his men adequately distracted in their plunder, Galerius fled.

When Maximian returned to Rome he was faced with the dubious situation of shared authority with his son. Driven by envy and the desire to be the sovereign ruler, Maximian, believing that his army would once again join him, called an assembly to publicly berate his son. After completing his risky rebuke, Maximian reached over to his son and stripped him of his imperial purple. But Maximian’s misguided confidence turned to desperation when his former soldiers raged against him and drove him from Rome and instead proclaimed Maxentius the sovereign leader. Bewildered, Maximian returned to Gaul to contemplated his next move.

Maximian’s Last Stand

No army meant no power. Maximian had little choice but to cower before Galerius with whom he believed an alliance could be forged through their common dislike of his son. But when he arrived in Carnuntum, he discovered that Galerius summoned Diocletian out of retirement to appoint Licinius as Augustus of the west. Upon his arrival, Maximian was forced once again to abdicate. Furious, he fled Carnuntum and returned to Gaul where he would twice attempt to take over the reign of his son-in-law Constantine.

Maximian’s first attempt was to convince Constantine to wage a campaign against the Franks. He advised him that only a few troops would be necessary to defeat the barbarians, thus sending him into certain defeat. Constantine foolishly believed Maximian because of his vast military experience, and perhaps because he was his father-in-law. So Constantine set out for battle, but as soon as he entered the territory of the Franks, Maximian, certain in his own mind of Constantine’s fate, assumed the imperial purple claiming that Constantine was killed in battle. The solders that remained with Maximian, however, remained loyal to Constantine and forcefully compelled him to leave.

Word of the attempted usurpation reached Constantine before he had opportunity to engage the Franks. Immediately he raced back with his army and caught up to Maximian in the nearby town of Marseille where he had barricaded himself. When Constantine arrived with his soldiers, he confronted Maximian who stood obstinately upon the city wall. But Maximian’s luck continued to run dry as local citizens opened a rear gate allowing Constantine to enter. Maximian was promptly dragged before Constantine where he was reprimanded and, for the third time, stripped of his rank.

In a stubborn refusal to retire in peace, Maximian plotted to kill Constantine. He sought out his daughter Fausta and endeavored her to leave Constantine, promising to acquire for her a more honorable relationship. He revealed his plot to kill Constantine and asked her to leave her husband alone in their bed and to remove as much security as she could from the bedchamber. She pretended to agree to all that her father told her then immediately went to her husband and exposed the entire plan.

When Maximian proceeded with his plan in the dead of the night, he found the situation to be favorable. He found the guards to be few in number and at a good distance from the bedchamber. He told them that he had a dream he needed to communicate to Constantine. When he made his way to the bed, he silently slew its lone occupant without awakening him. But much to Maximian’s astonishment, he no sooner pulled the dagger from his victim’s heart when Constantine appeared from across the room with a small band of soldiers. The victim was a eunuch, whom Constantine apparently found to be expendable, placed in his bed as an unfortunate proxy. In an incredible continuance of Constantine’s mercy, he berated Maximian and kept his hands clean of his blood and persuaded him to take his own life, which Maximian did in the form of strangulation.

Galerius Acquires Gruesome Disease and Drafts Edict of Toleration

Less than one year later, in the spring of 311, Galerius encountered a gruesome and debilitating disease. It began with open soars in his intestines and spread gradually through his body. It was said that the stench from his disease was unbearable. Minute worms, plainly visible to his caretakers, invaded his body. At one point doctors tried to transfer the worms off Galerius by placing fresh raw meat against the infested area; but when they removed it, the worms ghastly multiplied into a swarm too numerous to count.

The Christians were certain that Galerius was finally receiving his revenge from God, as did Galerius himself. When all hope of recovery had ceased, Galerius in his anguish and sorrow repented of his deeds and paid homage to the Christian God. But the tyrant who laughed at the desperate pleas of thousands of God’s children, whom he mercilessly persecuted, would fail to find anything but equal treatment from the Father of those whom he made to be martyrs. Nevertheless, in his final breaths he ordered an edict of toleration towards the Christians as one final plea to appease their God. The edict was as follows:

