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The History of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. II by Edward Gibbon

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David Reed

History Of The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire

Edward Gibbon, Esq.

With notes by the Rev. H. H. Milman

Vol. 2

Chapter XVI: Conduct Towards The Christians, From Nero To

Part I.

Note: The sixteenth chapter I cannot help considering as a
very ingenious and specious, but very disgraceful extenuation of
the cruelties perpetrated by the Roman magistrates against the
Christians. It is written in the most contemptibly factious
spirit of prejudice against the sufferers; it is unworthy of a
philosopher and of humanity. Let the narrative of Cyprian's
death be examined. He had to relate the murder of an innocent
man of advanced age, and in a station deemed venerable by a
considerable body of the provincials of Africa, put to death
because he refused to sacrifice to Jupiter. Instead of pointing
the indignation of posterity against such an atrocious act of
tyranny, he dwells, with visible art, on the small circumstances
of decorum and politeness which attended this murder, and which
he relates with as much parade as if they were the most important
particulars of the event.

The Conduct Of The Roman Government Towards The Christians,
From The Reign Of Nero To That Of Constantine.

Dr. Robertson has been the subject of much blame for his
real or supposed lenity towards the Spanish murderers and tyrants
in America. That the sixteenth chapter of Mr. G. did not excite
the same or greater disapprobation, is a proof of the
unphilosophical and indeed fanatical animosity against
Christianity, which was so prevalent during the latter part of
the eighteenth century. - Mackintosh: see Life, i. p. 244, 245.]

If we seriously consider the purity of the Christian
religion, the sanctity of its moral precepts, and the innocent as
well as austere lives of the greater number of those who during
the first ages embraced the faith of the gospel, we should
naturally suppose, that so benevolent a doctrine would have been
received with due reverence, even by the unbelieving world; that
the learned and the polite, however they may deride the miracles,
would have esteemed the virtues, of the new sect; and that the
magistrates, instead of persecuting, would have protected an
order of men who yielded the most passive obedience to the laws,
though they declined the active cares of war and government. If,
on the other hand, we recollect the universal toleration of
Polytheism, as it was invariably maintained by the faith of the
people, the incredulity of philosophers, and the policy of the
Roman senate and emperors, we are at a loss to discover what new
offence the Christians had committed, what new provocation could
exasperate the mild indifference of antiquity, and what new
motives could urge the Roman princes, who beheld without concern
a thousand forms of religion subsisting in peace under their
gentle sway, to inflict a severe punishment on any part of their
subjects, who had chosen for themselves a singular but an
inoffensive mode of faith and worship.
The religious policy of the ancient world seems to have
assumed a more stern and intolerant character, to oppose the
progress of Christianity. About fourscore years after the death
of Christ, his innocent disciples were punished with death by the
sentence of a proconsul of the most amiable and philosophic
character, and according to the laws of an emperor distinguished
by the wisdom and justice of his general administration. The
apologies which were repeatedly addressed to the successors of
Trajan are filled with the most pathetic complaints, that the
Christians, who obeyed the dictates, and solicited the liberty,
of conscience, were alone, among all the subjects of the Roman
empire, excluded from the common benefits of their auspicious
government. The deaths of a few eminent martyrs have been
recorded with care; and from the time that Christianity was
invested with the supreme power, the governors of the church have
been no less diligently employed in displaying the cruelty, than
in imitating the conduct, of their Pagan adversaries. To
separate (if it be possible) a few authentic as well as
interesting facts from an undigested mass of fiction and error,
and to relate, in a clear and rational manner, the causes, the
extent, the duration, and the most important circumstances of the
persecutions to which the first Christians were exposed, is the
design of the present chapter. ^*

[Footnote *: The history of the first age of Christianity is only
found in the Acts of the Apostles, and in order to speak of the
first persecutions experienced by the Christians, that book
should naturally have been consulted; those persecutions, then
limited to individuals and to a narrow sphere, interested only
the persecuted, and have been related by them alone. Gibbon
making the persecutions ascend no higher than Nero, has entirely
omitted those which preceded this epoch, and of which St. Luke
has preserved the memory. The only way to justify this omission
was, to attack the authenticity of the Acts of the Apostles; for,
if authentic, they must necessarily be consulted and quoted.
Now, antiquity has left very few works of which the authenticity
is so well established as that of the Acts of the Apostles. (See
Lardner's Cred. of Gospel Hist. part iii.) It is therefore,
without sufficient reason, that Gibbon has maintained silence
concerning the narrative of St. Luke, and this omission is not
without importance. - G.]

The sectaries of a persecuted religion, depressed by fear
animated with resentment, and perhaps heated by enthusiasm, are
seldom in a proper temper of mind calmly to investigate, or
candidly to appreciate, the motives of their enemies, which often
escape the impartial and discerning view even of those who are
placed at a secure distance from the flames of persecution. A
reason has been assigned for the conduct of the emperors towards
the primitive Christians, which may appear the more specious and
probable as it is drawn from the acknowledged genius of
Polytheism. It has already been observed, that the religious
concord of the world was principally supported by the implicit
assent and reverence which the nations of antiquity expressed for
their respective traditions and ceremonies. It might therefore
be expected, that they would unite with indignation against any
sect or people which should separate itself from the communion of
mankind, and claiming the exclusive possession of divine
knowledge, should disdain every form of worship, except its own,
as impious and idolatrous. The rights of toleration were held by
mutual indulgence: they were justly forfeited by a refusal of the
accustomed tribute. As the payment of this tribute was
inflexibly refused by the Jews, and by them alone, the
consideration of the treatment which they experienced from the
Roman magistrates, will serve to explain how far these
speculations are justified by facts, and will lead us to discover
the true causes of the persecution of Christianity.

Without repeating what has already been mentioned of the
reverence of the Roman princes and governors for the temple of
Jerusalem, we shall only observe, that the destruction of the
temple and city was accompanied and followed by every
circumstance that could exasperate the minds of the conquerors,
and authorize religious persecution by the most specious
arguments of political justice and the public safety. From the
reign of Nero to that of Antoninus Pius, the Jews discovered a
fierce impatience of the dominion of Rome, which repeatedly broke
out in the most furious massacres and insurrections. Humanity is
shocked at the recital of the horrid cruelties which they
committed in the cities of Egypt, of Cyprus, and of Cyrene, where
they dwelt in treacherous friendship with the unsuspecting
natives; ^1 and we are tempted to applaud the severe retaliation
which was exercised by the arms of the legions against a race of
fanatics, whose dire and credulous superstition seemed to render
them the implacable enemies not only of the Roman government, but
of human kind. ^2 The enthusiasm of the Jews was supported by the
opinion, that it was unlawful for them to pay taxes to an
idolatrous master; and by the flattering promise which they
derived from their ancient oracles, that a conquering Messiah
would soon arise, destined to break their fetters, and to invest
the favorites of heaven with the empire of the earth. It was by
announcing himself as their long-expected deliverer, and by
calling on all the descendants of Abraham to assert the hope of
Israel, that the famous Barchochebas collected a formidable army,
with which he resisted during two years the power of the emperor
Hadrian. ^3

[Footnote 1: In Cyrene, they massacred 220,000 Greeks; in Cyprus,
240,000; in Egypt, a very great multitude. Many of these unhappy
victims were sawn asunder, according to a precedent to which
David had given the sanction of his example. The victorious Jews
devoured the flesh, licked up the blood, and twisted the entrails
like a girdle round their bodies. See Dion Cassius, l. lxviii.
p. 1145.

Note: Some commentators, among them Reimar, in his notes on
Dion Cassius think that the hatred of the Romans against the Jews
has led the historian to exaggerate the cruelties committed by
the latter. Don. Cass. lxviii. p. 1146. - G.]

[Footnote 2: Without repeating the well-known narratives of
Josephus, we may learn from Dion, (l. lxix. p. 1162,) that in
Hadrian's war 580,000 Jews were cut off by the sword, besides an
infinite number which perished by famine, by disease, and by

[Footnote 3: For the sect of the Zealots, see Basnage, Histoire
des Juifs, l. i. c. 17; for the characters of the Messiah,
according to the Rabbis, l. v. c. 11, 12, 13; for the actions of
Barchochebas, l. vii. c. 12. (Hist. of Jews iii. 115, &c.) - M.]

Notwithstanding these repeated provocations, the resentment
of the Roman princes expired after the victory; nor were their
apprehensions continued beyond the period of war and danger. By
the general indulgence of polytheism, and by the mild temper of
Antoninus Pius, the Jews were restored to their ancient
privileges, and once more obtained the permission of circumcising
their children, with the easy restraint, that they should never
confer on any foreign proselyte that distinguishing mark of the
Hebrew race. ^4 The numerous remains of that people, though they
were still excluded from the precincts of Jerusalem, were
permitted to form and to maintain considerable establishments
both in Italy and in the provinces, to acquire the freedom of
Rome, to enjoy municipal honors, and to obtain at the same time
an exemption from the burdensome and expensive offices of
society. The moderation or the contempt of the Romans gave a
legal sanction to the form of ecclesiastical police which was
instituted by the vanquished sect. The patriarch, who had fixed
his residence at Tiberias, was empowered to appoint his
subordinate ministers and apostles, to exercise a domestic
jurisdiction, and to receive from his dispersed brethren an
annual contribution. ^5 New synagogues were frequently erected in
the principal cities of the empire; and the sabbaths, the fasts,
and the festivals, which were either commanded by the Mosaic law,
or enjoined by the traditions of the Rabbis, were celebrated in
the most solemn and public manner. ^6 Such gentle treatment
insensibly assuaged the stern temper of the Jews. Awakened from
their dream of prophecy and conquest, they assumed the behavior
of peaceable and industrious subjects. Their irreconcilable
hatred of mankind, instead of flaming out in acts of blood and
violence, evaporated in less dangerous gratifications. They
embraced every opportunity of overreaching the idolaters in
trade; and they pronounced secret and ambiguous imprecations
against the haughty kingdom of Edom. ^7

[Footnote 4: It is to Modestinus, a Roman lawyer (l. vi.
regular.) that we are indebted for a distinct knowledge of the
Edict of Antoninus. See Casaubon ad Hist. August. p. 27.]

[Footnote 5: See Basnage, Histoire des Juifs, l. iii. c. 2, 3.
The office of Patriarch was suppressed by Theodosius the

[Footnote 6: We need only mention the Purim, or deliverance of
the Jews from he rage of Haman, which, till the reign of
Theodosius, was celebrated with insolent triumph and riotous
intemperance. Basnage, Hist. des Juifs, l. vi. c. 17, l. viii.
c. 6.]

[Footnote 7: According to the false Josephus, Tsepho, the
grandson of Esau, conducted into Italy the army of Eneas, king of
Carthage. Another colony of Idumaeans, flying from the sword of
David, took refuge in the dominions of Romulus. For these, or
for other reasons of equal weight, the name of Edom was applied
by the Jews to the Roman empire.

