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An Alternate History of the Roman Empire: One Faith, Two Emperors?

By Tim Venning

The Ichthys as adopted as a Christian symbol during their time of persecution

This long Series of Articles discusses a hypothetical history of the Roman Empire wherein Marcus Aurelius lives longer and so it's more stable. In the first ten articles this took us to 300. We join the story in the last years of Dicoletian's rule.

In the year 301 Diocletian issued an edict ordering fixed prices for all saleable goods and for transportation-costs, aimed at halting inflation by law. He also established fixed salaries for all workers in trades, industries, and professions; plans were made for a general census of the Empire, and the Praetorian Praefects of East and West were commissioned to draw up a formal budget of the State’s civil and military requirements for each year so that the appropriate amount of taxes in money and kind (including military supplies) could be levied. Diocletian then toured Southwards via Syria to Egypt; his entourage included Constantius’ son Constantine, who was around now made a senior military tribune after service in the Emperor’s officer-cadet corps of young noblemen in their twenties, the ‘protectores’. By this point he was married to Minervina and had a son, Crispus. Diocletian then toured Palestine and Syria in 300-01 on his return journey, at Caesarea he witnessed disruption of the traditional sacrifices at legal proceedings by the Christian deacon Romanus and this reputedly helped him to decide to do something drastic about this ‘seditious’ cult . Returning to Nicomedia for the winter, Diocletian was joined by Galerius who encouraged him against the Christians as seditious pacifists who dodged military service and annoyed the gods . He sent an enquiry to the oracle of Zeus/Jupiter at Didyma in Epirus asking for advice, and was told that the ‘righteous’ (‘justi’) were preventing the god from speaking the truth. Consultations between the Emperors and ‘Caesars’ preceded a co-ordinated legal assault on Christianity, which Diocletian was now determined to extirpate; Constantius was lukewarm about the plans, given his lack of enthusiasm in implementing the ‘Great Persecution’ that now followed.

In February 303 the crackdown was launched. Diocletian had the Christian church opposite his palace in Nicomedia demolished by a force of soldiers and officials led by the Praetorian Praefect. On 23 February a first Imperial edict against Christianity was issued in Nicomedia: all churches were to be closed, the Bible and other holy writings surrendered to be burnt, Christian meetings were to be banned, and no Christians permitted to hold official ranks; all in state service who were identified as Christians would have to sacrifice to the gods and denounce their religion or face the sack. Other Christians would have to sacrifice to the gods and to the ‘genius’ (protecting spirits) of the Emperors or be listed for future prosecution. It was supposed to be followed by similar orders by Maximian and the ‘Caesars’, but Constantius contented himself with closing the churches in those provinces (Gaul and Britain) under his authority and did not join his colleagues in mass-arrests . The smal numbers of arrests in the West as a whole suggested that Maximian was lukewarm about the idea too though he carried it out loyally in Italy and had the backing of most of the traditional nobility for enforcement there. In any case, had he not ordered a purge in Italy the priests of the Olympian cults in Rome would have reported him to Diocletian. Many bishops, including Marcellinus of Rome, surrendered copies of their books to be burnt but quietly hid others, and Imperial officials destroyed all the churches they could find in the East and across parts of the West, mainly in Italy and North Africa . Two fires (coincidental or not) in the Imperial Palace in Nicomedia that early summer preceded further measures. According to the Christian writer Lactantius, Galerius (visiting Diocletian there at the time) started the fires deliberately to impress the public with the rebellious wickedness of his intended victims and excuse more legislation. Bishop Anthimus of Nicomedia was beheaded for supposedly arranging the fires, and torture and executions were carried out in a search for the arsonists.

