Eusebius of Caesarea, Ecclesiastical History VIII.1.7-2.2

The behaviour of the church in the lead up the Great Persecution, which pronounced divine judgement

Name of the author: 
Eusebius of Caesarea
313 CE to 325 CE
Caesarea Maritima
Literary genre: 
Title of work: 
Ecclesiastical History



For a general introduction to Eusebius and the Ecclesiastical History, please see the commentary on I.6.6-11.

The present extract deals with the reason for the Diocletianic persecution as Eusebius sees it, which in turn enables us to understand further how he sees the relationship between Rome and Christianity more generally. Eusebius laments that the church had fallen into a state of corruption and chaos, opening it up to divine judgement. In verse 8, Eusebius states that the persecution originally began just with Christians in the Roman army, and there is an implication that had the conduct of those in leadership roles within the church been better, the more widespread events which followed might have been less severe. There is no indication that Eusebius understood the Christians in the army to have been particularly sinful, thereby warranting them being targeted first. It is the leaders who are singled out particularly for their inappropriate behaviour.

The persecution was only generalised in the February of 303 CE, following pressure from Diocletian’s junior colleague Galerius to target Christians in the empire more broadly. The other famously quoted source on this matter is Lactantius’s On the Deaths of the Persecutors X.6, which narrates an incident whereby Diocletian, a great believer in the auguries, was consulting a haruspex. Standing in his presence were Christian attendees, who made the sign of the cross on their foreheads while the ritual was being performed. When the divinations failed, the soothsayer blamed it upon the presence of “profane persons,” causing Diocletian to immediately order everyone in the imperial palace to sacrifice, or face scourging. He subsequently sent letters to all commanding army officers stating that all soldiers must sacrifice or be dismissed from their military duties. In his Chronicle, preserved through Jerome’s Latin translation, Eusebius states that a certain Veturius was made responsible for enforcing the ridding of the army from Christians.

We cannot know precisely what proportion of the Roman army was Christian at this point, but there is evidence that a substantial number were in military service by this time (the incompatibility of Christianity and military service is dealt with in the third century, for example, by Tertullian, On Idolatry XIX, and his treatise On the Military Garland; hagiographical evidence such as the Acta Maximilliani and the Acta S. Marcelli also offer support, as does a Christian epitaph erected by an Aurelius Gaius, a soldier with a long list of military exploits who served under Galerius at some point; for a discussion of the epitaph, see Thomas Drew-Bear, “Les voyages”). In his Martyrs of Palestine XI.20-22, Eusebius relates the story of a Christian confessor in the army during the persecution, named Seleucus, who was put to death by the governor when he refused to sacrifice. The Martyrs of Palestine is notoriously polemical, and we cannot take its martyrdom tales at face value (in this case, the soldier is noted for being prominent within the Roman army for his physical strength and vigour, providing Eusebius with an exemplar of Roman brute strength being surpassed by Christian faith). However, that the army contained a notable amount of Christians, and that their weeding out preceded the general persecution, has generally been accepted (see, for instance, John Helgeland, “Christians and the Roman Army,” p. 159, who questions Eusebius’s grasp of the precise details on this matter; on the dating of the persecution in the army, see David Wood, “Two Notes”: 297 CE, following Lactantius and Eusebius, and contra Wood, Richard Burgess, “The Date of the Persecution”: 300 CE; 299 CE has long been a popularly accepted date: see, for example, Elizabeth Depalma Digeser, “An Oracle of Apollo,” p. 63 for a more recent argument in favour of this).

