And in my defence to sundry criticisms made upon Marcus by ancient and modern writers, I give by far the most space to the gravest, that he persecuted the Christians, for I think no accusation would have surprised him more, or have seemed to him more unreasonable.Henry Dwight Sedgwick
It’s often said on the Internet, and occasionally in books, that Marcus Aurelius somehow or other persecuted Christians. I find that specific details are often lacking, though. In fact, there are two questions worth considering here:
- Q: Did the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius actively persecute Christians himself? A: Most modern scholars think that he almost certainly did not.
- Q: Did Marcus allow others to persecute Christians? A: 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.
After reviewing the accounts of Christian persecution during the reign of Marcus, H.D. Sedgewick observed:
The only evidence there is that Marcus Aurelius had any direct relation with any of these cases is this statement in Eusebius that during the trial at Lyons the governor wrote to ask him for instructions.
So let’s look at this solitary piece of evidence, the statement from Eusebius about the alleged events at Lyon…
The most famous alleged persecution of Christians during the reign of Marcus Aurelius was at Lyon in Gaul, supposedly around 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, describing 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 can appear somewhat excessive and colourful. Many modern readers consequently find the style suggestive of fiction, or at least embellishment.
Moreover, there are several very striking problems faced by those who want to try to use this letter as evidence for the claim that Marcus persecuted Christians:
- Eusebius finished writing the Ecclesiastical History in roughly 300 AD, well over a hundred years after the alleged incident took place. There’s no indication when the letter he’s quoting was actually written. However, he is claiming that the events described in it happened long before he was even born. He therefore had no first-hand knowledge of them but depended entirely on the account given in the letter cited, the authenticity of which, as we’ll see, is highly doubtful.
- 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 dramatic 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 whatsoever of this momentous event having happened in his own city. In fact, 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 supposedly happened. As we’ll see, although he was actually alive at the time, he also makes no mention of the 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 authors clearly meant Satan. It goes on to describe how Christian martyrs survived inconceivable torture and extensive wounds, were miraculously healed and restored to health when stretched on the rack, and even raised from the dead. This adds a supernatural or implausible element to the account, which many (if not all) 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 personal responsibility to Marcus Aurelius or to the Roman Senate. When this event allegedly happened, incidentally, Marcus was busy on campaign in the northern frontier, roughly three weeks’ march away from Lyon.
- In contrast, 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 deliberate “falsehoods” or pious fraud. He’s often therefore seen as a very unreliable source for this kind of information.
Edward Gibbon, for instance, 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. One of Eusebius’ chapter headings was: “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, in fact, be more appropriate to refer to him as a Christian propagandist rather than historian.
In summary, for these 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 Christian authors alive at the time and difficult to reconcile with the general silence about these remarkable events. Moreover, Eusebius 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 or levitated hundreds of feet into the sky, by the grace of God. As noted above, the letter itself also describes the miraculous healing of grievously wounded martyrs at Lyon, and even their resurrection from death. If we question these supernatural claims, it’s difficult to know what other aspects of the letter to take seriously.
Eusebius is also proven 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. That, of course, makes it impossible to take his dating of such events at face value.
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 obvious forgeries. In this particular letter, unusually, no date is given in the rubric cited, so it’s not clear on what basis Eusebius could have 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 frankly it seems likely that the whole letter is a forgery. As noted above, however, this document 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 appears to create an internal contradiction in the Christian literature, at least for those who (dubiously) wish to read other Christian accounts as somehow blaming Marcus for the persecution of Christians. (As we’ve seen, the letter quoted by Eusebius doesn’t actually appear to blame Marcus himself.) 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 condemned to death, under Commodus. However, that implies that during Marcus’ reign Apollonius was permitted to serve on the Senate, despite being 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.
We can also look to the reign of Antoninus Pius, Marcus’ adoptive father and predecessor as emperor for evidence. From the time Marcus was appointed Caesar in 140 AD until Antoninus Pius’ death in 161 AD, for over twenty years, Marcus was his right-hand man and virtually co-ruler alongside him. Indeed, Marcus helped Antoninus Pius rule for longer than he reigned himself, as he died in 180 AD, after only nineteen years on the throne. They were in agreement on all matters, as far as we know, and about a decade after his death, in The Meditations, Marcus still reminds himself to live like a “disciple of Antoninus”.
According to the epitome of Cassius Dio’s Roman History made by Xiphilinus:
Antoninus is admitted by all to have been noble and good, neither oppressive to the Christians nor severe to any of his other subjects; instead, he showed the Christians great respect and added to the honour in which Hadrian had been wont to hold them.Historia Romana
It would seem highly remarkable, therefore, if Marcus (of all people!) who had been the right-hand man in this administration of Antoninus, had suddenly performed a dramatic policy u-turn regarding the Christians and started actively persecuting them on a massive scale instead.
