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§ 22. Persecutions under Decius, and Valerian. a.d. 249–260. Martyrdom of Cyprian.

Dionysius Alex., in Euseb. VI. 40–42; VII. 10, 11.

Cyprian: De Lapsis, and particularly his Epistles of this period. On Cyprian’s martyrdom see the Proconsular Acts, and Pontius: Vita Cypriani.

Franz Görres: Die Toleranzedicte des Kaisers Gallienus, in the "Jahrbücher für protest. Theol.," 1877, pp. 606–630. By the same: Die angebliche Christenverfolgung zur Zeit der Kaiser Numerianus und Carinus, in Hilgenfeld’s "Zeitschrift für wissenschaftl. Theologie." 1880 pp. 31–64.

Decius Trajan (249–251), an earnest and energetic emperor, in whom the old Roman spirit once more awoke, resolved to root out the church as an atheistic and seditious sect, and in the year 250 published an edict to all the governors of the provinces, enjoining return to the pagan state religion under the heaviest penalties. This was the signal for a persecution which, in extent, consistency, and cruelty, exceeded all before it. In truth it was properly the first which covered the whole empire, and accordingly produced a far greater number of martyrs than any former persecution. In the execution of the imperial decree confiscation, exile, torture, promises and threats of all kinds, were employed to move the Christians to apostasy. Multitudes of nominal Christians,4242    "Maximus fratrum numerus," says Cyprian.1 especially at the beginning, sacrificed to the gods (sacrificati, thurificati), or procured from the, magistrate a false certificate that they had done so (libellatici), and were then excommunicated as apostates (lapsi); while hundreds rushed with impetuous zeal to the prisons and the tribunals, to obtain the confessor’s or martyr’s crown. The confessors of Rome wrote from prison to their brethren of Africa: "What more glorious and blessed lot can fall to man by the grace of God, than to confess God the Lord amidst tortures and in the face of death itself; to confess Christ the Son of God with lacerated body and with a spirit departing, yet free; and to become fellow-sufferers with Christ in the name of Christ? Though we have not yet shed our blood, we are ready to do so. Pray for us, then, dear Cyprian, that the Lord, the best captain, would daily strengthen each one of us more and more, and at last lead us to the field as faithful soldiers, armed with those divine weapons (Eph. 6:2) which can never be conquered."

The authorities were specially severe with the bishops and officers of the churches. Fabianus of Rome, Babylas of Antioch, and Alexander of Jerusalem, perished in this persecution. Others withdrew to places of concealment; some from cowardice; some from Christian prudence, in hope of allaying by their absence the fury of the pagans against their flocks, and of saving their own lives for the good of the church in better times.

Among the latter was Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, who incurred much censure by his course, but fully vindicated himself by his pastoral industry during his absence, and by his subsequent martyrdom. He says concerning the matter: "Our Lord commanded us in times of persecution to yield and to fly. He taught this, and he practised it himself. For since the martyr’s crown comes by the grace of God, and cannot be gained before the appointed hour, he who retires for a time, and remains true to Christ, does not deny his faith, but only abides his time."

The poetical legend of the seven brothers at Ephesus, who fell asleep in a cave, whither they had fled, and awoke two hundred years afterwards, under Theodosius II. (447), astonished to see the once despised and hated cross now ruling over city and country, dates itself internally from the time of Decius, but is not mentioned before Gregory of Tours in the sixth century.

Under Gallus (251–253) the persecution received a fresh impulse thorough the incursions of the Goths, and the prevalence of a pestilence, drought, and famine. Under this reign the Roman bishops Cornelius and Lucius were banished, and then condemned to death.

Valerian (253–260) was at first mild towards the Christians; but in 257 he changed his course, and made an effort to check the progress of their religion without bloodshed, by the banishment of ministers and prominent laymen, the confiscation of their property, and the prohibition of religious assemblies. These measures, however, proving fruitless, he brought the death penalty again into play.

The most distinguished martyrs of this persecution under Valerian are the bishops Sixtus II. of Rome, and Cyprian of Carthage.

When Cyprian received his sentence of death, representing him as an enemy of the Roman gods and laws, he calmly answered: "Deo gratias!" Then, attended by a vast multitude to the scaffold, he proved once more, undressed himself, covered his eyes, requested a presbyter to bind his hands, and to pay the executioner, who tremblingly drew the sword, twenty-five pieces of gold, and won the incorruptible crown (Sept. 14, 258). His faithful friends caught the blood in handkerchiefs, and buried the body of their sainted pastor with great solemnity.

Gibbon describes the martyrdom of Cyprian with circumstantial minuteness, and dwells with evident satisfaction on the small decorum which attended his execution. But this is no fair average specimen of the style in which Christians were executed throughout the empire. For Cyprian was a man of the highest social standing and connection from his former eminence, as a rhetorician and statesman. His deacon, Pontius relates that "numbers of eminent and illustrious persons, men of mark family and secular distinction, often urged him, for the sake of their old friendship with him, to retire." We shall return to Cyprian again in the history of church government, where he figures as a typical, ante-Nicene high-churchman, advocating both the visible unity of the church and episcopal independence of Rome.

The much lauded martyrdom of the deacon St. Laurentius of Rome, who pointed the avaricious magistrates to the poor and sick of the congregation as the richest treasure of the church, and is said to have been slowly roasted to death (Aug. 10, 258) is scarcely reliable in its details, being first mentioned by Ambrose a century later, and then glorified by the poet Prudentius. A Basilica on the Via Tiburtina celebrates the memory of this saint, who occupies the same position among the martyrs of the church of Rome as Stephen among those of Jerusalem.

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