The Last Roman Emperors
Who Persecuted Christians
The stories of the last emperors to persecute Christians are fascinating accounts of God's justice. When a tyrant meets a horrible end people often interpret that as the tyrant getting what he deserves. Christians believe that there is only one ultimate Judge who has the moral perfection and omnipotent power to deliver final justice through eternal punishment. However, He often appears to deliver some of that justice at the end of that tyrant's life as an object lesson for other would-be tyrants. The horrible endings to some of the emperors' lives prior to Constantine may give us a clue as to why he aligned himself with Christianity and finally abolished the persecution of Christians in the fourth century. Alternatively, some say it was simply because he wanted to use the highly organized system of churches as a vehicle to better unite the empire. This may have been in his mind, or it may only have been a rewarding consequence. We can't really know for sure. Even so, Eusebius, a friend of Constantine's and an important historian of the early church gives us a glimpse of a very powerful motive. Constantine saw the fates of those emperors who were against the Church, and he did not want to meet the same kind of end. This article recounts the ends of these last imperial persecutors.
Constantine's father, Emperor Constantius shared the rule of the Roman Empire with Diocletian, Maximian and Galerius. We usually think of the Roman Empire as being ruled by only one emperor at a time, and for much of its history this was true, until Diocletian. Diocletian was proclaimed emperor by his troops in 284 C.E.. He recognized that the empire had become too large to be ruled by just one man, so in 286 C.E. he divided the empire into four areas called prefectures. He made Maximian his co-Emperor. Together they were the senior Emperors. He also made Galerius and Constantius junior Emperors over one prefecture each. In order to cement their loyalties he required the intermarriage of their families. To accomplish this intermarriage Constantius divorced his wife Helena (the mother of Constantine) to marry Maximian's daughter and Galerius divorced his wife and married Diocletian's daughter. This four-man rule (tetrarchy) lasted until 305 C.E.. Diocletian and Maximian gave up their powers to Galerius, who became ruler of the eastern provinces and Constantius, who became ruler of the western provinces. Diocletian, Maximian and Galerius were cruel tyrants who persecuted Christians with unspeakable horrors. One by one these three met their own horrible deaths, which we will look at next.
According to Eusebius, Diocletian was tolerant of most religious beliefs and organizations for the first nineteen years. His own wife and daughter and other members of the imperial household and staff were Christians.1 However, his junior co-ruler, Galerius, found ways to convince him that Christians were seditious toward the State, and this resulted in Diocletian making a series of edicts to persecute Christians. Eusebius relates that Diocletian became very ill and mentally deranged.2 Lactantius writes,
"Thus Diocletian lived to see a disgrace which no former emperor had ever seen, and, trader the double load of vexation of spirit and bodily maladies, he resolved to die. Tossing to and fro, with his soul agitated by grief, he could neither eat nor take rest. He sighed, groaned, and wept often, and incessantly threw himself into various postures, now on his couch, and now on the ground. So he, who for twenty years was the most prosperous of emperors, having been cast down into the obscurity of a private station, treated in the most contumelious manner, and compelled to abhor life, became incapable of receiving nourishment, and, worn out with anguish of mind, expired."3
Some historians believe he committed suicide to end an embittered life in 313.4
Galerius was the main instigator and the worst of the persecutors. Lactantius, a Christian and tutor to the imperial court, informs us that Galerius' mother manipulated the superstitious Galerius to hate Christians.5 But enough was enough. In God's sovereignty and wisdom he decided to end this cruel chapter of the early church's existence. Eusebius (263-339 AD) tells the story of how Galerius had a change of heart. The record is found in his The History of the Church.
"He was pursued by a divinely ordained punishment, which began with his flesh and went on to his soul. Without warning, suppurative inflammation broke out round the middle of his genitals, then a deep-seated fistular ulcer: these ate their way incurably into his inmost bowels. From them came a teeming indescribably mass of worms and the sickening smell was given off; for the whole of his hulking body, thanks to over-eating, had been transformed even before his illness into a huge lump of flabby fat, which then decomposed and presented those who came near with a revolting and horrifying sight. Of the doctors, some were unable to endure the overpowering and extraordinary stench, and were executed on the spot; other, unable to be of any assistance now that the entire mass had swollen up and deteriorated beyond hope of recovery, were put to death without mercy.
As he wrestled with this terrible sickness, he was filled with remorse for his cruel treatment of God's servants. So he pulled himself together, and after first making open confession to the God of the universe, he called his court officials and ordered them to lose no time in stopping the persecution of Christians, and by an imperial law and decree to stimulate the building of churches and the performance of the customary rites, with the addition of prayers for the Emperor's Majesty. Action immediately followed the word, and imperial ordinances were published in all the cities, setting forth in the following terms the recantation by the emperors of our time: ....
