Chapter II.—The Destruction of the Churches.
1. All these things were fulfilled in us, when we saw with our own eyes the houses of prayer thrown down to the very foundations, and the Divine and Sacred Scriptures committed to the flames in the midst of the market-places, and the shepherds of the churches basely hidden here and there, and some of them captured ignominiously, and mocked by their enemies. When also, according to another prophetic word, “Contempt was poured out upon rulers, and he caused them to wander in an untrodden and pathless way.” 2500
2. But it is not our place to describe the sad misfortunes which finally came upon them, as we do not think it proper, moreover, to record their divisions and unnatural conduct to each other before the persecution. Wherefore we have decided to relate nothing concerning them except the things in which we can vindicate the Divine judgment.
3. Hence we shall not mention those who were shaken by the persecution, nor those who in everything pertaining to salvation were shipwrecked, and by their own will were sunk in the depths of the flood. But we shall introduce into this history in general only those events which may be usefull first to ourselves and afterwards to posterity. 2501 Let us therefore proceed to describe briefly the sacred conflicts of the witnesses of the Divine Word.
4. It was in the nineteenth year of the reign of Diocletian, 2502 in the month Dystrus, 2503 called March by the Romans, when the feast of the Saviours passion was near at hand, 2504 that royal edicts were published everywhere, commanding that the churches be leveled to the ground and the Scriptures be destroyed by fire, and ordering that those who held places of honor be degraded, and that the household servants, if they persisted in the profession of Christianity, be deprived of freedom. 2505
p. 325 5. Such was the first edict against us. But not long after, other decrees were issued, commanding that all the rulers of the churches in every place be first thrown into prison, 2506 and afterwards by every artifice be compelled to sacrifice. 2507
Ps. cvii. 40.324:2501
Gibbon uses this passage as the basis for his severe attack upon the honesty of Eusebius (Decline and Fall, chap. 16), but he has certainly done our author injustice (cf. the remarks made on p. 49, above).324:2502
Diocletian began to reign Sept. 17, 284, and therefore his nineteenth year extended from Sept. 17, 302, to Sept. 16, 303. Eusebius is in agreement with all our authorities in assigning this year for the beginning of the persecution, and is certainly correct. In regard to the month, however, he is not so accurate. Lactantius, who was in Nicomedia at the time of the beginning of the persecution, and certainly much better informed than Eusebius in regard to the details, states distinctly (in his De mort. pers. chap. 12) that the festival of the god Terminus, the seventh day before the Kalends of March (i.e. Feb. 23), was chosen by the emperors for the opening of the persecution, and there is no reason for doubting his exact statement. At the beginning of the Martyrs of Palestine (p. 342, below) the month Xanthicus (April) is given as the date, but this is still further out of the way. It was probably March or even April before the edicts were published in many parts of the empire, and Eusebius may have been misled by that fact, not knowing the exact date of their publication in Nicomedia itself. We learn from Lactantius that on February 23d the great church of Nicomedia, together with the copies of Scripture found in it, was destroyed by order of the emperors, but that the edict of which Eusebius speaks just below was not issued until the following day. For a discussion of the causes which led to the persecution of Diocletian see below, p. 397.324:2503
Δύστρος, the seventh month of the Macedonian year, corresponding to our March. See the table on p. 403, below.324:2504
Valesius (ad locum) states, on the authority of Scaliger and Petavius, that Easter fell on April 18th in the year 303. I have not attempted to verify the statement.324:2505
This is the famous First Edict of Diocletian, which is no longer extant, and the terms of which therefore have to be gathered from the accounts of Eusebius and Lactantius. The interpretation of the edict has caused a vast deal of trouble. It is discussed very fully by Mason in his important work, The Persecution of Diocletian, p. 105 sq. and p. 343 sq. As he remarks, Lactantius simply describes the edict in a general way, while Eusebius gives an accurate statement of its substance, even reproducing its language in part. The first provision (that the churches be leveled to the ground) is simply a carrying out of the old principle, that it was unlawful for the Christians to hold assemblies, under a new form. The second provision, directed against the sacred books, was entirely new, and was a very shrewd move, revealing at the same time an appreciation on the part of the authors of the persecution of the important part which the Scriptures occupied in the Christian Church. The third