The renewal of the barbarian attacks ended this truce. To understand the persecution under Declus (or Aurelius) we must imagine a nation in the full excitement of war, frightened by serious defeats, and expecting hostile invasion. In 249 a wave of religious emotion swept the Empire; men and women flocked to the temples and besieged the gods with prayers. Amid this fever of patriotism and fear the Christians stood apart, still resenting and discouraging military service, scorning the gods, and interpreting the collapse of the Empire as the prophesied prelude to the destruction of “Babylon” and the return of Christ. Using the mood of the people as an opportunity to strengthen national enthusiasm and unity, Decius issued an edict requiring every inhabitant of the realm to offer a propitiatory act of homage to the gods of Rome. Apparently Christians were not asked to abjure their own faith, but were commanded to join in the universal supplicatio to the deities who, the populace believed, had so often saved imperiled Rome. Most Christians complied; in Alexandria, according to its Bishop Dionysius, “the apostasy was universal”; it was likewise in Carthage and Smyrna; probably these Christians considered the supplicatio a patriotic formality. But the bishops of Jerusalem and Antioch died in jail, and the bishops of Rome and Toulouse were put to death (250). Hundreds of Roman Christians were crowded into dungeons; some were beheaded, some were burned at the stake, a few were given to the beasts in holiday festival. After a year the persecution abated; and by Easter of 251 it was practically at an end. Six years later Valerian, in another crisis of invasion and terror, ordered that “all persons must conform to the Roman ceremonials,” and forbade any Christian assemblage. Pope Sixtus II resisted, and was put to death with four of his deacons. Bishop Cyprian of Carthage was beheaded, the bishop of Tarragona was burned alive. In 261, after the Persians had removed Valerian from the scene, Gallienus published the first edict of toleration, recognizing Christianity as a permitted religion, and ordering that property taken from Christians should be restored to them. Minor persecutions occurred in the next forty years, but for the most part these were for Christianity decades of unprecedented calm and rapid growth. In the chaos and terror of the third century men fled from the weakened state to the consolations of religion, and found them more abundantly in Christianity than in its rivals. The Church made rich converts now, built costly cathedrals, and allowed its adherents to share in the joys of this world. The odium theologicum subsided among the people; Christians intermingled more freely with pagans, even married them. The Oriental monarchy of Diocletian seemed destined to consolidate religious as well as political security and peace. Galerius, however, saw in Christianity the last obstacle to absolute rule, and urged his chief to complete the Roman restoration by restoring the Roman gods. Diocletian hesitated; he was averse to needless risks, and estimated more truly than Galerius the magnitude of the task. But one day, at an imperial sacrifice, the Christians made the sign of the cross to ward off evil demons. When the augurs failed to find on the livers of the sacrificed animals the marks that they had hoped to interpret, they blamed the presence of profane and unbelieving persons. Diocletian ordered that all in attendance should offer sacrifice to the gods or be flogged, and that all soldiers in the army should similarly conform or be dismissed (302). Strange to say, Christian writers agreed with the pagan priests: the prayers of the Christian, said Lactantius, kept the Roman gods at a distance; and Bishop Dionysius had written to the same effect a generation before. Galerius at every opportunity argued the need of religious unity as a support to the new monarchy; and at last Diocletian yielded. In February, 303, the four rulers decreed the destruction of all Christian churches, the burning of Christian books, the dissolution of Christian congregations, the confiscation of their property, the exclusion of Christians from public office, and the punishment of death for Christians detected in religious assembly. A band of soldiers inaugurated the persecution by burning to the ground the cathedral at Nicomedia. The Christians were now numerous enough to retaliate. A revolutionary movement broke out in Syria, and in Nicomedia incendiaries twice set fire to Diocletian’s palace. Galerius accused the Christians of the arson; they accused him; hundreds of Christians were arrested and tortured, but the guilt was never fixed. In September Diocletian ordered that imprisoned Christians who would worship the Roman gods should be freed, but that those who refused should be subjected to every torture known to Rome. Infuriated by scornful resistance, he directed all provincial magistrates to seek out every Christian, and use any method to compel him to appease the gods. Then, probably glad to leave this miserable enterprise to his successors, he resigned.

Maximian carried out the edict with military thoroughness in Italy. Galerius, become Augustus, gave every encouragement to the persecution in the East. The roll of martyrs was increased in every part of the Empire except Gaul and Britain, where Constantius contented himself with burning a few churches. Eusebius assures us, presumably with the hyperbole of indignation, that men were flogged till the flesh hung from their bones, or their flesh was scraped to the bone with shells; salt or vinegar was poured upon the wounds; the flesh was cut off bit by bit and fed to waiting animals; or bound to crosses, men were eaten piecemeal by starved beasts. Some victims had their fingers pierced with sharp reeds under the nails; some had their eyes gouged out; some were suspended by a hand or a foot; some had molten lead poured down their throats; some were beheaded, or crucified, or beaten to death with clubs; some were torn apart by being tied to the momentarily bent branches of trees. We have no pagan narrative of these events. The persecution continued for eight years, and brought death to approximately 1500 Christians, orthodox or heretic, and diverse sufferings to countless more. Thousands of Christians recanted; tradition said that even Marcellinus, Bishop of Rome, denied his faith under duress of terror and pain. But most of the persecuted stood firm; and the sight or report of heroic fidelity under torture strengthened the faith of the wavering and won new members for the hunted congregations. As the brutalities multiplied, the sympathy of the pagan population was stirred; the opinion of good citizens found courage to express itself against the most ferocious oppression in Roman history. Once the people had urged the state to destroy Christianity; now the people stood aloof from the government, and many pagans risked death to hide or protect Christians until the storm should pass. In 311 Galerius, suffering from a mortal illness, convinced of failure, and implored by his wife to make his peace with the undefeated God of the Christians, promulgated an edict of toleration, recognizing Christianity as a lawful religion and asking the prayers of the Christians in return for “our most gentle clemency.”