www . compassionatespirit . com

The Early Christian Attitude to War

Back Next

Table of Contents / Abbreviations / About this book / Books / Home

Page 147, cont.


The position of Cyprianus, bishop of Carthago, a universally respected and highly influential Churchman, is somewhat uncertain. On the one hand, he includes in his general complaint over the degeneracy and calamities of the time the fact that the numbers and efficiency of the soldiers were decreasing,(1) and never says in so many terms that a Christian ought not to serve in the legions, even when he has occasion to refer to two who had done so.(2)

On the other hand, he says some

1. Cypr Demetr 3 (decrescit ac deficit in aruis agricola, in mari nauta, miles in castris), 17 (deminutione castrorum).

2. Referring to a certain Celerinus, who had suffered in the persecution of Decius (250 A.D.), he says (Ep 39 (33) 3): "His paternal and maternal uncles, Laurentinus and Egnatius, themselves at one time serving as soldiers in the secular camp, but (being) true and spiritual soldiers of God, in overthrowing the devil by the confession of Christ, earned by their famous passion the Lord's Palms and crowns." We shall have to refer to this passage later; but here we may note that it is at least possible that Laurentinus and Egnatius suffered because they wished to leave the service on the ground either of idolatry or bloodshed or both. We shall meet several similar instances later on.

Page 148

remarkably strong things about war, which more than overbalance his casual and rhetorical allusion to the deficiency of soldiers. He speaks of the


wars scattered everywhere with the bloody horror of camps. The world is wet with mutual blood(shed): and homicide is a crime when individuals commit it, (but) it is called a virtue, when it is carried on publicly. Not the reason of innocence, but the magnitude of savagery, demands impunity for crimes.(3)

God wished iron to be for the cultivation of the earth, and for that reason acts of homicide ought not to be committed.(4)

Adultery, fraud, homicide is mortal sin (mortale crimen) ... after celebrating the eucharist, the hand is not (i.e. ought not to be) spotted with (the use of) the sword and with blood.(5)

Further than that, his immense respect for his fellow-countryman Tertullianus, whom he called his 'master' and whose ardent antipathy to secular things in general he evidently shared, creates a very strong presumption that he agreed with him as to the illegitimacy of military service for Christians. This presumption is supported by the fact that the body of Maximilianus, who was martyred at Teveste in Numidia in 295 A.D. for refusing to allow himself to be enrolled as a soldier, was conveyed by a Christian matron to Carthago, and buried near Cyprianus' tomb.(6)

The Neoplatonic philosopher Plotinos, writing about 268 A.D., said: "God Himself ought not to fight on behalf of the unwarlike; for the law says that (men) ought to be brought safe out of wars by being courageous, but not by praying. For it is not those who pray, but those who attend to the earth, that







3. Cypr Donat 6.


4. Cypr Hab Virg 11.



5. Cypr Bon Pat 14.






6. Ruinart 342.


Page 149

(ought to) reap its produce."(7) When we consider the connections of Plotinos with Egypt and Alexandria, the fact that both he and Origenes had been pupils of the philosopher Ammonios Sakkas, the reputation of Origenes in philosophic circles, and the standing hostility of the Neoplatonists to Christianity, we can hardly doubt that the passage just quoted is an allusion to the closing chapters of Origenes' Contra Celsum, where the author defends the Christians for refusing military service on the ground of the intercessory prayers they offer. Such an allusion would be somewhat pointless, unless Plotinos believed that the position he was criticizing was at least fairly widespread among Christians.

In 295 A.D. occurred the famous and oft-told martyrdom of Maximilianus, to which allusion has just been made. He was a young Numidian Christian, just over twenty-one years old, and was brought before Dion the proconsul of Africa, as fit for military service. He refused to serve, or to accept the soldier's badge, saying repeatedly that he could not do so, because he was a Christian and served Christ. Dion tried again and again to overcome his objections, but without success.

