The Epistle of Marcus Aurelius to the Common Assembly of Asia regarding the Christians
For a general introduction to Eusebius and the Ecclesiastical History, please see the commentary on I.6.6-11.
Eusebius, drawing on Justin Martyr, introduces the letter cited above at the conclusion of his previous chapter, where it is claimed that it was written by Antoninus Pius (IV.12). However, he is evidently confused, as the opening of the letter which he quotes here attributes it rather to Marcus Aurelius, Antoninus Pius’s successor. A version of the text is also found as an appendix in the manuscripts to Justin’s First Apology, where the superscription and text are somewhat different from that given here by Eusebius, and are assigned to Antoninus Pius. The text’s history is difficult to determine, but it is likely that it was added to the manuscript of Justin by a later copyist, and does not reflect Justin’s own work (see Thomas Falls, Saint Justin Martyr, p. 109 n. 1). While Justin and Eusebius are likely not drawing upon independent traditions, it is probable that the attribution to Marcus Aurelius is earlier. It may be that Eusebius was led by his own internal evidence to assign the rescript to Antoninus Pius, but did not feel at liberty to change the inscription of the original text he was working from—this explanation makes sense given that he paints a grim picture of Marcus Aurelius’s reign in the chapters proceeding this letter. It would seem odd for Eusebius to have deliberately altered the attribution to Antoninus Pius if his source did indeed record this emperor as the author, only to instead attribute it to an emperor which he names in connection to severe Christian persecution. In verse 8, Eusebius appeals to Melito of Sardis (see discussion below) to authenticate the letter, referring to Marcus Aurelius here as Verus. He then proceeds to describe martyrdoms which he claims occurred during Verus’s reign, including the famous Polycarp of Smyrna and the martyrs of Lyon (see below).
The authenticity of the present letter to the Common Assembly (koinon) of Asia has been debated. Charles Haines, who published this text as an appendix in his 1918 Loeb translation of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, argued that the letter is likely authentic, and supports the view of Marcus Aurelius that emphasises his clemency and high regard for justice, which we find not only in his Meditations, but also in the claims of other Roman authors (Haines, Marcus Aurelius, Sayings, p. 387). Haines also draws attention to the fact that several Christian authors (e.g. Jerome, On Illustrious Men XL; XLII) mention that a senator named Apollonius was executed for his Christian faith under Commodus (Marcus Aurelius’s son and successor), meaning that during Marcus Aurelius’s reign, a Christian senator had been allowed to sit on the senate. However, more recently, Stuart Hall has condemned it as a total fabrication, comparable with another letter quoted in the appendix of Justin’s First Apology, from Antoninus Pius to the Larissaeans, the Thessalonians, the Athenians, and all the Greeks (Melito of Sardis, p. 64). Similarly, at the end of his First Apology, Justin includes a quotation of the so-called Rescript of Hadrian to a governor, Minucius Fundanus (proconsul of Asia between 122 and 123 CE), which is also of dubious authenticity, and looks to this text for imperial legitimation of his request for better treatment of Christians in the Roman law courts (for a discussion of the authenticity of this rescript, see the commentary on Justin Martyr, First Apology LXVIII.1-LXX.4).
We will briefly survey the contents of the present letter to the Common Assembly of Asia before moving to discuss the issues that it raises. The Common Assembly of Asia was a provincial council that had representatives from the cities of western Asia Minor. It met originally in the Temple to Augustus and Rome at Pergamum, and then later in locations such as Ephesus, Smyrna, and Sardis. This letter has the emperor address the assembly specifically in regard to Christians who are viewed by Romans as atheistic (ἄθεος, atheos) because they refuse to worship the traditional Roman gods. He claims that the gods would rather punish such individuals themselves, rather than relying on Roman authorities, whom the emperor states inadvertently spur Christians on in their convictions by giving them the opportunity to die as witnesses for their cause (verse 3). Moreover, verses 4-5 suggest that while earthquakes continue to trouble the empire (natural disasters were often blamed on Christian neglect of the gods), instead of focusing on appealing to the Roman gods for relief, the authorities are too concerned with their pursuit of Christians. Indeed, the fact that in verse 5 the Christian god is referred to as the “immortal” (ἀθάνατος, athanatos) is suggestive of the letter’s fabrication by a Christian author. Moreover, verse 6 alludes to correspondence between provincial governors and “our most divine father” (which may refer to the Rescript of Hadrian to the governor Minucius Fundanus, which as mentioned above is found in Justin Martyr), claiming that he had repeatedly instructed that Christians should not be harassed unless found to be directly causing problems for the Roman government. The statement that “I have replied to them in the same way that my father did” is suggestive that Antoninus Pius (Hadrian’s adopted son) is the implied speaker here, but as stated earlier, the textual history of this curious letter betrays a confused situation, and we cannot be certain who, and at which points in time, was initially responsible for the varying attributions. Verse 7 concludes that if accusations continue to be made against Christians solely on the basis of them being a Christian (the implication being that they have committed no other crime), even if this turns out to be true then the accuser, rather than the Christian, is to be punished (the issue of whether Christians could be convicted solely on the basis of holding the name “Christian” was a contentious issue; see, for example, Justin Martyr, First Apology IV.1-V.4; VII.1-5).
The present text as it appears in Eusebius therefore raises some interesting questions. As we will see below, it seems that Eusebius himself, from his descriptions of the martyrdoms during Marcus Aurelius’s reign, viewed this period as one of significant persecution for Christians. It has often been stated that the emperor Marcus Aurelius levelled persecution at the Christians. However, as various modern scholars now argue, there is limited evidence that this was the case. In order to better contextualise the present text, therefore, we will first overview the arguments which have been made both in favour of and against the claim that Marcus Aurelius intentionally directed persecutions at Christians, and consider his portrayal in the works of various Christian authors.
