The Attacks of Heathen Power


"Think not that I am come to send peace on earth; I came not to send peace, but a sword" (Matt. x. 34). "Ye shall be hated of all men for my name's sake" (Mark xiii. 13). Such was the prospect with which the Christians started forth. Such for long centuries was their experience in the world. It could not have been otherwise. An absolute antagonism existed between the Christians and the world of that age, between the spiritual empire of Christianity and the heathen Roman empire. No settlement was possible save by the surrender of the one or the other.

Though heathen Rome tolerated very many religions, her intolerance toward Christianity was not properly an exception to her general policy. Her tolerance in no case was rendered unconditionally. She recognized no universal maxim with respect to the rights of the individual conscience. On the contrary, she steadfastly asserted that it was her prerogative to supervise the worship of the individual. Her most enlightened statesmen were agreed upon this point. Cicero lays down the following as a fundamental rule of administration: "Let no one have any gods by himself; neither to new or strange gods, unless they have been publicly adopted, let any private worship be offered." [De Legibus, ii. 8.] Mæcenas is reported to have given this advice to Augustus: "Revere the gods in every way according to ancestral laws, and compel others so to revere them. Those, however, who introduce any thing foreign in this respect, hate and punish, not only for the sake of the gods, -- want of reverence toward whom argues want of reverence toward every thing else, --but because such, in that they introduce new divinities, mislead many to adopt also foreign laws. Thence come conspiracies and secret leagues which are in the highest degree opposed to monarchy." The distinguished jurist, Julius Paulus, lays down as a fundamental article of Roman law: "Such as introduce new religions, whose bearing and nature are not understood, by which the minds of men are disquieted, should, if they are of the higher ranks, be transported; if of the lower, be punished with death." [Neander, vol. i.] The right to persecute on the score of religious practice could not be more definitely asserted. That right was wrapped up with the Roman conception of the State. To the Roman, the State was the supreme idea. He knew practically nothing about a divine kingdom above and beyond this. If of a believing disposition, he worshipped the ancestral gods as patrons of the State and guardians of its eternal dominion; if sceptical, he was still strongly inclined to insist upon their worship as a thing of political necessity, a means of binding the less intelligent ranks to their allegiance to the State. A state religion was in general counted an essential factor of a state policy. Beyond the limits of this, a wide license might be granted. One polytheistic system can easily make concessions to another. Hence, Rome allowed conquered nations to retain the worship of their own gods. The Jew, for example, was free to worship Jehovah. But none were counted free to assail or to endanger the state religion. The Jew was prohibited by law from making proselytes from heathen Romans. Those who had an ancient national religion of their own were expected st least to be neutral. Those who had no religion that could claim such ancient and national associations might be called upon to show positive deference to the state religion. Now, as the Christians had never existed as a nation and developed a national religion, they seemed the least of all entitled to special privilege or exemption. Their stubborn refusal to make any concession to the state religion appeared to the rulers, at least to those of a truly Roman cast, as a piece of arrogant assumption, and a clear evidence of insubordination. This impression was much strengthened by the bond of unity which the Christians exhibited. They showed themselves to be one in a more emphatic sense than ally other body of men. They stood before the government as an independent, close-bound association, an association animated also by a peculiar confidence and aggressiveness. An unwonted air of certitude was assumed by them. They did not ask doubtfully, with the sceptical philosophers of the age, What is truth? but proclaimed their undoubted possession of the truth in the gospel. "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life, declare we unto you" (1 John i. 1-3). Claiming to represent the absolute religion, they appeared as the uncompromising foes of heathen idolatry, and aliens to the State so far as the State was linked with that idolatry. This explains why the most sweeping persecutions were urged on by some of the best of the emperors; for just those emperors who aspired to a vigorous and comprehensive administration felt obliged to oppose Christianity as foreign to the State, a system that utterly refused to amalgamate with their heathen institutions.

State policy, however, was far from being the only inciting cause to persecution. With the great mass of the people, blind prejudice jealousy, superstitious fears, or material interests were the leading motives. They estimated the subject merely from a surface view. That the Christians were a peculiar class, holding themselves aloof from the common amusements and vices, was enough to arouse their ill-will and suspicion. Priests and artisans who had a pecuniary interest in heathenism sought to magnify this prejudice. So the most abominable slanders were circulated against the Christians. Their isolation was attributed to misanthropy. They were stigmatized as haters of mankind. Odium humani generis was a standing charge against them. As they had no temples or images, they were reprobated as atheists. The seclusion which they naturally sought for their love-feasts and celebrations of the Lord's Supper was declared to be a covering for the most hideous crimes. The report was fostered, that at such gatherings they were accustomed to bind themselves into a criminal league by making a feast upon a slaughtered child, and then to give themselves up to the most shameless indulgence. Such monstrous fabrications could not, of course, preserve credit a great length of time among the more intelligent; but with the unthinking populace they served repeatedly as means of exciting to hatred and violence. The same class were ready, also, upon the instant, to lay every public calamity to the charge of the Christians. "They think," says Tertullian, "the Christians the cause of every public disaster, of every affliction with which the people are visited. If the Tiber rises as high as the city walls, if the Nile does not send its waters up over the fields, if the heavens give no rain, if there is an earthquake, if there is a famine or pestilence, straightway the cry is, 'Away with the Christians to the lion!'" [Apol., xl. Compare Ad Nationes, i. 9.]

Even the more enlightened of the heathen shared in this superstitious prejudice, especially from the time of Marcus Aurelius, when the prospects of the Empire and heathen fanaticism assumed together a darker tinge. The philosopher Porphyry was not above imputing the continued ravages of a pestilence to the presence of the Christians, so obnoxious in his view were they to the gods.

