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The philosophy, which had so thoroughly conquered the mind of Marcus-Aurelius, was hostile to Christianity. Fronton, his tutor, seems to have been full of prejudice against the Christians; and we know that Marcus-Aurelius guarded like a religion the recollections of his youth, and the impression made by his teachers. In general, the Greek pedagogues as a class were opposed to the new culture. Proud in looking at himself as the father of his family, the preceptor considered himself injured by the illiterate catechists who acted as spies clandestinely upon his functions, and put their pupils on their guard against him. These pedants, in the world of the Antonines, enjoyed a perhaps exaggerated favour. Often the denunciations against the Christians came from conscientious teachers, who considered themselves bound to save the young people confided to their care from an indiscreet propaganda, opposed to the opinions of their families. Littérateurs of the style of Ælius Aristides did not show themselves less severe. Jews and Christians are to them impious people, who deny the gods, enemies of society, disturbers of the peace of families, intriguers who seek to intrude everywhere, to draw everything to themselves, tormenting, presumptuous, and malevolent brawlers. Some men like Galienus, of practical mind as well as philosophers or rhetoricians, showed less partiality, and without reserve praised the purity, the austerity, the pleasant manners of the inoffensive sectaries whom calumny had succeeded in transforming into odious malefactors.


The emperor’s principle was to maintain the ancient Roman maxims in their integrity. It could not therefore be but that the new reign should be little favourable to the Church. Roman tradition is a dogma for Marcus-Aurelius; it incites him to virtue “like a man, like a Roman.” The prejudices of the Stoic doubled themselves with those of patriot, and it has been recorded that the best of men will commit the most awkward faults by excess of earnestness, of sedulousness and conservative mind. Ah! if he had possessed something of the thoughtlessness of Hadrian or the laughter of Lucian.

Marcus-Aurelius certainly knew many Christians. He had them among his servants; he conceived little esteem for them. The kind of supernatural which formed the basis of Christianity was repugnant to him, and he had the feelings of all the Romans against the Jews. It does not appear that any edition of the Gospel text came under his eyes; the name of Jesus was, perhaps, unknown to him; that which struck him as a Stoic was the courage of the martyr. But one feature shocked him, that was their air of triumph, their way of acting in the face of death. This bravado against the law appeared hateful; as chief of the state he saw in it a danger. Stoicism, besides, did not teach one to seek death, but to endure it. Had Epictetus not represented the heroism of the “Galileans” as the effect of an obdurate fanaticism? Ælius Aristides expressed himself nearly in the same manner. Those voluntary deaths appeared to the august moralist as little rational as the theatrical suicide of Peregrinus. We find this note among his memoranda of thoughts: “A disposition of the soul always ready to be separated from the body, whether to be annihilated, to be dispersed, or to continue. When I say ready, I mean that this should be the 33effect of a proper judgment, not out of pure opposition, as among the Christians; it must be a reflective act, grave, capable of persuading others, without any mingling of tragic display.” He was right, but the true liberal must refuse everything to fanatics, even the pleasure of being martyrs.

Marcus-Aurelius changed nothing of the established rules against the Christians. The persecutions were the result of the fundamental principles of the empire brought into combination. Marcus-Aurelius, far from exaggerating the former legislation, mitigated it with all his energy, and one of the glories of his reign is the extension he gave to the rights of colleges. His decree, pronouncing banishment on superstitious agitations, applied even more to political prophecies or to knaves who traded on the public credulity than to established religions. Yet he did not quite go to the root; he did not completely abolish the laws against the collegia illicita, and there resulted from this some application of these in the provinces infinitely to be regretted. The reproach that might be brought against him is the very same that might be addressed to the sovereigns of our day, who do not suppress, by a stroke of the pen, all the restrictive laws concerning freedom of meeting, association, the press. At the distance we are removed from him, we can see that Marcus-Aurelius, in being more thoroughly liberal, was wiser. Perhaps Christianity, left free, would have developed in a less disastrous way the theocratic and absolute principle which was in it. But we cannot reproach a statesman with having promoted a radical revolution by a foresight of the events which should occur many years afterwards. Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus-Aurelius could not understand the principles of general history and political economy which have been realised only in the 19th 34century, and which our last revolutions have revealed to us.