“Among the other things which we have ordained for the public advantage and profit, we formerly wished to restore everything to conformity with the ancient laws and public discipline of the Romans, and to provide that the Christians also, who have forsaken the religion of their ancestors, should return to a good disposition. For in some way such arrogance had seized them and such stupidity had overtaken them, that they did not follow the ancient institutions which possibly their own ancestors had formerly established, but made for themselves laws according to their own purpose, as each one desired, and observed them, and thus assembled as separate congregations in various places. When we had issued this decree that they should return to the institutions established by the ancients, a great many submitted under danger, but a great many being harassed endured all kinds of death. And since many continue in the same folly, and we perceive that they neither offer to the heavenly gods the worship which is due, nor pay regard to the God of the Christians, in consideration of our philanthropy and our invariable custom, by which we are wont to extend pardon to all, we have determined that we ought most cheerfully to extend our indulgence in this matter also; that they may again be Christians, and may rebuild the conventicles in which they were accustomed to assemble, on condition that nothing be done by them contrary to discipline. In another letter we shall indicate to the magistrates what they have to observe. Wherefore, on account of this indulgence of ours, they ought to supplicate their God for our safety, and that of the people, and their own, that the public welfare may be preserved in every place, and that they may live securely in their several homes.” 13

Maximinus Continues Christian Persecutions

Just a few short days after releasing his edict, Galerius died. Immediately a power struggle ensued between Maximinus and Licinius, each attempting to assume control over as much of the empire as possible. Their ambitious greed led them to the brink of war, but peace would prevail as the two emperors formed a treaty and a token of friendship.

Maximinus had received Galerius’ edict when it was released, but he refused to publish it. When he returned from confronting Licinius, he sent out requests to all the cities in his region that no Christian churches be erected. In addition, he created a new municipal position: a high priest for each city whose duty was to offer sacrifice to the gods. He was given authority to compel Christians to participate by bringing them before civil magistrate if they refused. The magistrate had authority to mutilate but not to kill. Maximinus directed this order in order that he might appear to show clemency. According to Lactantius, Christians who refused to sacrifice “had their ears and nostrils slit, their hands and feet lopped off, and their eyes dug out of the sockets.14

Christian persecutions continued for about two years, though at some point during that time Constantine wrote to Maximinus which in turn caused him to carry on his persecutions in private. Eusebius commented that the persecutions under Maximinus were crueler than that of the former persecution.15Christians were humiliated and discriminated against at every turn. Forged confessions proliferating falsehoods about Christian worship were published and made public. Decrees against Christians were engraved on city pillars for all to see. And school children were publicly taught to disrespect the Christian traditions.

Meanwhile Constantine offered his sister Constantia in marriage to Licinius. Maximinus, when he had heard of it, concluded that the two emperors were conspiring against him. He was certain they would join forces and come against him, so Maximinus sent ambassadors to Rome to establish an alliance with the usurper Maxentius. Maxentius welcomed the new alliance as he had recently declared war on Constantine over the death of his father. But before the allies could form an adequate military union, civil war between Constantine and Maxentius broke out.

Constantine’s Revenge, Vision, and Decisive Victories

Constantine, whose forces were far less in number, soundly defeated Maxentius’ larger garrisons en route to Rome. In spite of Maxentius’ hold on northern Italy, his army posted in Segusium (Susa, Italy) having heavily fortified it, proved inferier to Constanine who burned the gates to the city and scaled its walls in a furrius and suddden assult. Retreating solders fleeing from the battle attempted to take refuge with the locals but were rejected in favor of Constantine whose arrival they welcomed with jubilance. The citizens of the western empire, many of them Christians, were elated by the hope they now saw in the man whom they believed could remove the tyrant Maxentius from power in Rome. Constantine was met with open gates and the same joy as he entered Milan. Word spread of his quick and decisive battles against the detested Maxentius’ armies, so much so that letters of congratulations were sent to Constantine from all over Northern Italy.

The unpopular de facto ruler found himself nervously inquiring a soothsayer’s advice as he prepared to battle the inexorable Constantine. As a result of that advice, he assembled his army on that autumn day in 312 just beyond the Milvian Bridge outside of Rome. The strategy was unusual for Maxentius as he had previously been successful in battle by remaining in the confines of the fortified city.

His army prepared and ready to fight waited anxiously, anticipating the imminent sound of a roaring cavalry pressing upon them with speed and furry. Just behind them a river called Tiber; a barrier breached only by a stone bridge and a wooden makeshift floating spans hastily constructed for a quick retreat.

