The Emperor was widely regarded as the savior of Rome. The son of slaves he had fought his way to power against the enemies of Rome. After a half century of chaos he brought order and unity to Rome, crushing pretenders to the imperial purple and restoring the borders of the Empire against the barbarian tribes. Under his tetrarchy system Rome would be ruled by two Emperors and two Caesars who would eventually succeed the Emperors. Peace now reigned in the Empire after decades of strife. Small wonder that Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus, better known to history as Diocletian, was hailed as a second Romulus, a second founder of Rome.
For most of his reign the Christians of the Empire enjoyed broad tolerance. This all changed, probably by the instigation of the Caesar Galerius, at the Council of Nicomedia in 302. Rome declared war upon Christianity. The churches were to be razed, the sacred books burned and Christians who would not forswear Christ executed. The Great Persecution would endure until 311 when Constantine the Great decreed tolerance of Christianity in the portion of the Empire ruled by him, with tolerance throughout the entire Empire following with the Edict of Milan in 313.
Why did Diocletian embark upon this persecution? His motives are unclear, but I suspect that he feared that Christianity threatened the unity of the Empire to which he had dedicated his life. At any rate, the cities and towns of the Empire became scenes of blood and fire for Christians.
In 303 Genesius, a comedian and a leader of a troupe of actors in Rome, was hired to perform a play before the Emperor mocking Christianity. Such anti-Christian spectacles were common during the Great Persecution serving to whip up anti-Christian fervor. Roman comedies were raucous affairs, the play and movie A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is based on the style of the Roman comedies, and hilarious lampoons of political or religious targets were a common feature. In this play Genesius received a mock baptism. Grace descended with the water. Genesius proclaimed himself a Christian. Diocletian, thinking this part of the play, enjoyed this unexpected twist. When it became obvious that the comedian was no longer joking he was led away. Persisting in his new found faith, he was tortured and beheaded. His feast day is August 25.
Saint Genesius is the patron saint of actors and actresses. Under his spiritual protection and inspiration, the recently formed Fraternity of Saint Genesius is helping to lead the way in a Christian renewal of the culture.
Protestant, until his very late in life conversion, comedian Bob Hope, the subject of a forthcoming post on American Catholic, often wore a set of St. Genesius cuff-links, a gift from his Catholic wife. He retold the story of St. Genesius several times during his career, usually with a comic quip that if a bad comedian could be saved there was hope for everyone.