Early Christianity

The Life of Sextus Julius Africanus, Part 2: The General

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It is especially good also to have an understanding of warfare. For I have also often wondered why outcomes in armed conflicts vary, and that whereas the Greeks have as a result been defeated by the Romans and the Persians by the Greeks, even so the Persians have never been defeated by the Romans; instead the nations of inner Asia are boasting of freedom and persist in asserting equality with us. So in allowing myself to consider this question, I found that the cause is neither superior generalship nor overall military power (for in war, no account is taken of numbers by the valiant), but rather the armament and the form of the military equipment.[1]

Thus Africanus began the section of the Kestoi concerning military matters. By the time he wrote the Kestoi between 227 and 231 Rome had been fighting the Parthians in the east on and off for 280 years with little success.[2] During Africanus’ own lifetime Septimius  Severus sacked the the Parthian capital of Ctesiphon but just as quickly withdrew. His successors Caracalla and Macrinus had diminishing success in their attempts to keep the Parthians at bay. The situation became even worse in 224 when Ardashir I overthrew the Parthians, established the new Sassanid dynasty, and announced his intention to restore the borders of the ancient Achaemenid Empire.[3]

War was clearly imminent, and when Africanus dedicated the Kestoi to the young emperor Alexander Severus it seems he intended the sections on military matters to serve as advice for the emperor or any other Roman military officer for the coming war.

His views were simply stated: War is decided by training, technology, and tactics. Superiority in all three will ensure victory. While this may seem obvious in the age of high-tech war, this was not always the case, and in the ancient world it was much more common to see fighting spirit and morale as the keys to victory rather than weapons technology. But Africanus seems to have been there, and done that, either on Sepitimius Severus’ campaign in 198, or Caracalla’s invasion in 216, or both. The gritty, down to earth viewpoint of the foot soldier seems to have been quite familiar to him, and we can surmise that he was possibly a junior officer.

Classical Greek depiction of a hoplite in armor.

Classical Greek depiction of a hoplite in armor.

Roman legionnaire showing tight-fitting helmet, chain mail armor and oblong shield.

Roman legionnaire showing tight-fitting helmet, chain mail armor and oblong shield.

In his chapter titled “armaments,” he noted that the Greeks fought with heavy armor and long spears. Their soldiers wore strong helmets with a leather liner on the inside that provided extra padding, greaves, breastplates and carried large round shields which attached to the forearm with two straps. With so much armor, they could only run short distances, but that was enough to run under the arrows of Persian armies and fight at close range.

The Romans, on the other hand, wore tighter-fitting helmets without the leather liner, and tying the cheek protectors made it difficult to turn the head. They wore chain mail instead of heavier scale armor, and their shields were tall and oblong and held by one hand, which made covering the shoulder difficult. But the Romans defeated the Greek phalanxes, because their lighter armor made them more agile and gave them more endurance, while Greek armor left their necks exposed to a quick slice or thrust by the longer Roman swords.

Yet as Africanus noted, “[those who have] been constantly victorious over the Greeks seldom defeated those who had been continually defeated by the Greeks.” In his estimation, Roman soldiers were too quick to lock their shields into a testudo formation and attempt to ride out the Parthian arrow attacks. “Truly such a habit is impractical,” argued Africanus, for while “one stands untouched, distressed by sun and toil, the barbarians in relay [are] attacking and withdrawing again, while by means of attacking successively, the nations are taking rest.” Furthermore,

Roman infantry locking shields in a testudo formation for protection against archers. Africanus argued this was a poor tactic which gave the enemy the initiative.

Roman infantry re-enactors locking shields in a testudo formation for protection against archers. Africanus argued this was a poor tactic which gave the enemy the initiative.

Roman helmets were too tight-fitting and made it difficult for soldiers to duck to avoid an arrow or slingstone. They were also prone to throw their javelins in one mass shower, “expending ten of them on once chance kill.” Their spears were far too short for holding off a charge from heavily armored Persian cataphracts who carried twenty-foot lances.

To solve this, he recommended that Roman troops be given Greek style helmets and breastplates, and longer spears, and trained to fight with individual initiative as well as in units. They should also be trained to charge the Persians immediately to get underneath the trajectory of their arrows rather than hiding under their shields trying to wait them out.[4]

Persian armies relied on cavalry, and Roman armies fighting the Persians would also need a lot of cavalry. Africanus spent much of his chapter on military affairs discussing the proper care and training of horses. The Parthians trained their horses to remain silent in battle so as not to give away an ambush, and Africanus suggested the Romans should do the same. He also gave recipes for number of noxious potions whose smell startled horses and made them dump their riders.[5]

Relief of a heavily armored Sassanid cataphract at Taq-e-Bostan, Iran.

