Diocletianus: The Years 301-303

Aureus of Maximianus (source: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.).

Diocletianus styled himself dominus et deus, but towards the end of his reign as emperor it was crystal clear that he was not omnipotent. There was one enemy that proved to be invincible: inflation. Although the emperor tried to blame greedy and depraved individuals, the inflation had in fact been created by himself. After all, his famous reforms – discussed previously – had led to a sharp rise in expenses for the imperial bureaucracy and the army. To curb the inflation, Diocletianus issued an edict on currency, possibly in September of the year 301.[1] New gold and silver coins were issued, as was a new copper coin called the nummus. At the same time the emperor fixed the values of the coins.

In November of 301 the currency edict was followed by a price edict (edictum de pretiis). This second edict set maximum prices for various goods, such as wheat, wine, pork and clothing, but also for the services of teachers, tailors and day labourers. Although the price edict was issued in Antioch and parts of it have mainly been found in the east of the Empire, it is assumed that it was intended for the whole Roman Empire. Diocletianus therefore probably sent it to his co-emperors, accompanied by a polite request to promulgate and enforce it in their own territories as well. The penalty for violating the edict was often death, but most historians agree that the edict was a failure and was quickly retracted.

Diocletianus and the Christians

On 21 March of – most likely – the year 302, Diocletianus issued an edict that ordered the persecution of the Manicheans. These followers of the prophet Mani (ca. 216-274) adhered to a faith that combined elements of several different religions, including Judaism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism and Buddhism.[2] Christians, however, generally saw the Manicheans as heretics, while non-Christian Romans mistrusted them because their prophet was from the Persian Empire, Rome’s archenemy that had pillaged Roman territory just a few decades previously. Now it should be noted that it was the Persians that had executed Mani and persecuted his supporters, so it seems rather unlikely that the Manicheans felt much sympathy for the Sassanids. Nevertheless, the proconsul of Africa – presumably Amnius Anicius Julianus – apparently saw them as a threat and decided to appeal to Diocletianus. This was a remarkable move, as the province of Africa was formally part of the augustus Maximianus’ territories. The edict that Diocletianus issued was very harsh. It stipulated that the books of the Manicheans and their leaders were to be burned, while ordinary followers were faced with decapitation or a lifetime of forced labour in the mines.

Head of Constantius Chlorus (Vatican Museums).

In a way the edict against the Manicheans was a precursor to the edicts against the Christians in 303-304. Before I discuss the Great Persecution of Christians initiated by Diocletianus, let us first take stock of the position of the Christians within the Roman Empire around the year 300.[3] In about 270 years, Christianity had developped from a small Jewish sect that firmly believed in the End of Time into an independent new religion of which the followers had cut all ties with Judaism. Fresh converts were now mostly recruited among the ‘pagans’ (who were hardly a coherent group). These converts were drawn to the new religion by its message of charity, care for the poor, the promise of a proper funeral and the ultimate reward of an afterlife. Christians could be found in all layers of society; the idea that Christianity appealed mostly to poor people and outcasts has long been abandoned. From Valerianus’ second edict against the Christians, issued in 258, we know that there were also Christian senators and equites (knights), although their names are often unknown and they were probably not numerous. Marriages between non-Christian men and Christian women were not uncommon. Constantius, the father of Constantine the Great, was for instance married to Theodora, who was very likely a Christian. Constantine’s mother Helena, who was in a relationship with Constantius before he married Theodora, was almost certainly a Christian woman as well.

The Roman Empire had approximately 50 million inhabitants. Between 5 and 10 percent of them were Christians, which makes for between 2.5 and 5 million Christians in total. These were not equally spread across the Empire. Christianity was first and foremost and urban phenomenon. As most cities, and certainly the largest cities, were located in the Greek-speaking eastern part of the Empire, that is where the majority of the Christians could be found. This was especially the case in the diocese of Oriens, where had cities such as Alexandria and Antioch. But Asia Minor had large Christian communities as well. Nicomedia had a Christian community, for instance, and so did Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum and the other cities that are known as the ‘Seven Churches’ from the Book of Revelation. Of course there were also Christians in the Greek provinces. Saint Paul the Apostle had preached there, and the Christian community in a city such as Corinth must have been quite large. It is definitely possible that in some cities and areas in the Roman east Christians already made up the majority of the population. And even in those areas where they did not, their communities were often large enough to be a factor of social importance.

Sarcophagus of Helena (Vatican Museums).