Since the Christians were, at that time, confounded with the Jews, they no doubt suffered from the action of Claudius, in the year 53, by which many Jews were driven from Rome. Perhaps the cause of the expulsion was the intemperate opposition of the Jews to those who had embraced Christianity. "The Emperor Claudius," says Suetonius, "drove the Jews from Rome, because, excited by Chrestus they kept up a continual uproar." [Lives of the Cæsars, Claudius, xxv.]

This language sounds very much like a mistaken interpretation of a dispute about Christus. The heathen, we are informed by Tertullian, frequently fell into the error of putting Chrestus in place of Christus. [Apol., iii.; Ad Nationes, i 3.]

Still, the first decisive persecution is properly referred to Nero's reign. "Nero," says Tertullian, "was the first who assailed, with the imperial sword, the Christian sect." [Apol., v. Compare Scorpiace, xv.] 'His tyranny prepared the flaming portal through which the Christians entered upon the long and painful ordeal. In the month of July, in the year 64, a fire broke out in Pome which raged (with only a brief interval of cessation at the end of the sixth day) for nine days. The calamity was of appalling dimensions. A writer, whose youthful mind must have been deeply stirred by the news, if not by the sight itself, of the conflagration, thus describes its destructive sweep: "Of the fourteen sections into which Rome is divided, four were still standing entire, three were levelled with the ground, and in the seven others there remained but a few remnants of houses, shattered and half-consumed." [Tacitus, Annal., xv. 40.] Nero himself was suspected of having been the willing cause of the awful calamity. Popular rumor represented that the imperial actor gorged his insane appetite for the theatrical with the spectacle of the burning city, delighted to see therein a reproduction of ancient tragedy, and even singing on the stage of his private theatre the "Destruction of Troy," at the very time that the flames were surging over homes and temples. [Tacitus, Annal., xv. 39.] As the days passed, the murmurings grew loud and threatening. Nero found that even the lavish bounties which he bestowed upon the homeless multitudes were of no avail to turn aside accusation. A more effective expedient must be employed. Such an expedient was found in the sacrifice of the Christians. The hatred in which they were held would mage it easy to fasten suspicion upon them; and, even if the crime of firing the city could not be proved against them, popular wrath could be satiated by the sight of their torments. That this was the motive at the basis of the Neronian persecution, is explicitly stated by Tacitus, who, while he shows his contempt for the Christians and his utter ignorance of their real character, indicates his belief that the charge connecting them with the conflagration of Rome was a mere pretence, a lying expedient of the Emperor. "Nero," he says, "to suppress the rumor against himself, pretended that the persons commonly called Christians, who were hated for their enormities, were guilty; and he punished them with exquisite tortures. . . First those were seized who confessed [that they were Christians]; then on their information a great multitude were convicted, not so much of burning the city, as of hating the human race. And in their deaths they were made the subjects of sport, being covered with the hides of wild beasts and worried to death by dogs, or affixed to crosses, or set on fire and made to serve as nocturnal lights when day had departed. Nero offered his own gardells for that spectacle, and exhibited a circensian game, mingling with the common people in the habit of a charioteer, or standing in his chariot. Hence, a feeling of compassion arose toward the victims, though guilty and deserving the heaviest penalties, since they seemed to be cut off not so much for the public good as to gratify the cruelty of one man." [Annal., xv. 44.] Incidental references to the barbarous spectacle are found also in the satires of Juvenal. [i. 155 viii. 235.]

The Neronian persecution seems to have been but a brief outbreak of savagery. So far as urged on by the Emperor, it was probably confined to Rome. Still, it could hardly be otherwise than that the enemies of the new religion in other places would take courage from the imperial example, and be made more forward to vent their spite against the hated sect. It is possible that the murderers of the faithful martyr Antipas (Rev. ii 13) received an incentive from the bloody carnival at Rome. However received by the heathen, the news of the Neronian persecution produced everywhere profound emotions in the breasts of Christians. Nero appeared to them as the embodiment of the spirit of Antichrist. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that in the subsequent history the belief came to the surface that he was again to make war upon the saints, being that very agent of Satan who was to afflict the Church on the eve of the glorious coming of Christ.
[Heathen thought went before Christian in the notion of Nero's re-appearance. For many years the rumor had place among the people that he was not really dead, and at the opportune moment would appear and reinstate himself in the rule of the Empire. This expectation found expression in the Sibylline verses. Döllinger claims that a Jewish rather than a Christian hand recorded it here; that no earlier Christian writer than Commodianus, in the middle of the third century, refers to it, and that it was brought to his notice by the Sibylline books (First Age of the Church). Lactantius, who says that it was held by some persons of extravagant fancy, connects it with these books (De Mort. Persecut., ii.). Augustine indicates a new phase of belief on the subject, since he speaks of those who imagined that Nero was to re-appear in virtue of a resurrection from the dead (De Civ. Dei, xx. 19). For himself he found no warrant for a re-appearance of the tyrant, either as miraculouslf preserved or as raised to life.]

Domitian (81-96), "a man," to use Tertullian's phrase, "of Nero's type in cruelty," was the second to raise a persecution against the Christians. [Euseb., iii. 17.] The same suspicion and covetousness which led him to visit exile and confiscation of property upon numbers of the heathen nobility urged him to like injustice against the Christians. His own cousin, Flavius Clemens, a man of consular rank, was executed, on the ground, as is supposed, of his Christian profession; and Domitilla, the wife of Clemens, was banished. According to Hegesippus, some grandchildren of Judas, the brother of the Lord, were summoned before the tyrant, who was apprehensive that they might venture to set up royal claims,asbeingofthe Davidic lineage. Their poverty, however, and rustic simplicity, disarmed the suspicions of the Emperor, and secured their release. [Euseb., iii. 19, 20.]

