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Marcus Aurelius: A Persecutor of Christians?

"It turns out that the evidence of whether Aurelius actively persecuted Christians is mixed, and leans towards exonerating him."

I have long wondered how someone as obviously intelligent and seemingly noble as Marcus Aurelius could have also been a dedicated persecutor of Christians. 

Take this reflection of Aurelius,

“I have no cause to hurt myself: I have never consciously hurt anyone else.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Penguin Classics, p110

or this, 

“Joy varies from person to person. My joy is if I keep my directing mind pure, denying no human being or human circumstance, but looking with kindly eyes, giving welcome use to each as it deserves.”

Ibid.

Marcus goes out of his way to advocate for virtue, kindness and justice in his meditations. Of course, he also directed armies and led war efforts, but he intentionally sought to be a good man in all he did.  

I have long just put it down to the fact that human beings are complicated, contradictory, and do not even live up to their own standards, and that he probably thought he was doing what was best for Rome. This does not excuse such evil, if committed, of course, but often the tyrant who exercises the sword harshly at the innocent believes that it is actually they who are on the side of good. Even Darth Vader just wanted to bring order to the Galaxy, in his own unique way.  

But it turns out that the evidence of whether Aurelius actively persecuted Christians is mixed, and leans towards exonerating him. 

Reflecting on a letter accusing Aurelius of being a harsh persecutor of Christians, an expert on Aurelius’ thinking notes,

The letter continues to describe numerous gory tortures with a level of detail that can appear somewhat excessive and colourful.  Many modern readers consequently find the style suggestive of fiction, or at least embellishment.

Moreover, there are several very striking problems faced by those who want to try to use this letter as evidence for the claim that Marcus persecuted Christians:

1. Eusebius finished writing the Ecclesiastical History in roughly 300 AD, well over a hundred years after the alleged incident took place.  There’s no indication when the letter he’s quoting was actually written.  However, he is claiming that the events described in it happened long before he was even born.  He therefore had no first-hand knowledge of them but depended entirely on the account given in the letter cited, the authenticity of which, as we’ll see, is highly doubtful.

2. Historians have to take into account the “argument from silence”: no other pagan or Christian author of the period makes any mention whatsoever of these events having happened, despite their striking and dramatic nature.  It’s highly remarkable that no other Christian author of the period actually refers to this incident.  Indeed, the first author in Gaul to mention this event was Sulpicius Severus, writing 400 years later, and his only source appears to be Eusebius.

3. The church father Irenaeus, the Christian Bishop of Lyon, where the incident allegedly took place, wrote his mammoth five volume Adversus Haereses in 180 AD, three years after the alleged persecution.  And yet, he makes absolutely no mention whatsoever of this momentous event having happened in his own city.  In fact, on the contrary, he actually says “The Romans have given the world peace, and we [Christians] travel without fear along the roads and across the sea wherever we will.” (Against Heresies, Book IV, Chapter 30, Sentence 3).

4. The church father Tertullian, was aged around twenty at the time the incident at Lyon supposedly happened.  As we’ll see, although he was actually alive at the time, he also makes no mention of the persecution at Lyon, and actually says quite emphatically that Marcus Aurelius was a “protector” of Christians…

…But out of so many princes from that time down to the present, men versed in every system of knowledge, produce if you can one persecutor of the Christians. We, however, can on the other side produce a protector, if the letters of the most grave Emperor Marcus Aurelius be searched, in which he testifies that the well-known Germanic drought was dispelled by the shower obtained through the prayers of Christians who happened to be in the army. (Apology, 5).

I knew already the famous account of how Christians gained protection in the Roman armies, the famous “Thunderbolt Legion” and the miracle of rain. I wondered if maybe it is a case of Marcus Aurelius changing his mind. Or because he was away from Rome so much his elites took persecution into their own hands? 

It was not just Marcus Aurelius who thought of himself as being intentionally kind, we also see that others saw him this way,

“Marcus’ obsession with kindness, justice and clemency, is clearly demonstrated throughout The Meditations.  However, this is reinforced by numerous references to his character in the writings of other Roman authors.  Marcus is portrayed with remarkable consistency as being a man of exceptional clemency and humanity – that was his universal reputation.  Latin authors typically used the word humanitas (kindness) to describe his character; in Greek the word philanthropia (love of mankind) was favoured.”

This is fascinating information, and perhaps you were already aware of this, but I was not. It may have been mentioned to me at some point, of course. Other than knowing about the miraculous event with the Thunderbolt Legion, I did not realize there was considerable evidence that Aurelius was more tolerant towards Christians than I had thought.

This warrants further examination, but I thought you would find this interesting.