In the Latin-speaking west of the Roman Empire, the number of Christians was smaller. In fact, in the rural areas of Britannia, Gaul and Spain, Christianity must have been a particularly marginal phenomenon. Nevertheless, it is wrong to assume that the new religion was largely unknown in this part of the Roman world. Lugdunum (modern Lyon) had its own bishop as early as the second century. This Pothinus had been killed during a persecution in 177 and had been succeeded by the great theologian and church father Irenaeus, who was himself from Smyrna. Cities such as Arelate (Arles), Augustodunum (Autun), Augusta Treverorum (Trier) and Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium (Cologne) also had bishops, who not long after Diocletianus’ reign sought to influence the young Constantine the Great. There were Christian communities in Spain as well. Examples are the cities of Tarraco, whose bishop Fructuosus had been martyred during Valerianus’ persecutions, and Corduba. In the early fourth century a certain Ossius (or Hosius) was appointed bishop of the latter city, and he would also go on to play an important role in the life of Constantine.

Another large city with a sizeable Christian community was Carthage in North Africa. Its bishop Cyprianus had been martyred in 258. His extant letters are evidence that there were also Christian bishops in the adjacent province of Numidia, who were sent to the mines during Valerianus’ persecutions. A very interesting question is, lastly, how many Christians were living in Rome, the city where according to tradition the apostles Peter and Paul had ended their lives as martyrs. Based on a letter by Pope Cornelius (251-253), historians have estimated that during his pontificate there must have been between 30,000 and 50,000 Christians in Rome. This number may have doubled around the year 300. Given that the city had a population of about half a million, up to 20 percent of the people of Rome may have been Christians. We will never know the exact number of Christians, but in Rome too Christianity was there to stay.

The nature of Christianity

Saint Jerome by Ghirlandaio.

It is generally assumed that under the emperor Gallienus (260-268), son of the Valerianus who persecuted Christians, Christianity became a religio licita, a permitted religion. This means that Christians were allowed to practice their faith freely and in public, and also had the right to build churches. Prior to that, they had probably held their meetings in house churches and buildings that they rented for the occasion. During the first two centuries Koine Greek had exclusively been the language of the Church. The four oldest Gospels had been written in that language, just like the Acts of the Apostles and several Epistles. Translators of the Old Testament, originally written in Hebrew, could make use of the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the books of the Tanach from the third and second century BCE. As Christianity grew in the Latin west, where proficiency in Greek was lacking, the demand for a translation of the sacred texts into Latin grew as well. This ultimately led to the Vulgate, a Latin translation from the end of the fourth century by the church father Saint Jerome (ca. 347-420). However, older Latin versions of books from the Old and New Testament were available from the late second century. Together they are known as the Vetus Latina.

Bishops played a pivotal role within the Christian communities and in the contacts between these communities Empire-wide. These men were in frequent correspondence with each other. As is demonstrated by Saint Paul’s Epistles, there were disputes about the correct interpretation of the faith since the earliest days of Christianity. This was no different during the reign of Diocletianus. Two matters that often led to emotional discussions can be mentioned here: the day for celebrating Easter and the nature of Jesus Christ. In the first centuries of Christianity, Holy Easter was arguably more important than Christmas. After all, it was the day on which the Resurrection of the Messiah was celebrated. In the east of the Empire, Easter was usually celebrated one day before the Jewish feast of Pesach, on the fourteenth day of the month of Nissan. Because of the day they had picked, these Christians were known as quartodecimani. In Rome the situation was different. Starting in the early second century, Christians there had consistently celebrated Easter on a Sunday, the dies dominica. And then there were Christians who had established a link between Easter and the Spring equinox, which was on 25 March. The correct date for Easter and the discussion about the divine nature of Christ would feature prominently on the agenda of the 325 Council of Nicaea.

Mithras kills the bull.

In the past it was sometimes assumed that during its first centuries Christianity had a serious rival in the popular cult of Mithras. But this makes little sense. Mithraism was a mystery cult in which only men could be initiated, and there were many more essential differences between Mithraism and Christianity. The former cult was non-doctrinarian and was hardly ever proselytist. Especially in those areas of the Roman Empire where Christianity was firmly rooted, so in the Greek-speaking east, Mithraism seems to have had relatively few supporters. In any case, there is no indication whatsoever that this cult ever developed into a mass movement. For women – so for at least half the population of the Empire – Christianity was a much more attractive choice, but their position within the Church seems to have grown less prominent over the course of time. In the early days of Christianity, women could still have leading positions. Think of Thecla, who accompanied Saint Paul on his travels, Euodia and Syntyche, who had a leadership role within the church of Philippi in Macedonia, or Phoebe, who is called a diakonos by Saint Paul. Unfortunately, both in Jewish and in Graeco-Roman society, the patriarchate ultimately triumphed. Female priests and bishops were now out of the question.

