It’s often said on the Internet that Marcus Aurelius somehow persecuted Christians. I find that specific details are often lacking, though. In fact, there are two questions worth considering here:
- Did the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius actively persecute Christians himself?
Most modern scholars think that he almost certainly did not.
- Did Marcus allow others to persecute Christians?
This is harder to answer, although the weight of evidence suggests Marcus actually tried to prevent others from persecuting Christians. Some persecution of Christians undoubtedly took place during his reign, but it’s unclear how much, to what extent he was aware of it, and what opportunity he would have had to stop it.
The most famous alleged persecution of Christians during the reign of Marcus Aurelius was at Lyon in Gaul in 177 AD. The one and only piece of evidence for this incident comes from the Christian historian Eusebius, who quotes a rather odd letter in his Ecclesiastical History, which described the events as follows:
The greatness of the tribulation in this region, and the fury of the heathen against the saints, and the sufferings of the blessed witnesses, we cannot recount accurately, nor indeed could they possibly be recorded. For with all his might the adversary [Satan] fell upon us, giving us a foretaste of his unbridled activity at his future coming. He endeavored in every manner to practice and exercise his servants against the servants of God, not only shutting us out from houses and baths and markets, but forbidding any of us to be seen in any place whatever. But the grace of God led the conflict against him, and delivered the weak, and set them as firm pillars, able through patience to endure all the wrath of the Evil One.
And they joined battle with him, undergoing all kinds of shame and injury; and regarding their great sufferings as little, they hastened to Christ, manifesting truly that ‘the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed to us afterward.’ Romans 8:18 7. First of all, they endured nobly the injuries heaped upon them by the populace; clamors and blows and draggings and robberies and stonings and imprisonments, and all things which an infuriated mob delight in inflicting on enemies and adversaries. Then, being taken to the forum by the chiliarch [garrison commander?] and the authorities of the city, they were examined in the presence of the whole multitude, and having confessed, they were imprisoned until the arrival of the governor.
The letter continues to describe numerous gory tortures with a level of detail that appears somewhat excessive and colourful. Some modern readers consequently find the style suggestive of fiction, or at least embellishment.
Moreover, there are several quite apparent problems faced by those who would take this letter as evidence that Marcus persecuted Christians:
- Eusebius finished writing the Ecclesiastical History in roughly 300 AD, over a hundred and twenty years after the alleged incident took place. There’s no indication when the letter he’s quoting was written. However, he is claiming that the events described in it happened long before he was even born.
- Historians have to take into account the “argument from silence”: no other pagan or Christian author of the period makes any mention whatsoever of these events having happened, despite their striking and noteworthy nature. It’s highly remarkable that no other Christian author of the period actually refers to this incident. Indeed, the first author in Gaul to mention this event was Sulpicius Severus, writing 400 years later, and his only source appears to be Eusebius.
- The church father Irenaeus, the Christian Bishop of Lyon, where the incident allegedly took place, wrote his mammoth five volume Adversus Haereses in 180 AD, three years after the alleged persecution. And yet, he makes absolutely no mention of this remarkable event supposedly happening in his own city. On the contrary, he actually says “The Romans have given the world peace, and we [Christians] travel without fear along the roads and across the sea wherever we will.” (Against Heresies, Book IV, Chapter 30, Sentence 3).
- The church father Tertullian, was aged around twenty at the time the incident at Lyon allegedly happened. As we’ll see, he makes no mention of any persecution at Lyon, and actually says quite emphatically that Marcus Aurelius was a “protector” of Christians.
- The letter quoted by Eusebius begins by blaming the actions of the mob on “the adversary” or “Evil One”, by which the author clearly meant Satan. It goes on to describe how Christian martyrs survived inconceivable torture and extensive wounds, and yet were miraculously healed and restored to health when stretched on the rack. It also appears to claim martyrs were being miraculously raised from the dead. This adds a supernatural element to the account, which many modern readers may find indicative of fabrication or embellishment.
- The letter actually concludes by blaming the mob and city of Lyon authorities – it does not attribute responsibility to Marcus Aurelius or to Rome. When this event allegedly happened, incidentally, Marcus was busy on campaign in the northern frontier, roughly three weeks’ march away from Lyon.
- We have the surviving text of an Imperial edict from Marcus that provides evidence he actually tried to prevent the persecution of Christians by provincial authorities (see below).
- Finally, and bizarrely, Eusebius himself several times admitted that his church history contained significant fabrications.
