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     Growth and Persecutions

Growth and Persecutions

1. In the year 260, the emperor Valerian (253-260), campaigning against the Persians, was defeated and captured by Sapor I (234-270). His son, colleague, and successor, Gallienus (253-268), thereupon revoked his father's edict of persecution, and for the next 44 years the Christian churches enjoyed a period of respite from official persecution. By the end of this period, Christianity was represented in all parts of the empire and its adherents may have numbered as many as five million, a significant if not large minority of the population. Its greatest concentrations were in Asia Minor, Egypt, Syria, North Africa, and central Italy. The last half of the third century, however, seems to have produced little in the way of original theological thought.

2. In the third century, Paganism itself experienced a shift in religious mood. Attention was less focused on the many gods of the classic religion, but gave more attention to the transcendently holy and life giving God whose power the lesser Gods represented. This development is manifest particularly on the imperial cult. Emperors, human beings as they were, were no longer seen as gods. Rather they were seen as persons who, in virtue of their office, were "begotten of the gods", sharing in their mortal way in the holiness of the Divine and enjoying its protection. Behind this shift in the sense of the imperial cult lay the third century development of solar monotheism, worship of the life-giving sun as a symbol of the ultimate God who is the source of all things. The emperor Aurelian built a great temple to the Unconquered Sun, which he intended to be the center of the empire's religious life. Christians in the fourth century could find no better way of rivaling this popular deity than by using his birthday, December 25 (the winter solstice), to celebrate the birth of Christ, the Sun of Righteousness.

3. In 284, Diocletian succeeded the imperial throne, and turned toward internal reconstruction of the empire. The first step of his program, which evolved gradually, was to appoint, in 285 AD, a second emperor, Maximian, to share his authority and to supervise affairs in the western portion of the empire. His next step, taken a few years later, was to associate with these two "Augusti", two junior emperors called "Caesars", who were assigned sections of the empire to rule and defend and were designated heirs apparent to the two Augusti. As his own Caesar, Diocletian selected Galerius the soldier. Maximiam was assigned Constantius I, father of Constantine the Great. Diocletian also doubled the number of provinces by redrawing the map and grouped these new provinces into large administrative area called "diocese", each of which was put under a "vicar" or governor general.

4. During most of his reign Diocletian exhibited the same toleration which had marked the policy of his predecessors. Toward the end of his reign, however, circumstances convinced him that the existence of Christianity was rupturing the covenant between Rome and her protectorate gods. Not only were Christians in the army insulting the gods by refusing to acknowledge them, but Diocletian was informed by his priests that, because of the presence in his court of "profane men" (presumably Christians), the traditional divinations by which the emperors learned the will of the gods, were void of effect: the gods were no longer answering. And when Diocletian sent to the oracle of Apollo at Miletus to inquire what course he should take in the face of this situation, the answer was unfavorable to the Christians. Thus Diocletian began a series of actions which were calculated to rid first the court and the army, and then the empire as a whole, of Christians.

5. Beginning in February 303, three edicts of persecution came i rapid succession. Churches were to be destroyed, sacred books were to be confiscated, and finally, clergy were to be imprisoned and compelled to offer sacrifice to the Roman gods. In 304, a fourth edict required all Christians to offer sacrifice. Some believers were martyred, many suffered, and many lapsed and made the sacrifice. In 305, troubled by ill health, Diocletian retired from his office as August and compelled the simultaneous resignation of Maximian. Thus Galerius rose to greater power in the West and continued the persecution of Christians, while in the East Constantius I eased somewhat the oppression. In 306 Constantius I died suddenly and was succeeded by his son Constantine (the Great). In 311, from his deathbed, Galerius issued an edict of toleration which ended the persecution of the Eastern Christians.

5. Constantine, like his father, had been a firm opponent of the persecution of the Christians. On the eve of the battle at the Mulvian Bridge, Constantine had a dream in which he saw the initial letters of the name of Christ with the words, "By this sign you will conquer." Taking this as an omen, he resolved to trust his cause to the God of the Christians and had the Chi-Ro (greek letters) monogram painted on the shields of his soldiers. In the ensuing struggle, Maxentius, the opposing leader, lost the battle and his life, and Constantine had won control of the west. When he entered Rome in triumph, Constantine remembered to whom he owed his victory. The customary tributes of thanks to the gods of Rome were omitted. The emperor henceforth regarded the Christian God as the protector of the empire and the sponsor of his own mission of reform and reconstruction.

Sources utilized in these pages may include:
  • Everett Ferguson's: Backgrounds of Early Christianity
  • Walker's: History of Christianity (out of print)

    (These links will take you to book detail pages at

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