As it happens, the fastest growing form of Christianity during Marcus’ reign was Montanism. We know that the Montanists were eradicated from history not because they were persecuted by Marcus Aurelius or the Roman authorities, however, but because they were persecuted and excommunicated by other Christians, possibly including the leaders of the orthodox church in Lyons.
17 replies on “Did Marcus Aurelius Persecute the Christians?”
Eusebius sounds like he is telling an apocalyptic allegory rather than history since he does not mention any names by which one could verify his account.
[…] or what happened during the Emperor Constantine’s reign. Recently, Donald Robertson wrote an excellent article on how Eusebius seems to have made up the persecution against Christians supposedly engaged by […]
I would like to thank you for this research. I am a teacher and our text cites Marcus Aurelius as being a major persecutor of Christians. It has always clashed with other information I have read on him.
“The letter continues to describe numerous gory tortures with a level of detail that can appear somewhat excessive and colourful. Many modern readers consequently find the style suggestive of fiction, or at least embellishment.”
“While Christian persecution takes many forms, Open Doors defines it as any hostility experienced as a result of identification with Christ. Christians throughout the world continue to risk imprisonment, loss of their homes and possessions (including custody of their children), torture, beheadings, rape and even death as a result of their faith.” – https://www.opendoorsusa.org/christian-persecution/stories/215-million-believers-persecution-for-their-faith-in-christ/
As religious persecution still happens, should we think of the historicity of those texts as being fictional?
Well, I’m not sure I see the connection. How could the persecution of Christians occuring today possibly provide any conclusive evidence for the alleged persecution of Christians in the second century? Moreover, as the article explains, there are many contrary pieces of evidence that suggest the text you’re referring to was not historically reliable. (Most strikingly, Eusebius actually admitted that he sometimes falsified information in the service of creating church propaganda.)
Pretty sure he was talking about the fact that they said people survived being eaten and floating and be resurrected.
Thank you for this wonderful piece of information, I always knew Marcus Aurelius couldn’t have persecuted the Christians.. it is so contrary to his character. ‘The Meditations’ is one of the most enlightening books I’ve ever read and I use it as a guide book.. To me the best comparison for Marcus would be Socrates.. it’s so unfair to accuse such a just driven man of inhumane torture and killing of innocent people while truly he is a lover of mankind, one of the most noble men to walk the earth.
Thank you for this detailed information and your research!
Thank you for this very informative article about what really happened to Christians in Marcus Aurelius’ reign. I was really alarmed when I read in other articles that he was a persecutor of Christians and I know that was really against his character (or at least how other philosophers describe him) so I tried searching for a few more articles and found this.
Wait a minute — unless I’m misreading your typing, you ascribe a lengthy quotation from Eusebius at the beginning of this piece and he (Eusebius) quotes Paul’s language in Romans and provides a citation to the quotation – Romans 8:18. The Bible wasn’t broken down into chapters and verses until the 1500’s. It’s like saying Eusebius had an iphone. I’m assuming this was just typed inaccurately — right?????
The citation is an interpolation by an editor, I’ve put square brackets around it to make that obvious.
Roger Pearse has dealt, in considerable detail, with the charges against the truthfulness of Eusebius, here: http://www.tertullian.org/rpearse/eusebius/eusebius_the_liar.htm#rebound
The words “”I have repeated whatever may rebound [sic – “redound” is the mot juste] to the glory, and suppressed all that could tend to the disgrace of our religion”” seem not to come from Eusebius at all, but to be a distortion of what his meaning, as the context shows. Pearse provides references to his sources in his discussion.
As for this:
“ Edward Gibbon, for instance, 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. One of Eusebius’ chapter headings was: “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”.…”
– Pearse discusses this allegation as well, and notes the ambiguity of the word translated “falsehood”. As he points out, a more neutral rendering might be “fiction”, since “fiction” does not imply evil intent, as “falsehood” can. Fictions are of many kinds, and not all imply an intent to deceive.
Excellent write up Donald. I’m sure you are absolutely correct. The striking thing for me is that am I right in saying that Marcus Aurelius never actually mentions Jesus in any of his writings? That’s a staggering omission to me given that we’re led to believe that the son of the creator of the Universe came down to this planet to preach love and forgiveness and that he apparently died for all of mankinds sins. I came to the conclusion a few years ago that the character of Jesus is a combination of perhaps a real guy of that name and a mish-mash of other legends. I’m sure you’re aware of Dennis MacDonald’s book “The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark” which looks at the striking similarities, it’s clear to me whoever wrote Mark was taking lots of aspects from Homer, and simply re-writing them for his own story. There’s a great YouTube series based on MacDonald’s book called “Excavating the empty tomb” by a YouTuber called TruthSurge who does a brilliant job of explaining it. But yes, Aurelius’s book of meditations is a far better guide to how a person should live their life, than Jesus, ..there’s no threat of severe punishment, etc, for not following his ways.
