Persians: Emperor Diocletian on strange and monstrous Manicheans (ca. 300 CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Persians: Emperor Diocletian on strange and monstrous Manicheans (ca. 300 CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified April 6, 2024,

Ancient authors: Roman consuls Pomponius and Rufus (ca. 17 CE) as cited by the jurist Ulpian (211-222 CE) and emperor Diocletian (ca. 297 or 303 CE) as cited by Gregorius, Gregorian Code (ca. 290s CE), subsequently compiled by Anonymous (fourth century CE), A Compilation of Roman and Mosaic Laws 15.2-3 (link).

Comments: From the Roman imperial perspective, the practices of foreigners could quite readily be interpreted as dangerous “superstition” (superstitio). The meaning of this term here had far more serious implications than our English term supersitition, because the Latin term superstitio was considered the opposite of what an upper-class Roman viewed as proper forms of obligation or duty (religio) in keeping with Roman ancestral traditions and, of course, the emphasis was on foreignness as danger. A foreign superstition could be perceived as a threat to Romanness itself. The imperial rulings gathered together here by the anonymous Christian author of A Compilation of Roman and Mosaic Laws (fourth century CE) illustrate how this principal could repeatedly be applied from the first century on not only to Babylonian or Chaldean astrologers and Persian Magians or Zoroastrians, but also to other movements perceived as eastern. In fact, a couple of centuries before Diocletian, it was applied by Pliny and Tacitus (who were friends) to the strange Judean phenomenon labelled “Christians,” as well (link coming soon).

The emperor Diocletian and his fellow rulers responded to the proconsul of Africa (probably in 297 or 302 CE) regarding a movement (followers of Mani, known as Manichaeans or Manichees) characterized as Persian and dangerous (like a poisonous snake) by calling for the death penalty for its leaders and exile for any Romans of Africa who were “infected” by the movement. Quite clearly the harshness of the response is rooted in its foreign Persian origin, as there is talk of the “detestable customs and perverse laws of the Persians” and reference to the Persians as the enemy of the Romans. This connection with the enemy may have been intensified by Mani’s interactions with the Persian, Sassanian king Shapur I (240-373 CE) while in the capital of Ktesiphon-Seleukeia (see the sources in Gardner and Lieu 2004, 73-78). The later anonymous Christian compiler of these various imperial decisions evidently saw the close connection between the Roman imagination about “superstition,” on the one hand, and Babylonia and Persia, on the other, and agreed with casting Mani and his followers as promulgators of dangerous eastern customs.

A similar approach to Mani and his followers as dangerous Persians or Babylonians is found in the roughly contemporary Christian narrative known as the Acts of Archelaos, on which go to this link.

The employment of the old negativity towards eastern Chaldeans and Magians for other purposes was by no means limited to the Roman imperial elites, as others could tap into this broader imperial discourse to confront their own opponents, as we have seen in the charges brought against Apuleius (link) and in the labelling used by some heresy-hunters against their opponents (link).

Works consulted: J.K. Coyle, “Foreign and Insane: Labelling Manichaeism in the Roman Empire,” Studies in Religion / Sciences Religieuses 33 (2004): 217–34; I. Gardner and S.N.C. Lieu, Manichaean Texts from the Roman Empire (Cambridge: CUP, 2004); L. J. van der Lof, “Mani as the Danger from Persia in the Roman Empire,” Augustiniana 24 (1974): 75–84.


[Context of eastern experts: Chaldean astrologers]

Ulpian, in his seventh book of Proconsular Functions, under the title of “Astrologers (mathematici) and Prophets (vaticinatores)” [ca. 211-222 CE]:

Moreover, a ban has been put upon the crafty imposture and persistent persuasions of the astrologers. Nor has this been forbidden to them for the first time in our day [early third century CE]: the prohibition is long-standing. In fact, a senatorial decree that was passed in the consulship of Pomponius and Rufus [ca. 17 CE] is extant, providing that astrologers, Chaldeans, prophets, and others who engage in similar practices are to be forbidden fire and water [i.e. denied any essentials for life] and to have all their property confiscated. If the offender is a foreigner, he shall be punished with death.