The news of Constantine’s overwhelming victories and staggering popularity inevitably reached the waiting solders, piercing their ears and challenging their resolve. Some must have privately questioned their commander’s strategy of abandoning the previously successful approach of remaining in the well-defended city opting for open field battle with only a narrow stone bride and a floating span to aid in retreat. Doubt, apprehension, and fear may have tainted the well-trained minds of Maxentius’ army that autumn day, but whether or not they would find their motivation before the infamous battle in front of the Milvian Bridge remained to be known. It was certain, however, that their opponents were greatly motivated by the victories they gained and the jubilance of the people of Italy. And while preparing for battle against Maxentius, Constantine’s men found themselves even more motivated by something far greater and extraordinarily mysterious.

According to our historical sources Lactantius and Eusebius, on the day before the battle at Milvian Bridge, as Constantine was preparing his solders, he saw a sign from the Christian God: a cross of light above the sun with an inscription below that read, “conquer by this.”16 That same night in a dream, Christ, who told him to conquer his enemies under the protection of the sign explained the vision.17 Constantine promptly ordered that a banner be made depicting the sign and commanded that it be carried in front of the army going into battle.

The fourth-century historian, Eusebius, who received the story from Constantine himself in his later years, gives that account. Eusebius documented Constantine’s recollection of the event in a work called Life of Constantine. This same Eusebius also wrote an earlier work of great importance to history calledEcclesiastical History. In this work Eusebius gives an account of the battle at Milvian Bridge, yet he never mentioned the vision.18 It is questionable, therefore, whether anyone but Constantine actually saw the vision. Had the vision been visible to the thousands of Constantine’s solders, as Constantine said it was, it would not be likely that Eusebius would fail to mention it in his earlier work.

In addition, Lactantius, who was also the tutor of Constantine’s son, claims that Constantine received the vision privately in a dream. 19 This account harmonizes well with the evidence from Eusebius who confirmed that Constantine received a vision in a dream. Lactantius’ account also explains the absence of any further evidence that anyone but Constantine saw anything. Furthermore, Eusebius records that upon waking from his dream, Constantine described the vision to his friends and engravers whom he commanded to engrave a representation of the sign saying to them, “This representation I myself have had an opportunity of seeing.” He said this as though no one but him ever saw vision.

It is entirely feasible to consider the possibility that Constantine saw no vision at all, but simply used the story to motivate his army and solidify the support of the large Christian population in Italy. This is entirely plausible since Constantine, like his father Constantinus, was considered by the Christians to be a liberator who was on their side; what better way to ensure his position as a leader and healer to the down trodden and vastly numerous Christian population.

When the battle ensued the next day, Maxentius’ strategy of meeting Constantine’s army near the Tiber River proved to be disastrous. Once Constantine’s cavalry broke the defending lines, he launched his infantry. Because the river was so close, there was no room for Maxentius’ troops to regroup. In order to stand their ground, Maxentius had to retreat to the other side of the river. Upon doing so the makeshift bridge he constructed along side the stone Milvian Bridge collapsed, allowing Constantine’s troops to overtake them. Maxentius himself is said to have drown in the Tiber River during the retreat.

Constantine Enters Rome a Hero

When Constantine entered Rome he was met with grand jubilation. Following his victory, Constantine neglected the tradition of offering sacrifice for his success. This was a sure sign to the Christians that he truly believed the Christian God guided him to victory. By and large, the people of Rome were religious and would have had no problem believing that the Christian God was powerful in helping Constantine to victory. The Pagans were pluralistic in their deities which enabled them to accept as legitimate the existence of a Christian God without conflict. However, Constantine was prepared to grant Christians much more than mear acceptance with other religions; he gave preference to the Christian church.

Under Constanine’s rule, the Roman government built and financed basilicas,20 exempt the Christian clergy from certain taxes, and promoted Christians to high ranking offices within the government. Clergy were paid by Constantine and exempt from public duty, i.e., regular employment. Constantine credited the Christian God for his victory and was determined to show his appreciation. For the first time in Christian history, church and state had become one entity.

The vision Constantine saw on that day is highly suspicious from a Christian perspective. But to the Christians of that time it represented a new level of secular freedom never before seen in the Christian church. Constantine confided to Eusebius that Christ commanded him to make a likeness of the sign and use it as a safeguard in all engagements with his enemies. Such a concept would have been seen by the Christians as pure paganism; but considering that their newfound liberty might have been the result of that very symbol, so accepting the idea wasn’t exactly preposterous. In fact, it opened the door to evolutionary change in the Christian church that would inevitably elevate objects and relics to a status thought worthy of dulia21 type adoration – a sort of pagan-influenced Christianity.