Note: The false Josephus is a romancer of very modern date,
though some of these legends are probably more ancient. It may
be worth considering whether many of the stories in the Talmud
are not history in a figurative disguise, adopted from prudence.
The Jews might dare to say many things of Rome, under the
significant appellation of Edom, which they feared to utter
publicly. Later and more ignorant ages took literally, and
perhaps embellished, what was intelligible among the generation
to which it was addressed. Hist. of Jews, iii. 131.

The false Josephus has the inauguration of the emperor, with
the seven electors and apparently the pope assisting at the
coronation! Pref. page xxvi. - M.]

Since the Jews, who rejected with abhorrence the deities
adored by their sovereign and by their fellow-subjects, enjoyed,
however, the free exercise of their unsocial religion, there must
have existed some other cause, which exposed the disciples of
Christ to those severities from which the posterity of Abraham
was exempt. The difference between them is simple and obvious;
but, according to the sentiments of antiquity, it was of the
highest importance. The Jews were a nation; the Christians were
a sect: and if it was natural for every community to respect the
sacred institutions of their neighbors, it was incumbent on them
to persevere in those of their ancestors. The voice of oracles,
the precepts of philosophers, and the authority of the laws,
unanimously enforced this national obligation. By their lofty
claim of superior sanctity the Jews might provoke the Polytheists
to consider them as an odious and impure race. By disdaining the
intercourse of other nations, they might deserve their contempt.
The laws of Moses might be for the most part frivolous or absurd;
yet, since they had been received during many ages by a large
society, his followers were justified by the example of mankind;
and it was universally acknowledged, that they had a right to
practise what it would have been criminal in them to neglect.
But this principle, which protected the Jewish synagogue,
afforded not any favor or security to the primitive church. By
embracing the faith of the gospel, the Christians incurred the
supposed guilt of an unnatural and unpardonable offence. They
dissolved the sacred ties of custom and education, violated the
religious institutions of their country, and presumptuously
despised whatever their fathers had believed as true, or had
reverenced as sacred. Nor was this apostasy (if we may use the
expression) merely of a partial or local kind; since the pious
deserter who withdrew himself from the temples of Egypt or Syria,
would equally disdain to seek an asylum in those of Athens or
Carthage. Every Christian rejected with contempt the
superstitions of his family, his city, and his province. The
whole body of Christians unanimously refused to hold any
communion with the gods of Rome, of the empire, and of mankind.
It was in vain that the oppressed believer asserted the
inalienable rights of conscience and private judgment. Though
his situation might excite the pity, his arguments could never
reach the understanding, either of the philosophic or of the
believing part of the Pagan world. To their apprehensions, it
was no less a matter of surprise, that any individuals should
entertain scruples against complying with the established mode of
worship, than if they had conceived a sudden abhorrence to the
manners, the dress, or the language of their native country. ^8

[Footnote 8: From the arguments of Celsus, as they are
represented and refuted by Origen, (l. v. p. 247 - 259,) we may
clearly discover the distinction that was made between the Jewish
people and the Christian sect. See, in the Dialogue of Minucius
Felix, (c. 5, 6,) a fair and not inelegant description of the
popular sentiments, with regard to the desertion of the
established worship.]

[Footnote *: In all this there is doubtless much truth; yet does
not the more important difference lie on the surface? The
Christians made many converts the Jews but few. Had the Jewish
been equally a proselyting religion would it not have encountered
as violent persecution? - M.]

The surprise of the Pagans was soon succeeded by resentment;
and the most pious of men were exposed to the unjust but
dangerous imputation of impiety. Malice and prejudice concurred
in representing the Christians as a society of atheists, who, by
the most daring attack on the religious constitution of the
empire, had merited the severest animadversion of the civil
magistrate. They had separated themselves (they gloried in the
confession) from every mode of superstition which was received in
any part of the globe by the various temper of polytheism: but it
was not altogether so evident what deity, or what form of
worship, they had substituted to the gods and temples of
antiquity. The pure and sublime idea which they entertained of
the Supreme Being escaped the gross conception of the Pagan
multitude, who were at a loss to discover a spiritual and
solitary God, that was neither represented under any corporeal
figure or visible symbol, nor was adored with the accustomed pomp
of libations and festivals, of altars and sacrifices. ^9 The
sages of Greece and Rome, who had elevated their minds to the
contemplation of the existence and attributes of the First Cause,
were induced by reason or by vanity to reserve for themselves and
their chosen disciples the privilege of this philosophical
devotion. ^10 They were far from admitting the prejudices of
mankind as the standard of truth, but they considered them as
flowing from the original disposition of human nature; and they
supposed that any popular mode of faith and worship which
presumed to disclaim the assistance of the senses, would, in
proportion as it receded from superstition, find itself incapable
of restraining the wanderings of the fancy, and the visions of
fanaticism. The careless glance which men of wit and learning
condescended to cast on the Christian revelation, served only to
confirm their hasty opinion, and to persuade them that the
principle, which they might have revered, of the Divine Unity,
was defaced by the wild enthusiasm, and annihilated by the airy
speculations, of the new sectaries. The author of a celebrated
dialogue, which has been attributed to Lucian, whilst he affects
to treat the mysterious subject of the Trinity in a style of
ridicule and contempt, betrays his own ignorance of the weakness
of human reason, and of the inscrutable nature of the divine
perfections. ^11

[Footnote 9: Cur nullas aras habent? templa nulla? nulla nota
simulacra! - Unde autem, vel quis ille, aut ubi, Deus unicus,
solitarius, desti tutus? Minucius Felix, c. 10. The Pagan
interlocutor goes on to make a distinction in favor of the Jews,
who had once a temple, altars, victims, &c.]
[Footnote 10: It is difficult (says Plato) to attain, and
dangerous to publish, the knowledge of the true God. See the
Theologie des Philosophes, in the Abbe d'Olivet's French
translation of Tully de Natura Deorum, tom. i. p. 275.]

[Footnote 11: The author of the Philopatris perpetually treats
the Christians as a company of dreaming enthusiasts, &c.; and in
one place he manifestly alludes to the vision in which St. Paul
was transported to the third heaven. In another place, Triephon,
who personates a Christian, after deriding the gods of Paganism,
proposes a mysterious oath.]

It might appear less surprising, that the founder of
Christianity should not only be revered by his disciples as a
sage and a prophet, but that he should be adored as a God. The
Polytheists were disposed to adopt every article of faith, which
seemed to offer any resemblance, however distant or imperfect,
with the popular mythology; and the legends of Bacchus, of
Hercules, and of Aesculapius, had, in some measure, prepared
their imagination for the appearance of the Son of God under a
human form. ^12 But they were astonished that the Christians
should abandon the temples of those ancient heroes, who, in the
infancy of the world, had invented arts, instituted laws, and
vanquished the tyrants or monsters who infested the earth, in
order to choose for the exclusive object of their religious
worship an obscure teacher, who, in a recent age, and among a
barbarous people, had fallen a sacrifice either to the malice of
his own countrymen, or to the jealousy of the Roman government.
The Pagan multitude, reserving their gratitude for temporal
benefits alone, rejected the inestimable present of life and
immortality, which was offered to mankind by Jesus of Nazareth.
His mild constancy in the midst of cruel and voluntary
sufferings, his universal benevolence, and the sublime simplicity
of his actions and character, were insufficient, in the opinion
of those carnal men, to compensate for the want of fame, of
empire, and of success; and whilst they refused to acknowledge
his stupendous triumph over the powers of darkness and of the
grave, they misrepresented, or they insulted, the equivocal
birth, wandering life, and ignominious death, of the divine
Author of Christianity. ^13

[Footnote 12: According to Justin Martyr, (Apolog. Major, c.
70-85,) the daemon who had gained some imperfect knowledge of the
prophecies, purposely contrived this resemblance, which might
deter, though by different means, both the people and the
philosophers from embracing the faith of Christ.]
[Footnote 13: In the first and second books of Origen, Celsus
treats the birth and character of our Savior with the most
impious contempt. The orator Libanius praises Porphyry and
Julian for confuting the folly of a sect., which styles a dead
man of Palestine, God, and the Son of God. Socrates, Hist.
Ecclesiast. iii. 23.]

The personal guilt which every Christian had contracted, in
thus preferring his private sentiment to the national religion,
was aggravated in a very high degree by the number and union of
the criminals. It is well known, and has been already observed,
that Roman policy viewed with the utmost jealousy and distrust
any association among its subjects; and that the privileges of
private corporations, though formed for the most harmless or
beneficial purposes, were bestowed with a very sparing hand. ^14
The religious assemblies of the Christians who had separated
themselves from the public worship, appeared of a much less
innocent nature; they were illegal in their principle, and in
their consequences might become dangerous; nor were the emperors
conscious that they violated the laws of justice, when, for the
peace of society, they prohibited those secret and sometimes
nocturnal meetings. ^15 The pious disobedience of the Christians
made their conduct, or perhaps their designs, appear in a much
more serious and criminal light; and the Roman princes, who might
perhaps have suffered themselves to be disarmed by a ready
submission, deeming their honor concerned in the execution of
their commands, sometimes attempted, by rigorous punishments, to
subdue this independent spirit, which boldly acknowledged an
authority superior to that of the magistrate. The extent and
duration of this spiritual conspiracy seemed to render it
everyday more deserving of his animadversion. We have already
seen that the active and successful zeal of the Christians had
insensibly diffused them through every province and almost every
city of the empire. The new converts seemed to renounce their
family and country, that they might connect themselves in an
indissoluble band of union with a peculiar society, which every
where assumed a different character from the rest of mankind.
Their gloomy and austere aspect, their abhorrence of the common
business and pleasures of life, and their frequent predictions of
impending calamities, ^16 inspired the Pagans with the
apprehension of some danger, which would arise from the new sect,
the more alarming as it was the more obscure. "Whatever," says
Pliny, "may be the principle of their conduct, their inflexible
obstinacy appeared deserving of punishment." ^17

[Footnote 14: The emperor Trajan refused to incorporate a company
of 150 firemen, for the use of the city of Nicomedia. He
disliked all associations. See Plin. Epist. x. 42, 43.]

[Footnote 15: The proconsul Pliny had published a general edict
against unlawful meetings. The prudence of the Christians
suspended their Agapae; but it was impossible for them to omit
the exercise of public worship.]
[Footnote 16: As the prophecies of the Antichrist, approaching
conflagration, &c., provoked those Pagans whom they did not
convert, they were mentioned with caution and reserve; and the
Montanists were censured for disclosing too freely the dangerous
secret. See Mosheim, 413.]

[Footnote 17: Neque enim dubitabam, quodcunque esset quod
faterentur, (such are the words of Pliny,) pervicacian certe et
inflexibilem obstinationem lebere puniri.]