The author of the edict had no sooner made this confession, than he was released from his bodily torments; but in a very little while he was dead. It is on record that he had been the prime mover in the calamitous persecution....6
Constantius, Constantine's father, did not persecute Christians in his area of the Empire. Instead, Eusebius tells us, he was the
"kindest and mildest of emperors." He "spent the whole of his reign in a manner worthy of his exalted position. In all ways he showed himself most considerate and benevolent towards everyone; above all, he stayed outside the campaign against us and saved God's servants among his subjects from injury and ill-usage, and he neither pulled down church buildings nor caused us any other mischief whatever. So he truly achieved a conclusion to his life that was happy and supremely blest; for he alone while still emperor died in an atmosphere of goodwill and glory, to be succeeded on the throne by a lawful son in every way most prudent and religious."7
As a result of Galerius' edict the provincial governors released the Christians from prison and labor in the mines.
"When these recommendations had been carried out, it was as if all at once a light had shone out of a dark night. In every town could be seen crowded churches, overflowing congregations, and the appropriate ceremonies duly performed. This dumbfounded all the unconverted heathen, who were astonished at the miracle of this transformation and loudly proclaimed that the Christians' God was alone great and true.... Those who a little while ago had been prisoners, driven from their homeland and punished most cruelly, could be seen with happy, smiling faces regaining their own hearths, so that even those who had earlier been athirst for our blood, when they saw this marvelous thing, so utterly unexpected, shared our joy at what had happened."8
After Diocletian and Maximian retired, Galerius appointed his nephew Maximinus Daia (called Maximin by Eusebius) and another officer, Severus, as junior emperors. Severus died in 307 and Galerius appointed Licinius to replace him instead of Maximinus Daia. Galerius had feared the ambitions of Constantius' son, Constantine, and that was justified because when Maximin was slighted he and Constantine proclaimed themselves co-rulers of the west. Maximinus Daia, however, eventually overthrew Licinius who then joined forces with Constantine. Maximian's son, Maxentius, joined Maximinus Daia against them. Now, instead of being four men working together to rule the empire, there were four working against each other to rule the empire.
Despite Galerius edict of toleration, Maximinus Daia, the tyrannical ruler of the eastern part of the Empire, found sneaky ways to persecute Christians. But his days were numbered. His is another example of the truth, "pride comes before the fall." He boasted that, "his devotion to the idols and his attack on (Christians) prevented any famine or plague or even war from occurring in his time." But then a terrible time of famine and disease afflicted the Empire. He also held a war against the country of Armenia, who up to that point had been allies of Rome. Eusebius relates,
"They were Christians and zealous adherents of the Deity; so the God-hater attempted to force them to sacrifice to idols and demons, thereby turning them from friends into foes and from allies into enemies."9
Together with the war ending with significant casualties and the death toll from the famine and disease Maximin looked like a fool and his gods looked weak. Such was the reward for Maximin's loud boasts and the cities' resolutions against us, while the fruits of the Christians' limitless enthusiasm and devotion became evident to all the heathen. Alone in the midst of this terrible calamity they proved by visible deeds their sympathy and humanity. All day long some continued without rest to tend the dying and bury them-the number was immense, and there was no one to see to them; other rounded up the huge number who had been reduced to scarecrows all over the city and distributed loaves to them all, so that their praises were sung on every side, and all men glorified the God of the Christians and owned that they alone were pious and truly religious; did not their actions speak for themselves?"10
"Thus Constantine, an emperor and son of an emperor, a religious man and son of a most religious man, most prudent in every way, as stated above-Licinius the next in rank, both of them honoured for their wise and religious outlook, two men dear to God-were roused by the King of Kings, God of the universe, and Saviour against two most irreligious tyrants and declared war on them. God came to their aid in a most marvelous way, so that at Rome Maxentius fell at the hands of Constantine, and the ruler of the East (Maximin) survived him only a short time and himself came to a most shameful end at the hands of Licinius, who at that time was still sane.
