violence, however, was commonly disappointed, and the seasonable interposition of some miraculous power preserved the chaste spouses of Christ from the dishonour even of an involuntary defeat. We should not indeed neglect to remark, that the more ancient as well as authentic memorials of the church are seldom polluted with these extravagant and indecent fictions." The total disregard of truth and probability in the representation of these primitive martyrdoms was occasioned by a very natural mistake. The ecclesiastical writers of the fourth or fifth centuries ascribed to the magistrates of Rome the same degree of implacable and unrelenting zeal which filled their own breasts against the heretics or the idolaters of their own times. It is not improbable that some of those persons who were raised to the dignities of the empire might have imbibed the prejudices of the populace, and that the cruel disposition of others might occasionally be stimulated by motives of avarice or of personal resentment." But it is certain, and we may appeal to the grateful confessions of the first Christians, that the greatest part of those magistrates who exercised in the provinces the authority of the emperor, or of the senate, and to whose hands alone the jurisdiction of life and death was intrusted, behaved like men of pohished manners and liberal education, who respected the rules of justice, and who were conversant with the precepts of philosophy. They frequently declined the odious task of persecution, dismissed the charge with contempt, or suggested to the accused Christian some legal evasion, by which he might elude the CHAP.


of the Ro-
Inan ma-

m See two instances of this kind of torture in the Acta Sincera Martyrum, published by Ruinart, p. 160.390. Jerome, in his Legend of Paul the Hermit, tells a strange story of a young man, who was chained naked on a bed of flowers, and assaulted by a beautiful and wanton courtezan. He quelled the rising temptation by biting off his tongue.

n The conversion of his wife provoked Claudius Herminianus, governor of Cappadocia, to treat the Christians with uncommon severity. Tertullian ad Scapulam, c. 3.

severity of the laws.” Whenever they were invested with a discretionary power,” they used it much less for the oppression, than for the relief and benefit, of the afflicted church. They were far from condemning all the Christians who were accused before their tribunal, and very far from punishing with death all those who were convicted of an obstinate adherence to the new superstition. Contenting themselves, for the most part, with the milder chastisements of imprisonment, exile, or slavery in the mines," they left the unhappy victims of their justice some reason to hope, that a prosperous event, the accession, the marriage, or the triumph of an emperor, might speedily restore them by a general pardon to their former

state. The martyrs, devoted to immediate execution Inconsi.

by the Roman magistrates, appear to have been se

derable number of

lected from the most opposite extremes. They were *

either bishops and presbyters, the persons the most distinguished among the Christians by their rank and influence, and whose example might strike terror into the whole sect;" or else they were the meanest and most abject among them, particularly those of the servile condition, whose lives were esteemed of little value, and whose sufferings were viewed by the an

• Tertullian, in his epistle to the governor of Africa, mentions several remarkable instances of lenity and forbearance, which had happened within his knowledge.

P Neque enim in universum aliquid quod quasi certam formam habeat, constitui potest: an expression of Trajan, which gave a very great latitude to the governors of provinces.

* In metalla damnamur, in insulas relegemur. Tertullian, Apolog. c. 12. The mines of Numidia contained nine bishops, with a proportionable number of their clergy and people, to whom Cyprian addressed a pious epistle of praise and comfort. See Cyprian. Epistol. 76, 77.

* Though we cannot receive with entire confidence, either the epistles, or the acts, of Ignatius (they may be found in the 2d volume of the Apostolic Fathers), yet we may quote that bishop of Antioch as one of these eremplary martyrs. He was sent in chains to Rome as a public spectacle; and when he arrived at Troas, he received the pleasing intelligence, that the persecution of Antioch was already at an end.

CHAP. cients with too careless an indifference.” The learned


Origen, who, from his experience as well as reading, was intimately acquainted with the history of the Christians, declares, in the most express terms, that the number of martyrs was very inconsiderable. His authority would alone be sufficient to annihilate that formidable army of martyrs, whose relics, drawn for the most part from the catacombs of Rome, have replenished so many churches," and whose marvellous achievements have been the subject of so many volumes of holy romance." But the general assertion of Origen may be explained and confirmed by the particular testimony of his friend Dionysius, who, in the immense city of Alexandria, and under the rigorous persecution of Decius, reckons only ten men and seven women who suffered for the profession of the Christian name."

* Among the martyrs of Lyons (Euseb. 1. v. c. 1) the slave Blandina was distinguished by more exquisite tortures. Of the five martyrs so much celebrated in the acts of Felicitas and Perpetua, two were of a servile, and two others of a very mean, condition.

* Origen. advers. Celsum, l. iii. p. 116. His words deserve to be transcribed. “ Oxyou x2'ro. xxigous, x2, opołaz suzéléanrol wrog, roy Xetarizvoy Ssoo'sésia; rs4ynxxon.”

