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The Diocletian Persecution

The Diocletian Persecution

The Diocletian Persecution 303 – 313 AD

The Diocletian Persecution, occurring between 303 and 313 AD, represents a significant episode in early Christian history marked by systematic and widespread persecution of Christians throughout the Roman Empire. This period, also known as the Great Persecution, under the reign of Emperor Diocletian, witnessed a series of punitive measures aimed at suppressing the growth and influence of Christianity. 

By 303 AD Christianity had spread in the Empire. There are no reliable sources to say how many Christians there actually were at the time. However,  historian Keith Hopkins has estimated that 10% of the population may have been adherents of the new faith. The Christians were increasingly influential and this had lead to the diminishing of previous beliefs and the social structures that were linked to them. This impacted not just the social standing of established elites but also the financial system attached to temples, oracles and priests.  

Diocletian himself was hostile to the Christians. In 299 AD he had been in Antioch where Christians in his court had been seen making the sign of the cross during a sacrifice and divination. The process had failed and the Christians were blamed for interrupting this. Diocletian had angrily demanded that everyone present make a sacrifice to the Gods. Diocletian and co-emperor Galerius had then sent letters to the military demanding that all soldiers make a sacrifice or be discharged. This discharge would result in loss of career, savings and pension so, although not a deadly outcome, it was a serious challenge to Christians. 

This initial persecution was followed in the autumn of 302 by further events. In this instance a deacon named Romanus had visited a court where a sacrifice was taking place. Romanus has denounced this act in the middle of the ceremony in a loud voice. Romanus was seized and sentenced to be burnt alive but Diocletian overruled this and order that his tongue should be cut out instead. Following this event Diocletian and Galerius retired to Nicomedia together. There they argued about the role of Christians in the Empire. Diocletian favoured that they should be barred from the military and state service but Galerius argued for persecution. To resolve this they decided to consult the Oracle of Apollo at Didyma. The Oracle informed the Emperors that ‘the just on earth’ (meaning the Christians) prevented Apollo from speaking. As a result Diocletian agreed with Galerius and the persecutions of the Christians began.  

The persecution commenced with a series of edicts. The first edict, promulgated on 23rd February 303 AD, mandated the destruction of Christian churches and scriptures. Anyone refusing to hand over documents or obstructing could be executed. Christians were also not permitted to bring cases to court or respond to cases brought against them, any state office holders, soldiers and veterans were deprived of their rank and Christian freedmen were re-enslaved.

Diocletian initially asked for the edict to be “without bloodshed” but Galerius pushed for all who refused to sacrifice to be burned alive. Despite Diocletian’s wishes, local authorities routinely imposed capital punishment. 

The edict was widely imposed except in Gaul and Britain where Constantius was in control. 


Subsequent edicts escalated the persecution by ordering the arrest and imprisonment of Christian clergy, as well as compelling Christians to participate in pagan sacrifices upon pain of death. These edicts reflected a deliberate effort by the imperial authorities to undermine the foundational pillars of Christian faith and suppress its adherents.

A hallmark of the Diocletianic Persecution was the systematic destruction of Christian churches. Authorities targeted Christian places of worship, seizing property and desecrating sanctuaries dedicated to Christian worship. Additionally, sacred Christian texts, including copies of the Bible and other religious manuscripts, were confiscated and consigned to flames, depriving Christians of their spiritual sustenance and impeding the dissemination of Christian teachings.

The persecution saw the widespread arrest and imprisonment of Christians, particularly clergy and prominent members of the Christian community. Incarcerated Christians endured harsh treatment and torture, as authorities sought to coerce them into renouncing their faith. Various forms of physical and psychological torture were employed, including beatings, mutilations, and prolonged periods of confinement in squalid conditions.

Perhaps the most poignant aspect of the Diocletianic Persecution was the prevalence of martyrdom among Christians who steadfastly refused to renounce their faith. Countless Christians, including men, women, and children, faced execution for their refusal to comply with imperial decrees. Methods of execution varied, ranging from crucifixion and burning at the stake to beheading and exposure to wild animals in arenas. The courage and resilience displayed by these martyrs inspired admiration among contemporaries and subsequent generations, shaping the collective memory of Christian persecution.

Christian clergy, owing to their leadership roles within the Christian community, were particularly targeted for persecution. Bishops, priests, and deacons faced arrest, torture, and execution for their refusal to submit to imperial authority. The persecution of clergy aimed not only to decimate the ranks of Christian leadership but also to intimidate the broader Christian populace into compliance with imperial dictates. 

In addition to official imperial decrees, instances of local initiatives and vigilantism against Christians were reported. Some pagan communities, emboldened by imperial edicts, took matters into their own hands, subjecting Christians to acts of violence and persecution. These local initiatives, often carried out with the tacit or explicit approval of local authorities, further exacerbated the plight of Christians and contributed to a climate of fear and insecurity.

Amidst the persecution, Christians demonstrated remarkable resilience and resistance against oppressive measures. Many clandestinely preserved sacred texts and artefacts, ensuring the continuity of Christian traditions despite the onslaught of persecution. Others sought refuge in remote locales or fled to regions where persecution was less severe, evading detection and persecution. Acts of solidarity and mutual support within Christian communities bolstered morale and fostered a sense of collective resilience in the face of adversity.

The Diocletianic Persecution was ultimately unsuccessful. This was due to a lack of organisation by the authorities, evasion by the Christians and eventually a lack of support amongst the pagan population.  The resilience and fortitude of early Christians in the face of systemic oppression lead to a cult of martyrdom in the early church which further bolstered adherence.

Christianity was to survive, grow and eventually to become the faith of the Empire. It is perhaps somewhat ironic that these destructive events were to foreshadow the lack of toleration of pagans that Christians were to show to pagans in later years. 


– Tiberius Gracchus and Land Reform in Rome (Article about the Tiberius Gracchus, his aims and fate)
– Roman Collection (Roman themed merch from High Speed History)

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