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The Early Church, from Ignatius to Augustine by  George Hodges
Table of Contents


 

 

THE STRUGGLE FOR LIFE

[30] AT home, among their kinfolk and acquaintance, the Christian were met with immediate hostility. They were put out of the synagogues, and worse punishments were visited upon them.

In the Roman world, they were at first treated with contempt and aversion, and then persecuted. The persecution increased from attacks on individuals and groups to concerted municipal and even imperial action against Christian society. Twice the government made an organized attempt to destroy the obnoxious religion.

I. THE TOLERANT STATE PERSECUTES THE BENEVOLENT CHURCH

That Christianity should have been thus received in the Roman world is remarkable, because one of the most notable characteristics of the church was its benevolence, and one of the most marked characteristics of the empire was it tolerance.

The church was a benevolent institution. There is indeed a benevolence which seeks mainly to improve the intellectual, moral and spiritual condi- [31] tion of the neighborhood. It endeavors to impose its own interests and enthusiasms upon those who are interested in other aspects of life. It has new standards, and calls for conformity to them. It says, You must be like us. And this is instinctively resented by the neighbors, who hate to be reformed. But the benevolence of the church appeared in the effort to mitigate conditions which all men desire to have changed. The Christians ministered to the sick and to the poor.

The church remembered the social precepts and example of Jesus Christ. His constant emphasis on the supreme value of brotherly love—extended not only to the least human creatures but even to the most hostile—set the note of the ideal life.

Thus the first recorded act of the Christian ministry was the healing of the sick, when Peter and John made a lame man to walk, at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple. Thereafter, the Christians did that kind of helpful service every day. It was confessed by their neighbors, even in the midst of the accusations which pronounced the Christians the most unsocial people of all people, that they were very kind to all who were in trouble. It was perceived that when the plague came the Christians stayed and nursed the sick, while other fled; and it was seen that this fraternal care was bestowed not [32] only on the brethren in the society, but on all who needed it, without distinction.

The first recorded act of the Christian congregation was the appointment of persons to attend to the feeding of poor widows in Jerusalem. Thereafter the records of Christian ministration to destitute, overlooked and unprotected persons continued without interruption. The first account of a Christian service, after the New Testament, is Justin Martyr's description of a friendly feast, sacramental but social, at which a collection was made for the assistance of the poor. The church was the association wherein the rich and the poor met together, and at first, as in Jerusalem, had all things in common. St. Paul was engaged on his missionary journeys not only in the preaching of sermons and the founding of churches, but in gathering Gentile money for the support of poor Christians in Jerusalem.

Not only was the church devoted to the practice of benevolence, but the state was committed to the principle of tolerance. The pagan state was tolerant of religious differences to an extent to which the Christian state, when its turn came, showed no parallel until very recent times. It is true that in the reign of Tiberius votaries of Isis were expelled from Rome; but that was on account of scandal. It is true that the Jews were [33] similarly treated in the time of Claudius; but that was on account of a riot. And these expelled persons, after a decent interval, quietly returned. Eclecticism, as a free choice among the gods; syncretism, as a combination of creeds; mysticism, as a subordinating of all forms of ritual and religion in the endeavor to find God in direct communion with the unseen, were characteristic of the age. It was permitted to men of letters to ridicule or deny the gods. Courteous consideration was given even to so exclusive a religion as that of the Jews. No people were persecuted for their religion, except the Christians.

The tolerant state persecuted the benevolent church for two reasons: first on account of a general dislike, then on account of an increasing dread.

Dislike of the Christians colors the earliest references to them in contemporary writing. It appears in Tacitus, in his history, where he speaks of the Roman Christians in the region of Nero (A.D. 64). It appears also in Pliny, in his letter concerning the Christians of Bithynia in the reign of Trajan (113).

In the history of Tacitus, the Christians are disliked on the ground that they are enemies of society.

The rumor spread in Rome that the great fire which destroyed a considerable part of that city [34] had been set by Nero. He was notoriously fond of fires, and had been heard to say that if the world should ever burn, as some predicted, he hoped that he might live to see it. And he was the only person whom the conflagration benefited. It cleared the ground for extensive building operations which he had long desired to undertake. At last, when the common talk began to take on an ugly tone, so that Nero feared a mob, it seemed wise to divert the blame. It was laid upon the Christians.

