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THE STRIFE AT ROME—MARTYRDOM OF ST JUSTIN—FRONTON.
Distressing scenes, the consequence of a vicious legislation, under the reign of one of the best of sovereigns, were taking place everywhere. Sentences of death and the denial of justice multiplied. The Christians were often in the wrong. Severity, and the ardent love of the good, by which they were animated, carried them sometimes beyond the bounds of moderation, and rendered them odious to those whom they censured. The father, the son, the husband, the wife, the neighbour, irritated by these prying spies, revenged themselves by denouncing them. Atrocious calumnies were the consequence of these accumulated hatreds. It was about this time that rumours, which up till then had no particular force, assumed a definite form, and became a rooted opinion. The mystery attaching to the Christian reunions, the mutual affection which reigned in the Church, gave birth to the most foolish notions. They were supposed to form a secret society, to have secrets known only to the initiated, to be guilty of shameful promiscuity, and of loves contrary to nature. Some spoke of the adoration of a god with the head of an ass, others of the ignoble homage rendered to the priest. One story which received general currency was this: They presented to the person who was being initiated an infant covered over with paste, in order to train his hand by degrees to murder. The novice struck, the blood poured forth, all drank eagerly, they divided the trembling limbs, and cemented thus their alliance through complicity, and bound themselves to absolute silence. Then they became drunk, lights were extinguished, and in the 259darkness they all gave themselves up to the most hideous embracements. Rome was a city much given to slander: a multitude of newsmongers and gossips were on the watch for bizarre tales. Those silly tales were repeated, passed off as being of public notoriety, were transformed into outrages and into caricatures. The serious part about it was this, that in the legal processes to which those accusations gave rise they put to the question slaves belonging to Christian houses—women, young boys—who, overcome by the tortures, said all that was wished of them, and afforded a judicial basis for many odious inventions.
The calumnies, moreover, were reciprocal, the Christians retorting on their adversaries the lies invented against themselves. These sanguinary feasts, these orgies, were practised only by the Pagans. Had not their god set them the example in every kind of vice? In some of the most solemn rites of the Roman worship, in the sacrifices to Jupiter Latiaris, did they not indulge in the shedding of human blood? The accusation was inaccurate, but, for all that, it became one of the bases of apologetic Christianity. The immorality of the gods of ancient Olympus afforded the controversialists an easy triumph. When Jupiter himself was only the pure blue sky, he was immoral like nature herself, and this immorality had no results. But morals had now become the essence of religion; people required of the gods examples of citizen-like integrity; examples like those of which mythology is full yielded only scandalous and irrefutable objections.
Above all things it was the public discussions between the philosophers and the apologist which embittered the minds of people, and led to the gravest disturbances. In those discussions people insulted one another, and, unhappily, the parties were not equal. The philosophers had a sort of 260official position and state function; they received emoluments for making profession of a wisdom which they did not always teach by their example. They ran no risks, and they were wrong in making their adversaries feel that by saying a word they could extinguish them. The Christians, on their side, jeered at the philosophers for accepting emoluments. Those were insipid pleasantries, analogous to those which we have seen exhibited in our times against salaried philosophers. “Could they not,” said people to one another, “wear their beards gratis!” People affected to believe that they rolled in gold, treated them as sordid wretches, as parasites; people objected to their doctrine, on the ground that they knew how to do without men of their manner of life—a life which appeared as one of opulence to some people even poorer than themselves were.
The ardent Justin was at the head of these noisy altercations, where we see him, towards the end of his life, seconded by a disciple more violent yet than himself, we mean the Assyrian Latianus, a man of a gloomy disposition, and filled with hatred against Hellenism. Born a Pagan, he studied literature extensively, and kept a public school of philosophy, not without obtaining a certain reputation as a teacher. Endowed with a melancholy imagination, Latianus was anxious to possess clear ideas upon things which human destiny interdicted him from acquiring. He had traversed, like his master Justin, the whole circle of existing religions and philosophies, had travelled, wished to be initiated into all the pretended religious secrets, and attended the different schools. Hellenism offended him by its apparent levity of morals. Destitute of all literary sentiment, he was incapable of appreciating their divine beauty. The Scriptures of the Hebrews had alone the privilege of satisfying him. 261They pleased him by their severe morality, their simple style and assurance, by their monotheistic character, and by the peremptory manner in which they put to one side, by means of the creation dogma, the restless curiosities of physics and metaphysics. His contracted and dull mind had found in them that which it wanted. He became a Christian, and met in St Justin the doctor best fitted to comprehend his passionate philosophy; he attached him closely to him, and was in a manner his second in the contests which he sustained against the sophists and the rhetoricians.