The persecution under Trajan (99-117) was impelled by a very different spirit from that which inaugurated either of the preceding. Here a political motive was the mainspring. In order to clear the Empire of faction, Trajan sought to carry out the law against secret associations. The Christians were placed under this category, and hence were proscribed. The animus of the Government is clearly indicated by the correspondence between Pliny and Trajan. The former came to Asia Minor as governor of Bithynia and Pontus. Thence he wrote, about the year 110, to his imperial master that the land swarmed with Christians; the temples of the gods were deserted; every rank had its representatives among the new sect. As a great number were brought before his tribunal, he was incited to make a thorough investigation. Still, all the testimony he could obtain was the statement that the Christians were accustomed to meet in the morning of a stated day, to sing a hymn to Christ as their God, and to bind each other not to commit any crime; that they then departed, and were wont, prior to the recent edicts, to re-assemble later in the day to a simple and innocent meal. The application of torture to two female slaves, who fulfilled the office of deaconesses in the congregation, failed to elicit any further information, except as it strengthened the impression of the Roman governor that the Christians were devoted to an extravagant superstition. [Epist., x. 96 (97).] Pliny intimated in his correspondence his preference for a mixture of kindness and severity in dealing with the peculiar sect. He would give them suitable opportunity to renounce their connection with Christianity, but visit them with punishment if they persisted. The Emperor approved his policy, and laid down the principle that the Christians should not be sought out, but when properly accused and convicted should be punished. "These people," he wrote, "should not be searched for; if they are informed against and convicted, they should be punished, yet so that he who shall deny being a Christian, and shall make this plain in action, -- that is, by worshipping our gods, --even though suspected on account of his past conduct, shall obtain pardon by his penitence. Anonymous accusations, however, should not be allowed a place in any criminal process; for this would establish the worst of precedents, and is counter to our age." [In Pliny's Epistles, x. 97 (98).] In a twofold respect this rescript of Trajan is highly significant. It shows that the Government did not give credence to the popular calumnies against the Christians, and recognized no crime in them except their association as a religious sect. But, on the other hand, it advertised the intention of the Roman government to deny to Christianity a legal status. It distinctly recorded, if it did not introduce, the verdict, that Christianity was a religio illicita. Notwithstanding, therefore, its appearance of moderation, the rescript of Trajan left a broad foundation for persecution. While it encouraged no one to search out the Christians, by denying their right to an existence it gave every one a legal right to turn accuser against them.

Among the more distinguished victims of Trajan's persecution, ancient belief numbered Simeon, Bishop of Jerusalem, and Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch. The former is said to have been crucified after being subjected to manifold tortures. [Euseb., iii. 32.] The latter is supposed to have been thrown to the wild beasts at Rome. Such was the fate anticipated by himself, as appears from the epistles which he wrote on his way to the great capital, especially from that to the Romans. These writings indicate that he was a man of fiery soul and commanding confidence. With an elevated and fearless devotion, he joined a somewhat intemperate thirst after martyrdom. He wished his friends at Rome to attempt no intervention in behalf of his life. "Do not seek," he says, "to confer any greater favor upon me than that I be sacrificed to God while the altar is still prepared. Suffer me to become food for the wild beasts. I am the wheat of God; and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ. Let fire and cross, let the crowds of wild beasts, let all the dreadful torments of the devil, come upon me: only let me attain to Jesus Christ. All the pleasures of the world, and all the kingdoms of this earth, shall profit me nothing. It is better for me to die in behalf of Jesus Christ than to reign over all the ends of the earth. I have no delight in corruptible food, nor in the pleasures of this life. I desire the bread of God, the heavenly bread, the bread of life, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, the Son of God; and I desire the drink of God, namely, His blood, which is incorruptible love and eternal life." [Epist. ad Rom. passim.]

Hadrian (117-138) followed the policy of his predecessor. Tn the early part of his reign, the Christians suffered in some of the provinces from perfidious accusations and tumultuous assaults. These the Emperor discouraged, and insisted upon legal methods. Perhaps his favorable action was due, in some degree, to the apologies of Quadratus and Aristides, the first apologies known to have been written in behalf of Christianity. Still, the position of the Christians was the reverse of secure. A sword was ever suspended above their necks, and rarely did persecution come to a complete stand-still. Distinguished victims are said to have fallen at Rome, among them the Bishop Alexander and the family of Getulius and Symphorosa. The last bore herself like the mother celebrated in the history of the Maccabees. Rather than participate in the heathen sacrifice, she chose the fate of her husband, who already had been put to death; and her seven sons, who were arraigned with her, followed her example, and were also executed.

The great revolt of the Jews under Hadrian, resulting to them in fearful slaughter, in the sale of many into slavery, and the complete banishment of the nation from Jerusalem, brought a fierce, though temporary, persecution upon the Christians of Palestine. The false Christ, Barcochba, the leader of the insurrection, was animated by a fanatical hatred of Christianity; and as a contemporary, Justin Martyr, testifies, "gave orders that Christians should be led to cruel punishment unless they would deny Jesus Christ, and utter blasphemy." [1 Apol., xxxi.]

Under Antoninus Plus (138-161), a similar course of events appeared. In certain of the provinces, hatred of the people, stimulated by public calamities, over-rode the legal methods of procedure. In Greece, a persecution broke out, during which Publius, the Bishop of Athens, among others, was sacrificed. But the Emperor reprobated all disorder, and, in the spirit of Trajan, insisted upon legal prosecution. If the account of Eusebius could be trusted, he even went so far in his clemency as to decree that no Christian should be molested on the mere ground of his religion. [Hist. Eccl., iv. 13.] But the decree cited by Eusebius is of doubtful authority.

