Imatges de pÓgina
PDF
EPUB

whom Suetonius ignorantly and falsely denominates " the Jews who raised continual tumults in Rome at the instigation of Christ,” were expelled from that city by Claudius.

The fact probably was, that the Jews, stigmatised and oppressed, might create some disturbances ; and that the Christians, being regarded as a sect of Jews, were involved in the sentence of banishment. With this indication of displeasure the emperor appears to have been satisfied. His successor Nero led the way in enacting sanguinary laws against the Christians; and in subjecting the wretched objects of his antipathy to the most cruel tortures. Suspected of being himself the author of the conflagration by which Rome was desolated, he laid the crime to the charge of the Christians; fixing the accusation, as Tacitus informs us, on them, in consequence of the general abhorrence in which they were held. He caused many of them to be crucified; to be devoured by wild beasts ; or, being first wrapped in garments overspread with pitch and sulphur, to be fastened to stakes, and in that situation burned, to illuminate his gardens by night. With his death, A.D. 68, this persecution closed; and his edicts were annulled by the senate. About twenty-five years afterwards the flame broke out afresh with great violence under Domitian. It was, however, extinguished in a short time by the death of the tyrant; whose laws were abrogated by Nerva. But let it not be supposed that in these or other times, when there existed no law against Christians, they enjoyed a freedom from persecution. They were subjected throughout the empire to local persecutions even unto death ; whenever the populace, impelled by its own blind rage, or stimulated by an

A.D. 64. See the account in Tacitus.

interested and idolatrous priesthood, clamoured for their destruction. On this point it will be sufficient to refer to the well-known letter of Pliny the younger, written by him while governor of Pontus and Bithynia, to Trajan: in which he appears weary at length of ordering to execution the numbers of persons brought before him on the charge, and on the single charge, of Christianity; and requests directions from the emperor for his future conduct. Trajan replies, that the Christians should not be officially sought out: but that every person who should be accused and convicted of being a Christian, and should refuse to recant, must be put to death. Such was the treatment which the Christians received from a prince celebrated, and justly celebrated, for general mildness and equity! What treatment then must they have experienced under such characters as commonly filled the imperial throne ? Under this edict, by which the situation of the Christians was certainly meliorated, many distinguished persons suffered martyrdom. Simeon, the son of Cleopas, and successor to St. James as bishop of Jerusalem, was crucified at the

age

of an hundred and twenty years: and Ignatius, who had now been during thirty-seven years bishop of Antioch, was flung, by the command of Trajan, to wild beasts in the amphitheatre.

After the accession of Adrian it speedily became the practice of the people, in different provinces, to require during the celebration of their public games the destruction of the Christians: a demand with which the magistrates, fearing, or pretending to fear, that popular commotions would be the consequence of a refusal, frequently complied. Adrian at length issued an edict, commanding that the law of Trajan should be punctually obeyed.

In the reign of Antoninus Pius, the charge of atheism and impiety reiterated against the Christians, and made the ground-work of many severities, was repelled by Justin Martyr in his “ Apology” presented to the emperor ; who, in consequence, confirmed the edict of Adrian. That law, which forbade the Christians to be sought after and punished unless they were guilty of some crime, being evaded afresh by their enemies, who interpreted Christianity itself to be a crime; the emperor interposed with equal justice and vigour to prevent the repetition of the cruel enormities, which under that subterfuge had been committed.

His successor, Marcus Antoninus, without expressly revoking any existing law which afforded protection to the followers of Christ, disgraced himself by listening to the obloquy poured forth against them; and by edicts, in which he branded them as ignorant, obstinate, and wicked. In consequence of these proofs of the temper of the prince, a furious persecution of the Christians, A.D. 177, arose in many parts of the empire. Against a Christian, the most improbable accusation was instantly received. Great numbers, among whom was the aged Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna and the disciple of St. John, suffered death in its most horrid forms. In some places Christianity was almost annihilated.

After an interval of comparative quiet, persecution raged again, at the end of the second century, and the beginning of the third, under Severus : who promulgated a law prohibiting any of his subjects from renouncing the religion of his ancestors for the Christian faith. The names of various eminent persons who suffered death under the operation of this edict are recorded by ecclesiastical historians. And in this

persecution, no less than in others, the holy fortitude of the weaker sex under dangers and torments was as conspicuous as that of men.

From the death of Severus to the reign of Maximin, the Christians experienced no molestation : and occasionally enjoyed marks of favour from the intervening emperors.

With the accession of Maximin their calamities recommenced. Dreading the resentment of the Christians, on account of his assassination of the younger Severus, whom they loved as their protector ; he in the first instance seized and put to death the bishops, whom that emperor had received into the number of his intimate friends: and afterwards directed his vengeance against the leaders of the church with a degree of fury, which roused the enemies of the Gospel to vent their rage in the most sanguinary manner against Christians of every description.

When Decius ascended the throne, A.D. 249, the horizon

grew darker than ever; and such a storm fell upon the Christians as they had never yet encountered. The emperor commanded the prætor, on pain of death, to annihilate the Christian name, by extirpating all persons of that religion, or by torturing them until they should recant. During two years, vast multitudes of Christians were put to death with circumstances of the most savage cruelty. Vast multitudes also, shuddering at the prospect of the lingering horrors which awaited them, “ having no root, fell away);" and screened themselves by apostasy or by dissimulation. Under the two succeeding emperors, Gallus and Volusianus, the persecutions, though somewhat abated, continued. The Christians were not only

I Luke, viii. 6. 13.

exposed in common with the rest of the empire to the general miseries of the age; among which famine and civil war, and a pestilence raging during fifteen years with unexampled havoc, are painted in the strongest language by contemporary writers: but they had also to bear the odium of being the cause of the public calamities, and to meet the vengeance which this accusation drew

upon

them. Valerian, A.D. 254, becoming emperor, restored peace to the church during the first years of his reign. But when Macrianus, a bitter foe to the Christians, acquired the ascendant in his counsels; he forbade their assemblies, and sent their bishops and principal teachers into exile. In consequence of another edict, a considerable number of Christians, among whom were Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, and Sixtus, bishop of Rome, were put to death. The persecution extended itself throughout the empire ; and was accompanied with every possible aggravation of torture. Valerian was at length taken captive by the Persians : and the Christian world rested until the reign of Aurelian. In the year A.D. 275, this prince was meditating its destruction. But his plans were rendered abortive by his own death. And the church, though not exempt from occasional instances of oppression, was suffered to continue during the remainder of the century in tolerable tranquillity.

Early in the following century a persecution, more severe and bloody than any of those by which it had been preceded, assailed and almost overwhelmed the professors of Christianity. Diocletian, who governed a large portion of the Roman empire, which now began to be divided among several colleagues, was averse to sánguinary measures, and was originally no enemy to the Christians. But the calumnious artifices of the

:

« AnteriorContinua »