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ST. ANTHIMUS, BISHOP, AND MANY OTHER MARTYRS AT NICOMEDIA
From Lactantius, 1 De Mortibus Persecut. ed. nov. t. 2, p. 197; Eusebius, Hist. b 8, c. 4, 6; see Title mont, t. 5.
A. D. 303.
THESE martyrs were the first victims offered to God in the most bloody persecution raised by Dioclesian. That prince was a native of Dalmatia, of the basest extraction, and a soldier of fortune. After the death of the emperor Numerian, son of Carus, slain by a conspiracy in 284, he was proclaimed emperor by the army at Chalcedon. The year following he defeated Carinus, the other son of Carus, who reigned in the West: but finding the empire too unwieldy a body to govern alone, and secure himself at the same time against the continual treasons of the soldiery, especially the Pretorian guards, who during the last three hundred years had murdered their emperors almost at pleasure; having moreover no issue male, and reposing an entire confidence in Maximian Herculeus, Dioclesian chose him for his partner in the empire, and honored him with the title of Augustus. He was a barbarian, born of obscure parents, at a village near Sirmium in Pannonia of a cruel and savage temper, and addicted to all manner of wickedness; but was reckoned one of the best commanders of his time. The two emperors, alarmed at the dangers which threatened the empire on every side, and not thinking themselves alone able to oppose so many enemies at once, in 292 named each of them a Cæsar, or emperor of an inferior rank, who should succeed them respectively in the empire, and jointly with them defend the Roman dominions against foreign invaders and domestic usurpers. Dioclesian chose Maximian Galerius for the East, who, before he entered the Roman army, was a peasant of Dacia; a man of a brutal ferocity, whose very aspect, gesture, voice, and discourse were all terrifying; and who, besides his cruel disposition, was extremely bigoted to idolatry. Maximian Herculeus chose Constantius, surnamed Chlorus, for the West, an excellent prince, and nobly born.
The first years of the reign of Dioclesian were tolerably favorable to the Christians, though several even then suffered martyrdom by virtue of former edicts. But Galerius began to persecute them in the provinces within his jurisdiction, by his own authority; and never ceased to stir up Dioclesian to do the like, especially in 302, when he passed the winter with him at Nicomedia. Dioclesiar however, appeared unwilling to come into all his violent measures, foreseeing that so much blood could not be spilled without disturbing the peace of the empire to a high degree. The oracle of Apollo at Miletus was therefore consulted, and gave such an answer as might have been expected from an enemy to the Christian religion.1 The same author in two places2 relates another accident which contributed to provoke the emperor against the faith. While Dioclesian was offering victims at Antioch, in 302, in order to consult the entrails for the discovery of future events, certain Christian officers, who stood near his person, “made on their foreheads the immortal sign of the cross.” This disturbed the sacrifices and confounded the aruspices, or diviners, who could not find the ordinary marks they looked for in the entrails of the victims, though they offered up many, one after another, pretending that the divinity was not yet appeased. But all their sacrifices were to no purpose, for no signs appeared. Upon which the person set over the diviners declared, that their rites did not succeed, because some profane persons, meaning the Christians, had thrust themselves into their assembly. Hereupon Dioclesian, in a rage, commanded that not only those who were present, but all the rest of his courtiers should come and sacrifice to their gods; and ordered those to be scourged who should refuse to do it. He also sent orders to his military officers to require all the soldiers to sacrifice, or, in case of refusal, to be disbanded. Another thing determined Dioclesian to follow these impressions, which one would have imagined should have had a quite contrary effect; it is mentioned by Constantine the Great, who thus speaks in an edict directed to the whole empire, preserved by Eusebius.3 “A report was spread that Apollo out of his dark cavern had declared, that certain just men on earth hindered him from delivering true oracles, and were the cause that he had uttered falsehood. For this reason he let his hair grow, as a token of his sorrow, and lamented this evil among men, having hereby lost his art of divination. Thee I attest, most high God. Thou knowest how I, being then very young, heard the emperor Dioclesian inquiring of his officers who these just men were: when one of his priests made answer, that they were the Christians; which answer moved Dioclesian to draw his bloody sword, not to punish the guilty, but to exterminate the righteous, whose innocence stood confessed by the divinities he adored.”