It is fairly clear from the martyr's own words that his objection was largely, if not solely, to the business of fighting. The question of sacrificing to idols or to the Emperor is not mentioned by either party. "I cannot serve as a soldier," said Maximilianus; "I cannot do evil; I am a Christian." Dion told him: "In the sacred retinue of our lords Diocletianus and Maximianus, Constantius and Maximus, there are Christian

7. Plotinos, Ennead III ii. 8 (Teubner i. 237). I owe this reference to De Jong (16).
Page 150

soldiers, and they serve." Maximilianus replied: "They know what is fitting for them: but I am a Christian, and I cannot do evil." "What evil do they do who serve?" asked the proconsul. "Thou knowest what they do," was the reply.(8)

Nothing more could be done, and Maximilianus was sentenced to and suffered the death-penalty. His body, as has been stated, was taken to Carthago and buried near the tomb of Cyprianus; his father returned home thanking God that he had sent forward such a gift to the Lord(9); the story of his trial and death were speedily committed to writing; and he was ultimately received among the saints of the Church. All this shows what a large measure of sympathy and approval was evoked by the stand he took, among the Christians of his own and the immediately succeeding period.(10) There are, as far as I know, no grounds for

8. Ruinart (341), to whom we are indebted for an edition of the Acta Sancti Maximiliani Martyris tells us that this last question and answer are absent 'in editis,' the reason for the omission apparently being that the words contradict the traditional Roman Catholic view of war. Ruinart inserts the words, but suggests that they mean that Maximilianus "did not reject military service as if it were evil in itself, but on account of the opportunities of sinning which soldiers often meet with." This is clearly insufficient to account for the language used; and the Roman Catholics remain faced with the awkward fact that one of the canonized saints of the Church died as a conscientious objector! It is significant that Bigelmair, throughout his full treatment of the Christian attitude to military service, makes no mention of Maximilianus at all. He is certainly an awkward martyr for a Romanist to deal with, but doubly so for one who is both a Romanist and a German.

9. Maximilianus' father, Fabius Victor, is somewhat of an enigma: though he refused at Dion's bidding to persuade his son to give way and rejoiced over the latter's witness, yet as 'temonarius' (? = person responsible for finding a recruit) he had himself presented Maximilianus before the proconsul, and had got him a new coat in anticipation of his enlistment. The exact situation is a little obscure: but I do not know what grounds Harnack (MC 85) has for assuming that Fabius Victor was himself a soldier and remained so after his son's death. The 'temonarius,' as far as I can discover, was not necessarily a soldier: De Jong (19 f) discusses the meaning of the word at length.

10. The genuineness of the Acta Maximiliani is generally admitted (Gibbon, ch xvi, note 146 (ii. 120, ed. Bury); Harnack C ii. 473, MC 84 n 2). Harnack reprints them (MC 114 ff) from Ruinart.

Page 151

supposing that Maximilianus had come more under the influence of Tertullianus than other Christians of northern Africa, or that Christians who refused to serve belonged for the most part to Montanistic sects.(11) It is probably true that such instances of refusal were sufficiently numerous to have helped to bring about that imperial suspicion and dislike, out of which sprang the great persecution of 303 A.D.(12)

In the latter part of the third century, the difficulty over idolatry, etc., in the army became acute. Regulations had long been in existence which forbade any who would not sacrifice to the Emperors to hold a commission in the army. While these regulations had been allowed by the authorities to fall into desuetude, the fact that they were still technically in force made it possible for any one to appeal to them, if a favourable opportunity arose; and when that was done, they had to be enforced. It is possible that the two soldier-martyrs mentioned by Cyprianus were the victims of some such occurrence.(13)

However that may be, a clear instance occurred at Caesarea in 260 A.D., when, after the cessation of persecution, a distinguished military officer named Marinus was about to be promoted to the rank of centurion, but, being denounced as a Christian by the next claimant to the vacancy and declared ineligible for promotion in view of the ancient laws, was given three hours for reflection,



11. These are Guignebert's suggestions (199).

12. Gibbon, ch xvi (ii. 120f, ed. Bury); Lecky i. 460; Gwatkin, Early Church History, ii. 328f.







13. See p. 147, n 2. It is also just possible that the martyrs to whom he says (Laps 2): "(Your) forehead, pure with God's sign, could not bear the devil's crown, (but) kept itself for the Lord's crown," were soldiers who had refused some pagan rite (so apparently B.-Baker ICW 31); but more probably the phrase is simply metaphorical.

Page 152

returned at the end of that time from an interview with his bishop (who told him he must choose between his sword and the Gospels), reaffirmed his Christianity, was sentenced to death, led away, and beheaded.(14) Marinus waited for the occasion of conflict to arise, and when it arose he seems neither to have had nor to have sought a chance of retiring from the service.