The noted persecntion at Smyrna probably took place during the rule of Antoninus Plus. Eusebius, it is true, locates it in the reign of Marcus Aurelius. [Hist. Eccl., iv. 16.] But a preponderance of evidence supports the conclusion that it occurred in the year 155. [See Lightfoot, Apostolic Fathers, Part II. vol, i. pp. 629-702] The outbreak had its occasion largely in the resentment of the heathen masses. Although the proconsul was not immoderately bitter against Christianity, spurred on by the popular fury he sent a number to fearful tortures and deaths. Some were thrown to the wild beasts, some burned at the stake. But, according to the memorial of the church, the grace given to the martyrs was equal to their sufferings." Not one of them let a sigh or groan escape them; thus proving to us all that those holy martyrs of Christ, at the very time when they suffered such torments, were absent from the body, or, rather, that the Lord then stood by them and communed with them." [The Martyrdom of Polycarp, a letter sent forth by tile church of Smyrna. Eusebius quotes it largely in his Church History, iv. 15. It may be regarded as genuine, though not wholly free from interpolations.] Among those condemned to the fire was the venerable bishop Polycarp. He died in a manner worthy of his relation as a disciple of the Apostle John. Refraining from a rash zeal for martyrdom, he prudently sought to escape the persecutor until it seemed evident to him that the providential hour had come. To him it was an hour of joy and thanksgiving, rather than of grief, which summoned him to the stake. "O Lord God Almighty," he said in his dying ascription, " the Father of thy beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, by whom we have the knowledge of thee, the God of angels and powers, and of every creature, and of the whole race of the righteous who live before thee, I give thee thanks that thou hast counted me worthy of this day and this hour, that I should have a part in the number of thy martyrs, in the cup of thy Christ, unto the resurrection of eternal life."

The reign of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (161-180) was a trying era for the Christians, at least in some parts of the Empire. At first thought, this seems contrary to what might have been expected from the administration of the mild and philosophic Emperor. Unquestionably, he was one of the noblest spirits that ever was intrusted with the Roman sceptre. Rarely has a ruler proposed for his own guidance a more excellent set of maxims. He warned himself against contracting the stain of the purple, and exhorted himself to cultivate every manly and social virtue. "Keep thyself," he wrote in his Meditations, "simple, good, pure, serious, free from affectation, a friend of justice, a,worshipper of the gods, kind, affectionate, strenuous in all proper acts." [vi. 30. Translation by George Long.] " Every moment think steadily, as a Roman and a man, to do what thou best in hand with perfect and simple dignity, and feeling of affection and freedom and justice, and to give thyself relief from all other thoughts; and then wilt thou give thyself relief, if thou doest every act of thy life as if it were the last, laying aside all carelessness and passionate aversion from the commands of reason, and all hypocrisy and self-love and discontent with the portion which has been given to thee." [ii. 5.] "Never value any thing as profitable to thyself which shall compel thee to break thy promise, to lose thy self-respect, to hate any man, to suspect, to curse, to act the hypocrite, to desire anything which needs walls and curtains." [iii. 7. ] In a variety of terms, he asserted the claims of human brotherhood, and urged to the practice of disinterested benevolence. "All things," he said, "are implicated with one another, and the bond is holy." [vii. 9.] " We are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and the lower teeth. To act against one another, then, is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed, and to turn away." [ii. 1.] "Men exist for the sake of one another. Teach them, then, or bear with them." [viii. 59.] " One thing here is worth a great deal, -- to pass thy life in truth and justice, with a benevolent disposition even to liars and unjust men." [vi. 47.] "When thou hast done a good act, and another has received it, why dost thou still look for a third thing besides these, as fools do, either to have the reputation of having done a good act, or to obtain a return?" [vli. 73. ] Marcus Aurelius, to be sure, was not above the defective teachings of Stoicism. He believed in its pantheistic fatalism, so paralyzing in the long-run, to the very virtue whichis so vigorously inculcated by the Stoic system. He seems, however, for himself, to have escaped this paralyzing influence. The elevated maxims uttered by him were not mere words, but the expressions of earnest thought and feeling. Still, there are abundant reasons why he shoald not have been interested to spare the Christians. In the first place, he was not free from a philosophic pride, which naturally beget enmity against the zealous and uncompromising sect. Their patient endurance of suffering, we may well presume, was a stumbling-block to the philosophic superiority which he assumed. A spirit of unconscious jealousy was stirred up in his heart. This is scarcely concealed in the only passage in which he refers to the Christians. After speaking of the readiness which the soul ought to have to meet death, and the fate which is to follow death, whether that be extinction or continued existence, he adds: "This readiness should come from a man's judgment, not from mere obstinacy, as with the Christians, but considerately, and with dignity, and in a way to persuade another without tragic show." [xi. 3.] Again, the political ideal of the philosophic Emperor urged to intolerance toward the Christians. In proportion as he was of a philosophizing temper, he was tenacious of an ideal. Now, it was a cardinal principle, in his political ideal, that the individual must unqualifiedly serve the universal, must be subservient to the interests of the State. "In the case of every appearance of harm," he says," apply this rule: If the State is not harmed by this, neither am I harmed." [v. 22.] "The end of all rational beings is to follow the reason and the law of the most ancient city and polity." [ii, 16.] The conduct of the Christians, therefore, in refusing to accede to the idolatrous demands of the State, and in maintaining their close-bound community within the State, could seem to him only irrational stubbornness. Finally, the reign of Marcus Aurelius was marked, to a peculiar degree, by calamities and dangers. Earthquakes, inundations, and plagues desolated the Empire, and enemies threatened its overthrow." Gloom and terror oppressed all hearts. There was a vague presentiment that the dominion of Rome would expire on the confines of the German forests." The superstitious fear excited by these adversities was enough to set the populace aflame against the Christians, and was not without its effect upon the conduct of the Emperor himself.