Relief of a heavily armored Sassanid cataphract at Taq-e-Bostan, Iran.

But by far the greatest threat to Roman cavalry and infantry came from the Sassanid war elephants, and Africanus discussed in detail how to fight them. “An elephant in combat makes the impression of a mountain,” he wrote. “It overturns, it hurls down, it smashes, it annihilates, and it does not disdain at all anyone lying in its way…it overthrows the one who makes a stand, the one who flees it seizes, the one who falls it tramples, the horseman it terrifies, and the charioteers it hits from its tower.” Since horses are terrified of elephants, cavalry should be kept far away from them. Instead, Africanus recommended the use of archers firing burning arrows. Once the wooden tower on the elephant’s back was set on fire, the terrified beast would throw it off.

However, a terrified elephant was even more of an indiscriminate killing machine than a battle-trained one. “I personally am of the opinion, however, that it is better to neither stand up to the elephant at the outset nor to come in close with this manifold danger, but rather to anticipate its threats, its charges, its battles, and its falls,” wrote Africanus. Even better than the flaming arrows were iron caltrops. The army could feign a retreat and bury the sharp iron spikes in the sand behind them. Walking into this early minefield, the elephants would step on the spikes, and in the end “either in its suffering, it destroys those who are trying to relieve its incurable pain, or unable to stand it, collapses in a heap.”[6]

Sassanid war elephants fight Armenians at the Battle of Avarayr in this medieval Armenian depiction.

Sassanid war elephants fight Armenians at the Battle of Avarayr (AD 450) in this medieval Armenian depiction.

Africanus may have learned about caltrops at the Battle of Nisibis in 217. There, Macrinus’ Roman forces  made a tactical retreat and buried the sharp iron spikes in the sand behind them. Parthian cavalry mounted on horses and camels trod on the spikes and threw their riders. The Roman infantry then turned back and finished off the dismounted, lightly armored riders in hand-to-hand combat.[7]

His interest in elephants is all the more intriguing because the Parthians do not seem to have used them. It was the Sassanids who reintroduced war elephants, but when Africanus was writing the Romans had not yet encountered a Sassanid army. In fact, it is not at all clear that the Sassanids used elephants in battle against the Romans until the mid fourth century. But Africanus seems most concerned with practical advice, and it seems strange that he would describe a threat that had not been seen for hundreds of years. But elephants were linked to the Sassanid kings from the very beginning; stories about the rise of Ardashir mentioned a vision his grandfather saw a vision of a man riding on a white elephant, symbolizing power and kingship. It seems more likely that Africanus had some sort of intelligence about Sassanid affinity for elephants and that they were possibly training them for use in war. Anticipating that Roman troops would have to fight them, he consulted the history books to find out how to do it.[8]

Africanus had some other suggestions for training and tactics. Trenches made effective barriers against cavalry charges. Mathematical formulas were given for calculating the heights of walls and the width of rivers. Recipes were given for combustible chemicals that could be applied to enemy siege weapons in the middle of the night and would then burst into flame in daylight. Somewhat more strange were his designs for “intercepting sound” by digging a hole and covering it with a cloth. He claimed that a man standing in the hole could hear distant sounds not normally audible to the human ear. Other seemingly batty ideas probably worked just fine if people thought they would work. If you think that wearing a dead bat around your neck will keep you awake when on late night guard duty, it will. If you think eating a fighting rooster the night before a battle, in Africanus’ words “makes the one eating it heir to its own invincibility, and migrates along with its military prowess to the man,” it will.[8]

But battlefield tactics were only part of the equation. Africanus advocated a war strategy to take advantage of all the weaknesses of the Persian armies. “With them,” he wrote, “the marshaling of an army is makeshift, and means are limited, depending instead on booty from a surprise attack. They bring with them rations measured in days, and a fixed number of missiles also; when they are used up, flight is foreordained.” Persian armies were not professional but were made up of noblemen and ordinary civilians called up for military service. The lack of a rigorous logistics element in Persian armies made them vulnerable to certain strategies, he argued. “What then, is the point in confronting an enemy onslaught, when, if I wait them out, I will see them chased down by the time they have appointed for themselves? Starvation descends upon them the day after time runs out, their meager provisions having been used up to no end.”[9]

To defeat a citizen army Africanus advocated total war. His recommendations are sometimes shocking. In his section titled “On the Destruction of Enemies,” he advocated avoiding battle whenever possible and instead targeting the means for keeping an army in the field:

Time first of all, and attrition, starvation and deadly pestilence must especially be deployed against the barbarians…Let us see if we might even keep them from fleeing in starvation; let annihilation overcome them without the use of the sword, and death without battle. Let us defeat them with the air as an ally and water as our support, with the elements let us arm ourselves against them. I am commander of a secret battle array. The battle I am waging is in the shadows. Let every adversary fall down, when he breathes, thirsts for a drink, or eats. I make everything his peril.[10]

He advocated avoiding battle whenever possible and harassing the enemy with night raids to prevent sleep and weaken an opponent. The enemy’s fields were to be plowed with salt or seeded with poisonous hellebore. Fruit trees in enemy country should be cut down. “For me, more to be commended is one who orders the destruction of everything that grows in abundance,” he argued. The goal was “total annihilation.”[11] (more…)


The Life and Works of Sextus Julius Africanus, Part 1: The Diplomat

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bannerPt1Christianity at the end of the second century AD found itself at a crossroads. The new religion had survived persecutions and spread throughout the Mediterranean world and beyond. Yet, the last of those who had  known Jesus in the flesh had died a hundred years before. There were no longer any eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus, or even anyone left alive who knew the eyewitnesses. Knowledge about Jesus and the Apostles was now available only from church tradition and the written word.

At the same time, the growing faith was coming under increased intellectual attack. At around 165 AD the Syrian satirist and sharp-witted Epicurean Lucian of Samosata penned The Passing of Peregrinus, in which the title character, a murder and a child molester on the run from his native land, travels to Palestine and bamboozles the Christians into declaring him a prophet second only to Jesus.[1] Sometime towards the end of the century, Celsus published his famous critique of Christianity in which he argued that Jesus was a poor illegitimate child who learned sorcery while working in Egypt and returned to Galilee to proclaim himself a god.[2] Even the emperor Marcus Aurelius joined the discussion, writing in his Meditations that a man should be prepared to die at any moment, but ideally “this readiness comes from a man’s own judgment, not from mere obstinacy, as with the Christians, but considerably and with dignity and in a way to persuade another without tragic show.”[3]

The same basic criticism was being repeated by all three pagan critics: Christianity had no legs to stand on. Christians followed their religion on blind faith with no real intellectual argument as to why they or anyone else should do so.

In reverse, many Christians seemed to have decided that science, philosophy and reason were purely pagan constructs with no value. Clement of Alexandria lamented that some Christians “who think themselves naturally gifted, do not wish to touch either philosophy or logic; nay more, they do not wish to learn natural science.” Such people “demand bare faith alone, as if they wished, without bestowing any care on the vine, straightway to gather clusters from the first.”[4] His work titled Stromata was a double appeal for Christians to not reject Greek philosophy and Greeks to not reject Christianity as barbarian irrationality.

Traces of the Aelia Capitolina of Africanus' day peek up throughout modern Jerusalem. This street and accompanying shops of the Eastern Cardo were discovered next to the Western Wall plaza.

Traces of the Aelia Capitolina of Africanus’ day occasionally peek up through the surface of modern Jerusalem. This street and accompanying merchant’s stalls were discovered next to the Western Wall plaza.

Into this world walked Sextus Julius Africanus.

We do not know when exactly he was born, although we can estimate he was born sometime around AD 170. He once referred to Aelia Capitolina (Jerusalem, renamed by Hadrian after the Bar Kokhba revolt) as “the ancient fatherland” and also had longstanding ties to Emmaus a few miles away. If he wasn’t born in Jerusalem itself, it seems likely he was born and raised nearby.[5]

Of his family and early life we know nothing. His education, though lost to us, must have been extensive, for he showed not only command of Greek and Latin but also Hebrew and Aramaic. By faith he was most certainly a Christian, although when he came to this faith is not known. By nationality he was undoubtedly a proud Roman citizen. In his career he would serve as a military officer, diplomat and civil official in the empire who gained the Emperor’s ear at a time when Christians are often [mistakenly] thought to have pacifists and outsiders on the margins of society. As a scholar, he was a polymath with a wide variety of interests. Along with Clement and Origen, Africanus represented a new type of Christian intellectual, one who would harness the best of Greek and Roman philosophy and science in the service of Christianity.

Bust of Septimius Severus from the Altes Museum in Berlin.

Bust of Septimius Severus from the Altes Museum in Berlin.

