THE AGE OF MARTYRS: Christianity from Diocletian to Constantine
by Abbot Joseph Ricciotti
(Tan Books, reprinted, 1999, $25.00, 308pp, ISBN: 978-0-89555-631-6. Available from Freedom Publishing)
The Age of Martyrs is a well-known history of a turbulent period in the Church's life. Its author, Joseph Ricciotti, was born in Rome in 1890 and entered the Congregation of Canons Regular of the Lateran in 1906 as a teenager.
Within a few years of his ordination, Ricciotti began a distinguished career teaching Hebrew and Church history in various Italian universities. He was an abbot from 1938 and died in 1964. Since this book was released five years before Ricciotti's death, it is a work of his maturity, written after long years teaching the subject.
In the years prior to Jesus' life, ministry, crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension, the Romans had found the Jews one of the most difficult of their subject peoples to administer. The ancient Romans were, generally, relatively liberal in theological matters making no attempt to interfere with the religious practices of their conquered territories while simply requiring that subjects include the worship of Rome and (later) the emperor as one of their gods.
However, the Jews worshipped one God only, the unseen Creator of the universe. They had no idols. Many wars, revolts ensued but in the end, the Romans allowed the Jews the right to avoid worshipping Rome, the Emperor, or any other god, so long as they paid their taxes and did not otherwise trouble the peace of the Empire.
At first the Romans presumed that the Christians were a Jewish sect and they were left to worship in peace. Over time, however, it became clear that they worshipped only the crucified Christ and had no truck with pagan gods. Thus from the latter part of the first century, Christians were persecuted on-and-off, subject to local conditions and various local authorities.
The bloodiest general persecution began in 303 after two centuries of intermittent attempts to stifle Christianity. This is the story Ricciotti tells in great detail. The Emperor Diocletian, a devout pagan obsessed with the unity of the Empire, and who felt himself surrounded by plots and traitors, demanded that everyone sacrifice to the Roman gods or die.
By 304, the Emperor had issued an edict insisting that every single Christian, regardless of age or position, had to sacrifice to the pagan gods. Some did so many would not. Thousands of Christians were martyred and their sacrifices and gruesome deaths are told graphically.
About a decade later Constantine, in the midst of civil war, saw a cross blazing in the sky at the famous Milvian Bridge and everything changed. Soon after his victory in battle, Constantine, by means of an edict of toleration, granted Christians the right to worship freely.
The story is well told, although the style is rather dense, especially when the author deals with the complex theological heresies which beset the early Church.