« ForrigeFortsett »
chap. admire than imitate, the fervour of the first Chris
tians, who, according to the lively expression of Sulpi-
council of Illiberis refuses the title of martyrs to those who exposed themselves to death, by publicly destroying the idols.
escape the notice of the ancient philosophers; but CHAP.
they seem to have considered it with much less admiration than astonishment. Incapable of conceiving the motives which sometimes transported the fortitude of believers beyond the bounds of prudence or reason, they treated such an eagerness to die as
the strange result of obstinate despair, of stupid in-,
sensibility, or of superstitious phrensy." “Unhappy men l’exclaimed the proconsul Antoninus to the Christians of Asia; “unhappy men l if you are thus weary of your lives, is it so difficult for you to find ropes and precipices?” He was extremely cautious (as it is observed by a learned and pious historian) of punishing men who had found no accusers but themselves, the imperial laws not having made any provision for so unexpected a case : condemning therefore a few, as a warning to their brethren, he dismissed the multitude with indignation and contempt." Notwithstanding this real or affected disdain, the intrepid constancy of the faithful was productive of more salutary effects on those minds which nature or grace had disposed for the easy reception of religious truth. On these melancholy occasions, there were many among the Gentiles who pitied, who admired, and who were converted. The generous enthusiasm was communicated from the sufferer to the spectators; and the blood of martyrs, according to a well-known observation, became the seed of the church.
But although devotion had raised, and eloquence Gradual
continued to inflame, this fever of the mind, it in
* See Epictetus, l. iv. c. 7 (though there is some doubt whether he alludes to the Christians); Marcus Antoninus de Rebus suis, l. xi. c. 3; Lucian in Peregrin. * Tertullian ad Scapul. c. 5. The learned are divided between three persons of the same name, who were all proconsuls of Asia. I am inclined to ascribe this story to Antoninus Pius, who was afterwards emperor; and who may have governed Asia, under the reign of Trajan. * Mosheim, de Rebus Christ. ante Constantin. p. 235.
Three methods of escaping martyrdom.
sensibly gave way to the more natural hopes and
a convenient time was allowed him to settle his do
mestic concerns, and to prepare an answer to the crime which was imputed to him." If he entertained any doubt of his own constancy, such a delay af. forded him the opportunity of preserving his life and honour by flight, of withdrawing himself into some
obscure retirement or some distant province, and of patiently expecting the return of peace and security. CHAP.
* See the Epistle of the Church of Smyrna, ap. Euseb. Hist. Eccles. l. iv. c. 15.
* In the second apology of Justin, there is a particular and very curious instance of this legal delay. The same indulgence was granted to accused Christians in the persecution of Decius: and Cyprian (de Lapsis) expressly mentions the “Dies negantibus praestitutus.”
A measure so consonant to reason was soon authorized by the advice and example of the most holy prelates; and seems to have been censured by few, except by the Montanists, who deviated into heresy by their strict and obstinate adherence to the rigour of ancient discipline.” II. The provincial governors, whose zeal was less prevalent than their avarice, had countenanced the practice of selling certificates (or libels as they were called), which attested, that the persons therein mentioned had complied with the laws, and sacrificed to the Roman deities. By producing these false declarations, the opulent and timid Christians were enabled to silence the malice of an informer, and to reconcile in some measure their safety with their religion. A slight penance atoned for this profane dissimulation." III. In every persecution there were great numbers of unworthy Christians, who publicly disowned or renounced the faith which they had professed; and who confirmed the sincerity of their abjuration by the legal acts of burning incense or of offering sacrifices. Some of these apostates had yielded on the first menace or exhortation of the magistrate; whilst the patience of others had been subdued by the length and repetition of tortures. The affrighted countenances of some betrayed their inward remorse, while others advanced with confidence and alacrity to the altars of the gods.” But the disguise, which fear had im
* Tertullian considers flight from persecution as an imperfect, but very criminal, apostasy, as an impious attempt to elude the will of God, &c. &c. He has written a treatise on this subject (see p. 536—544. Edit. Rigalt.), which is filled with the wildest fanaticism and the most incoherent declamation. It is, however, somewhat remarkable, that Tertullian did not suffer martyrdom himself.
* The Libellatici, who are chiefly known by the writings of Cyprian, are described with the utmost precision in the copious commentary of Mosheim, p. 483—489.
* Plin. Epistol. x. 97. Dionysius Alexandrin, ap. Euseb. 1. vi. c. 41. Ad prima statim verba minantis inimici maximus fratrum numerus fidem suam
posed, subsisted no longer than the present danger. As soon as the severity of the persecution was abated, the doors of the churches were assailed by the returning multitude of penitents, who detested their idolatrous submission, and who solicited with equal ardour, but with various success, their re-admission into the society of Christians.” IV. Notwithstanding the general rules established for the conviction and punishment of the Christians, the fate of those sectaries, in an extensive and arbitrary government, must still, in a great measure, have depended on their own behaviour, the circumstances of the times, and the temper of their supreme as well as subordinate rulers. Zeal might sometimes provoke, and prudence might sometimes avert or assuage, the superstitious fury of the Pagans. A variety of motives might dispose the provincial governors either to enforce or to relax the execution of the laws; and of these motives the most forcible was their regard not only for the public edicts, but for the secret intentions of the emperor, a glance from whose eye was sufficient to kindle or to extinguish the flames of persecution. As often as any occasional severities were exercised in the different parts of the empire, the primitive Christians lamented and perhaps magnified their own sufferings; but the celebrated number of ten persecutions has been determined by the ecclesiastical writers of the fifth century, who possessed a more distinct view of the prosperous or adverse fortunes of the church, from the age of Nero to that of Diocletian. The ingenious parallels of the ten plagues of Egypt, prodidit: nec prostratus est persecutionis impetu, sed voluntario lapsu seipsum prostravit. Cyprian. Opera, p. 89. Among these deserters were many priests, and even bishops. y It was on this occasion that Cyprian wrote his treatise De Lapsis, and many of his epistles. The controversy concerning the treatment of penitent apostates does not occur among the Christians of the preceding century. Shall
tives of severity and toleration.
we ascribe this to the superiority of their faith and courage, or to our less intimate knowledge of their history?