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Peace and Prosperity of the Church under Diocletian (284 – 303 AD) – The Progress of Zeal and Superstition among the Pagans
Amidst the frequent revolutions of the empire, the
Christians still flourished in peace and prosperity; and
notwithstanding a celebrated aera of martyrs has been deduced
from the accession of Diocletian, 131 the new system of policy,
introduced and maintained by the wisdom of that prince,
continued, during more than eighteen years, to breathe the
mildest and most liberal spirit of religious toleration. The
mind of Diocletian himself was less adapted indeed to speculative
inquiries, than to the active labors of war and government. His
prudence rendered him averse to any great innovation, and though
his temper was not very susceptible of zeal or enthusiasm, he
always maintained an habitual regard for the ancient deities of
the empire. But the leisure of the two empresses, of his wife
Prisca, and of Valeria, his daughter, permitted them to listen
with more attention and respect to the truths of Christianity,
which in every age has acknowledged its important obligations to
female devotion. 132 The principal eunuchs, Lucian 133 and
Dorotheus, Gorgonius and Andrew, who attended the person,
possessed the favor, and governed the household of Diocletian,
protected by their powerful influence the faith which they had
embraced. Their example was imitated by many of the most
considerable officers of the palace, who, in their respective
stations, had the care of the Imperial ornaments, of the robes,
of the furniture, of the jewels, and even of the private
treasury; and, though it might sometimes be incumbent on them to
accompany the emperor when he sacrificed in the temple, 134 they
enjoyed, with their wives, their children, and their slaves, the
free exercise of the Christian religion. Diocletian and his
colleagues frequently conferred the most important offices on
those persons who avowed their abhorrence for the worship of the
gods, but who had displayed abilities proper for the service of
the state. The bishops held an honorable rank in their
respective provinces, and were treated with distinction and
respect, not only by the people, but by the magistrates
themselves. Almost in every city, the ancient churches were
found insufficient to contain the increasing multitude of
proselytes; and in their place more stately and capacious
edifices were erected for the public worship of the faithful.
The corruption of manners and principles, so forcibly lamented by
Eusebius, 135 may be considered, not only as a consequence, but
as a proof, of the liberty which the Christians enjoyed and
abused under the reign of Diocletian. Prosperity had relaxed the
nerves of discipline. Fraud, envy, and malice prevailed in every
congregation. The presbyters aspired to the episcopal office,
which every day became an object more worthy of their ambition.
The bishops, who contended with each other for ecclesiastical
preeminence, appeared by their conduct to claim a secular and
tyrannical power in the church; and the lively faith which still
distinguished the Christians from the Gentiles, was shown much
less in their lives, than in their controversial writings.
Footnote 131: The Aera of Martyrs, which is still in use among
the Copts and the Abyssinians, must be reckoned from the 29th of
August, A. D. 284; as the beginning of the Egyptian year was
nineteen days earlier than the real accession of Diocletian. See
Dissertation Preliminaire a l'Art de verifier les Dates.
Footnote 132: The expression of Lactantius, (de M. P. c. 15,)
"sacrificio pollui coegit," implies their antecedent conversion
to the faith, but does not seem to justify the assertion of
Mosheim, (p. 912,) that they had been privately baptized.
Footnote 133: M. de Tillemont (Memoires Ecclesiastiques, tom. v.
part i. p. 11, 12) has quoted from the Spicilegium of Dom Luc
d'Archeri a very curious instruction which Bishop Theonas
composed for the use of Lucian.
Footnote 134: Lactantius, de M. P. c. 10.
Footnote 135: Eusebius, Hist. Ecclesiast. l. viii. c. 1. The
reader who consults the original will not accuse me of
heightening the picture. Eusebius was about sixteen years of age
at the accession of the emperor Diocletian.