provision, as Mason has pointed out, is a substantial reproduction of a part of the edict of Valerian, and was evidently consciously based upon that edict. (Upon the variations from the earlier edict, see Mason, p. 115 sq.) It is noticeable that not torture nor death is decreed, but only civil degradation. This degradation, as can be seen from a comparison with the description of Lactantius (ibid. chap. 13) and with the edict of Valerian (given in Cyprians Epistle to Successus, Ep. No. 81, al. 80), consisted, in the case of those who held public office (τιμῆς ἐπειλημμένους), in the loss of rank and also of citizenship; that is, they fell through two grades, as is pointed out by Mason. In the interpretation of the fourth provision, however, Mason does not seem to me to have been so successful. The last clause runs τοὺς δὲ ἐν οἰκετίαις, εἰ ἐπιμένοιεν τῇ τοῦ χριστιανισμοῦ προθέσει ἐλευθερίας στερεῖσθαι. The difficult point is the interpretation of the τοὺς ἐν οἰκετίαις. The words usually mean “household slaves,” and are commonly so translated in this passage. But, as Valesius remarks, there is certainly no sense then in depriving them of freedom (ἐλευθερία) which they do not possess. Valesius consequently translates plebeii, “common people,” and Mason argues at length for a similar interpretation (p. 344 sq.), looking upon these persons as common people, or individuals in private life, as contrasted with the officials mentioned in the previous clause. The only objection, but in my opinion a fatal objection, to this attractive interpretation is that it gives the phrase οἱ ἐν οἰκετίαις a wider meaning than can legitimately be applied to it. Mason remarks: “The word οἰκετία means, and is here a translation of, familia; οἱ ἐν οἰκετίαις means ii qui in familiis sunt,—not graceful Latin certainly, but plainly signifying those who live in private households. Now in private households there lived not only slaves, thank goodness, but free men too, both as masters and as servants; therefore in the phrase τοὺς ἐν οἰκετίαις itself there is nothing which forbids the paraphrase private persons.” But I submit that to use so clumsy a phrase, so unnecessary a circumlocution, to designate simply private people in general—οἱ πολλοί—would be the height of absurdity. The interpretation of Stroth (which is approved by Heinichen) seems to me much more satisfactory. He remarks: “Das Edict war zunächst nur gegen zwei Klassen von Leuten gerichtet, einmal gegen die, welche in kaiserlichen Æmtern standen, und dann gegen die freien oder freigelassenen Christen, welche bei den Kaisern oder ihren Hofleuten und Statthaltern in Diensten standen, und zu ihrem Hausgesinde gehörten.” This seems to me more satisfactory, both on verbal and historical grounds. The words οἱ ἐν οἰκετίαις certainly cannot, in the present case, mean “household slaves,” but they can mean servants, attendants, or other persons at court, or in the households of provincial officials, who did not hold rank as officials, but at the same time were freemen born, or freedmen, and thus in a different condition from slaves. Such persons would naturally be reduced to slavery if degraded at all, and it is easier to think of their reduction to slavery than of that of the entire mass of Christians not in public office. Still further, this proposition finds support in the edict of Valerian, in which this class of people is especially mentioned. And finally, it is, in my opinion, much more natural to suppose that this edict (whose purpose I shall discuss on p. 399) was confined to persons who were in some way connected with official life,—either as chiefs or assistants or servants,—and therefore in a position peculiarly fitted for the formation of plots against the government, than that it was directed against Christians indiscriminately. The grouping together of the two classes seems to me very natural; and the omission of any specific reference to bishops and other church officers, who are mentioned in the second edict, is thus fully explained, as it cannot be adequately explained, in my opinion, on any other ground.325:2506
As we learn from chap. 6, §8, the edict commanding the church officers to be seized and thrown into prison followed popular uprisings in Melitene and Syria, and if Eusebius is correct, was caused by those outbreaks. Evidently the Christians were held in some way responsible for those rebellious outbursts (possibly they were a direct consequence of the first edict), and the natural result of them must have been to make Diocletian realize, as he had not realized before, that the existence of such a society as the Christian Church within the empire—demanding as it did supreme allegiance from its members—was a menace to the state. It was therefore not strange that what began as a purely political thing, as an attempt to break up a supposed treasonable plot formed by certain Christian officials, should speedily develop into a religious persecution. The first step in such a persecution would naturally be the seizure of all church officers (see below, p. 397 sq.).
