« Prev Chapter III. The Relative Tolerance of… Next »



The period was one of toleration. Colleges and religious societies were on the increase everywhere. In A.D. 124, the Emperor received a letter from Quintus Licinus Silvanus Granianus, Pro-consul of Asia, which was written in a spirit very much the same as that which dictated to Pliny that beautiful letter of his, so worthy of an upright man. Roman functionaries of any weight all objected to a procedure which admitted implicit crimes that individuals were supposed to have committed, because of the mere name they bore. Granianus showed how unjust it was to condemn Christians on the strength of vague rumours, which were the fruit of popular imagination, without being able to convict them of any distinct crime, except that of their Christian profession. The drawing by lot for the appointments to the Consular Provinces having taken place a short time afterwards, Caius Minutius Fundanus, a philosopher and distinguished man of letters, a friend of Pliny and of Plutarch, who introduces him as asking questions in one of his philosophic dialogues, succeeded Granianus, and Hadrian answered Fundanus by the following rescript

Hadrian to Minicius Fundanus. I have received the letter which Licinius Granianus, an illustrious man whom you have succeeded, wrote to me. The matter seemed to me to demand inquiry, for fear lest people who are otherwise peacefully disposed may be disquieted, and so a free field be opened to calumniators. If therefore the people of your province have, as they say, any weighty accusations to bring against the Christians, and if they can maintain their accusation before the tribunals, I do not forbid them to take legal steps; but I will not allow them to go 18on sending petitions and raising tumultuous cries. In such a case, the best thing is for you yourself to hear the matter. Therefore if anyone comes forward as an accuser, and proves that the Christians break the laws, sentence them to punishments commensurate to the gravity of the offence. But, by Hercules, if anybody denounces one of them calumniously, punish the libeller still more severely according to the degree of his malice.

It would seem that Hadrian gave similar replies to other questions of the same nature. Libels against the Christians were multiplying everywhere, and they paid very well, for the informer got part of the property of the accused if he were found guilty. Above all, in Asia the provincial meetings, accompanied by public games, almost invariably ended in executions. To crown the festivities, the crowd would demand the execution of some unfortunate creatures. The redoubtable cry:—The Christians to the lions, became quite common in the theatres, and it was a very rare occurrence when the authorities did not yield to the clamour of the assembled people. As has been seen, the Emperor opposed such wickedness as far as he could; the laws of the Empire were really alone to blame for giving substance to vague accusations which the caprice of the multitude interpreted according to its own pleasure.

Hadrian spent the winter of 125-126 at Athens. In this meeting-place for all men of culture he always experienced the greatest enjoyment. Greece had become the plaything to amuse all Roman men of letters. Quite reassured as to the political consequences, they adopted, the easy liberalism of restoring the Pnyx, the popular assemblies, the Areopagus; of raising statues to the great men of the past, of giving the ancient constitutions another trial, and of setting up Pan-hellenism—the confederation of the so-called free states— again. Athens was the centre of all this childish folly. Enlightened Mæcenases—especially Herod Atticus, one of the most distinguished 19spirits of the age, and those Philopappuses, the last descendants of the Kings of Commagene and of the Seleucidæ, who about this time raised a monument on the hill of the Museum, which still exists,—had taken up their abode there.

This world of professors, of philosophers, and of men of enlightenment, was Hadrian’s real element. His vanity, his talent, his taste for brilliant conversation, were quite at their ease amongst colleagues whom he honoured by making himself their equal, without, however, the least yielding his royal prerogative. He was a clever arguer, and thought that he only owed the advantage, which of course always remained with him, to his own personal talent. It was an unlucky thing for those who hurt his feelings or who got the better of him in an argument. Then the Nero whom, though carefully hidden, he always had in him, suddenly woke up. The number of new professorial chairs that he founded, or of literary, pensions that he bestowed, is incalculable. He took his titles of archon and agonothetes quite seriously. He himself drew up a constitution for Athens, by combining in equal proportions the laws of Draco and of Solon, and wished to see whether they would work satisfactorily. The whole city was restored. The temple of the Olympian Jupiter, near the river Ilisus, begun by Pisistratus, and one of the wonders of the world, was finished, and the Emperor took the title of Olympian. Within the city, a vast square, surrounded by temples, porticos, gymnasia, establishments for public instruction, dated from him. All that is certainly very far from possessing the perfection of the Acropolis, but these buildings excelled anything that had ever been seen, by the rarity of their marbles and the richness of their decorations. A central Pantheon contained a catalogue of the temples which the Emperor had built, repaired or ornamented, and of the gilts which he had bestowed 20on Greek or barbarian cities; and a library, open to every Athenian citizen, occupied a special wing. On an arch, which remains to our day, Hadrian was made equal to Theseus, and one of the Athenian quarters was called Hadrianopolis.

