Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Persecution under Domitian

Reading N°29 in the History of the Catholic Church

 Fr. Fernand Mourret, S.S.

Domitian (AD 51-96)
About the year AD 95, the Apostle John's paternal governance of the churches of Asia was suddenly disturbed by the violent persecution of Domitian. The amazing extravagance of the last of the twelve Caesars had ruined the public treasury. There was no hope of filling the void by an increase of land-taxes or indirect taxes which already weighed so heavily on the commerce of Rome. The Emperor thought of the tax which, since the year 70, all those of Jewish birth paid their conqueror; he now extended it to those who "lived as Jews."[1] The expression was vague; it opened the way to most odious searching and inquiring. At any rate, it applied to the Christians, and perhaps had them chiefly in mind. By means of countless official informers,[2] Domitian was able to learn of the progress made by the new religion among the great Roman families. It was well known that the property of all persons condemned to death or proscribed went to the Emperor.

Many Christians refused to let themselves be taken for Jews. The separation of the two religions was by this time a fact. To pay the Jewish tax seemed to them a lie, nay, a kind of abjuration of the faith. The Emperor was angered. Who were these people, strangers to the religions officially sanctioned at Rome, who "lived as Jews," but repudiated the religion of the Jewish people? The epithets "innovators" and "atheists" were cast at them.

Inquisitorial proceedings increased. Domitian's fury was at its height when one of his informers pointed out to him, among the Judaizers and "atheists," his own cousin-german, Flavius Clemens, father of two children whom he intended for the imperial service. Flavius Clemens, the consul of that year (95), was the son of Vespasian's elder brother, Flavius Sabinus, who was prefect of Rome in the time of Nero and who in AD 64 witnessed the massacre of Christians. This Sabinus, it seems, had been deeply and painfully impressed. Tacitus relates that in Sabinus' last years his gentleness, moderation, and aversion for sanguinary contests were spoken of and even led some people of fiery temper to accuse him of cowardice.[3] Sabinus' son and daughter-in-law courageously embraced the Christian religion. It was a case of death or proscription. Flavius Clemens was executed in the very year of his consulate. Flavia Domitilla, his wife, was exiled to the island of Pandataria. Another Flavia Domitilla, their niece, was interned on the island of Pontia. The historian Dion Cassius, relating their execution, says they were condemned for the crime of "atheism."[4] Suetonius seems to allude to other executions of Christians of the highest station when he writes:
He put to death many senators, among them several exconsuls, including Civica Cerealis, at the very time when he was proconsul in Asia, Salvidienus, Ortus, Acilius Glabrio while he was in exile - these on the ground of plotting revolution [quasi molitores rerum novarum].[5]
Besides need for money and hatred of the Christian name, another feeling entered the tyrant's soul: fear. Hegesippus, as quoted by Eusebius, tells that, "like Herod, he [Domitian] was afraid of the coming of Christ,"[6] because throughout the East it was being noised abroad that the government of the world would belong to a scion of David. So he ordered a search to be made for all living descendants of that king. The grandsons of Jude, having come to Rome from the depths of Batanea, were sent back after a look at their calloused hands, which evidenced their life of manual labor. It is possible that John, so renowned for his close relations with Jesus, was summoned for the same reason. However this may be, we do know that, having come or been brought to Rome, he there was subjected to the terrible ordeal of boiling oil. We learn of this from Tertullian, who says: "The Apostle John was first plunged, unhurt, into boiling oil, and thence sent back to his island exile."[7] The traditional site where this event is supposed to have taken place is the Latin Gate or, more exactly, the open space later occupied by the Roman gate.[8]

The Martyrdom of Saint John the Evangelist
Juan de Roelas (1570-1625)

The tyrant's persecution reached beyond Rome, even into Asia. The Apocalypse, written shortly after, speaks of "the souls of them that were beheaded for the testimony of Jesus." The angel of the Lord says to the angel of Smyrna: "I know thy tribulation," and to the angel of Pergamus: "I know thou hast not denied my faith."[9] The Acts of the martyrdom of St. Ignatius of Antioch relate that "during the storms and persecutions, he diverted the danger by the firmness of his soul."[10] Pliny, writing from Bithynia in AD 111 or 112, says that certain Christians avowed to him "that they had quit their faith twenty years ago,"[11] very likely in this persecution of Domitian.


[1] Suetonius, Domitian, 12.
[2] Tacitus, History, IV, 50; Life of Agricola, 45; Pliny, Letters, I, 5; n, II; Juvenal, IV, 110-118.
[3] Tacitus, History, III, 65-75.
[4] Dio Cassius, LXVII, xiv. Cf. Suetonius, Domitian, 15. Fifty years after Clement's death, St. Justin wrote that the pagans still called the Christians "atheists". (First Apology, 6.) In the legal terminology of Rome, beginning in the second century, the word "atheist" does not, strictly speaking, signify the absolute denial of the Divinity, but rather a refusal to honor the gods of the Empire and to take part in public worship. Those were the only gods recognized by the State. Not only did it recognize them, but it incorporated their worship in the political institutions. While the sacra privata and gentilitia concerned only the family or the gens, the sacra publica were closely associated with the prosperity of the city. The State could compel participation in public worship. Such was the law of Rome. (Cf. Cicero, De legibus, II, 8-10; Livy, xxv, I.)
[5] Suetonius, Domitian, 2. Glabrio was consul in AD 61.
[6] Eusebius, H. E., III, xx, 1.
[7] Tertullian, De praescr., 36.
[8] Tillemont, Mémoires: St. John the Evangelist, art. 5.
[9] Apoc. 2:9 f., 13; 16:9-11; 20:4.
[10] Acta S. Ignatii (ed. by Funk), II, 260.
[11] Pliny, Letters, x, 96.


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  1. I don't know if you are getting comments on these wonderful series you put up. But can I say just for myself that they are simply wonderful. Our Faith is such a treasure chest! Something new and something old, something for everyone. Anyway, thank you.

  2. And thank you, dear Barbara, for reading them! I don't get many comments, but I can see on my control panel that quite a few people come here to read on a regular basis. The work is its own reward, but getting a note now and then from faithful readers like you just makes my day. God bless!


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