At some point, likely early in his adult life, he entered the great source of social mobility in the Roman empire: the army. What has survived of his military writings reveals a man with plenty of experience fighting on the Euphrates frontier and an intimate familiarity with Parthian tactics  and weapons. There would be plenty of opportunities to gain experience.

On New Year’s Eve AD 192, Marcus Aurelius’ son Commodus was murdered in Rome. The Praetorian Guard proclaimed Pertinax emperor, then murdered him three months later and sold the throne at auction to Didius Julianus. The sale of the entire empire scandalized Rome, and three generals from the provinces vied to seize the throne. Septimius Severus arrived first and dispatched Julianus, then defeated his other two rivals in a four year civil war.[6] In March 194 he defeated Pescennius Niger in a series of battles in Asia Minor, and then purged Syria of his supporters. Those who escaped execution fled across the Tigris into Parthia.[7]

While the Romans were fighting each other, their former client state of Osroene banded together with the Parthian client state of Adiabene and besieged the frontier city of Nisibis in Syria. Severus marched to relieve the city, then sent three armies into the renegade kingdoms to restore them to the Roman orbit. Abgar VIII of Osroene gave over some of his children as hostages to assure Severus of his future loyalty. The small kingdoms were brought to heel, but once they had to be occupied with garrisons they were no longer effective buffer states between Rome and Parthia. As Cassius Dio put it, Severus “used to declare that he had added a vast territory to the empire and had made it a bulwark of Syria. On the contrary, it is shown by the facts themselves that this conquest has been a source of constant wars and great expense to us. For it yields very little and uses up vast sums; and now that we have reached out to peoples who are neighbor of the Medes and the Parthians rather than of ourselves, we are always, one might say, fighting the battles of those peoples.”[8]

The Roman-Parthian face-off in the Near East. Roman provinces are in red and Roman client kingdoms in pink. Parthian territory is in brown and Parthian client kingdoms in orange.

The Roman-Parthian face-off in the Near East c. 200 AD. Roman provinces are in red and Roman client kingdoms in pink. Parthian territory is in brown and Parthian client kingdoms in orange.

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Inventions of the Ancient Near East, Part 3: Tatian, Clement of Alexandria and the Battle for History

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Be not, O Greeks, so very hostilely disposed towards the Barbarians, nor look with ill will on their opinions. For which of your institutions has not been derived from the Barbarians? The most eminent of the Telmessians invented the art of divining by dreams; the Carians, that of prognosticating by the stars; the Phrygians and the most ancient Isaurians, augury by the flight of birds; the Cyprians, the art of inspecting victims. To the Babylonians you owe astronomy; to the Persians, magic; to the Egyptians, geometry; to the Phoenicians, instruction by alphabetic writing. Cease, then, to miscall these imitations inventions of your own.[1]

Thus the philosopher Tatian began his Address to the Greeks. An Assyrian by birth who was living in Rome in the mid 2nd century AD, Tatian first joined a pagan mystery cult before encountering the Christian Bible. He later described his conversion to Christianity:

I happened to meet with certain barbaric writings, too old to be compared with the opinions of the Greeks, and too divine to be compared with their errors; and I was led to put faith in these by the unpretending east of the language, the inartificial character of the writers, the foreknowledge displayed of future events, the excellent quality of the precepts, and the declaration of the government of the universe as centred in one Being.[3]

As a result, Tatian jumped into the role of a cultural critic of the society that he once embraced. The Greeks saw themselves as the height of human civilization, but Tatian argued that many of their cultural and technological triumphs originated amongst the “barbarians” that 2nd century Greeks looked down on.

Cuneiform star chart from the Royal Library of Nineveh. From the British Museum in London.

Cuneiform star chart from the Royal Library of Nineveh. From the British Museum in London.

Where we can check Tatian’s claims many of them prove to be accurate. Babylonian astronomy is well known to pre-date Greek civilization by thousands of years. Mathematical texts show us that the Egyptians made numerous advances in geometry and were able to calculate volume, the area of a triangle, and may even have developed a basic understanding of the Pythagorean Theorem long before Pythagoras.[4] And all the alphabets in the world are descended from the writing system of the Canaanites and Phoenicians which developed in the 2nd millennium BC.

