Chapter 5

This chapter does not look at persecution as a topic, although it explains the legal grounds for persecution, but at the legal practice in the various trials (and related happenings) of those punished for Christianity. The first such trials were in the second century, when Christianity was not a ‘crime’ but conduct on occasion deserving repression. In the mid-third century, under Decius, Christianity was still not of itself a crime, but Christians were bound to be seen as criminals because it was ordered that everyone must worship the gods of Rome; Christians were not specified, but it was well known that they would refuse. Then, a few years later under Valerian, and again in the early fourth century, Christianity was criminalized. This chapter, like the first, deals as much with political as juridical issues1 since, for various reasons, the Roman government decided to prosecute Christians for their beliefs, rather than their actions.2 The other trials described in this book concern sedition, murder, treason, extortion from provincials, magic practices, things that have generally been reckoned assaults on society, although the control of worship was also an important issue in the case of the Bacchanalians. I think one can take it that no Christian was convicted of cannibalism3 or incest or other flagitia, and these charges do not actually occur in the records of the persecutions. So Christianity was in one sense a non-offence, as Tertullian said,4 although there are some links with astrology and magic. Yet for long it was an offence in the eyes of the people at large; educated people like Tacitus and Suetonius saw Christians as enemies of the human race.5

The sources

For the first, and only, time we shall be looking at the administration of justice from a point of view other than that of the governing classes, which is one reason why we must not think of these accounts in the Acta Martyrum Christianorum as law reports (even if one could perhaps call them case-studies). ‘These Acts are not, though they may seem to be, authentic verbal records of the trials of martyrs. But they are ancient literary evocations of those trials.’6 A second reason for caution is that these stories of Christian martyrs were preserved to honour their memories; they are gesta, not court acta, and their purpose was hagiographic, not legal. There were hundreds of Acta Martyrum composed in the fourth and fifth centuries, once Christianity had become first tolerated and then the official religion of the Roman state, in honour of those whose anniversaries were celebrated; almost every see had its own martyrology. Death, in imitation of Christ, was the supreme sign of Christian faith.7 These late Acta, whatever the date of the martyrdom they recount, are of no value at all for weighing the criminal law of the pagan Empire. However, there are some early ones which seem contemporary with the events they describe, even if they may have been embellished later, perhaps with the addition of dreams or visions. But they too were written to exalt those who suffered death for their faith, and that faith itself; this is frequently highlighted by language stressing the cruelty of the mob and of the authorities. The details that are of interest to us in discerning the criminal procedure of the period and the attitudes of the government are incidental to their purpose.

There are several modern collections of those Acta which can be reckoned as contemporary, or nearly so, with the events they describe, among which I have followed Musurillo, and also Lanata, and Bastiaensen.8 The problem is that there are few external checks, and no pagan versions of these trials;9 internal consistency and external plausibility do not prove them accurate, even if we must rely on them. Arrest and execution, and perhaps the giving of sentence, would be things witnessed by the martyrs’ companions, but the interrogations are often described as being behind closed doors, in a secretarium.

A useful source, apart from the Acta, is the collection of letters from, and to, St Cyprian, bishop of Carthage from at least 249 until his death in 258; the authenticity of almost all of these is unchallenged. Cyprian was an eyewitness, and then a victim, of the persecutions of the mid-third century. His letters are largely official episcopal letters, directed to those within the Church, to his clergy, and to the clergy of other sees, particularly Rome; they were not designed for publication as a collection, but to answer the needs of the moment. They speak warmly of both confessors and martyrs, but are more concerned with the treatment of the lapsed, those whose courage had failed them. Another source, the historian Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, was an eye-witness to the ‘great’ persecution of Diocletian and Galerius in the Eastern Empire in the early fourth century, but his knowledge of events in the West was not good.10 His Ecclesiastical History has a general purpose different from that of the Acta, the justification of the Christian faith from its beginnings until his own time. It was written by someone familiar with the standards expected (in his day) of a historian; where there is an overlapping account, confirmation from this source gives added weight, even if not certainty. Yet another source, Lactantius, a Christian and author of a work de mortibus persecutorum,11 held the post of professor of (Latin) rhetoric at Nicomedia, Diocletian’s eastern capital, until presumably dismissed under Diocletian’s first edict against Christians; he survived the persecution and died around 320. He was closely involved with court circles. All in all, the sources for this chapter probably have no more bias than does Cicero; in other words, they give much useful information but are not to be swallowed uncritically.

The background: astrologers and philosophers

Let us move from our sources to the background. Until the middle of the third century, while the Christians saw Roman authority as hostile, as focused on suppressing them, this was their perception rather than reality.12 From the Roman point of view there were merely times when awkward people, such as astrologers, Jews or Christians, needed to be temporarily repressed. For example, rhetoricians, philosophers and astrologers formed a loosely linked group: rhetoricians were originally Greek, as were philosophers; Stoic philosophers saw their fate not in themselves but in their stars. As early as 161 BC, rhetoricians and philosophers were banned from Rome by a senatusconsultum, proposed and enforced by the Praetor.13 In 139 BC the peregrine praetor banished astrologers from the City for exciting shallow minds for their own profit.14 In 92 BC the censors passed an edict against rhetoricians since their teachings were contrary to Roman ancestral custom.15 Under Tiberius, around AD 17, a senatusconsultum was passed expelling astrologers from Italy, and some were executed.16 Philosophers were in trouble under Nero,17 and banished again from Rome and Italy by senatusconsult under Domitian.18 Serious penalties were thus imposed, and yet astrologers and rhetoricians had a significant place in the intellectual life of Rome; the aim was to cut them down to size, not to abolish them. We have seen the same approach to foreign cults. Interestingly, our one legal source, specifically dealing with Tiberius’ action, shows that there could be argument as to whether it was the skills of such men or only their public exercise which were to be punished; at the time, the jurists had held that it was only the exercise which was punishable, although this was different by the time the Collatio was compiled, and perhaps already in Ulpian’s time. Knowledge sometimes merged into practice; this was the result of such men’s obstinacy and rashness – per contumaciam et temeritatem.19 A literary source confirms a clear parallel with Christians: those astrologers who recanted, who asked pardon and undertook to make no further predictions, were not punished.20

The different stages of the criminal law concerning Christianity

Christians fell into this category of potential subversives, but for a couple of centuries Christianity was not a specific crime. In the pre-Decian period there was no statutory prohibition of or sustained punishment for the practice of the Christian religion.21 There was repression certainly, sometimes savage, but it was sporadic, as for astrologers. The problem for Christians was probably lack of security, rather than any statistically likely bad happening.22 The attitude that might be taken by the Roman government to Christians in the early second century can be illustrated from Pliny and his exchange of letters with the Emperor Trajan around AD 110.23 Pliny, as provincial governor, with a duty to keep his province (Bithynia) free of bad men,24 was clear that Christians did or could fall into this category, and might be punished; he did not, however, know whether to pardon those who retracted their beliefs. When persons were charged with Christianity in his court, he asked them if they were indeed Christians, and if they admitted it, he repeated the question, sometimes more than once, to give them an opportunity to deny it. If they persisted, he ordered execution for non-citizens, while citizens were to be sent to Rome, for obdurate refusal to conform.25 An anonymous written charge – libellus – had listed many names; some others, named by an informer, had said they had long ceased to be Christians.26 The test, and it was just that, a test, to prove the denial of Christianity was an invocation to the gods, a sacrifice to them before an imperial statue, and an insult to the name of Christ. Pliny had also tortured two slave-women, known as ministrae, to check on the absence of ordinary crime, flagitia.27 Trajan, while approving Pliny’s conduct concerning those formally accused of Christianity, said that there could not be a general rule with a fixed formula. The Christians were not to be hunted out, but if the charge was proved they were to be punished; apostasy secured pardon. But anonymous accusations were not to have any place in trial proceedings; they were an appalling precedent, unsuited to the times.28 From this time on, offering a sacrifice to the gods before the emperor, represented by a statue, seems to have been the normal recognized test of the existence or non-existence of Christian faith. The evidence for persecution in this period is too sparse to be conclusive, but it points to successful propaganda, a rewriting of history, by the Christians of the early fourth century, imposing, for ideological reasons, on the earlier Church the experience of their own day. There is some truth in what Gibbon said: ‘The ecclesiastical writers of the fourth and fifth centuries ascribed to the magistrates of Rome the same degree of implacable and unrelenting zeal which filled their own breasts against the heretics or the idolaters of their own times.’29

In the reign of Decius (249–51) an edict was issued which specifically required all inhabitants of the Empire to offer sacrifice.30 Under Decius, and later, in 257–60 under Valerian (253–60, ruling with his adult son Gallienus, 253–68), there was an effort, throughout the Empire, though not long-sustained, to eliminate the monotheistic practice of Christianity. Here there was legal pressure to conform, which amounted to persecution, not simply repression, policy, not just reaction, but even so its objective fell well short of extirpation.31 According to the trials and deeds of these martyrs and confessors, the Roman authorities remained, usually, satisfied by simple recantation, token sacrifices to the pagan gods. This mid-century period probably coincides with the effective disappearance of known jurists; Modestinus was probably dead. The second and earlier third centuries had been when the great jurists were writing and holding office; it would have been interesting to know their opinions on the cult of Christianity and its proper treatment. Unfortunately these opinions are not known to us, because our juristic sources survive almost entirely through the Digest, which was edited under Justinian in a profoundly Christian environment, and material hostile to Christianity was, presumably, excised.32

The third period of martyrdom came in the ‘great’ persecution of Diocletian and Galerius and their colleagues in the imperial purple. This happened against a background, as described by Lactantius, of multiplied armies, exhausted agricultural resources, and an ever-growing number of interfering and exacting officials.33 This was the last serious attempt to get rid of Christianity, or at least the Christian Church. Around 303–4, four edicts were issued, although we have the texts of none of them, of which the first ordered the destruction of churches, the burning of sacred books, and the loss of legal privileges for those Christians who were of the upper ranks, and the fourth commanded everyone to sacrifice to the traditional gods on pain of death. This was the persecution in which thousands died horrible deaths; nevertheless there were others who suffered but survived, like the Donatus to whom Lactantius addressed his book on The Deaths of the Persecutors, and others still who confessed but hardly suffered at all, such as Eusebius and Lactantius himself.

Death and torture, and the links with social status

Since the martyrdoms are by definition concerned with death, even if not always its direct infliction,34 it seems appropriate to look at the legal rules on capital punishment at this period. In the second century, 100 or 150 years before the period covered in this chapter, society in the Roman Empire recognized the fundamental division between free persons and slaves, and also a division between citizen and (free) non-citizen; the latter can in general be defined as a distinction between the inhabitants of Italy, together with the ruling group in a fair number of provincial cities, and all the other inhabitants of the provinces. Overlapping these traditional distinctions of legal status was the division, originally social, between the upper ranks (in the Republic those of senatorial or equestrian rank) and all the rest of the population, often called the plebeians. By the middle of the second century this was hardening into a legal division, between the honestiores and the humiliores.35 The former comprised the old upper ranks and also the town councillors – decurions – of the cities of the Empire, with their families, whether they were citizens or not; the latter consisted of the plebeians and the great majority of the provincials.36 After the edict of Caracalla, known as the constitutio Antoniniana, which granted citizenship to (almost) all free inhabitants of the Empire, this was the only status distinction of legal consequence, apart from that between free and slave; slaves sometimes counted with humiliores, but were more often rated worse.37 Its significance was particularly to be seen in the criminal law.