In any case as to the application of the laws, the mildness of the emperor was safe from all reproach. We have not, on this point, the right to be harder than Tertullian, who was, in infancy and youth, an eye-witness of this fatal struggle. “Consult your annals,” said he to the Roman magistrates, “and you will find that the princes who have been cruel to us are those whom it was held an honour to have as persecutors. On the contrary, of all princes who have known divine and human law, name one of them who has persecuted the Christians. We might even instance one of them who declared himself their protector, the wise Marcus-Aurelius. If he did not openly revoke the edicts against our brethren, he destroyed the effect of them by the severe penalties he instituted against their accusers.” The torrent of universal admiration carried away the Christians themselves. “Great” and “good”—these were the two words in which a Christian of the 3rd century summed up the character of this mild persecutor.

It is necessary to recollect that the Roman empire was ten or twelve times larger than France, and that the responsibility of the emperor for the sentences pronounced in the provinces was very small. It must be especially remembered that Christianity demanded nothing but freedom of worship; all the other religions which were tolerated were quite free in the empire; that which gave to Christianity, and formerly to Judaism, a distinct position was their intolerance, their spirit of exclusiveness. The liberty of thought was absolute. From Nero to Constantine, not a thinker, not a scholar was disturbed in his researches.

The law was the persecutor, but the people were even more so. The evil reports spread by the Jews 35and kept up by malignant missionaries, a sort of commercial travellers of calumny, estranged the most moderate and sincere minds. The people held by their superstitions, and were irritated against those who attacked them by sarcasm. Even some enlightened people, such as Celsus and Apuleius, believed that the political feebleness of the age arose from the progress of unbelief in the national religion. The position of the Christians was that of a Protestant missionary settled in a very Catholic town in Spain and preaching against the saints, the Virgin, and processions. The saddest episodes of persecution under Marcus-Aurelius arose from the hatred of the people. At every famine, inundation, and epidemic, the cry “The Christians to the lion!” resounded like a gloomy menace. Never had a reign witnessed so many calamities; the people believed the gods were angry, and redoubled their devotion; they called over the expiatory acts. The attitude of the Christians, in the midst of all this, remained obstinately disdainful, or even provocative. Often they received their condemnation with an insult to the judge. Before a temple or an idol they breathed hard, as if to repulse an impure thing, or made the sign of the Cross. It was not rare to see a Christian stop before a statue of Jupiter or Apollo, and say to it as he struck it with his staff: “Ah well, you see, your god does not avenge you!” The temptation was strong in such a case to arrest the sacrilegious one and to crucify him, saying, “And does your god avenge you!” The Epicurean philosophers were not less hostile to these vulgar superstitions, and yet they did not persecute them. Never did one see a philosopher forced to offer sacrifice, to swear by the emperor, or to carry flambeaux. The philosopher could have consented to those vain formalities, and that was enough without more being asked.


All the pastors, all the grave men dissuaded the faithful from going to offer themselves as martyrs; but they could not conquer a fanaticism which saw in condemnation the grandest triumph, and in punishment a kind of pleasure. In Asia this thirst for death was infectious, and produced certain phenomena analogous to those which, later on, were developed on a large scale among the “circoncellions” of Africa. One day the proconsul of Asia, Arrius Antoninus, having ordered certain rigorous proceedings against some Christians, beheld all the believers in the town present themselves in a body at the bar of his tribunal claiming the right of their co-religionists chosen for martyrdom; Arrius Antoninus, furious, made them lead a small number to punishment, sending away the others with the words, “Be off then, you wretches! If you wish so much to die you have precipices and cords!”

When, in the heart of a great state, a faction has certain interests opposed to those of all the rest, hatred is inevitable. Now the Christians desired, at bottom, that everything should go on in the worst way. Far from making common cause with the good citizens, and seeking to exorcise dangers from their native land, the Christians rejoiced in these. The Montanists and the whole of Phrygia went to the extreme of folly in their malignant prophecies against the empire. They could imagine themselves gone back to the times of the grand Apocalypse of 69. These kinds of prophecies formed a crime forbidden by law; Roman society felt instinctively that it was growing weaker; it saw but vaguely the causes of this feebleness; it laid them, not without some reason, on Christianity. It imagined that a return to the old gods would recall fortune. These gods had made the greatness of Rome; they were supposed to be irritated now by 37the blasphemies of the Christians. Was the way to appease them not to kill the Christians? No doubt these latter did not suspend their mockeries as to the inanity of sacrifices, and of the means they employed to ward off the plague. What would they think in England of a sceptic bursting with laughter in public on a day of feasting and prayer commanded by the Queen?

