In A Threat to Public Piety, Elizabeth DePalma Digeser
reexamines the origins of the Great Persecution (AD 303-313), the
last eruption of pagan violence against Christians before
Constantine enforced the toleration of Christianity within the
Empire. Challenging the widely accepted view that the persecution
enacted by Emperor Diocletian was largely inevitable, she points
out that in the forty years leading up to the Great Persecution
Christians lived largely in peace with their fellow Roman citizens.
Why, Digeser asks, did pagans and Christians, who had intermingled
cordially and productively for decades, become so sharply divided
by the turn of the century?
Making use of evidence that has only recently been dated to this
period, Digeser shows that a falling out between Neo-Platonist
philosophers, specifically Iamblichus and Porphyry, lit the spark
that fueled the Great Persecution. In the aftermath of this falling
out, a group of influential pagan priests and philosophers began
writing and speaking against Christians, urging them to forsake
Jesus-worship and to rejoin traditional cults while Porphyry used
his access to Diocletian to advocate persecution of Christians on
the grounds that they were a source of impurity and impiety within
The first book to explore in depth the intellectual social
milieu of the late third century, A Threat to Public Piety
revises our understanding of the period by revealing the extent to
which Platonist philosophers (Ammonius, Plotinus, Porphyry, and
Iamblichus) and Christian theologians (Origen, Eusebius) came from
a common educational tradition, often studying and teaching side by
side in heterogeneous groups.
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