Marcus Aurelius, Enlightened Persecutor

Brian D. Jones July/August 2005

Few emperors of Rome possessed the learning and refinement of Marcus Aurelius. Power and pomp meant little to him; his great passion was for justice. Serving without salary, he supported himself and a host of court retainers from his own abundant riches. In a sensual age, he was a Stoic, who practiced temperance, self-denial, and stern morality. Even those who found his abstemious way of life repellent revered him for his practical decency. Considerate toward the poor, he lowered their taxes and moderated their civil obligations, which had previously been oppressive. Deeming the brutality of gladiatorial exhibitions offensive, he ordered that they be given less frequently and with less bloodshed. Aurelius's literary gifts were exceptional, as revealed in his wise and pithy Meditations, not written for publication, but as a kind of political, philosophical diary of private reflections.

But Marcus Aurelius was an energetic persecutor of the Christians, and for zealous intolerance was a star of the first magnitude in a galaxy of persecuting emperors. During Aurelius's reign and with his full sanction, Felicitas, Justin Martyr, Polycarp, and many thousands of less renowned Christians were cruelly tortured to death.

Why would so decent a man have such a blot on his otherwise stainless record? The combined factors that affected Aurelius's thinking reveal much about the causes of religious persecution in every civilized age. Aurelius the persecutor makes an especially interesting study because his intolerance was the result not of crude barbarism, but sophisticated political thinking infused with religious fervor. He had moral and ideological grounds for his policy of extinction toward Christians. It is well worth examining what made Marcus Aurelius, philosopher, humanitarian, and social reformer, a great persecutor.

His Religion
Aurelius's hedonistic age didn't love Stoicism, but honored it in the abstract as an ascetic form of self-improvement, practiced only by the most learned and disciplined. Human perfectibility through personal effort was the key doctrine of Stoicism. Originated by Zeno of Citium in the fourth century B.C., and systematized by Epictetus three centuries later, this school of philosophy was pragmatic and evolutionistic, with a moderate dose of mysticism. Stoics saw nature's animating force as a divine spirit inhabiting all matter more or less homogeneously. In this pantheistic order, humans were seen as inherently good, provided that they lived in harmony with their nobler instincts, otherwise called "the god within." Reliance on a superior external Being who made atonement for their sins was antithetic to the Stoics' view of life. Repentance and reconciliation for sin was to them an abominable idea, denigrating their (supposedly) innate moral sufficiency and power of self-improvement. In their view, a merciful Savior was a guilt-provoking intruder into the citadel of humanity's natural decency and divinity. Devotion to virtue and duty in accord with natural law were the pathway to a pure conscience and moral bliss.

His Politics
To this ideology Aurelius added duty to the state as a person's supreme obligation. In his view the state embodied the highest manifestation of nature's order on earth. Dissent from the edicts of the state and its established traditions was a violation of nature and, hence, moral treason. He believed that religion was an essential part of life and that the only valid religion was that of the state, whose collective wisdom was always superior to individual judgment. The idea of personal accountability to a divine Creator, or of an individual conscience that might take allowable exception to the collective will, was alien to Aurelius's philosophy. Religious liberty or diversity was to him an intellectual affront, a species of moral anarchy and political subversion that must be eradicated for the good of all.

His Advisers
Marcus Aurelius's reign (A.D. 161-180) began over a century and a half after the establishment of the Christian church. Busy with the affairs of state and immersed in the traditions of pagan Rome, he was not disposed to objectively examine the influence of this foreign religion, which had been peaceable and constructive from its beginning. Instead he followed the persecuting policy of his predecessors, even adding new force to it. He listened to the bigoted advice of his counselors, such as Cornelius Fronto and Junius Rusticus, who used their silver-tongued sophistry to turn Aurelius against Christians. Thus he was fed with deliberate lies about the alleged treachery and barbarism of this interdicted "sect." He also consulted mystics and oracles whose sensual superstitions and avarice aroused their instinctive dread of a religion that exemplified purity, truth, and charitable deeds. In short, Aurelius left his final judgment of religions other than his own to the counsel of religious "experts" opportunistically devoted to the state religion. In this move, he failed to reckon that no prejudice is so fierce as religious prejudice, and no intolerance so merciless as religious intolerance. He also failed to recognize his own moral duty to learn for himself the truth of God's revealed Word.

The reinstatement of Roman virtue (which was in steep decline) and the unity of the Roman Empire (which was unraveling through exploitation and self-indulgence) were the supreme objects of his life. This called for the extirpation of all dissenting elements. It was of no consequence to him that Christians had served loyally in both civil and military capacities. That loyalty could be a facade. A uniform ideology and unanimously observed religion were essential to the preservation of Roman power and civilization. Thus, for seemingly laudable ends, he spawned a misbegotten breed of religiopolitical absolutism.

