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Sudanese protesters gather near the military headquarters, Sunday, April 7, 2019, in the capital Khartoum, Sudan. In this photo taken on Tuesday, Dec. A Yemeni woman who was injured in an explosion lies in a bed at a hospital in Sanaa, Yemen, Sunday, April 7, 2019. Protesters attend a demonstration against rent increase in Berlin, Germany, Saturday, April 6, 2019. The Diocletianic or Great Persecution was the last and most severe persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. Christians had always been subject to local discrimination in the empire, but early emperors were reluctant to issue general laws against the sect. It was not until the 250s, under the reigns of Decius and Valerian, that such laws were passed.
Persecutory policies varied in intensity across the empire. Whereas Galerius and Diocletian were avid persecutors, Constantius was unenthusiastic. Later persecutory edicts, including the calls for universal sacrifice, were not applied in his domain. His son, Constantine, on taking the imperial office in 306, restored Christians to full legal equality and returned property that had been confiscated during the persecution. The persecution failed to check the rise of the Church. By 324, Constantine was sole ruler of the empire, and Christianity had become his favored religion.
Although the persecution resulted in death, torture, imprisonment, or dislocation for many Christians, the majority of the empire’s Christians avoided punishment. From its first appearance to its legalization under Constantine, Christianity was an illegal religion in the eyes of the Roman state. For the first two centuries of its existence, Christianity and its practitioners were unpopular with the people at large. To the followers of the traditional cults, Christians were odd creatures: not quite Roman, but not quite barbarian either. Their practices were deeply threatening to traditional mores. Nonetheless, for the first two centuries of the Christian era, no emperor issued general laws against the faith or its Church.
These persecutions were carried out under the authority of local government officials. In the 3rd century, the pattern changed. Emperors became more active and government officials began to actively pursue Christians, rather than merely to respond to the will of the crowd. The Decian persecution was a grave blow to the Church.
At Smyrna, the bishop, Euctemon, sacrificed and encouraged others to do the same. Diocletian, acclaimed emperor on November 20, 284, was a religious conservative, faithful to the traditional Roman cult. Diocletian did not foster any new cult of his own. He preferred older gods, Olympian gods. Diocletian did not insist on exclusive worship of Jupiter and Hercules, which would have been a drastic change in the pagan tradition. For example, Elagabalus had tried fostering his own god and no others, and had failed dramatically. Diocletian, like Augustus and Trajan before him, styled himself a “restorer”.
The unique position of the Christians and Jews of the empire became increasingly apparent. The Jews had earned imperial toleration on account of the great antiquity of their faith. They had been exempted from Decius’s persecution and continued to enjoy freedom from persecution under Tetrarchic government. Persecution was not the only outlet of the Tetrarchy’s moral fervor. Galerius, issued an edict from Damascus proscribing incestuous marriages and affirming the supremacy of Roman law over local law. 260, when Gallienus brought peace to the Church.