The traditional penalties for citizens of the late Republic and early Empire had been death, very often effectively commuted into exile enforced by aquae et ignis interdictio, and fines, including confiscation of property. During the first century, most importantly under Claudius,38 the range of penalties was widened, and punishment began to take note of relevant factors, both aggravating and mitigating.39 The ordinary death penalty was decapitation by the sword,40 the only form suitable for honestiores, but there were also aggravated forms, known as summum supplicium: crucifixion, the gallows (furca), the flames, and condemnation to the beasts or the hunting games;41 these were only suitable for humiliores or slaves. From early in the Empire executions were sometimes staged specifically as theatrical entertainment,42 and this remained the case at least until the later second century,43 but we do not find Christians being executed with this sort of elaboration. Such executions should clearly be classed as aggravated forms, but the jurists – at least, as their writings have come down to us – make no mention of them, and might even be understood to have disapproved.44

The status of someone condemned to death and awaiting execution was that of a penal slave; those condemned to the mines were in permanent penal slavery.45 Lesser penalties left civic status unaffected. Corporal punishment, whether in the form of forced labour,46 a flogging47 or something similar, was suitable for humiliores; presumably they might sometimes be fined, if they had sufficient means. Slaves might be confined in fetters.48 It is likely that such punishments were inflicted on Christians, but these might easily be described in the Acta as torture rather than as penalties.

Torture49 was an accepted part of the Roman criminal process, but it was recognized as unreliable, and there were some attempts at safeguards – for justice, and for the individual concerned.50 As we have seen in previous chapters, the evidence of slaves could not be taken except under torture. However, citizens were exempt under the Republican lex Porcia, and then the imperial lex Iulia de vi of c.17 BC, from summary flogging, and a priori from torture.51 Exceptions might be made in cases of those under suspicion for treason, but the principle was clear.52 Free persons who were not citizens did not enjoy the protection of the laws; we have seen in the chapter on repetundae trials that their torture was classed as saevitia, and was an undoubted aggravating circumstance when money had been extorted, but it was not illegal. Of course, citizens who had been condemned capitally were no longer citizens, and so could be put to the question.53 However, even a jurist as late as Callistratus held: ‘Interrogation under torture ought not to be applied to a freeman whose evidence is not inconsistent.’54 There were no controls on the actual administration of torture, except that people should not die under it – although it was admitted that they often did.55 It had normally two aspects; it could be applied to somebody under suspicion of a crime in order to make him confess, or it could be used for extracting evidence about some third party. Torture of Christians was in general sui generis, to persuade its victims to do something in accordance with morality or law, that is, to worship the Roman gods.56

The discussions of the jurists on torture, as preserved in the Digest, are preoccupied with slaves to such an extent that it cannot have been normally relevant to free persons, even in the Severan period,57 although one must remember that, in contrast to the emperors, the jurists tended to mull over past issues rather than raising new questions. However, this makes tracing the change in the law very difficult, for by the end of the third century, and possibly well before, torture had come to be used regularly on free persons, even if the extension was gradual, perhaps starting with freedmen.58 It seems clear that, like the nature of the punishment to be imposed, this was an area where the distinction between honestiores and humiliores became important, and before the constitutio Antoniniana some non-citizens were nevertheless among the honestiores. Torture was undoubtedly applied to humiliores, as is proved by the explicit immunity of honestiores,59 although this came to be waived in cases of treason.60 The persons undergoing torture in the pre-Decian Acta are seemingly all non-citizens, with the exception of Attalus at Lyons,61 and on that occasion it is clear that there were irregularities, so there is no question of its illegal use being official. In the later persecutions most of the Christians were humiliores, but even those who might seem to be among the honestiores were self-confessed members of an illegal organization, and therefore were obviously not entitled to be exempt. The Christians had no complaint founded in law on the issue of torture; the authorities were not acting unlawfully.