What is the significance of this historic precedent? Does it merely have antiquarian interest, like the discovery of crumbled columns in the wastelands of Greece or a batch of old coins in Byzantium? Or does it have a lesson for our day?

Morality's New Mentor?
Our time is strikingly similar in some respects to Aurelius's. As it was with second-century Rome, the values of our civilization have been progressively crumbling for some decades. Today more and more world leaders are seeing light in global unity, enforced, as necessary, by military might. Further, with a superficial religious syncretism and an almost mystic admiration for the Papacy not witnessed since the Middle Ages, we find disturbing parallels to Aurelius's advocacy of a uniform religious worldview, allowing no alternatives or dissent. The current drift is toward a politically endorsed morality and common body of religious beliefs whose substance is fashioned by the religious "experts" in Christendom, with political advice from non-Christian leaders. Heads of state and the masses alike are eager for a world leader who will give authoritative spiritual guidance to humanity-someone who will define and interpret moral issues in the rapidly changing social and political order. This universal shepherd of humanity might well be looked to as an educator of human conscience, a preceptor to the nations, not for his own glory, but for the preservation of human existence, liberty, and rights, as well as for the honor of God. Thus could emerge a kind of neo-Aurelianism bearing the stamp of generic Christianity.

A New Intolerance
But what should be the fate of those whose consciences cannot adhere to the official definition of personal freedoms, obligations, and rights, especially in religious matters? What if their religion, or absence of it, is deemed inimical to the good of society? Already it is possible to see how such nonconformance might kindle a modern-day "inquisition" to ascertain whose morals are sound, i.e., in agreement with the established creeds of the new world order.

Of course this might be done with (presumably) the best of intentions, and yet the fruit of such pious zeal have always been bitter and bloody. If Christendom were united in upholding one view of orthodox morality, how could that controlling authority resist the temptation to be not only the definer of doctrine and educator of the conscience but also the defender of the faith, corrector of deviancy, and enforcer of divine wisdom? Marcus Aurelius did this as an antagonist to Christianity. But the history of Europe and other Christian lands is rife with instances of persecution for religious causes protagonistically undertaken in the name of Jesus Christ. As honorable-seeming as may have been the motives of ecclesiastic councils (Protestant and Catholic by turns) for killing Huss, Jerome, Tyndale, the Huguenots, Albigenses, Waldensians, Anabaptists, Quakers, "witches," and millions of other people who held disfavored religious beliefs, the spirit of persecution was still present in all those exploits.

Persecution Repudiated
Ironically, the scriptural teachings of the religion that has the most onerous record of persecuting zeal actually condemn persecution. Who doesn't know that multitudes have been tortured and lynched in the name of Jesus? But how many recall that Jesus said, "The Son of man is not come to destroy men's lives, but to save them" (Luke 9:56)? The occasion of these words is significant. They were Christ's response to the disciples' offer to call fire down from heaven to destroy the Samaritans, who had churlishly rebuffed Jesus' proposed goodwill visit (see verses 52-56).

Christ realized that the persecuting instinct found in many of His misguided followers would mar the future path of civilization. "They shall lay their hands on you, and persecute you . . . for my name's sake" (Luke 21:12). We could interpret this prediction to mean equally that Christians will be persecuted by openly non-Christian powers or that Christians will be persecuted by other supposed Christians for the sake of Christ's name and honor. Christ further hinted at this latter application in His saying, "The time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service" (John 16:2). But these blood offerings the God of love will not accept, for Jesus continued, "And these things will they do unto you, because they have not known the Father nor me" (verse 3; cf. Psalm 16:4). All of Christ's other references to persecution consistently reject this practice on any grounds (e.g., Matthew 5:10-12, 43, 44; 10:23; 23:34-39; John 15:20).

Saul the Persecutor
The apostle Paul (formerly Saul) was once as ardent a persecutor as any. Ultrareligious and zealous for the traditions of his fathers, he made it his supreme mission to annihilate Christianity (Acts 8:1-4; 26:9-11). But while on an expedition to kill more followers of that hated cult, he had a supernatural encounter with the resurrected Christ (Acts 9:1-9). After coming to know Jesus as He truly is, Paul utterly repudiated persecution for any cause. He now clearly recognized that persecution is the fruit of ignorance, bigotry, and that fundamental antagonism to true spirituality that is in every unrenewed heart. "But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now" (Galatians 4:29; cf. 1 Timothy 1:13; 2 Timothy 3:12; 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16. Never condoning retaliation, he advised the victims of persecution to patiently and peaceably endure mistreatment until God Himself delivered them (see Romans 8:35; 12:13; Galatians 5:11; 6:12; 2 Thessalonians 1:4-6).

Persecution Prophesied
Whatever one may think of Bible prophecy, it is thought-provoking to consider the apocalyptic visions of John the revelator in light of current events. This longest lived of the apostles recorded a panoramic view of human history in its final stages before Jesus' second coming. He foretold a grand coalition of church and state, whose spiritual nerve center, according to many expositors (Luther, Calvin, Gaussen, Wesley, Henry, Clarke, Barnes, Poole, et al.), is Europe and its offspring nations. John depicts the final crisis and test facing all humanity as religious:

"All the world wondered after the beast. . . . And they worshipped the beast, saying, Who is like unto the beast? who is able to make war with him? And I beheld another beast coming up out of the earth; and he had two horns like a lamb, and he spake as a dragon. And he exerciseth all the power of the first beast before him, and causeth the earth and them which dwell therein to worship the first beast. . . . And he doeth great wonders, so that he maketh fire come down from heaven on the earth in the sight of men, and deceiveth them that dwell on the earth by the means of those miracles which he had power to do in the sight of the beast; saying to them that dwell on the earth, that they should make an image to the beast. . . . And he had power to give life unto the image of the beast, that the image of the beast should both speak, and cause that as many as would not worship the image of the beast should be killed. And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads; and that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name" (Revelation 13:3, 17).

What a specter of religiopolitical totalitarianism is presented here! Fascination with miracles; man worship; global edicts; technology to enforce international law; rapid, world-girdling communications; economic interdict made possible by a universal system of exchange and trade-all factors that fit our times with staggering foresight.

Quo Vadis?
Who could fail to recognize that with the recent disintegration of Communism, the militant discontent in the Islamic world, and the corresponding elevation of "Christian" democratic powers, Western religion is due for a mighty resurgence of power in international affairs? What glue could be more effective or apparently more desirable than that all races and nations come together into a universal unity of Christian morality-one that in its sense of moral superiority will brook no dissent and countenance no alternative creeds?

Who could be so crabbed and narrow as to take exception to once impossible-seeming alliances alluringly endorsed by spectacular miracles and freely-flowing goodwill? Dostoyevsky correctly observed that the most entrancing combination of influences upon the unregenerate human mind is "miracle, mystery and authority." Far more people are inclined to give credence to spectacular miracles than to sobering truths.

A Beacon of Warning
We have much to learn today from Marcus Aurelius, humanitarian, reformer, unifier of nations, and devout persecutor. Chiefly, that his example as promoter, preserver, and enforcer of state-sponsored religion is one devoutly to be avoided.

This caution has perhaps never been sounded more insightfully than by John Stuart Mill, who, more than a century ago, wrote:

"Absolute monarch of the whole civilised world, [Marcus Aurelius] preserved through life not only the most unblemished justice, but what was less to be expected from his stoical breeding, the tenderest heart. The few failings which are attributable to him were all on the side of indulgence; while his writings, the highest ethical product of the ancient mind,. . . scarcely. . . differ. . . from the most characteristic teachings of Christ. This man, a better Christian, in all but the most dogmatic sense of the word, than almost any of the ostensibly Christian sovereigns who since have reigned, persecuted Christianity. . . . Inasmuch as the theology of Christianity did not appear to him to be true, or of Divine origin;
. . . the gentlest and most amiable of philosophers and rulers, under a solemn sense of duty, authorised the persecution of Christianity. . . . But it would be. . . unjust to him, and false to truth, to deny that no one plea which can be urged for punishing Anti-Christian teaching, was wanting to Marcus Aurelius for punishing, as he did, the propagation of Christianity. No Christian more firmly believes that atheism is false, and tends to the dissolution of society, than Marcus Aurelius believed the same things of Christianity; he who, of all men then living, might have been thought the most capable of appreciating it. Unless anyone who approves of punishment for the promulgation of opinions, flatters himself that he is a wiser and better man than Marcus Aurelius-more deeply versed in the wisdom of his time-more elevated in his intellect above it-more earnest in his search for truth-let him abstain from that assumption of the joint infallibility of himself and the multitude, which the great Aurelius made, with so unfortunate a result" (from the article "Antoninus, Marcus Aurelius," Chambers's Encylopaedia, Rev. Ed., London, 1882, vol.1, p. 303).

Brian D. Jones, a minister of religion, lives and works in Chloe, West Virginia. He is an accomplished author and historian.

Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity. Vol. 1. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1984, pp. 45-48.
Rendall, Gerald H., Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, To Himself. London: McMillan and Co., 1901.
Uhlhorn, Gerhard. The Conflict of Christianity With Heathenism. Trans. from the 3rd German edition by Egbert C. Smyth and C. J. H. Ropes. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1891, pp. 282-297.

Article Author: Brian D. Jones