In the ‘Second Edict’ against the Christians in August 303, orders were issued for the arrest of all the clergy. They were rounded up (mostly in the Est and Italy) and held in prison until November, when under a ‘Third Edict’ those who sacrificed incense to the gods and declared loyalty to the Emperors and the Empire were released; these ‘apostates’, denounced by those who hold out or go into hiding, included Marcellinus of Rome but probably formed the majority of the clergy even in the East. Some embarrassed governors who thought the Emperor had gone too far let clergy off with the submission of forged statements that they had sacrificed as ordered, but many more made the most of their chance to require those clergy who did not wish to sacrifice to pay heavy bribes for certificates and in addition any who claimed to have obeyed the law and were freed now faced a boycott of their services from furious hard-line resisters. In North Africa, Bishop Mensurius of Carthage handed over some heretical Christian books rather than the ‘official’ theological handbooks to the ‘police’ (‘agentes a rebus’), who did not investigate closer, and was denounced by obdurate Christian prisoners who were holding out. They tried to expose him for a ‘fit-up job’ arranged to look co-operative and keep himself out of gaol, and he retaliated. Mensurius’ assistant, deacon Caecilian, tried to stop those Christians not in prison delivering food to those who were inside as they had denounced their bishop and so deserved to starve. The internal Christian clash of priorities between shutting up, sacrificing, handing over religious books on the Emperor’s ‘banned’ list, and surviving and showing your dedication to Christ (and the memory of the martyrs killed under Nero and subsequent occasional persecutions) by defying the ‘blasphemous tyrant’ duly divided congregations.

Militant – mostly lower-class – enthusiasts denounced those bishops who played it safe as ‘traitors’; Maximian and Constantius urged Diocletian to be satisfied with what he had done and the latter even wrote to warn the senior Emperor that his harshness was counter-productive and though the Christians were betraying the state by not honouring the Emperor or joining the army this was not as bad as helping the enemy like Diocletian seemed to think (Invented not OTL, but plausible.) Possibly, given the (later) Christian links of his close relatives, Constantius was even mildly sympathetic to the religion’s idealistic supporters. Diocletian took no notice as yet, but was shortly to be badly shaken when some of his ministers at Nicomedia – a Christian ally? - presented him with evidence that at least one of the palace fires there had been started by a police agent linked to Galerius’ household to ‘frame’ the Christians. His proud anger that the ‘traitor’ Christians would not join in honouring the divinely-appointed Emperor as well as not worshipping the Empire’s divine ‘rescuers’ was tempered by fear that Galerius was manipulating him and had his own agenda – just as Galerius had done with his foolish actions early in the Persian war when he had risked defeat by unnecessary gambles. Diocletian’s paranoia now turned on Galerius.

Galerius was summoned to see his superior before Diocletian’s forthcoming visit to Rome - and the meeting did not go well. The ‘Caesar’ was not allowed to return to his administrative headquarters at Thessalonica or his troops on the Danube, but to join Diocletian in Rome; and his command was taken over, as his new deputy, by his former lieutenant on the Persian expedition, the capable Illyrian ex-peasant ‘self-made’ general Valerius Licinius Licinianus. The latter, who had assumed his first name as a tribute to his benefactor Diocletian, was a friend of Galerius and trusted by his men but was loyal to Rome first; and when the senior Emperor subsequently had Galerius arrested he was ready and willing to take over as ‘Caesar’ and assume his ex-patron’s role and in due course his destined rank as the next ‘Augustus’ of the East too. The disgraced Galerius was accused of ingratitude to and a plot against Diocletian during the latter’s visit to Rome, and was arrested, sacked, and exiled to a remote fortress in the Apennines while Licinius took over his role and won round his troops and his nephew Maximin – with the probability that the ambitious Maximin was told that Galerius would be executed if he tried to stage a revolt or caused any other trouble but if he did not he would be made the next ‘Caesar’ in the East. He may also have been assured that Galerius’ anti-Christian purge in the East would continue, but in the event it was toned down by Licinius once Diocletian abdicated and he was probably influenced by a canny desire not to annoy the anti-persecution Constantius. Maximin stayed loyal for the moment, although a few months later Galerius fell ill and died in prison – and was said to have been poisoned by Diocletian’s order so he would not escape or be rescued once the senior Emperor retired. The Christians ascribed Galerius’ death to Divine vengeance and exulted in it (In OTL this did happen, but when he died in 311 after six years as ‘Augustus’ of the East not after his arrest.) As Diocletian did not press for any more executions once Galerius had been arrested legend had it that he had ‘repented’ too or been scared into calling off more killings by a visit from a furious angel. In any event, there was a pause in the persecution of several years in the East.