Licinius Defetes Maximinus Liberating the Christians in the East

In March of 313, Licinius met Constantine in Mediolanum (modern day Milan) to receive his sister in marriage. Maximinus, who learned of the meeting earlier that winter, was alarmed and immediately summand his army and forced them to march to Mediolanum in harsh winter conditions. By that time they arrived at Byzantium, where they met a garrison of Licinius’ soldiers. The soldier held Maximinus for eleven days, but then surrendered due to a lack of provisions.

By April the armies of Maximinus and Licinius approached each other for battle. Mximinus had caught Licinius off guard by his sudden winter march, leaving him with a 40,000 man disadvantage. The situation was not at all unlike that of Constantine when he faced Maxentius. If receiving a vision from the Christian God helped incite Constantine’s inferior army, perhaps such a ploy would help Licinius as well. On the eve of the battle Licinius claimed to have a dream wherein an angel of the Lord stood by and admonished him to arise immediately, gather his army, and offer prayer to God. By doing so the angel promised victory would be assured. The angel told the prayer to Licinius, who upon wakening recited it to one of his secritaries who took the dictation. Copies were made and immediately distributed to the soldiers. The words of the prayer were recorded by Lactantius:

“Supreme God, we beseech Thee; Holy God, we beseech Thee; unto Thee we commend all right; unto Thee we commend our safety; unto Thee we commend our empire. By Thee we live, by Thee we are victorious and happy. Supreme Holy God, hear our prayers; to Thee we stretch forth our arms. Hear, Holy Supreme God.”22

The prayer has a distinct pagan quality lacking Christian distinctiveness – especially since Jesus is never mentioned. Nevertheless, things like this held great bearing on the motivation of soldiers who were about to engage in battle. At the moment the enemy was in sight, Licinius placed his shield on the ground, removed his helmet, and raised his hands to the sky. On this queue, his entire army followed suit and thus in unison read the prayer three times aloud. When they finished the third recitation, they resumed their battle gear and charged at the enemy with resounding courage.

Confused by the rhetoric and sudden bravery of their enemy, Maximinus’ army stood stunned. The abilities of the superior army seemed all but lost as Licinius easily overran the dwindling ranks. Maximinus, devastated by what he witnessed, fled the battle. With their commander having deserted and the army half obliterated, the remainder of Maximinus’ troops either surrendered or fled if opportunity allowed.

Following his victory, Licinius returned to Nicomedia where he promulgated what is known as the Edict of Milan.23 The edict aimed to restore the Christians to their former status of ten plus years earlier when the church was thriving. Although this edict officially marked the end of the great persecution, Christians in the west were enjoying restored liberty since the death of Maxentius a year earlier. To Christians in the east, the edict was especially welcomed as they had endured harsh persecutions under the tyrant Maximinus. The edict was delivered as follows:

“When we, Constantine and Licinius, emperors, had an interview at Milan, and conferred together with respect to the good and security of the commonweal, it seemed to us that, amongst those things that are profitable to mankind in general, the reverence paid to the Divinity merited our first and chief attention, and that it was proper that the Christians and all others should have liberty to follow that mode of religion which to each of them appeared best; so that that God, who is seated in heaven, might be benign and propitious to us, and to every one under our government. And therefore we judged it a salutary measure, and one highly consonant to right reason, that no man should be denied leave of attaching himself to the rites of the Christians, or to whatever other religion his mind directed him, that thus the supreme Divinity, to whose worship we freely devote ourselves, might continue to vouchsafe His favor and beneficence to us. And accordingly we give you to know that, without regard to any provisos in our former orders to you concerning the Christians, all who choose that religion are to be permitted, freely and absolutely, to remain in it, and not to be disturbed any ways, or molested. And we thought fit to be thus special in the things committed to your charge, that you might understand that the indulgence which we have granted in matters of religion to the Christians is ample and unconditional; and perceive at the same time that the open and free exercise of their respective religions is granted to all others, as well as to the Christians. For it befits the well-ordered state and the tranquility of our times that each individual be allowed, according to his own choice, to worship the Divinity; and we mean not to derogate aught from the honor due to any religion or its votaries. Moreover, with respect to the Christians, we formerly gave certain orders concerning the places appropriated for their religious assemblies; but now we will that all persons who have purchased such places, either from our exchequer or from any one else, do restore them to the Christians, without money demanded or price claimed, and that this be performed peremptorily and unambiguously; and we will also, that they who have obtained any right to such places by form of gift do forthwith restore them to the Christians: reserving always to such persons, who have either purchased for a price, or gratuitously acquired them, to make application to the judge of the district, if they look on themselves as entitled to any equivalent from our beneficence. 

