Vol. 2, Chapter VIII (Cont’d) – The Church and Public Amusements


Tertullian: De Spectaculis. On the Roman Spectacles see the abundant references in Friedländer, II. 255-580 (5th ed.)

Christianity is anything but sanctimonious gloominess and misanthropic austerity. It is the fountain of true joy, and of that peace which “passeth all understanding.” But this joy wells up from the consciousness of pardon and of fellowship with God, is inseparable from holy earnestness, and has no concord with worldly frivolity and sensual amusement, which carry the sting of a bad conscience, and beget only disgust and bitter remorse. “What is more blessed,” asks Tertullian, “than reconciliation with God our Father and Lord; than the revelation of the truth, the knowledge of error; than the forgiveness of so great past misdeeds? Is there a greater joy than the disgust with earthly pleasure, than contempt for the whole world, than true freedom, than an unstained conscience, than contentment in life and fearlessness in death?”

Contrast with this the popular amusements of the heathen: the theatre, the circus, and the arena. They were originally connected with the festivals of the gods, but had long lost their religious character and degenerated into nurseries of vice. The theatre, once a school of public morals in the best days of Greece, when Aeschylos and Sophocles furnished the plays, had since the time of Augustus room only for low comedies and unnatural tragedies, with splendid pageantry, frivolous music, and licentious dances. Tertullian represents it as the temple of Venus and Bacchus, who are close allies as patrons of lust and drunkenness. The circus was devoted to horse and chariot races, hunts of wild beasts, military displays and athletic games, and attracted immense multitudes. “The impatient crowd,” says the historian of declining Rome “rushed at the dawn of day to secure their places, and there were many who passed a sleepless and anxious night in the adjacent porticos. From the morning to the evening careless of the sun or of the rain, the spectators, who sometimes amounted to the number of four hundred thousand, remained in eager attention; their eyes fixed on the horses and charioteers, their minds agitated with hope and fear for the success of the colors which they espoused; and the happiness of Rome appeared to hang on the event of a race. The same immoderate ardor inspired their clamors and their applause as often as they were entertained with the hunting of wild beasts and the various modes of theatrical representation.”

The most popular, and at the same time the most inhuman and brutalizing of these public spectacles were the gladiatorial fights in the arena. There murder was practised as an art, from sunrise to sunset, and myriads of men and beasts were sacrificed to satisfy a savage curiosity and thirst for blood. At the inauguration of the Flavian amphitheatre from five to nine thousand wild beasts (according to different accounts) were slain in one day. No less than ten thousand gladiators fought in the feasts which Trajan gave to the Romans after the conquest of Dacia, and which lasted four months (a.d. 107). Under Probus (a.d. 281) as many as a hundred lions, a hundred lionesses, two hundred leopards, three hundred bears, and a thousand wild boars were massacred in a single day. The spectacles of the worthless Carinus (284) who selected his favorites and even his ministers from the dregs of the populace, are said to have surpassed those of all his predecessors. The gladiators were condemned criminals, captives of war, slaves, and professional fighters; in times of persecution innocent Christians were not spared, but thrown before lions and tigers. Painted savages from Britain, blonde Germans from the Rhine and Danube, negroes from Africa, and wild beasts, then much more numerous than now, from all parts of the world, were brought to the arena. Domitian arranged fights of dwarfs and women.

The emperors patronized these various spectacles as the surest means of securing the favor of the people, which clamored for “Panem et Circenses.” Enormous sums were wasted on them from the public treasury and private purses. Augustus set the example. Nero was so extravagantly liberal in this direction that the populace forgave his horrible vices, and even wished his return from death. The parsimonious Vespasian built the most costly and colossal amphitheatre the world has ever seen, incrusted with marble, decorated with statues, and furnished with gold, silver, and amber. Titus presented thousands of Jewish captives after the capture of Jerusalem to the provinces of the East for slaughter in the arena. Even Trajan and Marcus Aurelius made bountiful provision for spectacles, and the latter, Stoic as he was, charged the richest senators to gratify the public taste during his absence from Rome. Some emperors as Nero, Commodus, and Caracalla, were so lost to all sense of dignity and decency that they delighted and gloried in histrionic and gladiatorial performances. Nero died by his own hand, with the explanation: “What an artist perishes in me.” Commodus appeared no less than seven hundred and thirty-five times on the stage in the character of Hercules, with club and lion’s skin, and from a secure position killed countless beasts and men.