(Major change from OTL: in reality Galerius survived to keep on his persecutions until shortly before he died in 311 and he was ‘Augustus’ of the East from 305 to 311 after Diocletian. His role then in politics has been given in this version to his protégé and nominee as his deputy in 305, Licinius – a man of flexible and ambigious atttitudes to the Christians. As the purge is halted for several years across the East and for good in the Balkans in this version of events, the resultant bitterness and anti-pagan feeling by local Christians, and the number of martyrs to be honoured, is reduced - except in those Asian lands ruled later by the persecutor Maximin, whose career is largely as in OTL.)

Bust of Emperor Maximian. Photo taken by Pierre Selim and shared under the CC BY-SA 3.0 licence.

In autumn 303 Diocletian visited Rome for the first time, in order to hold the ‘Vicennalia’ Games celebrating the start of the twentieth year of his rule with a grand procession through the capital. He also resided in the long-neglected Imperial Palace on the Palatine, which Maximian had neglected on his visits for his new luxury villa on the Viminal hill, and ordered its repair. As head of the Empire and the protector of tradition (to earn the gods’ goodwill) he now believed it important to have the Emperor of the Western half of the state paying more attention to the old capital and so induced Maximian, who he ‘invited’ to join him at the Games with his family, to promise to live there part-time. Maximian also had to agree to retire from office when Diocletian did so that their heirs could take over power together – but events would show that his colleague was not as willing to abandon power. The arrest and dismissal of Galerius during the visit, after Diocletian had met Maximian, was probably preceded by the latter ‘s support for it being confirmed – and as the new Eastern ‘Caesar’ was Diocletian’s protégé Maximian may have been relieved that the senior Emperor did not want to put him into the West as its next ‘Caesar’ (which gave a better chance there for Maximian’s son Maxentius.) The visit also saw the inauguration of the rebuilt and slightly enlarged Senate House (‘Curia’) as a sign of goodwill to the ancient leadership of the Roman state and Diocletian made a long and powerful speech to the senators and court on that occasion hailing their contribution to the success of Rome and their wise guidance in the years of struggle against Samnites, Gauls , Carthage, and Pontus along with their moral leadership and renunciation of Hellenistic-style luxury. Cato the Elder and Scipio Africanus were hailed as the models for all Romans to follow and honours and lands were bestowed on assorted loyal senators of ancient family and on the priests of the cults of the ‘Olympians’, who were now to be funded by state taxes to hold new festivals and stir up public loyalty with banquets and larger parades as the cults did in Egypt. But in naming a hundred new senators Diocletian chose almost all the candidates as long-serving and loyal provincial bureaucrats and many were Easterners from his court at Nicomedia, and he did not think of inviting the Senate to ‘share’ in any of his powers.

Leaving Rome for the Balkans in December, Diocletian had a first attack of serious illness at Ravenna on his journey back towards the East and had to continue his journey in a litter, a sign of his ageing and probably speeding up his plans for retirement – which alarmed the more power-hungry Maximian who had no intention of retiring early. In January 304 the two ‘Augusti’ were consuls again as in 287. (In OTL a fourth anti-Christian ‘Edict’ required a new round of officially-verified sacrifices to the gods by all Roman citizens across the Empire. The provincial and under them the towns’ bureaucrats had to register everyone as sacrificing and issue formal notices that they had done so, arranged via the usual mechanism for conducting the census. All who refused to sacrifice were to be rounded up and imprisoned and ‘asked’ to sacrifice as proof of their loyalty to the Empire on pain of perpetual imprisonment or convict labour as ‘traitors’. The surplus labour produced by the convict population would not be permitted to be a drain on public money in gaol but would work the Empire’s convict-mines to produce stone for building-projects and metals for coinage. In practice this – and the registration of ‘refusers’ who did not sacrifice, to stay in prison and then be sent off to labour – depended on the willingness of the bureaucracy and their ‘enforcers’ to do this . Many prisoners were let off after paying bribes or allowed to purchase fake certificates, mostly in the West where there was no enthusiasm for a persecution except where ‘patriotic’ governors were in office. All this does not occur in this version, as it is generally believed that Galerius persuaded Diocletain to do this and he has been removed).

