The motives for the persecution during the reign of Maximinus
For a general introduction to Eusebius and the Ecclesiastical History, please see the commentary on I.6.6-11.
The argument that under Maximinus Thrax (reigned 235-238 CE) Christians were the subjects of persecution is, as the discussion below will show, doubted by many. For those who do maintain that such a persecution occurred, however, the present passage of Eusebius is ultimately where the evidence stems from, with later authors who mention a persecution being traceable back to here (see Graeme Clarke, “Some Victims,” p. 445). The reasoning for this persecution, according to Eusebius, is the hatred that Maximinus had for his predecessor, Severus Alexander, and his household, which “contained many believers” (see Paul Keresztes, “The Emperor Maximinus’ Decree,” p. 606, who argues that while Eusebius likely exaggerates this point, it is reasonable to assume that there were some Christians in the former emperor’s household; compare also Ecclesiastical History V.39.1: “After a reign of seven years Philip was succeeded by Decius. On account of his hatred of Philip, he commenced a persecution of the churches”). An inscription found on the Via Salario Vetus in Rome, dated to the late Severan period (CIL 6.8987), mentions two servants in the house of Caesar who have been identified as Christians on the basis of a monotheistic appeal. If the inscription is indeed from the time of Severus Alexander, then this may well be representative of the fact that there were a certain number of Christians in the imperial household. However, we must be cautious about drawing conclusions as to just how much of the emperor’s personal workforce was Christian (on the inscription, see Clarke, “Two Christians”; on the connection between Severus Alexander and Christianity, see the commentary on VI.21.3-4; while several ancient sources report that this emperor was sympathetic to, and even actively interested in Christianity, the reliability of much of this information is highly problematic). Herodian mentions that Maximinus got rid of numerous friends and associates of Alexander, including some senatorial advisors. His motives appear to have been hatred for his predecessor and the loyalty that they showed to him (Roman History VI.9; VII.1, 3-4); whether Christianity played any part whatsoever in this is very uncertain. For Keresztes, Maximinus was uneasy with the number of Christians in Alexander’s imperial court, and wanted to prevent any potential uprising by them. He therefore issued an imperial decree against Christians which sought to slow its spread by specifically targeting those responsible for converting others; i.e. the church leaders which Eusebius claims were put to death on account of them being responsible for the teaching of the Gospel (“The Emperor Maximinus’ Decree,” p. 612-614).
However, Eusebius’s claim that Maximinus himself ordered the persecution of the church—implying that it was widespread—, is problematic (a general edict is hinted at, although this terminology, πρόσταγμα, prostagma, is not actually used). Firmilian, bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, in his letter to Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, records that both during the reign of Severus Alexander and that of Maximinus, there had been numerous earthquakes in Cappadocia and Pontus, causing much devastation (Firmilian was writing in around 257 CE, so a couple of decades after the events he describes). Firmilian claims that after a period of relative peace, these natural disasters caused a persecution of the local Christians to break out—the blaming of such natural disasters on Christians, due to their shunning of Roman gods, was seemingly common—, made worse by the harshness of the current provincial governor, Serenianus. As Graeme Clarke recognises, however, Firmilian is clear in his letter than this persecution was localised; he specifically mentions that Christians were able to flee out of Cappadocia and Pontus where the persecution was concentrated. Moreover, he states that the cause of the persecution was the reaction of the pagan population and the governor to earthquakes, not a direct order of the emperor (Cyprian, Epistles LXXV.10.1-2; see Clarke, “Third Century Christianity,” p. 623). Interestingly, although Eusebius mentions two of Origen’s works as being written during this so-called persecution, a potentially relevant composition which is not named is the latter’s Commentary on Matthew. In this work, Origen argues that he had knowledge of an earthquake for which pagans blamed Christians, resulting in persecution of the church. Given that Origen was a guest of Firmilian in Cappadocia, it is entirely possible, if not probable, that he speaks of these same events (Commentary on Matthew XXIV.7; Clarke, “Third Century Christianity,” p. 623 n. 96).
The only two figures which Eusebius names as having suffering under the supposed persecution of Maximinus are a certain Ambrose and Protoctetus, from Palestine, information which he sources from Origen’s writings. However, we are not given any specific details of exactly what they were subjected to, only a vague indication of mistreatment. Eusebius states that church leaders were to “put to death” (ἀναιρέω, anaireō). However, this was certainly not the case with one of the figures he describes, as Ambrose lived at least another ten years; Origen’s Against Celsus, written in 248 CE, addresses him as living. As Clarke points out, Origen uses the term anaireō himself in his Exhortation to Martyrdom XLI, in a context clearly referring to the possibility of execution for Ambrose and Protoctetus, and so Eusebius may have just commandeered the term and used it to construct an image of a widespread persecution (Clarke, “Some Victims,” p. 446-448).
It seems, then, that the violence directed at Christians during Maximinus’s short three-year reign, was a symptom of the wider population’s need to blame someone for their suffering during a series of natural catastrophes. We cannot place much historical value on Eusebius’s implication of a more widespread persecution, especially given that throughout the Ecclesiastical History he is equally unreliable, particularly when it comes to such polemically valuable material as the suffering of Christianity at the hands of an emperor. While Maximinus may well have been hostile to any Christian members of his predecessor’s imperial court, the evidence does not warrant the argument that he directly ordered Christian persecution on a broad scale. Rather, the evidence substantiates localised troubles in places such as Cappadocia, Pontus, and elsewhere. Regardless, if we consider the passage purely for its rhetorical value, we can make several observations. Aside from taking the opportunity to mention Christians suffering and/or dying for their beliefs, a theme which this work as a whole relishes for its propagandistic value, Eusebius implies in this passage that Christianity had grown sufficiently powerful so as to concern this particularly hostile emperor. Unlike his account of the preceding imperial family in VI.21.3-4, where Eusebius portrays Christianity as a significant influence, and one which was valued, in this passage, the reception of the Christian religion by the emperor is one of fear and suspicion. However, the implications of Christian power over Rome are still implicit, as the suggestion is that Maximinus is acting partly out of concern for the number of Christians in the imperial court. Moreover, his targeting of church leaders suggests that he is aware of the ability of such individuals to attract followers and enrich the Christian community; his actions are therefore presented as tailored towards inhibiting a force which he saw becoming more and more powerful.
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