« PreviousContinue »
Some account of the tenth and last Heathen persecution under
Diocletian and Galerius-Its excessive severity, and effects upon the Christians-Character of Constantius Chlorus, emperor of the West-His death at York, and transfer of his power to his son Constantine-Death of the emperor Galerius, who previously revokes his sanguinary edicts against the ChristiansConstantine defeats Licinius and becomes sole emperor.-A. D. 300 to 312.
In the preceding Lecture, the leading object of which was a review of the principal persecutions which came upon the Christian church during the third century, I mentioned that we should have to resume the subject when we entered upon the history of the fourth, at which we are now arrived.
At this period the imperial throne was filled by Diocletian, who had a colleague in the government of the empire of the name of Maximian; but besides these two emperors there were also two governors of subordinate rank, namely, Constantius Chlorus and Maximinus Galerius, who were honoured with the humble appellation of Cæsars.
Diocletian was raised to the throne in the year 284, and consequently had reigned sixteen years; but, though naturally addicted to superstition, he was not hostile to the Christians, and during this period they had enjoyed a large portion of outward peace. Constantius Chlorus, to whose lot it fell to exercise the sovereign power in the western provinces, including Gaul and Britain, was a mild and amiable prince, under whose government we find no traces of persecution. He had himself, in a great measure, abandoned the absurd rites of Polytheism and treated the Christians with respect and kindness : they were even admitted to some of the principal offices in the royal household. He liked their persons, and esteemed their fidelity, nor had he any aversion to their religious principles. We cannot therefore wonder that this should excite the alarm and jealousy of the Pagan priests, whose secular interests were so intimately connected with the continuance of the ancient superstitions, and who apprehending, not without reason, that, to their manifest detriment, Christianity was becoming daily more universal and triumphant, addressed themselves to Diocletian, whom they knew to be of a timorous and credulous disposition, and, by fictitious oracles and other perfidious stratagems, strove to prevail on him to persecute the Christians.
The treacherous artifices of a selfish and superstitious priesthood, however, failed for some time to move Diocletian. They next had recourse to Maximinus Galerius, one of the Cæsars, who had married one of Diocletian's daughters ; a prince whose gross ignorance of every thing but military affairs was accompanied by a fierce and savage temper, which rendered him a proper instrument for executing their sanguinary purposes. Stimulated by the malicious insinuations of the Pagan priests, the suggestions of a superstitious mother, and the ferocity of his own natural temper, he importuned Diocletian, in so urgent a manner, for an edict against the Christians, that he at length obtained his horrible purpose.
The Roman emperors were at this time in the habit of taking up their residence occasionally at Nicomedia, the capital of the province of Bithynia. This city, for its beauty and splendour, has been compared to Rome, Antioch, and Alexandria, and it had abounded with Christians from the days of the apostles. Diocletian had taken up his abode at his palace in Nicomedia, and his son-in-law Galerius had come to pass the winter with him. In the year 302, the latter prevailed upon his colleague to grant an edict for pulling down all the places of worship belonging to the Christians—to commit to the flames all their books and writings—to deprive them of all their civil rights and privi
leges, and render them incapable of any honours or civil promotion.*
This first edict, though rigorous and severe, did not extend to the lives of the Christians ; for Diocletian was much averse to bloodshed and slaughter. It was, however, merely a prelude to other and greater calamities ; for, not long after the publication of this edict, a fire broke out in the emperor's palace, at two different times, while Galerius was residing with his father-in-law; and the former, though in all probability the real incendiary, threw the odium on the Christians, and the too credulous Diocletian, believing the accusation to be well founded, caused the most inhuman torments to be inflicted on multitudes of them in the city of Nicomedia. The atrocity of this persecution exceeded all that had preceded it. It was indiscriminate in its violence as the hail-storm. According to Eusebius, and many of the early historians, human ingenuity was taxed to invent modes and engines of cruelty and torment, It is recorded that several thousands were burnt in one day in a temple at Nicomedia when the persecution began. Its rage, however, was not to be confined to the vicinity of the palace; a new edict was speedily issued, commanding all the bishops, pastors, and public teachers, throughout the empire, to be apprehended and imprisoned, probably expecting that, were the leaders once effectually silenced, their respective flocks might be easily dispersed. The fury of persecution now vented itself over all the provinces of Asia, Phrygia, Palestine, Arabia, Africa, Mauritania, Spain, Italy, Gaul, Britain, and indeed wherever the Roman empire extended.
# " This edict was scarcely exhibited to the public view, in the most conspicu. qus place of Nicomedia, before it was torn down by the hands of a Christian, who expressed at the same time, by the bitterest invectives, his contempt as well as abhorrence for such impious and tyrannical governors. His offence, according to the mildest laws, amounted to treason, and deserved death : and, if it be true that he was a person of rank and education, thoše circumstances could serve only to aggravate his guilt, He was burnt, or rather roasted, before a slow fire, and his executioners, zealous to revenge the personal insult which had been offered to the emperors, exhausted every refinement of cruelty, without being able to subdue his patience, or to alter the steady and insulting smile which in his dying agonies he still préserved in his countenance. The Christians, though they confessed that his conduct had not been strictly conformable to the laws of prudence, admired the divine fervour of his zeal." Gibbon's Decline and Fall, ch. xvi.