Licinius was based at Sardica (Sofia) for the year’s campaigns against the Sarmatian raiders of the lower Danube and ended up in a futile chase after their retreating horse-borne raiding parties North of the Danube up to the Dniester. Constantius had more success in a march from the lower Rhine across vassal Frankish territory to punish the Saxons for raiding the British coasts, though he was unable to find their hidden war-vessels along the wooded shores of the region’s creeks, and after this he marched on to the Southern end of the Danish peninsula to impress the local tribes with the power of Rome and recruit allies with gifts to join a new network of pro-Roman client kingdoms that was intended to surround the hostile coastal peoples of NW Germany. He also enrolled a couple of senior Danish chiefs on the Jutish peninsula as ‘amici’ of Rome and brought a train of loot and prisoners back to Trier for a celebratory parade, while Maximian marched North from the Elbe Gap in Marcomannia into Vandal territory to force treaties , submission, and tribute out of these potential raiders. But the era of Diocletian was ending, and after his return to his capital at Nicomedia his health declined. In winter 304-5 Licinius arrived from the Danube and encouraged Diocletian to nominate one of his (L’s) supporters as the next ‘Caesar’ for the West rather than Constantius’ or Maximian’s sons. (In OTL Galerius was doing this; but both G and L had the same group of officer proteges in the Balkans to promote.)

The steadfastness of the victims and the scale of the killing of recalcitrant Christians in 303-4, numbered at least in a couple of thousand in the East (mostly of the lower classes but also many of the clergy of middling social ranks) but many fewer in the West where Maximian had issued orders to carry out the law but not chased up its enforcement , started to produce a popular revulsion in their favour. It was notable that executions of upper-class Christians were rare, and after the main wave of executions halted in early 304 Diocletian did not have any of those still alive in prison or doing hard labour in his mines released but did not have non-clerics executed . In practice, some newly-arrested or imprisoned people either provoked the magistrates or prison governors to kill them to win the glory of martyrdom or were starved or death or killed by guards for not paying bribes to be treated better – and once Licinius was ‘Augustus’ in the East the legislation remained in force and in some places was still enforced by aggressively pagan governors. The local pagan priesthoods also stirred up the authorities to harsh treatment and new arrests in places where they feared the ‘pulling power’ of Christianity on their folowers , eg in Egypt. (As in OTL) One new and major development for Christianity occurred in upper Egypt, where St. Anthony (Antonius), co-founder of monasticism, a fervently Christian peasant youth from the Thebaid, was among those who fled to the desert from the persecutions after spring 305. Over the next few years substantial numbers of exiles joined local Christian desert hermits, and some founded settlements which became the first ‘monasteries’ rather than living as individual ascetics.

Anthony’s own settlement was at Nitria, in the desert East of the upper Nile; a larger organised ‘monastic’ settlement of several inter-linked monasteries was established at the Nile island of Tabenna by (St.) Pachomius, founder of the system of organised ‘cenobitic’ monasteries. The initial occupants were almost all devout refugee urban and rural Christians, mostly of the lower classes, plus a smaller number of peasants fleeing taxes or military conscription, but after the persecutions in Egypt ended in 313 the movement’s high reputation for holiness and steadfastness in the face of State oppression was to attract an increasing number of volunteer monks who now had nothing to fear at home but preferred to save their souls than to support the government and the traditional Egyptian cults. The latter were led by priests from ancient noble families who had served their particular temples for what was often hundreds of years ; the new monasteries could be led by people of any social background provided they were holy and charismatic enough so this attracted new support. (As in OTL.) To an extent, Diocletian the ‘meritocrat’ ended up creating a new meritocracy in his arch-enemy, the Church.


Timothy Venning is a respected Historian who won the London University History Prize in 1979 and whose latest straight history book is Cromwell's Failed State. He has also written multiple books of counter factual essays including Caesars of the Bosphorus, Eternal Caesars, King Charles or King Oliver and King Henry IX, all published by Sea Lion Press, and If Rome Hadn't Fallen.


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