Some atrocious calumnies, some bloody scoffs were the revenge the Pagans took. The most abominable of the calumnies was the accusation of worshipping the priests by shameful embraces. The attitude of the penitent in confession gave rise to this disgraceful report. Some odious caricatures circulated among the public, and were placed on the walls. The absurd fable, according to which the Jews adored an ass, made people imagine that it was the same thing with the Christians. Here it was, the picture of a crucified person with an ass’s head receiving the adoration of a half-witted lad. In other details it was one with a long cloak and long ears, the feet in clogs, and he held a book with a devout air, while this epigram was beneath the representation, DEVS CHRISTIANORVM ONOKOITHC (the only-begotten God of the Christians). An apostate Jew, who had become an attendant in the amphitheatre, painted a great caricature at Carthage in the last years of the second century. A mysterious cock, having an aphallus for a beak, and with the inscription CΩTHP KOCMOΥ (Saviour of the world), had also a relation to the Christian beliefs.

The liking of the catechists for women and children afforded scope for a thousand jests. Opposed to the dryness of Paganism, the church produced the effect of a conventicle of effeminate persons. The tender feeling of every one towards another, showed in the aspasmos and glorified by martyrdom, created a kind of atmosphere of softness, 38full of attraction for gentle souls, and of danger for certain others. This movement of good women concerned about the church, the habit of calling each other brother and sister, this respect for the bishop, shown by frequently kneeling before him, had something in it repulsive, and which provoked disagreeable interpretations. The grave preceptor, who saw himself deprived of his pupils by this womanish attraction, conceived for it a profound hatred, and believed that he was serving the State by seeking to revenge himself on it. Children, in fact, allowed themselves to be easily drawn by the words of mystic tenderness which reached them secretly, and sometimes this drew on them severe chastisements from their parents.

Thus persecution attained a degree of energy which it had not reached till now. The distinction between the simple fact of being a Christian and certain crimes connected with the name was forgotten. To say: “I am a Christian”—that was to sign a declaration whose consequence might be a sentence of death. Terror became the habitual condition of the Christian life. Denunciations came from all sides, especially from slaves, Jews, and Pagans. The police, knowing the days and the place when and where their meetings were held, made sudden incursions into the hall. The questioning of the inculpated persons furnished to the fanatics occasions of witticisms. The Acts of these proceedings were collected by the faithful as triumphal documents; they circulated them; they read them greedily; they made out of them a kind of literature. The appearing before the judges became a pre-occupation for which they prepared with coquetry. The reading of these papers, when the best part always fell to the accused, exalted the imagination, provoked imitators, and inspired a hatred of civil society, and a condition of things where good 39people could be treated thus. The fearful punishments of the Roman law were applied with all their severity. The Christian as humilior, and even as a wretch, was punished by the cross, beasts, fire, the rod. For death there was sometimes substituted condemnations to the mines, and transportation to Sardinia. Cruel mitigation! The judges, in “putting the question,” were guided by a thoroughly arbitrary disposition, and sometimes a perfect perversion of ideas.

There was here a wretched spectacle. No one suffered from it more than the true friend of philosophy. But what could be done? Two contradictory things could not exist at the same time. Marcus-Aurelius was a Roman, when he persecuted he acted as a Roman. For sixty years an emperor, as good-hearted, but less enlightened in mind than Marcus-Aurelius, Alexander Severus, shall carry out without regard to any Roman maxims the true principles of liberalism; he shall grant complete freedom of conscience, and shall withdraw the laws restrictive of the liberty of meeting. We approve of that thoroughly. But Alexander Severus did this because he was a Syrian, and a stranger to the imperial tradition. He failed, besides, completely in his undertaking. All the great restorers of Roman affairs, who shall appear after him, Decius, Aurelian, Diocletian, shall return to the principles established and followed by Trajan, Antoninus, and Marcus-Aurelius. The perfect peace of conscience experienced by these men should not, therefore, surprise us; it was evidently with absolute serenity of heart that Marcus, in particular, dedicates in the Capitol a temple to his favourite goddess “Goodness.”

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