Aside from this, what is particularly interesting for our purposes is the attitude which Eusebius displays regarding why the persecution developed, and what it reveals about his attitude towards the imperial regime. The extract above explains that the church had been blessed with a time of peace prior to Diocletian’s edict, during which the number of Christians had grown, and the church was seemingly flourishing within the empire. However, as Eusebius makes clear, this peaceful period had been something of a curse in one sense, as while the number of Christians increased, Eusebius suggests their integrity had rapidly decreased. The church was plagued with in-fighting between bishops, quarrels, and complacency, which had developed on account of the freedom that Christianity was enjoying. The fact that Eusebius draws upon passages from the Hebrew Bible (Lamentations and Psalms) describing God’s punishment of Israel and prophesying further divinely sanctioned destruction gives an immediate indication that he sees divine will as playing a significant part in the Diocletianic persecution (on Eusebius’s Christian punishment motif, see also Michael Gaddis, There is no Crime, p. 37, who emphasises that persecution also acts as a tester of faith, and in this sense can be viewed positively). In the earlier books of the Ecclesiastical History, following in a very popular tradition, this same argument is made of the Jewish people’s suffering under Rome, where the Jews are understood as being punished for their treatment of Jesus and his followers (see, for instance, II.23.12-20). Here, God’s wrath is transferred to the Christians themselves (Eusebius joins Tertullian, Origen, and Cyprian in viewing persecution as punishment for the church; see respectively, On Flight from Persecution I; Exhortation to Martyrdom XLIX; L-LI; On the Lapsed VII).

As J. Stevenson recognised many decades ago, however, Eusebius attributes persecution to three different causes in the Ecclesiastical History as a whole: 1) the powers of evil (e.g. X.4.14); 2) the behaviour of wicked men, often specific emperors (e.g. VI.28; IX.8); and 3) God sending down chastisement for the church’s sins (Studies in Eusebius, p. 46-47). It seems then that the situation is not clear cut for Eusebius; it is not so simple as a tyrannical imperial regime attacking an innocent religious group, but nor is it the case that Rome’s brutality is ignored by Eusebius—far from it, as his martyr accounts indulge greatly in the gory details of this. Moreover, VIII.13.9 and VIII.14.8 show that Eusebius sees the peace of the church and the stability of the Roman empire as going hand in hand. There appears to be a contradiction, therefore, between this latter notion and the concept of imperially-sanctioned persecution as “Heaven-sent chastisement” (see Stevenson, Studies in Eusebius, p. 46). On the one hand, Eusebius displays similar thinking to the prophets of the Old Testament, whereby Assyria, Babylon, and Chaldea, which have each acted as forces of punishment for God’s wayward people, are to be destroyed themselves (Isaiah 10:5: Assyria; Jeremiah 25:1-14: Babylon; Ezekiel 31:3-18: Assyria; Habakkuk 1 and 2: Chaldaea). While not going so far as claiming complete destruction, Eusebius does describe the Roman empire’s immense suffering through war, famine, and disease, for instance, pronounced as retribution for its behaviour towards the Christians (e.g. VII.22; VIII.15).

The Ecclesiastical History betrays a complex and multifaceted view of Christianity’s relationship with Rome. The empire is functional for divine purposes, be it the punishment of the Jews for Christ’s death, the punishment of the church for its complacency and impious conduct, or the ultimate promotion of the Christian religion through Constantine. Yet, Rome is also a source of great suffering for the Christians. As Felice Lifshitz has remarked, Eusebius is careful not to indict Rome as a whole for the deaths of the numerous martyrs he describes. Rather, these individuals are variously viewed as the victims of evil imperial advisors, over-zealous governors, demons, mobs, and even Jews (“The Martyr,” p. 320). Even individual emperors are described as initiating persecution largely because of their contempt for previous imperial rulers who had happened to be favourable towards Christians (see VI.28). Lifshitz hypothesises that this particular presentation might be partly due to the fact that Eusebius himself had managed to survive, and was accused of having co-operated with the Roman authorities in order to do so (on this, see Robert Grant, Eusebius as Church Historian, and Harold Attridge and Gohei Hata, “Introduction” to Eusebius, Christianity, and Judaism, p. 30-31). Perhaps he felt that he could not condemn the whole empire outright, therefore. However, there is more to the situation than this. Given that Eusebius’s work climaxes with the reign of Constantine and his adoption of Christianity, it makes sense that his attitude towards Rome often appears varied. The empire can be thought of in the present work as a powerful force sent by God to keep his people in check (both Christians and Jews at different points in history), but one which itself suffers from the influence of tyrannical rulers who would lead it astray. It is both a purgative force doing God’s work, therefore, while itself frequently in need of correction.

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