Chapter 7. Persecution in the Offing

{64} NEXT morning, as Jucundus was dusting and polishing his statues and other articles of taste and devotion, supplying the gaps in their ranks, and grouping a number of new ones which had come in from his workmen, Juba strutted into the shop, and indulged himself from time to time in an inward laugh or snigger at the various specimens of idolatry which grinned or frowned or frisked or languished on all sides of him.

"Don't sneer at that Anubis," said his uncle; "it is the work of the divine Callista."

"That, I suppose, is why she brings into existence so many demons," answered Juba; "nothing more can be done in the divine line; like the queen who fell in love with a baboon."

"Now I come to think," retorted Jucundus, "that god of hers is something like you. She must be in love with you, Juba."

The youth, as was usual with him, tossed his head with an air of lofty displeasure; at length he said, "And why should she not fall in love with me, pray?" {65}

"Why, because you are too good or too bad to need her plastic hand. She could not make anything out of you. 'Non ex quovis ligno.' But she'd be doing a good work if she wiled back your brother."

"He does not want wiling any more than I," said Juba, "I dare say! he's no Christian."

"What's that?" said his uncle, looking round at him in surprise; "Agellius no Christian?"

"Not a bit of it," answered Juba; "rest assured. I taxed him with it only last night; let him alone, he'll come round. He's too proud to change, that's all. Preach to him, entreat him, worry him, try to turn him, work at the bit, whip him, and he will turn restive, start aside, or run away; but let him have his head, pretend not to look, seem indifferent to the whole matter, and he will quietly sit down in the midst of your images there. Callista has an easy task; she'll bribe him to do what he would else do for nothing."

"The very best news I have heard since your silly old father died," cried Jucundus; "the very best—if true. Juba, I'll give you an handsome present the first sow your brother sacrifices to Ceres. Ha, ha, what fine fun to see the young farmer over his cups at the NundinŠ! Ha, ha, no Christian! bravo, Juba! ha, ha, I'll make you a present, I say, an Apollo to teach you manners, or a Mercury to give you wit."

"It's quite true," said Juba; "he would not be thinking of Callista, if he were thinking of his saints and angels."

"Ha, ha! to be sure!" returned Jucundus; "to be {66} sure! yet why shouldn't he worship a handsome Greek girl as well as any of those mummies and death's heads and bogies of his, which I should blush to put up here alongside even of Anubis, or a scarabŠus?"

"Mother thinks she is not altogether the girl you take her for," said his nephew.

"No matter, no matter," answered Jucundus, "no matter at all; she may be a Lais or Phryne for me; the surer to make a man of him."

"Why," said Juba, "mother thinks her head is turning in the opposite way. D'you see? Strange, isn't it?" he added, annoyed himself yet not unwilling to annoy his uncle.

"Hm!" exclaimed Jucundus, making a wry face and looking round at him, as if to say, "What on earth is going to turn up now?"

"To tell the truth," said Juba, gloomily, "I did once think of her myself. I don't see why I have not as much right to do so as Agellius, if I please. So I thought old mother might do something for me; and I asked her for a charm or love potion, which would bring her from her brother down to the forest yonder. Gurta took to it kindly, for she has a mortal hatred of Callista, because of her good looks, though she won't say so, and because she's a Greek! and she liked the notion of humbling the haughty minx. So she began one of the most tremendous spells," he shrieked out with a laugh, "one of the most tremendous spells in her whole budget. All and everything in the most exact religious way: wine, milk, blood, meal, wax, old {67} rags, gods, Numidian as well as Punic; such names; one must be barbarian to boot, as well as witch, to pronounce them: a score of things there were besides. And then to see the old woman, with her streaming grey hair, twinkling eyes, and grim look, twirl about as some flute girl at a banquet; it was enough to dance down, not only the moon, but the whole milky way. But it did not dance down Callista; at which mother got savage, and protested that Callista was a Christian."

Jucundus looked much perplexed. "Medius fidius!" he said, "why, unless we look sharp, she will be converting him the wrong way;" and he began pacing up and down the small room.

Juba on his part began singing—

"Gurta the witch would have part in the jest;
Though lame as a gull, by his highness possessed,
She shouldered her crutch, and danced with the rest.

"Sporting and snorting, deep in the night,
Their beards flashing fire, and their hoofs striking light,
And their tails whisking round in the heat of their flight."

By this time Jucundus had recovered from the qualm which Juba's intelligence had caused him, and he cried out, "Cease your rubbish; old Gurta's jealous; I know her spite; Christian is the most blackguard word in her vocabulary, its Barbar for toad or adder. I see it all; no, Callista, the divine Callista, must take in hand this piece of wax, sing a charm, and mould him into a Vertumnus. She'll {68} show herself the more potent witch of the two. The new emperor too will help the incantation."

"What! something is coming?" asked Juba, with a grin.

"Coming, boy? yes, I warrant you," answered his uncle. "We'll make them squeak. If gentle means don't do, then we'll just throw in another ingredient or two: an axe, or a wild cat, or a firebrand."

"Take care what you are about, if you deal with Agellius," said Juba. "He's a sawney, but you must not drive him to bay. Don't threaten; keep to the other line; he's weak-hearted."

"Only as a background to bring out the painting; the Muse singing, all in light, relieved by sardix or sepia. It must come; but perhaps Agellius will come first."

It was indeed as Jucundus had hinted; a new policy, a new era was coming upon Christianity, together with the new emperor. Christians had hitherto been for the most part the objects of popular fury rather than of imperial jealousy. Nero, indeed, from his very love of cruelty, had taken pleasure in torturing them: but statesmen and philosophers, though at times perplexed and inconsistent, yet on the whole had despised them; and the superstition of priests and people, with their "Christianos ad leones," had been the most formidable enemy of the faith. Accordingly, atrocious as the persecution had been at times, it had been conducted on no plan, and had been local and {69} fitful. But even this trial had been suspended, with but few interruptions, during the last thirty, nay, fifty years. So favourable a state of things had been more or less brought about by a succession of emperors, who had shown an actual leaning to Christianity. While the vigorous rule of the five good emperors, as they are called, had had many passages in its history of an adverse character, those who followed after, being untaught in the traditions, and strangers to the spirit, of old Rome, foreigners, or adventurers, or sensualists, were protectors of the new religion. The favourite mistress of Commodus is even said to have been a Christian; so is the nurse of Caracalla. The wretched Heliogabalus, by his taste for Oriental superstitions, both weakened the influence of the established hierarchy, and encouraged the toleration of a faith which came from Palestine. The virtuous Alexander, who followed him, was a philosopher more than a statesman; and, in pursuance of the syncretism which he had adopted, placed the images of Abraham and our Lord among the objects of devotion which his private chapel contained. What is told us of the Emperor Philip is still more to the point: the gravest authorities report that he was actually a Christian; and, since it cannot be doubted that Christians were persuaded of the fact, the leaning of his government must have been emphatically in their favour to account for such a belief. In consequence, Christians showed themselves without fear; they emerged from the catacombs, and built churches in public view; and, {70} though in certain localities, as in the instance of Africa, they had suffered from the contact of the world, they spread far and. wide, and faith became the instrument at least of political power, even where it was wanting in charity, or momentarily disowned by cowardice. In a word, though Celsus a hundred years before had pronounced "a man weak who should hope to unite the three portions of the earth in a common religion," that common Catholic faith had been found, and a principle of empire was created which had never before existed. The phenomenon could not be mistaken; and the Roman statesman saw he had to deal with a rival. Nor must we suppose, because on the surface of the history we read so much of the vicissitudes of imperial power, and of the profligacy of its possessors, that the fabric of government was not sustained by traditions of the strongest temper, and by officials of the highest sagacity. It was the age of lawyers and politicians; and they saw more and more clearly that if Christianity was not to revolutionize the empire, they must follow out the line of action which Trajan and Antoninus had pointed out.

Decius then had scarcely assumed the purple, when he commenced that new policy against the Church which was reserved to Diocletian, fifty years later, to carry out to its own final refutation. He entered on his power at the end of the year 249; and on the January 20th following, the day on which the Church still celebrates the event, St. Fabian, Bishop of Rome, {71} obtained the crown of martyrdom. He had been pope for the unusually long space of fourteen years, having been elected in consequence of one of those remarkable interpositions of Divine Providence of which we now and then read in the first centuries of the Church. He had come up to Rome from the country, in order to be present at the election of a successor to Pope Anteros. A dove was seen to settle on his head, and the assembly rose up and forced him, to his surprise, upon the episcopal throne. After bringing back the relics of St. Pontian, his martyred predecessor, from Sardinia, and having become the apostle of great part of Gaul, he seemed destined to end his history in the same happy quiet and obscurity in which he had lived; but it did not become a pope of that primitive time to die upon his bed, and he was reserved at length to inaugurate in his own person, as chief pastor of the Church, a fresh company of martyrs.

