Christian History Rome

The Roman Attitude

The Roman Attitude (Nasir Ward) The Roman government made little distinction between the Jews and the Christians; as both were following the same practices there was no need for them to do so. Outwardly, there was no visible difference to the Roman eye, but the Christian element began to attract attention through its activities of vigorous proselytising, especially when this concerned the ruling classes. To change religion, for a Roman patrician, was to renounce his ancestors and his Roman past; to reject the very basis on which the state was founded, or so it seemed to officials. This action was tantamount to subversion, or at least approaching treason; not only were Roman principles rejected, but also the complete background of Hellenic culture. Such an attitude was bound to bring the charge of world hating against all those who objected to the very existence of the contemporary form of society. Perhaps the earliest mention of action taken against Christians by the Roman government is recorded by Tacitus,1 though it is not certain exactly what is meant. Pompinia Graecina, wife of Aulus Plautius, the conqueror of southern Britain, was accused of “foreign superstition”, and handed over to her husband for trial, as was the custom. This was in 57 A.D. What exactly was meant by “foreign superstition” is not clear, but the term has been used many times to describe Christianity. Presumably it was irenious enough to bring an accusation against this woman of high birth, from one of the most noble families in Rome. Her husband found her innocent, but she lived in reclusion for the rest of her life. ‘It is possible she had become a Christian, a surmise which is based on 3rd century A.D. Christian inscriptions referring to the family of Pomponia — the “gens pomponis”, but it is impossible to be certain. The major blow came from Nero in 64 A.D. Again Tacitus records the events, following the fire of Rome: “Accordingly, arrest was first made of those who confessed (to being Christian), then on their evidence, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much on the charge of arson as because of hatred of the human race.”2 1. Tacitus —Annals 13:32. 2. Tacitus Ibid. 15:44. THE ROMAN ATTITUDE 13 Tacitus, a senator writing in the reign of Trajan, is quite a reliable source. There would appear to have been large numbers of Christians in the city, enough to make a spectacular show in the arena and gardens as Nero cruelly had them put to death, a procedure which aroused the sympathy of the populace for them. If, as in the life of Apollonius, Demetrius the Christian had actually denounced the practice of bathing in Nero’s newly opened baths, it is little wonder that the Christians were selected as scapegoats. Having denounced bathing, a pillar of Roman customs, when the baths and other buildings were destroyed, the Christians would be the first ones to be suspected. Philostratus tells us that Demetrius acted on his own account, but Apollonius was suspected of inciting him. Perhaps the hot-headed words of one “Christian” caused the whole episode to be laid at their door. In any case, the results were catastrophic. The government may have had the Christians under observation for some time, using the familiar practice of informers (deletores), but presumably they could be identified in some way by their clothes and appearance. Again, Apollonius is accused of wearing long hair and unusual clothes, no doubt it would be customary among the Jews and Essenes. Suetonius, after mentioning that there had been disturbances in the time of Claudius “at the instigation of Chrestus,”3 also refers to the Neronian persecution, but makes only a passing reference in mentioning a list of Nero’s public spending cuts: ” . . . punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a set of men adhering to a novel and mischievous superstition.”4 Following the successful conclusion of the Jewish War, where, if Apollonius is to be believed, Vespasian and Titus learnt of the Essene- Christian movement and may have received some form of co-operation from it. The Christians began to distance themselves from the rebellious Jews, and the Jews in turn anathematized the “Nazarenes,” instituting a prayer against them in the synagogue worship, thereby debarring them from attending. A growth of churches resulted, as the Christians began to think in a more non-Jewish line. During the reign of Domitian (82-96 A.D.) the Christians again seem to have been persecuted. Flarius Clemens, of consular rank, was executed, possibly because he was a Christian, though more likely because he had been conspiring against the Emperor. His wife, Domitilla, gave her name to the Catacomb on the Appian Way, where however, the graves of the “Christians” appear to be wholly Jewish in nature at this time. If the Christians had been implicated in a conspiracy it would explain the hostility of the government towards them. Domitian was murdered by Stephanos, a 3. Suetonius — Life of Chouduid 25:4. 4. Suetonius — Life of Nero 16. 