The Christians were exposed to such a charge because they were "queer." They were unlike their neighbors. Thus they encountered that tremendous social force which makes for uniformity. Society, by a kind of instinct, resents the assertion of difference. Even to-day, when it is more hospitable to dissent than it has ever been since the foundation of the world, it still insists on observance of the common customs. Any nonconformist, in dress or in behavior, is immediately ridiculed. Formerly such a person was stoned, or hanged, according to the degree of his offence. The Christians were queer. They stood apart from both the religion and the recreation of their neighbors: they hated the images which all other people worshipped, and the games which all other people enjoyed.

[35] The Christians were not only queer but mysterious. They met in private houses, secretly, under cover of night. Nobody knew how many they were, and ignorance magnified their number into portentous proportions. Nobody knew what hey did when they met together. Thus they were easily accused of abominable practices. Vague rumors, beginning with mistaken reports of Christian sacraments, declared that they put infants to death, and that they ate human flesh. Even in our own time the idea of ritual murder makes its way easily from one to another in Russia, and is believed by persons who are otherwise intelligent.

Therefore Nero put the blame upon the Christians. Many were arrested, and on confession that they were Christians were condemned. Some were sent into the arena to be torn by wild beasts; some were smeared with pitch and made to serve as flaming torches along the paths of the imperial gardens. This, we are told, continued until Rome was weary of it. In a city accustomed to the tragedies of the games, where sympathy was dulled by the daily spectacle of pain, this implies some extended space of time.

The charge of incendiarism fell to the ground, but the dislike continued and increased. Tacitus says that the Christians were enemies of civiliza- [36] tion, being filled with hatred of society (odium humani generis). From that time, Christianity was a capital offense. There seems to have been no law to that effect, but a precedent was established. The cases of the Christians came up not in the civil courts but in the police courts, and were disposed of by discretion rather than by legislation. From the year 64 a Christian was exposed to arrest and capital punishment, like a brigand or a pirate.

In the letters of Pliny, the Christians appear as persons obstructive to business.

A manuscript came to light in Paris, about A.D. 1500, which contained the correspondence between Pliny and Trajan. It was seen and used by a number of persons during several years, when it suddenly disappeared and has never since been found. There is no question as to its authenticity, but its appearance and disappearance, like the passing light of a comet, show how little we know about the conditions of life among the Christians in the beginning of the second century. For only in the pages of this fleeting manuscript have we any information concerning the distresses of the Christians in Bithynia. It is an easy inference that there were a hundred similar persecutions about which no record or tradition has remained. Even in the New Testament there are intervals of [37] silence, so that nobody knows, for example, what St. Paul did for ten years after his conversion. It is as if we were reading a history in which pages have been torn out by the handful. There was a persecution under the emperor Domitian, about 95, which the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews may have been expecting when he cited, for the inspiration of those who had not yet resisted unto blood, the examples of the heroes and martyrs of old time; it may have been the distress referred to in the First Epistle of Peter, where some suffered not as a thief or a murderer, but "as a Christian."

Pliny was sent out as governor to Bithynia and parts adjacent. The province lay east of what we now call Constantinople, and north of the Syria, Cilicia and Cappadocia of the Acts of the Apostles. It formed the southern shore of the Black Sea. There had been much mismanagement of governmental affairs there, especially in finance, and Pliny was appointed to bring the confusion into order. In going about the country on this errand, he came upon the Christians.

He found so many of them, both in villages and cities, that in some places the temples were deserted. He proceeded against them on the basis of information brought to him, and according to the custom which had prevailed since the days of Nero. [38] But the matter was complicated by two considerations: in part by the fact that great numbers of persons were thus incriminated, especially on charges made by anonymous letters; and in part by the fact that some who were accused confessed that they had once been Christians,—some said twenty-five years ago,—but had long since repented of that error. How ought such cases to be treated? And, even where the case was plain, what ought to be done with such a multitude of offenders?

