Most of the third century and the first three decades of the fourth were a time of slow deterioration for the Roman Empire and a gradual increase in the growth and power of the church. During that period, there were 30 men who claimed the title of emperor, only three of whom died of natural causes. The job of emperor of the Roman Empire was obviously a high-risk occupation. The church, on the other hand, continued to flourish, despite episodic vicious and merciless persecutions. However, from the death of Severus (211) and the beginning of the reign of Decius (240), a period of almost three decades the noted early church historian, Eusebius, lists no Christian martyrs for those years in the appendix to his “The History of the Church”. This could be due to the overall instability of the empire during those years. There were 11 emperors during that time, none of whom lasted more than six years, with the exception of Severus Alexander who reigned for 13 years and is generally considered one of the better emperors. It was during these years that Origin (185-254) felt by most church historians to be the most outstanding Christian writer and philosopher of his time produced most of his writings which were instrumental in refuting various heresies. The emperors during that time were probably too busy assassinating one another to be concerned about Christianity.
In 249, Decius came to power. He and his Caesar, Gallus, resumed the persecution of Christians (by this time emperors began to call themselves “Augustus” and designated a junior successor who was called “Caesar”). Eusebius lists 24 of the more prominent martyrs during this short reign, totaling only four years (249-253). There certainly must have been hundreds or even thousands more. Christians were tortured, mutilated, burned, and put to death in numerous horrendous ways. The purpose of these measures was to induce the Christians to renounce their faith and make sacrifices to the pagan Gods of Rome. Very few did so.
The reign of Decius came to an end after an invasion by the Goths across the Danube, during which a Roman army led by the emperor was disastrously defeated in battle near Phillippolis. This was followed by the fall of that major city to the Goths. Decius himself was killed shortly thereafter.
He was succeeded by his prefect, Valerian, who inherited an empire in great confusion and surrounded by enemies; Goths, Franks, Germans, and Persians. He managed to fortify and stabilize the empire and, thus, protected it from invaders. He himself was later captured by the Persians in 260 and, thus, became the only Roman emperor ever humiliated in this manner. The first three and a half years of his reign were relatively free of oppression for the Christians, but during the last three and half the persecution resumed. This was probably due to recession and inflation as well as the wars against the barbarian invasions. There had to be someone to blame and the Christians were convenient.
It was during these years that many new heresies emerged. Mani was a Persian who imitated Christ and thought that he was the Holy Spirit. He actually appointed 12 apostles. His followers were called Manichees. Another heretic, Novatian, dismissed the value of baptism and confession and taught that Jesus was not a merciful God. His followers were called “Puritans”. He was excommunicated by Dionysius, the bishop of Alexandria. Another heresy called “millennialism” was promoted by the priest, Nepos. He preached that the kingdom of Christ was here on earth. These and many other heresies, including Arianism and Gnosticism (see previous second century article), had to be dealt with by the church and its councils.
After the capture of Valerian, his son, Gallienus, became emperor. He was a weak, vain man who concerned himself with trivialities and seemed unconcerned about the loss of parts of the empire to enemies. After 15 years of mismanagement, his rule came to an end when he was killed by his own troops. The next two emperors, Claudias Gothicus and Aurelian, were strong rulers and defeated the invading Goths and Persians and re-established the empire with strong borders. During the reigns of these two emperors, Christian persecution was minimal and few martyrdoms occurred.
After the death of Aurelian, there were six relatively insignificant emperors over a period of nine years and the empire was relatively stable due primarily to the efforts of the two preceding rulers. This period of inactivity came to an end with the elevation of Diocletian to the imperial throne. Christians fared well during these years and for the first three years of the rule of Diocletian. At this point because of the perceived infiltration of the government by Christians, oppression began anew and continued until Constantine became emperor.
During the years preceding the rule of Constantine, there was severe persecution of the Christians by the various emperors, especially Diocletian, Maximian, Maximim, and Maximius. The number of martyrs increased dramatically. Churches were destroyed and Christian property confiscated. All of this ended with Constantine.