But Marcellus the centurion, who was martyred at Tingi (Western Mauretania) in 298 A.D., took the initiative himself, and insisted on resigning his office. On the occasion of the Emperor's birthday, he cast off his military belt before the standards, and called out: "I serve (milito) Jesus Christ, the eternal king." Then he threw down his vine-staff and arms, and added: "I cease from this military service of your Emperors, and I scorn to adore your gods of stone and wood, which are deaf and dumb idols. If such is the position of those who render military service, that they should be compelled to sacrifice to gods and emperors, then I cast down my vine-staff and belt, I renounce the standards, and I refuse to serve as a soldier."

While the objection to sacrifice thus appears as the main ground for the bold step Marcellus took, it is clear that he was also exercised over the nature of military service as such: for his last words to the judge were: "I threw down (my arms); for it was not seemly that a Christian man, who renders military service to the Lord Christ, should render it (also) by (inflicting) earthly injuries."(15) When



14. Eus HE VII xv. Cf the remarks of Harnack ME ii. 58 f, MC 78 ft.











15. Ruinart 344 (Projeci. Non enim decebat Christianum hominern molestiis saecularibus militare, qui Christo Domino militat); cf 345 (cum Marcellus . . . proclamaret, summa auctoritate constantiae molestiis saecularibus militare non posse).

Page 153

he was sentenced to death, Cassianus, the clerk of the court, loudly protested, and flung his writing-materials on the ground, declaring that the sentence was unjust: he suffered death a few days after Marcellus.(16)

In the years preceding and following the outbreak of persecution in 303 A.D., we come across several cases of Christian soldiers leaving the army or suffering martyrdom, either on the ground of a general sense of the incompatibility of their official functions with their religious duty, or else on the specific ground of refusing to offer heathen sacrifices. The doubtful 'Acts of Typasius' tells us that he was a soldier of Mauretania, who had served with credit, but, desiring to devote himself wholly to religion, refused a royal donative, and shortly after obtained from Maximianus an honourable discharge. Some years afterwards (305 A.D. or later) he was recalled to the ranks, but as he refused to re-enter the service, he suffered martyrdorn.(17)

Seleukos, a stalwart Cappadocian, who held a distinguished position in the army, at the beginning of the persecution had to endure scourging, but then obtained his discharge.(18) Tarakhos of Cilicia also obtained his discharge on the outbreak of persecution: at his subsequent trial at Tarsus, he told the governor that he had been a soldier, "but because I was a Christian, I have now chosen to be a civilian"(19) --words which suggest rather more than a mere objection to offer pagan sacrifices.

The martyrdom of Nereus and Achilleus at Rome also probably falls to



16. See the Passio S. Cassiani in Ruinart 345.








17. Anal Bolland ix. 116 ff. The historical reliability of the story is very doubtful; cf Harnack C ii. 481 f, MC 83 n 4.


18. Eus Mart xi. 20-22.



19. Acta Tarachi, etc., in Ruinart 452.

Page 154

be included here. Pope Damasus (366-384 A.D.), who took a great interest in the records and tombs of the martyrs, put up an epitaph (which has since been discovered) to two praetorian soldiers, Nereus and Achilleus, who, he says, "had given (their) name(s) to military service, and were carrying on (their) cruel duty," but "suddenly laid aside (their) madness, turned round (and) fled; they leave the general's impious camp, cast down (their) shields, helmets, and bloodstained weapons; they confess, and bear (along) with joy the triumph of Christ": they were put to death with the sword. Uncertain as we are of the date of their martyrdom, the most reasonable supposition is that it fell in or shortly before the time of the persecution of Diocletianus--a supposition which is confirmed by the various other cases of a similar kind which we have just noticed. The references to the 'impious camp' and the 'bloodstained weapons' remind us both of the offence of idolatry and also of that of bloodshed.(20)

The office of the judge and magistrate, though it shares with that of the soldier the infliction of bodily damage and death upon other men, yet exhibits this infliction in a less wholesale and indiscriminate, a less objectionable and shocking, form. Further than that, it resembles far more closely than the soldier's position does those numerous and useful public services which involve nothing in the way of violence to others. While the element common to the law-court and the










20. See Achelis in Texte und Untersuchungen XI 2 (esp. PP. 44 f), for a full study of the fictitious Acta of these martyrs, as well as of the historic groundwork. Harnack (MC 83) says: "The Acts of Nereus and Achilleus . . . are to be left on one side"--but the same need not be said of Damasus' epitaph.