How far Marcus Aurelius was directly connected with the persecutions of his reign, stands somewhat in question. The friendly judgment of the Christians upon the Emperor in later times might be taken as implying that the severities came from the local authorities rather than from him. [The story that Marcus Aurelius in the latter part of his reign became favorably disposed to the Christians, because the prayers of a Christian legion saved his army by bringing the needed rain, is to be regarded as thoroughly disproved. The story is given by Tertullian, Ad Scapulam, iv., Apol., v, and by Eusebius, v. 5.] But Neander concludes that back of the persecutions were special imperial edicts. The severities actually inflicted, a law in the Roman collection which is assigned to the reign of this Emperor, [The law does not name the Christians, but it is altogether probable that they were numbered with the religious disturbers against whom sentence of banishment is denounced. The law is indicated in these terms: " Si quis aliquid fecerit, quo leves hominum animi superstitione numinis terrerentur, divus Marcus hujusmodi homines in insulam relegari rescripsit."] the declarations of Celsus, [Quoted by Origen, Cont. Celsum, viii. 39, 69.] and the references of Melito are the principal data which he adduces; and from these he draws the inference that the policy of Marcus Aurelius departed in two respects from that of Trajan, in that it prescribed that Christians should be sought out, and, instead of simply ordaining their punishment when proved to be guilty, authorized the application of torture in order to make them recant, the recantation being understood to forestall a capital sentence. The testimony of Melito, Bishop of Sardis, is in the form of an address to the Emperor, in which the hardships suffered by his co-religionists are thus depicted: "as never before, the race of the worshippers of God is pursued and harassed with new decrees in Asia. For shameless and greedy sycophants, finding a pretext in the edicts, plunder the innocent day and night. If this were done by your command, let it be granted that it is well,--for a just ruler would not decree injustice,--and we will gladly bear our allotment of death. We only make this request of you, that, having acquainted yourself with the authors of such a contention, you will decide righteously whether they deserve death and punishment, or safety and security. But if this decree and this new edict, which would not be proper even against barbarous enemies, are not from you, so much the more we beseech you not to leave us to be plundered in this way by the populace." [Eusebius, iv. 26.] It might be judged, from the conditional terms in which Melito refers to the edicts, that he doubted whether they emanated from the Emperor. His language, however, was quite likely not designed to give expression to real doubt, but only to avoid an appearance of excessive boldness in protesting against the edicts of his imperial Majesty.

Especially violent and fanatical was the persecution which fell upon the churches of Lyons and Vienne in Gaul, in the year 177. Tortured slaves were forced to false witness, and their testimony was used as a justification for barbarous severity toward every class of Christians. The aged bishop Pothinus, at Lyons, followed well the example which Polycarp had given. To the taunting question of the Legate, "Who is the God of the Christians?" he replied, "You will know when you are worthy." The slave virgin Blandina and the youth Ponticus showed a fortitude worthy of the highest rank and the maturest Christian life. In general, these churches were examples of the purer type of martyrdom. The confessors showed an exemplary humility. They declined the name of martyrs. Leaving that title to Him who died upon the cross, they said that they were but poor and ordinary confessors. With unfeigned desire they besought the prayers of their brethren, that they might be saved from denying their Lord. They mere full of patience and mildness toward their persecutors. But nothing seemed able to produce relentings in their enemies. Satiety with slaughter alone brought to an end the murderous work. Then mocking the hope of the resurrection, the heathen refused all requests for the privilege of burial, and throwing the ashes of the martyred Christians into the Phone exclaimed, "Now we will see if they will rise again." [Euseb., v. 1. 2.] The martyrdom of Symphorian in the neighboring city of Autun probably occurred near the same time.

Among those who suffered at Rome under Aurelius was a leading apologist of the age, Justin Martyr. In him we see an example of that class of sincere inquirers after truth who easily stepped from philosophy to Christianity. According to his own account he had successively tried the Stoic, the Peripatetic, and the Pythagorean philosophy. Neither of these gave satisfaction. The Platonic was for a time more gratifying." The perception of immaterial things," says he, "quite overpowered me; and the contemplation of ideas furnished my mind with wings, so that in a little while I supposed I had become wise." But one day an old man whom he met upon the shore of the sea, unfolded to him a wisdom based on the oracles of God, and so superior that all his previous acquisitions seemed but emptiness in comparison. "Straightway," he says, "a flame was kindled in my soul, and a love of the prophets and of those men who are friends of Christ possessed me; and,whilst revolving his words in my mind, I found this philosophy alone to be safe and profitable." [Dial. cum Tryph., i.-viii.] In turning Christian, Justin had no idea that he was ceasing to be a philosopher. Christianity appeared to him the absolute philosophy, and he still retained his philosopher's mantle. His writings correspond to this habit. He falls naturally into philosophizing, sometimes to an extent beyond the demands of the occasion. Some of his paragraphs contain far-fetched ideas, and reveal an excess of allegorical interpretation of the Scriptures. But he abounds in noble conceptions, and gives evidence that he was a man of good mind and of broad and kindly temper. The martyrdom of Justin is supposed to have occurred about 165. According to Eusebius, [Hist. Eccl., iv. 16. It appears from his own words, 2 Apol., iii., that Justin anticipated his fate.] the enmity of the Cynic philosopher Crescens was the mainspring of the prosecution against Justin. He died as became the Christian philosopher.