Their usual antagonist was a cynic philosopher named Crescentius, a personage, it seems, contemptible enough, who had made a position at Rome by his ascetic appearance and by his long beard. His declamations against the fear of death did not impede him from often menacing Justin and Tatian, and of denouncing them: “Ah, you own, then, that death is an evil!” said they to him in turn, wittily enough. Certainly Crescentius was wrong in abusing thus the protection of the State to his adversaries. But it must be confessed that Justin did not in that case show him all the consideration he deserved. He treated his adversaries as gourmands and impostors; he was right, nevertheless, in reproaching them with the emoluments they accepted. One can be a pensioner without being, for all that, a niggardly and covetous person. A circumstance which occurred about that time in Rome, showed how dangerous it is to oppose persecution to fanaticism, even where fanaticism is aggressive and tantalising.
There was in Rome a very wicked household, in which the husband and the wife seemed to be rivals in infamy. The wife was converted to Christianity by one Ptolemy, abandoned her evils ways, made every effort to convert her husband, and not succeeding in this, thought of a divorce. She was afraid at 262being accomplice in the impieties of him with whom she lived united by society, sitting at the same table, and sharing the same couch. In spite of the counsels of her family, she sent to him the notifications required by law, and quitted the conjugal abode. The husband protested, entered an action, pleading that his wife was a Christian. The wife obtained several delays. The husband, irritated, directed, as was natural, all his anger against Ptolemy.
He succeeded through a centurion, a friend of his, in having Ptolemy arrested, and whom he persuaded to ask simply of Ptolemy whether he were a Christian. Ptolemy confessed that he was, and was put in prison. After a very cruel detention he was taken before Quintus Lollius Urbicus, prefect of Rome. He was questioned afresh, and made fresh avowals. Ptolemy was condemned to death. A Christian, named Lucius, present at the hearing, interpellated Urbicus. “How can you condemn a man who is neither adulterer, thief, nor murderer, who is guilty of no other crime than of avowing himself a Christian? Your judgment is indeed little in accord with the piety of our Emperor, and with the sentiments of the philosopher son of Cæsar” (Marcus Aurelius). Lucius having avowed himself a Christian, Urbicus condemned him likewise to death. “Thank you,” responded Lucius; “I am obliged to you; I am about to exchange wicked masters for a father who is king of heaven.” A third auditor was seized with the same contagious fury for martyrdom. He proclaimed himself a Christian, and was ordered to be executed with the two others, Justin was moved extremely by this sanguinary drama. As long as Lollius Urbicus was perfect of Rome, he could not protest; but as soon as that function passed to another, Justin addressed to the senate a fresh apology. His own position 263became precarious. He felt the danger of having for an enemy a man like Crescentius, who by a word could put him out of the way. It was with the presentiment of a near death that he committed to writing that eloquent defence against the exceptional situation to which the Christians were reduced.
There is something bold in the attitude which an obscure philosopher takes before the powerful body which the provincials never designated otherwise than hiera syncletos, “the holy assembly.” Justin brings back these arrogant people to a sentiment of justice and of truth. The éclat of their pretended dignity may create an illusion in them; but whether they like it or like it not they are the brothers and the fellow-creatures of those whom they prosecute. This persecution is the proof of the truth of Christianity. The best among the Pagans have in like manner been persecuted—Musonius, for example—but what a difference! Whilst Socrates has not had a single disciple who has been put to death for him, Jesus has a multitude of witnesses—artisans, common people, as well as philosophers, men of letters—who have offered up their lives for him.
It is to be regretted that some of the enlightened men of which the senate was then composed did not study these beautiful pages. Perhaps they were turned from them by other passages less philosophic, in particular by the absurd demonomania which bristled in each page. Justin challenges his readers to prove a notorious fact, which was, that people brought to the Christians the possessed whom the Pagan exorcists were unable to heal. He held that to be a decisive proof of the eternal fires in which demons shall one day be punished along with the men who have adored them. One page which ought to shock wholly those whom Justin wished to convert, is the one in which, after having established that the violent 264measures of Roman legislation against. Christianity were the work of demons, he announces that God will soon avenge the blood of his servants, in annihilating the power of the genii of evil, and in consuming all the world by fire (an idea that the worst wretches made use of for the purpose of disorder and pillage). If God differs, said he, it is only to wait until the number of the elect be complete. Till then, he will allow demons and wicked men to do all the evil that they wish.
