State And Church Under Septimius
Although Christians were at first favored by Septimius Severus, they were
still liable to the severe laws against secret societies, and the policy
of Septimius was later to enforce these laws. The Christians tried to
escape the penalties prescribed against such societies by taking the form
of friendly societies which were expressly tolerated by the law.
Nevertheless, numerous cases are to be found in various parts of the
Empire in which Christians were put to death under the law. Yet the number
of martyrs before the general persecution of Decius in the middle of the
century was relatively small. The position of Christians was not
materially affected by the constitution of Caracalla conferring Roman
citizenship on all free inhabitants of the Empire, and the constitution
seems to have been merely a fiscal measure which laid additional burdens
upon the provincials.
Additional source material: Eusebius, Hist. Ec., VI, 1-12.
(a) Tertullian, Ad Scapulam, 4. (MSL, 1:781.)
The account of Tertullian is generally accepted as substantially
correct. Scapula was chief magistrate of Carthage and, under the
circumstances, the author would not have indulged his tendency to
rhetorical embellishment. Furthermore, the book is written with
what was for Tertullian great moderation.
How many rulers, men more resolute and more cruel than you, have contrived
to get quit of such causes--as Cincius Severus, who himself suggested the
remedy at Thysdris, pointing out how Christians should answer that they
might be acquitted; as Vespronius Candidus, who acquitted a Christian on
the ground that to satisfy his fellow-citizens would create a riot; as
Asper, who, in the case of a man who under slight torture had fallen, did
not compel him to offer sacrifice, having owned among the advocates and
assessors of the court that he was annoyed at having to meddle with such a
case! Prudens, too, at once dismissed a Christian brought before him,
perceiving from the indictment that it was a case of vexatious accusation;
tearing the document in pieces, he refused, according to the imperial
command, to hear him without the presence of his accuser. All this might
be officially brought under your notice, and by the very advocates, who
themselves are under obligations to Christians, although they cry out
against us as it suits them. The clerk of one who was liable to be thrown
down by an evil spirit was set free; as was also a relative of another,
and the little boy of a third. How many men of rank (not to mention common
people) have been cured of devils and of diseases! Even Severus himself,
the father of Antonine, was mindful of the Christians; for he sought out
the Christian Proclus, surnamed Torpacion, the steward of Euhodias, who
once had cured him by means of oil, and whom he kept in his palace till
his death. Antonine [Caracalla], too, was brought up on Christian
milk,(55) was intimately acquainted with this man. But Severus, knowing
both men and women of the highest rank to be of this sect, not only did
not injure them, but distinguished them with his testimony and restored
them to us openly from the raging populace.(56)
(b) Laws Relating to Forbidden Societies.
1. Justinian, Digest, XLVII. 23:1.
The following is a passage taken from the Institutes of Marcian,
By princely commands it was prescribed to the governors of provinces that
they should not permit social clubs and that soldiers should not have
societies in the camp. But it is permitted to the poor to collect a
monthly contribution, so long as they gather together only once in a
month, lest under a pretext of this sort an unlawful society meet. And
that this should be allowed not only in the city, but also in Italy and
the provinces, the divine Severus ordered. But for the sake of religion
they are not forbidden to come together so long as they do nothing
contrary to the Senatus-consultum, by which unlawful societies are
restrained. It is furthermore not lawful to belong to more than one lawful
society, as this was determined by the divine brothers [Caracalla and
Geta]; and if any one is in two, it is ordered that it be necessary for
him to choose in which he prefers to be, and he shall receive from the
society from which he resigns that which belongs to him proportionately of
what there is of a common fund.
2. Justinian, Digest, I, 12:14.
From Ulpian's treatise, De officio Praefecti Urbi.
The divine Severus ordered that those who were accused of meeting in
forbidden societies should be accused before the prefect of the city.
(c) Persecutions under Severus.
1. Eusebius, Hist. Ec., VI, 1. (MSG, 20:522.)
The following extract is important not only as a witness to the
fact of the execution of the laws against Christians in
Alexandria, but also to the extension of Christianity in the more
southern provinces of Egypt.
When Severus began to persecute the churches, glorious testimonies were
given everywhere by the athletes of religion. Especially numerous were
they in Alexandria, for thither, as to a more prominent theatre, athletes
of God were sent from Egypt and all Thebais, according to their merit, and
they won crowns from God through their great patience under many tortures
and every mode of death. Among these was Leonidas, said to be the father
of Origen, who was beheaded while his son was still young.
