Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


After several weak or tyrannic reigns, the Roman Empire had a good emperor in Probus, whom the legions massacred, and elected Carus, who was struck dead by lightning while making war against the Persians. His son, Numerianus, was proclaimed by the soldiers. The historians tell us seriously that he lost his sight by weeping for the death of his father, and that he was obliged to be carried along with the army, shut up in a close litter. His father-in-law Aper killed him in his bed, to place himself on the throne; but a druid had predicted in Gaul to Diocletian, one of the generals of the army, that he would become emperor after having killed a boar. A boar, in Latin, is aper. Diocletian assembled the army, killed Aper with his own hands in the presence of the soldiers, and thus accomplished the prediction of the druid. The historians who relate this oracle deserve to be fed on the fruit of the tree which the druids revered. It is certain that Diocletian killed the father-in-law of the emperor, which was his first right to the throne. Numerianus had a brother named Carinus, who was also emperor, but being opposed to the elevation of Diocletian, he was killed by one of the tribunes of his army, which formed his second pretension to the purple. These were Diocletian’s rights to the throne, and for a long time he had no other.

He was originally of Dalmatia, of the little town of Dioclea, of which he took the name. If it be true that his father was a laborer, and that he himself in his youth had been a slave to a senator named Anulinus, the fact forms his finest eulogium. He could have owed his elevation to himself alone; and it is very clear that he had conciliated the esteem of his army, since they forgot his birth to give him the diadem. Lactantius, a Christian authority, but rather partial, pretends that Diocletian was the greatest poltroon of the empire. It is not very likely that the Roman soldiers would have chosen a poltroon to govern them, or that this poltroon would have passed through all the degrees of the army. The zeal of Lactantius against a pagan emperor is very laudable, but not judicious.

Diocletian continued for twenty years the master of those fierce legions, who dethroned their emperors with as much facility as they created them; which is another proof, notwithstanding Lactantius, that he was as great a prince as he was a brave soldier. The empire under him soon regained its pristine splendor. The Gauls, the Africans, Egyptians, and British, who had revolted several times, were all brought under obedience to the empire; even the Persians were vanquished. So much success without; a still more happy administration within; laws as humane as wise, which still exist in the Justinian code; Rome, Milan, Autun, Nicomedia, Carthage, embellished by his munificence; all tended to gain him the love and respect both of the East and West; so that, two hundred and forty years after his death, they continued to reckon and date from the first year of his reign, as they had formerly dated from the foundation of Rome. This is what is called the era of Diocletian; it has also been called the era of martyrs; but this is a mistake of eighteen years, for it is certain that he did not persecute any Christian for eighteen years. So far from it, the first thing he did, when emperor, was to give a company of prætorian guards to a Christian named Sebastian, who is in the list of the saints.

He did not fear to give a colleague to the empire in the person of a soldier of fortune, like himself; it was Maximian Hercules, his friend. The similarity of their fortunes had caused their friendship. Maximian was also born of poor and obscure parents, and had been elevated like Diocletian, step by step, by his own courage. People have not failed to reproach this Maximian with taking the surname of Hercules, and Diocletian with accepting that of Jove. They do not condescend to perceive that we have clergymen every day who call themselves Hercules, and peasants denominated Cæsar and Augustus.

Diocletian created two Cæsars; the first was another Maximian, surnamed Galerius, who had formerly been a shepherd. It seemed that Diocletian, the proudest of men and the first introducer of kissing the imperial feet, showed his greatness in placing Cæsars on the throne from men born in the most abject condition. A slave and two peasants were at the head of the empire, and never was it more flourishing.

The second Cæsar whom he created was of distinguished birth. He was Constantius Chlorus, great-nephew, on his mother’s side, to the emperor Claudius II. The empire was governed by these four princes; an association which might have produced four civil wars a year, but Diocletian knew so well how to be master of his colleagues, that he obliged them always to respect him, and even to live united among themselves. These princes, with the name of Cæsars were in reality no more than his subjects. It is seen that he treated them like an absolute sovereign; for when the Cæsar Galerius, having been conquered by the Persians, went into Mesopotamia to give him the account of his defeat, he let him walk for the space of a mile near his chariot, and did not receive him into favor until he had repaired his fault and misfortune.

Galerius retrieved them the year after, in 297, in a very signal manner. He vanquished the king of Persia in person.

These kings of Persia had not been cured, by the battle of Arbela, of carrying their wives, daughters, and eunuchs along with their armies. Galerius, like Alexander, took his enemy’s wife and all his family, and treated them with the same respect. The peace was as glorious as the victory. The vanquished ceded five provinces to the Romans, from the sands of Palmyra to Armenia.

Diocletian and Galerius went to Rome to dazzle the inhabitants with a triumph till then unheard of. It was the first time that the Roman people had seen the wife and children of a king of Persia in chains. All the empire was in plenty and prosperity. Diocletian went through all the provinces, from Rome to Egypt, Syria, and Asia Minor. His ordinary residence was not at Rome, but at Nicomedia, near the Euxine Sea, either to watch over the Persians and the barbarians, or because he was attached to a retreat which he had himself embellished. It was in the midst of this prosperity that Galerius commenced the persecution against the Christians. Why had he left them in repose until then, and why were they then ill treated? Eusebius says that a centurion of the Trajan legion, named Marcellus, who served in Mauritania, assisting with his troop at a feast given in honor of the victory of Galerius, threw his military sash, his arms, and his branch of vine, on the ground, and cried out loudly that he was a Christian and that he would no longer serve pagans — a desertion which was punished with death by the council of war. This was the first known example of the famous persecution of Diocletian. It is true that there were a great number of Christians in the armies of the empire, and the interest of the state demanded that such a desertion should not be allowed. The zeal of Marcellus was pious, but not reasonable. If at the feast given in Mauritania, viands offered to the gods of the empire were eaten, the law did not command Marcellus to eat of them, nor did Christianity order him to set the example of sedition. There is not a country in the world in which so rash an action would not have been punished.