So, why dispute the ages of inventions with the Greeks? Tatian’s main argument was that Judaism, and by extension Christianity, pre-dated Greek paganism and was therefore more likely to be true. Moses, after all, pre-dated Homer, for no one could agree when Homer actually lived while the histories of the Babylonians and Phoenicians established the early date of the Jews.[5]

Furthermore, he argued that Greek paganism was not only a recent invention but also immoral:

Aristotle, who absurdly placed a limit to Providence and made happiness to consist in the things which give pleasure, quite contrary to his duty as a preceptor flattered Alexander, forgetful that he was but a youth; and he, showing how well he had learned the lessons of his master, because his friend would not worship him shut him up and and carried him about like a bear or a leopard He in fact obeyed strictly the precepts of his teacher in displaying manliness and courage by feasting, and transfixing with his spear his intimate and most beloved friend, and then, under a semblance of grief, weeping and starving himself, that he might not incur the hatred of his friends.[6]

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Mary, Mother of God

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Any historian who sets out to write a biography of the historical Mary is immediately confronted by two divergent narratives. The first view, held by Catholic and Orthodox Christians (and in part by Muslims) sees Mary as a girl consecrated from birth, who remained completely devoted to the service of God before, during and after the life of Jesus. According to this view, Mary was perpetually a virgin, married in name only, and had no biological children. On the other hand, the Protestant view (as well as that held by many modern critical scholars) is that Mary was a young, poor peasant girl raised, betrothed and married in the normal fashion. After the birth of Jesus she gave birth to other biological children.

Tradition holds this grotto under the Church of St. Anne in Jerusalem to be the birthplace of Mary, however this tradition only seems to date to the 5th century AD.

Tradition holds this grotto under the Church of St. Anne in Jerusalem to be the birthplace of Mary, however this tradition only seems to date to the 5th century AD.

Every aspect of her life is muddled by the tension between the two views. Each view of Mary – prototypical nun or wife and mother – comes loaded with its own set of theological implications that are beyond the scope of this article. Most authors simply choose one interpretation, mention the other view in order to quickly dismiss it, and call it a day. But this fails to answer the important question of how we ended up with two narratives in the first place, and why so many people believe one or the other to be correct. Rather, this article will begin at the beginning of Mary’s life, take all sources into account, and work from there.

One immediately runs into difficulties establishing any basic facts about Mary’s early life. Her parents are not named in any 1st century sources, but tradition in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches holds that they were named Joachim and Anna. This cannot be traced earlier than the 2nd century.

Scholars have long grappled with the different genealogies given for Jesus in Matthew and Luke. Matthew traces the descent of Jesus from David and Solomon, through the Judean kings and then through the descendants of Jehoiachin in the post-exilic period. Luke on the other hand traces Jesus’ descent from David’s lesser known son Nathan.[1]

Many scholars beginning with John of Damascus in the 7th century have sought to explain the two competing genealogies by arguing that Matthew shows the ancestry of Joseph while Luke shows the ancestry of Mary. Yet, Luke explicitly identifies Jesus as “the son, so it was thought, of Joseph son of Heli.”[2] Advocates of this view are forced to propose a textual corruption of some sort and that the text originally read that Jesus was a descendant of Heli. The text would be reconstructed as something like “the son (as it was supposed, of Joseph, but really) of Heli.” Advocates of this view further argue that the name Heli is short for Eliakim, another variant of the name Joachim, the traditional name for the father of Mary.[3]

But why is Mary never mentioned in her own genealogy? John of Damascus argued that it was because “it was not the custom of the Hebrews nor of the divine Scripture to give genealogies of women,” ignoring that Matthew’s genealogy lists four of them and the genealogies of 1 Chronicles 1-8 mention numerous women whenever they were deemed to be  worth mentioning. It seems rather strange that Luke, who otherwise paid much more attention to Mary than Joseph, would fail to mention Mary in his account of her lineage and substitute Joseph instead. Other scholars came up with different explanations for the discrepancy. For instance, in the early 3rd century, Sextus Julius Africanus argued that the line of Joseph had been muddled with numerous levirate marriages, and that original records had been lost, leading Matthew and Luke to reconstruct the ancestry of Joseph as best they could from oral traditions and private family records. Hence, they ended up with different lists.[4]

Regardless of the names of Mary’s parents, Luke does inform us that Mary was related to Elizabeth, the wife of Zechariah the priest and the mother of John the Baptist. Both Elizabeth and Zechariah were descendants of Aaron, the first high priest. Zechariah “belonged to the priestly division of Abijah,” one of the 24 priests named by David in Jerusalem.[5] This implies that Mary did not belong to the tribe of Judah, as is often alleged, but to the tribe of Levi. It also means that, contrary to the common Protestant claim that Mary was a poor peasant, she was in fact born into the hereditary ruling class of Jewish society. She definitely was not some sort of proto-marxist heroine of the lower classes as envisioned by certain neo-Anabaptist authors. Protestant Midrash aside, by the end of the 1st century BC, the priestly families of Jerusalem lived in large houses, had accumulated extreme amounts of wealth and held a lot of political power. Most of them seemed to have belonged to the Sadducee sect which attracted the powerful and wealthy but had little influence amongst the general population.[6]

Beneath the foundations of the Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem lie the remains of mansions belonging to the priestly families of Judea from the 1st century AD. If Mary was born into a priestly family, she likely grew up in a setting similar to this, enjoying the finest things that the land of Judea had to offer.