It did not matter whether it was knowledge of this skill or exercise and practice of this skill that is punished. The ancient authorities did in fact say that practice, rather than mere knowledge, was forbidden. This view afterwards changed. We must keep in mind that there have been times when these skills crept into use so much that they were even practised and advertised openly. But this was due to the disobedience and audacity of those who had been observed engaging in or practising these skills, rather than to any legal sanction. In fact, nearly all the emperors have repeatedly issued prohibitions which forbid meddling with such meaningless things, and those practising them were punished in accordance with the character of the consultation. If the emperor’s health was the subject of the consultation, death or other severe punishment was inflicted. The penalty was lighter where the inquiry concerned the consulter’s own health or that of his relatives. This last category also includes prophets, though they also must be punished, because they sometimes exercise their reprehensible skills to the prejudice of the communal peace and the Roman empire. Finally, there is extant a decree of the late emperor Antoninus Pius to Pacatus, legate of the province of Lyons. Since the rescript is rather long, I have said these few relevant words.

In fact, the emperor Marcus [ca. 161-180 CE] deported to the island of Syros [Greek island in the Aegean] someone who, in the sedition of Cassius, played the role of prophet and made many statements as though under divine inspiration. Certainly we should not allow men of this character to go unpunished, who, pretending that they have divine messages, make or circulate announcements or pretend that others have this knowledge.

[Followers of Mani in Diocletian edict of 297 or 302 CE]

Gregorius, in his seventh book under the title “Regarding Enchanters (malefici) and Manicheans” [after 303 CE]:

The emperors Diocletian and Maximian to Julian, proconsul of Africa. Excessive leisure sometimes incites improper people to transgress the limits of nature, and persuades them to introduce empty and scandalous kinds of superstitious teachings, so that many others are lured on to acknowledge the authority of their erroneous ideas. But the immortal gods, in their providence, have thought it appropriate to arrange that the principles of virtue and truth should, by the counsel and deliberations of many good, great and wise men be approved and established in their integrity. It is not right to oppose or resist these principles. Nor should an ancient sense of duty (religio) be held back by something new. It is indeed highly criminal to discuss teachings that were completely settled and defined by our ancestors, and which have their recognized place and course in our system. For this reason, we are resolutely determined to punish the stubborn depravity of these worthless people.

Regarding Manichaeans, about whom you have reported to us, they set up new and unheard-of sects in opposition to the older obligations (religiones), intending through their wickedness to cast out the teachings entrusted to us by divine favour in the old days. We have heard that they have just recently advanced or sprung forth like strange and monstrous omens from their native homes among the Persians – a descent group (gens) that is our enemy. They have settled in this part of the world, where they are perpetrating many crimes, disturbing the peace of the populace and causing the worst injuries to the communities. There is danger that, with time, they will follow their usual practice by trying to infect the innocent, orderly and peaceful Roman people, as well as our entire empire, with the detestable customs and perverse laws of the Persians as with the poison of a malignant serpent. And since all that your wisdom has set out in detail in your report of their ritual (religio) shows that what our laws regard as their misdeeds are clearly the offspring of a fantastic and lying imagination, we have appointed for these people the painful punishments and penalties which they deserve.

We order that the founders and leaders of these sects be subjected to severe punishment and, together with their abominable writings, burned in the flames. We direct that, if they continue to be recalcitrant, their followers shall suffer capital punishment, and shall have their goods forfeited to the Imperial treasury.

And if those who have gone over to that previously unheard-of, scandalous and completely notorious teaching or over to the teaching of the Persians are persons who hold public office, or are of any rank or standing, you will see to it that their estates are confiscated and the offenders sent to the mines at Phaeno [in Palestine] or on Prokonnessos island [in northwestern Asia Minor, modern Marmara]. And in order that this plague of iniquity will be completely uprooted from this our most happy age, let your eagerness lead you to carry out our orders and commands quickly.

Given at Alexandria, March 31st.


Source of the translation: M. Hyamson, Mosaicarum et romanarum legum collatio (London: OUP, 1913), public domain, adapted by Harland.

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