The Great Persecution: motives

When the emperors Decius and Valerianus had launched their persecutions of Christians several decades previously, the Roman Empire was reeling. The precarious state of the Empire was definitely a factor in their anti-Christian policy. But by the time of Diocletianus, the Empire was no longer in crisis. On the contrary, Britannia had been retaken, the Romans successfully defended their Rhine and Danube borders, and they had just recently forced the Sassanids to sign a peace treaty that was highly favourable to Rome. This raises the question what motives Diocletianus could have had for launching his own persecution. The emperor certainly does not seem to have had a personal aversion against Christianity as a religion, so the persecution cannot have been driven by ideology. Apart from that, it seems rather unlikely that the emperor knew much about Christian doctrine. Christian authors such as Eusebius and Lactantius believed that the caesar Galerius had a central role in the persecution. Unlike his augustus, Galerius supposedly did hate the Christians deeply. His Dacian mother Romula was said to spoon-fed her son with this hatred when he was young.[4] It may nevertheless be doubted whether Galerius really hated the Christians, as it was the same Galerius who ended the persecutions in 311 with his Edict of Tolerance.

Like those of his predecessors, Diocletianus’ decisions do seem to have been influenced by the thought that Christians posed a threat to the unity within the Empire because of their refusal to sacrifice to the gods and the emperor. This was something the dominus et deus could have been angry about, but it does not explain why he waited until 303 before launching his Great Persecution. An additional reason was probably that Christians were causing public order disturbances in several cities. These disturbances were caused by, on the one hand, internal disputes within Christian communities and, on the other, feuds between Christians and non-Christians. As was already mentioned, there were quite a few ideological conflicts within the Christian communities and these sometimes led to violence. In 272 the emperor Aurelianus had been forced to intervene in Antioch and depose the local patriarch. The man had refused to step down, in spite of a condemnation for heresy by a church council. Even before that there had been acrimonious discussions about whether the so-called lapsi – Christians who had sacrificed to the gods under duress – could be readmitted to the Church. In this matter, the aforementioned bishop Cyprianus and Pope Cornelius had been diametrically opposed by a certain Novatianus, who even had himself elected antipope.

The miracles of Christ, parts of a Roman sarcophagus from 290-310.

Moreover, the growth of Christianity, especially in the east, had led to a certain recalcitrance. Christian communities in some cases refused to abide by the law, and instead started making demands of the people they saw as enemies of their faith. There had also been incidents involving Christians in the Roman army, for instance in 298 in North Africa. When a ceremony was held there in honour of the anniversary of Maximianus’ accession to the throne, a Christian centurion named Marcellus, who was from Tingis (now Tangier in Morocco), had refused to sacrifice. Disobedience within the army was a serious risk for emperors, who after all were highly reliant on the soldiers to stay in power. It should therefore not come as a surprise that Marcellus was executed.[5] This incident had taken place well outside Diocletianus’ own territories, much unlike an incident that probably happened the next year in Antioch. During a sacrificial ceremony in the presence of the emperor, some Christian court officials or soldiers had made the sign of the cross on their foreheads.[6] According to the haruspices (soothsayers), this had invalidated the sacrifice. Diocletianus had subsequently flown into a rage and had forced the entire army to sacrifice.[7]

The Great Persecution is launched

Golden coin (ten aurei) of Diocletianus (source: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.).

Three years later, in 302, another sacrificial ceremony had been disrupted by a Christian. This time the perpetrator was a man named Romanus, a deacon and exorcist from Caesarea in Palestine. When Romanus had protested loudly against the ceremony, Diocletianus had ordered his tongue cut out. Later the man was martyred as well. After the incident and subsequent punishment the emperor had travelled to his capital of Nicomedia in Asia Minor. It was there, on 24 February 303, that he issued his first edict against the Christians. In Nicomedia the emperor had consulted with his caesar Galerius and several other counselors at his court. These men had possibly been influenced by the Neoplatonic philosopher Porphyrios of Tyre. One of the counselors was, in any case, the governor of Bithynia, Sossianus Hierocles. In a pamphlet he had dismissed Jesus Christ as a mere brigand. It is, furthermore, certainly possible that the future emperor Constantine was present at the meeting in Nicomedia. At the time he probably served as a military tribune in the protectores (imperial bodyguard) of Galerius or Diocletianus. The latter clearly had not taken his chances with the edict, as he had also consulted the famous oracle of Apollo in Miletus.[8]

