CH101 - The Fourth Century

The Church Established, 303 - 400 A.D.

Politics of the Roman Empire
The Church Continues to Grow
Persecution under Diocletian
Constantine comes to Power
Donatism and Arianism
The Conflict with the Donatists
Constantine and Faith
Council of Nicea - 325 AD
The Nicean Creed
Beginnings of Monasticism

Persecution under Diocletian
Under Diocletian another round of intense persecution was carried out against the Church - this would be the last time Christians would be imprisoned and executed by the Roman Empire.

On February 23, 303 AD the cathedral in Nicomedia was torn down. The next day an emperial edict was issued ordering all Christian church buildings to be destroyed, all sacred writings were to be surrendered to authorities to be burned, all sacred items used in Christian meetings were to be confiscated, and worship meetings were outlawed. Just a few months later another edict was issued ordering the arrest of all clergy - so many were arrested that they had to halt arrests due to the overflowing of the prisons. In early 304 all Christians were required to make sacrifice to the empire on the pain of death. Later that year Diocletian retired and was succeeded by Galerius. Under Galerius the persecution intensified until his death in 311.

As has been pointed out in other sections covering Roman persecution, it is important to realize that persecution was never empire-wide. This round of persecution was really just carried out in the eastern part of the empire.
Specifically, see - Persecution of the Roman Empire

Bishops were rounded up, imprisoned, and some were executed. Many were forced to give up copies of the scriptures to be burned: some presented old Greek medical texts which were accepted; some officials, not happy to carry out the emperors orders knowingly accepted non-sacred documents to burn in the open as if scripture. Some believers in North Africa first learned of the outbreak against them by witnessing their church building being lit on fire by the authorities.

Eusebius graphically describes some of these heinous tortures - this excerpt is an attempt to give some of the flavor of Eusebius' report without going over the top:

Such was the conflict of those Egyptians who contended nobly for religion in Tyre. But we must admire those also who suffered martyrdom in their native land; where thousands of men, women, and children, despising the present life for the sake of the teaching of our Saviour, endured various deaths...numberless other kinds of tortures, terrible even to hear of, were committed to the flames; some were drowned in the sea; some offered their heads bravely to those who cut them off; some died under their tortures, and others perished with hunger. And yet others were crucified; some according to the method commonly employed for malefactors; others yet more cruelly, being nailed to the cross with their heads downward, and being kept alive until they perished on the cross with hunger.
It would be impossible to describe the outrages and tortures which the martyrs in Thebais endured....Others being bound to the branches and trunks of trees perished. For they drew the stoutest branches together with machines, and bound the limbs of the martyrs to them; and then, allowing the branches to assume their natural position, they tore asunder instantly the limbs of those for whom they contrived this.
All these things were done, not for a few days or a short time, but for a long series of years. Sometimes more than ten, at other times above twenty were put to death...and yet again a hundred men with young children and women, were slain in one day, being condemned to various and diverse torments.
We, also being on the spot ourselves, have observed large crowds in one day; some suffering decapitation, others torture by fire; so that the murderous sword was blunted, and becoming weak, was broken, and the very executioners grew weary and relieved each other.   HE VIII.8-9

After giving some further descriptions of torture, Eusebius then goes on to say that even some of the Romans were put off by the hideous nature of the torments, and thus

Therefore it was commanded that our eyes should be put out, and that we should be maimed in one of our limbs. For such things were humane in their sight, and the lightest of punishments for us. So that now on account of this kindly treatment accorded us by the impious, it was impossible to tell the incalculable number of those whose right eyes had first been cut out with the sword, and then had been cauterized with fire; or who had been disabled in the left foot by burning the joints, and afterward condemned to the provincial copper mines, not so much for service as for distress and hardship. Besides all these, others encountered other trials, which it is impossible to recount; for their manly endurance surpasses all description.
In these conflicts the noble martyrs of Christ shone illustrious over the entire world...and the evidences of the truly divine and unspeakable power of our Saviour were made manifest through them. To mention each by name would be a long task, if not indeed impossible.   HE VIII.12.10-11

This translation of Eusebius can be found on the New Advent web site.

This last report, that the authorities decided to satisfy their need for punishment simply with poking out an eye of a martyr, will resurface again later when we hear about Constantine at the Council of Nicea.

This persecution was terrible, but when it broke a new era would begin.

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