Notwithstanding this seeming security, an attentive observer
might discern some symptoms that threatened the church
more violent persecution
than any which she had yet endured. The
zeal and rapid progress of the Christians awakened the
Polytheists from their supine indifference in the cause of those
deities, whom custom and education had taught them to revere.
The mutual provocations of a religious war, which had already
continued above two hundred years, exasperated the animosity of
the contending parties. The Pagans were incensed at the rashness
of a recent and obscure sect, which presumed to accuse their
countrymen of error, and to devote their ancestors to eternal
The habits of justifying the popular mythology
the invectives of an implacable enemy, produced in their minds
some sentiments of faith and reverence
for a system which they
had been accustomed to consider with the most careless levity.
The supernatural powers assumed by the church
inspired at the
same time terror and emulation. The followers of the established
religion intrenched themselves behind a similar fortification of
prodigies; invented new modes of sacrifice
, of expiation, and of
attempted to revive the credit of their expiring
and listened with eager credulity to every
impostor, who flattered their prejudices by a tale of wonders.
Both parties seemed to acknowledge the truth of those
miracles which were claimed by their adversaries; and while they
were contented with ascribing them to the arts of magic, and to
the power of daemon
s, they mutually concurred in restoring and
establishing the reign of superstition
Philosophy, her most
dangerous enemy, was now converted into her most useful ally.
The groves of the academy, the gardens of Epicurus
, and even the
portico of the Stoics, were almost deserted, as so many different
schools of scepticism or impiety; 140
and many among the Romans
were desirous that the writings of Cicero
should be condemned and
suppressed by the authority of the senate. 141
of the new Platonicians judged it prudent to connect
themselves with the priests, whom perhaps they despised, against
, whom they had reason to fear. These fashionable
Philosophers prosecuted the design of extracting allegorical
wisdom from the fictions of the Greek poets; instituted
mysterious rites of devotion
for the use of their chosen
disciples; recommended the worship
of the ancient gods as the
emblems or ministers of the Supreme Deity, and composed against
the faith of the gospel
many elaborate treatises, 142
since been committed to the flames by the prudence of orthodox
Footnote 136: We might quote, among a great number of instances,
the mysterious worship of Mythras, and the Taurobolia; the latter
of which became fashionable in the time of the Antonines, (see a
Dissertation of M. de Boze, in the Memoires de l'Academie des
Inscriptions, tom. ii. p. 443.) The romance of Apuleius is as
full of devotion as of satire.
Note: On the extraordinary progress of the Mahriac rites, in
the West, see De Guigniaud's translation of Creuzer, vol. i. p.
365, and Note 9, tom. i. part 2, p. 738, &c. - M.
Footnote 137: The impostor Alexander very strongly recommended
the oracle of Trophonius at Mallos, and those of Apollo at Claros
and Miletus, (Lucian, tom. ii. p. 236, edit. Reitz.) The last of
these, whose singular history would furnish a very curious
episode, was consulted by Diocletian before he published his
edicts of persecution, (Lactantius, de M. P. c. 11.)
Footnote 138: Besides the ancient stories of Pythagoras and
Aristeas, the cures performed at the shrine of Aesculapius, and
the fables related of Apollonius of Tyana, were frequently
opposed to the miracles of Christ; though I agree with Dr.
Lardner, (see Testimonies, vol. iii. p. 253, 352,) that when
Philostratus composed the life of Apollonius, he had no such
Footnote 139: It is seriously to be lamented, that the Christian
fathers, by acknowledging the supernatural, or, as they deem it,
the infernal part of Paganism, destroy with their own hands the
great advantage which we might otherwise derive from the liberal
concessions of our adversaries.
Footnote 140: Julian (p. 301, edit. Spanheim) expresses a pious
joy, that the Providence of the gods had extinguished the impious
sects, and for the most part destroyed the books of the
Pyrrhonians and Epicuraeans, which had been very numerous, since
Epicurus himself composed no less than 300 volumes. See Diogenes
Laertius, l. x. c. 26.