The senior in imperial rank and position, Constantine, was the first to feel pity for the victims of tyranny at Rome. Calling in prayer on God in heaven and on His Word, Jesus Christ Himself, the Saviour of all, to come to his aid, he advanced at the head of all his forces, intent on recovering for the Romans the liberty of their ancestors."11
Constantine defeated Maxentius in a very dramatic way that many at the time viewed as miraculous. He ordered the following inscription to be displayed in Rome:
"By this saving sign, the true proof of courage, I saved your city from the yoke of the tyrant and set her free; furthermore I freed the Senate and People of Rome and restored them to their ancient renown and splendour."12
"After this, Constantine himself and with him the Emperor Licinius-whose mind was not yet unhinged by the mania which later took possession of him-first made things right with God, the author of all their successes; then both with one will and intent formulated on behalf of the Christians a most thoroughgoing law in the fullest terms. Next, an account of the wonders that God had performed for them, of their triumph over the tyrant, and of the law itself, was sent to Maximin, who was still master of the eastern provinces and posing as their friend. He, tyrant that he was, was very upset by what he learnt. He did not wish it to appear that he was giving way to others; on the other hand, he dared not suppress the order, for fear of those who had issued it."
So Maximin feigned compliance.
Eusebius continues to relate Maximin's fate:
"His downfall was brought by the following circumstance. The burden of the government with which he had so undeservedly been entrusted was too heavy for his shoulders, and for want of a prudent and imperial mentality he was clumsy in his handling of affairs; above all, he was senselessly elated by arrogance and boastfulness, even at the expense of his colleagues in the Empire, who were vastly superior to him in birth, upbringing, and education. in character and intellect, and in the most important thing of all-prudence and reverence for the true God. He began to display presumption and effrontery, publicly proclaiming himself first in rank. Then, pushing his madness to the point of utter dementia, he broke the treaty he had made with Licinius and brought about a war to the death. It was not long before he had produced universal confusion and set every city in turmoil. he concentrated all available forces, forming an army of immense size, and set out in battle array to challenge Licinius, pinning his hopes to demons whom, if you please, he regarded as gods, and supremely confident, in view of the immense numbers of his infantry forces.
When the armies met (at Campus Sernus in Thrace on April 30, 313), he found himself deprived of God's assistance, and it was to hi rival, who was still on the throne, that the one and only God of all Himself assigned the victory. First to perish was the heavy infantry on which he had placed such reliance; then his personal bodyguard deserted him, leaving him utterly defenseless, and went over to his conqueror. So the wretched man lost no time in stripping off the imperial insignia, of which he was so unworthy, and unmanly, craven coward as he was, slipped unnoticed into the crowd. Then he ran this way and that, hiding in fields and villages. But though he tried so hard to save his skin, he only just succeeded in eluding his pursuers....
In this very way the tyrant, full of shame, reached his own territory (Cilicia). There in his insane fury he began by seizing many priests and prophets of the gods whom he had once so revered and whose oracles had inflamed his warlike ardour, and-on the ground that they had tricked and deceived him, and above all that they had betrayed his safety-he put them to death. Next, he paid tribute to the Christians' God, and to safeguard their freedom drew up a law that went the whole way to meet their case. But the sands had run out, and in a few days his life came to a miserable end."13
Schaff adds, "He likewise died a violent death by poison, in 313."14
Eusebius then inserts a copy of Maximin's edict into his own history account. This decree officially allowed freedom of worship for Christians and mandated the generous restoration of their churches and properties. Here are Eusebius' comments about the situation:
"These were the tyrant's words, coming less than a year after the posting of tablets of his anti-Christian ordinances. The very man by whom such a little while before we had been judged impious and godless and ruinous to public life-so that we were not permitted to live in the country or the desert, much less in a city-was now drawing up pro-Christian ordinances and decrees; and those who so recently were being destroyed by fire and sword and given as food for beasts and birds before his eyes, and were undergoing every kind of punishment and torture and death-as if, poor wretches, they were godless and impious-are now allowed by the same man to practice their form of worship and permitted to rebuild the Lord's houses; and the tyrant himself allows that they have legal rights!