The Edict of Milan was promulgated in 313, which made Christianity lawful, not just tolerated. Contrary to popular opinion, it was not at that time made the official religion of Rome. Constantine himself also did not receive baptism until shortly before his death. During his reign, churches were rebuilt and Christianity flourished. Constantine built the St. Peter’s and St. John Lateran cathedrals in Rome, the church of the resurrection (later the Holy Sepulcher) in Jerusalem, and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
In 324, the heresy taught by the Greek priest, Arias, which claimed that Jesus occupied a lesser position in the trinity than God the Father, but still superior to man, was gaining significant support among many Christian believers. In 325, the council of Nicea was convened, which declared Aryanism a heresy and excommunicated Arias. It is of interest to note that the date of Easter was set at that counsel to fall on the first Sunday after the first full moon, after the spring equinox. Formerly, Easter had been celebrated on the Jewish Passover, but by this time the church was entirely Gentile and was anxious to divest itself from all things Jewish.
In 330, Constantine established Constantinople, which became the capital city of the empire. He died in 337, accepting baptism and thus official conversion to Christianity on his death bed.
Two questions remain to be answered: 1) how and why did Christianity survive more than two centuries of vicious often barbaric Roman persecution and 2) how did Constantine overcome overwhelming opposition and legalize and promote Christianity in the empire?
The first question was partially answered in my recent article on the second century. Despite the persecutions, the church grew stronger and was able to do so because of the structure of the Roman Empire with its secure borders, a competent well-organized military, and an established infrastructure. Without these protections, Rome would have been quickly overrun by Barbarian tribes and the church with it. Rome was no friend to the Christians per se and did everything it could to crush them, but God was looking after his church’s incubator. This is even further demonstrated in the third century when on at least three occasions, after a succession of inept corrupt dissolute emperors, the empire seems to crumble; a strong leader arises and defeats the invaders, and again establishes secure borders. Examples would be Severus Alexander (222-35), Claudius Gothicus (260-70), Aurelian (270-75), and Diocletian (285-305).
This brings us to the second question. How did the Christian favoring Constantine emerge victorious over four other pagan emperors and go on to legalize Christianity in the empire, thus stopping all persecution and leading to the explosive growth of the church in the following centuries. An almost miraculous set of events in the early fourth century preceded this decision by Constantine. In 285, Diocletian became emperor and the following year divided the empire into East and West. He selected Maximian to rule the East as co-emperor and retained the western empire for himself. The most important event in the relationship between the church and Rome then occurred. For unknown reasons, in the year 305, Diocletian resigned and forced Maximian to do the same. Diocletian appointed Constantius to succeed him and Maximian chose Gallerius. Constantius died the following year and his son, Constantine, succeeded him. Gallerius picked Maxentius as his co-emperor who, after Gallerius’ death, became “Augustus” and chose Maximin as his “Caesar”. Not unexpectedly, this led to five civil wars and an 18 year period of confusion, war, and chaos. At one time, there were six different reigning emperors. When the smoke finally settled in 324, Constantine became sole emperor. Along the way in 312 he defeated Maxentius in the battle of the Milvian Bridge and became emperor of the Western Empire. This was another miracle in that Constantine had a far smaller and weaker army than Maxentius, but this was the battle before which he saw a vision in the sky consisting of a cross and the words “hoc signo vinces”, Latin for “in this sign conquer”. Many Theologians felt that this event greatly influenced Constantine’s later actions supporting Christianity.
What induced Diocletian and Maximian to resign the two most powerful positions in the world? What power intervened in Constantine’s most important battle which gave him mastery of the western empire when his forces were numerically and materially inferior to that of his enemy? The answer can only be that it was the time in God’s plan for Christianity to emerge out of an environment of oppression to dominate both Eastern and Western Roman empires for the centuries to come.