Beneath the foundations of the Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem lie the remains of mansions belonging to the priestly families of Judea from the 1st century AD. If Mary was born into a priestly family, she likely grew up in a setting similar to this, enjoying the finest things that the land of Judea had to offer.

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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.

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The Great Persecution

Christianity may have begun as a small group of a few dozen followers of Jesus, but it grew at a steady clip for the next two centuries. By the late 3rd century AD this growth had exploded into a major religion within the Roman Empire. Many members of the upper classes had converted, especially women. Christians served in the army and held positions in the civil service. Christian churches were organized throughout much of the empire, with bishops in major cities and pastors leading local congregations throughout towns and villages. Churches were built in most cities as Christians moved out of meeting in private houses to create their own places of worship.[1]

Meanwhile, the Roman Empire was falling apart in fifty years of unrest known as the Third Century Crisis. The prosperous, largely peaceful empire of the Severan Emperors gave way to constantly changing governments, weak emperors and numerous military coups. Foreign invasions threatened all of the borders of the empire and some regions of the empire sought to secede and break away. The protracted unrest caused the economy to take a nose dive. The government sought to address the problem of low tax revenues by devaluing its currency, which made the problem worse. Poverty caused many people to leave cities and become semi-serfs, working land owned by large landowners.

Romans were looking for answers as to why their once powerful empire was in decline. As in so many similar cases throughout history, many of them answered these questions by blaming religious minorities. Traditional Roman religion did not recognize any such concept as the separation of church and state. The state employed numerous priests to conduct rituals, make sacrifices and read omens, all to ensure the favor of the gods upon the state. If the state was experiencing ill fortune, then the gods must be displeased and punishing the Roman people.

If the gods were displeased, for many people the obvious reason for their displeasure were the Christians, the Manichaeans and other religious groups growing in numbers across the empire. The Christians argued that they were good citizens – they paid taxes, lived moral lives, followed the laws, and served in the military – and that this qualified them as loyal Romans despite their refusal to offer sacrifices to the Roman gods. Most of the time, the Roman authorities had tacitly if not officially accepted this argument. Sporadic persecutions occurred numerous times, but in the 3rd century they became more frequent and drastic. The emperors Decius and Valerian each issued decrees that Christians must sacrifice to the Roman gods or be executed.

This stage of persecution ended when Valerian was captured by the Persians in 260 and Christianity was again tolerated, but the crisis continued. Nevertheless, friction between pagans and Christians continued. The Christian church, with its hierarchical structure, social support networks, and ruling bishops of Rome, Alexandria and Antioch, was viewed as a threat to Imperial power, a sort of potential fifth column who did not follow the Roman gods and therefore was damaging the Roman state. To make matters worse, Christianity’s outlaw status made it an attractive religion for all those within the empire who hated Rome. Especially in Egypt and North Africa, Christianity became associated with local nationalism and anti-Roman sentiment.[2]

In short, Christianity was viewed as an internal threat to the unity and security of the empire. This view was especially strong amongst Imperial officials, whose hatred of Christians is evidenced by the numerous tortures many of them devised which went above and beyond their mandate. As is also often the case throughout history, leaders sought to pin blame on a disliked minority in order to divert attention from their own failings.

Late 3rd Century bust of Diocletian, now on display at the Museum of Archaeology in Istanbul.

Into this world stepped a 40 year old army officer named Diocles. Born in Salona, Dalmatia (modern day Solin in Croatia) to parents of low birth, he had enlisted in the army and worked his way up through the ranks. In 284, the reigning emperor Numerian was murdered by soldiers in Syria. The army then declared Diocles emperor, and he changed his name to the more Latin-sounding Diocletian. After defeating an army led by Numerian’s brother Carinus in modern day Serbia, he took control of the entire empire in 285.