Decius, the gods and the Christians

Until the mid-third century Christians were only brought before the courts because of popular opinion, which felt that they were alien,62 hostile to the commonwealth and the pleasures of life, even if some specific charge was required to bring them to justice.63 Toleration there was if the Christians themselves did not provoke accusations, but this toleration was political rather than juridical; punishment, discretionary admittedly, but including the aggravated death penalty,64 was often imposed on those brought before the courts if they persisted in their confession and refused to provide counter-evidence – it required no more – by performing a sacrifice before a statue of the emperor.65 Sporadic repression never completely ceased.66 During the third century, however, things changed. This was an age of increasing superstition, of belief in the occult, in dreams and visions, for Christians as well as pagans. Oracles became popular again; Diocletian was to consult Apollo of Miletus before embarking on his persecution.67 Miracle-working attracted widespread belief.68 Demons and sorcerers were seen as rife.69

The emperors responsible for the criminalization of Christianity, Decius, and then Valerian, were of traditional, though not Roman or even Italian, senatorial families, brought up to respect the Roman gods and view their cultivation as essential for the well-being of Rome. This respect had been observed in the millennial games of April 248, offered by the Emperor Philip and his son; traditional Rome had done well, and would continue to do well, by following ancestral custom. Further, Rome needed the friendship of the gods in her struggles against the Goths and other barbarians, and the recurrence of plague. Decius had been brought up in this tradition and, in view of the new religious competition, it must have seemed reasonable to him, soon after he came to Rome in late 249,70 to declare a supplicatio by the whole Roman people, all the inhabitants of the Empire,71 a unanimous sacrifice to the gods. Jews, as an identifiable people, following their own mos maiorum, could be exempted from such a requirement,72 but Christians had no such respectability. As Clarke has said:

If the rally was to be really effective the leaders of these dissident Christian communities would need to be sought out so that they would bring their flocks with them to the public altars of the gods of Empire (their own god they might continue to worship).73

The edict has not survived verbatim, but the libelli, the certificates recording obedience to the edict, record that the recipients ‘make sacrifice, pour libation and taste of the sacrificial victim’, and before witnesses.74 Local authorities were responsible for putting the edict into effect; there was a commission of five prominent citizens together with the city magistrates in Carthage, whereas in the town of Capsa there seems to have been just one magistrate.75 The libelli were fairly clearly part of the original organisation; they seem to have been drafted to a standard formula and were counter-signed by a commissioner. Perhaps, as with the Egyptian census, there might have been multiple copies, one kept by the signatory, the other by the relevant authorities.76 It is not, however, clear what lists can have been used by the local officials to tick off the sacrificers; local census returns and tax registers were unlikely to include slaves, and possibly might be limited to adults, or even to adult males. Hence it seems probable that some Christians, perhaps many in some areas, were never called,77 but of course they risked delation by their neighbours, unless they took refuge either in city crowds,78 or in the countryside.79 After the time for the supplication was definitely past, latecomers seem to have been sent before the provincial governor, and it seems quite likely that after twelve months the special commissions were dissolved. At any rate, Bishop Cyprian was planning his public return to Carthage before the end of March 251;80 the persecution arising from the edict seems simply to have petered out.81 After all, if the supplicatio had been designed as one glorious gesture, it would be counter-productive to be too concerned with it a year afterwards. There is no evidence that Decius was particularly hostile to the Christians, and there is enough to indicate that his intentions were positive, for the good of Rome.82 However, it is quite clear that the government suspected that the Christians would be troublesome; the leaders of the churches in the most significant cities were seized early in 250 and put to death, if they had not hidden themselves – Pope Fabian at Rome, Babylas at Antioch, Alexander at Jerusalem, fell into the first category,83 Dionysius of Alexandria84 and Cyprian of Carthage the second.85 And Cyprian’s flight was not unnoticed; he suffered confiscation as a result, whether as a penalty or, more probably, a contumaciously absent accused.86


