BMCR 2020.08.21

The great persecution: a historical re-examination

, The great persecution: a historical re-examination. Studia Antiqua Australiensia (SAA), 8. Turnhout: Brepols, 2018. xii, 280 p.. ISBN 9782503574479 €55,00 (pb).

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Studies of Christian relations with the Roman state continue to pile up, as do works on Constantine and his legalization-cum-patronage of Christianity in the early fourth century. The prologue to Constantine’s policies—the persecutions of Christians under Diocletian, Galerius, and Maximinus Daia—has been less-studied though hardly ignored. This is particularly true for Spain and the northern provinces of the Roman Empire, which the contemporary narrators Eusebius, Lactantius, and the martyrologies known to historians of ancient Christianity neglect, and which lack the rich papyri of Egypt or copious literary remains of Roman Africa. Min Seok Shin thus assumes an important labor in attempting “a thorough reconsideration of the Great Persecution” (8).

Shin’s brief “Introduction” offers a historiography of the persecution focusing mostly on Anglophone and French scholarship. After a brief statement of the book’s aims, almost half of the introduction justifies the book’s heavy proffering of hagiographical texts. Rather than a methodological justification, this section lines up a florilegium of authoritative quotations, starring A.H.M. Jones (whom, like others such as W.H.C. Frend, Shin denotes with full first and middle names),[1] Peter Brown, and Averil Cameron. While in my experience most historians today accept hagiographical evidence where warranted, readers may be left wondering by what criteria Shin might reject a hagiographical assertion.

Chapter 1, “Christians and the Imperial Government up to the Great Persecution,” attempts to explain why Diocletian’s government decided on a policy of persecution as of AD 303. It identifies three catalysts for persecution: a rapid expansion for Christianity from the 260s to 303, purges of Christians in the Roman army in the 290s, and a Diocletianic restoration of traditional values. It is not clear which of these categories Shin intends to cover the philosophical critics of Christianity whom Shin sees as arousing anti-Christian sentiment near the time of the persecution, particularly Porphyry of Tyre.[2] Shin proceeds to assert that Christians became quite widespread in the Roman Empire after Gallienus decriminalized the religion around 260: Christians thus held prominent places in Diocletian’s administration by 303. For Shin, Diocletian’s wish to restore traditional Roman values is the root cause of the persecution, rather than the rage of Lactantius’ scapegoat Galerius.[3]

Shin’s second chapter, “The Persecutions Between 303 and 313,” sketches the events of the persecution between 303 and 313. Shin meticulously traces the implications of the different clauses in the persecution directives, with a helpful table that illustrates groups affected by the thirteen known letters, edicts, and rescripts that authorize harm to Christians (136–137). The bulk of the chapter leads readers through accounts of the Roman persecutions diocese by diocese. Shin connects the edicts with the narratives not just of Eusebius, Lactanius, and martyr narratives in the standard collections,[4] but also hagiographical evidence from later martyrologies.

The brief Chapter 3, “The End of Persecution,” discusses the series of orders ending legal measures against the Christians, from Constantius Chlorus to Maxentius. The chapter uses African evidence adroitly as a corrective for Lactantius’ and Eusebius’ partisan accounts. Following Timothy Barnes, Shin attributes the directive usually called the Edict of Milan to Licinius rather than Constantine, and properly it is, though Noel Lenski’s recent study has now reinstated Constantine’s agency behind this directive.[5] Shin also narrates Licinius’ renewed repression of Christians in the eastern provinces sometime after 320, before Constantine attacked and defeated Licinius late in 324. A brief summary ends the volume.

Shin’s book has several virtues. As noted, his inclusive approach to evidence informs readers about narratives that many scholars exclude without explanation. Alongside the well-known accounts of Eusebius, dossiers from the Donatist schism, and martyr acts, there come reports from Ambrose, Prudentius, Gregory of Tours, and Gildas. Another merit is that Shin describes persecution outside the Roman Empire. The persecution in Armenia draws a full eight pages (181–188) based largely on the evidence of the Armenian historian Agathangelos, a useful corrective to many historians’ Romanocentrism. Also valuable are Shin’s charts, which enable readers to follow easily which imperial directive underlay which narrative, and where in the Roman Empire each directive took effect (136–137, 193, 212–213). Shin’s map of known church buildings in the Roman Empire ca. AD 300 (p. 60) is the most extensive of which I am aware.[6] There is also a complete list of all identified martyrs from the persecution, with location, date, form of punishment, and textual reference.

