The "Ten Persecutions"THAT which Rome was in its supreme place, the other cities of the empire, -- Alexandria, Antioch, Ephesus, Corinth, etc. -- were in their narrower spheres; for it was the licentiousness of Greece and the East which had given to the corruption of Rome a deeper dye. Into that world of iniquity, Jesus Christ sent, as sheep among wolves, a little band of disciples carrying hope to the despairing, joy to the sorrowing, comfort to the afflicted, relief to the distressed, peace to the perplexed, and to all a message of merciful forgiveness of sins, of the gift of the righteousness of God, and of a purity and power which would cleanse the soul from all unrighteousness of heart and life, and plant there instead the perfect purity of the life of the Son of God and the courage of an everlasting joy. This gospel of peace and of the power of God unto salvation they were commanded to go into all the world and preach to every creature.
The disciples went everywhere preaching the word, and before the death of men who were then in the prime of life this good news of the grace of God had actually been preached in all the then known world. Rom. i, 8 and x, 18; Col. i, 6, 23. And by it many were brought to the knowledge of the peace and power of God, revealed in the gospel of Jesus Christ. "In every congregation there were prayers to God that he would listen to the sighing of the prisoner and captive, and have mercy on those who were ready to die. For the slave and his master there was one law and one hope, one baptism, one Saviour, one Judge. In times of domestic bereavement the Christian slave doubtless often consoled his pagan mistress with the suggestion that our present separations are only for a little while, and revealed to her willing ear that there is another world -- a land in which we rejoin our dead. How is it possible to arrest the spread of a faith which can make the broken heart leap why with joy?" -- Draper. 1
Yet to arrest the spread of that faith there were many long, earnest, and persistent efforts by the Roman empire. Before entering, however, upon the examination of this subject as it is, it is necessary to notice a point that has been much misunderstood or else much misrepresented; that is the imperial or "Ten Persecutions."
In the Church and State scheme of the fourth century, the theory of the bishops was that the kingdom of God was come; and to maintain the theory it became necessary to pervert the meaning of both Scripture history and Scripture prophecy. Accordingly, as the antitype of the ten plagues of Egypt, and as the fulfillment of the prophecy of the ten horns which made war with the Lamb (Rev. xvii, 12-14), there was invented the theory of ten persecutions of the Christians inflicted by the ten emperors, Nero, Domitian, Trajan, Marcus Aurelius, Septimius Severus, Maximin, Decius, Valerian, Aurelian, and Diocletian. Some of these persecuted the Christians, as Nero, Marcus Aurelius, Decius, and Diocletian; others were as gentle toward the Christians as toward anybody else; and yet others not named in the list, persecuted everybody but the Christians. The truth is that so far as the emperors were concerned, taken one with another, from Nero to Diocletian, the Christians fared as well as anybody else.
In this discussion and in the study of this subject everywhere, it must ever be borne in mind that Christianity was wholly outlawed in the Roman empire, and that every one who professed it became by the very fact of his profession an outlaw -- an enemy to the emperor and people of Rome, and guilty of high treason.
So long as the Christians were confounded with the Jews, no persecution befell them from the Roman State, because the Roman empire had recognized the Jewish religion as lawful; consequently when the Emperor Claudius commanded all Jews to depart from Rome, Christians were included among them, as for instance Aquila and Priscilla. Acts xviii, 1, 2. And when in Corinth, under Gallio the Roman governor of the province of Achaia, the Jews made insurrection against Paul upon the charge that "this fellow persuadeth men to worship God contrary to the law," Gallio replied: "If it were a matter of wrong or wicked lewdness, O ye Jews, reason would that I should bear with you: but if it be a question of words and names, and of your law, look ye to it; for I will be no judge of such matters." And with this, "he drave them from the judgment seat." Acts xviii, 12-16. Also when the centurion Lysias had rescued Paul from the murderous Jews in Jerusalem, and would send him for protection to Felix the governor, he wrote to Felix thus: "When I would have known the cause wherefore they accused him, I brought him forth into their council: whom I perceived to be accused of questions of their law, but to have nothing laid to his charge worthy of death or of bonds." Chap. xxiii, 28, 29.
To please the Jews, Felix left Paul in prison. When Festus came in and had given him a hearing, and would bring his case before King Agrippa, he spoke thus of the matter: "There is a certain man left in bonds by Felix: about whom, when I was at Jerusalem, the chief priests and the elders of the Jews informed me, desiring to have judgment against him. To whom I answered, It is not the manner of the Romans to deliver any man to die, before that he which is accused have the accusers face to face, and have license to answer for himself concerning the crime laid against him. Therefore, when they were come hither without any delay on the morrow, I sat on the judgment seat, and commanded the man to be brought forth. Against whom, when the accusers stood up, they brought none accusation of such things as I supposed: but had certain questions against him of their own superstition, and of one Jesus, which was dead, whom Paul affirmed to be alive. And because I doubted of such manner of questions, I asked him whether he would go to Jerusalem, and there be judged of these matters. But when Paul had appealed to be reserved unto the hearing of Augustus, I commanded him to be kept till I might send him to Caesar." And when Agrippa had heard him, the unanimous decision was, "This man doeth nothing worthy of death or of bonds," and Agrippa declared, "This man might have been set at liberty, if he had not appealed unto Caesar." Acts xxv, 14-21; xxvi, 31, 32.
And even when he had been heard twice by Caesar -- Nero -- as it was still but a controversy between Jews concerning questions of their own, the Roman power refused to take cognizance of the case, and Paul, a Christian, was released. But when Christianity had spread among the Gentiles and a clear distinction was made and recognized between the Christians and the Jews, by all parties, and Christianity appeared as a new religion not recognized by the Roman law, then came the persecution of Christians by the Roman State.
