« Prev Chapter XIV. The Domitian Persecution. Next »



The monstrosities of the “bald Nero” made frightful progress. He reached madness, but a sombre, determined madness. Until now there had been intervals in his paroxysms; now it was a continuous frenzy. Wickedness mingled with a feverish rage, which appears to be one of the fruits of the Roman climate, the sensation of becoming ridiculous through his military failures, and by the lying triumphs which he had ordered, filled him with an implacable hatred for every honest and sensible man. He might have been called a vampire feeding greedily upon the carcase of expiring humanity; an open war was declared against all virtue. To write the biography of a great man was a crime; it seemed as though there was a wish to abolish the human intellect, and to take away the voice from conscience. Everything that was illustrious trembled; the world was full of murders and 150exiles. It must be said, to the honour of our poor humanity, that it went through this trial without bending. Philosophy recognised her position, and strengthened herself more than ever in this struggle against torment; there were heroic wives, devoted husbands, constant sons-in-law, faithful slaves. The family of Thrasea and Barea Soranus, was always in the front rank of the virtuous opposition. Helvidius Priscus (the son), Arulenus Rusticus, Junius Mauricus, Senecio, Pomponia Gratilla, Fannia, a whole family of great and strong souls, resisted without hope. Epictetus repeated every day in his grave voice, “Stand up and abstain. Suffering, thou wilt never make me agree that thou art an ill. Anytus and Melitus may kill me; they cannot injure me.”

It was a very honourable thing for philosophy and for Christianity that under Domitian, as under Nero, they should have been persecuted in company. As Tertullian says, what such monsters condemned must have had something of good in it. It is the topstone of wickedness in a government when it does not permit the good to live even under its most resigned form. The name of philosopher implied thenceforward a profession of ascetic practices, a special kind of life, a cloak. This race of secular monks, protesting by their renunciation against the vanities of the world, were during the first century the greatest enemies of Cæsarism. Philosophy, let us say it to its glory, does not readily lend its support to the basenesses of humanity, and to the sad consequences which that baseness entails in politics. Heirs of the liberal spirit of Greece, the Stoics of the Roman epoch dreamed of virtuous democracies in a time which suited only with tyranny. The politicians whose principle it is to shut themselves up within limitations as far as possible, had naturally a strong antipathy to such a way of looking at things. Tiberius had been wont to hold the philosophers in aversion. Nero (in 66) drove 151away these importunates, whose presence was a perpetual reproach to his life. Vespasian (in 74) had better reasons for doing the same thing. His young dynasty was sapped every day by the republican spirit which Stoicism fostered; he did but defend himself by taking precautions against his most mortal enemies.

Nothing more than his own personal wickedness was necessary to induce Domitian to persecute the sages. He had early entertained a hatred for men of letters: every thought was a condemnation of his crimes and of his mediocrity. In his later days he could not suffer them. A decree of the senate drove the philosophers from Rome and from Italy. Epictetus, Dionysius Chrysostom, Artemidorus, departed. The courageous Sulpicia dared to raise his voice on behalf of the banished, and to address prophetic menaces to Domitian. Pliny, the younger, escaped almost by a miracle from the punishment which his distinction and his virtue merited. The treatise Octavius composed about this time contains cruel outbursts of indignation and despair:

Urbe eat nostra mitior Aulis

Et Taurorum barbara tellus;

Hospitis illic cæde litatur

Numen superum; civis gaudet

Roma cruore.

It is not surprising that the Jews and the Christians should have suffered from the recoil of these redoubtable terrors. One circumstance rendered war inevitable: Domitian, imitating the madness of Caligula, wished to receive divine honours. The road to the Capitol was crowded with herds which were taken to his statue to be sacrificed there: the form of the letters from his Chancery commenced with Dominus et Deus noster. We must read the monstrous preface which Quintilian, one of the master spirits of the age, puts at the head of one of his volumes, on the 152day following that on which Domitian had charged him with the education of his adopted heirs, the sons of Flavius Clemens:—“And now it would be not to understand the honour of the celestial appreciations, to remain below my task. What care the morals require if they are to obtain the approval of the most holy of censors! What attention I shall have to give to the studies not to disappoint the expectations of a prince so eminent for eloquence as for everything else! One is not astonished that the poets, after having invoked the Muses at the outset, renew their vows when they arrive at difficult passages of their tasks . . . So also I shall be pardoned for calling all the gods to my help, and in the first place he who more than any other divinity shows himself propitious to our studies. May he inspire me with the genius which the functions to which he has called me require; may he always assist me; may he make me what he has believed me.”