14 REVIEW OF RELIGIONS former wrestler, who had previously been employed by Domitilla. Apollonius had foreseen the moment of the assassination at Ephesus, the vision augmented by a “Stephanos”, “halo” or “crown”, round the sun. Perhaps this is no more than a reference to Stephanos, the first martyr. In the brief reign of Nerva (96-8 A.D.) there was little to trouble the Christian community, now spreading fairly rapidly in the east, particularly Asia Minor. Trajan, though, was a somewhat different case. Contemplating war with Parthia, where there were large numbers of Jews, he did not like to feel there was going to be any trouble in his own realm. The problem of the Christians was becoming familiar, but not familiar enough for Pliny, the governor of Bithynia (c.112 A.D.) to know how to tackle it. He wrote to Trajan to ask advice on how to proceed against them. ” . . . Whether the name itself, even if innocent of crime, should be punished, or only the crimes attaching to that name.”5 He outlines the procedure for those brought before him as Christians: ” . . . I ask them if they are Christians. If they admit it I repeat the question a second and a third time, threatening capital punishment; if they persist I sentence them to death. For I do not doubt that, whatever kind of income it may be to which they have confessed, their perspicacity and inflexible obstinacy should certainly be punished.” It seems it was their attitude, rather than any crimes they had committed, which provoked Pliny’s anger. As soon as the population heard of the prosecution, people began to accuse individuals of Christianity on a wide scale. Pamphlets against the Christians were published anonymously, but those who denied the charge were dismissed: ” . . . because they called upon the gods at my dictation and did reverence, with incense and wine, to your image which I had ordered to be brought forward for this purpose, together with the statues of the deities; and especially because they cursed Christ, a thing which, it is said, genuine Christians cannot be induced to do.” Here lay the nub of the matter. Emperors, on their death, were given divine honours. A living emperor was entitled to worship, either in the official temples dedicated to him or privately in front of his image. This was a test of loyalty in a system of governmental succession which was based on nomination by a predecessor or armed revolt. Very rarely was the Senate able to elect an emperor, though of course, they were required to ratify the “fait accompli.”6 5. Pliny — letter X to Trajan; 96. 6. c/f the oath of allegiance sworn to Adolf Hitler personally by the German army. THE ROMAN ATTITUDE 15 The Christians would not do this, and so they were open to the charge of treason against the emperor. It appears that many of the accused denied the charge or claimed that they had recanted some years previously on reflection. These latter described their practice, which seemed to be quite innocuous: ” . . . On an appointed day they had been accustomed to meet before daybreak, and to recite a hymn, antiphonally to Christ, as to a god, and to bind themselves by an oath, not for the commission of any crime but to abstain from theft, robbery, adultery and breach of faith, and not to deny a deposit when it was claimed.” They then left, before meeting again to eat a communal meal. Pliny found, “nothing but a depraved and extravagant superstition,” when he examined two deaconesses. Christianity had spread from the cities to the countryside, but Pliny felt confident he could arrest it. A revival of Pagan Practices had been produced in opposition to the Christians by the local population. There is, of course, no mention of any belief in the divinity of Christ, no mass or any later innovations, but there is a great similarity with the Essene community at Qumran — the prayer or hymn before dawn, the pledge of moral behaviour really a watered down version of the ten commandments for converts •—• and the communal meal. In reply to Pliny’s letter, Trajan commends him for his action, adding that the Christians are not to be sought out, but if they are rightly informed against they should be punished. If they deny the charge, no proceedings are to be taken against them. Nor was it only the government which viewed the Christians with alarm. The mass of the population had formed their own opinions as to what went on at their meetings. “. . . They gather together ignorant persons from the lowest dregs, and credulous women7. . . and organize a rabble of unholy conspirators, leagued together in nocturnal associations8 and by ritual fasts and barbarous foods . . . a secret tribe that shuns the light, silent in public but talkative in secret places.9 They despise the temples as if they were tombs, they spit upon the gods, they ridicule our sacred rites. . . . This plot must be rooted out and execrated,10 they recognize one another by secret signs and tokens;11 they love one another almost before they are acquainted. Everywhere a kind of religion of lust is associated with them, and they call themselves promiscuously brothers and sisters. . . . I hear 7. Many 2nd-century converts appear to have been from among the lower classes, women in particular .seemed attracted to the new religion, (See Lucion’s satires.) 8. The evening and night prayers, as at Qumran. 9. Following the practice of Jesus, they met in quiet, secluded places, with a central place being a house or cave (grotto). 10. The obvious implication. 11. The Jews were also accused of this; (see Tacitus; Histories v.iii,4iv.3). 16 REVIEW OF RELIGIONS that in some absurd conviction or other they consecrate and worship the head of an ass.12 . . . Others say that they reverence the private parts of their director and high priests.13 An infant covered with a cloth to deceive the unsuspecting is set before the one to be initiated in the rites.14 The neophyte is induced to strike what seem to be harmless blows . . . and this infant is killed by his random and unsuspecting blows. Its blood, oh shocking, they greedily lap up; the limbs they eagerly distribute15 . . . and by this complicity in crime they pledge themselves to mutual silence.16 . . . On an appointed day they assemble at a feast with all their children.17 “… There, after much feasting, when the banquet has become hasted and intoxication has inflamed the drunken passions of incestuous lust, a dog which has been tied to a lamp is incited to rush and leap forward after a morsel thrown beyond the range of the cord by which it was tied.1S The telltale light is upset and extinguished and in the shameless dark they exchange embraces indiscriminately, and all, if not actually, yet by complicity are equally involved in incest. . . . Furthermore, they threaten the whole world and the universe itself and its stars with fire, and work for its destruction19 . . . they say they are reborn after death from the cinders and ashes, and with unaccountable confidence believe in one another’s lies.20 . . . “But you (Christians) . . . do not attend the shows; you take no part in the processions; fight shy of public banquets; abhor the sacred games, meats from the sacrificial victims, drinks poured in libation on the altars.”21 In short, the writer either has misunderstood the rituals of the Christians or has deliberately confused them to arouse anger and opposition. Feeling threatened by the growing numbers of the new religion, the Roman attitude was to attack. Normally the official practice was one of toleration, unless, as in this case, it was felt to threaten the very fabric of Roman society; a society which no longer possessed belief in its own religious values; one which consisted of rituals and public displays only, maintained to bolster the rulers of the time. The growth of irrational belief was widespread, filling the vacuum 12. At least one church in Italy claims to have the circumcised foreskin of their founder. 13. The fish, the sign of Jonah. 14. Possibly a cloth covering the food for the communal meal. 15. A misunderstanding of the words at the last supper concerning the bread and the wine. 16. The pledge to the teachings of Moses in the ten commandments as mentioned by Pliny. 17. The Sabbath, or possibly the Messianic banquet as at Quran, depending on whether it was one or more days a year. 18. Unclear, but c/f the Holy Quran — Al Kahf for references to a dog. A guard dog. This probably the “agape” — “the love feast” though it is obviously not meant in the literal sense. At the end of the ceremony the worshippers greeted each other with a kiss — see Justin Martyr (First Apology Ixi, Ixv-lxvii). 19. The Day of Judgement and return of Jesus. 20. Some Christians misunderstood the concept of the next life; they believed they would have the same physical bodies. 21. Minucius Felix — Octavius viii. 3-xii,6. THE ROMAN ATTITUDE 17 created by the decline of the official religions. Magic and superstition were commonplace, and rather than a system of training, of growth and development in each individual, a personal, simple answer was sought, a saviour who had no need for formalised religion. Christianity had to fill this gap in the minds of the population. Not everyone, though, was prejudiced against the Christians. The true state of affairs, perhaps is reflected by Galen, the Greek scientist (c.130- 200 A.D.) who wrote in his summary of Plato’s “Republic,” “Now we see the people called Christianas . . . acting in the same way (as Philosophers). For their contempt of death . . . is patent to us every day, and likewise their restraint in cohabitation . . . and they also number individuals who, in self discipline and self-control in matters of food and drink, and in their keen pursuit of justice, have attained a pitch not inferior to that of genuine philosophers.”22 Galen was a Greek, not a member of the ruling Roman classes, and here the difference lay. He did not share their fear of being overthrown from office, or as Nero and Domitian had done, used persecution as a means to bolster their own failing popularity. As an intellectual he could take a more objective view and his partiality to seeing every moral code in the light of philosophy indicated the key to Christianity’s success among the educated classes. The official policy remained the same as that expounded by Pliny and Trajan, with most of the prosecution against the Christians taking place in the provinces. Hadrian, however, refused to encourage the trade of informers against the Christians and insisted there should be formal charges which could be substantiated in a court of law. Slanderous accusations were to be severely dealt with.23 The second century generally seems to have been fairly quiet for the majority of Christian communities. Apart from persecutions in Asia and Gaul, the Roman government seems not to have actively sought them out. Significantly, this was at the time when the Empire was at its height economically and politically, ruled by emperors inclined to Greek culture, such as Hadrian, Antoninus Pins and Marcus Aurelius. The dynasty of the Severie in the first quarter of the third century (193—23) seems to have continued the policy of laissez-faire. Septimzius Severus maintained prosperity by debasing the coinage in order to keep the soldiery happy, but could not stem the drainage of precious metals to the east, and only managed to postpone the evil day when the Empire was faced with the bill. Julia Domna and her circle encouraged philosophy and esoteric religion, the result of which can be seen in the works of Philostratus. Severus Alexander, the last of the dynasty, reputedly keep busts of Moses, Abraham, Jesus, Orpheus and 22. Quoted from R. Walzer — Galen on Jews and Christians p. 15 (Oxford). 