Imperial Persecution of Christians: Historical Evidence?

May 2011
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Rural Australia
Barnes definitely favours the idea that Constantine was an intolerant and fanatical ruler in the east. One does get that impression from reading Eusebius' Life of Constantine and, I recall, several of Palladas' epigrams, who did not like Constantine.
Thanks. I have not read Barnes' recent books.

I suppose the 'certain person' could be Licinius.
That's probably far more likely. My thought that this certain person could have been Arius of Alexandria was based on Kevin Wilkinson placement of Palladas during the later rule of Constantine. Any controversy over Licinius would have been very short lived. Didn't Constantine have him strangled c.324 CE (after his gold reserves were located)? OTOH Constantine seems to have railed against Arius (and his merry band of "Porphyrians" [Arians]) until his death, for more than a decade starting c.325 CE.
 
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Thanks. I have not read Barnes' recent books.



That's probably far more likely. My thought that this certain person could have been Arius of Alexandria was based on Kevin Wilkinson placement of Palladas during the later rule of Constantine. Any controversy over Licinius would have been very short lived. Didn't Constantine have him strangled c.324 CE (after his gold reserves were located)? OTOH Constantine seems to have railed against Arius (and his merry band of "Porphyrians" [Arians]) for more than a decade starting c.325 CE.
Constantine was rather inconsistent and naive when it came to the Arian controversy. He didn't really see why the whole trinity issue was important, because he didn't really understand Christianity all that well. He thought the matter trivial, and expressed as much when he wrote a letter to the bishops of the east, in 324, before the Council of Nicaea, trying to persuade them to drop the issue and move on. He supported the homoousian position in 325 at Nicaea, probably guided in part by his then-favourites Ossius of Cordoba (who headed the council) and Sylvester of Rome. At the same council, he deposed from their sees the two bishops who were gutsy enough to refuse to condemn Arius and two others who refused to agree to the Nicene Creed. However, only three years later he agreed to return the former two bishops to their sees, most notably Eusebius of Nicomedia (who was different from Eusebius of Caesarea, who also wasn't a fan of the homoousian position, but not to the same extent as his Nicomedian namesake and not nearly as outspoken). Eusebius of Nicomedia had a family connection to Constantine and gradually became one of the most favoured bishops. By 335 he succeeded in turning the tides, persuading Constantine to depose the two most outspoken homoousians: Athanasius of Alexandria and Marcellus of Ancyra. He also pushed hard to get Arius re-admitted to the church, but Arius died before this could happen. He then baptized Constantine on his deathbed in 337.

I don't think the brief window of time necessarily matters in the case of Licinius, since it was such a big moment in his political ascendancy, and it seems possible that Palladas is satirizing how the civil war was framed after it happened.
 
Chronology draws this division. Eusebius' martyr stories belong in the early decades of the 4th century. The other further martyr stories commence to appear in the 370's and beyond, at least a geration or two after Eusebius. Irrespective of how we evaluate the historical contents of these martyr stories, I believe it is important to observe this chronological division which I do not believe to be artificial.
But as you've observed before, our sources for the fourth century are chronologically uneven anyway. There is a much greater abundance of sermons from the late fourth century.

The poliical scenario covers the rise of Damasus and the Latin church in the west, and the rise of Theodosius in the east. All fighting and bickering aside, the East and West appear to have been very united in their support of the authority of the Nicene Creed. This appears to have involved the collaboration of Greek and Latin ecclesiastical writers. Within this very same time frame Bishops of the east and west, supported by the aristocracy, have dreams which reveal the location of the bones of saints and martyrs, and the Christian relic trade is commenced.
The issue of the trinity continued to be a problem well into the fifth century and in some places the sixth. In the case of the late fourth century, both Constantius II and Valens supported the homoiousian (or 'semi-Arian') position, whereas Constans had supported the homoousian/Nicene position. The disaster at Adrianople in 378 was an important victory for the Nicene position, since Valens' failure and death was viewed as divine justice (similarly to the fate of Julian). This allowed Theodosius, in 381, to come down more firmly on the side of the Nicenes. But even after this, semi-Arians continued to hold bishoprics, and new 'heresies'/disputes over the trinity kept arising, because, I'm sure you agree, the concept of the trinity doesn't really make sense! In the fifth century, emperors had to organize new councils to deal with new disputes about the nature of God, and bishops continued to use these issues to depose their enemies. For some reason, the Donatists and Meletians also continued to be a thing. The establishment of the Germanic kingdoms only complicated matters further, since the German peoples had mostly been converted to Arian and Semi-Arian Christianity, and thus gave these 'heresies' a new lease on life. Theological disputes eventually became entangled into the matter of see hierarchy, with Rome on one side and Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem on the other. Thus the inexorable progression towards eventual east-west schism.
 
