During its first three centuries, the Church met persecution in sporadic intervals around the empire. But nothing compared with the tempest that befell it during the days of Roman emperor Diocletian. Diocletian, seizing power in a coup, appointed fellow-soldier Maximian as co-emperor and two other men as assistants, Constantius and Galerius. The four ruled the empire, east and west, conservatively and with a philosophy of “traditional values.”
“Traditional values” for ancient Rome excluded Christianity. Though Diocletian himself seemed tolerant at first of Christians (his wife and daughter were believers), Galerius was strongly anti-Christian. His military prowess and battlefield victories gave him increasing influence. Slowly and methodically he painted Christians as enemies. He pushed through a series of persecutions against Christians, beginning with the destruction of a church in Nicomedia on February 23, 303. In rapid fire, several edicts were issued against the Church, the last and worst being published on April 30, 304.
No one can describe the carnage. Christians were dismissed from their positions, their civil rights suspended. Church buildings were set afire. Copies of the Scriptures were burned in the marketplaces. Pastors and church leaders were caught and executed, many by lions in the coliseums. In Phrygia one whole community was wiped out. Other Christians were thrown into squalid prisons or sent to dreaded mines. All former persecutions were forgotten in the horror of this last and greatest storm.
But the empire gradually grew sick of the killing. Executioners were exhausted, and even the lions, it is said, grew tired of Christian flesh. Galerius, meanwhile, found he was dying of a disease commonly known as “being eaten with worms.” On April 30, 311, anniversary of the earlier edict, he issued another in which he suspended persecution against Christians if they would pray for his recovery. From a thousand prisons, mines, and labor camps, the scarred warriors of Christ streamed home.
Many of them no doubt prayed for Galerius, but he didn’t recover. Some five days after he signed the edict the worms finished their work.
Herod … sat down on his throne and made a speech. The people shouted, “You speak more like a god than a man!” At once an angel from the Lord struck him down because he took the honor that belonged to God. Later, Herod was eaten by worms and died. God’s message kept spreading. (Acts 12:21b-24)
Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). Apr. 30.