Church History # 4 - Persecution Against The Church

Persecution Against the Early Church (100 to 313 A.D.) 


1.         In this lesson we will do an overview of the persecution against God’s people in the first three centuries of the church.

2.         “The persecutions of Christianity during the first three centuries appear like a long tragedy; first, foreboding signs; then a succession of bloody assaults of heathenism upon the religion of the cross; amidst the dark scenes of fiendish hatred and cruelty the bright exhibitions of suffering virtue; now and then a short pause; at last a fearful and desperate struggle of the old pagan empire for life and death, ending in the abiding victory of the Christian religion.  Thus this bloody baptism of the church resulted in the birth of a Christian world.  It was a repetition and prolongation of the crucifixion, but followed by a resurrection.” (Schaff, Vol. 2, p. 17)

3.         The first persecutions against the church came at the hand of the Jews, as seen in the book of Acts and the NT epistles.

            a.         Stoning of Stephen (Acts 7)

            b.         The death of James, the brother of John, by Herod (Acts 12)

            c.         The constant harassment of the apostles Peter and John in the early chapters of Acts.

            d.         The general persecution of the church at Jerusalem following the death of Stephen (Acts 8).

            e.         The many persecutions of Paul during his travels (Acts 13-28, 2 Cor. 11:24-28, etc.).

4.         Rome tolerated a wide range of religious beliefs. Many “gods” were worshiped by the populace, and a wide toleration of religious differences was enjoyed within the empire. 

a.         In their ignorance, Rome for a long time considered Christianity a part of Judaism.  Judaism was tolerated as an ancient religion of the middle east.  Even though the Jews were a pesky race and constant problems to the Romans, there had never been an ongoing official persecution or attempt to destroy them. 

b.         As long as Christianity was considered a sect of Judaism, the empire looked upon it the same way.  But when the

            church came to be seen as distinct from Judaism; things changed. 

5.         Although Rome tolerated a wide range of religious beliefs, at the same time religion was always tightly interwoven with the state.  Because this was so, if one’s religious practices were seen as a threat to the state (or it’s established religion) all bets were off.  It was never o.k. to turn ones back on the interest of the state. 

6.         Note this quote from Philip Schaff:  “For with all its professed and actual tolerance the Roman state was thoroughly interwoven with heathen idolatry, and made religion a tool of its policy.  Ancient history furnishes no example of a state without some religion and form of worship. Rome makes no exception to the general rule.” (Schaff, Vol. 2, p. 21)


7.         Obstacles to the Toleration of Christianity (from Philip Schaff, p. 22-23).

a.         Christianity was not just another religion of the empire that could mix in with other religions.  Christianity claimed to be the only true universal religion. “No man cometh unto the Father but by me” (Jn. 14:6).  It would not compromise with the Roman state religion or any of the religions of the ancient world.  The “one true God’ necessarily meant that all others were false.  This was not true of the polytheistic heathenism of the Roman world. 

b.         Because of this, of course, Christians would not give divine honors to the emperor and his statue, or take part in idolatrous ceremonies and public festivities.  In addition, Christians were generally against any kind of military service, and considered politics and civil life to be unimportant.  Their focus on spiritual things and regular private meetings made them suspect.

c.         The common people, with their polytheistic ideas, often hated the believers in the “one God.” They considered them atheists and enemies of the gods.  This caused them to easily believe the slanderous rumors of incest, cannibalism, and immorality of every kind.  Schaff quotes a North African proverb that arose: “If God does not send rain, let it to the Christians.” And he adds, “At every inundation, or drought, or famine, or pestilence, the fanatical populace cried: “Away with the atheists! To the lions with the Christians.”” (Schaff, p. 22)

d.         “Finally, persecutions were sometimes started by priests, jugglers, artificers, merchants, and others, who derived their support from the idolatrous worship. These, like Demetrius at Ephesus, and the masters of the sorceress at Philippi, kindled the fanaticism and indignation of the mob against the new religion for its interference with their gains (comp. Acts 19:24; 16:16).”  (Schaff, p. 22-23).

