Lucius Septimius Severus, was appointed Caesar following the brief reigns of Pertinax, Julianus, and Clodius Albinus all of whom he had a hand in dispatching. Severus was Caesar from 192 to 211. Edward Gibbon credits Severus as the first of the emperors of the decline of the Roman Empire. However, we should pause to note the timeline is now nearly 200 years beyond the resurrection of Christ. Severus had been appointed by the Praetorian Guard and would later be assassinated by them. He had risen to power mainly because of having married well, although not well enough to remain alive for very long. He continued in power as long as he did by using the often employed and successful tactic of eliminating the opposition. Severus defeated Julianus and an attempt by Pescennius Niger, Consul of Asia, to accede to the role of Caesar in Rome. Niger had in fact been granted the title Caesar over the eastern part of the empire, though he was never installed as emperor.
During the reign of Severus, the Roman government issued the first official Edict of Persecution against Christianity. This period is also when the Roman Empire also first split into eastern and western camps with near continuous battles for control by the emperors, co-emperors and other contenders.
Caracalla (Lucius Septimius Bassianus) and his brother Geta (Publius Septimius Geta), followed Severus and collectively ruled from 211 to 217. They came to be appointed co-emperors while their father Severus was still ruling, imposing three Caesars or Antonines on the empire for the first time. Caracalla was the first son of Severus and was only second behind him as a tyrant. Upon the death of Severus, Caracalla and Geta continued as co-emperors. This situation lasted until Caracalla had his brother killed by mercenaries, as they were to negotiate their territories and end the civil war that had surrounded their ambitions and scrabble for power. Martyrdoms continued under both and through the reign of Elagabalus, the eventual successor. Caracalla also had his mother Julia murdered.
In 217 Marcus Opellius Macrinus had been the head of the Praetorians under both Severus and Caracalla. Caracalla began plotting to kill him to secure the allegiance of the Praetorians, but word of the plot came to Macrinus by accident. He in turn had Caracalla murdered and then on the third day following had the Consul Adventus appointed emperor. Adventus, being somewhat brighter than most of his contemporaries, knew of Macrinus’s ambition and immediately abdicated in favor of the Praetorian. So quickly in fact, that the senate never actually confirmed him as emperor. Macrinus then immediately appointed his son, Marcus Opellius Antoninus Diadumenianus, Emperor and Antoninus (or as anglicized: Antonine – the favored title since the Antonines had ruled), although he remained the actual power within the empire. The reign of the son was nearly as short-lived as had been his father’s (twelve months and fourteen months respectively), ending in 218.
Both Macrinus and later Diadumenianus were murdered, and the Praetorians and the other co-conspirators wrongly identified Elagabalus or Heliogabalus as it is often listed (given name: Varius Avitus Bassus), as the son of Caracalla (whose reputation then seemed somehow redeemed). He was in fact a descendant of Severus’ wife’s sister and not a direct heir of either Severus or Caracalla based upon the then accepted although not-usually-followed lines of succession. That was all overlooked and he was enthroned in 218. He did not survive long and was murdered in 222. This era, that of the Severan Emperors lasting from 192 and ending in 235 (except for Alexander’s reign), was the worst period of persecutions of Christians and one of the worst for general mayhem within the government of Rome.
Alexander Severus (Marcus Aurelius Severus Alexander, 222 — 235), last of the Severans, was an adopted son of Elagabalus and had been appointed Caesar by him. They had ruled jointly for a short time until Elagabalus’ murder. Alexander’s own rule was much longer and mostly peaceful, as unlike his father, his popularity with the Praetorians and the people both acted to protect and prolong his life. Upon his death Maximinus Thrax (Gaius Iulius Verus Maximinus) was briefly appointed emperor, followed by his son Maximus as Caesar and finally by his son Balbinus also as Caesar. All were murdered in various intrigues.
This period of upheavals and removals was followed by a worsening period of civil wars when emperors were typically put in place by the legions and then dispatched by them with equal swiftness. The more lengthy or notable reigns (if that can be said) were those of Philip, Decius, Gallus, Aemilianius, Valerian (who had the Santa Sophia church building erected in Byzantium, out of materials taken from the Great Pyramid in Giza), Gallienus, Claudius of Pavia, Aurelian, Tacitus, Probus, Carus and his sons Carinus and Numerian. Of these mentioned, Philip, who reigned for seven years, was sympathetic to the Christians, though his successor Decius had the distinction of issuing in the worst period for persecutions following the Severans and preceding that of the Gordians.
During this darkening period the Goths (at the time actually the Ostrogoths) first attacked the Roman Empire by sacking Byzantium in 267 while Claudius of Pavia was emperor. There were no fewer than 20 emperors between 235 and 285 and 40 other men that each laid claim to the titles Caesar, Augustus or Antoninus at some point. There were also periods of near total collapse in the government. Edward Gibbon documents the details in full.
Of these emperors several (such as Maximinus Thrax, Maximus, and the three Gordians beginning with Marcus Antonius Gordianus Sempronianus) persecuted Christians and entire communities were destroyed. The persecutions included murdering church leaders, looting and burning worship areas along with the confiscation or burning of private homes. These types of activities continued unabated into the fourth century.
The longest documented and most widespread persecutions of Christians occurred during the reign of Diocletian (Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus), even though, as with others, he was generally considered a benevolent ruler. He ruled alone until his abdication in 305. The throne then was briefly held by another emperor who bore the name Severus (Flavius Valerius Severus, was not related to the Severans who had long before ruled), and he reigned from 306 through 307. After this brief rule, the empire was no longer under a single emperor or an emperor or Caesar for the east and west – but came under the rule of four men titled Augusti and Caesari, one of these being Diocletian (Caesar along with Maximian – Marcus Aurelius Valerius Maximianus Herculius), another being his son Galerius Maximianus (Augustus along with Constantius Chlorus, the father of Constantine).
In 311, Galerius sought “atonement” for his and the persecutions of the others and issued the Edict of Toleration for Christianity, which was largely ignored in the empire until Constantine assumed the throne of Rome in 313.
Licinius (Flavius Galerius Valerius Licinianus Licinius) reigned with Maximinus Daia, as co-emperors following the rule of the two Caesari and two Augusti. He defeated Maximinus and later also served as co-regent with Constantine. A civil war erupted between the two (oddly enough over power). Constantine (a Greek name derived from the Latin word meaning “constant” or “consistent”), the first Greek born emperor, eventually defeated Licinius following yet another civil war.
Constantine was then named sole Imperator in 323 once again uniting the eastern and western empires under a single leader. Under Constantine the Edict of Toleration was reissued as the Edict of Milan (324), and by 325 Christianity was granted recognition as “religio licita” while the persecutions of the Roman government officially and in fact ended. The timeline is now a decade or so short of three full centuries out from the Cross.
Although Constantine the Great was considered the first Christian emperor, he was perhaps less a Christian and more a smart politician and astute ruler. He could see value in the religion and aligned his fortunes with it to the continuation of a failing and faltering empire. The marriage of the feudal Emperors to the apostate church was by then blossoming.