23. See — Rescript of Hadrian to Caius Minucius Fundanus, Proconsul of Asia c. 152 A.D. 18 REVIEW OF RELIGIONS Apollonius for his personal adoration, the latter three being synonymous. He therefore showed a marked predilection for the Judeo-Christian religion. After his death, the Empire began to go downhill economically. The army could not be relied upon to remain loyal any longer, and in order to receive an increasingly larger bribe from the newly established emperor, took to the practice of removing him themselves at increasingly shorter intervals. Political control passed quickly from one hand to another, with the army acting the part of the kingmaker. Frequently it was a sentence of death to be proclaimed by the troops; central control began to disintegrate as more and more rebellions took place. The old senatorial families lost their dominance as the succession of emperors emerged from the ranks. The need of the hour was for a warrior, not a lawyer-cum-statesman and as the economic and political climate deteriorated, the need to find an explanation of it became greater. The traditional gods of Rome had been neglected and in their place, the new religion of Christianity was spreading. This happened to coincide with the decline of the Empire and superstitious minds sought out a likely explanation. The Christians’ refusal to join in the social life of the Empire, coupled with their failure to enlist for military service only encouraged the authorities to believe they were actually helping to bring about the Empire’s collapse. Consequently, a new wave of persecution was ordered, but it was to be the storm before the calm. The Edict of Decius (250 A.D.) required provincial governors and magistrates to superintend sacrifices to the gods and the genius of the emperor by the whole population on a fixed day. This universal test did not produce the desired effect. Aimed at the Christians, some refused, but many did not, thereby causing great controversy in the Christian communities. There was a split between those who claimed they had forefeited their rights to remain as members of the church by performing the sacrifices, and those who were willing to re-admit them after they had performed a suitable penance. Other Christians managed to buy certificates indicating that they had completed the sacrifices; widescale avoidance, perhaps connived at by sympathetic officials seems to have occurred. Decius fell from power the following year so the duration of the persecution was short. The respite was to prove equally brief. Valerian (253-60) initially employed many Christians in his palace, but a change to the old policy soon followed. Sacrifices, as under Decuis, were ordered to be performed by priests and bishops; Christians were forbidden to assemble or to use their cemeteries, the punishment for violation of the law being death. A second rescript ordered Roman senators and equites who were Christians to be degraded and deprived of their possessions: a further persistance in Christian belief entailed death; matrons were deprived of their property and suffered banishment; any member of the Imperial household confessing to Christianity was to have his THE ROMAN ATTITUDE 19 or her property confiscated and to be sent to forced labour on the Imperial farms. Valerian’s measures were repealed by his successor, Gallenius, in 260. The churches were re-opened, along with the cemeteries and freedom of worship was granted. A succession of Illyrian soldier-emperors claimed the throne after this, bringing with them a wave of support for religions which were popular with the army. Of these, Helios, or Sol-Irviclu gained prominence. This involved worship of the sun as the embodiment of the Divine Being. It was largely monotheistic in nature, but centred on the power and purity of the sun. It proved difficult to separate the inclination of the people towards the religion of Helions and their inclination towards Christianity when the latter had become the state religion. A compromise was to allow the populace to celebrate the birthday of the sun and the birthday of the son on the same date — 25th December. Mithras also achieved considerable popularity. To become initiated into the religion, one had to descend into a pit, above which a bull was slaughtered. Accompanied by suitable liturgy, the blood of the sacrificial victim dripped onto the initiate below, thereby washing away his sins. This has rather obvious connotations which do not need elucidating here except to say that St. Peter’s Cathedral in the Vatican is built over the site of a Mithraum. Details of the excavations can be ascertained by those who wish to satisfy their curiosity further. One of the main worries of the authorities at this time was the organisation of the Christian churches themselves. Although still only a small minority, Christianity constituted a separate society, another state within the state, with loyalties apparently not to the emperor but to their own beliefs. This at least was what it must have seemed in the eyes of the government. At a time when the very existence of the empire was threatened by secessionist movements within and by invasion from without, infiltration into the army was a very serious matter. A case from Tingis (Tangier) in 298 involved a centurion, Marcellus, who had become a Christian. He was brought before the court for interrogation. Marcellus had renounced his oath of allegiance and thrown away his arras. A report of this from the governor, Fortunates, was read out, whereupon Marcellus admitted the offence, in what could be construed as an excessive zeal for martyrdom. Agricolanus, the interrogator, asked, “Did you throw away your arms?” Marcellus replied, “I did. For a Christian, who is in the service of the Lord Christ, ought not to serve the cares of his world,” whereupon he was ordered to be executed.24 24. R. Knaff — Ausgewah Martyrerakten, 3rd ed (Tubingen, 1929). 