Pliny wrote to Trajan for instructions. Shall I punish the Christians without regard to age or social situation? Shall I pardon those who are willing to renounce Christianity? Shall I proceed against the Christians as Christians, or only by reason of offences? Pliny told Trajan what he had learned from peasants, and from such of the faithful as he had examined under torture. They are harmless people, he said, who meet daily to sing hymns to Christ as to a god, to partake of a common meal of innocent food, and to bind themselves to do no wrong. He remarked incidentally that dealers in fodder for animals to be used in sacrifice had begun to return to their business.

Trajan replied that obstinate adherence to the Christian name must be punished as usual, but that nobody is to be sought out, or arrested on [39] any anonymous accusations. The penitent, he added, may be pardoned.

Pliny's remark about the fodder suggests the second cause of the general dislike. In the time of Nero, the Christians were disliked for social reasons. They interfered with business. The fodder-sellers of Bithynia objected to them, like the image-makers of Ephesus. Behind the persecution of the Christians in the Roman Empire there were economical causes,—trade antagonism.

To the dislike with which the Christians were regarded in the Roman world was added, as a second reason for their persecution, an increasing dread. They were feared by the two extremes of society,—by the poorest and most ignorant of the people on the one side, and by the best and wisest on the other. They were hated alike by the masses and by the magistrates.

The dread of the Christians by the masses was based largely on superstitions. The people were in fear of the gods. When calamity came—plague, earthquake, fire, flood, defeat in battle—they saw it in the anger of the gods. This was the universal doctrine of the ancient world. The second century was a time of unusual disaster, and the third was little better. There were portents in the earth and in the sky and in the sun. There was [40] distress of nations with perplexity, such as seemed to indicate that end of all things which was predicted in the Gospels. To the general mind it was plain that there was indignation in heaven. The gods were sore displeased.

It was also plain that the Christians were the enemies of the gods. All other men accepted the current theology. The philosophers, indeed, conformed without much faith; some of them ridiculed the gods. And the Jews conformed from motives of prudence, denying the existence of all gods but their own, but not making a serious protest. The only non-conformists were the Christians; and theirs was an aggressive and militant non-conformity. They were not content to absent themselves from the temples and to abstain quietly from recognition of the divinities of Rome. They vigorously spoke against them. They boldly denounced idolatry, and destroyed idols. They were accounted atheists and antagonists of the gods.

The logic of the situation was plain. When any community was visited with calamity—if fire broke out, if plague appeared—the blame fell on the Christians. They had provoked it. The gods had sent it because the Christians impiety and insult. Let the Christians, then, suffer for their sins. Let the angry gods be pacified by Christian blood. "The Christians to the lions!"

[41] Even the magistrates shared in the dread thus arising from superstition, but they had also a more serious reason for alarm in the political situation. They saw the essential need of unity. The empire was composed of conquered provinces, held together by force of arms. The state lived in continual peril of revolution. The least appearance of disaffection must be met with immediate restraint by the local magistrate. Event the assembling of small companies of men in associations professedly social but possibly disloyal was forbidden by the government. Pliny asked Trajan to permit the organization of a fire company at Nicomedia, but Trajan refused. He was willing to provide improved apparatus, but he would not let the men hold meetings. The incident shows the nervousness of the administration.

The empire was in peril not only from revolt but from invasion. Along the frontiers were powerful enemies, civilized and uncivilized, waiting on any appearance of weakness to break the barrier. The situation demanded unfailing loyalty. Any civil strife might bring the empire to destruction.

Thus we may understand the possibility of such a tragedy as the massacre of the Theban Legion. In the latter part of the third century (268) there was a peasant's war in Gaul. The peasants arose [42] against the landlords and burned their houses. Thus they protested against the situation which had become intolerable. The emperor Maximian, whom Diocletian had made his colleague in the West, marched with an army to put the peasants down. Before the battle, the emperor summoned the army to pray for victory; that is, he directed the observance of certain rites appealing to the Roman gods. The Theban Legion, which was composed of Christians, refused to take part in these prayers. The emperor directed that the legion should be decimated. But the killing of a tenth of the men did not dismay the others, and again the legion was decimated, and so on till it was destroyed. The story may not be true, but it illustrates the state of mind of Roman generals who found soldiers in the ranks whose Christian consciences forbade them to obey orders.