Page 155

army made Christians sensitive in regard to the former as well as to the latter, the dissimilarity between them caused the objections to the one to be far more strong and definite than the objections to the other.

The views of Christians in the latter part of the third century in regard to law-courts, magistracies, death-penalties, and so on, would form an interesting supplement to their views on military service. The evidence unfortunately is more scanty than we could wish. Two passages, however, of some interest may be quoted.

The Didaskalia definitely forbids the Christian to sue a wrongdoer in a pagan court.


It is very high praise for a Christian to have no evil dispute with anyone: but if, through the work of an enemy, temptation arises against anyone,(21) let him try earnestly to be freed from him, even though he has to suffer some harm; only let him not go to the judgment of the gentiles. . . . Let not the gentiles know of your legal disputes; and do not accept evidence from them against yourselves: nor in your turn prefer suits in their courts.(22)  

We have seen that the Canons of Hippolutos in their original form forbade the admission to the Church of a magistrate who wielded the power of the sword. We do not know how long this original regulation remained unmodified. Very probably the modifications took place at different times and rates in different places. We know that in the latter part of the third century it was certainly not universally observed; for in the times preceding 303 A.D., there were Christian governors of provinces(23): at Alexandria










21. I omit the words "eique fit iudicium," which follow here in Funk's Latin version: they are out of keeping with the context, do not appear in the parallel Greek of the Apostolic Constitutions, and are clearly a gloss.


22. Didask II xlv. i, xlvi. 1.






23. Eus HE VIII i. 2.


Page 156

there was a Christian official who daily administered justice attended by a guard of soldiers(24): in Spain there were Christian magistrates. But a regulation may remain in existence a long time after people have begun to break it, as the long survival of the Eastern Church-Orders proves; and even where it was felt that such a rule, however desirable as an ideal, could not be enforced in practice and ought not therefore to be authoritatively laid down, the sentiment of repulsion towards the penal and bloody side of a magistrate's work still made itself felt.

One of the Canons of the Synod of Illiberis (Elvira, in the south of Spain), which apparently met about 300 A.D., ran: "Resolved, that it be laid down that a (Christian) magistrate, during the one year in which he holds the office of duumvir, should keep himself away from the church."(25) Hefele regards the patronage of idolatry connected with the office as the ground of this decision,(26) but Dale rightly views this as insufficient. "Tertullian," says Dale, "enumerates acts which, though part of the common experience of all magistrates and rulers during that age, were inadmissible in the true servant of Christ. "As to the duties of civil power," he says, "the Christian must not decide on any one's life or honour--about money it is permissible; he must bind no one, nor imprison and torture any."

It was considerations of this nature, rather than the idolatrous associations connected with the office, which led the Synod to exclude the official, during his year of tenure, from communion with the


24. Eus HE VIII ix. 7.






25. Can Illib 56. The duumvir in a provincial town was roughly what the consul was at Rome, viz. the chief magistrate. The same Synod penalized Christians who acted as 'informers' (Can Illib 73).

26. Hefele 161.


Page 157

Church: for to sentence even a slave to death, to imprison the debtor, or to put the household of a suspected criminal to the rack, though the duty of a magistrate, would in the Christian be a sin.(27) The sense of the incongruity of Christianity and political life in general, more particularly on its punitive and coercive side, expressed itself in the strong disapproval that was felt--even down to mediaeval and modern times--to the direct participation of the Christian clergy in any activities of this kind.(28)

We conclude our study of this section of the subject with a few passages from two Christian authors who flourished towards the close of our period, viz. Arnobius and Lactantius. Arnobius speaks as if abstention from warfare had been the traditional Christian policy ever since the advent of Christ. The amount of war had been diminished, he said, not increased, since Christ came.


For since we--so large a force of men--have received (it) from his teachings and laws, that evil ought not to be repaid with evil, that it is better to endure a wrong than to inflict (it), to shed one's own (blood) rather than stain one's hands and conscience with the blood of another, the ungrateful world has long been receiving a benefit from Christ, through whom the madness of savagery has been softened, and has begun to withhold its hostile hands from the blood of a kindred creature. But if absolutely all . . . were willing to lend an ear for a little while to his healthful and peaceful


27. A. W. W. Dale, The Synod Of Elvira, 234 f. The Synod of Arelate (Arles, 314 A. D.) provided that Christian magistrates, who "begin to act contrary to the discipline, then at last should be excluded from communion; and similarly with those who wish to take up political life" (Can Arel 7).

