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AURELIUS


110


AURELIUS


Marcus Aurelius was one of tlie best men of heathen antiquity. Apropos of the Antonines the judicious Montesquieu says that, if we set aside for a moment the contemplation of the Christian verities, we can- not read the life of this emperor without a softening feeling of emotion. Niebuhr calls him the noblest character of his time, and M. ilartha, the historian of the Roman moralists, says that in Marcus Aure- lius "the philosophy of Heathendom grows less proud, draws nearer to a Christianity which it ignored or which it despised, and is ready to fling itself into the arms of the Unknown God". On the other hand, the warm eulogies which many writers have heaped on Marcus Aurelius as a ruler and as a man seem excessive and overdrawn. It is true that the most marked trait in his character was his devotion to philosophy and letters, but it was a curse to mankind that "he was a Stoic first and then a ruler". His dilettanteism rendered him utterly unfitted for the practical affairs of a large empire in a time of stress. He was more concerned with realizing in his own life (to say the truth, a stainless one) the Stoic ideal of perfection, than he was with the pressing duties of his office.

Philosophy became a disease in his mind, and cut him off from the trutlis of practical life. He was steeped in the grossest superstition; he surrounded himself with charlatans and magicians, and took with seriousness even the knavery of Alexander of Abo- noteichos. The highest offices in the empire were sometimes conferred on his philosophic teachers, whose lectures he attended even after he became emperor. In the midst of the Parthian war he found time to keep a kind of private diarj', bis famous "Meditations", or twelve short books of detached thoughts and sentences in which he gave over to posterity the results of a rigorous self- examination. With the exception of a few letters discovered among the works of Fronto fM. Corn. Frontonis Reliquis, Berlin, 1816) this history of his inner life is the only work which we have from his pen. The style is utterly without merit and dis- tinction, apparently a matter of pride, for he tells us he had learned to abstain from rhetoric, and poetry, and fine writing. Though a Stoic deeply rooted in the principles developed by Seneca and Epictetus, Aurelius cannot be said to have any consistent system of philosophy. It might be said, perhaps, in justice to this "seeker after righteous- ness ", that his faults were the faults of his philosophy rooted in the principle that human nature naturally inclined towards evil, and needed to be constantly kept in check. Only once does he refer to Christianity (Medit., XI, iii), a spiritual regenerative force that was visibly increasing its activity, and then only to brand the Christians with the reproach of obstinacy (jraparajis), the highest social crime in the eyes of Roman authoritj'. He seems also (ibid.) to look on Christian martjTdom as devoid of the serenity and calm that should ac- company the death of the wise man. For the Eossible relations of the emperor with Christian ishops see Abercius of Hierapolis, and Melito of Sardis.

In his dealings with the Cliristians Marcus Aurelius •went a step farther than any of his predecessors. Throughout the reigns of Trajan, Hadrian, and Antoninus Pius, the procedure followed by Roman authorities in their treatment of the Christians was that outlined in Trajan's rescript to Pliny, by which it was ordered that the Christians should not be sought out; if brought before the courts, legal proof of their guilt should be forthcom- ing. [For the much-disputed rescript "Ad con- ventum Asia; (Eus., Hist. Eccl., IV, xiii), see An- toninus Pius]. It is clear that during the reign of Aurelius the comparative leniency of tile legislation


of Trajan gave way to a more severe temper. In Southern Gaul, at least, an imperial rescript in- augurated an entirelj- new and much more violent era of persecution (Eus., Hist. Eccl., V, i, 45). In Asia Minor and in Syria the blood of Christians flowed in torrents (.-Ulard, op. cit. infra, pp. 375. 376, 388, 389). In general the recrudescence of persecution seems to have come immediately through the local action of the provincial governors impelled by the insane outcries of terrified and demoralized city mobs. If any general imperial edict was issued, it has not survived. It seems more probable that the "new decrees" mentioned by Eusebius (Hist. Eccl., IV, xx\-i, 5) were local ordinances of municipal authorities or provincial governors; as to the em- peror, he maintained against the Christians the ex- isting legislation, though it has been argued that the imperial edict (Digests, XLVIII, xxix, 30) against those who terrify by superstition "the fickle mintls of men" was directed against the Christian soci- ety. Duchesne says (Hist. Ancienne de I'Eglise, Paris, 1906, p. 210) that for such obscure sects the emperor would not condescend to interfere with the laws of the empire. It is clear, however, from the scattered references in contemporary WTitings (Celsus, "In Origen. Contra Celsum ", VIII, 169; Melito, in Eus., "Hist. Eccl. ", IV, xxvi; Athenagoras, " Legatio pro Christianis ", i) that throughout the empire an active pursuit of the Christians was now undertaken. In order to encourage their numerous enemies, the ban was raised from the delatorcs, or "denouncers", and they were promised rewards for all cases of successful conviction. The impulse given by this legislation to an unrelenting pursuit of the followers of Christ rendered their condition so precarious that many changes in ecclesiastical organization and discipline date, at least in embryo, from this reign.

Another significant fact pointing to the growing numbers and influence of the Christians, and the increasing distrust on the part of the imperial au- thorities and the cultured classes, is that an active literary propaganda, emanating from the imperial surroundings, was commenced at this period. The Cynic philosopher Crescens (see Justin M,\rtyr) took part in a public disputation with St. Justin in Rome. Fronto, the preceptor and bosom friend of Marcus Aurelius, denounced the followers of the new religion in a formal discourse (Min. Felix, "Octavius", cc. ix, xxxi) and the satirist Lucian of Samosata turned the shafts of his wit against them, as a party of ignorant fanatics. No better proof of the tone of the period and of the wide- spread knowledge of Christian beliefs and prac- tices which prevailed among the pagans is needed than the contemporary "True Word" of Celsus (see Origen), a work in which were collected alt the calumnies of pagan malice and all the argu- ments, set forth with the skill of the trained rhetori- cian, which the philosophy and experience of the pagan world could muster against the new creed. The earnestness and frequency with which the Chris- tians replied to these assaults by the apologetic worlvs (see Athen.\gor.\s, Minucius Felix, Theo- PHILUS OF Antioch) addressed directly to the em- perors themselves, or to the people at large, show how keenly alive they were to the dangers arising from these literary or academic foes.

From such and so many causes it is not surprising that Christian blood flowed freely in all parts of the empire. The excited populace saw in the miserj' and bloodshed of the period a proof that the gods were angered by the toleration accorded to the Christians; consequently, they threw on the latter all blame for the incredible public calamities. Whether it was famine or pestilence, drought or floods, the cry was the same (Tertull., ".\pologeti- cum ", V, xli): Christianos ad Iconem (Throw the