All those places are, by your intervention, to be immediately restored to the Christians. And because it appears that, besides the places appropriated to religious worship, the Christians did possess other places, which belonged not to individuals, but to their society in general, that is, to their churches, we comprehend all such within the regulation aforesaid, and we will that you cause them all to be restored to the society or churches, and that without hesitation or controversy: Provided always, that the persons making restitution without a price paid shall be at liberty to seek indemnification from our bounty. In furthering all which things for the behoof of the Christians, you are to use your utmost diligence, to the end that our orders be speedily obeyed, and our gracious purpose in securing the public tranquility promoted. So shall that divine favor which, in affairs of the mightiest importance, we have already experienced, continue to give success to us, and in our successes make the commonweal happy. And that the tenor of this our gracious ordinance may be made known unto all, we will that you cause it by your authority to be published everywhere.”24

Maximinus eventually ended up in Tarsus where he committed suicide by poisoning. But contentions over assigning Caesars rose between Licinius and Constantine only a year or two later culminating in a battle at Cibalae, which Constantine won decisively. In 317 the two emperors met again in battle over the same issue. This time the battle ended in a settlement establishing Constantine’s sons, Crispus and Constantine II, and Licinius’ son, Licinianus, as Caesars.

By 320 Licinius began to commit treachery against the Christians whom he had liberated, becoming like the tyrants he previously opposed so valiantly. By 324 the two Agusti engaged in all out civil war. The war consisted of three main battles, all of which were won by Constantine. In September of that same year, Licinius surrendered and was removed from government. But early the following year in 325, Constantine accused Licinius of plotting against him and had him hung and his son eradicated. Upon the death of Licinius, Constantine found himself as the sole Augustus of the Roman Empire, and Pontifex Maximus of the Christian religion.

Footnotes

  1. Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, Book 8 Chapter, 1
  2. haruspices: A soothsayer specially trained to read the entails of sacrificial animals
  3. Lactantius, De Mortibus Persecutorum 10
  4. Lactantius, De Mortibus Persecutorum 11
  5. Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, Book 8 Chapter, 1
  6. Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, Book 8 Chapter, 5; Lactantius, De Mortibus Persecutorum 13
  7. Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, Book 8 Chapter, 2
  8. Lactantius, De Mortibus Persecutorum 14
  9. Holy Bible (KJV) Mathew 16:25
  10. Lactantius, De Mortibus Persecutorum 18
  11. Lactantius, De Mortibus Persecutorum 18
  12. Lactantius, De Mortibus Persecutorum 21
  13. Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, Book 8 Chapter, 17 [May, 311] (This version of Galerius’
  14. edict of toleration is from Eusebius’ Greek translation. Lactantius also provided the edict translated from the original Latin. De Mortibus Persecutorum 34.)
  15. Lactantius, De Mortibus Persecutorum 36
  16. Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, Book 9 Chapter, 6
  17. Eusebius, Life of Constantine Book 1, Chapter 28
  18. Eusebius, Life of Constantine Book 1, Chapter 29
  19. Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History Book 9, Chapter 9
  20. (Lactantius, De Mortibus Persecutorum 44.5-6
  21. In ancient Rome, a building with a central nave, a columned aisle on each side, and typically a terminal semicircular apse.
  22. Dulia is a term from the Latin referring to a form of worship that is inferior to divine worship.
  23. Lactantius, De Mortibus Persecutorum 45
  24. The Edict of Milan was not written in Milan but is so named because, as the edict states, Licinius and Constantine were together in Milan six months earlier when Constantine gave his sister in marriage to Licinius. While in Milan, the two emperors discussed the state of the empire and sought to forge a better situation for the Christians by granting them liberty.
  25. Lactantius, De Mortibus Persecutorum 48