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§ 21. Condition of the Church from Septimius Severus to Philip the Arabian. a.d. 193–249.

Clemens Alex.: Strom. II. 414. Tertull.: Ad Scapulam, c. 4, 5; Apol. (a.d. 198), c. 7, 12, 30, 37, 49.

Respecting the Alexandrian martyrs comp. Euseb.: VI. 1 and 5.

The Acts of the Carthaginian martyrs, which contain their ipsissima verba from their diaries in the prisons, but bear a somewhat Montanistic stamp, see in Ruinart, p 90 sqq.

Lampridius: Vita Alex. Severi, c. 22, 29, 49.

On Philip the Arabian see Euseb.:VI. 34, 36. Hieron.: Chron. ad ann. 246.

J. J. Müller: Staat und Kirche unter Alex. Severus. Zürich 1874.

F. Görres: Kaiser Alex. Severus und das Christenthum. Leipz., 1877.

Jean Réville: La religion à Rome sous les Sévères. Paris, 1886 (vii and 302 pp.); Germ. transl. by Krüger, 1888.


With Septimius Severus (193–211), who was of Punic descent and had a Syrian wife, a line of emperors (Caracalla, Heliogabalus, Alexander Severus) came to the throne, who were rather Oriental than Roman in their spirit, and were therefore far less concerned than the Antonines to maintain the old state religion. Yet towards the close of the second century there was no lack of local persecutions; and Clement of Alexandria wrote of those times: "Many martyrs are daily burned, confined, or beheaded, before our eyes."

In the beginning of the third century (202) Septimius Severus, turned perhaps by Montanistic excesses, enacted a rigid law against the further spread both of Christianity and of Judaism. This occasioned violent persecutions in Egypt and in North Africa, and produced some of the fairest flowers of martyrdom.

In Alexandria, in consequence of this law, Leonides, father of the renowned Origen, was beheaded. Potamiaena, a virgin of rare beauty of body and spirit, was threatened by beastly passion with treatment worse than death, and, after cruel tortures, slowly burned with her mother in boiling pitch. One of the executioners, Basilides, smitten with sympathy, shielded them somewhat from abuse, and soon after their death embraced Christianity, and was beheaded. He declared that Potamiaena had appeared to him in the night, interceded with Christ for him, and set upon his head the martyr’s crown.

In Carthage some catechumens, three young men and two young women, probably of the sect of the Montanists, showed remarkable steadfastness and fidelity in the dungeon and at the place of execution. Perpetua, a young woman of noble birth, resisting, not without a violent struggle, both the entreaties of her aged heathen father and the appeal of her helpless babe upon her breast, sacrificed the deep and tender feelings of a daughter and a mother to the Lord who died for her. Felicitas, a slave, when delivered of a child in the same dungeon, answered the jailor, who reminded her of the still keener pains of martyrdom: "Now I suffer, what I suffer; but then another will suffer for me, because I shall suffer for him." All remaining firm, they were cast to wild beasts at the next public festival, having first interchanged the parting kiss in hope of a speedy reunion in heaven.

The same state of things continued through the first years of Caracalla (211–217), though this gloomy misanthrope passed no laws against the Christians.

The abandoned youth, El-Gabal, or Heliogabalus (218–222), who polluted the throne by the blackest vices and follies, tolerated all the religions in the hope of at last merging them in his favorite Syrian worship of the sun with its abominable excesses. He himself was a priest of the god of the sun, and thence took his name.4040    Unless we should prefer to derive it from אֵלּ
   and גִבִִָל
9

His far more worthy cousin and successor, Alexander Severus (222–235), was addicted to a higher kind of religious eclecticism and syncretism, a pantheistic hero-worship. He placed the busts of Abraham and Christ in his domestic chapel with those of Orpheus, Apollonius of Tyana, and the better Roman emperors, and had the gospel rule, "As ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them," engraven on the walls of his palace, and on public monuments4141    Yet he meant no more than toleration, as Lampridius says, 22 (21): Judaeis privilegia reservavit, Christianos esse passus est.0. His mother, Julia Mammaea, was a patroness of Origen.

His assassin, Maximinus the Thracian (235–238), first a herdsman, afterwards a soldier, resorted again to persecution out of mere opposition to his predecessor, and gave free course to the popular fury against the enemies of the gods, which was at that time excited anew by an earthquake. It is uncertain whether he ordered the entire clergy or only the bishops to be killed. He was a rude barbarian who plundered also heathen temples.

The legendary poesy of the tenth century assigns to his reign the fabulous martyrdom of St. Ursula, a British princess, and her company of eleven thousand (according to others, ten thousand) virgins, who, on their return from a pilgrimage to Rome, were murdered by heathens in the neighborhood of Cologne. This incredible number has probably arisen from the misinterpretation of an inscription, like "Ursula et Undecimilla" (which occurs in an old missal of the Sorbonne), or "Ursula et XI M. V.," i.e. Martyres Virgines, which, by substituting milia for martyres, was increased from eleven martyrs to eleven thousand virgins. Some historians place the fact, which seems to form the basis of this legend, in connexion with the retreat of the Huns after the battle of Chalons, 451. The abridgment of Mil., which may mean soldiers (milites) as well as thousands (milia), was another fruitful source of mistakes in a credulous and superstitious age.

Gordianus (208–244) left the church undisturbed. Philip the Arabian (244–249) was even supposed by some to be a Christian, and was termed by Jerome "primus omnium ex Romanis imperatoribus Christianus." It is certain that Origen wrote letters to him and to his wife, Severa.

This season of repose, however, cooled the moral zeal and brotherly love of the Christians; and the mighty storm under the following reign served well to restore the purity of the church.



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