Page images




A. D. 306-800.


A view of the reign of Constantine, and the establishment of Christianity as the religion of the Roman empire.

A. D. 306 to 337.

AT the commencement of the fourth century of the Christian æra, the Roman empire was under the dominion of four monarchs; of whom two, viz. Diocletian and Maximin Herculeus were of superior rank, and each distinguished by the title of AUGUSTUS; while the other two, Constantius Chlorus and Maximinus Galerius, sustained a subordinate dignity, and were honoured with the humbler appellation of CÆSARS.

Diocletian was raised to the throne in the year 284, consequently had swayed the imperial sceptre sixteen years; but, though much addicted to superstition, he entertained no aversion 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 Gaul and the western provinces, was a mild and amiable prince, under whose government we find no traces of persecution. He had himself abandoned the absurdities of Polytheism, and

[blocks in formation]

treated the Christians with benevolence and respect. The principal offices of his palace were executed by Christians. He loved their persons, esteemed their fidelity, and entertained no dislike to their religious principles. This alarmed the pagan priests, whose interests were so intimately connected with the continuance of the ancient superstition, and who, apprehending, not without reason, that, to their great detriment, the Christian religion was becoming daily more universal and triumphant throughout the empire, addressed themselves to Diocletian, whom they knew to be of a timorous and credulous disposition, and by fictitious oracles and other perfidious stratagems, endeavoured to engage him to persecute the Christians.*

The treacherous arts of a selfish and superstitious priesthood failed, however, for some time, to move Diocletian. Their recourse was next had to Maximinus Galerius, one of the Cæsars, who had married the daughter of Diocletian; a prince, whose gross ignorance of every thing but military affairs, was accompanied with a fierce and savage temper, which rendered him a proper instrument for executing their designs. Stimulated by the malicious insinuations of the heathen 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 horrid purpose. †

It seems to have been the practice of the Roman emperors about this time, to take up their residence occasionally at Nicomedia, the capital of the province of Bythinia-the place from whence Pliny addressed his celebrated letter to Trajan. This city, for its beauty

* Mosheim, Ceat. iv. ch. 1.

+ Mosheim, Ubi supra,”

: See page 123.

and greatness, has been compared to Rome, Antioch, and Alexandria; but, what is more to our purpose, it abounded with Christians, even from the days of the apostles.* Diocletian having taken up his abode at Nicomedia, Galerius, his son in-law, had come to spend 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 burn all their books and writings, to deprive them of all their civil rights and privileges, 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 slaughter and bloodshed. It was, however, merely a prelude to what was to follow; for, not long after the publication of this first edict, a fire broke out at two different times in the palace of Nicomedia, where Galerius lodged with Diocletian. The former, though in all probability the real incendiary, threw all the odium of this upon the Christians, as an act of revenge, and the credulous Diocletian, too easily persuaded of the truth of this charge, caused the most inhuman torments to be. inflicted upon multitudes of them at Nicomedia.

Soon after this, a new edict was issued, ordering all the bishops, pastors, and public teachers, throughout the empire, to be apprehended and imprisoned; hoping, probably, that if the leaders could be once effectually silenced, their respective flocks might be easily dispersed. Nor did his inhuman policy stop there; for, a third edict was presently issued, by which it was ordered, that all sorts of torments should be employed, and the most intolerable punishments resorted to, in order to force the disciples of Jesus to renounce their profession and sacrifice to the heathen gods. The consequence was, that an

• 1 Peter, i. 1.

immense number of persons became the victims of this cruel stratagem throughout every part of the Roman empire, except those who had the felicity to be placed under the mild and equitable government of Constantius Chlorus. The shameful manner in which multitudes of them were punished, it would be difficult to relate 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 not a few sent to the mines, where they were doomed to linger out the remains of a miserable life in poverty and bondage.

In the third year of this horrible persecution (A.D. 304.) a fourth edict was published by Diocletian, at the instigation of Galerius, commissioning the magistrates to force all Christians, without distintion of rank or sex, to sacrifice to the gods, and authorizing them to employ all sorts of torments, with the view of driving them to this act of apostacy. The diligence and zeal of the Roman magistrates in the execution of this inhuman edict, ultimately reduced the Christian profession to a very low ebb; for this horrid persecution lasted ten years.

The rigorous edicts of Diocletian were strictly and cheerfully executed by his associate Maximian, who had long hated the Christians, and who delighted in acts of blood and violence. It is the remark of Gibbon, when speaking of Maximian and Galerius, that the minds of those princes had never been enlightened by science. Education had never softened their temper. They owed their greatness to their swords; and in their most elevated fortune they still retained their superstitious prejudices of soldiers and peasants. Maximian swayed the sceptre over the provinces of Syria, Palestine, and Egypt, where he gratified his own inclination by yielding a rigorous obedience to the stern demands of Diocletian.

A learned French writer, Monsieur Godeau, computes that in this tenth persecution, as it is commonly termed, there were not less than seventeen thousand Christians put to death in the space of one month. And that " during the continuance of it, in the province of Egypt alone, no less than one hundred and fifty thousand 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 condemned."*

Galerius now no longer made a secret of his ambitious designs. He obliged Diocletian and Maximian to resign the imperial dignity, and got himself declared emperor of the east, resigning the west, for the present, to Constantius Chlorus, at that time in Britain, with the ill state of whose health he was well acquainted.

But Divine Providence was now preparing more tranquil times for the church; and, in order to this, it confounded the schemes of Galerius, and brought his counsels to nothing. In the year 306, Constantius Chlorus, finding his end approaching, wrote to Galerius to send him his son Constantine, who had been kept as an hostage at court. The request was refused; but, coming to the ears of young Constantine, and aware of the danger of his situation, he resolved to attempt his escape, and seizing a favourable moment, he made the best of his way for Britain, and, to prevent pursuit, is said to have killed all the post horses on his route. He arrived at York just in time to witness the death of his father Constantius, who had in the mean time nominated his son as his successor; and the army, without waiting to consult Galerius, immediately pronounced Constantine emperor of

See a Sermon of Dr. Calamy's, on Matt. xvi. 18. Mr. Gibbon has laboured to diminish the number of martyrs on this trying occasion, and to shew that they were inconsiderable indeed; but even his own account of things, when impartially weighed, will be found to justify all I have aid of it.

« PreviousContinue »