For beginning this work, choice was made of the festival of the god Terminos, six days before the end of February, that month closing the Roman year before the correction of Julius Cæsar, and when that feast was instituted. By this they implied that an end was to be put to our religion. Early in the morning the prefect, accompanied with some officers and others, went to the church; and having forced open the door, all the books of the scriptures that were there found were burned, and the spoil that was made on that occasion was divided among all that were present. The two princes, who from a balcony viewed all that was done, (the church which stood upon an eminence being within the prospect of the palace,) were long in debate whether they should order fire to be set to it. But in this Dioclesian’s opinion prevailed, who was afraid that if the church was set on fire, the flames might spread themselves into the other parts of the city; so that a considerable body of the guards were sent thither with mattocks and pickaxes, who in a few hours levelled that lofty building with the ground. The next day an edict was published, by which it was commanded that all the churches should be demolished, the scriptures burnt, and the Christians declared incapable of all honors and employments, and that they should be liable to torture, whatever should be their rank and dignity. All actions were to be received against them, while they were put out of the protection of the law, and might not sue either upon injuries done them, or debts owing to them; deprived moreover of their liberties and their right of voting. This edict was not published in other places till a month later. But it had not been long set up, before a certain Christian of quality and eminence in that city, whom some have conjectured to be St. George, had the boldness publicly to pull down his edict, out of a zeal which Lactantius justly censures as indiscreet, but which Eusebius, considering his intention, styles divine. He was immediately apprehended, and after having endured the most cruel tortures, was broiled to death on a gridiron, upon a very slow fire. All which he suffered with admirable patience. The first edict was quickly followed by another, enjoining that the bishops should be seized in all places, loaded with chains, and compelled by torments to sacrifice to the idols. St. Anthimus was, in all appearance, taken up on this occasion; and Nicomedia, then the residence of the emperor, was filled with slaughter and desolation.
But Galerius was not satisfied with the severity of this edict. Wherefore, in order to stir up Dioclesian to still greater rigors, he procured some of his own creatures to set fire to the imperial palace, some parts of which were burnt down; and the Christians, according to the usual perverseness of the heathens, being accused of it, as Galerius desired and expected, this raised a most implacable rage against them. For it was given out, that they had entered into consultation with some of the eunuchs, for the destruction of their princes, and that the two emperors were well-nigh burnt alive in their own palace. Dioclesian, not in the least suspecting the imposture, gave orders that all his domestics and dependents should be cruelly tortured in his presence, to oblige them to confess the supposed guilt, but all to no purpose; for the criminals lay concealed among the domestics of Galerius, none of whose family were put to the torture. A fortnight after the first burning, the palace was set on fire a second time, without any discovery of the author; and Galerius, though in the midst of winter, left Nicomedia the same day, protesting that he went away through fear of being burnt alive by the Christians. The fire was stopped before it had done any great mischief, but it had the effect intended by the author of it. For Dioclesian, ascribing it to the Christians, resolved to keep no measures with them; and his rage and resentment being now at the highest pitch, he vented them with the utmost cruelty upon the innocent Christians, beginning with his daughter Valeria, married to Galerius, and his own wife, the empress Prisca, whom, being both Christians, he compelled to sacrifice to idols. The reward of their apostacy was, that after an uninterrupted series of grievous afflictions, they were both publicly beheaded, by the order of Licinius, in 313, when he extirpated the families of Dioclesian and Maximian. Some of the eunuchs that were in the highest credit, and by whose directions the affairs of the palace had been conducted before this edict, having long presided in his courts and councils, were the first victims of his rage: and they bravely suffered the most cruel torments and death for the faith. Among these were SS. Peter, Gorgonius, Dorotheus, Indus, Migdonius, Mardonius and others. The persecution, which began in the palace, fell next on the clergy of Nicomedia. St. Anthimus, the good bishop of that city, was cut off the first, being beheaded for the faith. He was followed by all the priests and inferior ministers of his church, with all those persons that belonged to their families. From the altar the sword was turned against the laity. Judges were appointed in the temples to condemn to death all who refused to sacrifice, and torments till then unheard of were invented. And that no man might have the benefit of the law that was not a heathen, altars were erected in the very courts of justice, and in the public offices, that all might be obliged to offer sacrifice, before they could be admitted to plead.4 Eusebius adds, that the people were not suffered to buy or sell any thing, to draw water, grind their corn, or transact any business, without first offering up incense to certain idols set up in market-places, at the corners of the streets, at the public fountains, &c. But the tortures which were invented, and the courage with which the holy martyrs laid down their lives for Christ, no words can express. Persons of every age and sex were burnt, not singly one by one, but, on account of their numbers, whole companies of them were burnt together, by setting fire round about them: while others, being tied together in great numbers, were cast into the sea. The Roman Martyrology commemorates, on the 27th of April, all that suffered on this occasion at Nicomedia.
