Christians in the Roman Army: Countering the Pacifist Narrative

Christian pacifism has raised its profile in recent years, likely prompted by dissatisfaction with increasing political polarization, and promoted by some influential writers. Ideas promoted in the past century by Cecil John Cadoux and John Howard Yoder with little headway have found a modern defender in Stanley Hauerwas and a popularizer in Shane Claiborne, whose books, speaking tours and radical lifestyle have attracted many admirers if few followers.

Central to all of these authors’ ideas is the concept of the “fall of the church.” They hold that early Christianity was pacifist and anarchist in character, and rejected the ideas of military service and loyalty to the state. As Christianity came to be accepted by the Roman government at around the time of Constantine, the church became corrupted by its relationship with state power. After Constantine the church became willing to acquiesce to state power and wage war, execute people in the name of the state, force conversions, and recognize the authority of rulers other than Jesus. According to Yoder, the behavior of the early church is important because the early Christians “read the Bible in a first-century context. They read the New Testament in the same world in which it was written, in the same language in which it was written. They probably read it, therefore, with more understanding than we do. Hence, how they read the New Testament is helpful to us in our reading of the New Testament, whatever the limits of their faithfulness.”[1]

While the emperors and soldiers of the late Empire clearly used Christian symbolism, what about the army before Constantine?

I shall leave the theological portion of this debate for other websites. What I will do is examine the central historical claim of the “fall of the church” thesis: That Christians before the era of Constantine were pacifists who did not enlist in the Roman military. Unfortunately, none of the pacifist authors who have tackled this question have much experience in ancient history and it has led them to make certain errors which have led to erroneous conclusions.

First, to cover some basics of the Roman Army from Augustus to Constantine. The Roman army during this period was an all-volunteer force. No one was in the army who didn’t want to join. The Army was made up of two groups: The Legions and the Auxilia. Recruitment for the legions was open only to Roman citizens, who served for 20 years unless they were injured and medically discharged or were kicked out. On the other hand, the auxilia were recruited from the peregrini, the non-citizens of the provinces. Their term of service was 25 years, after which they received Roman citizenship as well as conubium, the right to marry a non-Roman wife but still pass on Roman citizenship to their children. The navy was smaller and accepted more non-citizens, but the model was essentially the same. As a result, service in the auxilia was a common route for social and economic advancement for those who were not Roman citizens. In 212, the emperor Caracalla decreed that everyone in the Roman Empire was now a Roman citizen, but  the auxilia did not disappear (many units were now centuries old with a storied battle history they were loath to part with), rather, they ceased to be a method for social advancement and became just another type of unit which included special units such as cavalry and archers.

Like everything else in Roman society, the army also had a pagan religious element. Festivals, sacrifices, and sacred ceremonies honoring the gods, the emperor, the Legion’s standards, and nonspecific deified ideals such as virtus and disciplina were commonplace. How Christians in the ranks would deal with the requirement to partake in these ceremonies would become a major issue.[2]

In the 1st century, we have some scraps of evidence of Christians in the Roman military. The gospel of Luke states that some soldiers (possibly from the Roman puppet Herod’s auxiliary forces) asked John the Baptist for religious advice, and he told them “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.” Matthew mentions that Jesus was visited by a centurion in Capernaum who asked him to heal his sick servant. Later, the book of Acts records that Peter preached at the house of a centurion named Cornelius who was stationed in Caesarea, and the man and his household became some of the first non-Jewish converts to Christianity.[3]

From the conversion of Cornelius at about AD 39 to AD 173, we have absolutely no sources referencing Christian participation in the army. None. It may have happened, it may not have happened. Either way, we know nothing about it, so speculating is futile.[4]

In 173, we have a story that would be easy to dismiss were it not documented by five sources. During the Marcomannic Wars, emperor Marcus Aurelius was leading the Legio XII Fulminata (“Thunderstruck”) campaign along the Danube against the Quadi, erstwhile allies of Rome who had switched sides. The Quadi met the legion with a superior force and drove them to an open field away from water sources. It was a hot day, and the Quadi halted their attack to allow heat and thirst to take its toll.

