Thursday, June 18, 2020
Eusebius, EH.8.1-4: The Beginning of the Diocletian Persecution
This is an occasional series of readings from and brief notes and commentary upon Eusebius of Caesarea’s The Ecclesiastical History: Book 8, chapters 1-4.
Notes and Commentary:
These opening chapters set the stage for book 8.
Chapter 1 provides a prelude to the great persecution suffered by the church under the emperor Diocletian.
As noted at the end of book 7, Eusebius sees the events recorded here as marking a significant transition in the Christian movement.
He begins by describing the freedom and privileges enjoyed by the church before this persecution. The Roman rulers allowed Christians to practice their faith, even as members of their households. Christian men like Dorotheus and Gorgonius were esteemed. Spacious church buildings were constructed in various cities.
With greater freedom, however, there also arose pride and sloth. Christians began to rail against one another and break into factions. When the persecution began among Christian brothers in the army, Eusebius says that the church did not seek the favor and goodwill of God.
Chapter 2 turns to the persecution itself. Eusebius notes that he was an eyewitness of “the houses of prayer” being cast to the ground, of the scriptures being “committed to the flames” in the marketplaces, and of pastors either hiding or being captured and mocked by their enemies.
He notes that the persecution began in the nineteenth year of Diocletian’s reign (c. 303) with the issuing of an imperial letter at the time of the “the festival of the Savior’s Passion.” This letter was promulgated which ordered, “the razing of churches to the ground and the destruction by fire of the Scriptures,” as well threatening loss of liberty to Christian leaders and ordinary believers. Later letters instructed the “presidents of the local churches to be imprisoned and pressured to make sacrifices.”
Chapter 3 describes the sufferings of the rulers of the churches. Some contended with stout hearts, while others proved cowardly and weak at the first assault. He gives several examples of those who stood firm in the faith.
Chapter 4 notes again how early attacks upon Christians began among those “in the camps” (i.e., in the army) with some leaving the military lest they should become renegades in the faith. A particular “supreme commander” (whom Oulton identifies in a footnote as Veturius) is mentioned, who, in the early stages, deprived some Christians of their rank if they disobeyed the command to sacrifice and even took the lives of several. In time to come there would be countless martyrs in all the cities and the countryside.
These chapters introduce the beginnings of the devastating Diocletian persecution which began with imperial letters in AD 303. This persecution would include the destruction of many churches and copies of Scripture, as well as producing numerous martyrs from the church’s officers and laymen. Eusebius saw this period as pivotal in the history of the Christian movement.