Such is the tone adopted by a man who was “pious” in the fashion of his times. Domitian, like all hypocritical sovereigns, showed himself a severe upholder of the old worship. The word impietas especially during his reign had generally a political signification, and was synonymous with lèse majesté. Religious indifference and tyranny had reached such a point that the Emperor was the only god whose majesty was dreaded. To love the Emperor was piety; to be suspected of opposition or even of coldness was impiety. The word was not from that suspected of having lost its religious sense. The love of the Emperor, in fact, implied the respectful adoption of a whole sacred rhetoric which no sensible man could any longer accept as serious. That man was a revolutionary who did not bow before these absurdities, which had become part of the routine of the state; now the revolutionary was the impious man. The Empire thus came from it to a sort of orthodoxy, to 153an official pedagogy as in China. To admit what the Emperor wished with a sort of loyalism like that which the English affect towards their sovereign and their Established Church, this was what was called religio, and gained for a man the title of pius.

In such a condition of the language and of minds, Jewish and Christian monotheism must have appeared a supreme impiety. The religion of the Jew and of the Christian attached itself to a supreme God, the worship of whom was a robbery of the profane god. To worship God was to give a rival to the Emperor; to worship other gods than those of whom the Emperor was the legal patron, constituted a yet worse insult. The Christians, or rather the pious Jews, believed themselves obliged to make a more or less evident sign of protest when passing before the temples; at least they refrained absolutely from the kiss which it was the custom of pious Pagans to wave to the sacred edifice in passing before it. Christianity, by its cosmopolitan and revolutionary principle, was certainly “the enemy of the gods, of the emperors, of the laws, of morals, of all nature.” The best of the emperors will not always know how to disentangle this sophism, and, without knowing it, almost without wishing it, will be persecutors. A narrow and wicked spirit, like that of Domitian, became such with pedantry and even with a sort of voluptuousness.

The Roman policy had always made in religious legislation a fundamental difference. Roman statesmen saw no harm in a provincial practising his religion in his own country without any spirit of proselytism. When this same provincial wished to worship in his own way in Italy, and, above all, in Rome, the matter became more delicate; the eyes of the true Roman were offended by the spectacle of fantastic ceremonies, and from time to time the police come to sweep out what these aristocrats regarded as ignominies. The foreign religions were besides extremely 154attractive to the lower classes, and it was regarded as a necessity of state to keep them within due limits. But what was held to be altogether grave was that Roman citizens, persons of importance, should abandon the religion of Rome for Oriental superstitions. That was a crime against the state. The Roman was yet the basis of the Empire. Now the Roman was not complete without the Roman religion; for him to go over to a foreign religion was to be guilty of treason to his country. Thus a Roman citizen could never be initiated into Druidism. Domitian, who aspired to the character of a restorer of the worship of the Latin gods, would not lose so fine an opportunity of delivering himself to his supreme joy, which was to punish.

We know with certainty in effect, that a great number of persons having embraced Jewish customs (the Christians were frequently placed in this category) were brought to judgment under the accusation of impiety or atheism. As under Nero, calumnies uttered by false brethren were perhaps the cause of the evil. Some were condemned to death; others were exiled or deprived of their goods. There were some apostacies. In the year 95 Flavius Clemens was Consul. In the last days of his Consulate Domitian put him to death on the slightest suspicion, coming from the basest informers. These suspicions were assuredly political, but the pretext was religion. Clemens had, without doubt, manifested little zeal for the Pagan forms with which every civil act in Rome was accompanied: possibly he had abstained from some ceremony regarded as of capital importance. Nothing more was required to justify the issue of a charge of impiety against him and against Flavia Domitilla. Clemens was put to death. As to Flavia Domitilla, she was exiled to the island of Pandataria, which had already been the scene of the exile of Julia, the daughter of Augustus, of Agrippina, the wife of 155Germanicus, of Octavia, the wife of Nero. This was the crime for which Domitian paid most dearly. Domitilla, whatever was the decree of her initiation into Christianity, was a Roman woman. To avenge her husband, to save her children, compromised by the caprices of a fantastic monster, appeared to be a duty. From Pandataria she continued to maintain relations with the numerous body of slaves and freedmen whom she had at Rome, and who appear to have been strongly attached to her.

Of all the victims of the persecution of Domitian, we know one only by name—that of Flavius Clemens. The ill-will of the Government appears to have been directed far more against the Romans who were attracted to Judaism or to Christianity than against the Jews and Oriental Christians established in Rome. It does not appear that any of the presbyters or episcopi of the Church suffered martyrdom. Among the Christians who suffered, none appear to have been delivered to the beasts in the amphitheatre, for almost all belonged to what were relatively the upper classes of society. As under Nero, Rome was the principal scene of these violences; there were, however, troubles in the provinces. Some Christians faltered and left the Church, where for the moment they had found consolation for their souls, but where it was too hard to remain. Others, however, were heroic in charity, spent their goods to feed the saints, and took upon themselves the chains of those whom they judged to be more valuable to the Church than themselves.