* If we recollect that all the Plebeians of Rome were not Christians, and that all the Christians were not saints and martyrs, we may judge with how much safety religious honours can be ascribed to bones or urns, indiscriminately taken from the public burial-place. After ten centuries of a very free and open trade, some suspicions have arisen among the more learned Catholics. They now require, as a proof of sanctity and martyrdom, the letters B. M., a vial full of red liquor, supposed to be blood, or the figure of a palm tree. But the two former signs are of little weight, and with regard to the last, it is observed by the critics, 1. That the figure, as it is called, of a palm, is perhaps a cypress, and perhaps only a stop, the flourish of a comma, used in the monumental inscriptions. 2. That the palm was the symbol of victory among the Pagans. 3. That among the Christians it served as the emblem, not only of martyrdom, but in general of a joyful resurrection. See the epistle of P. Mabillon, on the worship of unknown saints, and Muratori sopra le Antichità Italiane, Dissertat. lviii.

* As a specimen of these legends, we may be satisfied with 10,000 Christian soldiers crucified in one day, either by Trajan or Hadrian, on Mount Ararat. See Baronius ad Martyrologium Romanum. Tillemont, Mem. Ecclesiast. tom ii. part. ii. p. 438, and Geddes's Miscellanies, vol. ii. p. 203. The abbreviation of MIL. which may signify either soldiers or thousands, is said to have occasioned some extraordinary mistakes.

w Dionysius ap. Euseb. 1. vi. e., 41. One of the seventeen was likewise accused of robbery, *


During the same period of persecution, the zealous, CHAP. the eloquent, the ambitious Cyprian governed the church, not only of Carthage, but even of Africa. He †. possessed every quality which could engage the re-bishop of verence of the faithful, or provoke the suspicions and * resentment of the Pagan magistrates. His character as well as his station seemed to mark out that holy prelate as the most distinguished object of envy and of danger." The experience, however, of the life of Cyprian, is sufficient to prove, that our fancy has exaggerated the perilous situation of a Christian bishop; and that the dangers to which he was exposed were less imminent than those which temporal ambition is always prepared to encounter in the pursuit of honours. Four Roman emperors, with their families, their favourites, and their adherents, perished by the sword in the space of ten years, during which the bishop of Carthage guided by his authority and eloquence the counsels of the African church. It was only in the third year of his administration, that he had reason, during a few months, to apprehend the severe edicts of Decius, the vigilance of the magi. His danger strate, and the clamours of the multitude, who loudly and flight. demanded, that Cyprian, the leader of the Christians, should be thrown to the lions. Prudence suggested the necessity of a temporary retreat, and the voice of prudence was obeyed. He withdrew himself into an obscure solitude, from whence he could maintain a constant correspondence with the clergy and people of Carthage; and concealing himself till the tempest was past, he preserved his life, without relinquishing either his power or his reputation. His extreme caution did not however escape the censure of the more rigid Christians who lamented, or the reproaches

* The letters of Cyprian exhibit a very curious and original picture both of the man and of the times. See likewise the two lives of Cyprian, composed with equal accuracy, though with very different views; the one by Le Clerc (Bibliothèque Universelle, tom. xii. p. 208–378), the other by Tillemont, Memoires Ecclesiastiques, tom. iv. part i. p. 76–459.


of his personal enemies who insulted, a conduct which they considered as a pusillanimous and criminal desertion of the most sacred duty.’ The propriety of reserving himself for the future exigencies of the church, the example of several holy bishops," and the divine admonitions which, as he declares himself, he frequently received in visions and ecstasies, were the reasons alleged in his justification.” But his best apology may be found in the cheerful resolution, with which, about eight years afterwards, he suffered death in the cause of religion. The authentic history of his martyrdom has been recorded with unusual candour and impartiality. A short abstract therefore of its most important circumstances will convey the clearest information of the spirit, and of the forms, of the Roman persecutions.” When Valerian was consul for the third, and Gallienus for the fourth, time; Paternus, proconsul of Africa, summoned Cyprian to appear in his private council-chamber. He there acquainted him with the imperial mandate which he had just received," that those who had abandoned the Roman religion should immediately return to the practice of the ceremonies of their ancestors. Cyprian replied without hesitation, that he was a Christian and a bishop, devoted to the worship of the true and only Deity, to whom


A.D. 257. His banishment.

y See the polite but severe epistle of the clergy of Rome to the bishop of Carthage (Cyprian. Epist. 8,9). Pontius labours with the greatest care and diligence to justify his master against the general censure.

* In particular those of Dionysius of Alexandria, and Gregory Thaumaturgus, of Neo-Caesarea. See Euseb. Hist. Ecclesiast. l. vi. c. 40, and Memoires de Tillemont, tom. iv. part ii. p. 685.

* See Cyprian. Epist. 16, and his life by Pontius.

b We have an original life of Cyprian by the deacon Pontius, the companion of his exile, and the spectator of his death; and we likewise possess the ancient proconsular acts of his martyrdom. These two relations are consistent with each other, and with probability; and what is somewhat remarkable, they are both unsullied by any miraculous circumstances.

• It should seem that these were circular orders, sent at the same time to all the governors. Dionysius (ap. Euseb. 1. vii. c. 11) relates the history of his own banishment from Alexandria almost in the same manner. But as he escaped and survived the persecution, we must account him either more or less fortunate than Cyprian.

« ForrigeFortsett »