Name                                    Date of Reign                                                                    Total Reign                                                        

Augustus                               January 16, 27 BC – August 19, 14 AD                             40 years, 7 months and 3 days         

1.             “Augustus seems at first to be reluctant to receive divine honors.  However, he allowed temples to be built and altars erected in his honor in the provinces, but he discouraged this being done in Rome. Nevertheless the concept of divinity, the worship of Rome and Augustus, which began in the provinces, spread rapidly.  Temples were erected, high priests appointed, sacrifices offered, and public games celebrated in a most solemn manner” (Hailey, p. 62).

2.             “One was in no way bound to this worship only, but rather could worship any or all gods if he so chose.  The worship of Rome and Augustus was a symbol of loyalty to the state. With the deification of Julius Caesar and the acceptance of the title or name “Augustus” by Octavian, the groundwork for emperor worship was not solidly laid.” (Hailey, p. 62-63).

Tiberius                                  September 18, 14 AD – March 16, 37 AD                       22 years, 5 months and 27 days       

Caligula  (Gaius)                    March 18, 37 AD – January 24, 41 AD                             3 years, 10 months and 6 days         

1.             Caligula was a madman (possibly mentally unstable due to an illness).  Hailey describes him as “one of the cruel and debase of men.” (p. 64). 2. But apparently there was no official persecution of Christians during his reign.

                3.             Caligula’s sister died and she was deified among the Roman gods.  Caligula then made himself a god, ordered oaths to be taken in his name,

                                and considered a deity.

3.             Caligula decided to set up images of himself in Judea and Jerusalem, and to this the Jews strongly objected.  The Romans determined to force compliance and set up his image in synagogues and Jerusalem, but Caligula died before the orders could be enforced.   

Claudius                                 January 25/26, 41 AD – October 13, 54 AD                   13 years, 8 months and 18/19 days

                1.             Claudius restored the Jews’ rights and privileges which had been given by Augustus but taken away by Caligula, therefore during this reign

                                the Jews were not obligated to recognize the Emperor as a god.

                2.             Claudius gave control of Judea to Herod Agrippa.  Now in a position of strength, Herod turned against the Christians.  John killed (Acts 12:2).

                3.             However, Luke tells us that Claudius commanded all Jews to depart from Rome (Acts 18:2). 

4.             “Seutonius says, “Because the Jews at Rome caused continuous disturbance at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from the city.” Apparently “Chrestus” is a confused spelling of “Christus,” and refers to the Christ.  It may be assumed from this that the Jews were making disturbances over the Christ and with Christians at this time, probably A.D. 51 or 52.”  (Hailey, p. 64-65)

Nero                                       October 13, 54 AD – June 9, 68 AD                                 13 years 7 months and 27 days

1.             Although apparently Nero’s first few years were characterized by moderation and good government, he soon turned to immorality, bloodshed, and extravagance. Hailey remarks, “His life was filled with crimes and immoralities of every conceivable character, with vanity and arrogance, and with waste and extravagance which added taxes and misery to the oppressed peoples, threatening the empire with bankruptcy.” (Hailey, p. 65)

2.             Nero “had his mother stabbed to death for treason and his wife Octavia beheaded for adultery.” (Galli)

3.             Nero enjoyed having the population sacrifice to his image, and Hailey quotes Merle Severy who says that in the entry of Nero’s mansion stood a gilded-bronze colossus of Nero as sun god, taller than the statue of Liberty.  If this is even close to accurate, it tells us of Nero’s egotism and extravagance.

4.             By this time in the later part of the first century, the church had grown significantly.

                5.             It was during the time of Nero that the Jews in Jerusalem convicted James (brother of Jesus) and stoned him to death.

6.             July 19, 64 A.D., fire broke out in Rome and destroyed ¾ of the city.  Some believe that Nero intentionally set the fire to enlarge his palace, but others think it was purely accidental.  Whatever the cause, Nero blamed Christians for the fire to take the suspicion away from himself (as some of the population was beginning to blame him).  Nero ordered persecution of Christians.  Mattox says that this was the first official persecution by the Roman officials.  It was severe, yet it seems to be only local in nature.  

7.             Hailey, quoting the Roman historian Tacitus: “Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and afflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace.” (p. 66) 

8.             Tradition puts the death of Peter at Rome during this time, but Mattox argues that this tradition was very late, and that the historical basis of it is not strong.