The Fourth Persecution, Under Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, A.D. 162.
Marcus Aurelius, followed about the year of our Lord 161, a man of nature more stern and severe; and, although in study of philosophy and in civil government no less commendable, yet, toward the Christians sharp and fierce; by whom was moved the fourth persecution. The cruelties used in this persecution were such that many of the spectators shuddered with horror at the sight, and were astonished at the intrepidity of the sufferers. Some of the martyrs were obliged to pass, with their already wounded feet, over thorns, nails, sharp shells, etc. upon their points, others were scourged until their sinews and veins lay bare, and after suffering the most excruciating tortures that could be devised, they were destroyed by the most terrible deaths.
Germanicus, a young man, but a true Christian, being delivered to the wild beasts on account of his faith, behaved with such astonishing courage that several pagans became converts to a faith which inspired such fortitude.
Polycarp, the venerable bishop of Smyrna, hearing that persons were seeking for him, escaped, but was discovered by a child. After feasting the guards who apprehended him, he desired an hour in prayer, which being allowed, he prayed with such fervency, that his guards repented that they had been instrumental in taking him. He was, however, carried before the proconsul, condemned, and burnt in the market place.
The proconsul then urged him, saying, “Swear, and I will release thee;–reproach Christ.”
Polycarp answered, “Eighty and six years have I served him, and he never once wronged me; how then shall I blaspheme my King, Who hath saved me?” At the stake to which he was only tied, but not nailed as usual, as he assured them he should stand immovable, the flames, on their kindling the fagots, encircled his body, like an arch, without touching him; and the executioner, on seeing this, was ordered to pierce him with a sword, when so great a quantity of blood flowed out as extinguished the fire. But his body, at the instigation of the enemies of the Gospel, especially Jews, was ordered to be consumed in the pile, and the request of his friends, who wished to give it Christian burial, rejected. They nevertheless collected his bones and as much of his remains as possible, and caused them to be decently interred.
Metrodorus, a minister, who preached boldly, and Pionius, who made some excellent apologies for the Christian faith, were likewise burnt. Carpus and Papilus, two worthy Christians, and Agatonica, a pious woman, suffered martyrdom at Pergamopolis, in Asia.
Felicitatis, an illustrious Roman lady, of a considerable family, and the most shining virtues, was a devout Christian. She had seven sons, whom she had educated with the most exemplary piety.
Januarius, the eldest, was scourged, and pressed to death with weights; Felix and Philip, the two next had their brains dashed out with clubs; Silvanus, the fourth, was murdered by being thrown from a precipice; and the three younger sons, Alexander, Vitalis, and Martial, were beheaded. The mother was beheaded with the same sword as the three latter.
Justin, the celebrated philosopher, fell a martyr in this persecution. He was a native of Neapolis, in Samaria, and was born A.D. 103. Justin was a great lover of truth, and a universal scholar; he investigated the Stoic and Peripatetic philosophy, and attempted the Pythagorean; but the behavior of our of its professors disgusting him, he applied himself to the Platonic, in which he took great delight. About the year 133, when he was thirty years of age, he became a convert to Christianity, and then, for the first time, perceived the real nature of truth.
He wrote an elegant epistle to the Gentiles, and employed his talents in convincing the Jews of the truth of the Christian rites; spending a great deal of time in travelling, until he took up his abode in Rome, and fixed his habitation upon the Viminal mount.
He kept a public school, taught many who afterward became great men, and wrote a treatise to confuse heresies of all kinds. As the pagans began to treat the Christians with great severity, Justin wrote his first apology in their favor. This piece displays great learning and genius, and occasioned the emperor to publish an edict in favor of the Christians.
Soon after, he entered into frequent contests with Crescens, a person of a vicious life and conversation, but a celebrated cynic philosopher; and his arguments appeared so powerful, yet disgusting to the cynic, that he resolved on, and in the sequel accomplished, his destruction.
The second apology of Justin, upon certain severities, gave Crescens the cynic an opportunity of prejudicing the emperor against the writer of it; upon which Justin, and six of his companions, were apprehended. Being commanded to sacrifice to the pagan idols, they refused, and were condemned to be scourged, and then beheaded; which sentence was executed with all imaginable severity.