May 2011
2,790
Rural Australia
But as you've observed before, our sources for the fourth century are chronologically uneven anyway. There is a much greater abundance of sermons from the late fourth century.
One of the critical questions in regard to the OP with respect to the martyr stories is IMO this:

Do the martyr stories found in this greater abundance of sermons from the late 4th century:

a) add a positive contribution to the historicity of the Eusebian martyr stories (they support Eusebius)
b) have no effect on this historicity (each on their own independent merits)
c) add a negative contribution (they undermine Eusebius).


The issue of the trinity continued to be a problem well into the fifth century and in some places the sixth. In the case of the late fourth century, both Constantius II and Valens supported the homoiousian (or 'semi-Arian') position, whereas Constans had supported the homoousian/Nicene position. The disaster at Adrianople in 378 was an important victory for the Nicene position, since Valens' failure and death was viewed as divine justice (similarly to the fate of Julian). This allowed Theodosius, in 381, to come down more firmly on the side of the Nicenes. But even after this, semi-Arians continued to hold bishoprics, and new 'heresies'/disputes over the trinity kept arising, because, I'm sure you agree, the concept of the trinity doesn't really make sense!
I think that the concept of a philosophical and/or metaphysical trinity (The One, the Spirit, the Soul) made some sort of perfect sense to Plotinus when he wrote the Enneads, and to Porphyry when he preserved this literature, and to the Platonists of the Eastern empire when Constantine arrived and supported the authority of the Greek Bible codex. I think it is reasonable to conclude that the 4th century Christians appropriated the meme for their own philosophical ends.

More importantly I am very suspicious of the (largely 5th century) Christian accounts of the Arian controversy, and strongly believe that these Ecclesiastical Historians deliberately suppress various important aspects of the political and literary events which occurred in the lead up to, and following, the Nicene Council. About the only thing that I believe to be true in their accounts is their preservation of the five sophisms of Arius (whoever he may have been) that are literally appended to the earliest versions of the Nicene Creed as part of the final anathema clause. These five sophisms, in various combinations and permutations, encapsulate IMHO the basis for the entire Arian controversy.
 
Actually, biblical scholars do challenge Eusebius, it is just in many cases, it is all we have.

In the case of Nero's persecution, Tacitus has been analysed by scholars, and the vast majority of consensus is that Tacitus references to Nero's persecution of Christian is genuine:

1. The language is consistent with Tacitus

2. The way Christians are refered to are not the way Chrisrians would have referred to themselves, calling it a superstition.

3. Passage an integral part of Tacitus explaining of the character of Nero. It does not seem grafted, and without it there would be a hole in Tacitus narrative.


In the cass of Eusebius, everyone recognize tnat he isn1t a very good source, but he is all we have. We don't have a lot of sources for Diocletian, and later controversies like tne Donatist controversy make no sense and could exist without Diocletian. Donatist felt that Christians who turned over sacred scriptures during the Diocletian, and priest who caved in during peesecution were no longer valid priest.

Note, Diocletian persectuion occured in recent history when Eusebius wrote, most of the people were srill alive from that time. If Eusebius completely fabricated the story, most people would have known it, and said "BS!" It is like some historian completely fabricating a story about China launching a major military invasion of the US under Clinton and nobody points out it never happened.
Not only does the Tacitean passage not appear to be an interpolation, but Tacitus actually isn't the only pagan author to mention Nero's action against the Christians in Rome. From Suetonius, Nero 16.2: 'Punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition.' So that's the two most important pagan sources on the reign of Nero providing testimony for this action.
 
More importantly I am very suspicious of the (largely 5th century) Christian accounts of the Arian controversy, and strongly believe that these Ecclesiastical Historians deliberately suppress various important aspects of the political and literary events which occurred in the lead up to, and following, the Nicene Council. About the only thing that I believe to be true in their accounts is their preservation of the five sophisms of Arius (whoever he may have been) that are literally appended to the earliest versions of the Nicene Creed as part of the final anathema clause. These five sophisms, in various combinations and permutations, encapsulate IMHO the basis for the entire Arian controversy.
The biggest problem with the sources is that they are mostly pro-Homoousian. But regarding the temporal span of our sources, there are key fourth-century texts on the matter written by Constantine, Athanasius, Lucifer, Hilary, Ambrose, Augustine and Jerome, as well as imperial legislation (albeit preserved in the fifth-century Theodosian Code).

I also forgot to mention that Valentinian II and his mother Justina lent their support to Homoiousians in the 380s, to the chagrin of Ambrose.
 
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May 2011
2,790
Rural Australia
Not only does the Tacitean passage not appear to be an interpolation, but Tacitus actually isn't the only pagan author to mention Nero's action against the Christians in Rome.
Why didn't Eusebius, who recounts the ecclesiastical glory of the Christian martyrs, mention that Nero used Christians as streetlights? More importantly why does no author - Christian or otherwise - cite this passage in Tacitus before the manuscript was suddenly and unexpectedly discovered in the church archives of the 15th century, after rewards were offered by the papal CEO? Carrier makes a case for an interpolation here: Richard Carrier, "The Prospect of a Christian Interpolation in Tacitus, Annals 15.44", Vigiliae Christianae, Volume 68, Issue 3, pages 264 – 283


TIMELINE

This is how I see the order of the chronology of evidence at the moment ...

1) The New Testament accounts are authored: nothing specific about the deaths of Peter and Paul.
2) Various NT Apocryphal accounts are authored: stunning detail of these deaths under Nero (Quo Vadis).
3) Neronian persecution is authored - not just of Peter and Paul but - of the Christians in general

As old as his account (below) may be, I believe that Arthur Drews covers some of the major reasons that we should be circumspect in ascribing genuineness to this passage in Tacitus. NOTE: The bolded section below I believe to be the most important. The following from Drews:

W.B. Smith's "Ecce Deus": STUDIES OF PRIMITIVE CHRISTIANITY (Smith questions only the genuineness of the passage in the Annals about "Christus" and "Christians")

THE SILENCE OF TACITUS p.243​
But even Tertullian reveals no notion of such a Neronian persecution as we read of in Tacitus. Yet he was acquainted with this historian, whose Histories he cites at length, on whose name he puns, whom he cordially hates for defaming the Jews. Had he read of Nero's burning the Christians alive, would he have used such vague and commonplace imagery as "raged with Caesarean sword" and "through Nero's cruelty they sowed Christian blood"? Remember that Tertullian was a rhetorician to his fingertips. Would he have neglected such an exceptional opportunity for the display of his thrice-favourite art? It seems needless to discuss still later testimony, as that of Lactantius (De mort, persec, 2), of Origen (Eus., H. E,, ni, i), of Eusebius {H. E., H, 25), and of Jerome.​
These late writers have at last learned, after two centuries or more of ignorance, that Peter and Paul fell victims to Neronian fury ; but they still have no idea that Nero falsely accused the Christians of setting the city on fire, nor do they hint that a "vast multitude" lit up the Roman night with the flames of their burning bodies. Not until the fourth century, in Ep. 12 of the forged correspondence of Paul and Seneca, do we read that " Christians and Jews, as if contrivers of (a) conflagration, when put to death are wont to be burned." But even here the allusion, if there be any, to the Neronian persecution is extremely vague.
...///...​
Here, then, we stand in presence of the unbroken and \ universal silence of over two hundred years concerning an alleged event of capital importance, transacted in the very centre of knowledge and information and rumour, yet never once mentioned by any one among many whose especial interest it was to tell of it often and to dwell on it at length. Nor can any one suggest the slightest reason for this silence, for this studied suppression of a highly momentous and dramatic incident in a reign that was a favourite subject of historic delineation, and that lent itself especially to high colouring and picturesque exaggeration. Such considerations seem ample to weight the scale heavily against the genuineness of the passage in question.​
.... We conclude, then, that this famous chapter, as it now stands, is with compelling probability to be ascribed to another hand than that of Cornelius Tacitus.​
[my formatting]​

I'll respond to the Suetonius references separately.

However for the reasons and issues I have outlined above I believe that probability that the Tacitus reference to Christians is genuine is far less than 50%. The question will probably be asked .... What advantage was there to the 14th/15th church organisation in "suddenly and unexpectedly finding" this very early pagan reference to Christians illuminating the streets of Rome in the first century? To what extent was the church organisation of the 14th/15th century a business organisation?
 
May 2011
2,790
Rural Australia
RE: Suetonius' reference to Christians

From Suetonius, Nero 16.2: 'Punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition.' So that's the two most important pagan sources on the reign of Nero providing testimony for this action.

TIMELINE

122 - Suetonius, "Lives of the Twelve Caesars", Nero, 16: ("Punishment was inflicted on the Christians")
122 - Suetonius, "Divus Claudius" 25: ("Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus")
192 - Tertullian, "Apology" 5:
324 - Eusebius of Caesarea, "Historia Ecclesiastica" 2.25
325 - Lactantius, "On the Manner in which the Persecutors Died"", Chapter 2
4th - Seneca to Paul, Letter 12: "Dear Paul, How goeth the church industry? Your good buddy, Seneca"
403 - Sulpicius Severus, "Chronicle" 2.29.1-4a: "phrases and even sentences from many classical authors are inwoven here and there"
417 - Paulus Orosius, "Historiae Adversus Paganos" 7.6.15-16
820 - Earliest Suetonius manuscript (Paris, BnF lat 6115) from north-central Carolingian France

It is the last entry in the timeline above that troubles me the most.

The Transmission of Suetonius’s Caesars in the Middle Ages
Robert A. Kaster; Transactions of the American Philological Association,
Volume 144, Number 1, Spring 2014, pp. 133-186

That we know as much as we do about the first century of the principate is due in no small part to Suetonius’s Caesars (De vita Caesarum); that we know the Caesars at all is due entirely to the survival of one book that emerged in north-central France, late in the 8th century or very early in the 9th, to serve as the archetype of all the extant manuscripts.​

The diagram below has two sections divided by a red line. In the upper section an arrow is shown with a question mark representing the transmission of Suetonius's Caesars from the 2nd century to the late 8th or early 9th century. In the lower section a copy of Figure 3, from page 170 of the above article has been appended. We learn from this article above that the sole archetype for all extant manuscripts of Suetonius' Caesars emerged in north-central France.

The idea which is to be conveyed by the top section of this diagram is that this singular archetypal manuscript seems to have appeared very close in space and time to that in which the 9th century Carolingian north-central France church organisation (Latin) forgery mill known as Pseudo-Isidore was in operation out of Corbie Abbey.

As far as I know no academic or scholar or layman has pointed out that the Suetonius archetypal manuscript may have been the product of the same scriptoria that pumped out the false decretals. This claim against the authenticity of the Suetonius references is therefore novel (AFAIK). Criticism is therefore welcome.

 
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Why didn't Eusebius, who recounts the ecclesiastical glory of the Christian martyrs, mention that Nero used Christians as streetlights? More importantly why does no author - Christian or otherwise - cite this passage in Tacitus before the manuscript was suddenly and unexpectedly discovered in the church archives of the 15th century, after rewards were offered by the papal CEO? Carrier makes a case for an interpolation here: Richard Carrier, "The Prospect of a Christian Interpolation in Tacitus, Annals 15.44", Vigiliae Christianae, Volume 68, Issue 3, pages 264 – 283


TIMELINE

This is how I see the order of the chronology of evidence at the moment ...

1) The New Testament accounts are authored: nothing specific about the deaths of Peter and Paul.
2) Various NT Apocryphal accounts are authored: stunning detail of these deaths under Nero (Quo Vadis).
3) Neronian persecution is authored - not just of Peter and Paul but - of the Christians in general

As old as his account (below) may be, I believe that Arthur Drews covers some of the major reasons that we should be circumspect in ascribing genuineness to this passage in Tacitus. NOTE: The bolded section below I believe to be the most important. The following from Drews:

W.B. Smith's "Ecce Deus": STUDIES OF PRIMITIVE CHRISTIANITY (Smith questions only the genuineness of the passage in the Annals about "Christus" and "Christians")

THE SILENCE OF TACITUS p.243​
But even Tertullian reveals no notion of such a Neronian persecution as we read of in Tacitus. Yet he was acquainted with this historian, whose Histories he cites at length, on whose name he puns, whom he cordially hates for defaming the Jews. Had he read of Nero's burning the Christians alive, would he have used such vague and commonplace imagery as "raged with Caesarean sword" and "through Nero's cruelty they sowed Christian blood"? Remember that Tertullian was a rhetorician to his fingertips. Would he have neglected such an exceptional opportunity for the display of his thrice-favourite art? It seems needless to discuss still later testimony, as that of Lactantius (De mort, persec, 2), of Origen (Eus., H. E,, ni, i), of Eusebius {H. E., H, 25), and of Jerome.​
These late writers have at last learned, after two centuries or more of ignorance, that Peter and Paul fell victims to Neronian fury ; but they still have no idea that Nero falsely accused the Christians of setting the city on fire, nor do they hint that a "vast multitude" lit up the Roman night with the flames of their burning bodies. Not until the fourth century, in Ep. 12 of the forged correspondence of Paul and Seneca, do we read that " Christians and Jews, as if contrivers of (a) conflagration, when put to death are wont to be burned." But even here the allusion, if there be any, to the Neronian persecution is extremely vague.
...///...​
Here, then, we stand in presence of the unbroken and \ universal silence of over two hundred years concerning an alleged event of capital importance, transacted in the very centre of knowledge and information and rumour, yet never once mentioned by any one among many whose especial interest it was to tell of it often and to dwell on it at length. Nor can any one suggest the slightest reason for this silence, for this studied suppression of a highly momentous and dramatic incident in a reign that was a favourite subject of historic delineation, and that lent itself especially to high colouring and picturesque exaggeration. Such considerations seem ample to weight the scale heavily against the genuineness of the passage in question.​
.... We conclude, then, that this famous chapter, as it now stands, is with compelling probability to be ascribed to another hand than that of Cornelius Tacitus.​
[my formatting]​

I'll respond to the Suetonius references separately.

However for the reasons and issues I have outlined above I believe that probability that the Tacitus reference to Christians is genuine is far less than 50%. The question will probably be asked .... What advantage was there to the 14th/15th church organisation in "suddenly and unexpectedly finding" this very early pagan reference to Christians illuminating the streets of Rome in the first century? To what extent was the church organisation of the 14th/15th century a business organisation?
These are interesting points. Christianity prior to the third century is not something that I know a great deal about, so I won't engage too much with this particular issue. But (and this also relates to the Suetonius reference), I am currently reading a volume titled Imagining Emperors in the Later Roman Emperor edited by Burgersdijk and Ross. The first chapter, by David Potter, is about the historiographical representation of Decius and Valerian, and it includes a summary of their religious policies. This book was published only last year, and Potter displays an up-to-date understanding of the testimony on Nero's persecution. In fact, he references a recent study on the Neronian persecution by Shaw (2015). His take is this: 'Christians had been executed as public nuisances under Nero, but the connection between Christians and the great fire in 64 seems to be a later embellishment.' I wish I knew exactly how he came to this conclusion, but from the footnote he appears to be drawing on the study by Shaw, so the Shaw study may be worth checking out. It is from the Journal of Roman Studies and is salaciously titled 'The Myth of the Neronian Persecution', although as noted, the myth appears to be the fire connection rather than the persecution itself.

Incidentally, Potter also discusses the evidence for local persecution under Trajan (the correspondence between Pliny and Trajan), and as one would expect, the evidence for the Decian and Valerian Persecutions. He discusses the letters of Cyprian of Carthage (who ended up being executed under Valerian, but who wrote letters about both persecutions), letters of Dionysius of Alexandria (quoted in Eusebius' Church History), the toleration edict of Gallienus (quoted in Eusebius), the libelli, an inscription preserved in Aphrodisias from Decius to the town council demanding sacrifice, administrative documents in the form of papyri on the administration of sacrifices, and the Passion of Pionius. No doubt, you may consider these things to be forgeries, but I thought it worth specifying what the range of evidence entailed.
 
I forgot to add the Thirteenth Sibylline Oracle, written between 262 and 268, which, like Eusebius, attributes Decius' persecution of the Christians to his antipathy towards Philip. David Potter acknowledges an existing view that the mention of the persecution may be an interpolation, although he doesn't think this to be so.
 

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