The precautions with which the disciples of Christ performed
the offices of religion were at first dictated by fear and
necessity; but they were continued from choice. By imitating the
awful secrecy which reigned in the Eleusinian mysteries, the
Christians had flattered themselves that they should render their
sacred institutions more respectable in the eyes of the Pagan
world. ^18 But the event, as it often happens to the operations
of subtile policy, deceived their wishes and their expectations.
It was concluded, that they only concealed what they would have
blushed to disclose. Their mistaken prudence afforded an
opportunity for malice to invent, and for suspicious credulity to
believe, the horrid tales which described the Christians as the
most wicked of human kind, who practised in their dark recesses
every abomination that a depraved fancy could suggest, and who
solicited the favor of their unknown God by the sacrifice of
every moral virtue. There were many who pretended to confess or
to relate the ceremonies of this abhorred society. It was
asserted, "that a new-born infant, entirely covered over with
flour, was presented, like some mystic symbol of initiation, to
the knife of the proselyte, who unknowingly inflicted many a
secret and mortal wound on the innocent victim of his error; that
as soon as the cruel deed was perpetrated, the sectaries drank up
the blood, greedily tore asunder the quivering members, and
pledged themselves to eternal secrecy, by a mutual consciousness
of guilt. It was as confidently affirmed, that this inhuman
sacrifice was succeeded by a suitable entertainment, in which
intemperance served as a provocative to brutal lust; till, at the
appointed moment, the lights were suddenly extinguished, shame
was banished, nature was forgotten; and, as accident might
direct, the darkness of the night was polluted by the incestuous
commerce of sisters and brothers, of sons and of mothers." ^19

[Footnote 18: See Mosheim's Ecclesiastical History, vol. i. p.
101, and Spanheim, Remarques sur les Caesars de Julien, p. 468,
[Footnote 19: See Justin Martyr, Apolog. i. 35, ii. 14.
Athenagoras, in Legation, c. 27. Tertullian, Apolog. c. 7, 8, 9.

Minucius Felix, c. 9, 10, 80, 31. The last of these writers
relates the accusation in the most elegant and circumstantial
manner. The answer of Tertullian is the boldest and most

But the perusal of the ancient apologies was sufficient to
remove even the slightest suspicion from the mind of a candid
adversary. The Christians, with the intrepid security of
innocence, appeal from the voice of rumor to the equity of the
magistrates. They acknowledge, that if any proof can be produced
of the crimes which calumny has imputed to them, they are worthy
of the most severe punishment. They provoke the punishment, and
they challenge the proof. At the same time they urge, with equal
truth and propriety, that the charge is not less devoid of
probability, than it is destitute of evidence; they ask, whether
any one can seriously believe that the pure and holy precepts of
the gospel, which so frequently restrain the use of the most
lawful enjoyments, should inculcate the practice of the most
abominable crimes; that a large society should resolve to
dishonor itself in the eyes of its own members; and that a great
number of persons of either sex, and every age and character,
insensible to the fear of death or infamy, should consent to
violate those principles which nature and education had imprinted
most deeply in their minds. ^20 Nothing, it should seem, could
weaken the force or destroy the effect of so unanswerable a
justification, unless it were the injudicious conduct of the
apologists themselves, who betrayed the common cause of religion,
to gratify their devout hatred to the domestic enemies of the
church. It was sometimes faintly insinuated, and sometimes
boldly asserted, that the same bloody sacrifices, and the same
incestuous festivals, which were so falsely ascribed to the
orthodox believers, were in reality celebrated by the
Marcionites, by the Carpocratians, and by several other sects of
the Gnostics, who, notwithstanding they might deviate into the
paths of heresy, were still actuated by the sentiments of men,
and still governed by the precepts of Christianity. ^21
Accusations of a similar kind were retorted upon the church by
the schismatics who had departed from its communion, ^22 and it
was confessed on all sides, that the most scandalous
licentiousness of manners prevailed among great numbers of those
who affected the name of Christians. A Pagan magistrate, who
possessed neither leisure nor abilities to discern the almost
imperceptible line which divides the orthodox faith from
heretical pravity, might easily have imagined that their mutual
animosity had extorted the discovery of their common guilt. It
was fortunate for the repose, or at least for the reputation, of
the first Christians, that the magistrates sometimes proceeded
with more temper and moderation than is usually consistent with
religious zeal, and that they reported, as the impartial result
of their judicial inquiry, that the sectaries, who had deserted
the established worship, appeared to them sincere in their
professions, and blameless in their manners; however they might
incur, by their absurd and excessive superstition, the censure of
the laws. ^23

[Footnote 20: In the persecution of Lyons, some Gentile slaves
were compelled, by the fear of tortures, to accuse their
Christian master. The church of Lyons, writing to their brethren
of Asia, treat the horrid charge with proper indignation and
contempt. Euseb. Hist. Eccles. v. i.]

[Footnote 21: See Justin Martyr, Apolog. i. 35. Irenaeus adv.
Haeres. i. 24. Clemens. Alexandrin. Stromat. l. iii. p. 438.
Euseb. iv. 8. It would be tedious and disgusting to relate all
that the succeeding writers have imagined, all that Epiphanius
has received, and all that Tillemont has copied. M. de Beausobre
(Hist. du Manicheisme, l. ix. c. 8, 9) has exposed, with great
spirit, the disingenuous arts of Augustin and Pope Leo I.]
[Footnote 22: When Tertullian became a Montanist, he aspersed the
morals of the church which he had so resolutely defended. "Sed
majoris est Agape, quia per hanc adolescentes tui cum sororibus
dormiunt, appendices scilicet gulae lascivia et luxuria." De
Jejuniis c. 17. The 85th canon of the council of Illiberis
provides against the scandals which too often polluted the vigils
of the church, and disgraced the Christian name in the eyes of
[Footnote 23: Tertullian (Apolog. c. 2) expatiates on the fair
and honorable testimony of Pliny, with much reason and some

Chapter XVI: Conduct Towards The Christians, From Nero To

Part II.

History, which undertakes to record the transactions of the
past, for the instruction of future ages, would ill deserve that
honorable office, if she condescended to plead the cause of
tyrants, or to justify the maxims of persecution. It must,
however, be acknowledged, that the conduct of the emperors who
appeared the least favorable to the primitive church, is by no
means so criminal as that of modern sovereigns, who have employed
the arm of violence and terror against the religious opinions of
any part of their subjects. From their reflections, or even from
their own feelings, a Charles V. or a Lewis XIV. might have
acquired a just knowledge of the rights of conscience, of the
obligation of faith, and of the innocence of error. But the
princes and magistrates of ancient Rome were strangers to those
principles which inspired and authorized the inflexible obstinacy
of the Christians in the cause of truth, nor could they
themselves discover in their own breasts any motive which would
have prompted them to refuse a legal, and as it were a natural,
submission to the sacred institutions of their country. The same
reason which contributes to alleviate the guilt, must have tended
to abate the vigor, of their persecutions. As they were
actuated, not by the furious zeal of bigots, but by the temperate
policy of legislators, contempt must often have relaxed, and
humanity must frequently have suspended, the execution of those
laws which they enacted against the humble and obscure followers
of Christ. From the general view of their character and motives
we might naturally conclude: I. That a considerable time elapsed
before they considered the new sectaries as an object deserving
of the attention of government. II. That in the conviction of
any of their subjects who were accused of so very singular a
crime, they proceeded with caution and reluctance. III. That
they were moderate in the use of punishments; and, IV. That the
afflicted church enjoyed many intervals of peace and tranquility.
Notwithstanding the careless indifference which the most copious
and the most minute of the Pagan writers have shown to the
affairs of the Christians, ^24 it may still be in our power to
confirm each of these probable suppositions, by the evidence of
authentic facts.

[Footnote 24: In the various compilation of the Augustan History,
(a part of which was composed under the reign of Constantine,)
there are not six lines which relate to the Christians; nor has
the diligence of Xiphilin discovered their name in the large
history of Dion Cassius.

Note: The greater part of the Augustan History is dedicated
to Diocletian. This may account for the silence of its authors
concerning Christianity. The notices that occur are almost all
in the lives composed under the reign of Constantine. It may
fairly be concluded, from the language which he had into the
mouth of Maecenas, that Dion was an enemy to all innovations in
religion. (See Gibbon, infra, note 105.) In fact, when the
silence of Pagan historians is noticed, it should be remembered
how meagre and mutilated are all the extant histories of the
period -M.]

1. By the wise dispensation of Providence, a mysterious veil
was cast over the infancy of the church, which, till the faith of
the Christians was matured, and their numbers were multiplied,
served to protect them not only from the malice but even from the
knowledge of the Pagan world. The slow and gradual abolition of
the Mosaic ceremonies afforded a safe and innocent disguise to
the more early proselytes of the gospel. As they were, for the
greater part, of the race of Abraham, they were distinguished by
the peculiar mark of circumcision, offered up their devotions in
the Temple of Jerusalem till its final destruction, and received
both the Law and the Prophets as the genuine inspirations of the
Deity. The Gentile converts, who by a spiritual adoption had
been associated to the hope of Israel, were likewise confounded
under the garb and appearance of Jews, ^25 and as the Polytheists
paid less regard to articles of faith than to the external
worship, the new sect, which carefully concealed, or faintly
announced, its future greatness and ambition, was permitted to
shelter itself under the general toleration which was granted to
an ancient and celebrated people in the Roman empire. It was not
long, perhaps, before the Jews themselves, animated with a
fiercer zeal and a more jealous faith, perceived the gradual
separation of their Nazarene brethren from the doctrine of the
synagogue; and they would gladly have extinguished the dangerous
heresy in the blood of its adherents. But the decrees of Heaven
had already disarmed their malice; and though they might
sometimes exert the licentious privilege of sedition, they no
longer possessed the administration of criminal justice; nor did
they find it easy to infuse into the calm breast of a Roman
magistrate the rancor of their own zeal and prejudice. The
provincial governors declared themselves ready to listen to any
accusation that might affect the public safety; but as soon as
they were informed that it was a question not of facts but of
words, a dispute relating only to the interpretation of the
Jewish laws and prophecies, they deemed it unworthy of the
majesty of Rome seriously to discuss the obscure differences
which might arise among a barbarous and superstitious people.
The innocence of the first Christians was protected by ignorance
and contempt; and the tribunal of the Pagan magistrate often
proved their most assured refuge against the fury of the
synagogue. ^26 If indeed we were disposed to adopt the traditions
of a too credulous antiquity, we might relate the distant
peregrinations, the wonderful achievements, and the various
deaths of the twelve apostles: but a more accurate inquiry will
induce us to doubt, whether any of those persons who had been
witnesses to the miracles of Christ were permitted, beyond the
limits of Palestine, to seal with their blood the truth of their
testimony. ^27 From the ordinary term of human life, it may very
naturally be presumed that most of them were deceased before the
discontent of the Jews broke out into that furious war, which was
terminated only by the ruin of Jerusalem. During a long period,
from the death of Christ to that memorable rebellion, we cannot
discover any traces of Roman intolerance, unless they are to be
found in the sudden, the transient, but the cruel persecution,
which was exercised by Nero against the Christians of the
capital, thirty-five years after the former, and only two years
before the latter, of those great events. The character of the
philosophic historian, to whom we are principally indebted for
the knowledge of this singular transaction, would alone be
sufficient to recommend it to our most attentive consideration.

