Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Marcus Aurelius

Reading N°45 in the History of the Catholic Church

 Fr. Fernand Mourret, S.S.

Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (161-180)
Marcus Aurelius was worthier in his private and public life than his three predecessors. He had a lofty mind, a heart that was kind even to weakness and tender even to illusion. Yet he did but aggravate the condition of the Christians in the Empire. The nineteen years of his reign were the most vexatious and cruel that the Church had passed through.[1] This seeming anomaly can be explained if we consider three facts, stated by all historians. The first is the disintegration of the ancient world, a break-up that took place under the government of the new Emperor. Upstarts, adventurers, coming one knew not whence, became suddenly popular and at every moment threatened that hereditary succession to the throne which by natural or adoptive sonship[2] seemed to be the most solid foundation of the imperial government. Moreover, the most powerful bond of the unity of the Empire, the old national religion, appeared to weaken and dissolve in contact with the Oriental religions which kept penetrating more and more. An imperiled power easily becomes a tyrannical power. Nothing is commoner in history than the violent and sudden activity of institutions that are about to perish. The Roman Empire was no exception to this general rule. The old society rose up by a sort of instinct of self-preservation against all the powers which it regarded as hostile.

And that was not all. Marcus Aurelius was not only an emperor, he was also a philosopher. Out of all the religious forces around him - the old Roman religion, so stern and strong; the need of purification which penetrated the religions of the East; Christianity, which he detested while secretly feeling the influence of its pure morality - he formed a new and lofty philosophy. This philosophy was made up entirely of elements taken from other sources, though he thought it quite original. He jealously defended it, as being his very own, against all other doctrines. The most formidable of these rivals he considered to be Christianity, to which its apologists were beginning to give the form of a philosophy.

The third fact is this: floods, famine, epidemics, disasters of all kinds had befallen Rome and Italy from the first months of the reign of Marcus Aurelius. Four years later the plague ravaged the Empire from end to end. In such circumstances, the first impulse of the Roman people was to look for some persons to blame for these calamities, that they might immolate them to the gods. Such victims were found.
They think the Christians the cause of every public disaster, of every affliction with which the people are visited. If the Tiber rises as high as the city walls, if the Nile does not send its waters up over the fields, if the heavens give no rain, if there is an earthquake, if there is famine or pestilence, straightway the cry is, "Away with the Christians to the lions!"[3]
Marcus Aurelius himself was superstitious. And he was also weak. Not on him could reliance be placed to suppress these uprisings of the populace. He allowed those outbursts to take place and permitted them to reach their utmost consequences.


[1] Cf. Allard, op. cit., I, 329.
[2] The imperial power, which was handed on by heredity under the Caesars and the Flavians, was transmitted by adoption under the Antonines.
[3] Tertullian, To the Nations, I, 9; Apology, 40.


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