Thus it was that the tolerant state persecuted the benevolent church. The Christians were disliked, for reasons partly social and partly commercial; and they were dreaded as being hostile both to the gods and to the empire. And they were continually increasing. Nobody knew where the evil might next appear, perhaps in his own family. Christianity seemed like a contagious disease, like a plague whose mature was not understood and for [43] which there was no remedy, in the face of whose silent and secret progress men grew desperate.

Moreover, the Christians invited intolerance by their own intolerant position. The religious liberty of the empire had only two limitations. It was required that everybody should leave his neighbor's religion alone; it was also required that everybody should pay to the official religion—especially as represented by the image of the emperor—the decent respect of outward conformity. The Christians defied these limitations. They declared, both in season and out of season, that all religions but their own were false; and they refused to render even the outward form or reverence for the emperor's image as a symbol of the state. Publicly and persistently they invited enmity, as the outspoken enemies of all the religions of their neighbors.

II. LOCAL PERSECUTIONS

The age of persecution includes first a period of local attack. Now in one place and now in another, arising for the most part from the dislike and dread of the masses of the people. A public calamity was likely to be visited upon the Christians. Then follows a period of general attack, in the time of Decius and Valerian (in the middle of the third century), and in the time of Diocletian [44] and Galerius (in the beginning of the fourth). On each of these occasions the Christians were under the ban of imperial decrees by which the government was endeavoring to destroy them. The purpose was to maintain the unity of the empire.

An adequate history of the age of persecution will never be written. It is as impossible as to write an adequate history of the distress and tragedy of any war. Certain general facts may be set down, certain figures may be added up: so many martyred here and there and in such and such inhuman ways,—so many slain with the sword, so many burned with fire, so many stoned to death, so many frozen with cold, so many starved with hunger, so many drowned in the sea, so many scourged with whips, so many stabbed with forks of iron, so many fastened to the cross. Even on the statistical side the record is incomplete. But if we were to multiply the figures to two or by five, still we should be dealing only with the pains of body. We should miss the vital facts of faith and courage and self-sacrifice and glad devotion which made the martyrdom significant.

Out of the general terror, however, there are stories which illuminate the darkness. Sometimes when the martyr was a person of more than usual importance, or the torture was more fierce, [45] or the courage was more fine than usual, some who stood by wrote a record, and the narrative, passed from hand to hand and read in secret meetings of the Christians, remains for us to read to-day.

Ignatius was bishop of Antioch at the beginning of the second century, while Pliny was in Bithynia. Under circumstances of which we are not informed, he was arrested and condemned, and sent to be put to death in Rome. He seems not to have possessed the privilege of Roman citizenship, else he might have been exempt from that for of punishment. A sentence in one of his letters suggests that he may even have been a slave before he became a bishop. Such a social position would have been in accord with the conditions under which the church was then recruited, and would have expressed its splendid disregard of the artificial positions of society. The bishop was to be exposed to wild beasts in the games of the Colosseum. He was put in charge of a company of ten soldiers, who, he says, made the whole journey a long martyrdom. Thus they traversed the country by the road which ran from Antioch to Troas, across the length of Asia Minor; thence to Philippi, and so by land and sea to Rome.

It was a very humble and pathetic triumphant procession. In every town the Christians met the martyr and ministered to him, and from neigh- [46] boring places, off the line of the journey, the churches sent delegations of devout people with messages of faith and sympathy. In two cities, on the coast of Asia Minor towards Europe—in Smyrna and in Troas—he stayed long enough to write letters. In Smyrna, he wrote to those of the churches whose messengers had met him—the Ephesians, the Trallians, the Magnesians—and a fourth letter to the church of the city which was his journey's end,—the Romans. In Troas, he wrote three letters, two to churches which he had visited, in Philadelphia and Smyrna, and one to the bishop of Smyrna, named Polycarp. Other letters were added to this list by the zeal or error of a later time, but these seven are authentic.