When he had allowed all this he received a reward, of a sort, for doing so; at any rate, he got a great deal less than his deserts when he was struck all at once by God's scourge, and in the second encounter of the war met his end. The character of his end was not such as befalls the general at the head of his army, who for the sake of his friends and the right again and again plays the man and fearlessly meets a glorious fate in battle, but like an impious enemy of God, while his army still held its position on the field he stayed at home in hiding, till he paid the penalty that fitted his crimes. All at once he was struck by God's scourge over his whole body, so that he was plagued with terrible, agonizing pains and fell prone; he was wasted by hunger, and the whole of his flesh was consumed by an invisible fire sent from God .... As the fever that consumed him blazed up ever more fiercely from the depths of his marrow, his eyes stood out of his head and fell from their sockets, leaving him blind. But even in this condition he could still breathe, and made open confession to the Lord, begging for death. So at long last he acknowledged that he deserved these torments because of his furious onslaught on Christ, and all was over."15
There was one tyrant left, Licinius, who co-ruled the empire with Constantine. He was Constantine's brother-in-law and had great riches and power. Even so he became envious of Constantine's power for even though he was a co-Emperor Constantine was still his superior. Licinius attempted to covertly sabotage Constantine, persecuted Christians and was the instigator of great cruelties to his own people. Finally, he went to war with Constantine and lost. Constantine had him executed. (408-413)
Modern historians will say that much of what historians like Eusebius and Lactantius wrote about these Emperors is exaggerated or made up for rhetorical purposes. They say it is presumptuous to take it as Gospel truth. I agree that it is difficult to truly know how much, if any, of the accounts are actually what happened. Yet, because none of them has proven beyond all doubt that there is no God or that God would not bring about justice in these ways, I think it is presumptuous to declare the stories aren't accurate or mostly accurate. It is very uncomfortable for modern and post-modern scholars to believe that there is a God who is just and punishes tyrants for the atrocities they commit. This is the view they are taught to hold by their own teachers who were taught this by their teachers. Yet this view, for the short amount of time it has been held, is an aberration from the normal way people of all cultures have thought for millennia. It also seems to be the minority view today compared with the general public. The elite academics contend that the majority of people for the majority of history have and are wrong, and of course, they have whole libraries of reasons why they think so. All of those volumes, though, are like a house of cards that is delicately balanced on just one assumption-that there is no God. In addition, all of the libraries filled with volume after volume reasoning that there is no God is but a molehill compared to the daily experience of billions of people in thousands of cultures from the beginning of humanity as we know it. Maybe they know something the modern historian cannot or will not grasp.
If these horrible ends did happen to those Emperors then Constantine was wise to not follow their example. His actions make perfect sense in the light of their fates and in light of how people throughout history have thought about divine justice.
Although he was far from perfect he was probably one of the wisest men who ever ruled an empire ( at least from a pragmatic point of view). He noticed that the Christian churches formed a well organized large portion of the population of the Roman Empire. He also couldn't help but notice that not only did the persecutions not work to destroy Christianity, but they made the Christian Church stronger. For him the adage, "If you can't beat them, join them" became very attractive. He even took it one step further to say, "If you can't beat them, become their leader and lead them to a common goal." He could see the choice clearly where his predecessors and rivals could not: Persecute the people of the Christian God and end up like the other emperors or join with God and his people and make the Empire a better place for all.
At this point I would like to change the topic to talk about the Christians who suffered. Eusebius attributed the last great persecution to God's punishment on the wickedness that characterized some of the church in the third and early fourth centuries. As church leaders became more and more powerful over more and more people there was infighting, backstabbing and hypocrisy of ever kind. There were quarrelling, threats, envy, mutual hostility and despotic power. The Church had degenerated to a position far away from the small gathering in the openning chapters of Acts. He compared the persecution to God's judgement on Israel. Then, he goes on, page after page, describing the horrible tortures and deaths of the Christians. He also describes some of the cowardly recanting of faith by some. It was not just the attrocities of the emperors that needed God's judgement but the degeneration of the Church that needed correcting.
What struck me as I read this is that if the persecution did come from God's hand then why did good and faithful Christians have to bear the brunt of what the bad Christians deserved? The ones who were most guilty of hypocrisy were probably the ones who recanted to protect themselves from loss of a job, torture or death. Why did the innocent have to suffer for the guilty? But then again isn't this what Jesus did? He was innocent, yet He bore all of the guilt of the whole of mankind. God was glorified in their suffering because it was a reminder of Jesus' suffering. And so it is whenever innocent Christians are persecuted for their faith. They showcase Jesus' own persecution for our sake.
1 Eusebius. The History of the Church from Christ to Constantine. Translated by G.A.Williamson. Barnes and Noble Books, New York. 1995. 327.An online version can be found at: http://www.catholicfirst.com/thefaith/churchfathers/volume24/volume24.cfm
2 Eusebius. 346.
3 Lactantius. On the Manner in Which the Persecutors Died. Found at http://www.ccel.org/fathers2/ANF-07/anf07-15.htm#P3916_1567226
4 Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church, Vol. III. WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI. 1950. 11.
6 Eusebius. 352-356
7 Eusebius. Book VIII, Chapter XIII
8 Eusebius. 358.
9 Eusebius. 365.
10 Eusebius. 367.
11 Eusebius. 368.
12 Eusebius. 370-371.
13 Eusebius. 373-375.
14 Schaff. Vol. III, 11.
15 Eusebius. 376-377.
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