Christianity 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. 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. 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.”
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.” His work titled Stromata was a double appeal for Christians to not reject Greek philosophy and Greeks to not reject Christianity as barbarian irrationality.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.”
The Parthian empire had once been an ally of Rome. Parthians and Romans had fought together to finish off the Seleucid Empire in 63 BC, and enjoyed peaceful relations after. This all changed in 54 BC, when the ambitious Roman Marcus Licinius Crassus launched an unprovoked invasion of Parthian Syria with the intent to march on Seleucia and conquer the Parthian empire. Instead, his army was annihilated in the Syrian desert at the Battle of Carrhae. Of Crassus’ 38,000 men, only 8,000 or so made it back to Roman territory. 20,000 Romans were killed, and 10,000 were prisoners in Parthia.
The immediate result of the campaign was a Parthian invasion of Roman Syria under the command of a general named Osaces and Pacorus, the son of the Parthian ruler Shah Orodes II. The death of Crassus and many of his officers left Gaius Cassius Longinus as the ranking Roman commander in Syria. While the Parthians besieged Antioch, Pacorus was recalled to Parthia by his father. Cassius rallied the remaining Roman troops in the area and broke the siege, then defeated the Parthians again at Antigonea. In this battle, Osaces was killed and his troops dispersed.
The first round of Roman-Parthian conflict thus ended in a status quo ante bellum. As a result, like the United States and USSR 2000 years later, the two superpowers of the ancient Near East in the 1st century BC saw continued direct war as too risky and destructive when compared to its potential benefits. Therefore, the struggle between them for regional supremacy turned from confrontation to war by proxy. Struggle between armies was replaced by each side meddling in each other’s internal struggles, supporting rebel factions and fighting proxy battles with client states.
The first shot of the proxy war came from Cassius’ replacement as governor of Syria. Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus arrived in 51 BC to take control of the province from Cassius. He sought to divide the Parthians against each other so as to preclude further invasions of Roman territory. Bibulus befriended a Parthian satrap named Ornodapates, who carried an old grudge against Orodes. Using Ornodapates as a go-between, Bibulus constructed a plot to stage a coup d’etat, overthrow Orodes and install his son Pacorus on the throne in his stead. The plot failed, but the resulting strife temporarily distracted Parthia from any westward expansion.
While the Parthians were otherwise preoccupied, the political situation in Rome was spiraling out of control. Once allies, Julius Caesar and Ganeus Pompey were now enemies. In 49 BC, their rivalry and refusal to disband their armies spilled over into open civil war. Julius Caesar rapidly marched on Rome, forcing Pompey to withdraw to Greece without a fight. Pompey spent the winter of 49-48 BC regrouping in Greece and preparing for a decisive showdown against Caesar.