Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Emperor Hadrian

Reading N°39 in the History of the Catholic Church

 Fr. Fernand Mourret, S.S.

Emperor Hadrian (AD 117-138)
Hadrian, grandnephew and adopted son of Trajan, succeeded the latter in AD 117. He ruled the destinies of the Empire for twenty-one years. Hadrian was a cautious politician, more discreet than his predecessor, foregoing any ambition for conquests in Asia, confining himself to the task of being an attentive and diligent administrator, being his own minister of finance, of justice, of war, of the interior, and filling each of these offices with undeniable superiority. But he was also an artist, a traveler fond of every novelty, not fearful of offending the gods of his country by having himself initiated into all the mysteries of the Oriental religions. Viewing his character from these two angles, we would expect that Hadrian would be less a persecutor of Christianity than was Trajan. Would not the statesman resolutely sacrificing every ambitious undertaking for the sake of the Empire's tranquility, the philosopher skeptical of every religious creed, let the Christian religion develop freely at Rome and in the provinces? An important rescript, issued by Hadrian about 124,[1] seemed to justify these anticipations. Licinius Granianus, a proconsul of Asia, complained that popular rage often induced magistrates to pass death sentences upon men whose only crime was the name they bore and the religious sect to which they belonged. If this did not imply a request for the revision of Trajan's rescript, it was at least a complaint about abuses in its application. The reply of the imperial philosopher was hesitant. He forbade "clamorous entreaties and outcries," with which the mobs hostile to the Christians used to besiege the magistrates. But he made no decision as to whether the name of Christian was punishable, or whether, to incur the rigor of the courts, a person must be guilty of some specific crime. He said:
If anyone accuses and proves that the aforesaid men do anything contrary to the laws, you will also determine their punishments in accordance with their offences.[2]
In short, in words less firm than those of Trajan, the Emperor Hadrian took into account only the matter of external order. His decisions seemed more liberal than those of his predecessor; but they were no less fatal for the Christians. In fact, of the jurisprudence which, since Nero, considered the mere name of Christian as an offence against the national institutions, he abolished nothing; he found no fault with the popular frenzy which branded the disciples of Christ with the charge of atheism and immorality; he withdrew nothing of Trajan's regulation which directed magistrates to condemn every Christian who would refuse to sacrifice to the gods of the Empire. The popular charges became less clamorous, but they grew more numerous; though the magistrates appeared somewhat more exacting regarding the genuineness of the accusations, they continued pitilessly to condemn the accused who were denounced as Christians and proven to be so.

Thus Hadrian's reign was no less disastrous for the Christians than that of Trajan. The Acts of St. Faustinus and companions, of SS. Alexander, Hermes, and Quirinus, of St. Getulius, of SS. Sophia, Pistis, Elpis, and Agapius, of SS. Sabina and Seraphia, of SS. Herperus and Zoe (slaves), of St. Mary (a slave), and of St. Symphorosa and her sons all bear witness to the blood that was shed under the rule of this Emperor. To recover the historic truth at the basis of the acts of these martyrs, it is often necessary to sift the many legends with which popular imagination embellished them. Archaeological monuments of unquestionable authenticity, however, leave no room to question their substantial truthfulness and the genuineness of certain characteristic details.[3]

Mary, a slave in the service of a decurion, was accused of being a Christian. The excited mob called for her death, crying out: "Let a terrible fire consume her alive." The judge said to her: "Since you are a slave, why do you not profess the religion of your master?" As remarked by the historian of the persecutions, this was a truly Roman question. Such is the idea which the Romans had of a slave's conscience. It was Seneca who wrote: "A slave never has the right to say: No."[4]

Symphorosa was the widow of the martyr Getulius, who had been put to death at the beginning of Hadrian's reign for having evangelized the Sabine country. To her the Emperor said: "Sacrifice to the all-powerful gods, or I will sacrifice you along with your children." "Whence comes this happiness to me," she replied, "that I am worthy of being offered with my sons as a victim to God?" "Choose, either to sacrifice to our gods, or to die." In answer to this, she said: "I desire only to rest with my husband Getulius, whom you slew for the name of Christ." Hadrian, after having her variously tortured, ordered that she be thrown into the Anio, with a stone fastened to her neck. On the next day, the Emperor had her seven children put to death in various ways.[5]