[Footnote 25: An obscure passage of Suetonius (in Claud. c. 25)
may seem to offer a proof how strangely the Jews and Christians
of Rome were confounded with each other.]

[Footnote 26: See, in the xviiith and xxvth chapters of the Acts
of the Apostles, the behavior of Gallio, proconsul of Achaia, and
of Festus, procurator of Judea.]

[Footnote 27: In the time of Tertullian and Clemens of
Alexandria, the glory of martyrdom was confined to St. Peter, St.
Paul, and St. James. It was gradually bestowed on the rest of
the apostles, by the more recent Greeks, who prudently selected
for the theatre of their preaching and sufferings some remote
country beyond the limits of the Roman empire. See Mosheim, p.
81; and Tillemont, Memoires Ecclesiastiques, tom. i. part iii.]

In the tenth year of the reign of Nero, the capital of the
empire was afflicted by a fire which raged beyond the memory or
example of former ages. ^28 The monuments of Grecian art and of
Roman virtue, the trophies of the Punic and Gallic wars, the most
holy temples, and the most splendid palaces, were involved in one
common destruction. Of the fourteen regions or quarters into
which Rome was divided, four only subsisted entire, three were
levelled with the ground, and the remaining seven, which had
experienced the fury of the flames, displayed a melancholy
prospect of ruin and desolation. The vigilance of government
appears not to have neglected any of the precautions which might
alleviate the sense of so dreadful a calamity. The Imperial
gardens were thrown open to the distressed multitude, temporary
buildings were erected for their accommodation, and a plentiful
supply of corn and provisions was distributed at a very moderate
price. ^29 The most generous policy seemed to have dictated the
edicts which regulated the disposition of the streets and the
construction of private houses; and as it usually happens, in an
age of prosperity, the conflagration of Rome, in the course of a
few years, produced a new city, more regular and more beautiful
than the former. But all the prudence and humanity affected by
Nero on this occasion were insufficient to preserve him from the
popular suspicion. Every crime might be imputed to the assassin
of his wife and mother; nor could the prince who prostituted his
person and dignity on the theatre be deemed incapable of the most
extravagant folly. The voice of rumor accused the emperor as the
incendiary of his own capital; and as the most incredible stories
are the best adapted to the genius of an enraged people, it was
gravely reported, and firmly believed, that Nero, enjoying the
calamity which he had occasioned, amused himself with singing to
his lyre the destruction of ancient Troy. ^30 To divert a
suspicion, which the power of despotism was unable to suppress,
the emperor resolved to substitute in his own place some
fictitious criminals. "With this view," continues Tacitus, "he
inflicted the most exquisite tortures on those men, who, under
the vulgar appellation of Christians, were already branded with
deserved infamy. They derived their name and origin from Christ,
who in the reign of Tiberius had suffered death by the sentence
of the procurator Pontius Pilate. ^31 For a while this dire
superstition was checked; but it again burst forth; ^* and not
only spread itself over Judaea, the first seat of this
mischievous sect, but was even introduced into Rome, the common
asylum which receives and protects whatever is impure, whatever
is atrocious. The confessions of those who were seized
discovered a great multitude of their accomplices, and they were
all convicted, not so much for the crime of setting fire to the
city, as for their hatred of human kind. ^32 They died in
torments, and their torments were imbittered by insult and
derision. Some were nailed on crosses; others sewn up in the
skins of wild beasts, and exposed to the fury of dogs; others
again, smeared over with combustible materials, were used as
torches to illuminate the darkness of the night. The gardens of
Nero were destined for the melancholy spectacle, which was
accompanied with a horse-race and honored with the presence of
the emperor, who mingled with the populace in the dress and
attitude of a charioteer. The guilt of the Christians deserved
indeed the most exemplary punishment, but the public abhorrence
was changed into commiseration, from the opinion that those
unhappy wretches were sacrificed, not so much to the public
welfare, as to the cruelty of a jealous tyrant." ^33 Those who
survey with a curious eye the revolutions of mankind, may
observe, that the gardens and circus of Nero on the Vatican,
which were polluted with the blood of the first Christians, have
been rendered still more famous by the triumph and by the abuse
of the persecuted religion. On the same spot, ^34 a temple,
which far surpasses the ancient glories of the Capitol, has been
since erected by the Christian Pontiffs, who, deriving their
claim of universal dominion from an humble fisherman of Galilee,
have succeeded to the throne of the Caesars, given laws to the
barbarian conquerors of Rome, and extended their spiritual
jurisdiction from the coast of the Baltic to the shores of the
Pacific Ocean.

[Footnote 28: Tacit. Annal. xv. 38 - 44. Sueton in Neron. c. 38.
Dion Cassius, l. lxii. p. 1014. Orosius, vii. 7.]

[Footnote 29: The price of wheat (probably of the modius,) was
reduced as low as terni Nummi; which would be equivalent to about
fifteen shillings the English quarter.]

[Footnote 30: We may observe, that the rumor is mentioned by
Tacitus with a very becoming distrust and hesitation, whilst it
is greedily transcribed by Suetonius, and solemnly confirmed by

[Footnote 31: This testimony is alone sufficient to expose the
anachronism of the Jews, who place the birth of Christ near a
century sooner. (Basnage, Histoire des Juifs, l. v. c. 14, 15.)
We may learn from Josephus, (Antiquitat. xviii. 3,) that the
procuratorship of Pilate corresponded with the last ten years of
Tiberius, A. D. 27 - 37. As to the particular time of the death
of Christ, a very early tradition fixed it to the 25th of March,
A. D. 29, under the consulship of the two Gemini. (Tertullian
adv. Judaeos, c. 8.) This date, which is adopted by Pagi,
Cardinal Norris, and Le Clerc, seems at least as probable as the
vulgar aera, which is placed (I know not from what conjectures)
four years later.]

[Footnote *: This single phrase, Repressa in praesens exitiabilis
superstitio rursus erumpebat, proves that the Christians had
already attracted the attention of the government; and that Nero
was not the first to persecute them. I am surprised that more
stress has not been laid on the confirmation which the Acts of
the Apostles derive from these words of Tacitus, Repressa in
praesens, and rursus erumpebat. - G.

I have been unwilling to suppress this note, but surely the
expression of Tacitus refers to the expected extirpation of the
religion by the death of its founder, Christ. - M.]

[Footnote 32: Odio humani generis convicti. These words may
either signify the hatred of mankind towards the Christians, or
the hatred of the Christians towards mankind. I have preferred
the latter sense, as the most agreeable to the style of Tacitus,
and to the popular error, of which a precept of the gospel (see
Luke xiv. 26) had been, perhaps, the innocent occasion. My
interpretation is justified by the authority of Lipsius; of the
Italian, the French, and the English translators of Tacitus; of
Mosheim, (p. 102,) of Le Clerc, (Historia Ecclesiast. p. 427,) of
Dr. Lardner, (Testimonies, vol. i. p. 345,) and of the Bishop of
Gloucester, (Divine Legation, vol. iii. p. 38.) But as the word
convicti does not unite very happily with the rest of the
sentence, James Gronovius has preferred the reading of conjuncti,
which is authorized by the valuable MS. of Florence.]

[Footnote 33: Tacit. Annal xv. 44.]

[Footnote 34: Nardini Roma Antica, p. 487. Donatus de Roma
Antiqua, l. iii. p. 449.]

But it would be improper to dismiss this account of Nero's
persecution, till we have made some observations that may serve
to remove the difficulties with which it is perplexed, and to
throw some light on the subsequent history of the church.

1. The most sceptical criticism is obliged to respect the
truth of this extraordinary fact, and the integrity of this
celebrated passage of Tacitus. The former is confirmed by the
diligent and accurate Suetonius, who mentions the punishment
which Nero inflicted on the Christians, a sect of men who had
embraced a new and criminal superstition. ^35 The latter may be
proved by the consent of the most ancient manuscripts; by the
inimitable character of the style of Tacitus by his reputation,
which guarded his text from the interpolations of pious fraud;
and by the purport of his narration, which accused the first
Christians of the most atrocious crimes, without insinuating that
they possessed any miraculous or even magical powers above the
rest of mankind. ^36 2. Notwithstanding it is probable that
Tacitus was born some years before the fire of Rome, ^37 he could
derive only from reading and conversation the knowledge of an
event which happened during his infancy. Before he gave himself
to the public, he calmly waited till his genius had attained its
full maturity, and he was more than forty years of age, when a
grateful regard for the memory of the virtuous Agricola extorted
from him the most early of those historical compositions which
will delight and instruct the most distant posterity. After
making a trial of his strength in the life of Agricola and the
description of Germany, he conceived, and at length executed, a
more arduous work; the history of Rome, in thirty books, from the
fall of Nero to the accession of Nerva. The administration of
Nerva introduced an age of justice and propriety, which Tacitus
had destined for the occupation of his old age; ^38 but when he
took a nearer view of his subject, judging, perhaps, that it was
a more honorable or a less invidious office to record the vices
of past tyrants, than to celebrate the virtues of a reigning
monarch, he chose rather to relate, under the form of annals, the
actions of the four immediate successors of Augustus. To
collect, to dispose, and to adorn a series of fourscore years, in
an immortal work, every sentence of which is pregnant with the
deepest observations and the most lively images, was an
undertaking sufficient to exercise the genius of Tacitus himself
during the greatest part of his life. In the last years of the
reign of Trajan, whilst the victorious monarch extended the power
of Rome beyond its ancient limits, the historian was describing,
in the second and fourth books of his annals, the tyranny of
Tiberius; ^39 and the emperor Hadrian must have succeeded to the
throne, before Tacitus, in the regular prosecution of his work,
could relate the fire of the capital, and the cruelty of Nero
towards the unfortunate Christians. At the distance of sixty
years, it was the duty of the annalist to adopt the narratives of
contemporaries; but it was natural for the philosopher to indulge
himself in the description of the origin, the progress, and the
character of the new sect, not so much according to the knowledge
or prejudices of the age of Nero, as according to those of the
time of Hadrian. 3 Tacitus very frequently trusts to the
curiosity or reflection of his readers to supply those
intermediate circumstances and ideas, which, in his extreme
conciseness, he has thought proper to suppress. We may therefore
presume to imagine some probable cause which could direct the
cruelty of Nero against the Christians of Rome, whose obscurity,
as well as innocence, should have shielded them from his
indignation, and even from his notice. The Jews, who were
numerous in the capital, and oppressed in their own country, were
a much fitter object for the suspicions of the emperor and of the
people: nor did it seem unlikely that a vanquished nation, who
already discovered their abhorrence of the Roman yoke, might have
recourse to the most atrocious means of gratifying their
implacable revenge. But the Jews possessed very powerful
advocates in the palace, and even in the heart of the tyrant; his
wife and mistress, the beautiful Poppaea, and a favorite player
of the race of Abraham, who had already employed their
intercession in behalf of the obnoxious people. ^40 In their room
it was necessary to offer some other victims, and it might easily
be suggested that, although the genuine followers of Moses were
innocent of the fire of Rome, there had arisen among them a new
and pernicious sect of Galilaeans, which was capable of the most
horrid crimes. Under the appellation of Galilaeans, two
distinctions of men were confounded, the most opposite to each
other in their manners and principles; the disciples who had
embraced the faith of Jesus of Nazareth, ^41 and the zealots who
had followed the standard of Judas the Gaulonite. ^42 The former
were the friends, the latter were the enemies, of human kind; and
the only resemblance between them consisted in the same
inflexible constancy, which, in the defence of their cause,
rendered them insensible of death and tortures. The followers of
Judas, who impelled their countrymen into rebellion, were soon
buried under the ruins of Jerusalem; whilst those of Jesus, known
by the more celebrated name of Christians, diffused themselves
over the Roman empire. How natural was it for Tacitus, in the
time of Hadrian, to appropriate to the Christians the guilt and
the sufferings, ^* which he might, with far greater truth and
justice, have attributed to a sect whose odious memory was almost
extinguished! 4. Whatever opinion may be entertained of this
conjecture, (for it is no more than a conjecture,) it is evident
that the effect, as well as the cause, of Nero's persecution, was
confined to the walls of Rome, ^43 ^! that the religious tenets
of the Galilaeans or Christians, were never made a subject of
punishment, or even of inquiry; and that, as the idea of their
sufferings was for a long time connected with the idea of cruelty
and injustice, the moderation of succeeding princes inclined them
to spare a sect, oppressed by a tyrant, whose rage had been
usually directed against virtue and innocence.