Suddenly an edict appeared for the extermination of the name and religion of Christ. It was addressed to the proconsuls and other governors of provinces; and alleged or implied that the emperors, Decius and his son, being determined to give peace to their subjects, found the Christians alone an impediment to the fulfilment of their purpose; and that, by reason of the enmity which those sectaries entertained towards the gods of Rome,—an enmity which was bringing down upon the world multiplied misfortunes. Desirous, then, above all things, of appeasing the divine anger, they made an irrevocable ordinance that every Christian, {72} without exception of rank, sex, or age, should be obliged to sacrifice. Those who refused were to be thrown into prison, and in the first instance submitted to moderate punishments. If they conformed to the established religion, they were to be rewarded; if not, they were to be drowned, burned alive, exposed to the beasts, hung upon the trees, or otherwise put to death. This edict was read in the camp of the prŠtorians, posted up in the Capitol, and sent over the empire by government couriers. The authorities in each province were themselves threatened with heavy penalties, if they did not succeed in frightening or tormenting the Christians into the profession of paganism.

St. Fabian, as we have said, was the first-fruits of the persecution, and eighteen months passed before his successor could be appointed. In the course of the next two months St. Pionius was burned alive at Smyrna, and St. Nestor crucified in Pamphylia. At Carthage some perplexity and delay were occasioned by the absence of the proconsul. St. Cyprian, its bishop, took advantage of the delay, and retired into a place of concealment. The populace had joined with the imperial government in seeking his life, and had cried out furiously in the circus, demanding him "ad leonem," for the lion. A panic seized the Christian body, and for a while there were far more persons found to compromise their faith than to confess it. It seemed as if Aristo's anticipation was justified, that Christianity was losing its hold upon the mind of its subjects, and that nothing more was {73} needed for those who had feared it, than to let it die a natural death. And at Sicca the Roman officials, as far as ever they dared, seemed to act on this view. Here Christians did no harm, they made no show, and there was little or nothing in the place to provoke the anger of the mob or to necessitate the interference of the magistrate. The proconsul's absence from Carthage was both an encouragement and an excuse for delay; and hence it was that, though we are towards the middle of the year 250, and the edict was published at Rome at its commencement, the good people of Sicca had, as we have said, little knowledge of what was taking place in the political world, and whispered about vague presages of an intended measure, which had been in some places in operation for many months. Communication with the seat of government was not so very frequent or rapid in those days, and public curiosity had not been stimulated by the facilities of gratifying it. And thus we must account for a phenomenon, which we uphold to be a fact in the instance of Sicca, in the early summer of A.D. 250, even though it prove unaccountable, and history has nothing to say about it, and in spite of the Acta Diurna.

The case, indeed, is different now. In these times, newspapers, railroads, and magnetic telegraphs make us independent of government messengers. The proceedings at Rome would have been generally and accurately known in a few seconds; and then, by way of urging forward the magistracy, a question of course {74} would have been asked in the parliament of Carthage by the member for Sicca, or Laribus, or Thugga, or by some one of the pagani, or country party, whether the popular report was true, that an edict had been promulgated at Rome against the Christians, and what steps had been taken by the local authorities throughout the proconsulate to carry out its provisions. And then the "Colonia Siccensis" would have presented some good or bad reason for the delay: that it arose from the absence of the proconsul from the seat of government, or from the unaccountable loss of the despatch on its way from the coast; or, perhaps, on the other hand, the under-secretary would have maintained, amid the cheers of his supporters, that the edict had been promulgated and carried out at Sicca to the full, that crowds of Christians had at once sacrificed, and that, in short, there was no one to punish; assertions which at that moment were too likely to be verified by the event.

In truth, there were many reasons to make the magistrates, both Roman and native, unwilling to proceed in the matter, till they were obliged. No doubt they one and all detested Christianity, and would have put it down, if they could; but the question was, when they came to the point, what they should put down. If, indeed, they could have got hold of the ringleaders, the bishops of the Church, they would have tortured, and smashed them con amore, as you would kill a wasp; and with the greater warmth and satisfaction, just because it was so difficult {75} to get at them. Those bishops were a set of fellows as mischievous as they were cowardly; they would not come out and be killed, but they skulked in the desert, and hid in masquerade. But why should gentlemen in office, opulent and happy, set about worrying a handful of idiots, old, or poor, or boys, or women, or obscure, or amiable and well-meaning men, who were but a remnant of a former generation, and as little connected with the fanatics of Carthage, Alexandria, or Rome, as the English freemasons may seem to be with their namesakes on the continent? True, Christianity was a secret society, and an illegal religion; but would it cease to be so when those harmless or respectable inhabitants of the place had been mounted on the rack or the gibbet?