The letters show a keen sense of the perils of division. It was reported to Ignatius, as it had already been reported to St. Paul from Corinth, that there was disagreement among the Christians. Even in the face of persecution, when all their strength was needed against a common enemy, they were contending among themselves. This was due in part to the novelty of the situation. The new churches were formulating their faith and organizing their life by the process of experiment. Such a process involved discussion, and discussion disclosed the inevitable differences which belong to human nature. Some men were [47] conservative, some were progressive. A new sense of freedom increased the eagerness of these debates.

Against the individualism thus appearing, Ignatius protested. In the strongest language he urged the people to stand together, to subordinate their differences, and to be loyal to their bishops. "Obedience to the bishop," he said, "is obedience to God." "We ought to regard the bishop as the Lord himself." "Do nothing apart from the bishop." "He who does anything apart from the bishop serves the devil." These vigorous sentences provided material in later years for the use of churchmen in controversy with their brethren who were in a state of schism. But the intention of Ignatius was practical rather than ecclesiastical. The bishop as the pastor of the church was the appointed leader of the congregation. He was the natural centre of the unity of the people. Their progress, even their existence, depended on the strength of the united brotherhood.

The chief interest of the martyr, however, was in his approaching martyrdom. He wrote to the Romans begging that they would not intercede for him, nor try to save him. "Grant me nothing more than that I may be poured out a libation to God." "Come fire," he cried, "and iron, and grapplings with wild beasts, cutting and manglings, [48] wrenching of bones, breaking of limbs, crushing of the whole body; come cruel tortures of the devil to assail me! Only be it mine to attain unto Jesus Christ." "I write you in the midst of life, eagerly longing for death."

With these seven letters, thus illuminating for a moment the way on which he went rejoicing to his death, the saint goes forward on his journey and is seen no more. Polycarp sent copies of some of them, perhaps of all, to the Christians of Philippi, at their request. Thus they were preserved. Then on some Roman holiday, in the crowded Colosseum, Ignatius was devoured by beasts.

Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna to whom Ignatius wrote, was born about A.D. 69, the year before the destruction of Jerusalem. He spent his youth in Ephesus, the city which for a time after the fall of Jerusalem became the centre of Christian life and activity. Tradition finds St. Philip near by, in Hierapolis, and locates the closing years of St. John in Ephesus itself. Polycarp would have been about thirty years old when St. John died.

To Polycarp, Ignatius wrote with affection, giving him encouragement and counsel, as an elder brother to a younger. "Be diligent," he said, "be diligent. Be sober as God's athlete. Stand like a beaten anvil."

Among the disciples of Polycarp at Smyrna [49] were two young men, Irenĉus and Florinus. Florinus afterwards fell into heresy and Irenĉus, who had by that time become bishop of Lyons, wrote to dissuade him. In the course of his admonitions he reminded Florinus of their old teacher. "I can tell," he said, "the very place in which the blessed Polycarp used to sit when he discoursed, and his manner of life, and his personal appearance, and the discourses which he held before the people, and how he would describe his intercourse with John and the rest of those who had seen the Lord, and how he would relate their words. And whatsoever things he had heard from them about the Lord and about his miracles or about his teaching, Polycarp, as having received them from eyewitnesses of the life of the Word, would relate altogether in accordance with the Scriptures. . . . And I can testify in the sight of God that if that blessed and apostolic elder had heard anything of the kind, [i.e., such as Florinus was foolishly maintaining] he would have cried out, and stopped his ears, and would have said after his wont, 'O good God, for what times hast thou kept me, that I should endure these things,' and would have fled from the very place where he was sitting or standing when he heard such words."

Irenĉus remembered also concerning Polycarp that one day meeting the heretic Marcion in the [50] street in Rome, Marcion said, "Don't you recognize me, bishop?" and Polycarp replied, "Indeed I do. I know you very well; you are the first-born of Satan!"

These incidents attribute to the saint a narrow mind and a hasty temper, and disclose a disposition to meet error by the easy but entirely ineffective method of abusing the heretic rather than by the difficult but only convincing method of reasoning with him fairly. The impression which they make upon the modern mind is somewhat mitigated by the story of the dealings of Polycarp with Anicetus, bishop of Rome. The two bishops represented the two parts of the Roman world, Greek and Latin, East and West. They conferred as to the true date of Easter. According to the common usage of both East and West, the date of Easter was decided by the Jewish Passover, and the Passover was determined by the vernal equinox, and the equinox was the day of the month which the Jews called the fourteenth of Nisan, and the Christians called the twenty-first of March. The full moon after the equinox marked the day of the Passover. The Eastern Christians kept the Easter on the day, whether it was a Sunday or not; it might be a Monday or a Friday. The Western Christians waited for a Sunday. Polycarp informed Anicetus that the Eastern cus- [51] tom was authorized by the word of St. John himself. The apostolic precedent was entirely on his side. It is an interesting fact that this argument It is an interesting fact that this argument made no impression upon the mind of Anicetus. He liked the new way better; the argument from authority did not greatly appeal to him. The bishops, however, agreed to disagree. Neither could convince the other, but neither carried the disagreement to the extreme of excommunication. The bishop of Smyrna celebrated the holy communion at the altar of the bishop of Rome, and returned, leaving his blessing.

At last in Smyrna, at a festival season, the proconsul—the Asiarc—being present and presiding at the games, a number of Christians were arrested, for some cause unknown, and were ordered to immediate execution. They were exposed to the lions, in the amphitheatre. A cry arose for Polycarp, and mounted police found him, in his country-place, and took him to the city. On the way the chief of police met him, the brother of an eminent and devout woman in the bishop's congregation. He took Polycarp into his chariot, and tried in a friendly way to persuade him to offer incense in order to conciliate the mob, but to no purpose. Then, losing his temper, he threw the old man out into the road. The stadium was crowded when the guards arrived with Polycarp, and a [52] great roar of hostile shouting greeted him. But he heard a steady voice saying, "Polycarp, be strong and play the man." The proconsul urged him to give up his foolish faith and abandon his disciples. "Disown them," said the proconsul, "cry, 'Away with the atheists!'" And this the martyr did, facing the crowd, and crying, "Away with the atheists!" but it was plain that he and the proconsul meant quite different persons. "Come," said the judge, "revile Christ, and you shall go free." Polycarp answered in words which have never been forgotten. "Fourscore and six years have I served Him, and He hath done me no wrong. How then can I speak evil of my King who saved me?" Then in the arena they heaped wood together, and tied him to a stake, and burned him. And the faithful gathered his charred bones together, and laid them up as sacred treasures,—

Assured the fiery trial, fierce though fleet,

Would from this little heap of ashes lend

Wings to the conflagration of the world.

When Irenĉus, the disciple of Polycarp, became bishop of Lyons, he took the place of Pothinus who with others of his flock had been put to death for loyalty to the name of Christ. In Pater's "Marius the Epicurean" (pp. 421-426) the hero of the book coming in the dark of the early morning to a celebration of the sacrament, hears a reading [53] of the letter in which the survivors of the persecution in Lyons describe the tragedy to the churches.

The common hatred of the Christians had been increasing in Lyons, and they were insulted in the streets. A rumor, generally believed, accused them of abominable crimes, especially declaring that they followed the example of Œdipus, who had married his own mother, and of Thyestes, who had eaten his children. The conditions were such as have preceded, in our day, the massacre of Jews in Russia. Christians were hooted, stoned and beaten. Then, in the absence of the Roman governor, some were imprisoned until his return. He caused them to be examined with torture so cruel as to call out a public protest from one of the brethren, Vettius Epagathus, a man of distinction in the city, who asked to be permitted to testify that "there is among us nothing ungodly or impious." He was thereupon thrust into prison with the others. The examination of certain pagan slaves of Christian masters added to the popular fury, for they declared that all the accusations were founded upon fact.

The wrath of the people, and of the governor, fell with special force upon Sanctus, a deacon from the neighboring town of Vienne, and upon Blandina, a slave girl, weak in body but invincible in [54] spirit. They were tortured until their continuance in life seemed miraculous. Finally Sanctus was roasted in the arena in an iron chair, and Blandina, thrown in a net before a wild bull, was gored and trampled to death. Attalus, having been led around the arena with the inscription, "This is Attalus the Christian," was burned in the chair; and Ponticus, a boy of fifteen years, died after "the entire round of torture." These all agreed in crying in the midst of their pain, "I am a Christian, and no evil is done amongst us." The bishop Pothinus, being ninety years of age, died in prison, after being beaten by a mob. The bodies of the martyrs were burned to ashes, and the ashes were swept into the Rhone.

