Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century/Antoninus, Pius

Antoninus, Pius, emperor, A.D. 138‒161. The character of this prince as loving righteousness and mercy, choosing rather, in his own noble words, "to save the life of one citizen than to slay a thousand foes," shewed itself, as in other things, so also in his treatment of the Christians of the empire. Hadrian had checked the tendency to persecution by imposing severe penalties on false accusers (Just. Mart. Apol. i. c. 68). In some way or other, Antoninus was led to adopt a policy which was even more favourable to them (Xiphilin. Epit. Dion. Cass. 1, 70, p. 1173). Melito, writing his Apologia to Marcus Aurelius (Eus. H. E. iv. 26), speaks of edicts which Antoninus had issued, forbidding any new and violent measures against the Christians. A more memorable proof of his tolerance is found, if the document be genuine, in the decree addressed to the general assembly of the proconsular province of Asia, at a time when the Christian church was exposed to outrages of all kinds (πρός τὸ κοινὸν τῆς Ἀσίας). It speaks in admiring terms of the innocence of the Christians, declares the charges against them to be unproved, bids men admire the steadfastness and faith with which they met the earthquakes and other calamities that drove others to despair, ascribes the persecution to the jealousy which men felt against those who were truer worshippers of God than themselves. Unfortunately, however, the weight of both textual and internal evidence preponderates against the genuineness of the edict as it stands, but some modern authorities are disposed to regard it as an interpolated form of a real edict of similar character. See, e.g., Renan, L’Eglise Chrétienne, p. 302. In any case it is natural to connect the more lenient policy, which there is no doubt that Antoninus adopted, with the memorable Apologia which Justin addressed to him. Confining ourselves to its bearing on the character of the emperor, we note (1) that there had been at least the threat of persecution even unto death (c. 68); (2) that it is written throughout in a tone of manifest respect as to men not unworthy of the epithets that were attached to their names ("Pius" to Antoninus, "philosopher" to Verissimus and Lucius); (3) that the mere fact of the dedication and, apparently, presentation of such an address implies a tolerance which had not been often found in preceding emperors; (4) that even the forged document, if it be such, shews a certain verisimilitude in the ascription of such a document to him. See Champagny, Les Antonines (Paris), and Aubé, Hist. des Persécut. (Paris, 1875), pp. 297‒341.