Footnote 141: Cumque alios audiam mussitare indignanter, et
dicere opportere statui per Senatum, aboleantur ut haec scripta,
quibus Christiana Religio comprobetur, et vetustatis opprimatur
auctoritas. Arnobius adversus Gentes, l. iii. p. 103, 104. He
adds very properly, Erroris convincite Ciceronem . . . nam
intercipere scripta, et publicatam velle submergere lectionem,
non est Deum defendere sed veritatis testificationem timere.
Footnote 142: Lactantius (Divin. Institut. l. v. c. 2, 3) gives
a very clear and spirited account of two of these philosophic
adversaries of the faith. The large treatise of Porphyry against
the Christians consisted of thirty books, and was composed in
Sicily about the year 270.
Footnote 143: See Socrates, Hist. Ecclesiast. l. i. c. 9, and
Codex Justinian. l. i. i. l. s.
Although the policy of Diocletian
and the humanity of
Constantius inclined them to preserve inviolate the maxims of
, it was soon discovered that their two associates,
, entertained the most implacable aversion
for the name and religion of the Christians
. The minds of those
princes had never been enlightened by science; education had
never softened their temper. They owed their greatness to their
swords, and in their most elevated fortune they still retained
their superstitious prejudices of soldiers and peasants. In the
general administration of the provinces they obeyed the laws
which their benefactor had established; but they frequently found
occasions of exercising within their camp and palaces a secret
for which the imprudent zeal of the Christians
sometimes offered the most specious pretences. A sentence of
death was executed upon Maximilianus, an African youth, who had
been produced by his own father *
before the magistrate
sufficient and legal recruit, but who obstinately persisted in
declaring, that his conscience
would not permit him to embrace
the profession of a soldier. 145 It could scarcely be expected
that any government should suffer the action of Marcellus the
Centurion to pass with impunity. On the day of a public
festival, that officer threw away his belt, his arms, and the
ensigns of his office, and exclaimed with a loud voice, that he
would obey none but Jesus Christ the eternal King, and that he
renounced forever the use of carnal weapons, and the service of
an idolatrous master.
The soldiers, as soon as they recovered
from their astonishment, secured the person of Marcellus
. He was
examined in the city of Tingi by the president of that part of
Mauritania; and as he was convicted by his own confession
, he was
condemned and beheaded for the crime of desertion
of such a nature savor much less of religious persecution
or even civil law; but they served to alienate the mind
of the emperors, to justify the severity of Galerius
dismissed a great number of Christian
officers from their
employments; and to authorize the opinion, that a sect
enthusiastics, which avowed principles so repugnant to the public
safety, must either remain useless, or would soon become
dangerous, subjects of the empire.
Footnote 144: Eusebius, l. viii. c. 4, c. 17. He limits the
number of military martyrs, by a remarkable expression, of which
neither his Latin nor French translator have rendered the energy.
Notwithstanding the authority of Eusebius, and the silence of
Lactantius, Ambrose, Sulpicius, Orosius, &c., it has been long
believed, that the Thebaean legion, consisting of 6000
Christians, suffered martyrdom by the order of Maximian, in the
valley of the Pennine Alps. The story was first published about
the middle of the 5th century, by Eucherius, bishop of Lyons, who
received it from certain persons, who received it from Isaac,
bishop of Geneva, who is said to have received it from Theodore,
bishop of Octodurum. The abbey of St. Maurice still subsists, a
rich monument of the credulity of Sigismund, king of Burgundy.
See an excellent Dissertation in xxxvith volume of the
Bibliotheque Raisonnee, p. 427-454.
Footnote 145: See the Acta Sincera, p. 299. The accounts of his
martyrdom and that of Marcellus, bear every mark of truth and
Footnote 146: Acta Sincera, p. 302.
Note: M. Guizot here justly observes, that it was the
necessity of sacrificing to the gods, which induced Marcellus to
act in this manner. - M.