A little later, in the beginning of the third century, occurred the martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas. This took place in Carthage, when Septimius Severus was emperor of Rome, and at a time when the birthday of his son Geta was being celebrated. The narrative appears, for the most part, in the words of Perpetua herself. She was a lady of good birth and education, twenty-two years old, married, and having an infant son. Felicitas was a slave girl. They were arrested, with other young people, while they were receiving Christian instruction, not yet having been baptized. Perpetua's father, a man of gray hairs, [55] begged her day after day, for his sake, and for her child's sake, to deny the Christian name. And these importunities added to her distress. But she continued constant. One night, in the prison, she dreamed that she saw a golden ladder reaching up to heaven, having sharp weapons fastened to the sides, and underneath a great dragon, "who lay in wait for those who ascended, and frightened them from the ascent." Up this she climbed, setting her feet on the head of the dragon, and came into a garden where one in white, dressed as a shepherd, bade her welcome. Saturus, the teacher, was devoured in the arena by a leopard; Perpetua and Felicitas were tossed and gored in nets.

III. GENERAL PERSECUTIONS

If now we multiply these four stories indefinitely, to the fury of the masses add the deliberate policy of the magistrates, and extend the time over a space of ten years twice, we get an idea of the two general persecutions, the Decian and the Diocletian.

The Decian persecution began in the middle of the third century. The empire had been celebrating the thousandth anniversary of the founding of Rome (A.D. 248). It was an occasion which summoned all patriotic and reflective persons to [56] compare the present with the past. The comparison gave no ground for satisfaction. Roman power was failing, Roman character was degenerating. To the fear of the Goths was added the fear of the Persians. The emperor Decius, coming to the throne in these evil times, felt that the first step toward a restoration of the Roman of the Roman valor was a revival of the fine old Roman virtues, and it seemed to him that the best way to bring back the old victorious virtues was to restore the old religion. To this, accordingly, he addressed himself, and began his campaign for reform with a resolute attempt to destroy what he considered to be the chief obstacle in the way of his pious restoration. Following what seemed to him the commands of conscience, and acting in the sincere spirit of patriotism, honestly desiring to do what was best for the empire over which he ruled, he endeavored to eliminate the Christian Church.

The imperial decree called upon all persons to declare their loyalty to the Roman religion by offering sacrifice. After a long period of general peace, during which many had become Christians conventionally, without individual conviction, the decree was answered by the submission of multitudes. Some cast incense on the altar willingly; some came so pale and trembling that "the crowd mocked them as plain cowards who dared [57] neither die nor sacrifice." Some purchased certificates to the effect that they had complied with the decree, though they had not, and the word libellus, certifying such a certificate, gave to these persons the name libellatics, by which they were unfavorably known after the persecution was over. Hardly, however, had these troubles fairly begun, when Decius went to fight the Goths, and was killed in battle.

Valerian, the successor of Decius, continued the persecution. A man of advanced years, and of blameless life, a friend of Christians, he saw the empire beset on every side by powerful enemies. He that the only safety lay in united strength. He had reason to suspect the loyalty of the Christians; at least, there were some among them who were eagerly anticipating the ruin of the empire. Commodian, in his "Carmen Apologeticum" was watching for the end of the world. "Soon the Goths will burst against the Danube, and with them comes Apllyon their king to put down by arms the persecution of the saints. Rome is captured. Goths and Christians are as brethren." Accordingly, the good Valerian carried on the contention which the good Decius had begun. To the demand that every Christian should renounce his religion by offering sacrifice, he added [58] a prohibition of Christian meetings, even in the catacombs.