9.             On the other hand, the tradition of Paul’s death during this period is much stronger historically, and fits much better with what we see in his epistles of 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus. 

Galba                                      June 8, 68 AD – January 15, 69 AD                                   7 months and 7 days          

Otho                                       January 15, 69 AD – April 16, 69 AD                                                3 months and 1 day            

Vitellius                                 April 17, 69 AD – December 20, 69 AD                           8 months and 3 days          

Vespasian                              December 21, 69 AD – June 24, 79 AD                           9 years, 6 months and 3 days           

                1.             He had been given the job of conquering Judea by Nero (notice that the three Emperors between Vespasian and Nero ruled very short

                                periods of time) but hurried home to take the throne after the death of Vitellius. 

                2.             He left his son Titus in charge of the army, and Titus finished the conquest of Judea and destroyed the city of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.

3.             Tradition states that Christians were not killed in the siege because they withdrew from Jerusalem before the destruction in obedience to the instruction of Jesus (Matt. 24, etc.)

4.             No record of persecution of Christians under Vespasian.

Titus                                       June 24, 79 AD – September 13, 81 AD                          2 years, 2 months and 20 days         

                1.             Known for being the general that led the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.

                2.             He proved to be a very mild and popular ruler, and under his direction the (now famous) Colosseum was completed in 80 A.D.

Domitian                               September 14, 81 AD – September 18, 96 AD              15 years and 4 days            

                1.             Domitian was the second son of Vespasian.   

                2.             The early years of his reign were mild, and did not produce the violence and excess of his later years.  “In Domitian the spirit of Nero was

                                reincarnated and soon his cruelties and crimes knew no bounds.” (Hailey, p. 70)

                3.             Upon becoming Emperor, he began to think of himself a divine.  Eusebius said, “He was the second to promote persecution against us.”

                4.             Known for his vanity, arrogance, and cruelty, the title “Lord God” became title in both writing and conversation (Hailey, p. 70).

                5.             “Domitian was the first emperor to have himself officially titled in Rome as “God the Lord.”  He insisted that other people hail his greatness

                                with acclamations like “lord of the earth,” “Invincible,” “Glory,” “Holy,” and “Thou Alone.”” (Galli)

                6.             It was apparently during his rule that John the apostles was banished to Patmos and wrote the book of Revelation.

7.             “Eusebius says that Domitian “put to death without any reasonable trial no small number of men distinguished at Rome by family and career, and had punished without a cause myriads of other notable men by banishment and confiscation of their property. He finally showed himself the successor of Nero’s campaign of hostility to God.” (Mattox, p. 93)

8.             “There can be no doubt that Nero’s policy was continued by Vespasian and Titus, but there is no record of a direct confrontation with Christians by either of these rulers.  However, under Domitian, who was motivated by fear of conspiracy and by his insatiable desire for divine honors, the policy against any freedom of the individual or any opposition to despotism was carried to an extreme…  In sharp contrast to Nero’s disposition, Domitian avidly courted the worship of himself by the people and wanted them to look upon him as a god.  This disposition of Domitian and the spirit of his reign fits better into the tenor of Revelation than the attitude of Nero.” (Hailey, p. 30-31)

9.             Eusebius says that Domitian cruelly persecuted Christians in and out of Rome (Hailey, p. 71)

10.          The historian Schaff says Domitian “treated the embracing of Christianity as a crime against the state” (Hailey, p. 71).

11.          “When he ordered people to give him divine honors, Jews, and no doubt Christians, balked. The resulting persecution of Jews is well-documented; that of Christians is not. However, the beast that the author of Revelation describes, as well as the events in the book, are perhaps best interpreted as hidden allusions to the rule of Domitian. In addition, Flavius Clemens, consul in 95, and his wife, Flavia Domitilla, were executed and exiled, respectively, by Domitian’s orders; many historians suspect this was because they were Christians. But what goes around, comes around. An ex—slave of Clemens, Stephanus, was mobilized by some of Domitian’s enemies and murdered him.” (Galli)

Nerva                                     September 18, 96 – January 27, 98                                 1 year, 4 months and 9 days             

Trajan                                     January 28, 98 – August 7, 117                                         19 years, 6 months and 10 days       

1.             Trajan was known as an able leader, good administrator, and builder of many public works. “Trajan, one of the best and most praiseworthy emperors, honored as the “father of his country,” but, like his friends, Tacitus and Pliny, wholly ignorant of the nature of Christianity.” (Schaff, p. 24).

