When Valerian was taken prisoner, his son Gallienus became emperor (AD 261). Gallienus sent forth a law by which the Christians, for the first time, got the liberty of serving God without the risk of being persecuted. We might think him a good emperor for making such a law; but he really does not deserve much credit for it, since he seems to have made it merely because he did not care much either for his own religion, or for any other.
And now there is hardly anything to be said of the next forty years, except that the Christians enjoyed peace and prosperity. Instead of being obliged to hold their services in the upper rooms of houses or in burial-places under ground, and in the dead of night, they built splendid churches, which they furnished with gold and silver plate, and with other costly ornaments. Christians were appointed to high offices, such as the government of countries, and many of them held places in the emperor's palace. And, now that there was no danger or loss to be risked by being Christians, multitudes of people joined the Church who would have kept at a distance from it if there had been anything to fear. But, unhappily, the Christians did not make a good use of all their prosperity. Many of them grew worldly and careless, and had little of the Christian about them except the name; and they quarrelled and disputed among themselves, as if they were no better than mere heathens. But it pleased God to punish them severely for their faults, for at length there came such a persecution as had never before been known.
At this time there were no fewer than four emperors at once; for Diocletian, who became emperor in the year 284, afterwards took in Maximian, Galerius, and Constantius, to share his power, and to help him in the labour of government. Galerius and Constantius, however, were not quite so high, and had not such full authority, as the other two. Galerius married Diocletian's daughter, and it was supposed that both this lady and the empress, her mother, were Christians. The priests and others, whose interest it was to keep up the old heathenism, began to be afraid lest the empresses should make Christians of their husbands; and they sought how this might be prevented.
Now the heathens had some ways by which they used to try to find out the will of their gods. Sometimes they offered sacrifices of beasts, and, when the beasts were killed, they cut them open, and judged from the appearance of the inside, whether the gods were well pleased or angry. And at certain places there were what they called oracles, where people who wished to know the will of the gods went through some ceremonies, and expected a voice to come from this or that god in answer to them. Sure enough, the voice very often did come, although it was not really from any god, but was managed by the juggling of the priests. And the answers which these voices gave were often contrived very cunningly, that they might have more than one meaning, so that, however things might turn out, the oracle was sure to come true. And now the priests set to frighten Diocletian with tricks of this kind. When he sacrificed, the insides of the victims (as the beasts offered in sacrifice were called) were said to look in such a way as to show that the gods were angry. When he consulted the oracles, answers were given declaring that, so long as Christians were allowed to live on the earth, the gods would be displeased. And thus Diocletian, although at first he had been inclined to let them alone, became terrified, and was ready to persecute.
The first order against the Christians was a proclamation requiring that all soldiers, and all persons who held any office under the emperor, should sacrifice to the heathen gods (AD 298). And five years after this, Galerius, who was a cruel man, and very bitter against the Christians (although his wife was supposed to be one), persuaded Diocletian to begin a persecution in earnest.
Diocletian did not usually live at Rome, like the earlier emperors, but at Nicomedia, a town in Asia Minor, on the shore of the Propontis (now called the Sea of Marmora). And there the persecution began, by his sending forth an order that all who would not serve the gods of Rome should lose their offices; that their property should be seized, and, if they were persons of rank, they should lose their rank. Christians were no longer allowed to meet for worship; their churches were to be destroyed, and their holy books were to be sought out and burnt (Feb.24, 303). As soon as this proclamation was set forth, a Christian tore it down, and broke into loud reproaches against the emperors. Such violent acts and words were not becoming in a follower of Him, "who, when He was reviled, reviled not again, and when He suffered, threatened not" (1 Peter ii.23). But the man who had forgotten himself so far, showed the strength of his principles in the patience with which he bore the punishment of what he had done, for he was roasted alive at a slow fire, and did not even utter a groan.
This was in February, 303; and before the end of that year, Diocletian put forth three more proclamations against the Christians. One of them ordered that the Christian teachers should be imprisoned; and very soon the prisons were filled with bishops and clergy, while the evil-doers who were usually confined in them were turned loose. The next proclamation ordered that the prisoners should either sacrifice or be tortured; and the fourth directed that not only the bishops and clergy, but all Christians, should be required to sacrifice, on pain of torture.
These cruel laws were put in execution. Churches were pulled down, beginning with the great church of Nicomedia, which was built on a height, and overlooked the emperor's palace. All the Bibles and service-books that could be found, and a great number of other Christian writings, were thrown into the flames; and many Christians who refused to give up their holy books were put to death. The plate of churches was carried off, and was turned to profane uses, as the vessels of the Jewish temple had formerly been by Belshazzar.
