Posted by: ken98 | December 1, 2009

Wannabe Martyrs, and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in the Later Roman Empire

Day 81 – Ken here
(DEF v.1, ch.16, pp.540-550)

It is (of course) past midnight again – and I am writing (post-Thanksgiving, 5 pounds heavier) reluctantly into the night – I just can’t get my enthusiasm up for these long chapters on Christianity. Gibbon continues his account of the Christian persecutions and the Roman reaction to Christians (per Gibbon: not admiration, but astonishment).

The Story
Trajans famous Rescript to Pliny about treatment of Christians

  • Pliny writes for advice on how to handle Christians in his governorship of Pontus and Bithynia (Turkey) – Trajan responds with famous Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy – very loose and very easy-going (esp considering Christians were something of a secret association of citizens in the empire – something the empire was very paranoid about)

  • Cyprian, bishop of Carthage – example of a persecution of a high ranking churchman (249 CE) – he finds out he’s to be arrested, takes flight, hides, comes back when it is safe. Later (257) he is summoned, does not flee, is banished in comfort to an estate 40 miles from the city – a year later (258) he is commanded to sacrifice, refuses, is sentenced to be beheaded – the crowds spread blankets to catch his “martyr” blood as holy relics when he is decapitated
  • Gibbon pursues a theme close to his heart – the strange and unholy desire of early christians to beg for death and martyrdom
    (ex.s Sulpicius Severus, Ignatius)
  • Zeal for martyrdom hit its height in the 160’s, 170’s on into the 200’s
  • The 3 methods of escaping martyrdom: 1. Flight, 2. Bribing, 3. Recanting and sacrificing
  • Emperor Trajan - author of famous Rescript (imperial rule of law) in the form of a letter back to a governor of a province (Pliny) - started the very lenient don't ask don't tell policy of prosecuting/punishing Christians (circa 100 CE)

    Emperor Trajan - author of famous Rescript (imperial rule of law) in the form of a letter back to a governor of a province (Pliny) - started the very lenient don't ask don't tell policy of prosecuting/punishing Christians (circa 100 CE)

    Christians treated like gay men and women in the Roman Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy
    Americans were not the first to have Don’t Ask Don’t Tell – although it was a slightly different situation in the Roman empire. In Late Antiquity it was the Christians who were hiding as a despised minority – not gay men and women.
    (see Book 10, Pliny’s letters)

    Cyprian, painted as an icon - Saint Cyprian - controversial bishop of Carthage

    Cyprian, painted as an icon - Saint Cyprian - controversial bishop of Carthage

    Quotable Gibbon on Wannabe Martyrs
    The motives and passions of martyrs are incomprehensible to Gibbon – they are “most repugnant to the ordinary feelings of human nature”. Gibbon IS a child of the Enlightenment and so views “enthusiasm” and partisanship of any kind with a jaundiced eye, but he reserves especial contempt for those who throw away their present life in a particularly flamboyant way for their future incorporeal existence. Not only is it not rational, it’s just in bad taste.

    This per Gibbon: “The sober discretion of the present age will more readily censure than admire, but can more easily admire than imitate, the fervour of the first Christians, who, according to the lively expression of Sulpicius Severus, desired martyrdom with more eagerness than his own contemporaries solicited a bishopric. 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. 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, and, rushing in crowds round the tribunal of the magistrates, called upon them to pronounce and to inflict the sentence of the law. The behaviour 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. “Unhappy men !” exclaimed the proconsul Antoninus to the Christians of Asia, “unhappy men! it you are thus weary of your lives, is it so difficult for you to find ropes and precipices?” He was extremely cautious (as it is observed by a learned and pious historian) of punishing men who had found no accusers but themselves, the imperial laws not having made any provisions for so unexpected a case; condemning therefore a few as a warning to their brethren, he dismissed the multitude with indignation and contempt.” (DEF, v.1, ch.16, pp. 546-547).

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