February 23: Rapine, Confusion, & Tumult
2016/02/23 § Leave a comment
On this day in 303 Diocletian ordered the demolition of the church in Nicomedia.
Diocletian (245-313) was a tough customer. On the one hand, he ruled with extraordinary might, exemplifying imperial rule by building a grand palace and staging one of the last great triumphs in Rome. On the other, he carved up the Empire into parts, removed power from Rome itself, and set the stage for the ultimate collapse from lack of effective centralized control.
During most of his reign, Christians enjoyed great freedoms, including the construction of extensive, impressive church buildings. Yet Diocletian’s name is forever stained by his directive to begin the purge which commenced eight years of persecution, some of the bloodiest the empire had ever seen. Some historians point to the subordinate ruler, Galerius, who in 302 started egging Diocletian on, at a meeting in Nicomedia. You wouldn’t think the emperor would cave to peer pressure, but there you have it. As recorded by fourth-century writer Lactantius, Diocletian and Galerius looked on, from the ramparts of the imperial palace, directly down to the cathedral, as it was obliterated:
When that day dawned . . . while it was yet hardly light, the prefect, together with chief commanders, tribunes, and officers of the treasury, came to the church in Nicomedia, and the gates having been forced open, they searched everywhere for an idol of the Divinity. The books of the Holy Scriptures were found, and they were committed to the flames; the utensils and furniture of the church were abandoned to pillage: all was rapine, confusion, tumult. That church, situated on rising ground, was within view of the palace; and Diocletian and Galerius stood, as if on a watchtower. . . . Then the Pretorian Guards came in battle array, with axes and other iron instruments, and having been let loose everywhere, they in a few hours levelled that very lofty edifice with the ground.
The building was pulled down and burned, along with its furnishings, the vessles of the sacraments, and faithful Christians as well. This was the persecution that infamously caused the city to flow with rivers of blood from an estimated 20,000 martyrs.
Horrific as the persecution was, it was not the first, the last, nor the most extraordinary act of violence, ultimately aimed toward the end of snuffing out ideas, through the means of killing people and wrecking their monuments. The world has seen a painfully long tradition of people trying to stop out ideas they did not like by demolishing the buildings that housed their activities. In the short term, it is demoralizing. But in the long run, it doesn’t work.