Pionius, a priest (presbyter), was arrested in Smyrna87 on 23 February 250, along with a holy woman called Sabina and one Asclepiades; the Acta claims to be based on his own writing, but seems to have been edited to make close the comparison with Polycarp. Polemon, the temple warden, and clearly one of the commission designated to enforce the Decian edict in Smyrna, came with his men to take them, as self-confessed Christians, to the agora to offer sacrifice and taste forbidden meats.88 He led them off without any physical restraint, but they were wearing woven chains around their necks, which Pionius had made for them, to make clear that they were not going to the agora of their own free will, nor intending to apostatize, as others had.89 Once there before the tribunal, Polemon told Pionius he would be wise to offer sacrifice like everyone else, and thus avoid punishment. Pionius was apparently allowed to make a lengthy speech, to an attentive crowd, rebuking both Greeks and Jews, and maintaining the Christian faith. The commissioners attempted persuasion, but to no avail.90 The people here were not hostile (unless this is a passage interpolated from much later when the world was largely Christian), but wished to adjourn to the theatre to hear more. Polemon, however, was warned that this might lead to a riot. Nevertheless there were further attempts to persuade the confessors, with Sabina being cautioned that she risked being put into a brothel (eis porneion); even if they were Christians, could they not be persuaded to sacrifice to the emperor if not the gods? On their repeated refusal, the notary was brought in, to take down the prisoners’ details for the record; Sabina gave a false name, as she had been cast out by her former mistress when she was converted.91

This is perhaps a suitable place to point out that the provincial governors, like the authorities at Rome, were aided by a significant staff, some attached to them in their capacity of magistrate, others seconded from the local army unit, but in both cases men who were permanently based in a particular province.92 Those whom we find arresting Christians were sometimes from the office staff,93 sometimes soldiers,94 and sometimes from the local city.95 Then there were the officials of the governor’s own judicial staff, among them the commentariensis, a senior post, in charge of criminal proceedings,96 while there were secretaries to write things down;97 criers or heralds98 would also be here. There might also be lawyers at the court.99 There were prison guards,100 soldiers to escort the prisoners,101 and, obviously, torturers. There were those at the amphitheatre, executioners,102 and also gladiators.103 However, the Christian use of technical terms is not always accurate.

Then Pionius and his two companions were taken to the prison, there to await the arrival of the governor; Polemon pointed out to the now restive crowd that the local authorities did not have jurisdiction. In the prison they found other Christians. Pionius made the gaolers angry by refusing to accept gifts from the visiting faithful; clearly it was normal for those Christians who were not under arrest to bribe the gaolers to allow this, or else for the gaolers to take their share of what was brought. So they were put into the inner prison, dark and stifling, as we know from other sources, but they remained so affable that the prison warden relented, and they were allowed to discourse and to pray, night and day, in the company of many visitors.104

Prisons in the ancient world seem to have been at least as nasty as modern ones, dark places of stifling heat (in our Mediterranean sources; Romano-British prisons will undoubtedly have been cold and damp), thirst and hunger.105 We hear little about them in the sources, except for the martyrdoms, where the view is from below; normally prisoners’ very condition made them invisible people. Perhaps on the model of the carcer and the Tullianum at Rome, most prisons seem to have had an outer and an inner area.106 Prison was deliberately a place of terror,107 designed to strip the prisoner of all dignity, and to induce confessions by both physical and psychological means. There were rations,108 but they were minimal, for friends and family were expected to supply prisoners’ wants; there seem to have been few visiting restrictions. Such visits, of course, offered prison guards an opportunity to demand bribes,109 and it is clear that this practice was widely accepted. Only in the Later Empire, perhaps under Christian influence since Christians will have been prepared to acknowledge imprisonment, were there serious attempts to improve prison conditions. Constantine tried to shorten the time spent in prison by speeding the holding of a trial; he forbade ill-treatment by the guards, in particular starving the prisoners. The prisoner brought to court should not be

in manacles made of iron that cleave to the bones, but in looser chains, so that there may be no torture and yet the custody may remain secure. When incarcerated he must not suffer the darkness of an inner prison [which was presumably for bandits, or those who had attempted escape], but he must be kept in good health by the enjoyment of light … 110

Proper records were to be kept of those assigned to ‘squalid custody’.111 Sexual segregation was ordered.112 Governors were to inspect prisoners weekly, see to it that food – two or three libellae (a tenth of a denarius, so presumably as much bread as this would buy) – was supplied to those who did not have it, and that they had a weekly bath.113