Hadrian’s intellectual activity was sincere, but he lacked a scientific mind. In those meetings of sophists all questions, human and divine, were discussed, but none were settled, nor does it seem that they went so far as complete rationalism. In Greece the Emperor was looked upon as a very religious and even as a superstitious man. He wished to be initiated into the mysteries of Eleusis, and, on the whole, Paganism was the only thing that gained by all this. As, however, liberty of discussion is a good thing, good always results from it. Phlegon, Hadrian’s secretary, knew a little about the legend concerning Jesus, and the wide expansion which the spirit of controversy assumed under Hadrian gave rise to an altogether new species of Christian literature, the apologetic, which sheds so much brightness over the century of the Antonines.

Christianity, preached at Athens seventy-two years previously, had borne its fruit. The Church at Athens had never had the adherents nor the stability of certain others; its peculiar character was to produce individual Christian thinkers, and so apologetic literature naturally sprang from it.

Several persons, who were specially called philosophers, had adhered to the doctrine of Jesus. The name philosopher implied severity of morals, and a distinguishing dress,—a sort of cloak, which sometimes made the wearer the subject of the jokes, but more often, the respect, of the passers by. When they embraced Christianity, the philosophers took care neither to repudiate their name nor their dress, and from that there proceeded a category of Christians unknown till then. Writers and talkers by profession, 21these converted philosophers became, from the very first outset, the doctors and polemical members of the sect. Initiated into Greek culture, they were far greater dialecticians, and had greater aptitude for controversy, than purely apostolic preachers, and from that moment Christianity had its advocates. They disputed, and others disputed with them. In the eyes of the government they were much more likely to be taken seriously than those good people without any education who were initiated into an eastern superstition. Up till then Christianity had never ventured to address a direct demand to the Roman authorities to have the false position in which it found itself rectified. Certainly the characters of some of the preceding Emperors did not by any means invite any such explanations, and any petition would have been rejected unread. Hadrian’s curiosity, his facile mind, the idea that he was pleased when some new fact or argument was presented to him, now encouraged overtures which would have had no object under Trajan. To this was added an aristocratic feeling, which was alike flattering to the sovereign and the apologist. Christianity was already beginning to let the policy be seen which it was to follow from the beginning of the fourth century, and which consisted, above all, in treating with sovereigns over the heads of the people. “We will dispute with you, but it is too much honour for the common herd to give it our reasons.”

The first attempt of this sort was the work of a certain Quadratus, an important personage of the third Christian generation, and of whom it was said that he had even been a disciple of the Apostles. He sent an apology for Christianity to the Emperor, which has been lost, but which was very highly thought of during the first centuries. He complained of the annoyances to which wicked people subjected the faithful, and proved the harmlessness 22of the Christian faith. He went still further, and tried to convert Hadrian by arguments drawn from the miracles of Jesus. Quadratus alleged that even in his time some of those whom the Saviour had healed or raised from the dead were known to be alive. Hadrian would certainly have been very much amused to see one of those venerable centenarians, and his freedman Phlegon would have embellished his treatise on cases of longevity with the fact, but it would not have convinced him. He had witnessed so many other miracles, and the only conclusion he drew from them was that the number of incredible things in this world is infinite. In his teratological collections, Phlegon had introduced several of the miracles of Jesus, and certainly Hadrian had conversed with him more than once on this subject.

Another apology, written by a certain Aristides, an Athenian philosopher and a convert to Christianity, was also presented to Hadrian. Nothing is known about it, except that amongst the Christians it was held in as high repute as the one of which Quadratus was the author. Those who had the opportunity of reading it, admired its eloquence, the author’s intellect, and the good use he made of passages from heathen philosophers to prove the truth of the doctrines of Jesus.

These writings, striking as they were by their novelty, could not be without their effect upon the Emperor. Singular ideas with regard to religion crossed his mind, and it seems that more than once he showed Christianity marks of true respect. He had a large number of temples or basilicas built, which bore no inscription, nor had they any known purpose. Most of them were unfinished or not dedicated, and they were called hadrianea, and these empty, statueless temples lead us to believe that Hadrian bad them built so purposely. In the third 23century, after Alexander Severus had really wished to build a temple to Christ, the Christians spread the idea that Hadrian had determined to do the same, and that the hadrianea were to have served to introduce the new religion. They said that Hadrian had been stopped because, on consulting the sacred oracles, it was found that if such a temple were built the whole world would turn Christian, so that all the other temples would be abandoned. Several of these hadrianea, especially those of the Tiberiad and Alexandria, became, in fact, churches in the fourth century.

Even the follies of Hadrian with Antinous possessed an element of the Christian apology. Such a monstrosity seems the culminating point of the reign of the devil. That recent God, whom all the world knew, was made great use of to beat down the other gods, who were more ancient and so easy to lay hold of. The Church triumphed, and later the period of Hadrian was looked upon as the luminous point in a splendid epoch in which the truths of Christianity shone without any obstacle in all eyes. They owed some thanks to a sovereign whose defects and good qualities had had such favourable results. His immorality, his superstitions, his empty initiation into impure mysteries were not forgotten; but in spite of all, Hadrian remained, at any rate in the opinion of part of Christianity, a serious man, endowed with rare virtues, who gave to the world the last of its beautiful days.

« Prev Chapter III. The Relative Tolerance of… Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection