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The Early Christian Attitude to War

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Page 89, cont.


Before we enter upon an examination of the course actually pursued by Christians in regard to service in the Roman legions, there is one more introductory study we shall have to undertake, viz. that of the unfavourable criticisms passed by Christians on the seamy side of the military character its they knew it in practical life, and the harsh treatment they received at the hands of soldiers with whom they came into conflict. The reader will of course understand that what we are here concerned with constitutes only one side of the picture; the other side, showing us instances of kind treatment and so on on the part of soldiers, will come to light at a later stage

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of our enquiry. At the same time, the aspect now before us was a very real and a very painful one, and is not without a fairly direct bearing on the early Christian attitude to war.

The main fact in the situation was that the soldier, being charged with ordinary police duties as well as with military functions in the narrower sense, was the normal agent of governments in giving effect to their measures of persecution. While the illegality of Christianity did not become a part of the imperial policy until 64 A.D., numerous acts of persecution were committed before that date. John the Baptist had been beheaded in prison by one of Antipas' guards.(1) Jesus himself had been mocked, spat upon, scourged, and crucified by soldiers.(2) James, the son of Zebedee, was executed by one of Agrippa's soldiers.(3) Peter was guarded in chains by others, and escaped a like fate only by a miraculous deliverance.(4) Paul endured long confinement in the hands of the military; and, when the ship in which he and other prisoners were being taken to Rome was wrecked, the soldiers advised that they should all be killed to prevent any of them escaping.(5) Both Paul and Peter were eventually martyred at Rome, doubtless by the hands of soldiers.

In 64 A.D. Nero's act in persecuting the Christians in order to divert from himself the suspicion of having set Rome on fire, inaugurated what proved to be the official policy of the Empire until the







1. Mk vi. 27 f.

2. Mk xv. 16-20, 24; Mt xxvii. 27 ff; Lk xxiii. It, 36 f; John xix. 2, 32 ff. The soldiers of Antipas, as well as the Roman soldiers, were implicated.

3. Ac xii. 2: this is surely implied when it is said that Herodes slew him with a sword.

4. Ac xii. 6, 18 f.


5. Ac xxvii. 42, xxviii. 16, etc. Cf xvi. 23 f.

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time of Constantinus. That policy was that the profession of Christianity was regarded as in itself a crime against society--like piracy, brigandage, theft, and arson--and as such was punishable with death by virtue of the ordinary administrative powers of the Roman Governor.

Refusal to participate in the widely practised worship of the Emperor or to recognize any other of the pagan gods, strong disapproval of idolatry and all other manifestations of pagan religion, dissent and aloofness from many of the social customs of paganism, secret meetings, nocturnal celebration of 'love-feasts,' disturbance caused to family life by conversions--all these had resulted in making the Christians profoundly unpopular, and brought upon them the suspicion of being guilty of detested crimes, such as cannibalism and incest, and the stigma of being regarded as thoroughly disloyal and dangerous members of society. Such was the basis upon which the imperial policy rested.

As individual Emperors varied in their attitude to Christianity (some even going so far as to grant it a de facto toleration), as the popular hatred would flame out and die down at different times and in different places, and lastly as the provincial governors had large discretionary powers and would differ widely in their personal views, the imperial policy of stern repression was not carried out consistently or uniformly. There would be extensive regions and lengthy intervals in which it would lie dormant. Here and there, now and then, it would break forth in varying degrees of severity: and whenever it did so, the task of carrying out the state's decrees devolved upon the soldiers, as the policemen of the Empire.

More than that, it is easy to see that, inasmuch as the conduct of

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official proceedings against the Christians rested in the hands of the military, they must often have borne the main responsibility for the occurrence of persecution.(6) We come across many traces of their activities in this direction. Thus Ignatius of Antioch wrote to his friends at Rome: "From Syria as far as Rome I am fighting with beasts, by land and sea, night and day, having been bound to ten leopards, that is (to say), a squad of soldiers, who become worse even when they are treated well. By the wrongs they do me, I am becoming more of a disciple."(7) The arrest and burning of Polukarpos at Smyrna were evidently carried out by the military.(8) When Karpos was burnt at Pergamum, it was a soldier's hand that lit the faggots.(9) In the dreadful persecution at Lugdunum (Lyons) in 177-8 A.D., we are told that "all the wrath of populace and governor and soldiers fell in exceeding measure" upon certain of the martyrs, whose appalling sufferings cast a sinister light upon the character of their tormentors.(10)

Clemens and Origenes group soldiers with kings, rulers, etc., as

6. There is no need here to discuss in greater detail the legal aspect of persecution or to give a sketch of the different outbreaks. The reader will find the former excellently dealt with in E. G. Hardy's Christianity and the Roman Government (London, 1894), and the latter in any good Church History.

7. Ig R v. I. Gibbon, writing in 1776, said of the imperial Roman armies: "The common soldiers, like the mercenary troops of modern Europe, were drawn from the meanest, and very frequently from the most profligate, of mankind" (Gibbon, Decline and Fall, i. 9 f, ed. Bury). Harnack says: "The conduct of the soldiers during peace (their extortion, their license, their police duties) was as opposed to Christian ethics as their wild debauchery and sports (e.g. "the Mimus") at the Pagan festivals" (ME ii. 52). Marcus Aurelius (Medit x. 10) called successful soldiers robbers; but he was a soldier himself, and was obliged to fill his ranks with gladiators, slaves, and Dalmatian brigands (Capitolinus, Hist. Aug. Life of M. Antoninus Philosophus xxi. 6 f).

8. M. Pol vii. I mentions diogmitai Kai ippeis meta ton sunethon autois oplon os eti lusten prechontes; xviii. 1 o kenturion burns the body.

9. Karp 40.

10. M Lugd in Eus HE V i. 17 ff

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one of the parties regularly implicated in the futile persecution of Christianity.(11) Tertullianus numbers them as strangers and therefore enemies of the truth, their motive being the desire for gain.(12) Christians seem to have been exposed to as much danger from the interference of the military as from the hatred of the mob.(13) It seems to have been not unusual for imperilled or imprisoned Christians or their friends to secure better treatment or even release or immunity by secretly bribing an influential soldier, justifying their action by saying that they were rendering to Caesar the things that were Caesar's: Tertullianus disapproved of the practice.(14)

The apocryphal Acts of Thomas (225-250 A.D.) tell how the Apostle, being sentenced to death, was struck by four soldiers and slain.(15) When Pionios was burnt at Smyrna in the persecution of Decius (250 A.D.), a soldier nailed him to the stake.(16) The sufferings of Dionusios of Alexandria in the same persecution were due to his treatment by the military.(17) In the persecution of Valerianus (258-9 A.D.) the same story is told: the arrest, custody, and execution of Cyprianus at Carthago were carried out by the proconsul's soldiers(18): the martyr-acts of Marianus and Jacobus, who suffered in Numidia, tell us that in the region of the martyrdom "the attacks

11. Clem Strom VI xviii. 167; Orig Cels i. 3.

12. Tert Apol 7 (i. 308): Tot hostes ejus quot extranei, et quidem proprii ex aemulatione Judaei, ex concussione milites, ex natura ipsi etiam domestici nostri.

13. Thus Tertullianus warns those who wished to buy themselves off: neque enim statim et a populo eris tutus, si officia militaria redemeris (Tert Fug 14 (ii. 119)).