The month following, these edicts were published in the other parts of the empire; and in April two new ones were added, chiefly regarding the clergy. In the beginning of the year 304, a fourth edict was issued out, commanding all Christians to be put to death who should refuse to renounce their faith. Lactantius describes5 how much the governors made it their glory to overcome one Christian by all sorts of artifice and cruelty. For the devil, by his instruments, sought not so much to destroy the bodies of the servants of God by death, as their souls by sin. Almost the whole empire seemed a deluge of blood, in such abundance did its streams water, or rather drown the provinces. Constantius himself, though a just prince, and a favorer of the Christians, was not able to protect Britain, where he commanded, from the first fury of this storm. The persecutors flattered themselves they had extinguished the Christian name, and boasted as much in public inscriptions, two of which are still extant. But God by this very means increased his church, and the persecutors’ s word fell upon their own heads. Dioclesian, intimidated by the power and threats of this very favorite Galerius, resigned to him the purple at Nicomedia, on the first of April, in 304. Herculeus made the like abdication at Milan. But the persecution was carried on in the East by their successors ten years longer, till, in 313, Licinius having defeated Maximinus Daia, the nephew and successor of Galerius, joined with Constantine in a league in favor of Christianity. Dioclesian had led a private life in his own country, Dalmatia, near Salone, where now Spalatro stands, in which city stately ruins of his palace are pretended to be shown. When Herculeus exhorted him to reassume the purple, he answered: “If you had seen the herbs, which with my own hands I have planted at Salone, you would not talk to me of empires.” But this philosophic temper was only the effect of cowardice and fear. He lived to see his wife and daughter put to death by Licinius, and the Christian religion protected by law, in 313. Having received a threatening letter from Constantine and Licinius, in which he was accused of having favored Maxentius and Maximums against them, he put an end to his miserable life by poison, as Victor writes. Lactantius says, that seeing himself despised by, he whole world, he was in a perpetual uneasiness, and could neither eat nor sleep. He was heard to sigh and groan continually, and was seen often to weep, and to be tumbling sometimes on his bed, and sometimes on the ground. His colleague, Maximinian Herculeus, thrice attempted to resume the purple, and even snatched it from his own son Maxentius, and at length in despair hanged himself, in 310. Miserable also was the end of all their persecuting successors, Maxentius, the son of Herculeus, in the West, and of Galerius and his nephew Maximums Daia, in the East. No less visible was the hand of God in punishing the authors of the foregoing genera persecutions, as is set forth by Lactantius, in a valuable treatise entitled, On the Death of the Persecutors.*
Thus, while the martyrs gained immortal crowns, and virtue triumphed by the means of malice itself, God usually, even in this world, began to avenge his injured justice in the chastisement of his enemies. Though it is in eternity that the distinction of real happiness and misery will appear. There all men will clearly see that the only advantage in life is to die well all other things are of very small importance. Prosperity or adversity honor or disgrace, pleasure or pain, disappear and are lost in eternity. Then will men entirely lose sight of those vicissitudes which here so often alarmed, or so strongly affected them. Worldly greatness and abjection, riches and poverty, health and sickness, will then seem equal, or the same thing. The use which every one has made of all these things will make the only difference. The martyrs having eternity always present, and placing all their joy and all their glory in the divine will and love, ran cheerfully to their crowns, contemning the blandishments of the world, and regardless even of torments and death.