2.             On the negative side, and as other Roman rulers, Trajan worried about the impact of Christianity on the empire. There is a famous series of letters between Trajan and Pliny, the governor of Bithynia. Pliny wrote to Trajan about how to handle Christians.  I know the following quote is rather long, but I find it extremely interesting.

                Pliny, Letters 10.96-97 – Pliny to the Emperor Trajan

“It is my practice, my lord, to refer to you all matters concerning which I am in doubt. For who can better give guidance to my hesitation or inform my ignorance? I have never participated in trials of Christians. I therefore do not know what offenses it is the practice to punish or investigate, and to what extent. And I have been not a little hesitant as to whether there should be any distinction on account of age or no difference between the very young and the more mature; whether pardon is to be granted for repentance, or, if a man has once been a Christian, it does him no good to have ceased to be one; whether the name itself, even without offenses, or only the offenses associated with the name are to be punished.

                Meanwhile, in the case of those who were denounced to me as Christians, I have observed the following procedure: I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed. For I had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished. There were others possessed of the same folly; but because they were Roman citizens, I signed an order for them to be transferred to Rome.

                Soon accusations spread, as usually happens, because of the proceedings going on, and several incidents occurred. An anonymous document was published containing the names of many persons. Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ--none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do--these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.

                They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food--but ordinary and innocent food. Even this, they affirmed, they had ceased to do after my edict by which, in accordance with your instructions, I had forbidden political associations. Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition.

                I therefore postponed the investigation and hastened to consult you. For the matter seemed to me to warrant consulting you, especially because of the number involved. For many persons of every age, every rank, and also of both sexes are and will be endangered. For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms. But it seems possible to check and cure it. It is certainly quite clear that the temples, which had been almost deserted, have begun to be frequented, that the established religious rites, long neglected, are being resumed, and that from everywhere sacrificial animals are coming, for which until now very few purchasers could be found. Hence it is easy to imagine what a multitude of people can be reformed if an opportunity for repentance is afforded.

                Trajan to Pliny

You observed proper procedure, my dear Pliny, in sifting the cases of those who had been denounced to you as Christians. For it is not possible to lay down any general rule to serve as a kind of fixed standard. They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it--that is, by worshiping our gods--even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance. But anonymously posted accusations ought to have no place in any prosecution. For this is both a dangerous kind of precedent and out of keeping with the spirit of our age.” (Pliny, Letters 10.96-97, posted on Georgetown University website).

3.             Trajan’s answer to Pliny opened the door for extreme severity toward Christians. “Even the humane Pliny tells us that he applied the rack to tender women. Syria and Palestine suffered heaven persecution in this reign.” (Schaff, p. 24) 

4.             Ignatius of Antioch was perhaps the best-known Christian to have suffered death during Trajan’s reign.  “The emperor Trajan, in 107, came to Antioch, and there threatened with persecution all who refused to sacrifice to the gods. Ignatius was tried for this offence, and proudly confessed himself a “Theophorus” (“bearer of God”) because, as he said, he had Christ within his breast.  Trajan condemned him to be thrown to the lions at Rome.” (Schaff, p. 25)

Hadrian                                  August 11, 117 – July 10, 138                                           20 years, 10 months and 30 days    

Antoninus Pius                    July 10, 138 – March 7, 161                                              22 years, 6 months and 28 days       

Lucius Verus                         March 7, 161 – ? March 169                                             8 years  

Marcus Aurelius                   March 7, 161 – March 17, 180                                         19 years and 10 days         

1.             “Officially, Marcus took the position of his predecessor Trajan, also followed by Hadrian and Antoninus Pius. But his philosophical mentors convinced him that Christianity was a dangerous revolutionary force, preaching gross immoralities.  So under Marcus, anti-Christian literature flourished for the first time, most notably Celsus’s The True Doctrine. More regrettably, Marcus allowed anti-Christian informers to proceed more easily than in the past, with the result that fierce persecutions broke out in various regions.” (Galli)

2.             According to Schaff and Galli, churches in Lyons and Vienne in southern France underwent a severe persecution in 177 A.D. Heathen slaves were forced by torture to declare that their Christian masters practices all the unnatural vices which were rumored against Christians.  Then the Christians would be persecuted.