Edward Gibbon, author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, liked to point out that Eusebius admitted employing deliberate misinformation to promote the Christian message. For example, one of his chapter headings reads: “That it will be necessary sometimes to use falsehood as a remedy for the benefit of those who require such a mode of treatment.” The historian Jacob Burckhardt therefore described Eusebius as “the first thoroughly dishonest historian of antiquity”. It would be more appropriate to call Eusebius a Christian propagandist rather than historian.
For this and other reasons, Eusebius is considered an extremely unreliable source by many modern scholars. His accounts of Christian martyrdom refer to events several generations before he was even born, as we’ve seen, and are embellished with extravagant details that have the air of fiction about them. For example, persecution is not portrayed as sporadic but inflicted by Satan on myriads of Christians throughout the empire. The scale and severity of this persecution is totally out of keeping with the testimony of other Christians alive at the time and difficult to reconcile with the paucity of evidence from other authors. Moreover, he includes many supernatural claims that undermine the credibility of his accounts in the eyes of modern readers. For example, he elsewhere states as fact miracles such as that Christian martyrs survived inside the stomachs of lions after being eaten, levitated hundreds of feet into the sky, or were raised from the dead, all by the grace of God. As noted above, the letter itself also describes the miraculous healing and restoration of martyrs at Lyon who were near death, and apparently also their resurrection from death. If we reject these supernatural claims, it’s difficult to know what other aspects of the letter we can take seriously.
Eusebius is also known to be particularly unreliable with regard to this era of Roman history because, remarkably, at various points he actually confuses Marcus Aurelius both with his adoptive brother Lucius Verus, and with his adoptive father Antoninus Pius. Moreover, it is often the case that the documents (letters, etc.) quoted in ancient sources are found unreliable by scholarship because many forgeries circulated then and ancient authors often lacked the resources to authenticate them. Scholars have, in fact, already identified numerous documents quoted in the writings of Eusebius as forgeries. In this particular letter, unusually, no date is actually given in the rubric cited, so it’s not clear on what basis Eusebius arrived at the conclusion that it was intended to refer to events during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. The letter itself only employs the generic title Caesar for the Emperor. Eusebius may just be guessing the date, and that the Caesar in question is Marcus Aurelius, although it seems likely that the letter is a forgery anyway. A more generous interpretation would be that it was originally intended to be read as fiction, or a vision or allegory, but over time was mistakenly assumed to be a literal account of historical events, and Eusebius merely fell into this error. However, this quoted letter is the one and only piece of alleged evidence for the persecution at Lyon!
Indeed, the only sources which describe persecution during the reign of Marcus Aurelius come from later generations of Christian authors, who were not witness to the events they describe. None of them actually attribute responsibility to Marcus. The most famous account is the persecution of Lyon, which, as we have seen, is of highly questionable authenticity.
By contrast, the church father Tertullian was actually a contemporary of Marcus Aurelius and his testimony is that Marcus was emphatically a “protector” of Christians.
But out of so many princes from that time down to the present, men versed in every system of knowledge, produce if you can one persecutor of the Christians. We, however, can on the other side produce a protector, if the letters of the most grave Emperor Marcus Aurelius be searched, in which he testifies that the well-known Germanic drought was dispelled by the shower obtained through the prayers of Christians who happened to be in the army. (Apology, 5)
This potentially creates an internal contradiction in the Christian literature, for those who (dubiously) wish to read other Christian accounts as somehow blaming Marcus for the persecution of Christians. (As we’ve seen, even Eusebius doesn’t actually appear to blame Marcus.) Indeed, not a single author, Christian or pagan, appears to quote any edict by Marcus condemning Christians. This is noteworthy because if he had actually issued one, they would certainly have mentioned it.
Marcus’ Letter to the Asian Provinces
We do, however, have a surviving edict attributed to Marcus and entitled Letter of Antoninus to the Common Assembly of Asia, which appears to provide evidence that he actively intervened to prevent the persecution of Christians. It is dated 161 AD, and issued from Marcus as Emperor, which suggests it was one of his first actions shortly after being acclaimed to the throne.
He explicitly refers to the problem of Christians who are regarded by Romans as atheists because they do not worship the conventional pagan gods. Marcus warns the provincial authorities: “you harass these men, and harden them in their convictions, to which they hold fast, by accusing them of being atheists”. He states that provincial governors had many times written to his adoptive father, the Emperor Antoninus Pius, whose response was always “not to molest such persons“, unless they were actually making attempts to undermine the Roman government. Marcus says he has also frequently repeated this non-harassment policy to them himself, as Emperor. He actually goes so far as to say: “And if any one persist in bringing any such [Christian] person into trouble for being what he is, let him, against whom the charge is brought, be acquitted even if the charge be made out, but let him who brings the charge be called to account.” In other words, he suggests that provincial authorities may be punished by Rome for persecuting Christians solely on the basis of their religion.