And then, too, it was a most dangerous thing to open the door to popular excitement;—who would be able to shut it? Once rouse the populace, and it was all over with the place. It could not be denied that the bigoted and ignorant majority, not only of the common people, but of the better classes, was steeped in a bitter prejudice, and an intense, though latent, hatred of Christianity. Besides the antipathy which arose from the extremely different views of life and duty taken by pagans and Christians, which would give a natural impulse to persecution in the hearts of the former, there were the many persons who wished to curry favour at Rome with the government, and had an eye to preferment or reward. There was the pagan interest, extended and powerful, of that {76} numerous class which was attached to the established religions by habit, position, interest, or the prospect of advantage. There were all the great institutions or establishments of the place; the law courts, the schools of grammar and rhetoric, the philosophic exedrŠ and lecture-rooms, the theatre, the amphitheatre, the market—all were, for one reason or another, opposed to Christianity; and who could tell where they would stop in their onward course, if they were set in motion? "Quieta non movenda" was the motto of the local government, native and imperial, and that the more, because it was an age of revolutions, and they might be most unpleasantly compromised or embarrassed by the direction which the movement took. Besides, Decius was not immortal; in the last twelve years eight emperors had been cut off, six of them in a few months; and who could tell but the successor of the present might revert to the policy of Philip, and feel no thanks to those who had suddenly left it for a policy of blood.

In this cautious course they would be powerfully supported by the influence of personal considerations. The Roman officia, the city magistrates, the heads of the established religions, the lawyers, and the philosophers, all would have punished the Christians, if they could; but they could not agree whom to punish. They would have agreed with great satisfaction, as we have said, to inflict condign and capital punishment upon the heads of the sect; and they would have had no objection, if driven to do something, to get hold of {77} some strangers or slaves, who might be a sort of scapegoats for the rest; but it was impossible, when they once began to persecute, to make distinctions, and not a few of them had relations who were Christians, or at least were on that border-land which the mob might mistake for the domain of Christianity—Marcionites, Tertullianists, Montanists, or Gnostics. When once the cry of "the gods of Rome" was fairly up, it would apply to tolerated religions as well as to illicit, and an unhappy votary of Isis or Mithras might suffer, merely because there were few Christians forthcoming. A duumvir of the place had a daughter whom he had turned out of his house for receiving baptism, and who had taken refuge at Vacca. Several of the decurions, the tabularius of the district, the scriba, one of the exactors, who lived in Sicca, various of the retired gentry, whom we spoke of in a former chapter, and various attachÚs of the prŠtorium, were in not dissimilar circumstances. Nay, the priest of Esculapius had a wife, whom he was very fond of, who, though she promised to keep quiet, if things continued as they were, nevertheless had the madness to vow that, if there were any severe proceedings instituted against her people, she would at once come forward, confess herself a Christian, and throw water, instead of incense, upon the sacrificial flame. Not to speak of the venerable man's tenderness for her, such an exposure would seriously compromise his respectability, and, as he was infirm and apoplectic, it was a question whether Esculapius himself could save {78} him from the shock which would be the consequence.

The same sort of feeling operated with our good friend Jucundus. He was attached to his nephew; but, be it said without disrespect to him, he was more attached to his own reputation; and, while he would have been seriously annoyed at seeing Agellius exposed to one of the panthers of the neighbouring forest, or hung up by the feet, with the blood streaming from his nose and mouth, as one of the dogs or kids of the market, he would have disliked the Úclat of the thing still more. He felt both anger and alarm at the prospect; he was conscious he did not understand his nephew, or (to use a common phrase) know where to find him; he was aware that a great deal of tact was necessary to manage him; and he had an instinctive feeling that Juba was right in saying that it would not do to threaten him with the utmost severity of the law. He considered Callista's hold on him was the most promising quarter of the horizon; so he came to a resolution to do as little as he could personally, but to hold Agellius's head, as far as he could, steadily in the direction of that lady, and to see what came of it. As to Juba's assurance that Agellius was not a Christian at heart, it was too good news to be true; but still it might be only an anticipation of what would be, when the sun of Greece shone out upon him, and dispersed the remaining mists of Oriental superstition.

In this state of mind the old gentleman determined {79} one afternoon to leave his shop to the care of a slave, and to walk down to his nephew, to judge for himself of his state of mind; to bait his hook with Callista, and to see if Agellius bit. There was no time to be lost, for the publication of the edict might be made any day; and then disasters might ensue which no skill could remedy.

Chapter 8

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