The year 95 was not, it may be owned, as solemn a time for the Church as the year 64, but it had its importance. It was like a second consecration of Rome. After an interval of thirty-one years the maddest and wickedest of men appeared to lay himself out for the destruction of the Church of Jesus, and in reality strengthened it so that the apologists 156could put forth this specious argument, “All monsters have hated us; therefore we are the true.”

It was probably the information which Domitian had of this remark upon Judeo-Christianity which told him of the rumours which circulated concerning the continued existence of descendants of the ancient dynasty of Judah. The imagination of the Agadists gave itself the rein on this subject, and attention, which for centuries had been diverted from the family of David, was now strongly attracted to it. Domitian took umbrage at this, and commanded all who bore that name to be put to death; but soon it was pointed out to him that amongst these supposed descendants of the antique royal race of Jerusalem there were people whose inoffensive character ought assuredly to place them beyond suspicion. There were the grandsons of Jude, the brother of Jesus, peaceably retired in Batanea. The defiant Emperor had besides heard tell of the coming triumph of Christ; all that disquieted him. An evocatus came to seek out the holy people in Syria; they were two; they were taken to the Emperor. Domitian asked them first if they were the descendants of David. They answered that they were. The Emperor then questioned them as to their means of living. “Between us,” they said, “we possess only 9000 denarii, of which each of us takes half. And that property we possess not in money but in the form of a piece of land of some thirty acres upon which we pay the taxes, and we live by the labour of our hands.” Then they showed their hands covered with callosities, and hardened, and red with toil. Domitian questioned them concerning Christ and his kingdom; his future appearance, and the times and places of his appearance. They answered that his kingdom was not of this world; that it was celestial, angelic; that it would be revealed at the end of time, when Christ should come in his glory to judge the quick and the dead, and render to 157each man according to his works. Domitian could feel only contempt for such simplicity; he set at liberty the two grand-nephews of Jesus. It appears that that simple idealism completely reassured him as to the political dangers of Christianity, and that he gave orders to cease the persecution of these dreamers.

Certain indications in effect lead to the belief that Domitian towards the end of his life relaxed his severities. It is, however, impossible to be certain in this matter; for other witnesses lead us to think that the situation of the Church was improved only after the advent of Nerva. At the moment when Clemens wrote his letter, the fire appears to have diminished. It was like the morrow of a battle; they count those who have fallen, those who are still in chains are pitied; but they are far from believing that all is over. God is entreated to defeat the perverse designs of the Gentiles, and to deliver his people from those who hate them without a cause.

The persecution of Domitian struck at Jews and Christians alike. The Flavian house thus put the topstone to its crimes, and became for the two branches of the house of Israel the most flagrant representation of impiety. It is not impossible that Josephus may have fallen a victim to the last fury of the dynasty which he had flattered. After the year 93 or 94 we hear no more of him. The works which he contemplated in 93 were not written. In that year, his life had been in danger through the curse of the times—the informers. Twice he escaped the danger, and his accusers were even punished; but it was the abominable habit of Domitian in such a case to revoke the acquittal which he had pronounced, and, after having chastised the informer, to slay the accused. The frightful rage for murder which Domitian showed in 95 and 96 against everyone connected with the Jewish world and family, scarcely permits it to be believed that he would have allowed a man to go 158unharmed who had spoken of Titus in a tone of panegyric (a crime in his eyes the most unpardonable of all), and had praised himself only casually. The favour of Domitia whom he detested, and whom he had resolved to put to death, was, besides, a sufficient grievance. Josephus in 96 was only 59. If he had lived under the tolerant reign of Nerva, he would have continued his writings, and probably explained some of the insinuations which the fear of the tyrant had imposed.

Have we a monument of these sombre months of terror, where all the worshippers of the true God dreamed only of martyrdom, in the discourse “on the Empire of Reason,” which bears in the MSS. the name of Josephus? The thoughts, at least, are very much those of the times in which we are. A strong soul is mistress of the body which she animates, and allows herself to be conquered only by the most cruel punishments. The author proves his position by the examples of Eleazer and of the mother who, during the persecution of Antiochus Epiphanius, courageously endured death with her seven sons—histories which may also be found in the sixth and seventh chapters of the Second Book of Maccabees.