Then when Xystus, bishop of Rome, defied the decree by publicly transferring to the catacombs the bodies of St. Peter and St. Paul, the tragedy began. The bishop of Rome was martyred in the catacombs. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, was beheaded. The sentence which was pronounced upon Cyprian expresses the mind of the persecution. "Your life, Cyprian, has long been a life of sacrilege; you have gathered around you many accomplices in your criminal designs; you have set yourself up as an enemy to the gods of Rome and to their sacred rites; nor have the pious and deeply revered emperors Valerian and Gallienus been able to bring you back to their religion. Therefore, as the upholder of a great crime, as the standard-bearer of the sect, I must now make an example of you in the presence of your associates in guilt. The laws must be sealed with your blood. Our sentence therefore is that Thascius Cyprianus be put to death with the sword."

That was in 258. Two years later, Valerian in defeat was captured by the Persians, and was never seen again. The persecution was thus concluded. It had, indeed, disclosed at the beginning a shameful number of Christians whose religion has no serious significance, but it had finally [59] shown a strength in the church which the whole power of the state had not been able to subdue.

The Diocletian persecution fell upon the Christians in the beginning of the fourth century, after more than forty years of peace. During those years Christianity had been steadily growing; Christians had found their religion no hindrance in the way to high office in the state; many of them were in the palace. Splendid churches in all the greater cities bore witness not only to the popularity of the Christian religion, but to a general opinion that the days of persecution were ended finally.

The conditions which gave rise to renewed contention against the church do not appear plainly. No unusual disasters or defeats suggested that the Christians were again angering the gods. The opposition may have been steadily but quietly increasing in proportion to the success of Christianity. To the patriotic Romans who felt that the church was a serious menace both to the Roman religion and to the Roman character, every new ecclesiastical building was a reason for alarm. The matter would lie heavily upon the conscience of a good man like Diocletian. It is said that one of those who urged him to do something about it was his aged mother, a devout pagan.

Then, one day, the occasion of an imperial [60] sacrifice, the gods gave no omen; heaven was silent. The officiating priest informed the emperor that certain Christians had been observed making the sing of the cross. It was their presence which had been resented by the gods. This incident precipitated the persecution. On the morning of the feast of the Terminalia, being the twenty-third of February, 303, the great church of Nicomedia, over against the emperor's palace, was torn down. An edict was published condemning all the Christian churches to a like demolition, and ordering the surrender and destruction of all the Christian books. The persecution was directed not so much against the Christians individually, as in the days of Decius, as against the Christian society, in its officers, its buildings, and its books. Even these milder measures were in many cases enforced with intentional carelessness on the part of officials who were indifferent or sympathetic. They were willing to accept any books which the clergy might surrender, without looking too curiously to see whether they were sacred books or not. The rigor of the persecution depended on the temper of the local ruler. In many places, there were hardships and tragedies. A mob officially incited to pull down a church will not spare the clergy or the congregation. The Christians themselves were not disposed to look with forbearance on their [61] brethren who tried to escape the storm. The demand that the books be surrendered must not, they said, be evaded; it must be defied. There appeared a new kind of offender. To the libellatic of the Decian persecutions was now added the traditor, the man who gave up the books, the betrayer of his trust, the traitor.

Then Diocletian retired from the throne of the empire; Galerius, who succeeded to his power, and renewed the persecution, died of a loathsome disease; and new men with a new perception of the significance of Christianity, men like Constantius, and Constantine, his son, appeared upon the scene.

The Edict of Milan, se forth in the year 313 by Constantine and Licinius, gave to the Christians all others "full permission to follow whatsoever worship any man had chosen." The places of Christian worship which had been taken away, whether by purchase from the state or by imperial gift, were to be restored. "Those who restore them without price shall receive a compensation from our benevolence." Thus it was hoped that "whatever divinity there is in heaven" would be benevolent and propitious to the imperial government, and to all under it authority. With this edict the age of the persecutions came to an end.

Not only had the persecutions failed to destroy [62] the church, they had mightily assisted it. They had made the profession of Christianity a serious matter, involving great peril and demanding courage. They had exposed every believer to the danger of the loss of all of his possessions, even of life itself. They had excluded from membership in the church all merely conventional and half-hearted persons. And the courage of the martyrs had attracted into the church the bravest spirits of the time. They had exhibited the true credentials of Christianity. The had commended their religion by the witness of their endurance for the love of Christ. Men are asking, "What is this new religion?" and were being answered by the patience, the devotion, the splendid consecration of the noble army of martyrs.


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