Diocletian set out to radically transform the entire Roman Empire. The first and most obvious problem to be rectified was the growth of military power: between 235 and 285 there had been no fewer than 13 military coups. To put a stop to this, in 293 Diocletian split the empire into four parts, called the Tetrarchy. Two sections of the empire would be governed by Augusti, theoretically ruling as equals but with Diocletian as the practical senior partner. Two other sections would be governed by lesser rulers given the title of Caesar, who would be trained to eventually succeed the Augusti. This system kept army commanders from gaining too much power, as each was under the control of a more local ruler.

Diocletian named Maximian the Augustus of the western empire, ruling Italy, Africa and Spain with his capital at Milan. Constantius was named Caesar of Britain and Gaul with his capital at Trier. In the east, Diocletian himself took control of Egypt, Syria and Asia Minor, with his capital at Nicomedia. He named Galerius Caesar of the Balkans and Greece, with his capital at Sirmium on the Danube. All three of these men also hailed from the Balkans: Maximian came from Sirmium in modern Serbia, Galerius from Serdica in Dacia (modern Sofia, Bulgaria) and Constantius from Dardania in what is now Serbia. Rome was no longer the capital city of the empire that bore its name.[3]

Map of the Tetrarchy, as established in 293.

Aside from this decentralization of power into four parts, the rest of Diocletian’s reform involved accumulating as much power as possible to the person of the emperor. Whereas Augustus and those who followed him had adopted the title princeps, claiming to be a “first among equals” and striving to preserve the fiction of the old Republic, Diocletian adopted the title dominus, formerly a term used by slaves to refer to their masters. Now, instead of a “first among equals” from among the free citizens, the Roman people were his slaves and he was their master. Visitors to the imperial court were required to prostrate themselves before him, and if they were lucky they were allowed to kiss the hem of his robe. Previously, the power and legitimacy of the princeps was said to be derived from the Senate and the Roman people. Diocletian instead declared himself to be the gods’ representative on earth. His legitimacy was derived from the gods, not from any earthly source. He gave himself the name Jovian, as the earthly representative of Jupiter. Maximian followed suit, calling himself Herculius to compare himself to Hercules. The Senate was almost completely ignored, reduced to ruling the now unimportant city of Rome.[4]

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“Magi from the East”

It is one of the most enigmatic stories in the New Testament: the gospel of Matthew reports that sometime shortly after the birth of Jesus, “Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.’”[1] The enigmatic nature of Matthew’s account stems from its brevity. He apparently thought the Magi needed no introduction, so his readers at the time would already have known who they were. But who were they?

The origins of the Magi begin with the live of the prophet Zoroaster (or Zarathrustra). Unfortunately, we know very little about Zoroaster’s life. We don’t even know what century he was born in. Most of his writings have been lost. What we do know is that he lived in what is now central Asia or eastern Iran, and that his teachings formed the core of a new monotheistic religion now known as Zoroastrianism.

In the meantime, Magi first appear in the historical record in the seventh century BC, not in Persia but in the kingdom of the Medes. Herodotus listed the “Magoi” as one of the six tribes of the Medes. They were described as a priestly class, but their main task appears to have been the interpretation of the king’s dreams. In this respect they were like similar “wise men” kept at the courts of various Near Eastern monarchs such as the Babylonian kings.

Persians and Medes on a relief from Persepolis. The Persians were cylindrical hats and the Medes wear rounded hats.

Dream interpretation would be the Median Magi’s downfall. According to Herodotus’ semi-legendary account, the Median king Astyages had a series of dreams which the Magi interpreted as meaning that his grandson from his daughter’s marriage to a Persian would eventually rule all of Asia. He ordered his infant grandson to be murdered. However, the man assigned to kill the child did not do so but gave away the child, who was raised by a cowherd and his wife in the Median hills.

The boy was later summoned before Astyages, who recognized his facial features. Astyages again consulted his Magi, who told him that there was now nothing to fear, because “some of our prophecies come to very little significance” and suggested that because the boy had been playing “king” with other children, this was the fulfillment of the prophecy that he would be king. The Magi reminded Astyages that they had every reason to seek to keep him in power, as their own power and status depended on it.

