The Pokey Finger of God

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Diocletian and the Roman Recovery

December 11th, 2008 · No Comments · christianity, history, media

Here’s something I’ve enjoyed greatly this last week: Stephen Williams’ Diocletian and the Roman Recovery. This book from 1985 was apparently one of the first biographies of the man written in English.

The genius here is the clear and concise comparison between the Empire under the “Good Emperors” and the Empire under “Crisis”. Williams provides several reasons for the general failure of the imperial economy, and shows how the continued cycle of civil war and invasion sapped the economic engine of Empire.

All of this background helps to understand the near-miraculous recovery brought on by the reforms of Diocletian, and why his reforms worked when so many Emperors had failed in the past. Williams goes into fascinating detail about the changing fate of the landholders and the land workers.

Most interestingly, Williams also looks at the entire sweep of the period in terms of the development of Roman Authoritarianism. We are given the propaganda to compare with the living situation of the citizens, and why, despite being oppressive, it was considered such an improvement over the decades of invasion and civil war. Also interesting are the explorations into notions of freedom and slavery, and how these ideas changed and blurred through Diocletian’s work.

To top it all off, it’s a well-written book targeted to a more general audience, so it’s a pleasure to read. I recognize that I have a more-than-passing interest in the topic at hand, but I’ve had to slog through some pretty tiresome books before, and this simply is not of that type. I was actually disappointed to come to the end and not have more to read.

The Persecuted Christians

The period of the Tetrarchy beginning with the accession of Galarius to the purple is one remembered in Christian tradition as the Great . The stories are usually that Diocletian wasn’t opposed to the Christians at first, but that Galarius poisoned his heart against them. The dreadful torments they imposed are legend. This is all part of the great build-up to the story of Constantine’s triumph, so as to make Constantine appear to be sweeping away truly evil usurpers.

The problem for me, of course, is that my studies have recently taken a turn which doesn’t allow for the Great Persecution to have actually taken place. Simply in terms of remaining open to the scholarship of others, I have taken a compromise position that there may have been some kind of pre-Nicean cult that may have even referred to itself as ‘Christianity’, or failing this possessed some mythos about a Jewish messiah — and whatever this group may have represented was completely overshadowed by the development of Roman Catholicism. The only issue with this, again, is that I have a very hard time coming up with verifications for any reports of pre-Nicean persecution.

This comes up for me in two ways. The first is how the author injects Christian history into the bulk of the book: tangentially, and without any supporting material. Mostly, these points are in relationship to a reference to how Diocletian interfaced with different, Asian faiths, and how this reflected upon Diocletian’s reaction to Christianity… but we’re not given anything to support or to detail the assertions. The other is when he goes into greater detail about the impacts of the at its watershed moment just prior to legitimization: suddenly presuming some large population of Christians having some kind of impact on Roman culture. But as he, himself, points out: Roman culture was a lot like Christian culture already, so whatever this impact was is unclear.

Toward the end of the book, Williams briefly explores the religious environment of the 3rd Century Empire. Where he discusses the Asian faiths, he generally provides a favorable, if brief, overview of the practices of each. And then he supposes how an early Christian would feel in that context. Where he describes the Mystery faiths, Mithraism, Isis & Serapis cults, and the like, his information jibes well with similar material that I’ve seen. His analysis of Diocletian’s dislike of Manicheism was insightful: he understood that Diocletian saw it as a Persian weapon to forment social unrest after the uprisings in Egypt and the Balkans shortly after he became Emperor.

The simple fact is that one has to go through some pretty fantastic gyrations in order to accommodate an ‘Early Church’ into the actual history of the . What’s even more convincing is that I have found nothing verifiable that is notably dependent upon the existence of an Early Church.  Which is to say that it’s a lot of work to insinuate an ‘Early Church’ into history, yet no work at all to leave it out.

Mostly, what this says to me is that I need to continue to seek out further verification and information regarding the “Early Church”, even if I have given up the idea nearly completely. But tradition says that the Early Church existed, and I’ll simply need to be very precise about what did or did not exist at various points of history as I study.

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