Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.10.22

Reinhard Selinger, The Mid-Third Century Persecutions of Decius and Valerian.   Frankfurt am Main:  Peter Lang, 2002.  Pp. 179; pls. 10.  ISBN 3-631-37716-9.  $30.95.  

Reviewed by Graeme Clarke, Australian National University (
Word count: 624 words

Reinhard Selinger's short book (main text is 95pp.) has a circumscribed objective -- to "focus ...on the character, content and implementation of the laws [sc. concerning Christians] issued by Decius and Valerian" (p.13). The section on Decius is based on a revised version of Selinger's 1994 Frankfurt PhD thesis (Die Religionspolitik des Kaisers Decius).

Selinger's argument, in the case of Decius, is that the form of requirement in Decius' edict was that of "the long-established custom of the cities of the Empire of celebrating the accession of a new emperor" (p.29). He deduces (rightly) that "the religious expressions described by Christian contemporaries suggest an act of routine worship rather than a new form of cult practice" (p.32). And he further deduces that the only possible occasion for these actions was Decius' accession: "Thus it seems Decius promulgated his edict of sacrifice within the wider scope of his accession as emperor in the period from September to December 249" (p.33). His case concludes that "on the provincial and local levels the implementation of Decius' edict followed the traditional demonstration of loyalty at the start of an emperor's general the ordered sacrifice fits the usual pattern of sacrifices at imperial successions" (p.53).

However, whilst celebrations by the cities of the Empire on an emperor's accession are indeed unexceptional and whilst the actual ceremonies envisaged by Decius' edict might also not be anything out of the ordinary, what Selinger fails to emphasise adequately is that it is totally exceptional that the emperor himself should order that all citizens without exception participate in such rites and that they should be required to obtain a certified document attesting to their participation. The whole operation thus required, on Selinger's view, a full repetition of the festivals and ceremonies customary at the accession of a new emperor, ceremonies that would already have taken place spontaneously in the cities on news of Decius' accession. To place the ceremonies "within the wider scope of his accession as emperor" (a twice-repeated phrase, whatever it might mean) still cannot entirely remove the essential novelty of Decius' action in enjoining the universal performance of such ceremonies, and at that ceremonies specifically demanded by imperial edict, requiring accompanying certification. And the fact that such ceremonies were still being held in July 250 -- some ten months after Decius' accession -- must render the significance of the phrase "within the wider scope of his accession as emperor" rather tenuous.

Selinger provides a very useful appendix translating 44 documents attesting to sacrifices on the accession of a new emperor (pp. 108-136) and translations of the 55 surviving certificates of sacrifice (pp.137-155). He also raises (correctly) doubts that AE 1973. 235 (Cosa) must refer to Decius (in rasura): it could well refer to Julian a century later, and the inscription must remain, therefore, shaky evidence for Decius' religious attitudes.1

Similarly, the circumscribed focus on Valerian's persecution is "on the character of the imperial orders themselves. I will mainly discuss their content, promulgation and implementation" (p.83). His conclusions are clear and apt (p.95): "The purpose of Valerian's first law was to single out members of the high clergy and to leave no more room for Christian practices. "The second law ordered the immediate execution of the high clergy left and the punishment of members of high social rank reluctant to renounce Christian religion. "In conclusion, whereas the first Valerian law ordered loyalty, the second punished disloyalty." There is a useful (but not altogether entirely convincing) discussion of the precise legal status (the sources are ambiguous) and penalties of Valerian's two "laws" on pp.83-94.

All told, this is a well-researched, clearly written and useful addition to the study of the relations between Christians and the Roman State in the mid-third century.


1.   Two queries. On p.15 it is asserted that the group at the marriage-feast in Dionysius ap. Euseb. HE 6.40 is a "Christian flock". They are merely described by Dionysius as "choritai" ("rustics") -- it is a sophisticated Alexandrian bishop writing! And on p.71 n.288 is Caldonius securely "the bishop of a Numidian town"?

Read Latest
Index for 2002
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:28:13, Friday, 03 April 2009