The first persecution of the Christians was that which was inflicted by --
in A. D. 64, although it was only the horrid cruelty
inflicted that made his punishment of the Christians conspicuous
above that of many others upon whom the rage of that tyrant fell.
For, "Except that his murders were commonly prompted by need
or fear, and therefore fell oftenest on the rich and powerful, it
can hardly be said that one class suffered from them more terribly
than another. His family, his friends, the senators, the knights,
philosophers and Page 113
THE PERSECUTION BY NERO.Christians, Romans and provincials, were all decimated by them." -- Merivale. 2
July 19, A. D. 64, the tenth year of Nero's reign, a fire broke out in the city of Rome, which raged unchecked for six days. The stricken people had barely begun to collect their thoughts after the fire had subsided, when flames burst out a second time, in another quarter of the city, and raged for three days. Taken together, the two conflagrations destroyed nearly the whole of the city. Of the fourteen districts into which the city was divided, only four remained uninjured. Nero was universally hated for his desperate tyranny. A rumor was soon spread and readily believed, that while the city was burning, he stood watching it, and chanting the "Sack of Troy" to an accompaniment which he played upon his lyre. From this the rumor grew into a report, and it was also believed, that Nero himself had ordered the fires to be kindled. It was further insinuated that his object in burning the city was to build it anew upon a much more magnificent scale, and bestow upon it his own name.
Whether any of these rumors or suspicions were certainly true, cannot be positively stated; but whether true or not, they were certainly believed, and the hatred of the people was intensified to such fierceness that Nero soon discovered that the ruin of the city was universally laid to his charge. He endeavored to allay the rising storm: he provided shelter, and supplied other urgent necessaries for the multitude. Vows and great numbers of burnt offerings to the gods were made, but all to no purpose. The signs of public dissatisfaction only became more significant. It became essential that the emperor should turn their suspicion from him, or forfeit the throne and his life. The crisis was a desperate one, and desperately did he meet it. There was a little band of Christians known in the city. They were already hated by the populace. These were accused, condemned, and tortured as the destroyers of the city. Tacitus tells of the fate of those to whom he says "the vulgar gave the name of Christians": --
"He [Nero] inflicted the most exquisite tortures on those men who, under the vulgar appellation of Christians, were already branded with deserved infamy. They derived their name and origin from Christ, who in the reign of Tiberius had suffered death by the sentence of the procurator, Pontius Pilate. For awhile this dire superstition was checked; but it again burst forth; and not only spread itself over Judea, the first seat of this mischievous sect, but was even introduced into Rome, the common asylum which receives and protects whatever is impure, whatever is atrocious. The confessions of those who were seized, discovered a great multitude of their accomplices, and they were all convicted, not so much for the crime of setting fire to the city, as for their hatred of human kind. They died in torments, and their torments were embittered by insult and derision. Some were nailed on crosses; others sewn in the skins of wild beasts, and exposed to the fury of dogs; others again, smeared over with combustible materials, were used as torches to illuminate the darkness of the night. The gardens of Nero were destined for the melancholy spectacle, which was accompanied with a horse race. and honored with the presence of the emperor, who mingled with the populace in the dress and attitude of a charioteer. The guilt of the Christians deserved indeed the most exemplary punishment, but the public abhorrence was changed into commiseration, from the opinion that those unhappy wretches were sacrificed, not so much to the public welfare as to the cruelty of a jealous tyrant." -- Tacitus. 3
This cruel subterfuge accomplished the purpose intended by the emperor, to deliver him from the angry suspicion of the populace. This persecution, however, as directed by Nero, did not extend beyond the city, and ceased with that one effort. And from that time, for the space of nearly two hundred years -- till the reign of Decius, A. D. 249-251 -- there was no imperial persecution in the city of Rome "During that period, the Christians were in general as free and secure as other inhabitants of Rome. Their assemblies were no more disturbed than the synagogues of the Jews, or the rights of other foreign religions." -- Milman.4
who is next named in the list of persecutors, was
so jealous of his imperial power and withal such a downright coward,
that he was afraid of every man who was, or might become, popular
or from any cause conspicuous. His suspicions were constantly creating
imaginary plots against his throne and his life, and his fears welcomed
any tale of treason or of plot. There was an ample number of flatterers
and sycophants who voluntarily assumed the vile office of informers,
to have satisfied perhaps any man in the world but Domitian. He,
however, was not content with this.