[Footnote 35: Sueton. in Nerone, c. 16. The epithet of malefica,
which some sagacious commentators have translated magical, is
considered by the more rational Mosheim as only synonymous to the
exitiabilis of Tacitus.]
[Footnote 36: The passage concerning Jesus Christ, which was
inserted into the text of Josephus, between the time of Origen
and that of Eusebius, may furnish an example of no vulgar
forgery. The accomplishment of the prophecies, the virtues,
miracles, and resurrection of Jesus, are distinctly related.
Josephus acknowledges that he was the Messiah, and hesitates
whether he should call him a man. If any doubt can still remain
concerning this celebrated passage, the reader may examine the
pointed objections of Le Fevre, (Havercamp. Joseph. tom. ii. p.
267-273, the labored answers of Daubuz, (p. 187-232, and the
masterly reply (Bibliotheque Ancienne et Moderne, tom. vii. p.
237-288) of an anonymous critic, whom I believe to have been the
learned Abbe de Longuerue.

Note: The modern editor of Eusebius, Heinichen, has adopted,
and ably supported, a notion, which had before suggested itself
to the editor, that this passage is not altogether a forgery, but
interpolated with many additional clauses. Heinichen has
endeavored to disengage the original text from the foreign and
more recent matter. - M.]

[Footnote 37: See the lives of Tacitus by Lipsius and the Abbe de
la Bleterie, Dictionnaire de Bayle a l'article Particle Tacite,
and Fabricius, Biblioth. Latin tem. Latin. tom. ii. p. 386, edit.
Ernest. Ernst.]

[Footnote 38: Principatum Divi Nervae, et imperium Trajani,
uberiorem, securioremque materiam senectuti seposui. Tacit.
Hist. i.]
[Footnote 39: See Tacit. Annal. ii. 61, iv. 4.

Note: The perusal of this passage of Tacitus alone is
sufficient, as I have already said, to show that the Christian
sect was not so obscure as not already to have been repressed,
(repressa,) and that it did not pass for innocent in the eyes of
the Romans. - G.]

[Footnote 40: The player's name was Aliturus. Through the same
channel, Josephus, (de vita sua, c. 2,) about two years before,
had obtained the pardon and release of some Jewish priests, who
were prisoners at Rome.]
[Footnote 41: The learned Dr. Lardner (Jewish and Heathen
Testimonies, vol ii. p. 102, 103) has proved that the name of
Galilaeans was a very ancient, and perhaps the primitive
appellation of the Christians.]

[Footnote 42: Joseph. Antiquitat. xviii. 1, 2. Tillemont, Ruine
des Juifs, p. 742 The sons of Judas were crucified in the time of
Claudius. His grandson Eleazar, after Jerusalem was taken,
defended a strong fortress with 960 of his most desperate
followers. When the battering ram had made a breach, they turned
their swords against their wives their children, and at length
against their own breasts. They dies to the last man.

[Footnote *: This conjecture is entirely devoid, not merely of
verisimilitude, but even of possibility. Tacitus could not be
deceived in appropriating to the Christians of Rome the guilt and
the sufferings which he might have attributed with far greater
truth to the followers of Judas the Gaulonite, for the latter
never went to Rome. Their revolt, their attempts, their
opinions, their wars, their punishment, had no other theatre but
Judaea (Basn. Hist. des. Juifs, t. i. p. 491.) Moreover the name
of Christians had long been given in Rome to the disciples of
Jesus; and Tacitus affirms too positively, refers too distinctly
to its etymology, to allow us to suspect any mistake on his part.
- G.

M. Guizot's expressions are not in the least too strong
against this strange imagination of Gibbon; it may be doubted
whether the followers of Judas were known as a sect under the
name of Galilaeans. - M.]
[Footnote 43: See Dodwell. Paucitat. Mart. l. xiii. The Spanish
Inscription in Gruter. p. 238, No. 9, is a manifest and
acknowledged forgery contrived by that noted imposter. Cyriacus
of Ancona, to flatter the pride and prejudices of the Spaniards.
See Ferreras, Histoire D'Espagne, tom. i. p. 192.]
[Footnote !: M. Guizot, on the authority of Sulpicius Severus,
ii. 37, and of Orosius, viii. 5, inclines to the opinion of those
who extend the persecution to the provinces. Mosheim rather
leans to that side on this much disputed question, (c. xxxv.)
Neander takes the view of Gibbon, which is in general that of the
most learned writers. There is indeed no evidence, which I can
discover, of its reaching the provinces; and the apparent
security, at least as regards his life, with which St. Paul
pursued his travels during this period, affords at least a strong
inference against a rigid and general inquisition against the
Christians in other parts of the empire. - M.]
It is somewhat remarkable that the flames of war consumed,
almost at the same time, the temple of Jerusalem and the Capitol
of Rome; ^44 and it appears no less singular, that the tribute
which devotion had destined to the former, should have been
converted by the power of an assaulting victor to restore and
adorn the splendor of the latter. ^45 The emperors levied a
general capitation tax on the Jewish people; and although the sum
assessed on the head of each individual was inconsiderable, the
use for which it was designed, and the severity with which it was
exacted, were considered as an intolerable grievance. ^46 Since
the officers of the revenue extended their unjust claim to many
persons who were strangers to the blood or religion of the Jews,
it was impossible that the Christians, who had so often sheltered
themselves under the shade of the synagogue, should now escape
this rapacious persecution. Anxious as they were to avoid the
slightest infection of idolatry, their conscience forbade them to
contribute to the honor of that daemon who had assumed the
character of the Capitoline Jupiter. As a very numerous though
declining party among the Christians still adhered to the law of
Moses, their efforts to dissemble their Jewish origin were
detected by the decisive test of circumcision; ^47 nor were the
Roman magistrates at leisure to inquire into the difference of
their religious tenets. Among the Christians who were brought
before the tribunal of the emperor, or, as it seems more
probable, before that of the procurator of Judaea, two persons
are said to have appeared, distinguished by their extraction,
which was more truly noble than that of the greatest monarchs.
These were the grandsons of St. Jude the apostle, who himself was
the brother of Jesus Christ. ^48 Their natural pretensions to the
throne of David might perhaps attract the respect of the people,
and excite the jealousy of the governor; but the meanness of
their garb, and the simplicity of their answers, soon convinced
him that they were neither desirous nor capable of disturbing the
peace of the Roman empire. They frankly confessed their royal
origin, and their near relation to the Messiah; but they
disclaimed any temporal views, and professed that his kingdom,
which they devoutly expected, was purely of a spiritual and
angelic nature. When they were examined concerning their fortune
and occupation, they showed their hands, hardened with daily
labor, and declared that they derived their whole subsistence
from the cultivation of a farm near the village of Cocaba, of the
extent of about twenty-four English acres, ^49 and of the value
of nine thousand drachms, or three hundred pounds sterling. The
grandsons of St. Jude were dismissed with compassion and
contempt. ^50

[Footnote 44: The Capitol was burnt during the civil war between
Vitellius and Vespasian, the 19th of December, A. D. 69. On the
10th of August, A. D. 70, the temple of Jerusalem was destroyed
by the hands of the Jews themselves, rather than by those of the

[Footnote 45: The new Capitol was dedicated by Domitian. Sueton.
in Domitian. c. 5. Plutarch in Poplicola, tom. i. p. 230, edit.
Bryant. The gilding alone cost 12,000 talents (above two
millions and a half.) It was the opinion of Martial, (l. ix.
Epigram 3,) that if the emperor had called in his debts, Jupiter
himself, even though he had made a general auction of Olympus,
would have been unable to pay two shillings in the pound.]

[Footnote 46: With regard to the tribute, see Dion Cassius, l.
lxvi. p. 1082, with Reimarus's notes. Spanheim, de Usu
Numismatum, tom. ii. p. 571; and Basnage, Histoire des Juifs, l.
vii. c. 2.]

[Footnote 47: Suetonius (in Domitian. c. 12) had seen an old man
of ninety publicly examined before the procurator's tribunal.
This is what Martial calls, Mentula tributis damnata.]

[Footnote 48: This appellation was at first understood in the
most obvious sense, and it was supposed, that the brothers of
Jesus were the lawful issue of Joseph and Mary. A devout respect
for the virginity of the mother of God suggested to the Gnostics,
and afterwards to the orthodox Greeks, the expedient of bestowing
a second wife on Joseph. The Latins (from the time of Jerome)
improved on that hint, asserted the perpetual celibacy of Joseph,
and justified by many similar examples the new interpretation
that Jude, as well as Simon and James, who were styled the
brothers of Jesus Christ, were only his first cousins. See
Tillemont, Mem. Ecclesiat. tom. i. part iii.: and Beausobre,
Hist. Critique du Manicheisme, l. ii. c. 2.]

[Footnote 49: Thirty-nine, squares of a hundred feet each, which,
if strictly computed, would scarcely amount to nine acres.]

[Footnote 50: Eusebius, iii. 20. The story is taken from
But although the obscurity of the house of David might
protect them from the suspicions of a tyrant, the present
greatness of his own family alarmed the pusillanimous temper of
Domitian, which could only be appeased by the blood of those
Romans whom he either feared, or hated, or esteemed. Of the two
sons of his uncle Flavius Sabinus, ^51 the elder was soon
convicted of treasonable intentions, and the younger, who bore
the name of Flavius Clemens, was indebted for his safety to his
want of courage and ability. ^52 The emperor for a long time,
distinguished so harmless a kinsman by his favor and protection,
bestowed on him his own niece Domitilla, adopted the children of
that marriage to the hope of the succession, and invested their
father with the honors of the consulship.