28. Cf Cypr Laps 6 for an early expression of this sentiment.


Page 158
decrees, and would not, swollen with pride and arrogance, trust to their own senses rather than to his admonitions, the whole world would long ago have turned the uses of iron to milder works and be living in the softest tranquillity, and would have come together in healthy concord without breaking the sanctions of treaties.(29)

Lactantius is still more definite and uncompromising. He explicitly rules out both military service and capital charges on the ground that, involving homicide, they are a violation of justice. We may recall a few salient passages. Referring to some indefinite earlier time, he says:


Fire and water used to be forbidden to exiles; for up till then it was thought a wrong to inflict the punishment of death on (those who,) though (they were) evil, (were) yet men.(30)


If God alone were worshipped, there would not be dissensions and wars; for men would know that they are sons of the one God, and so joined together by the sacred and inviolable bond of divine kinship; there would be no plots, for they would know what sort of punishments God has prepared for those who kill living beings.(31)

Latterly the gentiles had banished justice from their midst by persecuting the good; but even if they slew the evil only, they would not deserve that justice should come to them; for justice had no other reason for leaving the earth than the shedding of human blood.(32)


Someone will say here: 'What, therefore, or where, or of what sort is piety?' Assuredly it is among those who are ignorant of wars, who keep concord with all, who are friends even to their enemies, who love all men





29. Arnob i. 6: see above, pp. 65 f.






30. Lact Inst II ix. 23.






31. Lact Inst V viii. 6.




32. Lact Inst V ix. 2.


Page 159
as brothers, who know how to restrain (their) anger, and to soothe all fury of mind by quiet control.(33)  

In controverting the argument that the just man is foolish, for, to save his own life, he will not in warfare take a horse away from a wounded man, Lactantius answers that, for one thing, the just man will never be faced with these circumstances.


For . . . why should he wage war, and mix himself up in other people's passions--he in whose mind dwells perpetual peace with men? He . . . who regards it as wrong, not only to inflict slaughter himself, but even to be present with those who inflict it and to look on, will forsooth be delighted with . . . human blood!(34)  

In criticizing patriotic wars, he says:


In the first place, the connection of human society is taken away; innocence is taken away; abstention from what is another's is taken away; in fact, justice itself is taken away, for justice cannot bear the cutting asunder of the human race, and, wherever arms glitter, she must be put to flight and banished. . . . For how can he be just who injures, hates, despoils, kills? And those who strive to be of advantage to their country do all these things.(35)


Whoever reckons it a pleasure that a man, though deservedly condemned, should be slain in his sight, defiles his own conscience, just as if he were to become spectator and sharer of a murder which is committed in secret.(36)


When God prohibits killing, He not only


33. Lact Inst V X. 10.








34. Lact Inst V xvii. 12 f. The gaps in my quotation deal with the parallel case of the just man who in a wreck will not take a plank from a drowning companion. Lactantius absurdly argues that the just man will never need to take a voyage, being content with what he has. Though in this point he allows his rhetoric to get the better of his common sense, it does not follow that his argument on the other point, ill-adapted as it was to the immediate purpose in hand, was equally frivolous.

35. Lact Inst VI vi. 20,22.




36. Lact Inst VI xx. 10.


Page 160
forbids us to commit brigandage, which is not allowed even by the public laws; but He warns (us) that not even those things which are regarded as legal among men are to be done. And so it will not be lawful for a just man to serve as a soldier--for justice itself is his military service--nor to accuse anyone of a capital offence, because it makes no difference whether thou kill with a sword or with a word, since killing itself is forbidden. And so, in this commandment of God, no exception at all ought to be made (to the rule) that it is always wrong to kill a man, whom God has wished to be (regarded as) a sacrosanct creature.(37)

Lactantius does not either claim or suggest that there were no Christians in the army when he wrote; and his language may perhaps be held to imply that he is counteracting the opinions of other Christians: but he could hardly have written as he did, if his views were merely those of an inconsiderable handful of extremists. One would rather gather that he must have been conscious of having at his back a very large body of Christian sentiment and conviction.









37. Lact Inst VI xx. 15-17.