He deliberately hired every man in the empire who was willing to sell himself to such service. And there were multitudes who were willing so to sell themselves. This system had been employed by others, but "Domitian seems, of all the emperors, to have carried it furthest, and adopted it most systematically. It was an aggravation rather than an extenuation of his crime that he seduced into his service men of high rank and character, and turned the Senate into a mob of rivals for the disgrace of thus basely serving him. The instruments of his jealous precaution rose in a graduated hierarchy. The knights and senators trembled before a Massa Baebius, a Carus, and a Latinus; but these delators trembled in their turn before the prince of delators, Memminus Regulus, and courted him, not always successfully, by the surrender of their estates or their mistresses. . . . The best and noblest of the citizens were still marked out as the prey of delators whose patron connived at enormities which bound their agents more closely to himself, and made his protection more necessary to them. The haughty nobles quailed in silence under a system in which every act, every word, every sigh, was noted against them, and disgrace, exile, and death followed upon secret whispers. The fears of Domitian increased with his severities. He listened to the tales not of senators and consulars only, but of the humblest
officials and even of private soldiers. Often, says Epictetus, was the citizen, sitting in the theater, entrapped by a disguised legionary beside him, who pretended to murmur against the emperor, till he had led his unsuspecting neighbor to confide to him his own complaints, and then skulked away to denounce him." -- Merivale.5
Such a system gave full and perfect freedom to vent every kind of petty spite; and not only was freedom given to it, but by the informers' receiving a share of the property of the accused, a premium was put upon it. Many were put to death to allay Domitian's fears. Large numbers of others were either put to death or banished for the sake of their property, and yet many others were executed or banished upon charges invented by the informers to satisfy their personal hatred or to maintain with the emperor their standing of loyalty. Among the victims of this universal treachery, some Christians were numbered. Hated as they were, it would have been strange indeed had there been none. Among these was the apostle John, who was banished to the Isle of Patmos. There were two others whose names we know -- Flavius Clemens and his wife Domitilla. Clemens was the cousin, and Domitilla was the niece, of Domitian. Clemens had enjoyed the favor of the emperor for a long time, and attained the honor of the consulship. The term of his office, however, had hardly more than expired when he was accused, condemned, and executed; and Domitilla was banished to a desolate island on the western coast of Italy. The charge against them was "atheism and Jewish manners," "which cannot with any propriety be applied except to the Christians, as they were obscurely and imperfectly viewed by the magistrates and by the writers of that period." -- Gibbon.6
A great number of other persons were involved in the same accusation as were Clemens and Domitilla, and likewise met the same fate with them -- confiscation of goods and banishment or death. Yet it is with no manner of justice or propriety that this has been singled out as a persecution against the church, or of Christians as such; because at the same time there were thousands of people of all classes who suffered the same things and from the same source. This is granting that Clemens was killed and Domitilla banished really on account of their religion. Considering their kinship to the emperor, and the standing of Clemens, it is fairly questionable whether it was not for political reasons that they were dealt with, and whether their religion was not the pretext rather than the cause, of their punishment. And for political crimes especially it was no unusual thing for all o a man's friends and relations to be included in the same proscription with himself. "This proscription took place about eight months before Domitian's death, at a period when he was tormented by the utmost jealousy of all around, and when his heart was hardened to acts of unparalleled barbarity; and it seems more likely that it was counseled by abject fear for his own person or power, than by concern for the religious interests of the State." -- Merivale.7
In September, A. D. 96, Domitian was succeeded by --
whose temper and administration were directly contrary to those of Domitian. He reversed the cruel decrees of Domitian, recalled the banished, and prosecuted instead of encouraged the informers. Nerva was succeeded in A. D. 98 by --
under whom Pliny the Younger was governor of the province
of Bithynia. In that province he found Christianity so prevalent
that the worship of the gods was almost deserted. He undertook to
correct this irregularity; but this being a new sort of business
with him, he was soon involved in questions that he could not easily
decide to his own satisfaction, and he concluded to address the
emperor for the necessary instructions. He therefore wrote to Trajan
as follows: --
"Sir: It is my constant method to apply myself to you for the resolution of all my doubts; for who can better govern my dilatory way of proceeding or instruct my ignorance? I have never been present at the examination of the Christians [by others], on which account I am unacquainted with what uses to be inquired into, and what and how far they used to be punished; nor are my doubts small, whether there be not a distinction to be made between the ages [of the accused], and whether tender youth ought to have the same punishment with strong men? whether there be not room for pardon upon repentance? or whether it may not be an advantage to one that had been a Christian, that he has forsaken Christianity? whether the bare name, without any crimes besides, or the crimes adhering to that name, be to be punished? In the meantime I have taken this course about those who have been brought before me as Christians: I asked them whether they were Christians or not. If they confessed that they were Christians, I asked them again, and a third time, intermixing threatenings with the questions. If they persevered in their confessions, I ordered them to be executed; for I did not doubt but, let their confessions be of any sort whatsoever, this positiveness and inflexible obstinacy deserved to be punished. There have been some of this mad sect whom I took notice of in particular as Roman citizens, that they might be sent to that city. After some time, as is usual in such examinations, the crime spread itself, and many more cases came before me. A libel was sent to me, though without an author, containing many names [of persons accused]. These denied that they were Christians now, or ever had been. They called upon the gods, and supplicated to your image, which I caused to be brought to me for that purpose, with frankincense and wine; they also cursed Christ; none of which things, it is said, can any of those that are really Christians be compelled to do, so I thought fit to let them go. Others of them that were named in the libel, said they were Christians, but presently denied it again; that indeed they had been Christians, but had ceased to be so, some three years, some many more; and one there was that said he had not been so these twenty years. All these worshiped your image and the images of our gods; these also cursed Christ. However, they assured me that the main of their fault, or of their mistake, was this: That they were wont, on a stated day, to meet together before it was light, and to sing a hymn to Christ, as to a god, alternately; and to oblige themselves by a sacrament [or oath] not to do anything that was ill; but that they would commit no theft, or pilfering, or adultery; that they would not break promises, or deny what was deposited with them, when it was required back again; after which it was their custom to depart, and to meet again at a common but innocent meal, which they had left off upon that edict which I published at your command, and wherein I had forbidden any such conventicles. These examinations made me think it necessary to inquire by torments what the truth was; which I did of two servant-maids, who were called "deaconesses;" but still I discovered no more than that they were addicted to a bad and to an extravagant superstition. Hereupon I have put off any further examinations, and have recourse to you; for the affair seems to be well worth consultation, especially on account of the number of those that are in danger; for there are many of every age, of every rank, and of both sexes, who are now and hereafter likely to be called to account, and to be in danger; for this superstition is spread like a contagion, not only into cities and towns, but into country villages also, which yet there is reason to hope may be stopped and corrected. To be sure the temples, which were almost forsaken, begin already to be frequented; and the holy solemnities, which were long intermitted, begin to be revived. The sacrifices begin to sell well everywhere, of which very few purchasers had of late appeared; whereby it is easy to suppose how great a multitude of men may be amended, if place for repentance be admitted."