Notwithstanding the declamatory tone, and certain ornaments which recall a little too strongly the lesson of philosophy, the book contains noble doctrines. God embodies in himself the eternal order which is made manifest to man by reason; reason is the law of life; duty consists in preferring it to the passions. As in the Second Book of Maccabees, the idea of future rewards and punishments is altogether spiritual. The righteous dead live to God for God in the sight of God, Ζῶσι τῷθεῷ. God as the author is at the same time the absolute God of philosophy, and the national God of Israel. The Jew ought to die for his Law, first, because it is the Law of his fathers, then because it is divine and true. The meats forbidden by the Law have 159been forbidden because they are injurious to man; in any case, to break the Law in small things is as culpable as to do so in great, since in the two cases the authority of reason is equally misunderstood. It is easy to see how such a way of looking at things connects that of Josephus and of the Jewish philosophers. From the wrath which breaks forth in every page against tyrants, and from the images of tortures which haunt the mind of the author, the book evidently dates from the time of the last outbreak of Domitian’s fury. It is by no means impossible that the composition of this noble writing may have been the consolation of the last days of Josephus, when, almost certain of dying under punishment, he sought to gather together all the reasons that a wise man might find for not fearing death.

The book succeeded amongst the Christians; under the title of Fourth Book of Maccabees it was almost received into the canon; many Greek manuscripts of the Old Testament contain it. Less fortunate, however, than the Book of Judith, it was not able to keep its place; the Second Book of Maccabees afforded no sufficient reason for placing it at its side. The interesting point for us is that we may there see the first type of a species of literature which was later much cultivated,—exhortations to martyrdom, in which the author exalts to encourage the sufferers the example of feeble beings who have shown themselves heroic, or still better of these Acta martyrum, now pieces of rhetoric having edification as their aid, proceeding by oratorical amplification, without any care for historical truth, and finding in the hideous details of the antique the ferments of a sombre voluptuousness and the means of emotion.

An indistinct echo of all these events may be found in the Jewish traditions. In the month of September or October four elders of Judea, Rabbi Gamaliel, patriarch of the tribunal of Jabneh; Rabbi Eleazar ben 160Azariah; Rabbi Joshua; Rabbi Aquiba, later so celebrated, appeared at Rome. The journey is described in detail: every evening, because of the season, they anchored in some port; on the day of the Feast of Tabernacles the Rabbins found the means to erect on the bridge of the boat a hut of foliage, which the wind carried away the next day; the time of the navigation was occupied in discussing the manner of paying title, and of supplying the place of the loulab (palm-branch with myrtle, used at this feast) in a country where there were no palm trees. At a hundred and twenty miles from the city the travellers heard a hollow murmur; it was the sound of the Capitol. All then shed tears. Aquiba alone burst into laughter. “Why do you not weep,” said the Rabbins, “at seeing how happy and tranquil are the idolators who sacrifice to false gods, while the sanctuary of our God has been consumed by fire, and serves as a den for the beasts of the field?” “Well,” said Aquiba, “it is that which makes me laugh. If God grants so many good things to those who offend him, what destiny awaits those who do his will, and to whom the kingdom belongs?”

Whilst these four elders were at Rome the senate of the Emperor decreed the extermination of the Jews throughout the world. A senator, a pious man (Clemenes?) reveals this redoubtable secret to Gamaliel. The wife of the senator, even more pious than he (Domitilla??) advises him to kill himself by sucking a poison which he keeps in his ring, which will save the Jews (how one does not see). Later on, the conviction spread that this senator was circumcised, or, according to the figurative expression, “that the vessel had not quitted the port without paying the impost” According to another account, the Cæsar, enemy of the Jews, said to the great of his empire: “If one has an ulcer on the foot, should he cut off his foot or keep it at the risk of suffering?” All were for amputation, except Katia hen Shalom. This last 161was put to death by order of the Emperor and died whilst saying, “I am a ship which has paid its taxes; I may set sail.”

There are plenty of vague images here and memories of half sane people. Some of the controversies of the four doctors at Rome are reported. “If God disapproves idolatry,” they were asked, “why does he not destroy it?” “But God must then destroy the sun, moon, and stars.” “No; he might destroy useless idols and leave the useful ones.” “But that would at once make those things divine which he has not destroyed. The world goes its own way. The stolen seed grows like any other; the unchaste woman is not sterile because the child which shall be born of her is a bastard.” In preaching, one of the four travellers utters this thought: “God is not like earthly kings, who make laws, and do not themselves observe them.” A Min (a Judeo-Christian?) heard these words, and on coming out of the hall said to the doctor, “Why does not God observe the Sabbath; the world goes on just as usual on Saturday?” “Is it not lawful on the Sabbath day to move whatever is in one’s house?” “Yes,” said the Min. “Well, then, the whole world is the house of God.”

« Prev Chapter XIV. The Domitian Persecution. Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection