HISTORY OF THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH*
CHRISTIAN LIFE IN CONTRAST WITH PAGAN CORRUPTION.
§ 88. Literature.
I. SOURCES: The works of the APOSTOLIC FATHERS. The Apologies of JUSTIN. The practical treatises of TERTULLIAN. The Epistles of CYPRIAN. The Canons of Councils. The APOSTOLICAL CONSTITUTIONS and CANONS. The Acts of Martyrs.—On the condition of the Roman Empire: the Histories of TACITUS, SUETONIUS, and DION CASSIUS, the writings of SENECA, HORACE, JUVENAL, PERSIUS, MARTIAL.
II. LITERATURE: W. CAVE: Primitive Christianity, or the Religion of the Ancient Christians in the first ages of the Gospel. London, fifth ed. 1689.
G. ARNOLD: Erste Liebe, d. i. Wahre Abbildung der ersten Christen nach ihrem lebendigen Glauben und heil. Leben. Frankf. 1696, and often since.
NEANDER: Denkwürdigkeiten aus der Geschichte des christlichen Lebens (first 1823), vol. i. third ed. Hamb. 1845. The same in English by Ryland: Neander’s Memorials of Christian Life, in Bohn’s Library, 1853.
L. COLEMAN: Ancient Christianity exemplified in the private, domestic, social, and civil Life of the Primitive Christians, etc. Phil. 1853.
C. SCHMIDT: Essai historique sur la société dans le monde Romain, et sur la transformation par le Christianisme. Par. 1853. The same transl. into German by A. V. Richard. Leipz. 1857.
E. L. CHASTEL: Études historiques sur l’influence de la charité durant les Premiers siècles chrét. Par. 1853. Crowned by the French Académe. The same transl. into English (The Charity of the Primitive Churches), by G. A. Matile. Phila. 1857.
A. Fr. VILLEMAIN: Nouveaux essais sur l’infl. du Christianisme dans le monde Grec et Latin. Par. 1853.
BENJ. CONSTANT MARTHA (Member of the Académie des sciences morales et politiques, elected in 1872): Les Moralistes sous l’Empire romain. Paris 1854, second ed. 1866 (Crowned by the French Academy).
FR. J. M. TH. CHAMPAGNY: Les premiers siècles de la charité. Paris, 1854. Also his work Les Antonins. Paris, 1863, third ed. 1874, 3 vols.
J. DENIS: Histoire des theories et des idées morales dans l’antiquité. Paris, 1856, 2 tom.
P. JANET: Histoire de la philosophie morale et politique. Paris, 1858,·2 tom.
G. RATZINGER: Gesch. der kirchlichen Armenpflege. Freib. 1859.
W. E. H. LECKY: History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne. Lond. and N. Y. 1869, 2 vols., 5th ed. Lond. 1882. German transl. by Dr. H. Jalowicz.
MARIE–LOUIS-GASTON BOISSIER: La Religion romaine d’Auguste aux Antonins. Paris, 1874, 2 vols.
BESTMANN: Geschichte der Christlichen Sitte. Nördl. Bd. I. 1880.
W. GASS: Geschichte der christlichen Ethik. Berlin, 1881 (vol. I. 49–107).
G. UHLHORN: Die christliche Liebesthätigkeit in der alten Kirche. Stuttg. 1881. English translation (Christian Charity in the Ancient Church). Edinb. and N. York, 1883 (424 pages).
CHARLES L. BRACE: Gesta Christi: or a History of humane Progress under Christianity. N. York, 1883 (500 pages).
§ 89. Moral Corruption of the Roman Empire.
Besides the Lit. quoted in § 88, comp. the historical works on the Roman Empire by GIBBON, MERIVALE, and RANKE; also J. J. A. AMPÈRE’S Histoire Romaine à Rome (1856–64, 4 vols.).
FRIEDLAENDER’S Sittengeschichte Roms (from Augustus to the Antonines. Leipzig, 3 vols., 5th ed. 1881); and MARQUARDT and MOMMSEN’S Handbuch der römischen Alterthümer (Leipz. 1871, second ed. 1876, 7 vols., divided into Staatsrecht, Staatsverwaltung, Privatleben).
