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§ 20. Persecutions under Marcus Aurelius. a.d. 161–180.
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus: (b. 121, d. 180):·Τῶν εἰς ἑαυτὸν Βιβλία ιβ ̔̑’, or Meditations. It is a sort of diary or common place book, in which the emperor wrote down, towards the close of his life, partly amid the turmoil of war "in the land of the Quadi" (on the Danube in Hungary), for his self-improvement, his own moral reflections) together with striking maxims of wise and virtuous men. Ed. princeps by Xylander Zurich 1558, and Basle 1568; best ed with a new Latin trans. and very full notes by Gataker, Lond. 1643, Cambr. 1652, and with additional notes from the French by Dacier, Lond. 1697 and 1704. New ed. of the Greek text by J. M. Schultz, 1802 (and 1821); another by Adamantius Coraïs, Par. 1816. English translation by George Long, Lond. 1863, republ. Boston, revised edition, London, 1880. There are translations into most European languages, one in Italian by the Cardinal Francis Barberini (nephew of Pope Urban VIII), who dedicated his translation to his own soul, "to make it redder than his purple at the sight of the virtues of this Gentile." Comp. also the letters of the famous rhetorician M. Corn. Fronto, the teacher of M. Aurelius, discovered and published by Angelo Mai, Milan 1815 and Rome 1823 (Epistolarum ad Marcum Caesarem Lib. V., etc.) They are, however, very unimportant, except so far as they show the life-long congenial friendship between the amiable teacher and his imperial pupil.
Arnold Bodek: Marcus AureliusAntoninus als Freund und Zeitgenosse les Rabbi Jehuda ha-Nasi. Leipz. 1868. (Traces the connection of this emperor with the Jewish monotheism and ethics.)
E. Renan: Marc-Aurèle et la fin du monde antique. Paris 1882. This is the seventh and the last vol. of his work of twenty years’ labor on the "Histoire des Origines du Christianisme." It is as full of genius, learning and eloquence, and as empty of positive faith as the former volumes. He closes the period of the definite formation of Christianity in the middle of the second century, but proposes in a future work to trace it back to Isaiah (or the "Great Unknown") as its proper founder.
Eusebius: H. E. V. 1–3. The Letter of the Churches of Lyons and Vienne to the Christians of Asia Minor. Die Akten, des Karpus, des Papylus und der Agathonike, untersucht von AD. Harnack. Leipz., 1888.
On the legend of the Legio fulminatrix see Tertullian: Apol. 5; Euseb.: H. E V. 5.; and Dion Cass.: Hist. LXXI. 8, 9.
Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher on the throne, was a well-educated, just, kind, and amiable emperor, and reached the old Roman ideal of self-reliant Stoic virtue, but for this very reason he had no sympathy with Christianity, and probably regarded it as an absurd and fanatical superstition. He had no room in his cosmopolitan philanthropy for the purest and most innocent of his subjects, many of whom served in his own army. He was flooded with apologies of Melito, Miltiades, Athenagoras in behalf of the persecuted Christians, but turned a deaf ear to them. Only once, in his Meditations, does he allude to them, and then with scorn, tracing their noble enthusiasm for martyrdom to "sheer obstinacy" and love for theatrical display.3535 Med. xi. 3: Μὴ κατὰ ψιλὴν παράταξιν, ὡς οἱ Χριστιανοὶ, ἁλλὰ λελογισμένος καὶ σεμνῶς καὶ, ὥστε καὶ ἂλλον π εῖσαι ατραγῴδως4 His excuse is ignorance. He probably never read a line of the New Testament, nor of the apologies addressed to him.3636 Bodek (l.c. p. 82 sqq.) maintains, contrary to the common view, that Marcus Aurelius was personally indifferent to heathenism and Christianity, that his acts of respect for the worship of the gods, related by Capitolinus and others, were simply official tributes, and that the persecutions of the Christians did probably not originate with him. "Er wareben so wenig ein Feind des Christenthums, als er ein Feind des Heidenthums war: was wie religiöser Fanatismus aussah,war in Wahrheit nur politischer Conservatismus" (p. 87). On the other hand, Bodek claims for him a friendly sympathy with Judaism in its monotheistic and ethical features, and assumes that he had intimate relations with a Jewish rabbi. But there is nothing in his twelve books "Do seipso et ad seipsum," which is inconsistent with an enlightened heathen piety under the unconscious influence of Christianity, yet hostile to it partly from ignorance of its true nature, partly from a conscientious regard to his duty as the pontifex maximus of the state religion. The same was the case with Trajan and Decius. Renan (p. 262 sqq.) calls the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius "le livre le plus purement humain qu’il y ait. Il ne tranche aucune question controversée. En théologie, Marc Aurèle flotte entre le déisme pur, le polythéisme enterprété dans un sens physique, à la façon des stoïciens, et une sorte de panthéisme cosmique."5
Belonging to the later Stoical school, which believed in an immediate absorption after death into the Divine essence, he considered the Christian doctrine of the immortality of the soul, with its moral consequences, as vicious and dangerous to the welfare of the state. A law was passed under his reign, punishing every one with exile who should endeavor to influence people’s mind by fear of the Divinity, and this law was, no doubt, aimed at the Christians.3737 "Si quis aliquid fecerit, quo leves hominum animi superstitio numinis terrerentur, Divus Marcus hujusmodi homines in insulam relegari rescripsit."Dig. XLVIII. tit. 19. 1. 13, quoted by Lecky in Hist. of Europ. Morals, I. 448. 96 At all events his reign was a stormy time for the church, although the persecutions cannot be directly traced to him. The law of Trajan was sufficient to justify the severest measures against the followers of the "forbidden" religion.