3.             “The most distinguished victims of this Gallic persecution were the bishop Pothinus, who, at the age of ninety years, and just recovered from a sickness, was subjected to all sorts of abuse, and then thrown into a dismal dungeon, where he died in two days; the virgin Blandina, a slave, who showed almost super-human strength and constancy under the most cruel tortures, and was at last thrown to a wild beast in a net; Ponticus, a boy of fifteen ears, who could be deterred by no sort of cruelty from confessing his Savior.  The corpses of the martyrs, which covered the streets, were shamefully mutilated, then burned, and the ashes cast into the Rhone, lest any remnants of the enemies of the gods might desecrate the soil. At last the people grew weary of slaughter, and a considerable number of Christians survived.” (Schaff, p. 29)

4.             Justin Martyr was put to death during this time (about166) at Rome.

Commodus                           March 17, 180 – December 31, 192                                                3 years as joint emperor, 12 years as sole emperor               

Pertinax                                 January 1, 193 – March 28, 193                                       2 months and 27 days (86 days)       

Didius Julianus                      March 28, 193 – June 1, 193                                             2 months and 4 days (65 days)         

Septimius Severus               April 9, 193 – February 4, 211                                          17 years, 9 months and 26 days       

1.             “During the first part of his reign, Severus was not unfriendly toward Christians. Some members of his household, in fact, professed the faith, and he entrusted the rearing of his son, Caracalla, to a Christian nurse.” (Galli)

2.             Yet even during the early years of Severus, there was no lack of local persecutions. “Clement of Alexandria wrote of those times: “Many martyrs are daily burned, confined, or beheaded before our eyes.” (Schaff, Vol. 2, p. 30)

3.             “However, in 202 Severus issued an edict that forbade further conversions to Judaism and Christianity. A persecution followed, especially in North Africa and Egypt. The North African theologian Tertullian penned his famous apologetic works during this period, but to no avail. Among others, the dramatic martyrdom of Perpetua and her servant Felicitas occurred under Severus. Clement of Alexandria also perished, as did the father of Origen. (Tradition holds that Origen, in his youthful ardor, wished to share his father’s fate, but his resourceful mother prevented his leaving the house by hiding his clothes.)  But the persecution ended at Severus’s death, and except for a brief bout under Maximinus (235–238), Christians were free from persecution for some 50 years.” (Galli)

Caracalla                                February 4, 211 – April 8, 217                                          13 years as joint emperor, 10 months with Geta, 6 years as sole emperor       

Geta                                       February 4, 211 – December 26, 211                             2 years as joint emperor, 10 months with Caracalla     

Macrinus with Diadumenian  April 11, 217 – June 8, 218                                               1 year, 1 month and 28 days            

Elagabalus                              June 8, 218 – March 11, 222                                             3 years, 9 months and 3 days           

Severus Alexander              March 13, 222 – March 18, 235                                       13 years and 5 days            

Maximinus Thrax                 March 20, 235 – June 238                                                 3 years, 3 months               

Gordian I                               March 22, 238 – April 12, 238                                          21 days  April 238

Gordian II                              March 22, 238 – April 12, 238                                          21 days  April 238

Pupienus                               April 22, 238 – July 29, 238                                               3 months and 7 days           July 29, 238

Balbinus                                 April 22, 238 – July 29, 238                                               3 months and 7 days           July 29, 238

Gordian III                             April 22, 238 – February 11, 244                                     5 years, 9 months and 20 days         

Philip the Arab with Philip II   February 244 – September/October 249                 5 years  

Decius with Herennius Etruscus September/ October 249 – June 251                      2 years  