One such piece of supposed evidence for persecution during his reign comes from another passage of Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History V.1.43-44, 50-52, which quotes the famous Letter from the Churches of Vienne and Lyon to the Churches of Asia and Phrygia. This letter documents the martyrdoms of the Christians of Gaul during Marcus Aurelius’s reign, in 177 CE. However, as is characteristic of Christian martyrdom accounts, the story is rife with polemic, and the historical details remain unclear. Indeed, Eusebius, writing in a period far removed from these supposed events, is the only author to make any mention of them until Sulpicius Severus four-hundred years later still (who himself apparently draws on Eusebius). Moreover, Tertullian, who was alive at the time of this supposed Gallic persecution, and again does not refer to it at all, is actually rather positive in his comments about Marcus Aurelius. For instance, in his Apology V.6, Tertullian argues that Marcus Aurelius was a “protector” (protector) of the Christians, alluding to the emperor’s self-professed gratitude in his letters for Christian soldiers in his army successfully praying for rain during a drought in his campaign in Germania. A depiction of the miracle can be seen on the Column of Marcus Aurelius. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History V.4, claims the event was recounted by Claudius Apollinaris, bishop of Hierapolis during the reign of Marcus Aurelius (161-180 CE). Tertullian also claims that this same emperor aided the Christians by pronouncing firm penalties on those who made accusations against them.
Paul Keresztes argued some years ago that Eusebius’s account of the persecutions during Marcus Aurelius’s reign are our best source for addressing the question of whether the emperor himself was responsible for ordering these events (“Marcus Aurelius,” p. 322). He proceeded to conclude that various martyrdoms mentioned by Eusebius in the Ecclesiastical History (such as those supposedly killed in Lyon) can definitely be dated during Marcus Aurelius’s reign, and distinguishes “two very distinct waves of persecution.” The first of these (to which can be ascribed Eusebius’s martyrs from 164-168 CE), Keresztes suggests, was partly in response to an imperial edict of 167 CE requiring empire-wide sacrifice to the Roman gods in order to combat a devastating plague and the threat of the war in Germania. While not targeted at Christians, this inspired violence against them in the Greek East and Rome. The second wave is attributed by Keresztes to the famous Senatus Consultum de Pretiis Gladiatorum Minuendis of 177 CE, which aimed at finding cheaper ways of staging gladiatorial games. The argument is that Christians were targeted as part of this effort to find cheap gladiators (“Marcus Aurelius,” p. 327-340; for a more recent discussion of the gladiatorial decree, see Michael Carter, “Gladiatorial Ranking”). However, ultimately, Keresztes concludes that the mob violence against Christians during these periods was not directly attributable to any hatred or targeting of them by Marcus Aurelius, and that this is reflected in his positive portrayal by various Christian authors.
The present letter which Eusebius quotes (even if he himself would rather understand the author to be Antoninus Pius), if genuine would in theory provide support for the argument that far from actively persecuting the Christians, Marcus Aurelius in fact made an attempt to prevent excessively harsh treatment of them. A recent scholar who maintains that persecution of Christians was particularly harsh during Marcus Aurelius’s reign is Frank McLynn, who argues that from the start of his rule, “a draconian attitude to Christianity” is extremely evident (Marcus Aurelius, p. 286). However, McLynn is very uncritical of the extremely polemical accounts of Christian authors such as Eusebius, taking as credible evidence sources such as the abovementioned Letter from the Churches of Vienne and Lyon (Marcus Aurelius, p. 291). While various second-century Christian apologists addressed their pleas for Christianity directly to Marcus Aurelius, we do not know for certain that the emperor ever actually heard any of them directly. For examples, see Athenagoras of Athens, Supplication for the Christians XIII, Melito of Sardis, Apology (both of whom are known to us because of their citation in the Ecclesiastical History), and Justin Martyr, First Apology, composed during the reign of Antoninus Pius and addressed to the emperor, his adopted son Verissimus the philosopher, a nickname given to Marcus Aurelius, and his other adopted son Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus. It is important to note that these authors directly appeal to the honourable, philosophical, and just nature of Marcus Aurelius, which while a logical rhetorical strategy, is perhaps also somewhat indicative of the fact that while Christians were suffering during his reign, this was not necessarily by his order; rather, the apologists are seeking his sanctioning for better regulation and prohibition of such attacks occurring without his direct knowledge.There is no strong evidence which supports the authenticity of this letter, regardless of whether it is attributed to Antoninus Pius or Marcus Aurelius. We cannot therefore use it with any certainty to either corroborate or bring into question the level of persecution of Christians under the latter emperor. However, its citation by Eusebius and his attribution of the letter to Pius immediately prior in IV.12 of the Ecclesiastical History allow us to understand better the views of this Christian author regarding the two emperors. Evidently, he held Antoninus Pius in higher regard, seeing him as a defender of Christianity, in contrast to the general presentation he offers of life for Christians under Marcus Aurelius. Essentially, the fact that Eusebius’s text witnesses this letter being attributed to Marcus Aurelius shows that some (probably second-century) Christians wished to claim this so-called “philosopher emperor” renowned for his Stoicism as an imperial defender of their religion. This was perhaps because his intellectual, philosophical pursuits were seen to provide some legitimacy to Christianity. Certainly, the rhetorical strategy of Christian apologists such as Athenagoras and Melito, who appealed directly to these virtues in their addresses to Marcus Aurelius, could easily have fuelled such an agenda.
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