14. Tert Fug 12-14 (ii. 110-120).



15. Acts of Thomas 168 (iii. 282; Pick 360).

16. M Pionii xxi. 2.

17. Dion Alex in Eus HE VII xi. 22, VI xl. 2, 4.

18. Pont Vit Cypr 15, 18. Similarly in the Passio Montani el Lucii iii. 1, iv. 2, vi. 3, xi. 2, xxi. 9 (Gebhart 146 ff).

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of persecution swelled up, like waves of the world, with the blind madness and military offices of the gentiles," that "the madness of the bloody and blinded governor sought for all the beloved of God by means of bands of soldiers with hostile and aggressive minds," that the martyrs were guarded by "a violent band of centurions," and that they were "assailed with numerous and hard tortures by a soldier on guard, the executioner of the just and pious, a centurion and the magistrates of Cirta being present also to help his cruelty."(19) Fructuosus, who suffered death in Spain, was hurried to prison by the soldiers.(20) In the interval of comparative peace between 259 and 303 A.D., the bigotry of certain pagan soldiers was more than once the cause of death to Christians in the army.(21)

The great persecution begun by Diocletianus and his colleagues in 303 A.D. and continued in some parts of the Empire until 313 A.D. opened with the sack of the great church at Nicomedia by military and other officials, and the complete destruction of the building by the Praetorian Guards, who "came in battle array with axes and other instruments of iron."(22) In the account given by Eusebios of the sufferings of the Christians, particularly in the East, soldiers appear at every turn of the story, as the perpetrators either of the diabolical and indescribable torments inflicted on both sexes(23) or of the numerous other afflictions and annoyances incidental to the






19. Passio Mariani et Jacobi ii. 2, 4, iv. 3, vi. 1 (Gebhardt 135 ff).

20. Passio Fructuosi I (Ruinart 264).

21. See the facts reported by Eusebios in HE VII xv. and VIII iv., and cf below, 151 ff.



22. Lact Mort Pers xii.

23. Eus HE VIII x. 3 ff, Mart iv. 8-13, vii. 2, ix. 7, cf Passio Tarachi, etc. 2 (Ruinart 454). It is fairly safe to assume that the infliction of torture referred to in other passages (Eus HE VIII iii. 1, v. 2, vi. 2-4, 6, viii, ix., etc., etc.) was carried out by soldiers, even though they are not explicitly mentioned.

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persecution.(24) In Phrygia, for instance, they committed to the flames the whole population of a small town which happened to be entirely Christian.(25)

Besides these allusions to the iniquities of persecution and besides the expressions of horror at the barbarities of war in general, we come across other references to the evil characters and evil deeds of soldiers. The Didaskalia forbids the acceptance of money for the church "from soldiers who behave unrighteously or from those who kill men or from executioners(26) or from any (of the) magistrate(s) of the Roman Empire who are stained in wars and have shed innocent blood without judgment, who pervert judgments," etc.(27) Lactantius alludes to the calamities caused by the multiplication of armies under Diocletianus and his colleagues,(28) to the misdeeds of the Praetorians at Rome in slaying certain judges and making Maxentius Emperor,(29) to the terrible ravages committed by the troops of Galerius in his retreat from Rome,(30) and to the rapacity of the soldiers of Maximinus Daza in the East.(31) Eusebios gives us similar information in regard to the last-named ruler,(32) and tells us of the massacre committed in Rome by the guards of Maxentius.(33)

Let us repeat that the grim indictment of the military character constituted by this long story of cruelty and outrage forms only one side of the picture, and obviously does not of itself imply any view as to the abstract rightfulness or otherwise of bearing arms:

24. Eus HE VIII iii. 3 f, Mart ix. 2, xi. 6, HE IX ix. 20.

25. Eus HE VIII xi. 1: cf Lact Inst V xi. 10.





26. I suppose this is the meaning of speculatoribus condemnationis.

27. Didask IV vi. 4 (see above, p. 53 n 4).

28. Lact Mort Pers vii. 2 ff.

29. op cit xxvii. 5 ff.

30. op cit xxvii. 5 ff.

31. op cit xxxvii. 5 ff.

32. Eus HE VIII xiv. 11.

33. Eus HE VIII xiv. 3.

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on the contrary, its sharpest charges belong to a time when there were certainly many Christian soldiers. Nevertheless, our study of the Christian view of war would be incomplete without the inclusion of this aspect of the case on the debit side of the account, an aspect which is more or less closely connected with the central question to which we have just alluded. It is to an examination of the view taken by the early Christians of that question that we have now to turn.