CHRISTIANITY is not only the revelation of truth, but also the fountain of holiness under the unceasing inspiration of the spotless example of its Founder, which is more powerful than all the systems of moral philosophy. It attests its divine origin as much by its moral workings as by its pure doctrines. By its own inherent energy, without noise and commotion, without the favor of circumstance—nay, in spite of all possible obstacles, it has gradually wrought the greatest moral reformation, we should rather say, regeneration of society which history has ever seen while its purifying, ennobling, and cheering effects upon the private life of countless individuals are beyond the reach of the historian, though recorded in God’s book of life to be opened on the day of judgment.
To appreciate this work, we must first review the moral condition of heathenism in its mightiest embodiment in history.
When Christianity took firm foothold on earth, the pagan civilization and the Roman empire had reached their zenith. The reign of Augustus was the golden age of Roman literature; his successors added Britain and Dacia to the conquests of the Republic; internal organization was perfected by Trajan and the Antonines. The fairest countries of Europe, and a considerable part of Asia and Africa stood under one imperial government with republican forms, and enjoyed a well-ordered jurisdiction. Piracy on the seas was abolished; life and property were secure. Military roads, canals, and the Mediterranean Sea facilitated commerce and travel; agriculture was improved, and all branches of industry flourished. Temples, theatres, aqueducts, public baths, and magnificent buildings of every kind adorned the great cities; institutions of learning disseminated culture; two languages with a classic literature were current in the empire, the Greek in the East, the Latin in the West; the book trade, with the manufacture of paper, was a craft of no small importance, and a library belonged to every respectable house. The book stores and public libraries were in the most lively streets of Rome, and resorted to by literary people. Hundreds of slaves were employed as scribes, who wrote simultaneously at the dictation of one author or reader, and multiplied copies almost as fast as the modern printing press.564 The excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum reveal a high degree of convenience and taste in domestic life even in provincial towns; and no one can look without amazement at the sublime and eloquent ruins of Rome, the palaces of the Caesars, the Mausoleum of Hadrian, the Baths of Caracalla, the Aqueducts, the triumphal arches and columns, above all the Colosseum, built by Vespasian, to a height of one hundred and fifty feet, and for more than eighty thousand spectators. The period of eighty-four years from the accession of Nerva to the death of Marcus Aurelius has been pronounced by high authority “the most happy and prosperous period in the history of the world.”565
But this is only a surface view. The inside did not correspond to the outside. Even under the Antonines the majority of men groaned under the yoke of slavery or poverty; gladiatorial shows brutalized the people; fierce wars were raging on the borders of the empire; and the most virtuous and peaceful of subjects—the Christians—had no rights, and were liable at any moment to be thrown before wild beasts, for no other reason than the profession of their religion. The age of the full bloom of the Graeco-Roman power was also the beginning of its decline. This imposing show concealed incurable moral putridity and indescribable wretchedness. The colossal piles of architecture owed their erection to the bloody sweat of innumerable slaves, who were treated no better than so many beasts of burden; on the Flavian amphitheatre alone toiled twelve thousand Jewish prisoners of war; and it was built to gratify the cruel taste of the people for the slaughter of wild animals and human beings made in the image of God. The influx of wealth from conquered nations diffused the most extravagant luxury, which collected for a single meal peacocks from Samos, pike from Pessinus, oysters from Tarentum, dates from Egypt, nuts from Spain, in short the rarest dishes from all parts of the world, and resorted to emetics to stimulate appetite and to lighten the stomach. “They eat,” says Seneca, “and then they vomit; they vomit, and then they eat.” Apicius, who lived under Tiberius, dissolved pearls in the wine he drank, squandered an enormous fortune on the pleasures of the table, and then committed suicide.566 He found imperial imitators in Vitellius and Heliogabalus (or Elaogabal). A special class of servants, the cosmetes, had charge of the dress, the smoothing of the wrinkles, the setting of the false teeth, the painting of the eye-brows, of wealthy patricians. Hand in hand with this luxury came the vices of natural and even unnatural sensuality, which decency forbids to name. Hopeless poverty stood in crying contrast with immense wealth; exhausted provinces, with revelling cities. Enormous taxes burdened the people, and misery was terribly increased by war, pestilence, and famine. The higher or ruling families were enervated, and were not strengthened or replenished by the lower. The free citizens lost physical and moral vigor, and sank to an inert mass. The third class was the huge body of slaves, who performed all kinds of mechanical labor, even the tilling of the soil, and in times of danger were ready to join the enemies of the empire. A proper middle class of industrious citizens, the only firm basis of a healthy community, cannot coëxist with slavery, which degrades free labor. The army, composed largely of the rudest citizens and of barbarians, was the strength of the nation, and gradually stamped the government with the character of military despotism. The virtues of patriotism, and of good faith in public intercourse, were extinct. The basest avarice, suspicion and envy, usuriousness and bribery, insolence and servility, everywhere prevailed.
The work of demoralizing the people was systematically organized and sanctioned from the highest places downwards. There were, it is true, some worthy emperors of old Roman energy and justice, among whom Trajan, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius stand foremost; all honor to their memory. But the best they could do was to check the process of internal putrefaction, and to conceal the sores for a little while; they could not heal them. Most of the emperors were coarse military despots, and some of them monsters of wickedness. There is scarcely an age in the history of the world, in which so many and so hideous vices disgraced the throne, as in the period from Tiberius to Domitian, and from Commodus to Galerius. “The annals of the emperors,” says Gibbon, “exhibit a strong and various picture of human nature, which we should vainly seek among the mixed and doubtful characters of modern history. In the conduct of those monarchs we may trace the utmost lines of vice and virtue; the most exalted perfection and the meanest degeneracy of our own species.”567 “Never, probably,” says Canon Farrar, “was there any age or any place where the worst forms of wickedness were practised with a more unblushing effrontery than in the city of Rome under the government of the Caesars.”568 We may not even except the infamous period of the papal pornocracy, and the reign of Alexander Borgia, which were of short duration, and excited disgust and indignation throughout the church.
The Pagan historians of Rome have branded and immortalized the vices and crimes of the Caesars: the misanthropy, cruelty, and voluptuousness of Tiberius; the ferocious madness of Caius Caligula, who had men tortured, beheaded, or sawed in pieces for his amusement, who seriously meditated the butchery of the whole senate, raised his horse to the dignity of consul and priest, and crawled under the bed in a storm; the bottomless vileness of Nero, “the inventor of crime,” who poisoned or murdered his preceptors Burrhus and Seneca, his half-brother and brother-in-law Britannicus, his mother Agrippina, his wife Octavia, his mistress Poppaea, who in sheer wantonness set fire to Rome, and then burnt innocent Christians for it as torches in his gardens, figuring himself as charioteer in the infernal spectacle; the swinish gluttony of Vitellins, who consumed millions of money in mere eating; the refined wickedness of Domitian, who, more a cat than a tiger, amused himself most with the torments of the dying and with catching flies; the shameless revelry of Commodus with his hundreds of concubines, and ferocious passion for butchering men and beasts on the arena; the mad villainy of Heliogabalus, who raised the lowest men to the highest dignities, dressed himself in women’s clothes, married a dissolute boy like himself, in short, inverted all the laws of nature and of decency, until at last he was butchered with his mother by the soldiers, and thrown into the muddy Tiber. And to fill the measure of impiety and wickedness, such imperial monsters were received, after their death, by a formal decree of the Senate, into the number of divinities and their abandoned memory was celebrated by festivals, temples, and colleges of priests! The emperor, in the language of Gibbon, was at once “a priest, an atheist, and a god.” Some added to it the dignity of amateur actor and gladiator on the stage. Domitian, even in his lifetime, caused himself to be called “Dominus et Deus noster,” and whole herds of animals to be sacrificed to his gold and silver statues. It is impossible to imagine a greater public and official mockery of all religion.
The wives and mistresses of the emperors were not much better. They revelled in luxury and vice, swept through the streets in chariots drawn by silver-shod mules, wasted fortunes on a single dress, delighted in wicked intrigues, aided their husbands in dark crimes and shared at last in their tragic fate, Messalina the wife of Claudius, was murdered by the order of her husband in the midst of her nuptial orgies with one of her favorites; and the younger Agrippina, the mother of Nero, after poisoning her husband, was murdered by her own son, who was equally cruel to his wives, kicking one of them to death when she was in a state of pregnancy. These female monsters were likewise deified, and elevated to the rank of Juno or Venus.
From the higher regions the corruption descended into the masses of the people, who by this time had no sense for anything but “Panem et Circenses,” and, in the enjoyment of these, looked with morbid curiosity and interest upon the most flagrant vices of their masters.
No wonder that Tacitus, who with terse eloquence and old Roman severity exposes the monstrous character of Nero and other emperors to eternal infamy, could nowhere, save perhaps among the barbarian Germans, discover a star of hope, and foreboded the fearful vengeance of the gods, and even the speedy destruction of the empire. And certainly nothing could save it from final doom, whose approach was announced with ever-growing distinctness by wars, insurrections, inundations, earthquakes, pestilence, famine, irruption of barbarians, and prophetic calamities of every kind. Ancient Rome, in the slow but certain process of dissolution and decay, teaches the
“… sad moral of all human tales;
’Tis but the same rehearsal of the past;
First freedom, and then glory—when that fails,
Wealth, vice, corruption, barbarism at last.”
§ 90. Stoic Morality
ED. ZELLER: The Stoics, Epicureans, and Sceptics. Translated from the German by O. J. Reichel. London (Longman, Green & Co.), 1870. Chs. x-xii treat of the Stoic Ethics and Religion.
F. W. FARRAR (Canon of Westminster): Seekers a after God. London (Macmillan & Co.), first ed. n. d. (1869), new ed. 1877 (Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, 336 pages).
Comp. also the essays on Seneca and Paul by FLEURY, AUBERTIN, BAUR, LIGHTFOOT, and REUSS (quoted in vol. I. 283).
Let us now turn to the bright side of heathen morals, as exhibited in the teaching and example of Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Plutarch—three pure and noble characters—one a slave, the second an emperor, the third a man of letters, two of them Stoics, one a Platonist. It is refreshing to look upon a few green spots in the moral desert of heathen Rome. We may trace their virtue to the guidance of conscience (the good demon of Socrates), or to the independent working of the Spirit of God, or to the indirect influence of Christianity, which already began to pervade the moral atmosphere beyond the limits of the visible church, and to infuse into legislation a spirit of humanity and justice unknown before, or to all these causes combined. It is certain that there was in the second century a moral current of unconscious Christianity, which met the stronger religious current of the church and facilitated her ultimate victory.
It is a remarkable fact that two men who represent the extremes of society, the lowest and the highest, were the last and greatest teachers of natural virtue in ancient Rome. They shine like lone stars in the midnight darkness of prevailing corruption. Epictetus the slave, and Marcus Aurelius, the crowned ruler of an empire, are the purest among the heathen moralists, and furnish the strongest “testimonies of the naturally Christian soul.”
Both belonged to the school of Zeno.
The Stoic philosophy was born in Greece, but grew into manhood in Rome. It was predestinated for that stern, grave, practical, haughty, self-governing and heroic character which from the banks of the Tiber ruled over the civilized world.569 In the Republican period Cato of Utica lived and died by his own hand a genuine Stoic in practice, without being one in theory. Seneca, the contemporary of St. Paul, was a Stoic in theory, but belied his almost Christian wisdom in practice, by his insatiable avarice, anticipating Francis Bacon as “the wisest, brightest, meanest of mankind.”570 Half of his ethics is mere rhetoric. In Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius the Stoic theory and practice met in beautiful harmony, and freed from its most objectionable features. They were the last and the best of that school which taught men to live and to die, and offered an asylum for individual virtue and freedom when the Roman world at large was rotten to the core.
Stoicism is of all ancient systems of philosophy both nearest to, and furthest from, Christianity: nearest in the purity and sublimity of its maxims and the virtues of simplicity, equanimity, self-control, and resignation to an all-wise Providence; furthest in the spirit of pride, self-reliance, haughty contempt, and cold indifference. Pride is the basis of Stoic virtue, while humility is the basis of Christian holiness; the former is inspired by egotism, the latter by love to God and man; the Stoic feels no need of a Saviour, and calmly resorts to suicide when the house smokes; while the Christian life begins with a sense of sin, and ends with triumph over death; the resignation of the Stoic is heartless apathy and a surrender to the iron necessity of fate; the resignation of the Christian, is cheerful submission to the will of an all-wise and all-merciful Father in heaven; the Stoic sage resembles a cold, immovable statue, the Christian saint a living body, beating in hearty sympathy with every joy and grief of his fellow-men. At best, Stoicism is only a philosophy for the few, while Christianity is a religion for all.
§ 91. Epictetus.
EPICTETI. Dissertationum ab Arriano digestarum Libri IV. Euiusdem Enchiridion et ex deperditis Sermonibus Fragmenta … recensuit … JOH. SCHWEIGHÄUSER. Lips. 1799, 1800. 5 vols. The Greek text with a Latin version and notes.