About the year 170 the apologist Melito wrote: "The race of the worshippers of God in Asia is now persecuted by new edicts as it never has been heretofore; shameless, greedy sycophants, finding occasion in the edicts, now plunder the innocent day and night." The empire was visited at that time by a number of conflagrations, a destructive flood of the Tiber, an earthquake, insurrections, and particularly a pestilence, which spread from Ethiopia to Gaul. This gave rise to bloody persecutions, in which government and people united against the enemies of the gods and the supposed authors of these misfortunes. Celsus expressed his joy that "the demon" [of the Christians] was "not only reviled, but banished from every land and sea," and saw in this judgment the fulfilment of the oracle: "the mills of the gods grind late." But at the same time these persecutions, and the simultaneous literary assaults on Christianity by Celsus and Lucian, show that the new religion was constantly gaining importance in the empire.
In 177, the churches of Lyons and Vienne, in the South of France, underwent a severe trial. Heathen slaves were forced by the rack to declare, that their Christian masters practised all the unnatural vices which rumor charged them with; and this was made to justify the exquisite tortures to which the Christians were subjected. But the sufferers, "strengthened by the fountain of living water from the heart of Christ," displayed extraordinary faith and steadfastness, and felt, that "nothing can be fearful, where the love of the Father is, nothing painful, where shines the glory of Christ."
The most distinguished victims of this Gallic persecution were the bishop Pothinus, who, at the age of ninety years, and just recovered from a sickness, was subjected to all sorts of abuse, and then thrown into a dismal dungeon, where he died in two days; the virgin Blandina, a slave, who showed almost superhuman strength and constancy under the most cruel tortures, and was at last thrown to a wild beast in a net; Ponticus, a boy of fifteen years, who could be deterred by no sort of cruelty from confessing his Saviour. The corpses of the martyrs, which covered the streets, were shamefully mutilated, then burned, and the ashes cast into the Rhone, lest any remnants of the enemies of the gods might desecrate the soil. At last the people grew weary of slaughter, and a considerable number of Christians survived. The martyrs of Lyons distinguished themselves by true humility, disclaiming in their prison that title of honor, as due only, they said, to the faithful and true witness, the Firstborn from the dead, the Prince of life (Rev. 1:5), and to those of his followers who had already sealed their fidelity to Christ with their blood.
About the same time a persecution of less extent appears to have visited Autun (Augustodunum) near Lyons. Symphorinus, a young man of good family, having refused to fall down before the image of Cybele, was condemned to be beheaded. On his way to the place of execution his own mother called to him: "My son, be firm and fear not that death, which so surely leads to life. Look to Him who reigns in heaven. To-day is thy earthly life not taken from thee, but transferred by a blessed exchange into the life of heaven."
The story of the "thundering legion"3838 Legio fulminatrix, κεραυνοφόρος. The twelfth legion bore the name Fulminata as far back as the time of Trajan; and hence it cannot be derived from this event.7 rests on the fact of a remarkable deliverance of the Roman army in Hungary by a sudden shower, which quenched their burning thirst and frightened their barbarian enemies, a.d. 174. The heathens, however, attributed this not to the prayers of the Christian soldiers, but to their own gods. The emperor himself prayed to Jupiter: "This hand, which has never yet shed human blood, I raise to thee." That this event did not alter his views respecting the Christians, is proved by the persecution in South Gaul, which broke out three years later.
Of isolated cases of martyrdom in this reign, we notice that of Justin Martyr, at Rome, in the year 166. His death is traced to the machinations of Crescens, a Cynic philosopher.
Marcus Aurelius was succeeded by his cruel and contemptible son, Commodus (180–192), who wallowed in the mire of every sensual debauchery, and displayed at the same time like Nero the most ridiculous vanity as dancer and singer, and in the character of buffoon; but he was accidentally made to favor the Christians by the influence of a concubine,3939 φιλόθεος παλλακή8 Marcia, and accordingly did not disturb them. Yet under his reign a Roman senator, Apollonius, was put to death for his faith.
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