The only exemption from this overwhelming torrent seems to have been found among those who were placed under the mild and equitable government of Constantius Chlorus, and even there its partial ravages may be traced—witness our own country, where Albanus Verulam was a protomartyr. It was directed against the places of worship—the holy Scriptures
such magistrates as professed Christianity-the ministers of religion, and private individuals of every age, sex, and rank in life. And, as though this were not sufficient, a third edict was issued, enjoining that all sorts of torments should be employed, and the most intolerable punishments resorted to, in order to force the followers of Christ to renounce their profession and sacrifice to the Pagan deities. The lamentable effects of all this were seen in the apostacy of many. Several great men lapsed through fear. Marcellinus, bishop of Rome, and Eusebius, bishop of Cæsarea, were said to be of the number, though, as respects Eusebius, the fact has been doubted, Thousands, however, stood firm, and the constancy of innumerable martyrs is almost incredible. The names, torments, and triumphs of numbers will be found recorded by the Madeburg Centuriators, and many other writers—though in the martyrologies of those times there is doubtless much fiction mingled with truth, and of this circumstance the student of history should be aware. The shameful manner in which multitudes of our fellow Christians were handled cannot well be related without violating the rules of decency-and, in the present day, would scarcely obtain credit; while others were put to death after having their constancy tried by tedious and inexpressible torments, and many were sent to the mines, where they were doomed to linger out the remains of a wretched existence in slavery and destitution. This might truly be termed the age of martyrs.
It is affirmed, upon credible testimony, that in this tenth persecution, which continued to harass the churches during the long period of ten years, there were not fewer than 17,000 Christians put to death in the short space of one month! and that, during its entire continuance, in the province of Egypt alone, not fewer than 150,000 persons died by the violence of their-persecutors, and five times that number through the fatigues of banishment, or in the public mines to which they were con
A persecution such as this, so sanguinary in its kind, so ramified and extended in its progress, and so continued in its duration, could not fail eventually to reduce the Christian pro
* Eccles. Hist. by Mons. Goodeau, fo. tom. i. 1653 : and Dr. Calamy's Sermon on Matt. xvi. 18, Lond. 1715. A regard to truth and justice, however, obliges me to say that this account of the number of martyrs has been considered by some to be greatly exaggerated. Mr. Gibbon has investigated the subject in the sixteenth chapter of his “ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” and endeavours to show that the number of persons wbo suffered death for a good conscience during this ten years' persecution was very inconsiderable, and such as would bear no proportion to the above statement. As I have no inclination to dissemble, nor interest in perverting the truth, I content myself with quoting the historian's words, and leaving it to the reader to form his own judgment; only requesting him to keep in mind Mr. Gibbon's inveterate prejudices against Christianity. His account as follows:
“The vague descriptions of exile and imprisonment, of pain and torture, are so easily exaggerated or softened by the pencil of an artful orator, that we are naturally induced to inquirc into a fact of a more distinct and stubborn kind, the number of persons who suffered death in consequence of the edicts published by Diocletian, his associates, and his successors. The recent legendaries record whole armies and cities, which were at once swept away by the undistinguishing rage of persecution. The more ancient writers content themselves with pouring out a liberal effusion of loose and tragical invectives, without condescending to ascertain the precise number of those persons who were permitted to seal with their blood their belief of the gospel. From the history of Eusebius, it may however be collected that only nine bishops were punished with death; and we are assured, by his particular enumeration of the martyrs of Palestine, that no more than ninety-two Christians were entitled to that honourable appellation. As we are unacquainted with the degree of episcopal zeal and courage which prevailed at that time, it is not in our power to draw any useful inferences from the former of these facts; but the latter may serve to justify a very important and probable conclusion. According to the distribution of Roman provinces, Palestine may be considered as the sixteenth part of the eastern empire; and, since there were some governors who from a real or affected clemency had preserved their hands unstained with the blood of the faithful, it is reasonable to believe that the country which had given birth to Christianity produced at least the sixteenth part of the martyrs who suffered death within the dominions. of Galerius and Maximin; the whole might consequently amount to about fifteen hundred, a number, if it is equally divided between the ten years of the persecution, will allow an annual consumption of one hundred and fifty martyrs.' Allotting the same proportion to the provinces of Italy, Africa, and perhaps Spain, where, at the end of two or three years, the rigour of the penal laws was either suspended or abolished, the multitude of Christians in the Roman empire, on whom a capital punishment was inflicted by a judicial sentence, will be reduced to somewhat less than two thousand persons. Since it cannot be doubted that the Christians were more numerous, and their enemies more exasperated, in the time of Diocletian, than they bad ever been in any former persecution, this probable and modera computation may teach us to estimate the number of primitive saints and martyrs who sacrificed their lives for the important purpose of introducing Christianity into the world.”