[Footnote 51: See the death and character of Sabinus in Tacitus,
(Hist. iii. 74 ) Sabinus was the elder brother, and, till the
accession of Vespasian, had been considered as the principal
support of the Flavium family]
[Footnote 52: Flavium Clementem patruelem suum contemptissimoe
inertice . . ex tenuissima suspicione interemit. Sueton. in
Domitian. c. 15.]
But he had scarcely finished the term of his annual
magistracy, when, on a slight pretence, he was condemned and
executed; Domitilla was banished to a desolate island on the
coast of Campania; ^53 and sentences either of death or of
confiscation were pronounced against a great number of who were
involved in the same accusation. The guilt imputed to their
charge was that of Atheism and Jewish manners; ^54 a singular
association of ideas, which cannot with any propriety be applied
except to the Christians, as they were obscurely and imperfectly
viewed by the magistrates and by the writers of that period. On
the strength of so probable an interpretation, and too eagerly
admitting the suspicions of a tyrant as an evidence of their
honorable crime, the church has placed both Clemens and Domitilla
among its first martyrs, and has branded the cruelty of Domitian
with the name of the second persecution. But this persecution
(if it deserves that epithet) was of no long duration. A few
months after the death of Clemens, and the banishment of
Domitilla, Stephen, a freedman belonging to the latter, who had
enjoyed the favor, but who had not surely embraced the faith, of
his mistress, ^* assassinated the emperor in his palace. ^55 The
memory of Domitian was condemned by the senate; his acts were
rescinded; his exiles recalled; and under the gentle
administration of Nerva, while the innocent were restored to
their rank and fortunes, even the most guilty either obtained
pardon or escaped punishment. ^56

[Footnote 53: The Isle of Pandataria, according to Dion.
Bruttius Praesens (apud Euseb. iii. 18) banishes her to that of
Pontia, which was not far distant from the other. That
difference, and a mistake, either of Eusebius or of his
transcribers, have given occasion to suppose two Domitillas, the
wife and the niece of Clemens. See Tillemont, Memoires
Ecclesiastiques, tom. ii. p. 224.]

[Footnote 54: Dion. l. lxvii. p. 1112. If the Bruttius Praesens,
from whom it is probable that he collected this account, was the
correspondent of Pliny, (Epistol. vii. 3,) we may consider him as
a contemporary writer.]
[Footnote *: This is an uncandid sarcasm. There is nothing to
connect Stephen with the religion of Domitilla. He was a knave
detected in the malversation of money - interceptarum pecuniaram
reus. - M.]

[Footnote 55: Suet. in Domit. c. 17. Philostratus in Vit.
Apollon. l. viii.]
[Footnote 56: Dion. l. lxviii. p. 1118. Plin. Epistol. iv. 22.]
II. About ten years afterwards, under the reign of Trajan,
the younger Pliny was intrusted by his friend and master with the
government of Bithynia and Pontus. He soon found himself at a
loss to determine by what rule of justice or of law he should
direct his conduct in the execution of an office the most
repugnant to his humanity. Pliny had never assisted at any
judicial proceedings against the Christians, with whose name
alone he seems to be acquainted; and he was totally uninformed
with regard to the nature of their guilt, the method of their
conviction, and the degree of their punishment. In this
perplexity he had recourse to his usual expedient, of submitting
to the wisdom of Trajan an impartial, and, in some respects, a
favorable account of the new superstition, requesting the
emperor, that he would condescend to resolve his doubts, and to
instruct his ignorance. ^57 The life of Pliny had been employed
in the acquisition of learning, and in the business of the world.

Since the age of nineteen he had pleaded with distinction in the
tribunals of Rome, ^58 filled a place in the senate, had been
invested with the honors of the consulship, and had formed very
numerous connections with every order of men, both in Italy and
in the provinces. From his ignorance therefore we may derive
some useful information. We may assure ourselves, that when he
accepted the government of Bithynia, there were no general laws
or decrees of the senate in force against the Christians; that
neither Trajan nor any of his virtuous predecessors, whose edicts
were received into the civil and criminal jurisprudence, had
publicly declared their intentions concerning the new sect; and
that whatever proceedings had been carried on against the
Christians, there were none of sufficient weight and authority to
establish a precedent for the conduct of a Roman magistrate.
[Footnote 57: Plin. Epistol. x. 97. The learned Mosheim
expresses himself (p. 147, 232) with the highest approbation of
Pliny's moderate and candid temper. Notwithstanding Dr. Lardner's
suspicions (see Jewish and Heathen Testimonies, vol. ii. p. 46,)
I am unable to discover any bigotry in his language or

Note: Yet the humane Pliny put two female attendants,
probably deaconesses to the torture, in order to ascertain the
real nature of these suspicious meetings: necessarium credidi, ex
duabus ancillis, quae ministrae dicebantor quid asset veri et per
tormenta quaerere. - M.]
[Footnote 58: Plin. Epist. v. 8. He pleaded his first cause A.
D. 81; the year after the famous eruptions of Mount Vesuvius, in
which his uncle lost his life.]

Chapter XVI: Conduct Towards The Christians, From Nero To

Part III.

The answer of Trajan, to which the Christians of the
succeeding age have frequently appealed, discovers as much regard
for justice and humanity as could be reconciled with his mistaken
notions of religious policy. ^59 Instead of displaying the
implacable zeal of an inquisitor, anxious to discover the most
minute particles of heresy, and exulting in the number of his
victims, the emperor expresses much more solicitude to protect
the security of the innocent, than to prevent the escape of the
guilty. He acknowledged the difficulty of fixing any general
plan; but he lays down two salutary rules, which often afforded
relief and support to the distressed Christians. Though he
directs the magistrates to punish such persons as are legally
convicted, he prohibits them, with a very humane inconsistency,
from making any inquiries concerning the supposed criminals. Nor
was the magistrate allowed to proceed on every kind of
information. Anonymous charges the emperor rejects, as too
repugnant to the equity of his government; and he strictly
requires, for the conviction of those to whom the guilt of
Christianity is imputed, the positive evidence of a fair and open
accuser. It is likewise probable, that the persons who assumed
so invidiuous an office, were obliged to declare the grounds of
their suspicions, to specify (both in respect to time and place)
the secret assemblies, which their Christian adversary had
frequented, and to disclose a great number of circumstances,
which were concealed with the most vigilant jealousy from the eye
of the profane. If they succeeded in their prosecution, they
were exposed to the resentment of a considerable and active
party, to the censure of the more liberal portion of mankind, and
to the ignominy which, in every age and country, has attended the
character of an informer. If, on the contrary, they failed in
their proofs, they incurred the severe and perhaps capital
penalty, which, according to a law published by the emperor
Hadrian, was inflicted on those who falsely attributed to their
fellow-citizens the crime of Christianity. The violence of
personal or superstitious animosity might sometimes prevail over
the most natural apprehensions of disgrace and danger but it
cannot surely be imagined, that accusations of so unpromising an
appearance were either lightly or frequently undertaken by the
Pagan subjects of the Roman empire. ^60 ^*
[Footnote 59: Plin. Epist. x. 98. Tertullian (Apolog. c. 5)
considers this rescript as a relaxation of the ancient penal
laws, "quas Trajanus exparte frustratus est: " and yet
Tertullian, in another part of his Apology, exposes the
inconsistency of prohibiting inquiries, and enjoining
[Footnote 60: Eusebius (Hist. Ecclesiast. l. iv. c. 9) has
preserved the edict of Hadrian. He has likewise (c. 13) given us
one still more favorable, under the name of Antoninus; the
authenticity of which is not so universally allowed. The second
Apology of Justin contains some curious particulars relative to
the accusations of Christians.

Note: Professor Hegelmayer has proved the authenticity of
the edict of Antoninus, in his Comm. Hist. Theol. in Edict. Imp.
Antonini. Tubing. 1777, in 4to. - G.

Neander doubts its authenticity, (vol. i. p. 152.) In my
opinion, the internal evidence is decisive against it. - M]

[Footnote *: The enactment of this law affords strong
presumption, that accusations of the "crime of Christianity,"
were by no means so uncommon, nor received with so much mistrust
and caution by the ruling authorities, as Gibbon would insinuate.
- M.]

The expedient which was employed to elude the prudence of
the laws, affords a sufficient proof how effectually they
disappointed the mischievous designs of private malice or
superstitious zeal. In a large and tumultuous assembly, the
restraints of fear and shame, so forcible on the minds of
individuals, are deprived of the greatest part of their
influence. The pious Christian, as he was desirous to obtain, or
to escape, the glory of martyrdom, expected, either with
impatience or with terror, the stated returns of the public games
and festivals. On those occasions the inhabitants of the great
cities of the empire were collected in the circus or the theatre,
where every circumstance of the place, as well as of the
ceremony, contributed to kindle their devotion, and to extinguish
their humanity. Whilst the numerous spectators, crowned with
garlands, perfumed with incense, purified with the blood of
victims, and surrounded with the altars and statues of their
tutelar deities, resigned themselves to the enjoyment of
pleasures, which they considered as an essential part of their
religious worship, they recollected, that the Christians alone
abhorred the gods of mankind, and by their absence and melancholy
on these solemn festivals, seemed to insult or to lament the
public felicity. If the empire had been afflicted by any recent
calamity, by a plague, a famine, or an unsuccessful war; if the
Tyber had, or if the Nile had not, risen beyond its banks; if the
earth had shaken, or if the temperate order of the seasons had
been interrupted, the superstitious Pagans were convinced that
the crimes and the impiety of the Christians, who were spared by
the excessive lenity of the government, had at length provoked
the divine justice. It was not among a licentious and
exasperated populace, that the forms of legal proceedings could
be observed; it was not in an amphitheatre, stained with the
blood of wild beasts and gladiators, that the voice of compassion
could be heard. The impatient clamors of the multitude denounced
the Christians as the enemies of gods and men, doomed them to the
severest tortures, and venturing to accuse by name some of the
most distinguished of the new sectaries, required with
irresistible vehemence that they should be instantly apprehended
and cast to the lions. ^61 The provincial governors and
magistrates who presided in the public spectacles were usually
inclined to gratify the inclinations, and to appease the rage, of
the people, by the sacrifice of a few obnoxious victims. But the
wisdom of the emperors protected the church from the danger of
these tumultuous clamors and irregular accusations, which they
justly censured as repugnant both to the firmness and to the
equity of their administration. The edicts of Hadrian and of
Antoninus Pius expressly declared, that the voice of the
multitude should never be admitted as legal evidence to convict
or to punish those unfortunate persons who had embraced the
enthusiasm of the Christians. ^62

[Footnote 61: See Tertullian, (Apolog. c. 40.) The acts of the
martyrdom of Polycarp exhibit a lively picture of these tumults,
which were usually fomented by the malice of the Jews.]

