Large numbers of professing Christians gave in, however, and either offered sacrifice to the gods or purchased a fake certificate by bribing magistrates. This created huge problems for the church once the persecution was over and many of the “lapsed” sought readmission. Lasting schisms were created depending on how strict or lenient different Christian factions believed the church should be toward the lapsed. Some thought that they should never be readmitted; others thought that a simple profession of repentance was sufficient. The predominant attitude, however, was that while readmission was possible, a lapsed person had to demonstrate his sincerity over a period of time. This policy was championed by Cyprian of Carthage, one of the most influential Western church fathers of the third century.
By far the most systematic and ruthless empirewide persecution of Christians took place under Emperor Diocletian, who launched his onslaught against the church in AD 303. It is recorded that this persecution was so savage, even by Roman standards, that some pagans took pity on their Christian neighbors and hid them from the imperial troops. Thankfully, the persecution finally ended after Constantine became emperor of the Western half of the empire in AD 312. One of the giants of religious and secular history, Constantine defeated in battle the usurper Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge. Before the battle, Constantine (previously a sun-worshiper) had undergone a conversion to Christianity. Seeing himself as the divinely appointed protector of his fellow Christians, Constantine and his Eastern counterpart, the pagan emperor Licinius—who had married Constantine’s daughter to shore up his own power in the East—promulgated a new joint policy of universal religious toleration in AD 313. This was the famous Edict of Milan, as it is generally known. When Constantine eventually became sole emperor of both East and West in 324, the era of pagan persecution of the church in the Roman Empire was definitively at an end.
Many of the persecutions are chronicled in some detail by Eusebius of Caesarea, the “father of church history” and a friend of Constantine. These can be read today in Eusebius’ History of the Church. Eusebius’ accounts can be both moving and disturbing in their depiction of Roman savagery and Christian heroism. I have always found the story of Blandina, a Christian slave-girl martyred in Lyons in AD 177, especially poignant and inspiring:
Blandina was filled with such power that she was delivered and exalted above those who were torturing her by turns, from morning till evening in every way, so that they confessed they were conquered, and could not do anything more to her. They were amazed at her endurance, because her whole body was mangled and broken; they declared that just one of these forms of torture was enough to destroy life, let alone so many and so great sufferings. But the blessed woman, contending nobly, grew in strength by confessing her faith; she found comfort and rest and relief from the pain of her sufferings by exclaiming, “I am a Christian, and we do nothing vile. . . .”
Blandina was hung on a post and exposed as food for the wild beasts which had been let loose in the arena. She looked as if she was hanging in the form of a cross, and through her ardent prayers she aroused great enthusiasm in the other martyrs who were undergoing their ordeal. In their agony, they seemed to see in their sister the One Who was crucified for them, that He might convince those who believe in Him that anyone who has suffered for the glory of Christ has fellowship for ever with the living God. . . .
The blessed Blandina, last of all, having encouraged her children like a noble mother, and sent them ahead in victory to the King, herself suffered all their conflicts, and hurried after them, exulting and rejoicing in her departure as if she were called to a marriage supper, rather than being thrown to wild beasts. After whipping her, giving her to the beasts, and burning her with hot irons, the authorities finally dropped her into a basket and threw her to a bull. The beast gored her again and again, but she was now indifferent to all that befell her, because of her hope, her firm hold on all that her faith meant, and her communion with Christ. Then she too was sacrificed. The Pagans themselves admitted that they had never known a woman suffer so much or so long.