Commodus (181-192), the worthless son of Marcus Aurelius, naturally had more concern to feed his own pleasures than to subdue the Christians. Moreover, a mistress by the name of Marcia is said to have been friendly toward the Christians, and to have disposed the Emper or to leniency. Still the laws were unrepealed; and probably this reign proved no exception to the words of Irenæus: "The Church in every place, because of the love which she cherishes toward God, sends forward, throughout all time, a multitude of martyrs to the Father." [Cont. Hær., iv. 33. 9.] Indeed, we read of the sacrifice of a Roman senator and of a proconsular persecution in Asia Minor. [Tertullian, Ad Scapulam, v., represents that the proconsul was arrested in his persecuting design by the voluntary appearance of a great multitude of Christians before his judgment-seat. Ordering a few to be executed, he said to the rest, "O miserable men, if you wish to die, you have precipices or halters."

Septimus Severus (193-211) was favorable to the Christians at the beginning of his reign. Later he became sufficiently hostile to issue a decree forbidding under severe penalties the going over to Christianity. But, independent of the temper of the Emperor, the severe laws still standing gave large opportunity for local persecutions, and such raged with great fierceness in Egypt and North Africa. Clement of Alexandria, writing soon after the death of Commodus, testifies: "We see daily many martyrs before our eyes burned, crucified, beheaded." [Stromata, ii. 20.] Leonides, the father of Origen, perished in this Egyptian persecution. Potamiæna, a young woman of singular beauty, won general admiration by her constancy, and secured for Christ and martyrdom one of the soldiers who led her out to the place where she was tortured to death by boiling pitch. In North africa, also, Christ was abundantly glorified by the heroism of his followers. Barely has natural affection assailed a consecrated will with greater force than in the case of the young wives and mothers Perpetua and Felicitas. The sensibilities of the former in particular were sorely tried. On the one hand was an aged father beseeching her to spare his gray hairs, on the other the helplessness of her infant child calling for maternal nurture. But there was no wavering on the part of the meek heroine. Felicitas, in like manner, proved herself worthy of the crown.

The crazy Caracalla (211-218) was not disposed to molest the Church, and persecution occurred only at the instance of the local authorities. A time of comparative peace ensued. The reign of Maximin excepted, there was no serious discomfiture for the Christians till the middle of the century. Heliogabalus (218-222), who was himself a devotee of a foreign worship, being possessed with a fanatical preference for the impure Syrian worship of the sun, was not in a condition to persecute while absorbed in the effort to introduce his own rites among the heathen; and his death occurred before there was occasion for positive collision with the Christians. Alexander Severus (222-235), with his broad eclectic disposition, was naturally disposed to tolerance. Gordian, who succeeded the Thracian Maximin in 238, and Philip the Arabian (244-249), were mild toward the Christians. The latter, according to an early report, was himself a Christian. [Euseb., vi. 34.] But this is improbable. The silence of Origen, who was in communication with him, and the heathen pomp with which he celebrated the millennial year of Rome, [Gibbon, chap. vii.] are counter to such a conclusion.

This unaccustomed rest led not a few to hope that the storm of persecution was finally passed. But the more far-seeing were able to perceive that a new outbreak was imminent. Origen, for example, predicted that a fiery ordeal was already being prepared for the Church. "It is probable,"said he, "that the secure existence, so far as regards the world, enjoyed by believers at present, will come to an end, since those who calumniate Christianity in every way are again attributing the present frequency of rebellion to the multitude of believers, and to their not being persecuted by the authorities as in old times." [Cont. Celsum iii. 15.]

Origen's prophecy was no sooner spoken than the fulfilment began. Decius Trajan (249-251) made the thorough repression of Christianity a part of his plan of administration. His mind was fully possessed with the idea of restoration, the building up and fortifying of the Roman Empire on the plan of its ancient institutions. So large a foreign element as the Christians being considered a fatal hinderance to his scheme, their elimination was resolved upon as a political necessity. At first the whole effort was to frighten and to constrain into recantation. A limit was set before which all Christians were required to sacrifice to the heathen gods. If ally fled before that time, they were subjected to sentence of perpetual banishment, and their property was confiscated. Those who remained and held fast to their faith were not generally executed at once. If they persisted after a prescribed respite, they were subjected to imprisonment and torture. But, as the persecution progressed, capital inflictions became frequent. Three Bishops of Rome, Fabian, Cornelius, and Lucius, fell in succession (the last two, however, under Gallus). The Bishops of Jerusalem and Antioch were also sacrificed. Origen suffered grievously at Tyre from imprisonment and tortures. Egypt had many martyrs, among others a married pair who were nailed to neighboring crosses, and encouraged each other during their lengthened agony. Many who had entered the Church in the time of repose showed lack of courage and fortitude. The first stages of the persecution revealed the need of a sifting process. But many also glorified Christ by witnessing a good confession. [Euseb., vi. 39-42.]

The death of Decius hardly secured a breathing space for the Christians. His successor, Gallus, was quite as little disposed to tolerance. It was, however, as a purifled body that the Church now met the storm. Defections from the faith were rare. Some who previously had been wanting confirmed their repentance by steadfastness even unto death. "How many," writes Cyprian, "who had fallen have been restored by a glorious confession! " [Epist., Ivi., Ad Cornelium.]

