The Diocletian persecution was the greatest test and triumph of the Church. It weakened Christianity for a time through the natural defection of adherents who had joined it, or grown up, during a half century of unmolested prosperity. But soon the defaulters were doing penance and pleading for readmission to the fold. Accounts of the loyalty of martyrs who had died, or of “confessors” who had suffered, for the faith were circulated from community to community; and these Acta Martyrum, intense with exaggeration and fascinating with legend, played a historic role in awakening or confirming Christian belief. “The blood of martyrs,” said Tertullian, “is seed.” There is no greater drama in human record than the sight of a few Christians, scorned or oppressed by a succession of emperors, bearing all trials with a fierce tenacity, multiplying quietly, building order while their enemies generated chaos, fighting the sword with the word, brutality with hope, and at last defeating the strongest state that history has known. Caesar and Christ had met in the arena, and Christ had won.
II. THE RISE OF CONSTANTINE
Diocletian, peaceful in his Dalmatian palace, saw the failure of both the persecution and the tetrarchy. Seldom had the Empire witnessed such confusion as followed his abdication. Galerius prevailed upon Constantius to let him appoint Severus and Maximinus Daza as “Caesars” (305). At once the principle of heredity asserted its claims: Maxentius, son of Maximian, wished to succeed his father’s authority, and a like resolution fired Constantine. Flavius Valerius Constantinus had begun life at Naissus in Moesia (272?) as the illegitimate son of Constantius by his legal concubine Helena, a barmaid from Bithynia. On becoming a “Caesar,” Constantius was required by Diocletian to put away Helena and to take Maximian’s stepdaughter Theodora as his wife. Constantine received only a meager education. He took up soldiering early, and proved his valor in the wars against Egypt and Persia. Galerius, on succeeding Diocletian, kept the young officer near him as a hostage for the good behavior of Constantius. When the latter asked Galerius to send the youth to him Galerius procrastinated craftily; but Constantine escaped from his watchers, and rode night and day across Europe to join his father at Boulogne and share in a British campaign. The Gallic army, deeply loyal to the humane Constantius, came to love his handsome, brave, and energetic son; and when the father died at York (306), the troops acclaimed Constantine not merely as “Caesar” but as Augustus – emperor. He accepted the lesser title, excusing himself on the ground that his life would be unsafe without an army at his back. Galerius, too distant to intervene, reluctantly recognized him as a “Caesar.” Constantine fought successfully against the invading Franks, and fed the beasts of the Gallic amphitheaters with barbarian kings.
Meanwhile in Rome the Praetorian Guard, eager to restore the ancient capital to leadership, hailed Maxentius as emperor (306). Severus descended from Milan to attack him; Maximian, to confound the confusion, returned to the purple at his son’s request, and joined in the campaign; Severus was deserted by his troops and put to death (307). To help himself face the growing chaos, the aging Galerius appointed a new Augustus – Flavius Licinius; hearing which, Constantine assumed a like dignity (307). A year later Maximinus Daza adopted the same title, so that in place of the two Augusti of Diocletian’s plan there were now six; no one cared to be merely “Caesar.” Maxentius quarreled with his father; Maximian went to Gaul to seek Constantine’s aid; while the latter fought Germans on the Rhine, Maximian tried to replace him as commander of the Gallic armies; Constantine marched across Gaul, besieged the usurper in Marseilles, captured him, and granted him the courtesy of suicide (310).