One particular section of the book illustrates well the benefits and problems of Shin’s approach. In chapter 1, about the background of the persecution, Shin analyzes three Tetrarchic inscriptions (ILS 2782, 9075; SEG XXXI 1116) that honor four deceased soldiers. Each inscription marks the Christian identity of the deceased by the formulae “in peace” and “until the resurrection.” The inscriptions note their honorands’ service in the sacer comitatus (31–32), an elite military-civilian entourage. Created under Diocletian, the sacer comitatus was disbanded in 313 under Constantine. The analysis of these Christian courtiers is itself a welcome connection; inscriptions deserve more attention from scholars of ancient Christianity in particular.

Shin, however, proceeds to infer from these soldiers’ presence in the comitatus that they “served… under Diocletian and the tetrarchy” (42). This inference is problematic, since Diocletian’s rule and the period of the tetrarchy are not synonymous. By Shin’s own account the sacer comitatus persisted for eight years after Diocletian’s abdication in 305, and none of the inscriptions mentions service under Diocletian in particular. While at least one Christian, the martyr Maximillian, certainly served in Diocletian’s sacer comitatus (Martyrdom of Maximillian 2.9; cf. Lactantius, On the Deaths of the Persecutors 10.1–5), the honorands of Shin’s inscriptions may well have joined the comitatus after Diocletian abdicated (and thus after the persecution began) but before (Shin asserts) Constantine’s elimination of the comitatus in 313.[7]

Indeed, it may be revealing that two brothers — M. Valerius the actuarius (an office that implies presence in the comitatus) and M. Valerius Herodius — shared a tombstone in Umbria (ILS 9075). Both brothers died young, at twenty-one and twenty years old, so neither can have had a long career. While we cannot exclude service under Diocletian, the brothers may have served under Maxentius. It is well-known that Maxentius was friendly to Christians (as Shin himself shows, pp. 194–196), so M. Valerius’ religious identity would have posed no hindrance to serving as Maxentius’ actuarius. As for when the brothers died, two brothers both dying young and sharing the same funerary stele suggests a shared moment of death, and there are at least three candidates for an event that could have killed both: Diocletian’s persecution in 303 to 305 (in which case, though, we might expect to see some indication of martyrdom on the inscription); Maxentius’ resistance to Galerius’ invasions of Italy in 307; and the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in October 312. While we cannot know when or under which emperor the M. Valerii died, they are not secure evidence of Christians serving in elite military units before 303. Indeed, they may reflect a pre-Constantinian reversal of the persecution rather than a catalyst for it. Other assessments of the same evidence likewise suggest alternative interpretations to those in this book.[8]

Shin deserves credit for publishing the most comprehensive recent study of such a consequential event, certainly in English. Research libraries and specialists in Christianity in the later third and early fourth centuries will find this volume worth acquiring. An index of names, places, subjects, and/or index locorum are lacking and would have been helpful, as would more careful proofreading.[9]


[1] The book also includes several long lists of names in the main text: pp. 41, 142, 148, 217–218.

[2] Shin seems unaware of recent scholarship skeptical of Porphyry’s supposed propaganda efforts. Arguments for maximal influence from Porphyry include Michael Simmons, Arnobius of Sicca: Religious Conflict and Competition in the Age of Diocletian (Oxford, 1995); Simmons, Universal Salvation in Late Antiquity: Porphyry of Tyre and the Anti-Christian Debate (Oxford, 2013); Jeremy Schott, Christianity, Empire, and the Making of Religion in Late Antiquity(Pennsylvania, 2008); and Elizabeth Digeser, A Threat to Public Piety: Christians, Platonists, and the Great Persecution (Cornell, 2012). Minimalists include Aaron Johnson, Religion and Identity in Porphyry of Tyre: The Limits of Hellenism in Late Antiquity (Cambridge, 2013) and Matthias Becker, “Einleitung,” to Porphyry, Gegen die Christen. Neue Sammlung der Fragmente, Testimonien und Dubia mit Einleitung, Übersetzung und Anmerkungen (De Gruyter, 2015); and see in general Irmgard Männkein-Robert, Die Christen als Bedrohung? Text, Kontext und Wirkung von Porphyrios’ ‘Contra Christianos’ (Franz Steiner, 2017).