The decrees of which Eusebius speaks in this paragraph are evidently to be identified with the one mentioned in chap. 6, §8. This being so, it is clear that Eusebius account can lay no claims to chronological order. This must be remembered, or we shall fall into repeated difficulties in reading this eighth book. We are obliged to arrange the order of events for ourselves, for his account is quite desultory, and devoid both of logical and chronological sequence. The decrees or writings (γρ€μματα) mentioned in this paragraph constituted really but one edict (cf. chap. 6, §8), which is known to us as the Second Edict of Diocletian. Its date cannot be determined with exactness, for, as Mason remarks, it may have been issued at any time between February and November; but it was probably published not many months after the first, inasmuch as it was a result of disturbances which arose in consequence of the first. Mason is inclined to place it in March, within a month after the issue of the first, but that seems to me a little too early. In issuing the edict Diocletian followed the example of Valerian in part, and yet only in part; for instead of commanding that the church officers be slain, he commanded only that they be seized. He evidently believed that he could accomplish his purpose best by getting the leading men of the church into his hands and holding them as hostages, while denying them the glory of martyrdom (cf. Mason, p. 132 sq.). The persons affected by the edict, according to Eusebius, were “all the rulers of the churches” (τοὺς τῶν ἐκκλησιῶν προέδρους π€ντας; cf. also Mart. Pal. Introd., §2). In chap. 6, §8, he says τοὺς πανταχόσε τῶν ἐκκλησιῶν προεστῶτας. These words would seem to imply that only the bishops were intended, but we learn from Lactantius (De mort. pers. 15) that presbyters and other officers (presbyteri ac ministri) were included, and this is confirmed, as Mason remarks (p. 133, note), by the sequel. We must therefore take the words used by Eusebius in the general sense of “church officers.” According to Lactantius, their families suffered with them (cum omnibus suis deducebantur), but Eusebius says nothing of that.325:2507
We learn from Lactantius (l.c.) that the officers of the church, under the terms of the second edict, were thrown into prison without any option being given them in the matter of sacrificing. They were not asked to sacrifice, but were imprisoned unconditionally. This was so far in agreement with Valerians edict, which had decreed the instant death of all church officers without the option of sacrificing. But as Eusebius tells us here, they were afterwards called upon to sacrifice, and as he tells us in the first paragraph of the next chapter, multitudes yielded, and that of course meant their release, as indeed we are directly told in chap. 6, §10. We may gather from the present passage and from the other passages referred to, taken in connection with the second chapter of the Martyrs of Palestine, that this decree, ordaining their release on condition of sacrificing, was issued on the occasion of Diocletians Vicennalia, which were celebrated in December, 303, on the twentieth anniversary of the death of Carus, which Diocletian reckoned as the beginning of his reign, though he was not in reality emperor until the following September. A considerable time, therefore, elapsed between the edict ordaining the imprisonment of church officers and the edict commanding their release upon condition of sacrificing. This latter is commonly known as Diocletians Third Edict, and is usually spoken of as still harsher than any that preceded it. It is true that it did result in the torture of a great many,—for those who did not sacrifice readily were to be compelled to do so, if possible,—but their death was not aimed at. If they would not sacrifice, they were simply to remain in prison, as before. Those who did die at this time seem to have died under torture that was intended, not to kill them, but to bring about their release. As Mason shows, then, this third edict was of the nature of an amnesty; was rather a step toward toleration than a sharpening of the persecution. The prisons were to be emptied, as was customary on such great occasions, and the church officers were to be permitted to return to their homes, on condition that they should sacrifice. Inasmuch as they had not been allowed to leave prison on any condition before, this was clearly a mark of favor (see Mason, p. 206 sq.). Many were released even without sacrificing, and in their desire to empty the prisons, the governors devised various expedients for freeing at least a part of those who would not yield (cf. the instances mentioned in the next chapter). At the same time, some governors got rid of their prisoners by putting them to death, sometimes simply by increasing the severity of the tortures intended to try them, sometimes as a penalty for rash or daring words uttered by the prisoners, which were interpreted as treasonable, and which, perhaps, the officials had employed their ingenuity, when necessary, to elicit. Thus many might suffer death, under various legal pretenses, although the terms of the edict did not legally permit death to be inflicted as a punishment for Christianity. The death penalty was not decreed until the issue of the Fourth Edict (see below, Mart. Pal. chap.3, note 2).