The Works of EPICTETUS. Consisting of his Discourses, in four books, the Enchiridion, and Fragments. A translation from the Greek, based on that of Mrs. Elizabeth Carter, by THOMAS WENTWORTH HIGGINSON. Boston (Little, Brown & Co.), 1865. A fourth ed. of Mrs. Carter’s translation was published in 1807 with introduction and notes.
The Discourses of EPICTETUS, with the Enchiridion and Fragments. Translated, with Notes, etc., by GEORGE LONG. London (George Bell & Sons), 1877.
There are also other English, as well as German and French, versions.
Epictetus was born before the middle of the first century, at Hierapolis, a city in Phrygia, a few miles from Colossae and Laodicea, well known to us from apostolic history. He was a compatriot and contemporary of Epaphras, a pupil of Paul, and founder of Christian churches in that province.571 There is a bare possibility that he had a passing acquaintance with him, if not with Paul himself. He came as a slave to Rome with his master, Epaphroditus, a profligate freedman and favorite of Nero (whom he aided in committing suicide), and was afterwards set at liberty. He rose above his condition. “Freedom and slavery,” he says in one of his Fragments, “are but names of virtue and of vice, and both depend upon the will. No one is a slave whose will is free.” He was lame in one foot and in feeble health. The lameness, if we are to credit the report of Origen, was the result of ill treatment, which he bore heroically. When his master put his leg in the torture, he quietly said: “You will break my leg;” and when the leg was broken, he added: “Did I not tell you so?” This reminds one of Socrates who is reported to have borne a scolding and subsequent shower from Xantippe with the cool remark: After the thunder comes the rain. Epictetus heard the lectures of Musonius Rufus, a distinguished teacher of the Stoic philosophy under Nero and Vespasian, and began himself to teach. He was banished from Rome by Domitian, with all other philosophers, before A.D. 90. He settled for the rest of his life in Nicopolis, in Southern Epirus, not far from the scene of the battle of Actium. There he gathered around him a large body of pupils, old and young, rich and poor, and instructed them, as a second Socrates, by precept and example, in halls and public places. The emperor Hadrian is reported to have invited him back to Rome (117), but in vain. The date of his death is unknown.
Epictetus led from principle and necessity a life of poverty and extreme simplicity, after the model of Diogenes, the arch-Cynic. His only companions were an adopted child with a nurse. His furniture consisted of a bed, a cooking vessel and earthen lamp. Lucian ridicules one of his admirers, who bought the lamp for three thousand drachmas, in the hope of becoming a philosopher by using it. Epictetus discouraged marriage and the procreation of children. Marriage might do well in a “community of wise men,” but “in the present state of things,” which he compared to “an army in battle array,” it is likely to withdraw the philosopher from the service of God.572 This view, as well as the reason assigned, resembles the advice of St. Paul, with the great difference, that the apostle had the highest conception of the institution of marriage as reflecting the mystery of Christ’s union with the church. “Look at me,” says Epictetus, “who am without a city, without a house, without possessions, without a slave; I sleep on the ground; I have no wife, no children, no praetorium, but only the earth and the heavens, and one poor cloak. And what do I want? Am I not without sorrow? Am I not without fear? Am I not free? … Did I ever blame God or man? … Who, when he sees me, does not think that he sees his king and master?” His epitaph fitly describes his character: “I was Epictetus, a slave, and maimed in body, and a beggar for poverty, and dear to the immortals.”
Epictetus, like Socrates, his great exemplar, wrote nothing himself, but he found a Xenophon. His pupil and friend, Flavius Arrianus, of Nicomedia, in Bithynia, the distinguished historian of Alexander the Great, and a soldier and statesman under Hadrian, handed to posterity a report of the oral instructions and familiar conversations (diatribaiv) of his teacher. Only four of the original eight books remain. He also collected his chief maxims in a manual (Enchiridion). His biography of that remarkable man is lost.
Epictetus starts, like Zeno and Cleanthes, with a thoroughly practical view of philosophy, as the art and exercise of virtue, in accordance with reason and the laws of nature. He bases virtue on faith in God, as the supreme power of the universe, who directs all events for benevolent purposes. The philosopher is a teacher of righteousness, a physician and surgeon of the sick who feel their weakness, and are anxious to be cured. He is a priest and messenger of the gods to erring men, that they might learn to be happy even in utter want of earthly possessions. If we wish to be good, we must first believe that we are