NAVIGATION: You are presently looking at Part 12.2
You might want to skip the first part of today's commentary where Tom Lee describes the character of Commodus, one of the most thoroughly distasteful of the Roman Emperors. Unless you're a bishop or a theologian though, don't miss the second part, which contains some interesting reflections on the roles of bishops and theologians. They might want to throw Tom Lee to the lions after what what he writes today.
Persecution and Heresy Reign – Part 12.2
A thoroughly unpleasant individual…
Few more extraordinary or more unpleasant personages have ever appeared at the Colosseum. Commodus had been to gladiator school and regularly fought in the arena with blood-curdling panache. His courage seems to have known no fear and his morals no restraint. Even during his father's lifetime he adopted the gladiatorial profession and had won more than three hundred duels. Before he died he'd been a contestant nearly a thousand times.
Commodus identified himself with the demigod Hercules and had himself portrayed in a famous half-length statue as his hero, his muscular torso clad in the traditional lion skin and clutching a club. To fulfill the Herculean role he slaughtered animals, including bears, tigers, elephants and hippopotami.
The Romans denuded whole territories of wild animals to supply the arena. The early Christian Fathers could only find one good thing to say about the bloody spectacles; the demand for animals cleared entire districts of dangerous predators and opened them up to agriculture. Several species were either exterminated or so-reduced in numbers that they soon became extinct, among them the European lion, the aurochs, the Libyan elephant, and the Caspian tiger. Up to five thousand animals were slaughtered in a single day.
Though married, Commodus thought other men's spouses, male or female, were always more attractive than his own, proving that he had more testosterone than he knew what to do with. In 182, having foiled a plot against his life, hatched by his sister and the lady's unfortunate pawn Ummidius Quadratus, Commodus took up with Quadratus' concubine Marcia. In 187 he accused his wife of adultery and banished her to Capri, where she was conveniently executed. Commodus did not marry again but retained Marcia as concubine. She evidently cared for him and might have made something of an emperor out of him, had she been given the chance. She is believed to have been a Christian, despite her equivocal moral position.
A Christian supporter in the Emperor's household...
Christian symbols were found in a brothel in Pompeii, and the moles that dug out the Roman underground railway kept turning up remains of ancient man-made life including a house of ill-fame with Christian symbols on the walls of the tiny rooms. So embarrassed were the authorities in the 1930s at the very idea that some of the girls may have been Christians, the excavation was quickly filled in and rehidden.
Marcia is reported to have consulted Bishop Victor I of Rome, shortly after his accession to the See in 189, requesting a list of the Christians exiled to work in the Sardinian mines. She then used her wiles with the emperor to secure their release. She was encouraged and aided by the highly placed court eunuch Hyacinthus, who was also a Christian presbyter.
The initiation of Commodus into the Mysteries of Mithras increased interest in the cult among the dignitaries of the empire and many sycophantic officers hastened to follow their sovereign's example. Mithraism ennobled fighting as a manly virtue and attracted both soldiers and gladiators. The cult had become particularly prominent throughout the empire during the reign of Trajan; when the legions were once more called on to conquer an enemy, not just to defend a border. Like Christianity Mithraism initially throve among the poorer classes.
Unfortunately Commodus did not reflect the virtues of loyalty and fidelity that his co-religionists were renowned for. His pusillanimous self-indulgence, his charmless infantilism, and his totally unimaginative hedonism increasingly alienated both the populace at large and those close to him. If you wanted to see him badly, that's the way he was. He was clearly on the verge of insanity, increasingly ruled by a stubborn strain of randy plaintiveness. His mental collapse was encouraged and pandered to by his greedily obsequious entourage. Only the honest servants had anything to fear from the venomous tongues of their avaricious colleagues.
On the last day of the year 192; when Commodus, in his eccentric way, proposed to dispense with the traditional and dignified formalities of the Roman New Year's Day, and instead of appearing before the people in the purple toga of an emperor, planned to march out in the equipment of a gladiator at the head of a procession of his blood-thirsty killers, Marcia tried to dissuade him but failed. Later in the day, when he retired for his siesta, he foolishly left out, where it was soon found and read, a list of people whom he proposed to have executed that very night.
The list was handed to Marcia who was horrified and disillusioned to find her name at the top, together with others who had tried to encourage a more dignified public image on the recalcitrant emperor. After consulting together, the proposed victims decided to forestall his plan with one of their own. When Commodus returned from the baths later in the day, Marcia handed him a cup of particularly fragrant and heavily poisoned wine. Commodus, in his intemperate way fell sound asleep, but not for long. He woke and was violently ill. Fearing that he had vomited the poison out of his system, the conspirators called in a strong man by the name of Narcissus who, on promise of adequate remuneration, took the still nauseous and weakened emperor by the throat and throttled him to death. Commodus was only thirty-one.
Marcia and her associates, keeping their heads, went at once to the home of the much admired general Publius Helvius Pertinax, a sixty-six year old veteran, who was swiftly accepted as emperor by both the Senate and the army. But after a blameless rule of only three months, the soldiery to whom Didius Julianus offered the promise of better wages murdered Pertinax. The kingmakers, including Marcia, were slaughtered with their candidate. The Christians had lost their advocate in the palace.
An illusionless skeptic...
The shocking murder of Pertinax and the contemptible interlude of Didius Julianus caused the commanders of the great provincial armies to stake their own claims. The ultimate victor in the conflict was Septimius Severus, who was proclaimed emperor in April 193. An illusionless skeptic, he ruled until his death at York in northern England in 211. He was a successful emperor in that he preserved the frontiers and by extortionate taxation succeeded in financing his needs, principally retaining the loyalty of his troops. He was an effective, but not particularly enlightened ruler, as is illustrated by the advice he gave to his sons as he lay on his deathbed: "Avoid quarrels, pay your soldiers well, and do not bother about anyone else".
He was a fantastically superstitious man. While on active service as commander of a legion in Syria he visited the temple of the Sun at Emesa and became acquainted with the presiding priest Julius Bassianus and his daughter Julia Domna. On learning that Julia had a horoscope which predicted she would be a ruler's wife Septimius promptly married her in 185. A year or so later their first son Caracalla was born at Lyons; in Rome in 189 she gave birth to another son, Geta.
Julia was intelligent and had great courage, and her influence and personality pervaded the whole empire. She became the most masterful empress Rome had ever experienced. It was probably due to her influence that Septimius, in the year 200, outlawed Christian baptism.
The harm done by theologians...
The bishop of Rome was Victor, born in a north-African province of the empire that is now Tunisia and part of Algeria. It was a Latin speaking area, but his native language was probably Punic or Berber. Victor was troubled by the first rumblings of dispute between the theologians who were working their disagreeable, ambiguous and contentious way towards a definition of the Trinity. It is arguable that, in the long run, probably no one group has done more harm to Christianity than the theologians, obscuring and complicating the original message of Jesus.
It was towards the end of Victor's rule that Irenaeus (c.130-202), bishop of Lyon, wrote his lengthy book against the Gnostic heresies. Deprecating the heretic's pretensions to possession of secret Apostolic teachings outside the accepted scriptures, Irenaeus declared that the teaching of the Apostles is to be discerned only in the churches with a regular succession of bishops from the time of the apostolic founders. He stresses the apostolic succession of doctrine, not jurisdiction. But, he also wrote, "the floor of Hell is paved with the skulls of bishops". He probably meant those bishops that didn't agree with him. He also claimed: "The bliss of the blessed is increased by the contemplation of the sufferings of the damned".
Stating that it would take too long to count up the series of bishops in all the Churches of Apostolic foundation he cites three: Rome, which received its faith from Peter and Paul; Smyrna in which Polycarp was appointed by the apostles; and Ephesus, founded by Paul and where John was claimed to have lived out his days. In a passage that is frequently quoted in defense of papal claims, Irenaeus went on to say of the Roman Church, "...with this church, because of its superior origin, it is necessary that every other church should be in communion — that is, the faithful everywhere; for in her the apostolic tradition has always been preserved by the faithful from all parts". Being in communion with did not mean subject to.
Irenaeus was not above censuring the Bishop of Rome when he disagreed with him on a point of discipline. Victor tried to impose the Western date for the celebration of Easter on the Asian churches. When they refused to abandon their own customs, according to Eusebius (264-340) who had access to the Roman archives:
"Victor ... endeavored to cut off ... the communities of the whole of Asia, together with the neighboring churches, from the common union, on the ground of unorthodoxy ... proclaiming that the brethren in those parts were all wholly excommunicate. Howbeit this did not please all the bishops without exception. On the contrary, they exhorted him ... to have a mind for the things which make peace and neighborly union and charity. And their words are extant also in which they censure Victor with unusual severity. One of these was Irenaeus who ... gives Victor much suitable counsel ... not to cut off whole churches of God for observing an ancient custom handed down to them... for the difference concerning the fast enhances the unanimity of our faith."
The primacy of Rome...
Victor's attempt to interfere with the Asian churches backfired and his action was condemned and resisted. The Christian historian Socrates says that Irenaeus "nobly attacked" Victor, "reproaching his hot-headedness". The churches in the second century were not disposed to follow the lead of Rome. They displayed natural resentment at the bishop there acting in an overbearing manner. Until the fourth century the bishops of Rome did not particularly emphasize their primacy, nor was there any attempt made to define it.
Some of Victor's over-reaching led to the Conciliar movement, which later challenged papal pretensions. He advised Bishop Polycrates of Ephesus, one of his principal opponents in the Easter-date dispute, to convoke a synod of bishops to discuss the matter. The synod duly supported Polycrates. But it also led to a plethora of other synods in Gaul, Italy, Asia Minor, Syria, Mesopotamia, Palestine, and Egypt, considering not only the Easter question but also the various heretical challenges to apostolic authority, considered to reside solely with the bishops.
Though Christians still tended to have a higher than normal mortality rate, Irenaeus took time out to castigate the Ebionites, the Jewish Christians, who utilized only their own version of the Gospel of Matthew, minus the later accretion, the Nativity myth; and their own Acts in which James the brother of Jesus played a more prominent role. They also dared to claim that Jesus had been born naturally as the son of Mary and Joseph and only became the Christ at his baptism. The original Apostolic teaching still retained a foothold somewhere.
NAVIGATION: You are presently looking at Part 12.2
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