The boy later gained the name Cyrus, and led a revolt of Persians against Astyages. After Astyages suffered a defeat, he had the Magi who advised him to let Cyrus live impaled in the capital city of Ecbatana. Nonetheless, Astyages’ army was defeated again and Astyages was captured by Cyrus in 550 BC. This ended Media’s independence and inaugurated the era of the Persian Empire. Cyrus would go on to capture Babylon in 539 and rule the largest empire the world had yet seen, stretching from Judea to Anatolia to the Hundu Kush.[2]

The next mention we find of the Magi was their institution by Cyrus as Zoroastrian priests. The government of the Persian Empire was inextricably linked to Zoroastrianism. Cyrus himself sang a hymn every day and made sacrifices as the Magi dictated. Magi accompanied Cyrus from his early campaigns onwards. They were present at the capture of Babylon and were given the authority to select first-fruits offerings from the plunder of the city.[3]

The Magi also directed Cyrus to make sacrifices to the local gods after capturing Babylon. Zoroastrians believe that Ahura Mazda (God) created all religions and chose to manifest himself to different peoples in different ways, and therefore all religions are equal, and the righteous from all religions go to heaven. This belief shaped the Persian Empire’s policies of religious toleration. Cyrus is famous for issuing the Edict of Restoration allowing Jews to return to their homeland, but everywhere the Persians conquered they allowed the locals to worship in the manner which they thought best.[4]

Two abandoned Dakhma or “towers of silence” in Yazd province, central Iran. The remains of deceased Magi were left in towers like these to be eaten by carrion birds and decay naturally before the bones were buried.

Other nations may have had their gods, but Ahura Mazda was the God of the Persian people and his priests were tasked with ensuring the rulers and the people performed proper worship. “The Persians,” according to the Greek writer Xenophon, “think that they ought to consult professional instructors in affairs relating to the gods more than in others.”[5] The austere religious customs of the Magi seemed strange to surrounding polytheistic peoples. According to Herodotus, “the Magi differ a great deal from the rest of the human race.” Their temples contained sacred fires which were kept constantly burning. Their dead were disposed of on top of a Dakhma or “Tower of Silence,” where they were left to be eaten by vultures and decay until the only the skeletons remained so as to avoid polluting the air, earth or water.[6]

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The Letters of Abgar V

The fish ponds at the palace of Edessa still exist today, with added Islamic architecture.

An Arab by ethnicity, known as Abgar in Greek (and Acbarus or Agbarus in Latin), Abgar V was the king of a small Syriac kingdom called Osroene, with his capital at Edessa.[1] Osroene was generally a pawn in power struggles between Rome, Armenia and Parthia, surviving by aligning itself with whatever faction was most powerful at the moment. Abgar II had been a Roman client before switching to the Parthians just before the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BC. Abgar V first came to power in 4 BC, became a Roman client, lost his throne in 7 AD and regained it five years later. He would hold onto power for the next 37 years, an impressive feat for a monarch caught between two sparring great powers. He also found time to meddle in Parthian dynastic succession, and instigate a proxy war by the kingdom of Petra against his personal rival Herod the Tetrarch.[2]

Yet, what concerns us here is not Abgar’s political maneuvering but another event of his reign. Abgar is alleged by several ancient authors to have corresponded by letter with Jesus Christ. Later, he is reported to have converted to Christianity, becoming the first ruling monarch in the world to do so.

The first mention of this is in Eusebius’ History of the Church, written 300 years after the events described. According to Eusebius, Abgar V had contracted a chronic illness which had turned life-threatening. Having heard from travelers about this man called Jesus who could perform miraculous healings, he contacted Jesus via courier. Eusebius reports that he personally examined both Abgar’s letter and Jesus’ response which were preserved in the Record Office in Edessa. He translated them from Syriac to Greek and published both of them in full in his History. Abgar’s letter reads:

Abgar Uchama the Toparch to Jesus, who has appeared as a gracious savior in the region of Jerusalem – greeting.

I have heard about you and the cures which you perform without drugs or herbs. If report is true, you make the blind see again and the lame walk about; you cleanse lepers, expel unclean spirits and demons, cure those suffering from chronic and painful diseases, and raise the dead. When I heard all of this about you, I concluded that one of two things must be true – either you are God and came down from heaven to do these things, or you are God’s son doing them. Accordingly I am writing to you to come to me, whatever the inconvenience, and cure the disorder from which I suffer. I may add that I understand the Jews are treating you with contempt and desire to injure you; my city is very small, but highly esteemed, adequate for both of us.

In Jesus’ alleged response dictated to Abgar’s courier, he politely declined the offer to relocate to Edessa but promised to send a disciple there in the future:

Happy are you who believed me without having seen me! For it is written of me that those who have seen me will not believe in me, and that those who have not seen me will believe and live. As to your request that I should come to you, I must complete all that I was sent to do here, and on completing it must at once be taken up to the One who sent me. When I have been taken up I will send you one of my disciples to cure your disorder and bring life to you and those with you.[3]

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