1.             “For decades, Roman emperors had become increasingly concerned with the ragged edges of the Empire and the invading barbarian tribes that harassed them. … (Decius) was concerned that traditional polytheism was weakening, and thought a resurrection of devotion to the deified Roman rulers of the past would help restore Roman strength. Naturally, monotheistic Christians stood in the way. Although they still constituted a small minority, their efficient and self-contained organization, with no need of the state, irritated him. Consequently, Decius became the first emperor to initiate an Empire-wide persecution of Christians, apparently one with intensity.” (Galli)

2.             “In truth it was properly the first which covered the whole empire, and accordingly produced a far greater number of martyrs than any former persecution.  In the execution of the imperial degree confiscation, exile, torture, promises and threats of all kinds, were employed to move the Christians to apostasy.  Multitudes of nominal Christians, especially at the beginning, sacrificed to the gods, or procured from the magistrate a false certificate that they had done so, and were then excommunicated as apostates; while hundreds rushed with impetuous zeal to the prisons and the tribunals, to obtain the confessor’s or martyr’s crown. … Authorities were especially severe with the bishops and officers of the churches. Fabians of Rome, Babylas of Antioch, and Alexander of Jerusalem, perished in this persecution.  Others withdrew to places of concealment; some from cowardice; some from Christian prudence, in hope of allying by their absence the fury of the pagans against their flocks, and of saving their own lives for the good of the church in better times.” (Schaff, p. 31-32)

Hostilian                                June 251 – late 251                                                             4–5 months          

Gallus with Volusianus       June 251 – August 253                                                        2 years  

Aemilian                                August 253 – October 253                                                                2 months              

Valerian                                 October 253 – 260                                                              7 years  

1.             “Valerian seems to have been honest and well intentioned, but he inherited an empire nearly out of control. Plague and civil strife raged within the provinces. At the eastern borders, Germanic tribesmen invaded with greater efficiency and more numbers. … To divert attention from the troubles that beset the Empire, Valerian blamed the Christians. In August 257 he intensified Decius’s policies by ordering clergy to sacrifice to the gods of the state (although, with usual Roman pragmatism, they were not prohibited from worshiping Jesus Christ in private.)  A year later clergy became liable to capital punishment. Pope Sixtus II and St. Lawrence were subsequently burned to death in Rome, and Cyprian was executed at Carthage. In addition, the property of Christian laity, especially that of senators and equites (a class immediately below senators) was confiscated, and Christian tenants of imperial estates were condemned to the mines.” (Galli)

2.             Before the deaths mentioned above, Schaff comments that Valerian tried to first slow the progress of Christianity without bloodshed.  This he did by banishing ministers, confiscation of property, and the prohibition of church assemblies.  “These measures, however, proving fruitless, he brought the death penalty again into play.” (Schaff, Vol. 2, p. 32).

3.             Thankfully, during the reign of Gallienus (Valerian’s son) the edicts against Christians ceased, and there was peace for about 40 years.

Gallienus with Saloninus      October 253 – September 268                                       15 years

Claudius Gothicus                September 268 – January 270                                          1 year, 4 months 

Quintillus                               January 270 – September(?) 270                                     Unknown – 9 months?       

Aurelian                                 September(?) 270 – September 275                               5 years  

Ulpia Severina                      September 275                                                                    Briefly   

Tacitus                                    September 25, 275 – June 276                                         9 months              

Florianus                                June 276 – September? 276                                             3 months              

Probus                                   September? 276 – September/ October 282                                6 years  

Carus                                      September/ October 282 – late July/ early August 283        10–11 months     

Carinus                                   August 283 – 285                                                                                2 years  

Numerian                              Late July/early August 283 – 284?                                   1 year    

Diocletian                              November 20, 284 – May 1, 305                                      20 years, 5 months and 11 days       

                1.             “The forty years’ repose was followed by the last and most violent persecution, a struggle for life and death.” (Schaff, II, 33)

2.             Diocletian was apparently a remarkable organizer, and according to Gibbon (quoted by Schaff) Diocletian was “a second Augustus, the founder of a new empire rather than the restorer of the old.” (Schaff, II, 34) He divided the responsibilities with three co-emperors, Maximian, Galerius, and Constantius Chlorus (father of Constantine the Great). 