[Footnote 62: These regulations are inserted in the above
mentioned document of Hadrian and Pius. See the apology of
Melito, (apud Euseb. l iv 26)]
III. Punishment was not the inevitable consequence of
conviction, and the Christians, whose guilt was the most clearly
proved by the testimony of witnesses, or even by their voluntary
confession, still retained in their own power the alternative of
life or death. It was not so much the past offence, as the
actual resistance, which excited the indignation of the
magistrate. He was persuaded that he offered them an easy
pardon, since, if they consented to cast a few grains of incense
upon the altar, they were dismissed from the tribunal in safety
and with applause. It was esteemed the duty of a humane judge to
endeavor to reclaim, rather than to punish, those deluded
enthusiasts. Varying his tone according to the age, the sex, or
the situation of the prisoners, he frequently condescended to set
before their eyes every circumstance which could render life more
pleasing, or death more terrible; and to solicit, nay, to
entreat, them, that they would show some compassion to
themselves, to their families, and to their friends. ^63 If
threats and persuasions proved ineffectual, he had often recourse
to violence; the scourge and the rack were called in to supply
the deficiency of argument, and every art of cruelty was employed
to subdue such inflexible, and, as it appeared to the Pagans,
such criminal, obstinacy. The ancient apologists of Christianity
have censured, with equal truth and severity, the irregular
conduct of their persecutors who, contrary to every principle of
judicial proceeding, admitted the use of torture, in order to
obtain, not a confession, but a denial, of the crime which was
the object of their inquiry. ^64 The monks of succeeding ages,
who, in their peaceful solitudes, entertained themselves with
diversifying the deaths and sufferings of the primitive martyrs,
have frequently invented torments of a much more refined and
ingenious nature. In particular, it has pleased them to suppose,
that the zeal of the Roman magistrates, disdaining every
consideration of moral virtue or public decency, endeavored to
seduce those whom they were unable to vanquish, and that by their
orders the most brutal violence was offered to those whom they
found it impossible to seduce. It is related, that females, who
were prepared to despise death, were sometimes condemned to a
more severe trial, ^! and called upon to determine whether they
set a higher value on their religion or on their chastity. The
youths to whose licentious embraces they were abandoned, received
a solemn exhortation from the judge, to exert their most
strenuous efforts to maintain the honor of Venus against the
impious virgin who refused to burn incense on her altars. Their
violence, however, was commonly disappointed, and the seasonable
interposition of some miraculous power preserved the chaste
spouses of Christ from the dishonor 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. ^65

[Footnote 63: See the rescript of Trajan, and the conduct of
Pliny. The most authentic acts of the martyrs abound in these
Note: Pliny's test was the worship of the gods, offerings to
the statue of the emperor, and blaspheming Christ - praeterea
maledicerent Christo. - M.]
[Footnote 64: In particular, see Tertullian, (Apolog. c. 2, 3,)
and Lactantius, (Institut. Divin. v. 9.) Their reasonings are
almost the same; but we may discover, that one of these
apologists had been a lawyer, and the other a rhetorician.]

[Footnote !: The more ancient as well as authentic memorials of
the church, relate many examples of the fact, (of these severe
trials,) which there is nothing to contradict. Tertullian, among
others, says, Nam proxime ad lenonem damnando Christianam, potius
quam ad leonem, confessi estis labem pudicitiae apud nos
atrociorem omni poena et omni morte reputari, Apol. cap. ult.
Eusebius likewise says, "Other virgins, dragged to brothels, have
lost their life rather than defile their virtue." Euseb. Hist.
Ecc. viii. 14. - G.
The miraculous interpositions were the offspring of the
coarse imaginations of the monks. - M.]

[Footnote 65: See two instances of this kind of torture in the
Acta Sincere Martyrum, published by Ruinart, p. 160, 399.
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 courtesan. He quelled the
rising temptation by biting off his tongue.]

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. ^66 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 polished 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 severity of the laws. ^67 Whenever they were invested with a
discretionary power, ^68 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, ^69 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 by the Roman
magistrates, appear to have been selected 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; ^70 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 ancients with too careless an indifference. ^71 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. ^72 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, ^73 and whose marvellous
achievements have been the subject of so many volumes of Holy
Romance. ^74 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. ^75
[Footnote 66: The conversion of his wife provoked Claudius
Herminianus, governor of Cappadocia, to treat the Christians with
uncommon severity. Tertullian ad Scapulam, c. 3.]

[Footnote 67: Tertullian, in his epistle to the governor of
Africa, mentions several remarkable instances of lenity and
forbearance, which had happened within his knowledge.]

[Footnote 68: 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.

Note: Gibbon altogether forgets that Trajan fully approved
of the course pursued by Pliny. That course was, to order all
who persevered in their faith to be led to execution:
perseverantes duci jussi. - M.]

[Footnote 69: In Metalla damnamur, in insulas relegamur.
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.]

[Footnote 70: 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 exemplary 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.

Note: The acts of Ignatius are generally received as
authentic, as are seven of his letters. Eusebius and St. Jerome
mention them: there are two editions; in one, the letters are
longer, and many passages appear to have been interpolated; the
other edition is that which contains the real letters of St.
Ignatius; such at least is the opinion of the wisest and most
enlightened critics. (See Lardner. Cred. of Gospel Hist.) Less,
uber dis Religion, v. i. p. 529. Usser. Diss. de Ign. Epist.
Pearson, Vindic, Ignatianae. It should be remarked, that it was
under the reign of Trajan that the bishop Ignatius was carried
from Antioch to Rome, to be exposed to the lions in the
amphitheatre, the year of J. C. 107, according to some; of 116,
according to others. - G.]

[Footnote 71: Among the martyrs of Lyons, (Euseb. l. 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.]

[Footnote 72: Origen. advers. Celsum, l. iii. p. 116. His words
deserve to be transcribed.

Note: The words that follow should be quoted. "God not
permitting that all his class of men should be exterminated: "
which appears to indicate that Origen thought the number put to
death inconsiderable only when compared to the numbers who had
survived. Besides this, he is speaking of the state of the
religion under Caracalla, Elagabalus, Alexander Severus, and
Philip, who had not persecuted the Christians. It was during the
reign of the latter that Origen wrote his books against Celsus. -

[Footnote 73: 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 honors 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 Antichita Italiane, Dissertat. lviii.]

[Footnote 74: 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; Tille mont, 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.]

[Footnote 75: Dionysius ap. Euseb l. vi. c. 41 One of the
seventeen was likewise accused of robbery.

Note: Gibbon ought to have said, was falsely accused of
robbery, for so it is in the Greek text. This Christian, named
Nemesion, falsely accused of robbery before the centurion, was
acquitted of a crime altogether foreign to his character, but he
was led before the governor as guilty of being a Christian, and
the governor inflicted upon him a double torture. (Euseb. loc.
cit.) It must be added, that Saint Dionysius only makes
particular mention of the principal martyrs, [this is very
doubtful. - M.] and that he says, in general, that the fury of
the Pagans against the Christians gave to Alexandria the
appearance of a city taken by storm. [This refers to plunder and
ill usage, not to actual slaughter. - M.] Finally it should be
observed that Origen wrote before the persecution of the emperor
Decius. - G.]
During the same period of persecution, the zealous, the
eloquent, the ambitious Cyprian governed the church, not only of
Carthage, but even of Africa. He possessed every quality which
could engage the reverence 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 danger. ^76 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 the dangers to which he was exposed were
less imminent than those which temporal ambition is always
prepared to encounter in the pursuit of honors. Four Roman
emperors, with their families, their favorites, 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 councils 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 magistrate and the clamors of the multitude, who
loudly 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 of his personal enemies, who insulted, a conduct which
they considered as a pusillanimous and criminal desertion of the
most sacred duty. ^77 The propriety of reserving himself for the
future exigencies of the church, the example of several holy
bishops, ^78 and the divine admonitions, which, as he declares
himself, he frequently received in visions and ecstacies, were
the reasons alleged in his justification. ^79 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 candor 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. ^80

[Footnote 76: 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 (Bibliotheque
Universelle, tom. xii. p. 208-378,) the other by Tillemont,
Memoires Ecclesiastiques, tom. iv part i. p. 76-459.]
[Footnote 77: See the polite but severe epistle of the clergy of
Rome to the bishop of Carthage. (Cyprian. Epist. 8, 9.) Pontius
labors with the greatest care and diligence to justify his master
against the general censure.]
[Footnote 78: 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.]

[Footnote 79: See Cyprian. Epist. 16, and his life by Pontius.]
[Footnote 80: 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.]

Chapter XVI: Conduct Towards The Christians, From Nero To

Part IV.

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, ^81
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 he offered up his daily supplications for the
safety and prosperity of the two emperors, his lawful sovereigns.

With modest confidence he pleaded the privilege of a citizen, in
refusing to give any answer to some invidious and indeed illegal
questions which the proconsul had proposed. A sentence of
banishment was pronounced as the penalty of Cyprian's
disobedience; and he was conducted without delay to Curubis, a
free and maritime city of Zeugitania, in a pleasant situation, a
fertile territory, and at the distance of about forty miles from
Carthage. ^82 The exiled bishop enjoyed the conveniences of life
and the consciousness of virtue. His reputation was diffused over
Africa and Italy; an account of his behavior was published for
the edification of the Christian world; ^83 and his solitude was
frequently interrupted by the letters, the visits, and the
congratulations of the faithful. On the arrival of a new
proconsul in the province the fortune of Cyprian appeared for
some time to wear a still more favorable aspect. He was recalled
from banishment; and though not yet permitted to return to
Carthage, his own gardens in the neighborhood of the capital were
assigned for the place of his residence. ^84
[Footnote 81: It should seem that these were circular orders,
sent at the same time to all the governors. Dionysius (ap.
Euseb. l. 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.]

[Footnote 82: See Plin. Hist. Natur. v. 3. Cellarius, Geograph.
Antiq. part iii. p. 96. Shaw's Travels, p. 90; and for the
adjacent country, (which is terminated by Cape Bona, or the
promontory of Mercury,) l'Afrique de Marmol. tom. ii. p. 494.
There are the remains of an aqueduct near Curubis, or Curbis, at
present altered into Gurbes; and Dr. Shaw read an inscription,
which styles that city Colonia Fulvia. The deacon Pontius (in
Vit. Cyprian. c. 12) calls it "Apricum et competentem locum,
hospitium pro voluntate secretum, et quicquid apponi eis ante
promissum est, qui regnum et justitiam Dei quaerunt."]

[Footnote 83: See Cyprian. Epistol. 77, edit. Fell.]

