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Bible Encyclopedias

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature

Dioclesian, or Diocletian

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(DIOCLETIANUS, CAIUS AURELIUS VALERIUS), Roman emperor, was born about A.D. 245 (others say 255), near Salona, in Dalmatia. From the name of his mother, Dioclea, he was called Diodes, which he afterwards made Diocletianus. He entered the army, and rose from the ranks to high position. Dioclesian commanded the household or imperial body-guards when young Numerianus, the son of Carus, was secretly put to death by Aper, his father-in-law, while travelling in a close litter on account of illness, on the return of the army from Persia. The death of Numerianus being, discovered, after several days, by the soldiers near Calchedon, they arrested Aper and proclaimed Dioclesian emperor, who, addressing the soldiers from his tribunal in the camp, protested his innocence of the death of Numerianus, and then, upbraiding Aper for the crime, plunged his sword into his body. The new emperor observed to a friend that "he had now killed the boar," alluding to a prediction made to him by a Druidess in Gaul, that he should mount the throne as soon as he had killed the wild boar (Lat. Aper). He became emperor September 17, 284, and in 286 chose Maximinianus as his colleague in the empire (as Augustus); in 292 he added Galerius as Caesar, while Maximinianus chose Constantius Chlorus. The empire was parceled out among them, and the theory of the system was that the younger men, as Caesars, should be trained to rule, and should succeed in time to the functions of Augustus. Internal peace was secured for years by this arrangement. The reign of Dioclesian was in many respects, a noble and successful one, but its glory was stained by the terrible persecution of the Christians which he authorized. "The earlier part of his reign was favorable to the Christians, and it was through the weakness and superstition of the prince, rather than his wickedness, that his name is now inscribed on the tablets of infamy as the most savage among persecutors. Galerius represented to him that the permanence of the Roman institutions was incompatible with the prevalence of Christianity, which should therefore be extirpated. Dioclesian proposed the subject to a sort of council, composed of some eminent military and judicial officers. They assented to the opinion of Galerius; but the emperor still hesitated, until the measure was sanctioned and sanctified by the oracle of the Milesian Apollo.

The emperor gave a tardy consent to the commencement of a plan into which he appears to have entered with the most considerate calmness, though it is also true that during its progress some incidents occurred which enlisted his passions in the cause and even so inflamed them that, in the height of his madness, he certainly proposed nothing less than the extermination of the Christian name. The influence of the Caesar Galerius, who was animated, from whatsoever motive, by an unmitigated detestation of the worshippers of Christ, and who thirsted for their destruction, was probably the most powerful of those circumstances. But the second must not be forgotten. In the disputes, now become general, between the Christian ministers and the pagan priests, the teachers of philosophy are almost invariably found on the side of the latter; and as it is not denied not even by Gibbon that those learned persons directed the course and suggested the means of persecution, we need not hesitate to attribute a considerable share in the guilt of its origin to their pernicious eloquence. Dioclesian published his first edict in the February of 303. Three others of greater severity succeeded it; and, during a shameful period of ten years, they were very generally and rigorously enforced by himself, his colleagues, and successors. It is needless to particularize the degrees of barbarity by which those edicts were severally distinguished. The substance of the whole series is this (see Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. book 8): The sacred books of the Christians were sought for and burned; death was the punishment of all who assembled secretly for religious worship; imprisonment, slavery, and infamy were inflicted on the dignitaries and presidents of the churches; every art and method was enjoined for the conversion of the believers, and among those methods were various descriptions of torture, some of them fatal. During the preceding ninety years the Church had availed itself of the consent or connivance of the civil government to erect numerous religious edifices, and to purchase some landed property. These buildings were now demolished, and the property underwent the usual process of confiscation.

A more degrading, but less effectual measure attended these: Christians were excluded from all public honors and offices, and even removed without the pale of the laws and the protection of justice; liable to all accusations, and inviting them by their adversity, they were deprived of every form of legal redress. Such were the penalties contained in those edicts; and though it be true that in some of the western provinces of the empire, as in Gaul, and perhaps Britain, their asperity was somewhat softened by the character and influence of the Caesar Constantius, we are not allowed to believe that their execution even there was generally neglected, and we have too much reason to be assured that it was conducted with very subservient zeal throughout the rest of the empire. In process of time the sufferings of the Christians were partially alleviated by the victories of Constantine, but they did not finally terminate till his accession" (Waddington, Church History, chapter 4). In the autumn of 303 Dioclesian was taken with an illness which affected him for many months, and in 305 he abdicated in favor of Galerius, and retired to Salona, in Dalmatia, where he lived quietly and greatly respected until July, 313, when he died. See Eng. Cyclop. s.v.; Eusebius, Ch. Hist. book 8; Gibbon, Decl. and Fall of the Roman Empire, chapter 13; Mosheim, Hist. Comment. etc., cent. 3, § 22; Lardner, Works, 7:515 sq. (See PERSECUTIONS).

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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Dioclesian, or Diocletian'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/d/dioclesian-or-diocletian.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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