After the success of the Persian war
had raised the hopes
and the reputation of Galerius
, he passed a winter with
in the palace of Nicomedia
; and the fate of
became the object of their secret consultations.
The experienced emperor was still inclined to pursue
measures of lenity; and though he readily consented to exclude
from holding any employments in the household or
the army, he urged in the strongest terms the danger as well as
cruelty of shedding the blood of those deluded fanatics.
at length extorted !!
from him the permission of
summoning a council, composed of a few persons the most
distinguished in the civil and military departments of the state.
The important question was agitated in their presence, and those
ambitious courtiers easily discerned, that it was incumbent on
them to second, by their eloquence, the importunate violence of
the Caesar. It may be presumed, that they insisted on every
topic which might interest the pride, the piety, or the fears, of
their sovereign in the destruction of Christianity
. Perhaps they
represented, that the glorious work of the deliverance of the
empire was left imperfect, as long as an independent people was
permitted to subsist and multiply in the heart of the provinces.
, (it might specially be alleged,) renouncing the
gods and the institutions of Rome, had constituted a distinct
republic, which might yet be suppressed before it had acquired
any military force; but which was already governed by its own
laws and magistrate
s, was possessed of a public treasure, and was
intimately connected in all its parts by the frequent assemblies
of the bishops, to whose decrees their numerous and opulent
s yielded an implicit obedience. Arguments like
these may seem to have determined the reluctant mind of
to embrace a new system of persecution
; but though we
may suspect, it is not in our power to relate, the secret
intrigues of the palace, the private views and resentment
jealousy of women or eunuchs, and all those trifling but decisive
causes which so often influence the fate of empires, and the
councils of the wisest monarchs. 148
Footnote 147: De M. P. c. 11. Lactantius (or whoever was the
author of this little treatise) was, at that time, an inhabitant
of Nicomedia; but it seems difficult to conceive how he could
acquire so accurate a knowledge of what passed in the Imperial
Note: Lactantius, who was subsequently chosen by Constantine
to educate Crispus, might easily have learned these details from
Constantine himself, already of sufficient age to interest
himself in the affairs of the government, and in a position to
obtain the best information.
Footnote !!: This permission was not extorted from Diocletian;
he took the step of his own accord. Lactantius says, in truth,
Nec tamen deflectere potuit (Diocletianus) praecipitis hominis
insaniam; placuit ergo amicorum sententiam experiri. (De Mort.
Pers. c. 11.) But this measure was in accordance with the
artificial character of Diocletian, who wished to have the
appearance of doing good by his own impulse and evil by the
impulse of others. Nam erat hujus malitiae, cum bonum quid facere
decrevisse sine consilio faciebat, ut ipse laudaretur. Cum autem
malum. quoniam id reprehendendum sciebat, in consilium multos
advocabat, ut alioram culpao adscriberetur quicquid ipse
deliquerat. Lact. ib. Eutropius says likewise, Miratus callide
fuit, sagax praeterea et admodum subtilis ingenio, et qui
severitatem suam aliena invidia vellet explere. Eutrop. ix. c.
Footnote 148: The only circumstance which we can discover, is
the devotion and jealousy of the mother of Galerius. She is
described by Lactantius, as Deorum montium cultrix; mulier
admodum superstitiosa. She had a great influence over her son,
and was offended by the disregard of some of her Christian
Note: This disregard consisted in the Christians fasting and
praying instead of participating in the banquets and sacrifices
which she celebrated with the Pagans. Dapibus sacrificabat poene
quotidie ac vicariis suis epulis exhibebat. Christiani
abstinebant, et illa cum gentibus epulante, jejuniis hi et
oratiomibus insisteban; hine concepit odium Lact de Hist. Pers.
c. 11. - G.
To cite original text:
Gibbon, Edward, 1737-1794. The history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.
(NY : Knopf, 1993), v. 2, pp. 54 - 60.
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