The Persecution of Christians in Eusebius

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Koenig wrote that “Religious tolerance is something we should all practice; however, there has been more persecution and atrocities committed in the name of religion and religious freedom than anything else.” This post will look at the persecution of Christians through Eusebius’ Historica Ecclesiastica and other primary and secondary sources.  

It is difficult to apportion blame for this persecution, or whether individuals can even be held responsible, for truly the greatest contributors to persecution are those who do nothing when they have power to make a difference.  Eusebius like Lactantius implies that blame lies with Galerius though his implication does not directly name him; instead addressing Galerius as the long accepted “prime mover in the calamitous persecution.”[1] Lactantius agrees with this claim announcing that, due to his mother’s conceived hatred against the Christians for not following her ways, she instigated Galerius to destroy them.[2]  Why would Eusebius make the suggestion that Galerius was responsible? Barnes asserts that Eusebius was a prime supporter of Constantine and wrote in his reign.[3] His support for Constantine suggests that he could not offend those related to the Emperor, such as Constantius who reigned during the same period as Galerius as he would be indirectly offending Constantine himself.  It is also possible that Eusebius had a personal vendetta against Galerius, blaming him for the persecution of his fellow Christians.

Eusebius’ account also suggests that divine judgement was responsible for the persecution of Christians.  Eusebius expresses that “increasing freedom transformed our character to arrogance and sloth.”[4] Eusebius goes on to explain that divine judgement, God himself, gradually began to order things and the persecution began with the Christians in the army.  This indicates that Eusebius thought the Christians brought the persecution upon themselves for ignoring sins and abusing their own freedom. Eusebius’ suggestion of divine judgement further indicates that he was attempting to put a positive spin on the circumstances, making it appear that persecution was part of God’s ultimate plans, God being infallible. Barnes asserts that the purpose for this suggestion was to strengthen the belief that “God intervenes in history to ensure that the Christian Church shall prosper.”[5] This indicates that Eusebius may have even been suggesting that the persecution had its benefits in the prosperity of Christianity by laying the blame of the persecution in divine hands.

The account by Eusebius and other scholars shows that the persecution affected different areas with varying intensities, some greater than others. For instance, Eusebius describes the persecution at Thebais where people were subject to wild animals and other horrendous tortures.[6]  An analysis of Eusebius’ account of Thebais, Antioch and Nicomedia among others gives us the impression that though the Christians suffered horribly, there was always a faith that could not be taken from them, that there was a “most wonderful eagerness…in those who had put their trust in Christ.”[7] This gives us the impression that many Christians saw the persecution as a chance to prove their loyalty to God.

 The place where the persecutions appear to be carried out with the greatest intensity according to Eusebius and Lactantius was not a location in the geographical sense.  Eusebius highlights that the army was a key target and starting point of the persecution.[8]  An assessment of the army being central to the persecution suggests that there was an aim to strengthen the loyalty of military powers.  Eusebius also asserts that Nicomedia was a focus point.[9]  From this account we gain the impression that the intensity in Nicomedia was to primarily strengthen imperial powers. 

Other areas where we see an intensity of persecution as told by Eusebius were Antioch and Tyre.  ‘Historica Ecclesiastica’ recounts the “ordeal of the Egyptians who championed the faith so gloriously at Tyre.”[10]  Eusebius also indicates the great intensity in Egypt and Syria, stating that “we should feel equal admiration for those of them [Egyptians] who were martyred in their own country.”[11]  This statement also suggests that the persecution was wide spread.

Religion is more apparent in history than any other reason for persecution.  The persecution of the Christians under Diocletian is one such example where the persecution had varying consequences to the population and church even with the introduction of an edict of toleration.[12] The edict of toleration would have provided the majority of the Christians with a sense of relief.   Though, the sheer number of volunteer martyrs mentioned by Eusebius and Lactantius implicate that for the few the edict removed their chance to show their devotion.  Momigliano asserts that one such response is that some Christians voiced resentment in light of those who “survived in fear”[13] through the persecution rather than in physical pain. An analysis of this suggests that there may have been some resentment for the minority who appeared to seek the persecution.[14]  

The edict also created consequences in relation to ‘conscience’ and the unification of the church.  Chadwick assesses that there were many problems of conscience as a result of the persecution and that one such response was the rise of certain militant extremist groups such as the Donatists.[15]  The Donatists counted even the smallest of physical punishments as a worthy martyrdom and saw those who denied their faith, as traitors.  This suggests that militant ideas forced a widening division focusing on the legitimacy of certain clergy members. Chadwick assesses that these problems of ‘conscience’ in light of the persecution led to many adaptations of the law to meet particular cases. [16] 

Eusebius explains another ramification of the edict’s responses was that it set bishops against each other due to certain cleric’s militant ideologies.[17]  In achieving this, the church was further divided even though Constantine appears to be looking for a means of unification.  An evaluation of the responses to the edict suggest that it created a new though less severe bout of persecution, this time between the various factions of the Christian population.

The persecution of Christians under Diocletian is one example of the many religious conflicts throughout history.  Through primary and secondary sources we see where the blame of this persecution is aimed and that the persecution looked towards securing military and imperial power.  The persecution had several ramifications, showing us that even with an edict of toleration the church lay divided.  We do however see one continuing theme; that even in the face of extreme controversy and persecution, faith stood tall in the hearts of many even in the face of death.


[1]: Eusebius, Historica Ecclesiastica, Book 8 (Eusebius, The History of the Church, Penguin (London 1989), p.280 – Eusebius addresses Galerius as “the author of this edict” rather than by name.  Further reference to Galerius as the prime instigator of the persecution is found on p.281 as the man whom Eusebius wrote of on the previous page.

Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History was rewritten at least twice in light of the persecution, Eusebius wishing to leave a permanent account of the martyrs of his day

[2] Lactanius, De Mortibus Persecutorum,, 11-13 in Stevenson, J., A New Eusebius: Documents Illustrating the History of the Church to AD337 (London 1987), p.271 – Lactantius recounts the nature of Galerius’ mother in regards to the Christian religion not agreeing with her own and how she made sure her hatred continued in her equally superstitious son.

[3] Barnes, T.D., Constantine and Eusebius (London 1981), p.150

[4] Eusebius, op.cit, p.257

[5] Barnes, op.cit., p.162

[6] Eusebius, op.cit., p.265

[7] Ibid., p.265

[8] Ibid., p. 260 – primary attack on the army as an example as well as a means to secure military power on the part of the Arian persecutors

Lactanius, De Mortibus Persecutorum, 31.1-52.5 (Creed, J.L. (trans.), (Oxford, 1984), p.49

[9] Eusebius, op.cit., p.261 – significant centre of imperial power in the period, by securing the power of the imperial forces you secure more significantly the population which they rule over

[10] Ibid., p.264

[11] Ibid., p.264

[12] Barnes op.cit., p.159

[13] Momigliano, A., The Conflict Between Paganism and Christianity in the Fourth Century (Oxford, 1963), p.80

[14] Cameron, A., The Later Roman Empire: AD 284-430 (Glasgow. 1993), p.66 – provided a link to the apostles

[15] Chadwick, H., Studies on Ancient Christianity (Hampshire, 1984), p.XX47

[16] Ibid., p.XX47

[17] Eusebius, Vita Constantini, 22.1-61.1, Cameron, A. & Hall, S.G. (trans.), Eusebius, Life of Constantine (Oxford, 1999), p.115, book II 61.2-62

One thought on “The Persecution of Christians in Eusebius

    Some recent reading. | Linguae Antiquitatum said:
    February 21, 2014 at 10:44 am

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