20 REVIEW OF RELIGIONS The main concern was no longer with accusations of bestiality as in the time of Trajan. The Roman authorities knew exactly who and what the Christians were, but their main concern was the attitude of some Christians not only towards the government, but the Empire itself in its hour of trouble. A wave of persecution followed under Diocletian, in all parts of the Empire, lasting from 303 to 311. It proved the most severe of all. The Empire had been divided into four quarters for military purposes, with an eastern and a western half being sub-divided. Each half had an Augustus and a Caesar under him to rule over it. Many servants in the Imperial household had become Christians, as had the wife and daughter of Diocletian himself. During the first part of Diocletian’s reign, Christianity had made great strides throughout the Empire, but then came a change of heart and policy on the part of the emperors. According to Lactantius,25 it was Diocletian’s colleague, Gallenius who was responsible for influencing him towards persecution. Gallenius’s edict was repealed and Valerian’s laws re-enacted. Churches were demolished, scriptures destroyed, church officials imprisoned; the population was again ordered to make sacrifice to the gods and the emperor. The temples were re-built and priests re-appointed, with a high priest nominated for each province. It proved of no avail. Galerius, on his death bed, was compelled to admit failure. He issued the famous, ‘Edict of Toleration’, which explains the attitude of the emperors considerably; this was in 311. “Among our other regulations to promote the lasting good of the community we26 have hitherto endeavoured to restore a universal conformity to the ancient institutions and public order of the Romans; . . . to bring back to a right disposition the Christians who had abandoned the religion of their fathers . . . many of them were brought to order through fear, while many were exposed to danger. Nevertheless since many still persist in their opinions, and since we have observed that they neither show due reverence to the gods nor worship their own God, we therefore, with our wonted clemency in extending pardon to all … allowing Christians the right to exist again and to set up their places of worship; provided always that they do not offend against public order. . . . In return for this indulgence of ours it will be the duty of Christians to pray for our recovery, for the public weal and for their own; that the state may be preserved from danger on every side, and that they themselves may dwell safely in their homes.” This freedom of conscience was confirmed by Constantine and Licinius in the Edict of Milan in 313. Sporadic persecution continued in the east for a few more years. Under Constantine church property was restored and the clergy 25. Lactantuis — On the death of the Persewtors 12-14. 26. “We” is not the royal “We” of today; it refers to two of Galerius’ colleagues. The fourth, Maximin Daza, ruler of Egypt and Syria, refused to sign. THE ROMAN ATTITUDE 21 were even granted a state subsidy towards expenses, at least in the African provinces. Constantine suppressed the soothsayers and inaugurated the state recognition of the day of the Sun — Sunday as a day of rest. His mother, Helena, later St. Helena, made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and returned bearing fragments of ‘the true cross’, thereby helping an already advanced industry producing religious artefacts and souvenios to transfer to Christianity. However, Constantine did not discourage worship of the Imperial cult, and some scholars have doubted that he ever became a Christian at all, at least until shortly before his death. Bishop Hosuis of Gordova was his adviser and under his guidance Christianity became the official state religion. Instead of being given divine honours, on his death, Constantine was made a saint. His body was allowed to remain sitting on the throne for several months with secretaries bringing the daily correspondence as if he were still alive. When the body became too decomposed it was removed for funeral rites. Thus Christianity, which the emperors had striven intermittently to suppress for three centuries, in the end succeeded not only to freedom of toleration, but to power. Now the bishops began a struggle for their own beliefs and supporters to gain predominance, for although Christianity was supreme, it was by no means unanimous in what it believed. By the age of Constantine, the Roman Empire had changed almost unrecognisably from its foundation by Augustus. Noble families had died out or had been supplanted; the old institutions had fallen into decay, the old beliefs had long since disappeared or had become modified. With the passage of time a new Empire had been created with new rulers; the Ancient World was dying and the Middle Ages were about to begin. A Christian background replaced the old Graeco-Roman philosophy and culture, yet if the Empire had changed, so too had Christianity; time cannot march on the same spot, and as it progresses new individuals with new ideas must build on the old.