The sufferings of the Christians were frightful, but after what has been already said of such things, I will not shock you by telling you much about them here. Some were thrown to wild beasts; some were burnt alive, or roasted on gridirons; some had their skins pulled off, or their flesh scraped from their bones; some were crucified; some were tied to branches of trees, which had been bent so as to meet, and then they were torn to pieces by the starting asunder of the branches. Thousands of them perished by one horrible death or other, so that the heathens themselves grew tired and disgusted with inflicting or seeing their sufferings; and at length, instead of putting them to death, they sent them to work in mines, or plucked out one of their eyes, or lamed one of their hands or feet, or set bishops to look after horses or camels, or to do other work unfit for persons of their venerable character. And it is impossible to think what miseries even those who escaped must have undergone, for the persecution lasted ten years, and they had not only to witness the sufferings of their own dear relations, or friends, or teachers, but knew that the like might, at any hour, come on themselves.
It was in the East that the persecution was hottest and lasted longest; for in Europe it was not much felt after the first two years. The Emperor Constantius, who ruled over Gaul (now called France), Spain and Britain, was kind to the Christians, and after his death, his son Constantine was still more favourable to them. There were several changes among the other emperors, and the Christians felt them for better or for worse, according to the character of each emperor; but it is needless to speak much of them in a little book like this. Galerius went on in his cruelty until, at the end of eight years, he found that it had been of no use towards putting down the Gospel, and that he was sinking under a fearful disease, something like that of which Herod, who had killed St. James, died (Acts xii.23). He then thought with grief and horror of what he had done, and (perhaps in the hope of getting some relief from the God of Christians) he sent forth a proclamation allowing them to rebuild their churches, and to hold their worship, and begging them to remember him in their prayers. Soon after this he died (AD 311).
The cruellest of all the persecutors was Maximin, who, from the year 305, had possession of Asia Minor, Syria, the Holy Land, and Egypt. When Galerius made his law in favour of the Christians, Maximin for a while pretended to give them the same kind of liberty in his dominions. But he soon changed again, and required that all his subjects should sacrifice -- even that little babies should take some grains of incense into their hands, and should burn it in honour of the heathen gods; and when a season of great plenty followed after this, Maximin boasted that it was a sign of the favour with which the gods received his law. But it very soon appeared how false his boast was, for famine and plague began to rage throughout his dominions. The Christians, of course, had their share in the distress; but instead of triumphing over their persecutors they showed the true spirit of the Gospel by treating them with kindness, by relieving the poor, by tending the sick, and by burying the dead, who had been abandoned by their own nearest relations.
Although there is no room to give any particular account of the martyrs here, there is one of them who especially deserves to be remembered, because he was the first who suffered in our own island. This good man, Alban, while he was yet a heathen, fell in with a poor Christian priest, who was trying to hide himself from the persecutors. Alban took him into his own house, and sheltered him there; and he was so much struck with observing how the priest prayed to God, and spent long hours of the night in religious exercises, that he soon became a believer in Christ. But the priest was hotly searched for, and information was given that he was hidden in Alban's house. And when the soldiers came to look for him there, Alban knew their errand, and put on the priest's dress, so that the soldiers seized him and carried him before the judge. The judge found that they had brought the wrong man, and, in his rage at the disappointment, he told Alban that he must himself endure the punishment which had been meant for the other. Alban heard this without any fear, and on being questioned, he declared that he was a Christian, a worshipper of the one true God, and that he would not sacrifice to idols which could do no good. He was put to the torture, but bore it gladly for his Saviour's sake, and then, as he was still firm in professing his faith, the judge gave orders that he should be beheaded. And when he had been led out to the place of execution, which was a little grassy knoll that rose gently on one side of the town, the soldier, who was to have put him to death, was so moved by the sight of Alban's behaviour, that he threw away his sword, and desired to be put to death with him. They were both beheaded, and the town of Verulam, where they suffered, has since been called St. Alban's, from the name of the first British martyr.
This martyrdom took place early in the persecution; but, (as we have seen) Constantius afterwards protected the British Christians, and his son Constantine, who succeeded to his share in the empire, treated them with yet greater favour. In the year 312, Constantine marched against Maxentius, who had usurped the government of Italy and Africa. Constantine seems to have been brought up by his father to believe in one God, although he did not at all know who this God was, nor how He had revealed Himself in Holy Scripture. But as he was on his way to fight Maxentius, he saw in the sky a wonderful appearance, which seemed like the figure of a cross, with words around it -- "By this conquer!" He then caused the cross to be put on the standards (or colours) of his army; and when he had defeated Maxentius, he set up at Rome a statue of himself, with a cross in its right hand, and with an inscription which declared that he owed his victory to that saving sign. About the same time that Constantine overcame Maxentius, Licinius put down Maximin in the East. The two conquerors now had possession of the whole empire, and they joined in publishing laws by which Christians were allowed to worship God freely according to their conscience (AD 313).