Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Reign of Commodus and the Martyrs of Scillium

Reading N°49 in the History of the Catholic Church

 Fr. Fernand Mourret, S.S.

Emperor Commodus (180-192)
The Emperor Commodus was a complete antithesis to his father, Marcus Aurelius. He was without any care for the country, without any policy unless that of all tyrants, which consists in confiscating and proscribing through hatred and fear and avarice. Yet, from this inane and blood-thirsty despot, the Christians suffered less than from his upright and intelligent predecessors. At one time, it would seem that his father's spirit was urging him, that the impulse given by Marcus Aurelius was being continued: the blood of martyrs was poured out copiously. At another time, a gentler influence, that of the Christian servants of his palace or the all-powerful prayer of a beloved woman, inclined his fickle soul toward clemency.

The best known episode of the persecutions that raged in Commodus' reign is that of the Scillitan martyrs. The Acts of these martyrs is rightly reckoned among the earliest and most reliable monuments of Christianity antiquity. From it we quote the following:
On the seventeenth day of July [AD 180], when Speratus, Nartallus, Cittinus, Donata, Secunda, and Vestia were brought into the judgment-hall at Carthage, the proconsul Saturninus said: "Ye can win the indulgence of our lord the Emperor if ye return to a sound mind." 
Speratus: "We have never done ill; but when we have received ill, we have given thanks, because we pay heed to our Emperor." 
The Proconsul: "We, too, are religious, and our religion is simple." 
Speratus: "If thou wilt peaceably lend me thine ears, I will tell thee the mystery of simplicity." 
The Proconsul: "I will not lend my ears to thee when thou beginnest to speak evil things of our sacred rites." 
The Proconsul Saturninus said to the rest: "Be not partakers of this folly." 
Cittinus said: "We have none other to fear except only our Lord God, who is in heaven." 
Speratus said: "I am a Christian." And they all agreed with him. 
The Proconsul: "What are the things in your chest?" 
Speratus: "The books and epistles of Paul, a just man." 
The Proconsul: "Have a delay of thirty days and bethink yourselves." 
Speratus: "I am a Christian." And with him all agreed. 
The Proconsul read out the decree from the tablet: "Speratus, Nartallus, Cittinus, Donata, Vestia, Secunda, and the rest who have confessed that they live according to the Christian rite, [...] it is determined, shall be put to the sword." 
Speratus: "We give thanks to God." 
Nartallus: "Today we are martyrs in Heaven; thanks be to God."[1]
Among the Christians martyred under Commodus, mention should be made of the philosopher Apollonius, the senator Julius, and a large number of other confessors of the faith.[2] But the Christians, spreading in increasing numbers through all ranks of society, became numerous at the imperial court. We know, for example, of the aged eunuch Hyacinth, a priest of the Church of Rome. He was the foster-father of that Marcia who was a former slave of a nephew of Marcus Aurelius and entered Commodus' palace as a slave in AD 183, following the confiscation of her master's property. She at once became the favorite of the Emperor, who raised her to the rank and honors of a real wife, except for the title of empress. The tradition is that she greatly favored the Christians and rendered them many kindnesses, inasmuch as she could do anything with Commodus.[3]

St. Victor (185-199)
The author of the Philosophumena relates that one day Marcia, wishing to perform a good work, sent for Pope Victor and asked him for the names of the martyrs who were laboring in the mines of Sardinia. She then obtained letters of pardon, entrusted them to her old friend, the priest Hyacinth, and gave him full powers for carrying out the pardons.

A modification had taken place in the relations of the Empire and the Church. It was not yet, indeed, an official recognition of Christianity, but the summoning of this Pope to the palace to receive a communication touching his Church, and this commission carried by a Christian priest to the procurator of Sardinia, were events that show the social importance acquired by the Church and the notice which the government authorities were taking of her and of her hierarchical organization.


[1] Leclercq, Les Martyrs, I, 109-111. 
[2] St. Irenaeus, Haereses, IV, 33.
[3] Dion Cassius, Roman History, LXXIII, 4.


Join the discussion at:

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are moderated according to both content and form. If you would like to keep your comments private, please indicate this, and include your email if you would like a personal response. Thank you for commenting.