Valerian (253-260) spared the Christians during the first years of his reign, but ere the close became as determined as Decius had been for their extirpation. He considered that it would be an effective piece of strategy, and one sparing of bloodshed, to deprive the Church of its leaders. His first step, therefore, was the banishment of the bishops. This was found to effect but little. The banished bishops continued by letter in communication with their hocks, and were loved all the more on account of their sufferings. Severer measures were therefore decreed. It was ordered that bishops, presbyters, and deacons should forthwith be executed with the sword; that senators and knights should lose their rank and property, and, in case they remained Christian, should in like manner be executed; that women of rank should suffer confiscation of property and banishment; that Christians serving at the imperial court should be treated as the property of the Emperor, and sent to work in chains upon his estates. [Gieseler, Kirchengeschichte, i.§ 55.] Among the first-fruits of this edict was the death of the Roman bishop Sixtus, and four deacons of his church (August, 258). The most distinguished victim, however, was Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage. During the Decian persecution, he had retired before the storm, considering that he could better serve his hock by this exercise of prudence. Now he believed that his hour had come. "God be praised," was his response as the proconsul pronounced sentence of death. His administration fell in one of the stormiest periods of the Church. The difficulties of his position were also increased by interned dissensions among the Christians of Carthage. It is the praise of Cyprian that he met the exigency with equal wisdom and firmness. Persuasive eloquence, practical sagacity, and strength of will, fitted him in a high degree for executive efficiency. He had less of mental force and alertness than Tertullian, whom he regarded as his theological master; but he was better fitted for discreet administration. Perhaps he laid too much stress upon the episcopal office. This, however, flowed from his conviction of the need of a strong government and an efficient bond of unity in the Church. He appears, on the whole, an eminent example of the high-minded and able bishop.

Upwards of forty years of comparative rest for the Church followed the Valerian persecution. Gallienus, the son and successor of Valerian, allowed the Christians the free use of their religion, and restored confiscated property to the different congregations, [Euseb., vii. 13.] - an act really equivalent to making Christianity a lawful religion, since on Roman principles only legal corporations could hold joint property. The Emperor Aurelian came near interrupting this comfortable status, but the hand of an assassin prevented the execution of his persecuting design (275). [Compare Euseb., vii. 30, with Lactantius, De Mort. Persecut., vi.] Again the Church began to dream that the fearful shadow had forever vanished. But an ordeal as severe as any which had been endured was being prepared. In extent and cruelty, the Diocletian persecution was a fit close to the attempts of heathen power to exterminate Christianity.

Diocletian belonged to that class of emperors who had a sincere regard for the welfare of the Empire. In promoting that welfare, however, he was not governed by a conservative spirit, and chose his own methods. He introduced a great change, both in the idea of the imperial office and the plan of the imperial administration. The former, he, so to speak, orientalized, cultivating in every way the impression that the emperor held his place not by the gift of people, senate, or soldiery, but by divine right. To the administration he gave a peculiar cast by his system of co-emperors. Feeling that "a single head can be severed at a single blow," that the fact that only one man needed to be removed, in order to make vacant the highest place in the world, was a constant temptation to conspiracy and assassination, he resolved upon a plan of associate rulers. In all, four were to hold the reins of power, -- two under the superior title of Augustus, and two under the title of Cæsar. In this his design was not to divide the Empire into several kingdoms, "but to quadruple the personality of the sovereign." [A.J. Mason, The Persecution of Diocletian.] The Augustus at Nicomedia, the Augustus at Milan, the Cæsar on the eastern, and the Cæsar on the western border, were reckoned as constituting one sovereignty. The laws were issued under the names of both Augusti, and one of these names always stood first in order. Promotions were to take place in the order of seniority; and, when the imperial dignity had been held for twenty years, there was to be a voluntary resignation.

Diocletian himself, though not above being influenced by pagan superstitions, was averse to beginning a general persecution of the Christians. But his son-in-law, the eastern Cæsar Galerius, was a man of ignorant and fanatical zeal for heathenism, and placed no bounds to his hatred of Christianity. In answer to his repeated urging, [So Lactantins represents, De Mort. Persecut., xi. Compare Euseb., Book VIII , appendix.] Diocletian at length took the first step; and, the first step being taken, retreat was next to impossible, short of a desperate attempt to destroy the Church. On the 23d of February, 303, a company of soldiers proceeded to the cathedral church of Nicomedia, the city of the imperial residence, and levelled the noble edifice to the ground. The next day a decree was issued, requiring the destruction of all Christian churches and all copies of the Bible, deposing from their position and abrogating the civil rights of all Christian officers, and reducing all Christians of ordinary rank to the legal status of slaves, in case they would not renounce their Christianity. A second edict (instigated by certain calamities, especially the breaking out of a fire in the palace, which was slanderously charged against the Christians) required the immediate seizure and imprisonment of all the officers of the Church. A third edict came in the form of an appendix to an amnesty to prisoners generally, such as it was customary to grant on great festival occasions. [So Mason contends, through a different description of the edict has sometimes been given.] This appendix stated that the amnesty was to apply to the Christian ministers, in case they would sacrifice; and to constrain them to sacrifice, any kind of torture might be used. A fourth edict, issued by the authority of the western Augustus, Maximian, and the Senate, advised that death and confiscation of property be visited upon all Christians who should refuse to sacrifice to the gods.

With the exception of Gaul, Britain, and Spain, the persecution was general. Constantius Chlorus was the Cæsar over that region, and, being favorable to the Christians, did little toward executing the edicts, beyond the destruction of churches. His son Constantine, who succeeded him in the midst of the agitation (306), was equally indisposed to severity. With intermissions, the persecution continued till the year 311, and in the most eastern districts, under Maximin, till 313. As is represented by Eusebius, the Christians were subjected to a long catalogue of horrors, some of which were witnessed by the historian himself. One of the more atrocious barbarities practised was the condemnation of Christian virgins to be abused in brothels. As was the case in the Decian persecution, which came after a long rest, many yielded to the pressure; but still a host were found capable of enduring all things in fidelity to Christ.