On the day before the edict was issued, so on 23 February, the Romans had celebrated the ancient festival of the Terminalia. The festival was dedicated to Terminus, the god of boundaries, whose history went all the way back to the Age of Kings. In his writings, Lactantius associated the Terminalia with an attempt by Diocletianus to exterminate the Christian religion.[9] The Christian writer did have a point here, as it was during the Terminalia that the emperor drew first blood. At daybreak, the praetorian prefect and a throng of officials and soldiers attacked the church of Nicomedia. The building was thoroughly pillaged and the sacred books were burned. The emperor then sent his guard to the church, who demolished the building in a couple of hours using axes and other tools. Lactantius claims that Diocletianus had also considered simply setting fire to the building, but had refrained from doing so out of fear that the flames might spread to other buildings in the city.

Gold glass from the fourth century featuring Peter, Paul and Agnes (Annes). The two male saints do not yet have their familiar appearance (Vatican Museums).

The destruction of the church of Nicomedia was followed by an edict of which the primary aim does not seem to have been torture and bloodshed. In as far as we are able to reconstruct it, the edict stipulated that churches were to be closed or destroyed, sacred texts burned, Christian gatherings prohibited and Christians themselves fired from the court and the army. Moreover, Christians basically lost their civil rights. In Nicomedia, with its large Christian community, the edict must have caused quite a stir, especially considering the fate of the church building. An angry Christian man is said to have torn up the edict, causing him to be arrested, tortured an burned alive for maiestas (lèse majesté). Not much later, in May or June, a fire broke out twice in the imperial palace. According to Lactantius the fire had been started by Galerius so that he could blame the Christians.[10] His story is highly dubious, but it is quite possible that the fires were Christian acts of revenge. Furthermore, it is a historical fact that at some point bishop Anthimus of Nicomedia was arrested and martyred, perhaps under Diocletianus himself, or else under his successor Maximinus Daza.

Diocletianus obviously wanted the edict to be promulgated and enforced in the entire Roman Empire, so copies were sent to Maximianus, Galerius and Constantius. Especially the latter does not seem to have been overly enthusiastic about the edict. As husband to a Christian woman, all that he was willing to do was fire a couple of Christian court officials and demolish a number of Christian churches. These could, after all, easily be rebuilt. Moreover, the number of churches can never have been very large in Constantius’ territories – Britannia and Gaul –,  as there were far fewer Christians here than in Diocletianus’ part of the Empire. The Great Persecution would therefore mainly take place in the eastern provinces. Maximianus for his part demonstrated a bit more fervour than his caesar. He forced Pope Marcellinus (296-304) to hand over certain sacred texts to be burned. Evil tongues later even claimed that the pope had become a lapsus and had sacrificed to the gods. Whether this is true or not, Marcellinus’ legacy was tainted and his successor would not take office until 308, four years after the pope’s death under suspicious circumstances (see Rome: San Marcello al Corso).

In North Africa, which was part of Maximianus’ territories, in some cases books were handed over to the authorities, but there were also cases of resistance against the anti-Christian measures. Bishop Mensurius of Carthage for instance deliberately only handed over heretical documents, but fundamentalist Christians chastised him for this nonetheless. The bishop of Thibiuca (in present-day Tunesia), a certain Felix, refused to comply with the authorities altogether and that cost him his life. Felix was not the only martyr. Some one hundred to two hundred other African Christians were martyred, especially as a result of the actions taken by the governors of Africa and Numidia, Gaius Annius Anullinus and Florus. These governors also introduced a legal obligation to take part in sacrifices.[11] The so-called martyrs of Abitinae, a group of 49 Christians that were martyred by Anullinus in 304, can probably also be considered historical.

The Tetrarchs.

New edicts and festivities

Around the summer of 303, Diocletianus must have reached the conclusion that his first edict had not had the desired effect. It had failed most spectacularly in his own provinces and those of his caesar Galerius. Christian opposition against the authorities had only stiffened. The emperor now decided to issue a second edict, in which he ordered the arrest of all Christian clergymen. After they had been arrested all kinds of attempts were to be made – including torture – to force them to sacrifice to the traditional gods. The idea was that, if they did decide to sacrifice, that would make them either complete losers in the eyes of die-hard Christians or examples to follow for Christians who held more moderate views. The second edict was strictly enforced in the eastern provinces, also by Galerius, and led to mass arrests there, especially in Asia Minor and Egypt. In the western provinces, on the other hand, the edict was ignored, and it is possible that Diocletianus did not even bother sending it to Maximianus and Constantius.