To this letter Trajan replied: --
"My Pliny: You have taken the method which you ought, in examining the causes of those that had been accused as Christians; for indeed no certain and general form of judging can be ordained in this case. These people are not to be sought for; but if they be accused and convicted, they are to be punished: but with this caution, that he who denies himself to be a Christian, and makes it plain that he is not so, by supplicating to our gods, although he had been so formerly, may be allowed pardon, upon his repentance. As for libels sent without an author, they ought to have no place in any accusation whatsoever, for that would be a thing of very ill example, and not agreeable to my reign."8
These are the facts in the case in regard to the persecution by Trajan. As a matter of fact Trajan had little to do with it. Pliny found the laws being violated. As governor of a province, he took judicial and executive cognizance of it. In his enforcing of the laws there were questions raised which he submitted to the emperor for decision. The emperor informed him that the proper course had been pursued. As a lover of justice, he directed that no regard should be paid to anonymous communications, but that all accusations should be made in due and legal form. He even goes so far as to limit to the regular form of judicial process the Christians' disregard of the law -- they were not to be sought after; but when accused in regular form, if they refused to yield, they were to be punished. In all this it is easy to see the emperor, who was the representative of the law; the just judge, refusing everything but the strictest conformity to the regular legal proceedings; and the humane man, willing rather to forego opportunity, than to hunt for occasion, to prosecute. It is difficult, therefore, to see how Trajan could fairly be charged with persecuting the Christians.
Trajan died in A. D. 117, and was succeeded by --
The fanatical populace being forbidden by Trajan's
orders to proceed against the Christians in any but the legal way,
had in many places taken to raising riots and wreaking their vengeance
upon the Christians in this disorderly way. In A. D. 124, Hadrian
made a tour through the Eastern provinces. The proconsul of Asia
Minor complained to him of these riotous proceedings. The emperor
issued a rescript commanding that the Christians should not be harassed,
nor should informers be allowed to ply their trade in malicious
prosecutions. If those who desired to prosecute the Christians could
clearly prove their charges before the tribunal, "let them
pursue this course only, but not by mere petitions and mere outcries
against the Christians." "If any one bring an accusation
and can show that they have done anything contrary to the laws,"
the magistrate was to judge of the matter "according to the
heinousness of the crime;" but if any one should undertake
a prosecution of the Christians "with a view to slander,"
the matter was to be investigated "according to its criminality,"
and if it was found that the prosecution had been made on false
accusation, the false accusers were to be severely punished.
This rescript is as follows: --
"To Minucius Fundanus: I have received an epistle, written to me by the most illustrious Serenius Granianus whom you have succeeded. I do not wish, therefore, that the matter should be passed by without examination, so that these men may neither be harassed, nor opportunity of malicious proceedings be offered to informers. If, therefore, the provincials can clearly evince their charges against the Christians, so as to answer before the tribunal, let them pursue this course only, but not by mere petitions, and mere outcries against the Christians. For it is far more proper, if any one would bring an accusation, that you should examine it. If any one, therefore, bring an accusation, and can show that they have done anything contrary to the laws, determine it thus according to the heinousness of the crime. So that indeed, if any one should purpose this with a view to slander, investigate it according to its criminality, and see to it that you inflict the punishment."9
Hadrian's leniency was not from any respect to the Christians as such, but from his own native respect for justice and fairness. He died A. D. 138, and was succeeded by --
As soon as Hadrian's death was known, the restraints imposed by his edicts were cast off, and the sufferings of the Christians from popular tumult and riot were renewed. The bitterness of the popular clamor was deepened by serious disasters. Disastrous floods, earthquakes, and fires occurred about this time, all of which the superstitious pagans interpreted as the evidence of the anger of the gods poured upon the empire as punishment for the disrespect shown to the gods by the Christians, and which was so lightly dealt with by the imperial power. Antoninus, however, being doubtless the mildest-mannered man that ever held the imperial power of Rome, renewed and rather extended tended the protective edicts of Hadrian. Antoninus was succeeded in A. D. 161, by -
Public calamities still continued. A terrible pestilence swept over the whole Roman empire from Ethiopia to Gaul, and the fury of the populace again fell severely upon the devoted Christians. Marcus Aurelius saw this matter in much the same light as the great mass of the people, and looked upon the pestilence that then raged, as a warning to restore the ancient religion in its minutest particulars. He summoned priests from all quarters to Rome, and even put off his expedition against the Marcomannians for the purpose of celebrating the religious solemnities, by which he hoped that the evil might be averted. He therefore sanctioned the popular rage against the Christians, and followed it up with an edict in which he commanded that search should be made for the Christians; and when brought to trial, they were to be forced by tortures to deny the faith and do homage to the Roman gods. Marcus Aurelius died, March 17, A. D. 180, and was succeeded by his son --
This emperor, instead of being a persecutor of the
Christians, was rather a friend to them, if such a man could be
counted the friend of anybody. Commodus, for the first three years
of his reign, was a monster in vice, and after that a monster in
cruelty as well as in vice. One evening in the third year of his
reign, as he was returning from the amphitheater through the dark
passage to the imperial palace, he was attacked by an assassin who
felt so certain of accomplishing his bloody purpose that with a
drawn sword he exclaimed, "The Senate sends you this."
The attempt failed, however. The guards protected the emperor and
captured the assassin. He confessed that his act was the culmination
of a conspiracy which had originated with the emperor's sister Lucilla,
who hoped to become empress by the death of Commodus. The conspirators
were punished, Lucilla being first banished and afterwards put to
death. But the words which the assassin had uttered -- "the
Senate sends you this" -- still rung in the emperor's ears;
and by it he was caused to think that the Senate was in some way
connected with the attempt upon his life. The whole body of the
Senate became subject to his bitter and abiding enmity. But as he
had nothing more tangible than suspicion to guide him, his course
was necessarily uncertain, until a horde of informers had arisen
and turned his suspicions into facts.