Though the boast was soon made that Christianity was destroyed, the plain facts of the case finally convinced the imperial persecutors themselves of their failure. Diocletian, who resigned his piece in 305, saw the religion which he had attempted to extirpate more definitely and fully endowed with legal right than it had ever been previously. The misery of his closing days was in pitiable contrast with his former greatness. Galerius upon his dying bed (311), suffering like a Herod Agrippa, issued an edict securing religious tolerance to the persecuted. The edict was a strange document, corresponding to the mixed emotions of the tortured Emperor, his hatred on the one hand toward the Christians, and his desire on the other to appease the Christians' God. "Singular document!" exclaims M. de Broglie, "in part insolent, in part suppliant, which begins with insulting the Christians, and ends with requesting them to beseech their Master for him." [Quoted by Mason.] The following were the closing words of the edict: "Wherefore, in consideration of this our indulgence, it will be their duty to pray to their God for our welfare, and the welfare of the State, and of themselves, that on all sides the State may be found in good condition, and that they may be able to live without anxieties in their own homes." [Euseb., viii. 17; Lactantius, De Mort. Persecut., xxviv.] What was lacking in this decree was soon supplied. The edict of Milan, issued by Constantine in conjunction with the eastern Cæsar Licinius (January, 313), was a broad and explicit declaration of religious tolerance. "Having long since perceived," says the edict, "that religious liberty should not be denied, but that it should be granted to the judgment and the desire of each one to perform divine duties according to his own preference, we had given orders that each one, and the Christians among the rest, have the liberty to observe the religion of his choice, and his peculiar mode of worship." The edict then goes on to state that the limitations contained in the former decree are to be regarded as cancelled, so that the most unrestricted freedom of worship is assured to the Christians. Command is also given for the restoration of the corporate property which had been taken from the churches. [Euseb., x. 5; Lactantius, De Mort. Persecut., xlviii.]

The issue of the Diocletian persecution demonstrated that Christianity was unconquerable. It came now by right to the throne of the Cæsars. By long, patient, and victorious resistance to the exterminating efforts of heathen power, it had proved itself the child of Providence. Above all other causes of its success shines forth its inherent Heaven-born virtue. The five causes assigned by Gibbon [Chap. xv.] a may be allowed a place; namely, (1) the inflexible zeal of the Christians coming in a purified form from the Jewish religion, (2) the doctrine of the future life set forth in a most effective manner, (3) the miraculous powers ascribed to the primitive Church, (4) the pure and austere morals of the Christians, (5) the union and discipline of the Christian republic. But the admission of these causes by no means excludes a higher element, or reduces the establishment of Christianity in the world to a mere natural phenomenon. What brought about the concurrence of these five causes? What caused the causes themselves, the zeal, the vivid sense of the future life, the pure morals, the fraternal union? Surely the explanation most satisfactory to an unbiased judgment is that which points to the supernatural origin and virtue of Christianity.

The statement of Gibbon, that the victims of the Spanish persecution in a single province and in a single reign probably outnumbered the martyrs of the first three centuries, [Chap. xvi.] needs to be verified by a much greater array of evidence than he has given. Only the distance of the field of these early conflicts, and the scantiness of memorials, can save to such a conclusion a color of plausibility. Were it not for the more ample records of the modern era, some future Gibbon might make out a very fair showing for the verdict that only a few hundreds were sacrificed by Spanish bigotry. No doubt there were in the modern persecutions elements of unrelenting severity, as well as of judicial mockery, which did not pertain to the earlier. A Roman magistrate would have been ashamed to employ some of the methods freely used by the Inquisition. Still, the minifying estimate of Gibbon is in no wise justified. Roman intolerance may not have made as great a havoc as has been sometimes imagined; nevertheless, the victims were many. Efforts at extermination, such as were conducted under Decius, Valerian, and Diocletian, at times when the Christians were numbered by the million, together with the local persecutions which broke out at intervals during two centuries and a half, must have resulted in the sacrifice of great multitudes. But the number executed is no proper measure of the suffering endured. The slandered, the tortured, the imprisoned, those condemned to slavish toil, were in many cases less fortunate than those upon whom was visited the penalty of death. It was the heroic age of the Church, the age of sanctified endurance. Many chapters were written here which cover the name of Christian with peculiar lustre. Detracting phases are indeed apparent. Even the martyr zeal was sometimes corrupted. Illustration was given of the truth that long-continued persecution is not wholly a purifying agency. Some, especially in connection with the later ordeals, were betrayed into a kind of theatric and ostentatious temper, and inclined to a fanatical overestimate of martyrdom. The better part of the Church, indeed, protested against this perversion. "Needless exposure to peruecution," writes Clement of Alexandria, "makes one an accomplice in the crime of the persecutor." [Strom., iv. 10.] "Martyrdom," said Cyprian to his flock, "is not in your power, but in the condescension of God." In the divine judgment, too, the merit of martyrdom is not dependent upon an outward occasion for suffering or death." It is one thing for the spirit to be wanting for martyrdom, and another for martyrdom to have been wanting for the spirit. God does not ask for our blood, but for our faith." [De Mortalitate, xvii. Compare Epist., lxxxii. (in Ante-Nicene Library).] The result, however, despite these wholesome maxims, was a tendency at the close of the persecutions, in no inconsiderable part of the Church, to superstitiously laud the virtue of martyrdom, and to render undue honors to the memories of those who had suffered. But giving full weight to the disparaging features, there is still an ample balance on the side of the persecuted Church. Beyond doubt, from this field of bloody strife tens of thousands were exalted to a place in the company of those who have come out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

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