3.             “Diocletian’s gift for mass organization, unfortunately, extended to things religious and patriotic. In 303, encouraged by his Caesar Galerius, and attempting to rouse patriotic feeling, Diocletian returned to hounding Christians, even though his wife, Prisca, belonged to the faith.  It was the first time in almost 50 years that an emperor had taken the trouble. Yet, as never before, the motive of this Great Persecution was the total extinction of Christianity. It was, it seems, the final struggle between the old and new orders, and therefore the fiercest.” (Galli)

4.             While his wife was a Christian, he was a superstitious heathen. “Like Aurelian and Domitian before him, he claimed divine honors, as the vicar of Jupiter Capitolinus.  He was called, as the Lord and Master of the world, Sacratissimus Dominus Noster; ; he guarded his Sacred Majesty with many circles of soldiers, and eunuchs, and allowed no one to approach him except on bended knees, and with the forehead touching the ground, while he was seated on the throne in rich vestments from the far East.” (Schaff, II, 34).

5.             In 303 and 304 A.D. there were a series of edicts bringing restrictions to Christianity.  Church buildings were destroyed, all copies of the Bible were to be burned, all Christians were forbidden to hold public office and deprived of civil rights and were to sacrifice to the gods upon threat of death.  The persecution was severe in ¾ of the empire, but lighter in Gaul, Britain, and Spain where Constantius Chlorus (and his son Constantine) had greater control.  The persecution raged strongest and longest in the part of the empire ruled by Galeriuis.

6.             Eusebius was a witness of this persecution in Caesarea, Tyre, and Egypt, and saw, with his own eyes, as he tells us, the houses of prayer razed to the ground, the Holy Scriptures committed to flames on the market places , and pastors hunted, tortured, and torn to pieces in the amphitheater.” (Schaff, II, 35).

Maximian                              April 1, 286 – May 1, 305                                                   19 years and 1 month        

Galerius                                 May 1, 305 – May 311                                                        6 years   311

1.             “The persecutions continued under Galerius, now promoted to Augustus. But falling seriously ill in 311, Galerius and his fellow emperors issued an edict canceling the persecution of Christians.”  (Galli)

Constantius Chlorus            May 1, 305 – July 25, 306                                                  1 year, 2 months and 24 days           

Valerius Severus                  Summer 306 – March/ April 307                                      1 year    

Constantine the Great       July 25, 306 – May 22, 337                                                                30 years, 9 months and 27 days       

                1.             Two important edicts were signed in 311 and 313 A.D. giving toleration to Christianity.

2.             The first was by Galerius (referred to above).  Galerius became severely ill and apparently began to doubt his persecution of Christians. In 311 A.D. he issued an edict (Edict of Toleration) granting Christians the right to hold their assemblies of worship as long as they did nothing to disturb the order of the state (Schaff, II, 36). 

3.             During this time, Constantine was ruling in the western part of the Empire (remember that the Empire had been broken into four parts).  For a while persecution continued against Christians in Maximian’s territory, but in 312 Constantine and his army marched from the west defeating Maximian. 

4.             In 313 A.D., Constantine issued the Edict of Milan.  Schaff says it went from “hostile neutrality to friendly neutrality and protection” (Schaff, II, 37).  The edict fully restored all confiscated church property (at the expense of the government) and gave every person the right to free exercise of religion according to their conscience.

5.             From time to time there were still pockets of persecution against Christians, but for all practical purposes, persecution against the church ceased with the Edict of Milan.



Galli, Mark.  Persecution in the Early Church: A Gallery of the Persecuting Emperors.  Christianity

Mark Galli - Minister, author, and editor. For seven years he was editor in chief of Christianity Today. M.Div. from Fuller Theological Seminary. He was a Presbyterian pastor for ten years. Subsequently, he changed his denominational affiliation to the Anglican Church in North America. Moving into journalism, he was the associate editor of Leadership and editor of Christian History, a sister publication of Christianity Today.  For the next 20 years he worked for Christianity Today in various capacities, including seven years as editor in chief.   

Hailey, Homer. Revelation: An Introduction and Commentary.  Baker Book House, 1979. 

Mattox, F. W. The Eternal Kingdom.  

Pliny, Letters 10.96-97.  Georgetown University website. 

Schaff, Philip.  History of the Christian Church.  AP&A, reprint addition.