C.R. Haines, who published this edict as an appendix to his Loeb translation of The Meditations, included an essay entitled “Note on the Attitude of Marcus Toward the Christians.” He begins “Nothing has done the good name of Marcus so much harm as his supposed uncompromising attitude toward Christians” and concludes:
As a matter of fact, Marcus has been condemned as a persecutor of the Christians on purely circumstantial and quite insufficient grounds. The general testimony of contemporary Christian writers is against the supposition. So is the known character of Marcus.
He goes on to argue that the retrospective claim of Eusebius about myriads of Christians being persecuted and horribly tortured to death throughout the Roman Empire two centuries earlier is also inconsistent with numerous historical facts – often cited by Eusebius himself and other Christian authors. For example, the presence of a bishop at the head of a community of Christians was tolerated in Rome itself, there were multiple Christians serving in Marcus’ own household, and probably even Christians in the Roman Senate. According to Eusebius and three other Christian sources, for instance, the Senator Apollonius of Rome was allegedly condemned to death, under Commodus. However, that means that during Marcus‘ reign Apollonius was apparently permitted to serve on the Senate, although a Christian. Several sources, including Tertullian, attest that the Thunderbolt Legion (Legio XII Fulminata) commanded by Marcus on the northern frontier was composed largely of Christian soldiers.
Marcus’ obsession with kindness, justice and clemency, is clearly demonstrated throughout The Meditations. However, this is reinforced by numerous references to his character in the writings of other Roman authors. Marcus is portrayed with remarkable consistency as being a man of exceptional clemency and humanity – that was his universal reputation. Latin authors typically used the word humanitas (kindness) to describe his character; in Greek the word philanthropia (love of mankind) was favoured.
Haines therefore also finds it implausible that someone so universally regarded as a man of exceptional kindness and clemency would have “encouraged mob-violence against unoffending persons, ordered the torture of innocent women and boys, and violated the rights of citizenship”. Indeed, as we’ve seen, there appears to be no evidence whatsoever that Marcus was actually responsible for the persecution of Christians. The weight of evidence, rather, suggests that he was, as Tertullian claims, a “protector” of Christians, and tried to prevent provincial authorities from persecuting them.
Surprisingly, Frank McLynn, Marcus Aurelius’ modern-day biographer, concludes that he was a persecutor of Christians. In the introduction to Marcus Aurelius: A Life, he makes the bold claim that:
Marcus will probably never be hugely popular with committed Christians, if only because he persecuted them.
The evidence he cites for this, bizarrely, mainly consists of Eusebius’ account of the incident at Lyon, which, as we’ve seen, is highly dubious. Indeed, in the process of recounting the story, McLynn observes that the letter’s claim that Christians were rounded up “was of course contrary to Trajan’s standing order that Christians were not to be sought out” (McLynn, p. 290). He adds, “In a clear breach of the guidelines laid down by Trajan and Hadrian, the governor then accepted hearsay evidence from pagan slaves who had been bribed or browbeaten to give evidence against their masters.” Moreover, he notes,
Whether he was a weak man himself and at the mercy of the mob, or merely a psychopath in an administrative role, he decided that all Christians would be sacrificed in the arena, including men like Attalus, who was also a Roman citizen. All precedent and all imperial prescripts made it quite clear that a Roman citizen had to be beheaded when sentenced to capital punishment – the fate St Paul had suffered under Nero – but the governor ignored this: Attalus joined his co-religionists in the arena. (McLynn, p. 292)
Paradoxically, none of these contradictions led McLynn to question the authenticity of the story. Nor does he so much as mention any of the numerous problems noted above, such a the fact that Eusebius admits to fabricating elements of his church history for the purposes of propaganda. In fact, he presents the alleged persecutions at Lyon as if they were historical fact, without any words of caution to warn the reader that the story is actually of a highly questionable nature.
Let’s set aside the concern that this is quite possibly a fabricated story. McLynn actually concludes from it that Marcus himself persecuted Christians. However, as we’ve seen, the only evidence we have for the persecutions at Lyon, the letter quoted by Eusebius, makes no mention of Marcus Aurelius and is not dated. It also clearly blames the persecution on local mobs and possibly the provincial governor, rather than Rome or the emperor. So it’s baffling how McLynn can conclude that “Marcus will probably never be hugely popular with committed Christians, if only because he persecuted them.” That seems to be a totally unjustifiable claim.