Several were beheaded for refusing to sacrifice to the image of Jupiter; in particular Concordus, a deacon of the city of Spolito.
Some of the restless northern nations having risen in arms against Rome, the emperor marched to encounter them. He was, however, drawn into an ambuscade, and dreaded the loss of his whole army. Enveloped with mountains, surrounded by enemies, and perishing with thirst, the pagan deities were invoked in vain; when the men belonging to the militine, or thundering legion, who were all Christians, were commanded to call upon their God for succor. A miraculous deliverance immediately ensued; a prodigious quantity of rain fell, which, being caught by the men, and filling their dykes, afforded a sudden and astonishing relief. It appears that the storm which miraculously flashed in the face of the enemy so intimidated them, that part deserted to the Roman army; the rest were defeated, and the revolted provinces entirely recovered.
This affair occasioned the persecution to subside for some time, at least in those parts immediately under the inspection of the emperor; but we find that it soon after raged in France, particularly at Lyons, where the tortures to which many of the Christians were put, almost exceed the powers of description.
The principal of these martyrs were Vetius Agathus, a young man; Blandina, a Christian lady, of a weak constitution; Sanctus, a deacon of Vienna; red hot plates of brass were placed upon the tenderest parts of his body; Biblias, a weak woman, once an apostate. Attalus, of Pergamus; and Pothinus, the venerable bishop of Lyons, who was ninety years of age. Blandina, on the day when she and the three other champions were first brought into the amphitheater, she was suspended on a piece of wood fixed in the ground, and exposed as food for the wild beasts; at which time, by her earnest prayers, she encouraged others. But none of the wild beasts would touch her, so that she was remanded to prison. When she was again produced for the third and last time, she was accompanied by Ponticus, a youth of fifteen, and the constancy of their faith so enraged the multitude that neither the sex of the one nor the youth of the other were respected, being exposed to all manner of punishments and tortures. Being strengthened by Blandina, he persevered unto death; and she, after enduring all the torments heretofore mentioned, was at length slain with the sword.
When the Christians, upon these occasions, received martyrdom, they were ornamented, and crowned with garlands of flowers; for which they, in heaven, received eternal crowns of glory.
It has been said that the lives of the early Christians consisted of “persecution above ground and prayer below ground.” Their lives are expressed by the Coliseum and the catacombs. Beneath Rome are the excavations which we call the catacombs, whivch were at once temples and tombs. The early Church of Rome might well be called the Church of the Catacombs. There are some sixty catacombs near Rome, in which some six hundred miles of galleries have been traced, and these are not all. These galleries are about eight feet high and from three to five feet wide, containing on either side several rows of long, low, horizontal recesses, one above another like berths in a ship. In these the dead bodies were placed and the front closed, either by a single marble slab or several great tiles laid in mortar. On these slabs or tiles, epitaphs or symbols are graved or painted. Both pagans and Christians buried their dead in these catacombs. When the Christian graves have been opened the skeletons tell their own terrible tale. Heads are found severed from the body, ribs and shoulder blades are broken, bones are often calcined from fire. But despite the awful story of persecution that we may read here, the inscriptions breathe forth peace and joy and triumph. Here are a few:
“Here lies Marcia, put to rest in a dream of peace.”
“Lawrence to his sweetest son, borne away of angels.”
“Victorious in peace and in Christ.”
“Being called away, he went in peace.”
Remember when reading these inscriptions the story the skeletons tell of persecution, of torture, and of fire.
But the full force of these epitaphs is seen when we contrast them with the pagan epitaphs, such as:
“Live for the present hour, since we are sure of nothing else.”
“I lift my hands against the gods who took me away at the age of twenty though I had done no harm.”
“Once I was not. Now I am not. I know nothing about it, and it is no concern of mine.”
“Traveler, curse me not as you pass, for I am in darkness and cannot answer.”
The most frequent Christian symbols on the walls of the catacombs, are, the good shepherd with the lamb on his shoulder, a ship under full sail, harps, anchors, crowns, vines, and above all the fish.
Did you read the article? Eusebius is one of our main sources for large scale persecution of Christians and he’s completely unreliable, full of historical errors and implausible supernatural claims, and admits himself that he’s using falsehoods in his writings to convert people to Christianity rather than reporting historical facts.
I have to congratulate you on your article. It was very well written, and you’ve managed to employ a good number of historical, and most importantly, primary sources to write it. Showing that some secondary sources may be unreliable was also very interesting, as it shows that historical narratives may be adulterated due to ideological biases. I’ve recently seen some people who attribute the persecutions of Christians to Marcus Aurelius using Eusebius’s writings; your article is more than enough to refute that point of view. Well done. I hope to read more of your articles as soon as possible.
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