This event, however, was not long delayed; because as soon as it was learned that the emperor desired to detect treason in the senators, the informers, whose trade had been abolished in the mild and just reign of Antoninus Pius, readily reappeared in numbers sufficient to satisfy the desire of the emperor. "Distinction of every kind soon became criminal. The possession of wealth stimulated the diligence of the informers; rigid virtue implied a tacit censure of the irregularities of Commodus; important services implied a dangerous superiority of merit; and the friendship of the father always insured the aversion of the son. Suspicion was equivalent to proof; trial to condemnation. The execution of a considerable senator was attended with the death of all who might lament or revenge his fate; and when Commodus had once tasted human blood, he became incapable of pity or remorse. . . . Every sentiment of virtue and humanity was extinct in the mind of Commodus. Whilst he thus abandoned the reins of empire to these unworthy favorites, he valued nothing in sovereign power, except the unbounded license of indulging his sensual appetites. His hours were spent in a seraglio of three hundred beautiful women, and as many boys of every rank and of every province; and wherever the arts of seduction proved ineffectual, the brutal lover had recourse to violence. . . . The intervals of lust were filled up with the basest amusements." -- Gibbon. 10
Wild beasts were brought from far countries that the emperor might have the honor of slaying them with his own hand. The African lion, in his native haunts, men were forbidden under heavy penalty to kill even in self-defense, that he might be reserved for the sport of the emperor. At last he entered the arena in the character of a gladiator, armed with a helmet, a sword, and a buckler, and obliged gladiators to fight with him, armed only with a net and a leaden trident. He thus fought (?) seven hundred and thirty-five times, and each contest meant the death of his antagonist. The list of senators sacrificed to his suspicions continued still to lengthen. His cruelty at last arrived at that pitch where nobody within his reach could feel secure for an hour; and that they might certainly escape his furious caprice, Marcia his favorite concubine, Eclectus his chamberlain, and Laetus his praetorian prefect, formed a conspiracy to kill him. Marcia gave him a drink of poisoned wine, and the poison was assisted in its work by a professional wrestler who strangled him. Yet Commodus was not a persecutor of the Christians; but with this exception, there were few people in all the empire whom he did not persecute. For some reason Marcia was friendly to the Christians, and her influence with Commodus, as well as his disposition to be as unlike his father as possible, inclined him to be favorable to them.
the fifth of the "ten persecutors," was
emperor from A. D. 193 to 211. He was at first the friend of the
Christians. There were Christians among the domestics of his household.
Both the nurse and the teacher of his son Caracalla were Christians,
and "he always treated with peculiar distinction several persons
of both sexes who had embraced the new religion." -- Gibbon.11
It must not be supposed, however, that Severus himself was inclined
to become a Christian. Finding that the number of Christians was
rapidly increasing, he issued an edict in A. D. 202 forbidding anybody
thereafter to adopt the new religion. This, however, did not prohibit
those who were already Christians from remaining so. The purpose
being to check the spread of the new religion, he forbade any further
changing from the old to the new. Yet the result of the edict was
indirectly to increase the hardships of the Christians under the
already existing laws. This was the measure of the persecution by
Septimius Severus. But there is another side to the story of Severus
which, when compared with this, shows that it is only by a severe
stretch of language, if not of imagination, that the Christians
could be counted as persecuted by him.
It was through a triangular civil war that Septimius Severus secured the imperial power. He was commander of the troops on the Illyrian frontier, and was in Pannonia. Pescennius Niger was commander of the troops in Syria. Clodius Albinus was governor of Britain. The troops of Niger proclaimed him emperor; and the troops of Severus did the same for him. Severus had the advantage of being nearest to Rome. He hastened into Italy with his army, and was acknowledged by the Senate as lawful emperor. War immediately followed between Severus and Niger. Niger was defeated in two engagements, and slain. As long as the contest with Niger was uncertain, Severus pretended the utmost friendship for Albinus; bestowed upon him the title of Caesar; sent him a letter in which he called him the brother of his soul and empire; and charged the messengers who carried the letter that when they delivered it, they should secure a private audience with Albinus and assassinate him.
Albinus, however, detected the conspiracy, and by it discovered that if he were to live, it would have to be as emperor. He crossed into Gaul; the armies met at Lyons; Albinus was defeated, captured, and beheaded. Severus discovered that the Senate had encouraged Albinus. He therefore sent to the Romans the head of Albinus with a letter declaring that none of the adherents of either Albinus or Niger should be spared. He did, however, pardon thirty-five senators who were accused of having favored Albinus, while forty-one other senators with their wives, their children, and their friends were put to death. The same punishment was inflicted upon the most prominent characters of Spain, Gaul, and Syria, while many others were sent into exile, or suffered the confiscation of all their property, merely because they had obeyed the governor under whose authority they had happened to fall in the triangular conflict. Niger had been a popular governor, and many cities of the East contributed to him considerable sums of money when he was proclaimed emperor. All these cities were deprived of their honors, and were compelled to pay to Severus four times the amount that they had contributed to Niger. To elevate to the dignity of a persecution the treatment of the Christians by Septimius Severus in view of his treatment of the Roman Senate and whole cities and provinces of the empire, bears too much evidence of an attempt to make out a case, to be counted worthy of any weight.
