The final Imperial persecution under Diocletian.
After 43 years of respite from the persecutions under the Emperors Decius (249-251) and Valerian (253-260), the church came under its final attack from the Imperial power. Diocletian, at the end of a long and effective reign, strangely ordered the arrest of all bishops and the destruction of all of Christianity’s sacred books and places of worship in 303.
The heroism of the martyrs began to have its effect upon public sentiment. The citizens of Rome became repulsed by the bloodshed and criticized the government’s injustice and cruelty. Some even risked their lives to hide and protect the persecuted.
Persecution was most brutal in the eastern part of the empire. Maximian, Diocletian’s counterpart in the West carried out the persecution edict with force, though Maximian’s subordinate ruler Constantius, ruling in Britain, Gaul and Spain refused to execute anyone on religious grounds.
Diocletian abdicated the throne for private life in 305. Before doing so, he had divided the empire into two great districts, East and West. Each ruled by an Augustus, assisted by a subordinate called a Caesar. By prior agreement, the two Augusti would retire at a designated date, leaving their rule to the two Caesars.
The illegitimate son of Constantius (by a legal concubine Helena), Flavius Valerius Constantinus (Constantine), was born around 272 or 274. Upon becoming ruler, Constantius had been forced by Diocletian to put away Helena and marry Theodora, stepdaughter of Maximian. Constantine remained devoted to his mother, who became a Christian after having been divorced.
Upon Constantius’ death, his soldiers, being loyal to him, acclaimed Constantine his successor in the office of Augustus (in place of Severus). Galerius was too far away to oppose this breach of succession.
Maxentius (son of Maximian), killed Severus and entrenched himself in Rome, demanding that he be recognized as his father’s successor. Galerius did not recognize Maxentius, and appointed Licinius to succeed the dead Severus. Maximian came out of retirement to attempt to reclaim his former title.
To gain supremacy, in 312, Constantine marched against Maxentius in Rome, descending upon Rome from Gaul (France). Though formerly a worshiper of Helios, the sun god, Constantine declared himself converted to Christianity just before attacking Rome. He claimed that he saw a vision of a flaming cross with the word “In this sign conquer.” He also had a dream telling him to put the chi-rho emblem on all his shields.
Maxentius came against Constantine and he and thousands of his troops were defeated on the Mulvian bridge and drowned in the Tiber River. Constantine granted Maximian the courtesy of suicide. Thus Constantine entered Rome as the undisputed ruler of the West. Constantine later moved the capital of the empire to Byzantium, renaming it Constantinople (modern Istanbul).
The wife of Emperor Galerius urged him to make peace with the undefeated God of the Christians. In 311, Galerius issued an edict of toleration, making Christianity legal. In 313, Constantine and Licinius met in Milan and issued the “Edict of Milan,” confirming Galerius’ previous policy of toleration.
Licinius later reneged, and reinstituted persecution in the East–but Constantine became sole ruler in 324, bringing universal toleration. (90 years later, Emperor Theodosius made Christianity official religion and persecuted paganism in 392).
Constantine introduced the following changes:
Restoration of properties confiscated by Diocletian
Rebuilt many of the churches Diocletian had destroyed
Gave money to needy congregations
Granted tax exemption for church property
Granted military exemption for clergy
Gave bishops the authority as judges in their dioceses
At his mother’s (Queen Helena) encouragement, he built the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.
In 325, called the ecumenical council at Nicea (NW Asia Minor) to settle the Arian controversy.
Revoked religious liberty for heretical sects and destroyed their meeting places
In THE STORY OF CIVILIZATION, Will Durant wrote:
“There is no greater drama in human record than the sight of a few Christians, scorned or oppressed by a succession of emperors, bearing all trials with fierce tenacity, multiplying quietly, building order while their enemies generated chaos, fighting the sword with the Word, brutality with hope, and at last defeating the strongest state that history has known. Caesar and Christ had met in the arena, and Christ had won!”
Negatively, Constantine. . .
Did not get baptized until on his deathbed. Only gradually replaced pagan practices with Christian ones. Made the first day of the week a holiday, called “the venerable day of the Sun” (Sunday). Made December 25th (formerly associated with the festival of the Sun) the official birthday of Christ. Dedicated Constantinople using both Christian and pagan rites. Did not remove pagan images from coins until 317. He restored pagan temples as well as Christian places of worship. Executed his son, his nephew and his second wife (for reasons not clear.)
Enduring consequences of Constantine’s conversion:
1. Fashionableness of Christianity among unregenerate pagans who were baptized.
2. Blurring of distinction between Christianity and paganism: the paganization of the church
3. Blurring of distinction between church and state: the regulation of the church by government
Orthodoxy enforced by state law.
Athanasius would later ask: “When did a judgment of the church receive its validity from the emperor?”
Hosius of Cordova criticized Constantine’s son Constantius, saying:
“Do not intrude yourself into church matters, nor give commands to us concerning them...God has put into your hands the kingdom; to us he has entrusted the affairs of his church...It is written, ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.’”
4. God’s sanction invoked upon warfare: the secularization of the church’s mission
5. Political power of bishops strengthened: the politicizing of the church