That which shows indeed what an amount of simplicity of mind Justin combined with his rare sincerity, is the petition by which he finishes his apology. He requests that there should be given to his writing an official approbation, in order to correct the opinion as to what concerns the Christians. “At least,” says he, “such a publicity would be less objectionable than that which is given every day to foolish farces, obscene writings, ballets, Epicurean books, and other compositions of the same sort, which are represented or are read with entire freedom. We see already how much Christianity shows itself favourable to the most immoderate exercise of authority, when this authority shall have been acquired by it”
Justin touches us more, when he regards death with impassability:—
I fully expect, says be, to see myself denounced some day, and put into the stocks by the people whom I have mentioned, at least by this Crescentius, more worthy of being called the friend of noise and of vain show than the friend of wisdom, who goes about every day affirming of as things of which he knows nothing, accusing us in public of atheism and of impiety, in order to gain the favour of an abused multitude. He must have a very wicked soul to decry us thus, since even the man of ordinary morality makes a point of not passing judgment upon things of which he is ignorant. If he pretends that he is perfectly instructed in our doctrine, it must be that the baseness of his mind has prevented him from comprehending its majesty. If he understood it thoroughly, there is nothing which obliges him to decry it, if it 265be not the fear of being himself regarded as a Christian. Understand, in fact, that I, having proposed some questions to him on the subject, have clearly perceived, and I have even convinced him that he knows nothing about them. And to demonstrate to the whole world that what I say is the truth, I declare that if you are still ignorant of this dispute I am ready to renew it in your presence. The latter would indeed be a truly royal work. For, if you were to see the questions which I proposed to him and the responses he made to them, you could not doubt his ignorance, nor his little love for the truth.
The forecasts of St Justin were but too well justified. Crescentius denounced him when he ought to have contented himself by refuting him, and the courageous doctor was put to death. Tatian escaped the snares of the Cynic. We cannot enough regret, for the sake of the memory of Antonine (or, if it is wished, of Marcus Aurelius), that the courageous advocate of a cause which was then that of liberty of conscience should have suffered martyrdom under his reign. If Justin called his rival “impostor,” or “shark,” as Tatian informs us, he deserved the full penalty which attached to the crime of proffering insults in public. But Crescentius may have been no less offensive, and he escaped punishment. Justin was therefore punished for being a Christian. The law was formal, and the conservators of the Roman common weal hesitated to abrogate it. How many precursors of the future suffered similarly under the reign of the just and pious St Louis!
The attacks of Crescentius were but an isolated circumstance. In the first century, some of the most enlightened men were wholly ignorant of Christianity; but this is no longer possible. Everybody has an opinion on the subject. The first rhetorician of the times, L. Cornelius Fronton, certainly wrote an invective against the Christians. That discourse is lost; we do not know in what circumstances it was composed, but we can form some idea of it from that which Municius Felix puts 266into the mouth of his Cæcilius. The work was not like that of Celsus, consecrated to exegetical discussion; it was nothing more than a philosophical treatise. It consisted of several considerations on the man of the world, and on politics. Fronton accepted without examination the most calumnious rumours against the Christians. He believed or affected to believe what was told of their nocturnal mysteries and of their sanguinary repasts. A very honest man, but an official man, he had a horror of a sect of men of no social standing. Satisfied with a sort of vague belief in Providence, which he capriciously associated with a polytheistic devotion, he held to the established religion, not because he alleged it was true, but because it was the ancient religion, and formed part of the prejudices of a true Roman. There is no doubt that in his declamation he only took up a patriotic point of view, so as to preach the respect that was due to national institutions, and that be only stood up in his conservative zeal against the foolish pretension of illiterate people of mean condition aspiring to reform beliefs. Perhaps he wound up ironically in regard to the impotence of that unique God who, too much occupied to be able to govern everything well, abandoned his worshippers to death, and with a few railleries upon the resurrection of the flesh.
The discourse of Fronton appealed only to the lettered. Fronton rendered a very bad service to Christianity in inculcating his ideas on the illustrious pupil whom he educated with so much care, and who came to be called Marcus Aurelius.
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