Severus was succeeded in A. D. 211, by his two sons,
CARACALLA AND GETA
A little more than a year afterward, Caracalla murdered
Geta in his mother's arms, who in the struggle to protect him, was
wounded in the hand and covered with blood: and immediately following,
"under the vague appellation of the friends of Geta, above
twenty thousand persons of both sexes suffered death." This,
however, was but the beginning; for "Caracalla was the common
enemy of mankind." He left the city of Rome in A. D. 213, and
spent the rest of his reign, about four years, in the several provinces
of the empire, particularly those of the East, "and every province
was by turn the scene of his rapine and cruelty." -- Gibbon.12
The senators were compelled to accompany him wherever he went and
to furnish daily entertainment at immense expense, which he gave
over to his soldiers. They were likewise required to build in every
city where he would come, magnificent palaces and splendid theaters
which he would either not visit at all or else visit and order at
once to be torn down.
The property of the most wealthy was confiscated at once, while that of the great mass of the people was taken under the form of taxes heavily increased. In the city of Alexandria in Egypt, simply because they had indulged in a bit of raillery at his expense, he took his station on top of the temple of Serapis, and commanded a general massacre of the citizens, which he directed and enjoyed from his elevated station. Thousands upon thousands of people were thus inhumanly slaughtered. And these are but parts of his wicked ways. Yet Caracalla is not numbered among the persecutors of the Christians, nor did he, in fact, molest the Christians as such. Yet it would be difficult to find an emperor, from Nero to Diocletian, who caused as much suffering to the Christinas, as Caracalla did to almost everybody but the Christians. It would not be correct, however, to suppose that the Christians were exempt from his ravages: they of course shared the common lot in his desperate attentions.
The next in the list of the "Ten Persecutors" is --
In the year 235 A. D., Maximin became emperor by the
murder of the emperor Alexander Severus. Of him and the persecution
of the Christians inflicted by him, the ecclesiastical historian
"The emperor Alexander being carried off after a reign of thirteen years, was succeeded by Maximinus, who, inflamed with hatred against the house of Alexander, consisting of many believers, raised a persecution, and commanded at first only the heads of the churches to be slain, as the abettors and agents of evangelical truth.' -- Eusebius.13
Alexander Severus had not only been a friend to the Christians, but had gone so far as to place an image of Christ among his household gods. The church in Rome had appropriated a piece of land in that city which was claimed by the Cooks' Union. A dispute arose about it, and the case was brought to the emperor for settlement. He decided in favor of the church, saying that it was better that God should be worshiped on that ground than that it should be given up to the cooks. Through such pronounced favor of the emperor, many Christians became connected with the imperial household, and bishops were received at court. When Maximin murdered the emperor Alexander, the Christians and the bishops to whom Eusebius refers were involved in the massacre. And this is the extent of Maximin's persecution of the Christians.
Maximin was a barbarian who had risen from the condition of a Thracian peasant to the highest military command. When he was in humble circumstances, he had been slighted by the Roman nobles, and treated with insolence by their slaves; others had befriended him in his poverty, and had encouraged him in adversity. When he became emperor, he took vengeance on all alike, for all "were guilty of the same crime -- the knowledge of his original obscurity. For this crime many were put to death; and by the execution of several of his benefactors, Maximin published, in characters of blood, the indelible history of his baseness and ingratitude." -- Gibbon. 14 Maximin was but little less than a wild beast in the shape of a man. Knowing full well his own shameful inferiority, he was supremely suspicious of everybody else. Being so treacherous and so cruel himself, he was ready to believe that every distinguished person was guilty of treason. "Italy and the whole empire were infested with innumerable spies and informers." Magnus, a principal senator, was accused of conspiracy. "Without a witness, without a trial, and without an opportunity of defense,
Magnus with four thousand of his supposed accomplices, was put to death. . . . Confiscation, exile, or simple death were esteemed uncommon instances of his lenity. Some of the unfortunate sufferers he ordered to be sewed up in the hides of slaughtered animals, others to be exposed to wild beasts, others again to be beaten to death with clubs." -- Gibbon.15
Such was the conduct of Maximin toward the Roman nobles. He next, at one single storke, confiscated all the treasure and all the revenue of all the cities of the empire, and turned them to his own use. The temples everywhere were robbed of all the gold and silver offerings; "and the statues of gods, heroes, and emperors were melted down, and coined into money." In many places these robberies and exactions were resisted, the people defending the rights of their cities and the sacredness of their temples. In such cases massacres accompanied the robbery of the temples and the confiscation of the cities' treasures.
Of Maximin's treatment of the Christians, as of that of Domitian and Septimius Severus, it is but proper to remark that to separate this from all the other evidences of his cruelty, which were so wide-spread and continuous, magnifying this while ignoring all the rest -- in order to bestow upon it the distinction of a "persecution" -- bears too much evidence of an effort to make out a case, to be worthy of indorsement in any sober or exact history.
The next one in the list of the "Ten Persecutions" is that by the emperor --
whose reign was but a little more than two years in
length, from A. D. 249-251. Decius was somewhat after the model
of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius -- devoted to Rome, her laws, and
her institutions. His serious endeavor was to bring back the Roman
discipline, and the Roman virtue of earlier times. Therefore, one
of the earliest acts of his reign was to revive the office of censor.