Another attempt was made by the local officials to persuade them to sacrifice, saying that Euctemon, apostate bishop of Smyrna, and one Lepidus, were asking for them in the temple of Nemesis; Pionius said that they preferred to await the arrival of the proconsul. However, the local cavalry commander (hipparchos) had them brought forcibly – Pionius struggled so hard that six soldiers were needed to carry him – to the agora, and to the temple of Nemesis where Euctemon was still in an attitude of worship, and Lepidus was cursing Christ. Pionius rebuked the authorities for their lack of respect for their own laws: ‘You punish us for disobeying, and yet you too do not obey; you were ordered to punish us, not to force us against our wills.’114 The public slave who was standing there with the sacrificial meat did not dare approach any of the prisoners, but simply ate it himself.115 All were then sent back to the prison, but Pionius was clubbed on the head by one of the soldiers, doubtless in retaliation for the struggle he had put up against the hipparchos’ order.116

The proconsul of Asia, Quintillianus, arrived in due course; Pionius was brought before the tribunal on 12 March, and testified, with minutes being taken down by secretaries. There was a fairly formal exchange between the two men, with Pionius giving his name, identifying himself as a Christian and a presbyter, and refusing to sacrifice, although the proconsul, perhaps not seriously, said that he could sacrifice to the air.117 Then it seems that Pionius was put to the torture, being tortured by his fingernails, but he continued his refusal to sacrifice. Remarking that volunteer gladiators equally despised death, Quintillianus sentenced him to the fire. ‘The sentence was then read in Latin from a tablet: “Whereas Pionius has admitted that he is a Christian, we hereby sentence him to be burned alive”.’118 He went immediately to the amphitheatre, where he was burned together with another Christian, from the Marcionite heresy. The fire seems to have been extinguished before the body was consumed, but there is no mention of any coup de grâce.119 Rather disappointingly, we hear nothing of the fates of the others; they may even have been released. More likely they were just left in prison, where the confessors could think that the emperor had ordered that they should die from hunger and thirst in the sweltering inner prison.120

The lapsed

The Decian persecution petered out, perhaps partly because it had been difficult to administer. But unlike previous, and perhaps later, persecutions, there were very many who had denied their faith and sacrificed121 because, as Christianity had spread more widely, Christians were no longer ‘saints’ but ordinary men and women.122 Some of these were true apostates, but as the letters of St Cyprian show, many had simply not had courage enough to risk their lives and had sacrificed, so to speak, with their fingers crossed.123 As Cyprian wrote, there was a significant difference between one who had volunteered to sacrifice and one who only did so under compulsion,124 between one who had brought his whole family and one who sacrificed on their behalf, thus protecting them at the cost of endangering his own soul, and similarly between a landowner who had forced his tenants to sacrifice and one who spared them and welcomed refugees.125 Offering incense (thurification) was perhaps a less blameworthy form of sacrifice, since it was not aggravated by the eating of sacrificial meat.126 Others had not sacrificed, but had acquired a libellus recording their conformity. Some of these might have done so by offering payment to avoid what was forbidden;127 others seem to have acquired libelli through proxies.128 These two groups were known as the sacrificati and the libellatici.129 There were also those who, for some reason given a second chance to confess their faith, redeemed themselves by doing so; these seem to have been sent into exile.130 There is no evidence for fresh persecution, but there may have been new delations, perhaps for fulfilling such Christian duties as visiting the sick, burying the dead, helping widows and orphans, visiting and bringing relief to prisoners.131

Valerian and the criminalization of Christianity

This problem of dealing with the repentant lapsed took up most of Bishop Cyprian’s energies132 until persecution was resumed in or before August 257 under Valerian. The reasons for this resumption after nearly four years of his reign are obscure, but there had already been fears of persecution under Gallus,133 and the prevalence of plague made people ready to find a scapegoat. One possibility is that the church had become sufficiently wealthy for its property to be attractive to an emperor enmeshed in a financial crisis.134

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