However, after the adventure of Marcellus, it does not appear that the Christians were thought of until the year 303. They had, at Nicomedia, a superb church, next to the palace, which it exceeded in loftiness. Historians do not tell us the reasons why Galerius demanded of Diocletian the instant destruction of this church; but they tell us that Diocletian was a long time before he determined upon it, and that he resisted for almost a year. It is very strange that after this he should be called the persecutor. At last the church was destroyed and an edict was affixed by which the Christians were deprived of all honors and dignities. Since they were then deprived of them, it is evident that they possessed them. A Christian publicly tore the imperial edict in pieces — that was not an act of religion, it was an incitement to revolt. It is, therefore, very likely that an indiscreet and unreasonable zeal drew down this fatal persecution. Some time afterwards the palace of Galerius was burned down; he accused the Christians, and they accused Galerius of having himself set fire to it, in order to get a pretext for calumniating them. The accusation of Galerius appeared very unjust; that which they entered against him was no less so, for the edict having been already issued, what new pretext could he want? If he really wanted a new argument to engage Diocletian to persecute, this would only form a new proof of the reluctance of Diocletian to abandon the Christians, whom he had always protected; it would evidently show that he wanted new additional reasons to determine him to so much severity.

It appears certain that there were many Christians tormented in the empire, but it is difficult to reconcile with the Roman laws the alleged reported tortures, the mutilations, torn-out tongues, limbs cut and broiled, and all the insults offered against modesty and public decency. It is certain that no Roman law ever ordered such punishments; the aversion of the people to the Christians might carry them to horrible excesses, but we do not anywhere find that these excesses were ordered, either by the emperors or the senate.

It is very likely that the suffering of the Christians spread itself in exaggerated complaints: the “Acta Sincera” informs us that the emperor, being at Antioch, the prætor condemned a Christian child named Romanus to be burned; that the Jews present at the punishment began to laugh, saying: “We had formerly three children, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who did not burn in the fiery furnace but these do burn.” At that instant, to confound the Jews, a great rain extinguished the pile and the little boy walked out safe and sound, asking, “Where then is the fire?” The account goes on to say that the emperor commanded him to be set free, but that the judge ordered his tongue to be cut out. It is scarcely possible to believe that the judge would have the tongue of a boy cut out, whom the emperor had pardoned.

That which follows is more singular. It is pretended that an old Christian physician named Ariston, who had a knife ready, cut the child’s tongue out to pay his court to the prætor. The little Romanus was then carried back to prison; the jailer asked him the news. The child related at length how the old surgeon had cut out his tongue. It should be observed that before this operation the child stammered very much but that now he spoke with wonderful volubility. The jailer did not fail to relate this miracle to the emperor. They brought forward the old surgeon who swore that the operation had been performed according to the rules of his art and showed the child’s tongue which he had properly preserved in a box as a relic. “Bring hither another person,” said he, “and I will cut his tongue out in your majesty’s presence, and you will see if he can speak.” The proposition was accepted; they took a poor man whose tongue the surgeon cut out as he had done the child’s, and the man died on the spot.

I am willing to believe that the “Acts” which relate this fact are as veracious as their title pretends, but they are still more simple than sincere, and it is very strange that Fleury, in his “Ecclesiastical History,” relates such a prodigious number of similar incidents, being much more conducive to scandal than edification.

You will also remark that in this year 303, in which it is pretended that Diocletian was present at this fine affair in Antioch, he was at Rome and passed all that year in Italy. It is said that it was at Rome, and in his presence, that St. Genestus, a comedian, was converted on the stage while playing in a comedy against the Christians. This play shows clearly that the taste of Plautus and Terence no longer existed; that which is now called comedy, or Italian farce, seems to have originated at this time. St. Genestus represented an invalid; the physician asked him what was the matter with him. “I am too unwieldy,” said Genestus. “Would you have us exorcise you to make you lighter?” said the physician. “No,” replied Genestus, “I will die a Christian, to be raised again of a finer stature.” Then the actors, dressed as priests and exorcists, came to baptize him, at which moment Genestus really became a Christian, and, instead of finishing his part, began to preach to the emperor and the people. The “Acta Sincera” relate this miracle also.

It is certain that there were many true martyrs, but it is not true that the provinces were inundated with blood, as it is imagined. Mention is made of about two hundred martyrs towards the latter days of Diocletian in all the extent of the Roman Empire, and it is averred, even in the letters of Constantine, that Diocletian had much less part in the persecution than Galerius.

Diocletian fell ill this year and feeling himself weakened he was the first who gave the world the example of the abdication of empire. It is not easy to know whether this abdication was forced or not; it is true, however, that having recovered his health he lived nine years equally honored and peaceable in his retreat of Salonica, in the country of his birth. He said that he only began to live from the day of his retirement and when he was pressed to remount the throne he replied that the throne was not worth the tranquillity of his life, and that he took more pleasure in cultivating his garden than he should have in governing the whole earth. What can be concluded from these facts but that with great faults he reigned like a great emperor and finished his life like a philosopher!

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01