2. Spartianus, Vita Severi, XVII. 1. (Scriptores Historiae Augustae. Ed.
Peter, 1884; Preuschen, Analecta, I, 32.)
The date of the following is A. D. 202.
He forbade, under heavy penalties, any to become Jews. He made the same
regulation in regard to Christians.
(d) Tertullian. Apol., 39. (MSL, 1:534.)
In the following, Christian assemblies, or churches, are
represented as being a sort of friendly society, similar but
superior to those existing all over the Empire, common and
tolerated among the poorer members of society. The date of the
Apology is 197.
Though we have our treasure-chest, it is not made up of purchase money, as
if our religion had its price. On the regular day in the month, or when
one prefers, each one makes a small donation; but only if it be his
pleasure, and only if he be able; for no one is compelled, but gives
voluntarily. These gifts are, as it were, piety's deposit fund. For they
are taken thence and spent, not on feasts and drinking-bouts, and
thankless eating-houses, but to support and bury poor people, to supply
the wants of boys and girls destitute of means and parents, and of old
persons confined to the house, likewise the shipwrecked, and if there
happen to be any in the mines, or banished to the islands, or shut up in
the prisons for nothing but their fidelity to the cause of God's Church,
they become the nurslings of their confession. But it is mainly for such
work of love that many place a brand upon us. See, they say, how they love
(e) The Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas. (MSL, 3:51.) (Cf. Knopf,
The date of this martyrdom is A. D. 203. The Passio SS. Perpetuae
et Felicitatis has been attributed to Tertullian. It betrays
clear evidence of Montanist sympathies. It has even been thought
by some that the martyrs themselves were Montanists. At that date
probably not a few who sympathized with Montanism were still in
good standing in certain parts of the Church. At any rate, the day
of their commemoration has been from the middle of the fourth
century at Rome March 7. See Kirch, p. 323.
The day of their victory dawned, and they proceeded from the prison into
the amphitheatre, as if to happiness, joyous and of brilliant
countenances; if, perchance, shrinking, it was with joy and not with fear.
Perpetua followed with placid look, and with step and gait as a matron of
Christ, beloved of God, casting down the lustre of her eyes from the gaze
of all. Likewise Felicitas came, rejoicing that she had safely brought
forth, so that she might fight with the beasts. And when they were
brought to the gate, and were constrained to put on the clothing--the men
that of the priests of Saturn, and the women that of those who were
consecrated to Ceres--that noble-minded woman resisted even to the end with
constancy. For she said: "We have come thus far of our own accord, that
our liberty might not be restrained. For this reason we have yielded our
minds, that we might not do any such thing as this; we have agreed on this
with you." Injustice acknowledged the justice; the tribune permitted that
they be brought in simply as they were. Perpetua sang psalms, already
treading under foot the head of the Egyptian [seen in a vision; see
preceding chapters]; Revocatus and Saturninus and Saturus uttered
threatenings against the gazing people about this martyrdom. When they
came within sight of Hilarianus, by gesture and nod they began to say to
Hilarianus: "Thou judgest us, but God will judge thee." At this the
exasperated people demanded that they should be tormented with scourges as
they passed along the rank of the venatores. And they, indeed, rejoiced
that they should have incurred any one of their Lord's passions.
But He who had said, "Ask and ye shall receive," gave to them, when they
asked, that death which each one had desired. For when they had been
discoursing among themselves about their wish as to their martyrdom,
Saturninus, indeed, had professed that he wished that he might be thrown
to all the beasts; doubtless that he might wear a more glorious crown.
Therefore, in the beginning of the exhibition he and Revocatus made trial
of the leopard, and, moreover, upon the scaffold they were harassed by the
bear. Saturus, however, held nothing in greater horror than a bear; but he
thought he would be finished by one bite of a leopard. Therefore, when a
wild boar was supplied, it was the huntsman who had supplied that boar,
and not Saturus, who was gored by that same beast and who died the day
after the shows. Saturus only was drawn out; and when he had been bound on
the floor near to a bear, the bear would not come forth from his den. And
so Saturus for the second time was recalled, unhurt.
