As the third century was a time of crisis in the ancient world, Emperor Diocletian is credited with bringing stability to the Roman Empire; regrettably, Diocletian is also remembered for his merciless persecution of Christians. Born in Dalmatia to parents of humble means, Diocletian’s rise to prominence began with his distinguished military career. Serving as a calvary commander under Emperor Carus, Diocletian was hailed as the new emperor when Carus and his son Numerian were killed on the battlefield. Carinus, Carus’s surviving son, contested Diocletian’s right to rule, but Diocletian retained his title by defeating Carinus’s army in the Battle of the Margus. Diocletian held the title Emperor of Rome from AD 284 to 305.
A skilled politician who understood the value of delegating authority, Diocletian selected Maximian, a military leader, to serve as co-emperor. Diocletian ruled the Eastern Empire while Maximian took charge of the Western Empire. Later, Diocletian tapped Galerius and Constantius to serve as junior emperors, granting them the title Caesar, thus forming a tetrarchy, a “rule of four,” by which each would govern one quarter of the vast Roman Empire. During Diocletian’s twenty-one-year reign, he secured the empire’s borders and squelched threats to Rome’s security.
The Diocletianic Persecution, also called the Great Persecution (AD 303—312), was Rome’s longest and bloodiest persecution of Christians. During this nine-year reign of terror, Christians were hunted, stripped of their rights, brutalized, and killed. It is believed by some historians that, early in his rule, Diocletian was tolerant of Christians and that perhaps the tetrarch Galerius shared responsibility for the bloodbath; nonetheless, Christians were mercilessly targeted for the following reasons:
As the third century had dealt the Roman Empire a host of internal and external threats, Emperor Diocletian sought to stabilize Rome by forcing Christian “infidels” to renounce their faith under penalty of death.
On February 23, 303, Diocletian launched his campaign against Christianity by ordering the destruction of a newly built church and its library of sacred writings in Nicomedia, a city of Bithynia in Asia Minor. Immediately following the attack in Nicomedia, Diocletian issued the first of four edicts denying Christian believers their rights, including the right to assemble for worship. Christians were ordered to participate in sacrificial rites to Rome’s pagan gods. Those who refused the emperor’s demands could expect torture and death.
Two years later, Diocletian abdicated the throne because of failing health, but the emperor’s retirement did not end the persecution of Christian believers. The hostilities continued several more years until Galerius, who possibly masterminded the Great Persecution, issued the Edict of Toleration, which legalized Christianity in the Eastern Empire. Following Constantine’s rise to power in 313, Christianity was well on its way to becoming the official state religion of the Roman Empire. Thankfully, the bloodiest of the Roman persecutions was also the last.
What impact did Diocletian have on Christian history? Historians typically focus on Diocletian’s largely successful economic, political, and military strategies; however, from heaven’s standpoint, Diocletian is just another type of antichrist—a tyrannical leader who, like King Herod, Pontius Pilate, and Antiochus Epiphanes, opposed God by spilling innocent blood. It has been said the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. In truth, persecution, as dreadful as it sounds, has a way of strengthening and revitalizing the saints (see Matthew 5:10–12; 2 Corinthians 12:10; Romans 8:35–37). In the end, God overcomes the vilest forms of evil with good.