The choosing of the censor was left to the Senate, and as the result,
Valerian was unanimously chosen. The speech which Decius made upon
the investiture of Valerian with the insignia of his office, will
enable the reader to form some estimate of the ideal which this
emperor had formed for himself in the matter of government. He said:
"Happy Valerian, -- happy in the general approbation of the Senate and of the Roman republic! Accept the censorship of mankind: and judge of our manners. You will select those who deserve to continue members of the Senate; you will restore the equestrian order to its ancient splendor; you will improve the revenue, yet moderate the public burdens. You will distinguish into regular classes the various and infinite multitude of citizens; and accurately review the military strength, the wealth, the virtue, and the resources of Rome. Your decisions shall obtain the force of laws. The army, the palace, the ministers of justice, and the great officers of the empire, are all subject to your tribunal. None are exempted excepting only the ordinary consuls, the prefect of the city, the king of the sacrifices, and (as long as she preserves her chastity inviolate) the eldest of the vestal virgins. Even these few, who may not dread the severity, will anxiously solicit the esteem of the Roman censor." -- Gibbon.16
With such views of the public needs and of his duty as emperor to restore the purity of the old Roman discipline, it could only be that the effects of his efforts would be first felt by the Christians, because by their denial of the gods and repudiation of the Roman religion and their denial of the right of the State to interfere with their religious exercise or profession, they were placed as the first of the enemies of the Roman people. In the year 250 the persecution began. Rigorous search was ordered for all the people who were suspected of refusing to conform to the Roman worship, with the object of compelling them to return to the exercise of the ceremonies of the Roman religion. When they were found, if they refused, threats were first to be used, and if that failed, torture was to be applied, and if that failed, death was to be inflicted.
The persecution began in Rome, and as there had been a long period of peace, many of the professed Christians had become worldly, and thought more of increasing their earthly possessions than of cultivating the Christian virtues. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, who lived at the time and was put to death only a few years afterward, says: --
"Forgetful of what believers had either done before in the times of the apostles, or always ought to do, with the insatiable ardor of covetousness, devoted themselves to the increase of their property."17
Immediately upon the issuing of this edict, large numbers of these gave up their profession, whose ready compliance encouraged the emperor to suppose that it would be but an easy task entirely to suppress the Christian faith. Bishops themselves had set the people an example in worldly degeneracy, for says Cyprian of them: --
"Among the priests there was no devotedness of religion; among the ministers there was no sound faith: in their works there was no mercy; in their manners their was no discipline. In men, their beards were defaced; in women, their complexion was dyed: the eyes were falsified from what God's hand had made them; their hair was stained with a falsehood. Crafty frauds were used to deceive the hearts of the simple, subtle meanings for circumventing the brethren. They united in the bond of marriage with unbelievers; they prostituted the members of Christ to the Gentiles. They would swear not only rashly, but even more, would swear falsely; would despise those set over them with haughty swelling, would speak evil of one another with envenomed tongue, would quarrel with one another with obstinate hatred. Not a few bishops who ought to furnish both exhortation and example to others, despising their divine charge, became agents in secular business, forsook their throne deserted their people, wandered about over foreign provinces, hunted the markets for gainful merchandise, while brethren were starving in the church. They sought to possess money in hoards, they seized estates by crafty deceits, they increased their gains by multiplying usuries. -- Cyprian.18
Seeing then, that so many of the people had so readily renounced their profession, and believing that the influence of the bishops was to a large extent the cause of the existence and spread of Christianity, and seeing the character of many of them thus displayed, the efforts of Decius were first directed at these with the hope that if their influence was checked, it would be easy to restore the Roman worship. But it could not be made to succeed. If a bishop was imprisoned or banished, it only bound his flock closer to him; if he was put to death, by his example others were only encouraged to be the more faithful to their profession; and thus, although the persecution began with the bishops, it soon embraced the people; and although it had its beginning in Rome, it soon extended throughout the empire.
Thus began the first imperial persecution that there had been in the city of Rome since that of Nero, and the first one which really spread over the whole empire. Wherever the edict was published, the idea was always by mild measures first, if possible, to restore the Roman worship everywhere; and it was only when the milder measures failed, that the severer were employed, even to death. Being so wide-spread, the Decian persecution was thus the severest that had ever yet been inflicted upon the Christians by any emperor; yet it continued only about two years, for the emperor lost his life in a battle with the Goths in December, 251.
The author of the next of the "Ten Persecutions" was --
who became emperor in August, 253. At first he was
favorable to the Christians. Indeed, Dionysius, as quoted by Eusebius,
says that "never was there any of the emperors before him so
favorably and benevolently disposed toward them;" that, "in
the commencement of his reign" he "plainly received them
with excessive civility and friendship;" and that the emperor's
house "was filled with pious persons, and was, indeed, a congregation
of the Lord."19
This is probably somewhat extravagant, but that the emperor was friendly to the Christians at the beginning of his reign, is very evident.
This leniency continued till the year 257, when his conduct toward them was reversed; but, like Decius, he hoped to put an end to Christianity without the employment of violent measures. He endeavored first to compel the church leaders, -- the bishops, the presbyters, and the deacons, -- to renounce Christianity, expecting that the people would follow their example. This failing, he next forbade their holding meetings; likewise failing in this, an edict was issued in 258 commanding them to be put to death at once. The senators and knights who were Christians, were to be deprived of their rank and property, and if they still persevered, they were to be beheaded. Women of rank who were Christians, were to be deprived of their property and banished. Sixtus, the Roman bishop, and four deacons of the church in Rome were put to death under this edict in August. This persecution came to an end in 260, when Valerian was taken prisoner by the king of Persia. He was succeeded in the empire by his son --
who not only immediately put a stop to the persecution,
but issued an edict which in effect recognized Christianity as among
the lawful religions of the Roman empire, by commanding that the
church property should be restored; for none but legally existing
bodies could legally hold common property.
Yet this man who showed himself to be such a friend to the Christians as to make their religion legal, was very little behind Maximin in his cruelty to every one but the Christians. During his reign there arose nineteen usurpers in different parts of the empire, of whom there was not one "who enjoyed a life of peace or died a natural death." Gallienus was so fortunate as to be successful over them all, yet their efforts kept the empire in a state of constant ferment, and the disposition of Gallienus toward all be gathered from a command that he issued with respect to one Ingenuus, who assumed the office of emperor in the province of Illyricum. When the revolt had been quelled, Gallienus wrote to his minister there these words: --
"It is not enough that you exterminate such as have appeared in arms: the chance of battle might have served me as effectually. The male sex of every age must be extirpated; provided that, in the execution of the children and old men,you can contrive means to save our reputation. Let every one die who has dropped an expression, who has entertained a thought, against me, against me -- the son of Valerian, the father and brother of so many princes. Remember that Ingenuus was made emperor: tear, kill, hew in pieces. I write to you with my own hand, and would inspire you with my own feelings." -- Gibbon.20
This being a sample of things in nineteen different parts of the empire, it will be seen that under Gallienus as under some of the others whom we have named, although the Christians were unmolested, they were about the only people in the empire who were so.