Moreover, for the young women the devil, rivalling their sex also in that
of the beasts, prepared a very fierce cow, provided especially for that
purpose contrary to custom. And so, stripped and clothed with nets, they
were led forth. The populace shuddered as they saw one young woman of
delicate frame, and another with breasts still dropping from her recent
childbirth. So, being recalled, they were unbound. Perpetua was first led
in. She was tossed and fell on her loins; and when she saw her tunic torn
from her side, she drew it over her as a veil for her thighs, mindful of
her modesty rather than of her suffering. Then she was called for again,
and bound up her dishevelled hair; for it was not becoming for a martyr to
suffer with dishevelled hair, lest she should appear to be mourning in her
glory. She rose up, and when she saw Felicitas crushed she approached and
gave her her hand and lifted her up. And both of them stood together; and
the brutality of the populace being appeased, they were recalled to the
Sanavivarian gate. Then Perpetua was received by a certain one who was
still a catechumen, Rusticus by name, who kept close to her; and she, as
if roused from sleep, so deeply had she been in the Spirit and in an
ecstasy, began to look around her and to say to the amazement of all: "I
do not know when we are to be led out to that cow." Thus she said, and
when she had heard what had already happened, she did not believe it until
she had perceived certain signs of injury in her own body and in her
dress, and had recognized the catechumen. Afterward, causing that
catechumen and the brother to approach, she addressed them, saying: "Stand
fast in the faith, and love one another, all of you, and be not offended
at our sufferings."
The same Saturus at the other entrance exhorted the soldier Prudens,
saying: "Assuredly here I am, as I have promised and foretold, for up to
this moment I have felt no beast. And now believe with your whole heart.
Lo, I am going forth to the leopard, and I shall be destroyed with one
bite." And immediately on the conclusion of the exhibition he was thrown
to the leopard; and with one bite by it he was bathed with such a quantity
of blood that the people shouted out to him, as he was returning, the
testimony of his second baptism: "Saved and washed, saved and washed."
Manifestly he was assuredly saved who had been glorified in such a
spectacle. Then to the soldier Prudens he said: "Farewell, and be mindful
of my faith; and let not these things disturb, but confirm you." And at
the same time he asked for a little ring from his finger, and returned it
to him bathed in his wound, leaving to him an inherited token and memory
of his blood. And then lifeless he was cast down with the rest, to be
slaughtered in the usual place. And when the populace called for them into
the midst, that as the sword penetrated into their body they might make
their eyes partners in the murder, they rose up of their own accord, and
transferred themselves whither the people wished; but they first kissed
one another, that they might consummate their martyrdom with the rites of
peace. The rest, indeed, immovable and in silence, received the sword; and
so did Saturus, who had also first ascended the ladder, and first gave up
his spirit, for he was waiting for Perpetua. But Perpetua, that she might
taste some pain, being pierced between the ribs, cried out loudly and she
herself placed the wavering right hand of the youthful gladiator to her
throat. Possibly such a woman could not have been slain unless she herself
had willed it, because she was feared by the impure spirit.
O most brave and blessed martyrs! O truly called and chosen unto the glory
of our Lord Jesus Christ! Whoever magnifies, and honors, and adores Him,
assuredly ought to read these examples for the edification of the Church,
not less than the ancient ones, so that new virtues also may testify that
one and the same Holy Spirit is always operating even until now, and God
the Father Omnipotent, and his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, whose is glory
and infinite power forever and ever. Amen.
(f) Origen, Contra Celsum, III, 8. (MSG, 11:930.)
Origen is writing just before the first general persecution under
Decius about the middle of the century. He points out the
relatively small number of those suffering persecution.
With regard to Christians, because they were taught not to avenge
themselves upon their enemies, and have thus observed laws of a mild and
philanthropic character; and because, although they were able, yet they
would not have made war even if they had received authority to do so; for
this cause they have obtained this from God: that He has always warred on
their behalf, and at times has restrained those who rose up against them
and who wished to destroy them. For in order to remind others, that seeing
a few engaged in a struggle in behalf of religion, they might also be
better fitted to despise death, a few, at various times, and these easily
numbered, have endured death for the sake of the Christian religion; God
not permitting the whole nation [i.e., the Christians] to be
exterminated, but desiring that it should continue, and that the whole
world should be filled with this salvation and the doctrines of religion.
(g) Justinian, Digest, I, 5:17.
The edict of Caracalla (Marcus Aurelius Antoninus) conferring
Roman citizenship upon all free inhabitants of the Empire has not
been preserved. It is known only from a brief extract from the
twenty-second book of Ulpian's work on the Praetorian Edict,
contained in the Digest of Justinian.
Those who were in the Roman world were made Roman citizens by the
constitution of the Emperor Antoninus.
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