In one respect, Hadrian seems to have rendered the condition of the Christians better. He tracked them down and had them sentenced to death; but he let them talk. In his reign, the pleas on behalf of the Christian religion increased in number. These pleas, called apologies, were addressed sometimes to the emperor, sometimes to the senate, or to public opinion. Eusebius preserves this fragment from an apology presented to Emperor Hadrian by Quadratus, a disciple of the Apostles in Asia Minor:
The works of our Savior were always present, for they were true, those who were cured, those who rose from the dead, who not merely appeared as cured and risen, but were constantly present, not only while the Savior was living, but even for some time after He had gone, so that some of them survived even till our own time.[6]
A few years later, shortly after AD 135, there appeared another apology, more celebrated among the Fathers, which seems to have served as a basis for the apologetic work of St. Justin. It is the Dialogue of Jason and Papiscus, by Aristo of Pella. The author personifies in a Jew (Jason) the whole list of objections which the pagans made against the Christian religion; he appears to have planned a complete apologetic. Eusebius, Origen, Celsus, and St. Jerome speak of this important work, of which, unfortunately, neither the original Greek text nor any translation has come down to us.[7]

Bar-Cocheba (Kokhba) silver Shekel, representing the porch of
the Temple and his "star"; reverse: a vase containing the four
species of Sukkot, with the text: "to the freedom of Jerusalem".
The device of placing in the mouth of a Jew all the calumnies passed about by the people against Christianity is comprehensible at that period. The Christians remembered that the fiercest of the persecutions against their faith had been let loose through the denunciations of the Jews. Moreover, the Jews had just made themselves hateful to the Empire; to point to them as the sworn enemies of the Christian name might be good tactics. In AD 132, a deed of desperate fanaticism stirred up Judea. A certain Bar-Coziba ("Son of Deceit"), who changed his inglorious name to Bar-Cocheba ("Son of the Star"), claimed to be the star foretold by Balaam, i. e., the Messias. The eighty-five jubilees of Elias, according to the calculations of the rabbis, were near their close. The most famous of these rabbis, the scholarly Akiba, since then venerated by the Jews as a second Moses, gave royal anointing to Bar-Cocheba and set him upon a horse, the while he himself held the stirrup. The whole Jewish race, save those who acknowledged Jesus as the Messias, bounded with hope. So grave did the danger to the Empire appear, that Hadrian summoned Julius Severus, the ablest of his generals, from the interior of Britain. The revolt was put down without pity. Palestine was subdued and devastated with unfeeling and inexorable rigor. Those who escaped death on the field of battle were sold in the slave markets of Terebinth and Gaza. A man, so it was said, was sold at the price of a horse. Those who were not bought were taken to Egypt as slaves.[8] What was left of Jerusalem was destroyed; the Temple site was plowed up and sowed with salt, as a sign of malediction and sterility. In the place of the hoy city there arose Hadrian's completely pagan city, Aelia Capitolina; on the ground but recently occupied by the Temple was placed a statue of the Emperor beside one of Jupiter.[9]


[1] Modern criticism is unanimous in recognizing the authenticity of this rescript, quoted in full by St. Justin at the end of his First Apology. (See Waddington, Fastes des provinces asiatiques, pp. 197 ff.; Allard, Hist. des pers., I, 242; Renan, L'Eglise chrétienne, p. 32, note.)
[2] St. Justin, First Apology, 68.
[3] For a critical consideration of these Acta, see Allard, op. cit., I, 202-234, 266-280.
[4] "Servus non habet negandi potestatem." Seneca, De beneficiis, III, 19. On the substantial authenticity of the Acts of St. Mary, see Le Blant, Les Actes des martyrs, p. 184.
[5] Ruinart, Acta sincera, pp. 18-20; Leclercq, Les Martyrs, I, 207-209.
[6] Eusebius, H. E. IV, iii, 2; Funk, Patres apostolici, p. 371. Funk (loc. cit.) fixes upon AD 125 or 129 as the date of the writing of this Apology. Evidently the words "until our day" do not refer to the date of the Apology, but to the period of the author's childhood, i.e., the years 80-100. (Cf. Duchesne, Early History of the Christian Church, I, 149.)
[7] On Aristo, see Batiffol, Anciennes littératures chrétiennes, la littérature grecque, pp. 89 f.; Bardenhewer, Patrology, pp. 48 f.
[8] St. Jerome, In Zachariam, II; Origen, Against Celsus, VII.
[9] Champagny, Les Antonins, II, 71-74.


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