[Footnote 84: Upon his conversion, he had sold those gardens for
the benefit of the poor. The indulgence of God (most probably
the liberality of some Christian friend) restored them to
Cyprian. See Pontius, c. 15.]
At length, exactly one year ^85 after Cyprian was first
apprehended, Galerius Maximus, proconsul of Africa, received the
Imperial warrant for the execution of the Christian teachers.
The bishop of Carthage was sensible that he should be singled out
for one of the first victims; and the frailty of nature tempted
him to withdraw himself, by a secret flight, from the danger and
the honor of martyrdom; ^* but soon recovering that fortitude
which his character required, he returned to his gardens, and
patiently expected the ministers of death. Two officers of rank,
who were intrusted with that commission, placed Cyprian between
them in a chariot, and as the proconsul was not then at leisure,
they conducted him, not to a prison, but to a private house in
Carthage, which belonged to one of them. An elegant supper was
provided for the entertainment of the bishop, and his Christian
friends were permitted for the last time to enjoy his society,
whilst the streets were filled with a multitude of the faithful,
anxious and alarmed at the approaching fate of their spiritual
father. ^86 In the morning he appeared before the tribunal of the
proconsul, who, after informing himself of the name and situation
of Cyprian, commanded him to offer sacrifice, and pressed him to
reflect on the consequences of his disobedience. The refusal of
Cyprian was firm and decisive; and the magistrate, when he had
taken the opinion of his council, pronounced with some reluctance
the sentence of death. It was conceived in the following terms:
"That Thascius Cyprianus should be immediately beheaded, as the
enemy of the gods of Rome, and as the chief and ringleader of a
criminal association, which he had seduced into an impious
resistance against the laws of the most holy emperors, Valerian
and Gallienus." ^87 The manner of his execution was the mildest
and least painful that could be inflicted on a person convicted
of any capital offence; nor was the use of torture admitted to
obtain from the bishop of Carthage either the recantation of his
principles or the discovery of his accomplices.
[Footnote 85: When Cyprian; a twelvemonth before, was sent into
exile, he dreamt that he should be put to death the next day.
The event made it necessary to explain that word, as signifying a
year. Pontius, c. 12.]
[Footnote *: This was not, as it appears, the motive which
induced St. Cyprian to conceal himself for a short time; he was
threatened to be carried to Utica; he preferred remaining at
Carthage, in order to suffer martyrdom in the midst of his flock,
and in order that his death might conduce to the edification of
those whom he had guided during life. Such, at least, is his own
explanation of his conduct in one of his letters: Cum perlatum ad
nos fuisset, fratres carissimi, frumentarios esse missos qui me
Uticam per ducerent, consilioque carissimorum persuasum est, ut
de hortis interim recederemus, justa interveniente causa,
consensi; eo quod congruat episcopum in ea civitate, in qua
Ecclesiae dominicae praeest, illie. Dominum confiteri et plebem
universam praepositi praesentis confessione clarificari Ep. 83. -
[Footnote 86: Pontius (c. 15) acknowledges that Cyprian, with
whom he supped, passed the night custodia delicata. The bishop
exercised a last and very proper act of jurisdiction, by
directing that the younger females, who watched in the streets,
should be removed from the dangers and temptations of a nocturnal
crowd. Act. Preconsularia, c. 2.]

[Footnote 87: See the original sentence in the Acts, c. 4; and in
Pontius, c. 17 The latter expresses it in a more rhetorical

As soon as the sentence was proclaimed, a general cry of "We
will die with him," arose at once among the listening multitude
of Christians who waited before the palace gates. The generous
effusions of their zeal and their affection were neither
serviceable to Cyprian nor dangerous to themselves. He was led
away under a guard of tribunes and centurions, without resistance
and without insult, to the place of his execution, a spacious and
level plain near the city, which was already filled with great
numbers of spectators. His faithful presbyters and deacons were
permitted to accompany their holy bishop. ^* They assisted him in
laying aside his upper garment, spread linen on the ground to
catch the precious relics of his blood, and received his orders
to bestow five-and-twenty pieces of gold on the executioner. The
martyr then covered his face with his hands, and at one blow his
head was separated from his body. His corpse remained during
some hours exposed to the curiosity of the Gentiles: but in the
night it was removed, and transported in a triumphal procession,
and with a splendid illumination, to the burial-place of the
Christians. The funeral of Cyprian was publicly celebrated
without receiving any interruption from the Roman magistrates;
and those among the faithful, who had performed the last offices
to his person and his memory, were secure from the danger of
inquiry or of punishment. It is remarkable, that of so great a
multitude of bishops in the province of Africa, Cyprian was the
first who was esteemed worthy to obtain the crown of martyrdom.

[Footnote *: There is nothing in the life of St. Cyprian, by
Pontius, nor in the ancient manuscripts, which can make us
suppose that the presbyters and deacons in their clerical
character, and known to be such, had the permission to attend
their holy bishop. Setting aside all religious considerations,
it is impossible not to be surprised at the kind of complaisance
with which the historian here insists, in favor of the
persecutors, on some mitigating circumstances allowed at the
death of a man whose only crime was maintaining his own opinions
with frankness and courage. - G.]

[Footnote 88: Pontius, c. 19. M. de Tillemont (Memoires, tom.
iv. part i. p. 450, note 50) is not pleased with so positive an
exclusion of any former martyr of the episcopal rank.

Note: M. de. Tillemont, as an honest writer, explains the
difficulties which he felt about the text of Pontius, and
concludes by distinctly stating, that without doubt there is some
mistake, and that Pontius must have meant only Africa Minor or
Carthage; for St. Cyprian, in his 58th (69th) letter addressed to
Pupianus, speaks expressly of many bishops his colleagues, qui
proscripti sunt, vel apprehensi in carcere et catenis fuerunt;
aut qui in exilium relegati, illustri itinere ed Dominum profecti
sunt; aut qui quibusdam locis animadversi, coeleses coronas de
Domini clarificatione sumpserunt. - G.]
It was in the choice of Cyprian, either to die a martyr, or
to live an apostate; but on the choice depended the alternative
of honor or infamy. Could we suppose that the bishop of Carthage
had employed the profession of the Christian faith only as the
instrument of his avarice or ambition, it was still incumbent on
him to support the character he had assumed; ^89 and if he
possessed the smallest degree of manly fortitude, rather to
expose himself to the most cruel tortures, than by a single act
to exchange the reputation of a whole life, for the abhorrence of
his Christian brethren, and the contempt of the Gentile world.
But if the zeal of Cyprian was supported by the sincere
conviction of the truth of those doctrines which he preached, the
crown of martyrdom must have appeared to him as an object of
desire rather than of terror. It is not easy to extract any
distinct ideas from the vague though eloquent declamations of the
Fathers, or to ascertain the degree of immortal glory and
happiness which they confidently promised to those who were so
fortunate as to shed their blood in the cause of religion. ^90
They inculcated with becoming diligence, that the fire of
martyrdom supplied every defect and expiated every sin; that
while the souls of ordinary Christians were obliged to pass
through a slow and painful purification, the triumphant sufferers
entered into the immediate fruition of eternal bliss, where, in
the society of the patriarchs, the apostles, and the prophets,
they reigned with Christ, and acted as his assessors in the
universal judgment of mankind. The assurance of a lasting
reputation upon earth, a motive so congenial to the vanity of
human nature, often served to animate the courage of the martyrs.

The honors which Rome or Athens bestowed on those citizens who
had fallen in the cause of their country, were cold and unmeaning
demonstrations of respect, when compared with the ardent
gratitude and devotion which the primitive church expressed
towards the victorious champions of the faith. The annual
commemoration of their virtues and sufferings was observed as a
sacred ceremony, and at length terminated in religious worship.
Among the Christians who had publicly confessed their religious
principles, those who (as it very frequently happened) had been
dismissed from the tribunal or the prisons of the Pagan
magistrates, obtained such honors as were justly due to their
imperfect martyrdom and their generous resolution. The most
pious females courted the permission of imprinting kisses on the
fetters which they had worn, and on the wounds which they had
received. Their persons were esteemed holy, their decisions were
admitted with deference, and they too often abused, by their
spiritual pride and licentious manners, the preeminence which
their zeal and intrepidity had acquired. ^91 Distinctions like
these, whilst they display the exalted merit, betray the
inconsiderable number of those who suffered, and of those who
died, for the profession of Christianity.

[Footnote 89: Whatever opinion we may entertain of the character
or principles of Thomas Becket, we must acknowledge that he
suffered death with a constancy not unworthy of the primitive
martyrs. See Lord Lyttleton's History of Henry II. vol. ii. p.
592, &c.]

[Footnote 90: See in particular the treatise of Cyprian de
Lapsis, p. 87- 98, edit. Fell. The learning of Dodwell
(Dissertat. Cyprianic. xii. xiii.,) and the ingenuity of
Middleton, (Free Inquiry, p. 162, &c.,) have left scarcely any
thing to add concerning the merit, the honors, and the motives of
the martyrs.]

[Footnote 91: Cyprian. Epistol. 5, 6, 7, 22, 24; and de Unitat.
Ecclesiae. The number of pretended martyrs has been very much
multiplied, by the custom which was introduced of bestowing that
honorable name on confessors.
Note: M. Guizot denies that the letters of Cyprian, to which
he refers, bear out the statement in the text. I cannot scruple
to admit the accuracy of Gibbon's quotation. To take only the
fifth letter, we find this passage: Doleo enim quando audio
quosdam improbe et insolenter discurrere, et ad ineptian vel ad
discordias vacare, Christi membra et jam Christum confessa per
concubitus illicitos inquinari, nec a diaconis aut presbyteris
regi posse, sed id agere ut per paucorum pravos et malos mores,
multorum et bonorum confessorum gloria honesta maculetur.
Gibbon's misrepresentation lies in the ambiguous expression "too
often." Were the epistles arranged in a different manner in the
edition consulted by M. Guizot? - M.]

The sober discretion of the present age will more readily
censure than admire, but can more easily admire than imitate, the
fervor of the first Christians, who, according to the lively
expressions of Sulpicius Severus, desired martyrdom with more
eagerness than his own contemporaries solicited a bishopric. ^92
The epistles which Ignatius composed as he was carried in chains
through the cities of Asia, breathe sentiments the most repugnant
to the ordinary feelings of human nature. He earnestly beseeches
the Romans, that when he should be exposed in the amphitheatre,
they would not, by their kind but unseasonable intercession,
deprive him of the crown of glory; and he declares his resolution
to provoke and irritate the wild beasts which might be employed
as the instruments of his death. ^93 Some stories are related of
the courage of martyrs, who actually performed what Ignatius had
intended; who exasperated the fury of the lions, pressed the
executioner to hasten his office, cheerfully leaped into the
fires which were kindled to consume them, and discovered a
sensation of joy and pleasure in the midst of the most exquisite
tortures. Several examples have been preserved of a zeal
impatient of those restraints which the emperors had provided for
the security of the church. The Christians sometimes supplied by
their voluntary declaration the want of an accuser, rudely
disturbed the public service of paganism, ^94 and rushing in
crowds round the tribunal of the magistrates, called upon them to
pronounce and to inflict the sentence of the law. The behavior
of the Christians was too remarkable to escape the notice of the
ancient philosophers; but 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 insensibility, or of superstitious frenzy. ^95
"Unhappy men!" exclaimed the proconsul Antoninus to the
Christians of Asia; "unhappy men! if you are thus weary of your
lives, is it so difficult for you to find ropes and precipices?"
^96 He was extremely cautious (as it is observed by a learned and
picus historian) of punishing men who had found no accusers but
themselves, the Imperial laws not having made any provision for

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