Surrounded, outnumbered, out of water, growing weak from thirst and in desperate straights, what is clear from the sources is that lots of men began to pray. Soon, a thunderstorm materialized. Lightning struck the treeline where some of the Quadi had gathered, scattering many of them. Rain and hail poured from the sky. No battle could be fought in such weather, so the Quadi withdrew, which was fortunate for the Romans as they were so busy gulping down water collected in their helmets and shields that they were hardly in a position to fight.

Relief on the Column of Marcus Aurelius in Rome, showing Roman troops surrounded by the Quadi as a rain god arrives with a thunderstorm on the upper right.

Christian authors Tertullian and Apollinarius said that the Christians in the legion prayed and credited them with providing rain, adding that Marcus Aurelius thanked his Christian soldiers for their prayers. Pagan writer Cassius Dio credited an Egyptian magician named Arnuphis who “invoked by means of enchantments various deities and in particular Mercury.” The unknown author of the Historia Augusta credited the prayers of Marcus Aurelius himself, he did not note the receiving deity. The event is also depicted in a relief on a column commissioned by Marcus Aurelius in Rome, where the rain is seen coming in anthropomorphic form, with a rain god spreading his arms over the troops.[5]

What can one make of this? The presence of Christians in Legio XII cannot be casually dismissed. The legion was normally based in Melitene in Cappadocia, a place with a large Christian population. The earliest Christian writer to mention the incident was Tertullian, who wrote about it a mere thirty years after it happened. Apollinarius, the other Christian to mention it, was from Melitene.[6] The accounts are easily reconcilable. One can surmise that once the unit was surrounded and in dire straits, the men began praying to the gods of whatever religion they happened to follow. The Christians prayed their God and the pagans to every god they could possibly think of. When rain fortuitously came, each man walked away convinced that his prayers had caused his personal deity to come through for everyone.

Since Cadoux and Yoder first published their views some decades ago, archaeology has shed new light on Christians in the Roman Army in the late 2nd and early 3rd centuries. A number of gravestones have been found that list a soldier’s religion as well as his unit. H. Leclerq recorded 8 pre-Constantian Christian gravestones of soldiers. The earliest is a gravestone of a Christian who served in Legio II Parthia and died in 201. This makes it not only the earliest Christian soldier’s inscription, but one of the oldest known Christian inscriptions period.[7] Legio II was raised by Septimius Severus in 197 in preparation for his invasion of Parthia, so the soldier in question cannot have served long before his death.

The remains of two Christian churches from the early 3rd century have been excavated by archaeologists, and both of them are linked to the Roman army. The oldest was discovered at Megiddo in Israel in the late 1990s. The church was built in a back room inside of a military fortress that served as the headquarters of the Legio II Traiana (“Trajan’s”) and Legio VI Ferrata (“Ironclad”). On the floor there is a mosaic depicting two fish as a symbol of Jesus Christ. Any doubt about the room’s use and the identity of its worshipers is removed by inscriptions written in Greek on the mosaics:

“The God-loving Akeptous has offered the table to God Jesus Christ as a memorial.”

“Gaianus, also called Porphyrius, centurion, our brother, has made the pavement at his own expense as an act of liberality. Brutius carried out the work.”

Mosaic on the floor of an early Christian church within the Roman army fortress at Megiddo.

Akeptous is a woman’s name, and the names of several other women were also written on the floor. This indicates women played some role in this church as well, despite having benefactors and a congregation likely made up of soldiers.[8]

The second church was located inside a house built against the city wall in the fortress city of Dura-Europos, on the west bank of the Euphrates on the Syrian frontier. The church was built around 241. The city also featured a synagogue as well as temples to Mithras and numerous polytheistic deities. Unlike Megiddo, we have no direct evidence that soldiers attended the church save the circumstantial evidence of its location inside a heavily fortified border garrison town that was home to thousands of Roman soldiers.

The church only operated for fifteen years. In 256, Dura-Europos became a target for Persian Shah Shapur I of the ascendant Sassanid Empire. In preparation for the siege, both the synagogue and the church were filled in with dirt in order to strengthen the walls (this preserved the numerous paintings which adorned the insides). It was futile. The city was taken in a violent assault that included one of the first recorded cases of the use of poison gas in warfare. The city was razed to the ground, its population deported, and was never rebuilt.[9]

Aerial view of the fortress town of Dura-Europos, on the west bank of the Euphrates on the border of Roman Syria.

Most of this archaeological evidence was unknown when Cadoux and Yoder were writing their works. As a result, the most discussed pieces of evidence are not the archaeological finds but the textual evidence from the early church fathers.

An often overlooked individual in this debate is a Christian named Sextus Julius Africanus. Born in Aelia Capitolina (formerly known as Jerusalem), he served as an officer in the Roman army before joining the civil service as a diplomat during the reign of Severus Alexander. For the rest of his life he traveled widely. He led an embassy to Edessa, sought funds to rebuilt Emmaus, worked to establish a library in Rome, visited Alexandria, Nysa and the site of Noah’s Ark. He met and later corresponded with Origen. The topics of his writings reveal him to be a polymath and one of the first Christian intellectuals to branch out of theology and into other fields. He wrote a work of history called the Chronography which drew on Christian, Jewish and Pagan sources. He engaged in textual criticism of the book of Daniel, proving that the additional sections in the Septuagint were not in the original text. Another work called the Kestoi dealt with science, magic and technology. Here he offered advice on military morale, tactics and technology, including swordsmanship, the proper use of war elephants and a recipe for making burning phosphorus. Unfortunately for his place in history, the vast majority of his writings have been lost.[10] His views on war and the validity of the state have not survived, but seeing as how he carried out the duties of both and wrote about them, it seems he did not categorically disapprove of either.

Most discussion of the textual evidence has centered around two prolific writers of the early 3rd century church: Tertullian and Origen. Here, the pacifists often commit what is known amongst ancient historians as the Everest Fallacy. That is, the lack of source material in the ancient world causes us to mistake the exceptional for the typical. The pacifists tend to take the writings of Tertullian and Origen as normative for Christian thought of the period, when in fact these two prodigious writers were exceptional theologians of their time. Using them as “typical” Christians of their time period is equivalent to seeing Mount Everest as a “typical” mountain, or William Shakespeare as a “typical” English playwright of the 16th century, or the Beatles as a “typical” British rock band of the 1960s. The truth is, many Christians of the early 3rd century were illiterate, and many other authors such as Julius Africanus have had their writings lost. Tertullian and Origen survived because they were considered exceptional, not because they were typical.

Reconstruction of the baptismal font in the church at Dura-Europos, at Yale University Art Gallery.

With that said, what do these two men say on the issue? Tertullian’s views changed over time. In the first years after his conversion, c. 197, he penned a work titled Apology (sometimes styled “Defense of the Christians”) where he argued that Christians were not dangerous subversives but were in fact loyal citizens of the Roman Empire deserving of official toleration and protection. After all, he said “We are not Indian Brahmins or Gymnosophists, who dwell in woods and exile themselves from ordinary human life.” Christians, he wrote, were normal members of society and valued the Empire because of the peace and security that it provided. Thus they prayed for its safety and continued survival. What did they pray for specifically? “We pray for life prolonged; for security to the empire; for protection to the imperial house; for brave armies, a faithful senate, a virtuous people, the world at rest, whatever, as man or Caesar, an emperor would wish.”[11]

To further his case, Tertullian pointed out that “We are but of yesterday, and we have filled every place among you— cities, islands, fortresses, towns, market-places, the very camp, tribes, companies, palace, senate, forum—we have left nothing to you but the temples of your gods.” Later, he added that “We sail with you, and fight with you, and till the ground with you…How it is we seem useless in your ordinary business, living with you and by you as we do, I am not able to understand.” Christians according to Tertullian were normal members of society in everything except their refusal to take part in pagan religious rites. They carried on commerce, farmed, and served in the navy and army (and were therefore found in “fortresses” and “the very camp.”). If they wanted to hurt the Empire they could, but they didn’t want to, because they were just as personally invested in its survival as everyone else.[12]

Later in life, Tertullian’s views changed. By about 206 he had embraced the Montanist movement, a sect of Christianity that put an emphasis on prophetic revelation and strict morality. Declaring that “what has not been freely allowed is forbidden,” he became legalistic, moralizing and harshly critical of the Roman government and political system.[13] When asked to comment on the propriety of Christians serving in the Roman military even if they were not required to make pagan sacrifices or execute people, he rejected the idea outright. Whereas he had once argued that Christians supported the Roman state, he now declared that “There is no agreement between the divine and the human sacrament, the standard of Christ and the standard of the devil, the camp of light and the camp of darkness. One soul cannot be due to two masters— God and Caesar…how will a Christian man war, nay, how will he serve even in peace, without a sword, which the Lord has taken away?”[14]

He expounded further on his views in another work titled “On the Military Crown.” This piece was occasioned by a Christian soldier who had refused to wear a laurel crown when his unit was personally inspected by the emperor. He was arrested for insubordination, tried, and sentenced to death. Some Christians condemned him for being an extremist and needlessly antagonizing the authorities. Tertullian came to his defense, arguing that the laurel crown was a symbol of the gods Apollo and Bacchus. While it might be permissible to use pagan goods for non-religious purposes, such as burning incense to get rid of a foul smell, he argued that crowns had no practical use outside of their symbolism and therefore Christians should have nothing to do with them.[15]

Inscription dedicating to “God Jesus Christ” a table which stood on the stone pedestal to the left, at the Megiddo church.

He then moved on to consider the issue of “whether warfare is proper at all for Christians.” He strongly concluded that it was not. How, he asked, could Christians wield a sword when Jesus told Peter to put his sword back in its place? How could a Christian soldier pull guard duty on the Sabbath when he won’t work? How could a Christian soldier guard pagan temples, or march under the flag of a regime hostile to Christianity? It was wrong, he argued, for Christians to have any loyalties but to Christ. Christians should not join the army and those in the army should leave immediately.[16]

Writing from Alexandria, Origen proposed a more systematic theory of Christian pacifism in his “Against Celsus.” Countering Celsus’ charge that Christians did not serve in the military, Origen argued that Christians did better by staying home and praying for the emperor, “wrestling in prayers to God on behalf of those who are fighting in a righteous cause, and for the king who reigns righteously, that whatever is opposed to those who act righteously may be destroyed.”

In response to Celsus’ charge that if everyone did as the Christians did the empire would be overrun by its enemies, Origen argued that Christianity uniquely had the potential to unite all the peoples of the world under one faith. Once everyone became a Christian and followed its pacifist teachings, there would be no more wars and no kingdom would have to worry about being conquered by another one.[17]

Where Origen went a bit fuzzy is about what was supposed to happen before this point. What happens when not all the world is Christian, and there are still wars and foreign invasions? He implied that some wars are just by saying that Christians should pray for the emperor’s success in war, but seemed to suggest that Christians become freeloaders and stay home while other people do the fighting.[18]

What is clear from this body of evidence is that in the late 2nd and early 3rd centuries many Christians were joining the army and many soldiers were converting. If they were not, Tertullian and Origen would not have felt the need to spill so much ink to write about it.[19]

Cleaning the Megiddo mosaic. The text on the left reads “Gaianus, also called Porphyrius, centurion, our brother, has made the pavement at his own expense as an act of liberality. Brutius carried out the work.”

There were several factors that made the army conducive to Christianity. Contrary to Claiborne’s claim that early Christianity was “filled with those who had been left in the wake of imperial progress – day laborers, working children, old folks, feisty revolutionaries, single working mothers, those with disabilities, immigrants, and other who just had nothing to lose,” early Christian conversion in fact was a province of the upper classes. Upon closer thought this should not be surprising, for a religion that is spread primarily by sacred texts presupposes the ability to read. Christianity spread along trade networks and into urban centers, amongst the merchants, administrators and tradesmen. The last areas penetrated by Christianity were the ranks of the rural poor.[20]

Roman soldiers, especially officers, were more likely to be literate as it was needed for administrative functions. Army units were constantly on the move throughout the empire, indeed, soldiers may have spread Christianity to some new areas such as Britain. After the sporadic persecutions of Nero, Trajan, and Marcus Aurelius in Lyons, Christianity entered a period of unofficial toleration. The emperor Alexander Severus even met with Origen personally and kept a statue of Jesus (along with statues of Orpheus, Abraham and Apollonius of Tyana) in his personal shrine. Caracalla’s decree in 212 granting citizenship to the entire empire likely opened the door for many more Christian recruits to join the legions. Throughout the first half of the 3rd century, “one gets the sense that the army had adopted a modus vivendi with its Christian troops by following an unofficial “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy” with regards to their religious beliefs and observance of Army religious practices. Likely, some form of accommodation and compromise was arrived at on the unit level. In Megiddo, it even appears that some of the officers themselves were Christians and funded church construction for their men. When the persecutions began during the reign of Diocletian, many commanders were reluctant to condemn their Christian soldiers, and some tried to give them every way out possible. They didn’t want to lose good soldiers over the seemingly arbitrary whims of the emperor.[21]

Against this evidence, Yoder was forced to admit that Christians did serve in the military before Constantine, but tried to justify his position by arguing that this time period was “The epoch of Pax Romana, an age of world peace. There were brushfire skirmishes with barbarians around the edge of the empire, but few Christians lived there. Most of the Mediterranean world had not seen war for centuries.” In this world, “Most Roman soldiers were simply bureaucrats. They carried the mail, administered roads, and enforced laws and the prison system.” Christians who joined the army  “probably did it because the work was easy and the rewards generous, without troubling themselves much with moral analysis.”[22]

This assessment of Roman history is, quite frankly, absolutely preposterous. First, to refute the idea that service in the Roman legions was “easy,” Flavius Vegetius’ account of the training of a Roman legionnaire can be found here. It included running, obstacle courses, vaulting over wooden horses in full armor, digging trenches, mock combat twice a day with “wooden swords double the weight of the common ones,” ruck marching with 60-pound packs, and field exercises featuring lengthy marches and maneuvering in formation. Conditions were harsh. Modern analysis of surviving legion rosters and discharge records estimates that only 50-60% of soldiers completed their full term of service. Combat, harsh military discipline, medical discharges, and disease took care of the rest.[23]

What is even more preposterous is the claim that the 3rd century was “an age of world peace.” Between the reign of Marcus Aurelius and the beginning of Constantine’s establishment as sole emperor in 324, there were no fewer than 21 wars against foreign enemies, three major secession movements, two major civil wars, and thirteen military coups. The period is referred to as the Third Century Crisis, and is generally seen as a time that nearly brought the Roman Empire to its knees. Of course most of these wars were on the borders of the empire. That is also where most of the soldiers were stationed.

Another pacifist, Roland Bainton, has claimed that Christians only served in non-combat positions, specifically in the positions of frumentarius, vigiles, beneficarius and protectores. The problem is, Bainton seems to have not been aware of what these positions actually were. A vigiles was a firefighter and could pass as a non-combat position, but the frumentarii were the emperor’s  intelligence agency and secret police. A beneficarius was a supply officer, but it was invariably an intermediate rank that a soldier held before his promotion to centurion. A protectores was an officer in charge of training, but the position did not exist before Constantine’s military reforms so no one would have held it pre-Constantine. Yoder and others have claimed that Christians served only as police to enforce civil order, not as soldiers, but this overlooks the fact that in most of the Empire soldiers were the police.[24]

Wall painting from the church at Dura-Europos showing Jesus and Peter walking on water.

The rapid growth of Christianity in the Roman Empire stoked fear and resentment amongst the pagan population, some of whom blamed the Christians for the gods’ apparent disfavor towards the empire. The first persecutions under Decius in 250 and Valerian in 260 were brief, and ended when each ruler was killed in battle.

Much worse came during the reign of Diocletian from 285 onwards. By this time, Christians had filled the ranks of the military to the point that Diocletian had doubts about the loyalty of his troops. Before he could begin a general persecution of Christians in the empire, he first had to purge the military of Christians. Soldiers were forced to offer a sacrifice to the Roman gods, if they refused they were to be expelled from service. Some were executed.

Numerous stories of military martyrs date to this time period. Many are unreliable, but many others are written in a style that indicate the accounts were based off of notes taken at an actual trial. The stories of soldiers such as Marinus, Maximilian, Marcellus, Dasius, Julius the Veteran, Tipasius and others are too lengthy to recount here. Their presence, however, reveals some facts about the presence of Christians in the Roman army. The men described were veterans and well-regarded by their fellow soldiers. Some of the men were officers or offered promotion to officer rank. Julius served 27 years, fought in seven campaigns and re-enlisted after his original term of service had expired. In many cases, their commanders were reluctant to act against them due to their exceptional service and offered them bonuses, gave them time to reconsider, or tried to make other accommodations to convince them to make the sacrifice and remain in the service.

What is important to note is that the soldiers’ trouble always came from refusing to sacrifice to the Roman gods or wear religiously symbolic clothing. We don’t have a case of a pre-Constantian soldier martyr who was brought to trial for refusal to fight. This indicates their objection was to Roman army religion, not to the concept of war and soldiering itself. Their long terms of service also seem to indicate that their rejection of army religion hadn’t been a problem for their officers until orders came down from above to start making it a problem.[25]

The debate over pacifism in the early church has often overlooked the views of Christians who lived outside of the Roman Empire. While few written sources that address the topic have survived, the actions of the kingdom of Armenia are an interesting case. Towards the end of the Diocletianic persecution Maximin Daia, the emperor of the east, attempted to extend the persecution into the Roman client state of Armenia. Armenia was at the time the world’s only officially Christian nation, and when Maximin’s troops attempted to enforce his decrees there the entire country rose in armed revolt and defeated the Roman forces.[26]

Wall painting from the church at Dura-Europos showing Jesus healing the paralytic.

So what are we to make of Origen and Tertullian? The available evidence seems to indicate that at the very least, a large number of Christians disagreed with them. Tertullian’s embrace of the Montanists clearly took him outside the mainstream of contemporary Christian thought of his era. Because of this, the pacifist views which he adopted after joining the sect were likely also outside of the mainstream. Origen is a more interesting case, but even here we can note that he corresponded with other scholars such as Julius Africanus who quite likely disagreed with him.

It is also interesting to note that the two scholars lived in the most peaceful parts of the Roman Empire at that time.[27] One can justifiably wonder if their views on war might have been different had they had lived in Britain, or the Danube frontier, or the border with the Sassanid Empire. As it was, once Constantine came to power and Christianity grew to encompass the majority of the population of the Roman Empire, Christians all of a sudden had to take on the duties of the responsible exercise of power. As a result, Ambrose and Augustine began to develop what became known as Just War theory, which has dominated Christian thought on the matter ever since.

There was no golden age of a pacifist church avoiding the worldly entanglements of politics, only to trade its soul to Constantine for earthly power. Instead, as Peter Leithart observes, “the story of the church and war is ambiguity before Constantine, ambiguity after, and ambiguity right to the present.”[28] The pacifists are reaching back for a mythical past that never existed. There has always been disagreement on the issues of war and the legitimacy of the state, and there likely always will be so long as the world breeds overreaching governments and discontented citizens.

Further Reading:

Cecil John Cadoux, The Early Christian Attitude Toward War (London: Headley, 1919), available online at: http://archive.org/details/earlychristianat00cadouoft.

John T. Helgeland, “Christians and the Roman Army, A.D. 173-337,” Church History, Vol. 43, No. 2 (Jun., 1974), pp. 149-163+200.

Peter J. Leithart, Defending Constantine (Madison, Wisconsin: InterVarsity Press, 2009).

John F. Shean, Soldiering for God: Christianity and the Roman Army (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2010).

Vassilios Tzaferis, “Inscribed ‘To God Jesus Christ’: Early Christian Prayer Hall Found in Megiddo Prison,” Biblical Archaeology Review, Vol. 33, No. 2 (March/April 2007), available online at: http://www.bib-arch.org/online-exclusives/oldest-church-02.asp.

John Howard Yoder, Early Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 2009).

References:

[1] John Howard Yoder, Early Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 2009), 43.

[2] John T. Helgeland, “Christians and the Roman Army, A.D. 173-337,” Church History, Vol. 43, No. 2 (Jun., 1974), p. 149-163+200; John Helgeland, Robert J. Daly and J. Patout Burns, Christians and the Military: The Early Experience (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 48-55; Arthur Darby Knock, “The Roman Army and the Roman Religious Year” Harvard Theological Review 45 No 4, 1952, p. 223-229.

[3] Luke 3:14; Matthew 8:5-13; Acts 10:1-48.

[4] Peter J. Leithart, Defending Constantine (Madison, Wisconsin: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 260.

[5] Eusebius, The History of the Church, trans. by G.A. Williamson (New York: Penguin Books, 1965), 5.5; Tertullian, Apology, trans. by S. Thelwall (1885), NewAdvent.org, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0301.htm (accessed April 19, 2012), 5; Cassius Dio, Roman History, trans. by Earnest Cary (1927), LacusCurtius, http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Cassius_Dio/home.html (accessed April 12, 2012), 72.8-10; Historia Augusta, trans. by David Magie (1932), LacusCurtius, http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Historia_Augusta/home.html (accessed April 12, 2012), Life of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, 24.4.

[6] Helgeland, et. al, Christians and the Military: The Early Experience, 32-34.

Note, the Christians did mistakenly assert that the legion’s nickname Fulminata came from this event. In fact, inscriptions show the name dates to the time of Augustus over 150 years earlier. (See Shean, Soldiering for God, 190-191).

[7] John F. Shean, Soldiering for God: Christianity and the Roman Army (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2010), 183.

[8] Vassilios Tzaferis, “Inscribed ‘To God Jesus Christ’: Early Christian Prayer Hall Found in Megiddo Prison,” Biblical Archaeology Review, Vol. 33, No. 2 (March/April 2007), available online at: http://www.bib-arch.org/online-exclusives/oldest-church-02.asp

[9] Carly Silver, “Dura-Europos: Crossroad of Cultures,” Archaeology, August 11, 2010 (online feature) http://www.archaeology.org/online/features/dura_europos/ (accessed April 19, 2010).

[10] Shean, Soldiering for God, 193-194.

[11] Tertullian, Apology, 30, 32, 42.

[12] Tertullian, Apology, 37, 42.

[13] “Tertullian,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14520c.htm; “Montanists,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10521a.htm; Tertullian, On The Military Crown, trans. by S. Thelwall (1885), NewAdvent.org, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0301.htm (accessed April 19, 2012), 2.

[14] Tertullian, On Idolatry, trans. by S. Thelwall (1885), NewAdvent.org, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0302.htm (accessed April 19, 2012), 19.

[15] Tertullian, On the Military Crown, 1-2, 7-10, 12.

[16] Tertullian, On the Military Crown, 11.

[17] Origen, Against Celsus, trans. by Frederick Crombie (1885), NewAdvent.org, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0416.htm (accessed April 19, 2012), 8.68-73.

[18] Leithart, Defending Constantine, 269.

[19] Leithart, Defending Constantine, 264-265.

[20] Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw, Jesus for President (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2008), 156; Shean, Soldiering for God, 113-114.

For more on the spread of Christianity, see Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity (HarperOne, 1997).

[21] Shean, Soldiering for God, 143-144, 155, 207-209, 244.

[22] Yoder, Early Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution, 50; John Howard Yoder, For the Nations: Essays Public & Evangelical (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1997), 70 n. 14.

[23] A Companion to the Roman Army, ed. by Paul Erdkamp (London: Blackwell, 2011), 427.

[24] Helgeland, “Christians and the Roman Army, A.D. 173-337,” 162-163.

[25] Helgeland, et. al, Christians and the Military: The Early Experience, 56-65; Shean, Soldiering for God, 186-205.

[26] Eusebius, The History of the Church, 9.8.

[27] Shean, Soldiering for God, 202-203.

[28] Leithart, Defending Constantine, 278.

Image Sources: (banner) http://www.amazon.com/The-Letter-Scroll-Archaeology-Tells/dp/B004JZWK2I; http://www.hijclothing.com/?p=499; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Missorium_Kerch.jpg (Body) http://employees.oneonta.edu/farberas/arth/arth212/late_antiquity_imp_image.html; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Miracolo_della_Pioggia.JPG; http://www.amazon.com/The-Letter-Scroll-Archaeology-Tells/dp/B004JZWK2I; http://www.archaeology.org/online/features/dura_europos/; http://blog.beliefnet.com/bibleandculture/2010/01/the-church-in-the-house-in-dura-europos.html; http://www.itsgila.com/highlightsarmageddon.htm; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Dura_Baptistry_Christ_walking_on_water.jpg

Article © Christopher Jones 2012.

10 responses

  1. I just read a book that deals with more or less the same subject matter: Donald O’Reilly, “The Lost Legion Rediscovered”. To be honest, it is not a good book; the author makes many mistakes. Nevertheless, he offers arguments that the legend of the Theban Legion (with Christian soldiers serving Probus, Carus, and Maximian) may contain an element of truth. Although I remain sceptical, I cannot deny that I also had the impression that O’Reilly may indeed have found the place where an incident like that of the Theban Legion might fit.

    April 20, 2012 at 3:19 PM

  2. Thank you, I’ll have to give that a look. I might do a post some time in the future on the stories of the military martyrs from a human interest angle. Right now it’s time to move on to writing about some other things.

    April 20, 2012 at 3:49 PM

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  4. Hippolytos wrote in c. 200:
    “A soldier of the civil authority must be taught not to kill men and to refuse to do so if he is commanded, and to refuse to take an oath. If he is unwilling to comply, he must be rejected for baptism. A military commander or civic magistrate who wears the purple must resign or be rejected. If an applicant or a believer seeks to become a soldier, he must be rejected, for he has despised God.” (Hippolytos, Apostolic Tradition 16:17-19)

    May 31, 2012 at 10:54 AM

  5. I chose to leave Hippolytus out of this article because although he tells us that he is opposed to Christians serving in the army, he doesn’t tell us why.

    June 1, 2012 at 10:44 AM

  6. The reference to Christians serving under Marcus Aurelius is brought up without mentioning the following passage.

    “Having then examined my own position, and my host, with respect to the vast mass of barbarians and of the enemy, I quickly betook myself to prayer to the gods of my country. But being disregarded by them, I summoned those who among us go by the name of Christians. And having made inquiry, I discovered a great number and vast host of them, and raged against them, which was by no means becoming; for afterwards I learned their power. Wherefore they began the battle, not by preparing weapons, nor arms, nor bugles; for such preparation is hateful to them, on account of the God they bear about in their conscience. ”

    One may argue that the writing is a forgery, but wouldn’t that also limit its use to prove Christians served under Marcus Aurelius?

    http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.viii.ii.lxxi.html

    September 10, 2012 at 9:12 PM

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  10. Very interesting read. Thanks!

    January 25, 2014 at 6:57 AM

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