[3] Shin concurs with e.g., P. S. Davies, “The Origin and Purpose of the Persecution of A.D. 303,” Journal of Theological Studies 40 (1989), and Bill Leadbetter, Galerius and the Will of Diocletian (Routledge, 2009), 130–134, rather than T.D. Barnes, Constantine and Eusebius (Harvard, 1981), 19, and Barnes, Early Christian Hagiography and Roman History(Berlin, 2010), 119, and Paul Keresztes, “From the Great Persecution to the Peace of Galerius,” VC 37 (1983), 381, who follow Lactantius, On the Deaths of the Persecutors 11 in blaming Galerius for the persecution.

[4] Cf. David J. DeVore, “Opening the Canon of Martyrdoms: Pre-Decian Martyrdom Discourse and the Hypomnēmata of Hegesippus,” JECS 27.4 (2019), on the problems with the numerous anthologies of ancient martyr narratives that scholars use.

[5] T.D. Barnes, e.g., in Constantine: Dynasty, Religion, and Power in the Later Roman Empire (Blackwell, 2011), 93–97; N. Lenski, “Il valore dell’Editto di Milano,” in Riccardo Macchioro, ed., Costantino a Milano. L’editto e la sua storia, 313–2013 (Bulzoni, 2017), abbreviated as Lenski, “The significance of the Edict of Milan,” in A. Edward Siecienski, ed., Constantine: Religious Faith and Imperial Policy (Routledge, 2017).

[6] The only missing church building I noted was one identified in Aqaba, Jordan, which likely pre-dates Diocletian’s persecution: see T. Parker, “Brief notice on a possible early 4th-c. church at ‘Aqaba, Jordan,” JRA 12 (1999), 372–376.

[7] On the dating of the sacer comitatus Shin follows W. Seston, “Du ‘comitatus’ de Dioclétien aux ‘comitatenses’ de Constantin,” Historia 4 (1955), 291–296; Seston himself (293–295) discusses the continued activity of the sacer comitatus under Licinius and Maxentius. For a more recent study of the sacer comitatus see Dirk Schlinkert, “Dem Kaiser Folgern. Kaiser, Senatsadel und höfische Funktionselite (comites consistoriani) von der ‘Tetrarchie’ Diokletians bis zum Ende der konstantinischen Dynastie,” in A. Winterling, ed., Comitatus. Beiträge zur Erforschung des spätantikes Kaiserhofes (De Gruyter, 1998).

[8] Along with the one-sided maximalism on Porphyry’s role in the persecution of Christians (see above with n. 2): e.g., at p. 24, Shin cites numbers of Christian manuscripts from Larry Hurtado, The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Eerdmans, 2006), apparently unaware of Brent Nongbri’s work questioning the early dating of Christian papyri (beginning with Nongbri, “The Use and Abuse of P52,” Harvard Theological Review 98 [2005], and see now Nongbri, God’s Library: the Archaeology of the Earliest Christian Manuscripts [Yale, 2018]); at p. 128, Shin characterizes Paul’s acceptance of consumption of sacrificial meat as the Christian position, even though many ancient Christians rejected Paul’s position (references in John Brunt, “Rejected, Ignored, or Misunderstood? The Fate of Paul’s Approach to the Problem of Food Offered to Idols in Early Christianity,” New Testament Studies 31 [1985]); and at p. 217 Shin attempts to connect ILS 8940 ordering worship of Sol to Licinius’ sacrificial order to soldiers, yet the inscription neither specifies penalties for refusing to worship, as Eusebius does, nor requires all soldiers to sacrifice.

[9] The volume is riddled with typos and has some incorrect references. Some examples: p. 91 refers to “Vita Constantini 8.5” but should read “1.8.4”; p. 186 n. 566 has a reference to Dionysius of Alexandria as appearing at Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 9.8.2 when the citation should read History 6.46.2; p. 219 calls Marcionism an “other religion” than Christianity, when Marcionism was rather an alternative Christianity.