Although it was enforced, the second edict was nevertheless again a complete failure in the eastern provinces, as it did not lead to mass sacrifices. On the contrary, ordinary Christians rallied behind their arrested leaders in droves. In response, Diocletianus issued a third edict in the autumn of 303. His Vicennalia (twentieth year on the throne) would be celebrated in Rome on 20 November of this year, and the emperor wanted the problems with the Christians solved before the celebrations. The third edict stipulated that all arrested clergymen were granted amnesty, provided that they had first made a sacrifice. In many cases these men will indeed have made the required sacrifice. This made them either sacrificati or – if they had not killed an animal, but had opted for burning incense –  turificati. The responses to their actions varied from community to community. In most of the eastern provinces, Christians understood their choice, which had been made under severe duress. However, fundamentalist Christians in North Africa vilified the clergymen that had lapsed.

Remains of the palace of Maximianus in Milan (Via Brisa).

Not long after issuing his third edict, Diocletianus had travelled to Italy. It was now time for festivities. Not only were his Vicennalia to be celebrated, but also those of Maximianus (although strictly speaking this was not correct) and the Decennalia of the caesares Constantius and Galerius. It is assumed that the four Tetrarchs first met in Mediolanum (Milan), the capital of Maximianus. There they discussed the future of the Tetrarchy and matters of succession. It is possible that on this occasion Diocletianus – who must have been around sixty years old – decided that he and Maximianus would jointly abdicate on 1 May 305. The decision must have come as a surprise and a shock to the latter. Constantius and Galerius would become the new augusti, the former in the west and the latter in the east. Although new augusti would normally pick their own caesares, in this case Diocletianus wanted to make the choice himself. He therefore decided that Maxentius, the son of Maximianus, would become caesar in the west under Constantius. Constantine, the son of Constantius, would in turn become caesar in the east – which he knew well by now – under Galerius.

The arrangement for the caesares seemed quite logical. Maxentius and Constantine were talented men in their thirties. Maxentius was married to the daughter of Galerius, Valeria Maximilla, and together they had a son named Romulus. The boy had been named after his Dacian great-grandmother Romula, but very appropriately also shared his name with the founder of Rome. Constantine had a son named Crispus – Flavius Julius Crispus in full – from his relationship with one Minervina, a woman about whom we know next to nothing, but who judging by her name was not a Christian. If Maxentius and Constantine ever became augusti, their sons were the most likely candidates to succeed them as caesares. It was now time to celebrate the Vicennalia and Decennalia. The four emperors left for Rome and there held triumphs for their many victories. They also distributed food among the people and organised games. A serious damper on the festivities was that a section of the Circus Maximus collapsed and that many spectators were killed. According to the Chronography of 354 there were no fewer than 13,000 fatalities. This number is no doubt an exaggeration, but the disaster at the Circus Maximus may nevertheless have been one of the worst stadium disasters in history.

Remains of the Circus Maximus.

The celebration of the Vicennalia probably also saw the opening of the renewed Forum Romanum, which had been heavily damaged by fire in 283, during the reign of Carus and his sons. High columns with statues of Jupiter and the Tetrarchs were erected on the Forum and monuments were set up in honour of their Vicennalia and Decennalia. Remains of these monuments can still be seen on the south-eastern side of the rostra, the speaker’s platform of the Forum.

View of the Forum Romanum.


Primary sources

  • Aurelius Victor, De Caesaribus 39 (translated and annotated by H.W. Bird);
  • Lactantius, De mortibus persecutorum, chapters X-XVI.

Secondary sources

  • Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of the West, p. 168-170 and p. 180-181;
  • Henk Singor, Constantijn, p. 80-199;
  • Timothy Venning, A Chronology of the Roman Empire, p. 634-636.


[1] The exact year is unclear. Here I follow Henk Singor, Constantijn, p. 161, who places the edict in 301. Timothy Venning, A Chronology of the Roman Empire, p. 631 mentions it for the year 295, with a question mark.

[2] Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of the West, p. 180.

[3] The next paragraphs are largely based on Henk Singor, Constantijn, chapters 3-5.

[4] See Lactantius, De mortibus persecutorum, chapter XI.

[5] Timothy Venning, A Chronology of the Roman Empire, p. 632-633.

[6] Making the sign of the cross had become popular in the third century. See Henk Singor, Constantijn, p. 58.

[7] Lactantius, De mortibus persecutorum, chapter X.

[8] According to Lactantius, De mortibus persecutorum, chapter XI.

[9] Lactantius, De mortibus persecutorum, chapter XII.

[10] Lactantius, De mortibus persecutorum, chapter XIV.

[11] Henk Singor, Constantijn, p. 189.

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