The treatment of prominent Romans found to be Christians
Thascius Caecilianus Cyprian was born in Carthage, north Africa, to a wealthy pagan family. He was classically educated, trained in rhetoric, and leaves a significant literary legacy in Latin consisting of over eighty epistles and various treatises. His writings provide us with a wealth of evidence, at least from the Christian perspective, of the relationship between the African church and the Roman authorities, as during Cyprian’s time the church was forced to contend with the edict of Decius, and subsequent persecutions such as that under Valerian (the often fragmentary nature of pagan sources for the events which Cyprian lived is noted, for instance, by Allen Brent, Cyprian and Roman Carthage, p. 1). The reactions of the Christian community proved to be diverse.
He served as the bishop of Carthage from 248 CE, having only become a Christian two years prior. His relative inexperience in the Christian faith in comparison to other more senior candidates for the position of bishop caused some disagreement between the presbyters and laity, but his supporters won out (J. Patout Burns, “Cyprian,” p. 469). Cyprian was martyred under the reign of the emperor Valerian in the September of 258 CE. During his time as bishop, Cyprian saw the Carthaginian church through difficult times, both in terms of theological disputes (such as the Novatian controversy) and persecution. After the emperor Decius passed an edict in 249 CE requiring the empire to sacrifice to the Roman gods (for a detailed discussion of this event please see the commentaries on Papyrus Rylands 12 and 112a), Christian bishops became prominent refusers; Fabian of Rome was imprisoned and died while incarcerated, Dionysus of Alexandria was pursued, and Cyprian himself was exiled, returning to Carthage in 251 CE. During the Decian “persecution” (which was how Christians such as Cyprian interpreted the edict, despite it not likely being intended to target Christians specifically) some Christians chose to renounce their faith and perform the required sacrifice, others instead obtained false certificates (libelli) stating that they had done so, and still other remained steadfast and upheld their faith. The church struggled afterwards with how to reintegrate “lapsed” Christians who had buckled under the pressure put on them by the Roman government, and had either willingly or as a result of imprisonment and torture defiled themselves by sacrificing to the Roman gods. Many of Cyprian’s writings deal precisely with these issues, offering advice on how to deal with those who had lost their way (in terms of granting them letters of absolution and how quickly they could be baptised).
In 257 CE, Cyprian was banished from Carthage again after refusing to sacrifice before the proconsul Aspasius Paternus in the early stages of the persecution under Valerian, which saw both Pope Stephen I and Pope Sixtus II martyred in Rome (Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 3035, dated to the 28th of February 256 CE, offers an example of an arrest warrant for a Christian shortly before Valerian’s persecution). He was summoned back one year later, but kept under house arrest, before finally being imprisoned under the instructions of the new proconsul Galerius Maximus in the September of 258 CE. Cyprian was sentenced to death by beheading. The present epistle was written shortly before Cyprian’s martyrdom, and is addressed to the bishop Successus. Cyprian explains to Successus that another bishop, named Xistus, had been martyred on the eighth of the Ides of August. Cyprian proceeds at the end of the letter (not quoted above) to encourage Successus to use the examples of those such as Xistus in order to guide his own Christian flock to embrace martyrdom themselves.
The epistle begins with Cyprian explaining to Successus that he had sent some trusted Christian brothers to the City (i.e. Rome) to find out what had been decreed by the Roman emperor regarding clergymen such as himself. He had subsequently learned that the emperor had sent a rescript to the senate instructing that senior church leaders (bishops, presbyters, and deacons) must be punished first and foremost. However, more interesting for our purposes is what follows, concerning Roman citizens of high status. Cyprian writes that the decree instructed all senators, Roman knights (equites), and other men of high standing be stripped both of dignity and property should they fail to renounce their Christian faith. Even though he himself was away from Rome fighting the Persians at the time, Valerian sent two letters to the senate about Christians, one on 257 CE, which required that all the clergy sacrifice to the Roman gods, and another in 258 CE, which is that which Cyprian speaks of here (see Candida Moss, The Myth of Persecution, p. 151). According to this second letter, if the initial measure of property confiscation did not deter wealthy Christians, they were to be beheaded (the standard method of execution for Roman citizens). Interestingly, the decree seems to be slightly more lenient to Roman matrons, who are similarly deprived of their property, but then banished as a further punishment rather than executed immediately. Christians in the emperor’s household are also treated slightly differently, with property being taken from them still, but then such individuals relocated as slaves to work on Caesar’s estates.The information in this letter tells us firstly that while the edict of Decius a few years prior might have caused problems within the Christian community, it certainly had not caused Christianity in the empire to shrink into the background—the fact that Valerian gives instructions for the most prominent among Roman citizens indicates that it was still flourishing across the classes. Indeed, after the Constitutio Antoniniana (or Edict of Caracalla) of 212 CE, which granted Roman citizenship to most free men in the empire, the clash between Roman and Christian identity would have suddenly become much more apparent. We see here an example of how for those with Roman citizenship, while it offered the advantage of a quick death by beheading (although there are instances where this privilege is apparently not respected; see the case of Attalus in the Letter of the Churches of Vienne and Lyon), those with significant status in the empire stood to lose virtually everything were they to be openly Christian. The impression here, however, is not of a ‘rooting out’ of these Christians as such, but rather an approach whereby outward profession of Christian faith, or a refusal to sacrifice when required, led to harsh consequences.
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