The next one in the list of the ten persecutors is --
who became emperor in A. D. 270. His persecution,
like that of some of the others in the list, is a myth. So far from
Aurelian's being a persecutor or an enemy of the Christians, or
one whom they dreaded, the bishops themselves appealed to him in
one of their intestine controversies.
Paul of Samosata was Bishop of Antioch, and like many other bishops of his day, he assumed a style and an arrogance becoming an emperor of Rome rather than a servant of Christ. He was accused of heresy and tried by a council of bishops, who pronounced him deposed, and named another to be seated in his place. But, although they could easily enough pronounce him deposed, it was another thing to unseat him in fact. Paul held his bishopric in spite of them. The council then appealed to Aurelian to enforce their decree and compel Paul to vacate the bishopric. Aurelian refused to decide the question himself, but referred them to the Bishop of Rome, saying that whoever the bishops of Rome and Italy should decide to be the proper person, should have the office. They decided against Paul, and Aurelian compelled him to relinquish his seat. Afterward, however, in the last year of his reign, as it proved to be, Eusebius says that Aurelian was persuaded to raise persecution against the Christians, and the rumor was spread abroad everywhere; yet before any decree was issued, death overtook him. This is the history of Aurelian as one of the "Persecutors", and this is the history of "the ninth persecution."
The tenth persecution, that of Diocletian, was a persecution indeed. We shall not dwell upon it here, because it will have to be noticed fully in another place.
The evidence here presented, however, is sufficient to show that the story of the Ten Persecutions is a fable. That both events and names have been forced into service to make up the list of ten persecutions and to find among the Roman emperors ten persecutors, the history plainly shows.
The history shows that only five of the so-called ten persecutors can by any fair construction be counted such. These five were Nero, Marcus Aurelius, Valerian, Decius, and Diocletian. Of the other five Trajan not only added nothing to the laws already existing, but gave very mild directions for the enforcement of these, which abated rather than intensified the troubles of the Christians. It would be difficult to see how any directions could have been more mild without abrogating the laws altogether, which to Trajan would have been only equivalent to subverting the empire itself. Domitian was not a persecutor of the Christians as such, but was cruel to all people; and in common with others, some Christians suffered, and suffered only as did others who were not Christians. Septimius Severus only forbade any more people to become Christians without particularly interfering with such as were already Christians. The cruelty of Maximin, more bitter even than that of Domitian, involved all classes, and where it overtook Christians, that which befell them was but the common lot of thousands and thousands of people who were not Christians. Aurelian was not in any sense a persecutor of the Christians in fact. At the utmost stretch, he only contemplated it. Had he lived longer, he might have been a persecutor; but it is not honest to count a man a persecutor who at the most only intended to persecute. It is not fair in such a case to turn an intention into a fact.
Looking again at the record of the five who really were persecutors, it is found that from Nero to Marcus Aurelius was ninety-three years; that from Marcus Aurelius to Decius was eighty years; that from Decius to Valerian's edict was six years; and that from the edict of Gallienus to Diocletian's edict of persecution was forty-three years. From the record of this period, on the other hand, it is found that between Nero and Marcus Aurelius, Domitian and Vitellius raged; that between Marcus and Decius, the savage Commodus and Caracalla, and Elagabalus and Maximin, all ravaged the empire like wild boars a forest; and that next after Valerian came Gallienus.
From these facts it must be admitted that if the persecution of the Christians by Pagan Rome depended upon the action of the emperors, and if it is to be attributed to them, Christians had not much more to bear than had the generality of people throughout the empire. In short, the story of the "Ten Persecutions" is a myth.
1 [Page 110] "Intellectual Development of Europe,"
chap. ix, par. 8.
2 [Page 113] "Romans Under the Empire," chap. iv, par. 6.
3 [Page 114] "Annals," book xv, chap. xiiv. I adopt Gibbon's Translation. See "Decline and Fall," chap. xvi, par. 14.
4 [Page 114] "History of Christianity," book iv, chap. ii, par. 17, note.
5 [Page 116] "Romans Under the Empire," chap. lxii, par. 17.
6 [Page 116] "Decline and Fall," chap. xvi, par. 18.
7 [Page 117] "Romans Under the Empire", chap. lxii, par. 15
8 [Page 119] These two letters are found in English in Dissertation iii, at the close of Whiston's "Josephus."
9 [Page 121] Eusebius's "Ecclesiastical History," book iv, chap. ix.
10 [Page 123] "Decline and Fall," chap. iv, par. 9, 16.
11 [Page 124] Id., chap. xvi, par. 34.
12 [Page 126] Id., chap. vi, par. 10, 12.
13 [Page 127] "Ecclesiastical History," book vi, chap. xxviii.
14 [Page 128] "Decline and Fall," chap. vii, par. 8.
15 [Page 129] Id., par. 9, 10.
16 [Page 130] Id., chap. x, par. 14.
17 [Page 131] Ante-Nicene Fathers," Treatises of Cyprian, "On the Lapsed," chap. vi.
18 [Page 131] Id.
19 [Page 132] Eusebius's "Ecclesiastical History," book vii, chap. x.
20 [Page 134] "Decline and Fall,' chap. x, par. 50.