The theatrical passion was not confined to Rome, it spread throughout the provinces. Every considerable city had an amphitheatre, and that was the most imposing building, as may be seen to this day in the ruins at Pompeii, Capua, Puteoli, Verona, Nismes, Autun (Augustodunum), and other places.

Public opinion favored these demoralizing amusements almost without a dissenting voice. Even such a noble heathen as Cicero commended them as excellent schools of courage and contempt of death. Epictetus alludes to them with indifference. Seneca is the only Roman author who, in one of his latest writings, condemned the bloody spectacles from the standpoint of humanity, but without effect. Paganism had no proper conception of the sanctity of human life; and even the Stoic philosophy, while it might disapprove of bloody games as brutal and inhuman, did not condemn them as the sin of murder.

To this gigantic evil the Christian church opposed an inexorable Puritanic rigor in the interest of virtue and humanity. No compromise was possible with such shocking public immorality. Nothing would do but to flee from it and to warn against it. The theatrical spectacles were included in “the pomp of the devil,” which Christians renounced at their baptism. They were forbidden, on pain of excommunication, to attend them. It sometimes happened that converts, who were overpowered by their old habits and visited the theatre, either relapsed into heathenism, or fell for a long time into a state of deep dejection. Tatianus calls the spectacles terrible feasts, in which the soul feeds on human flesh and blood. Tertullian attacked them without mercy, even before he joined the rigorous Montanists. He reminds the catechumens, who were about to consecrate themselves to the service of God, that “the condition of faith and the laws of Christian discipline forbid, among other sins of the world, the pleasures of the public shows.” They excite, he says, all sorts of wild and impure passions, anger, fury, and lust; while the spirit of Christianity is a spirit of meekness, peace, and purity.” What a man should not say he should not hear. All licentious speech, nay, every idle word is condemned by God. The things which defile a man in going out of his mouth, defile him also when they go in at his eyes and ears. The true wrestlings of the Christian are to overcome unchastity by chastity, perfidy by faithfulness, cruelty by compassion and charity.” Tertullian refutes the arguments with which loose Christians would plead for those fascinating amusements; their appeals to the silence of the Scriptures, or even to the dancing of David before the ark, and to Paul’s comparison of the Christian life with the Grecian games. He winds up with a picture of the fast approaching day of judgment, to which we should look forward. He inclined strongly to the extreme view, that all art is a species of fiction and falsehood, and inconsistent with Christian truthfulness. In two other treatises he warned the Christian women against all display of dress, in which the heathen women shone in temples, theatres, and public places. Visit not such places, says he to them, and appear in public only for earnest reasons. The handmaids of God must distinguish themselves even outwardly from the handmaids of Satan, and set the latter a good example of simplicity, decorum, and chastity.

The opposition of the Church had, of course, at first only a moral effect, but in the fourth century it began to affect legislation, and succeeded at last in banishing at least the bloody gladiatorial games from the civilized world (with the single exception of Spain and the South American countries, which still disgrace themselves by bull-fights). Constantine, even as late as 313, committed a great multitude of defeated barbarians to the wild beasts for the amusement of the people, and was highly applauded for this generous act by a heathen orator; but after the Council of Nicaea, in 325, he issued the first prohibition of those bloody spectacles in times of peace, and kept them out of Constantinople. “There is scarcely,” says a liberal historian of moral progress, “any other single reform so important in the moral history of mankind as the suppression of the gladiatorial shows, and this feat must be almost exclusively ascribed to the Christian church. When we remember how extremely few of the best and greatest men of the Roman world had absolutely condemned the games of the amphitheatre, it is impossible to regard, without the deepest admiration, the unwavering and uncompromising consistency of the patristic denunciations.”


96. Secular Callings and Civil Duties

As to the various callings of life, Christianity gives the instruction: “Let each man abide in that calling wherein he was called (1Co_7:20).” It forbids no respectable pursuit, and only requires that it be followed in a new spirit to the glory of God and the benefit of men. This is one proof of its universal application — its power to enter into all the relations of human life and into all branches of society, under all forms of government. This is beautifully presented by the unknown author of the Epistle to Diognetus. Tertullian protests to the heathens: “We are no Brahmins nor Indian gymnosophists, no hermits, no exiles from life. We are mindful of the thanks we owe to God, our Lord and Creator; we despise not the enjoyment of his works; we only temper it, that we may avoid excess and abuse. We dwell, therefore, with you in this world, not without markets and fairs, not without baths, inns, shops, and every kind of intercourse. We carry on commerce and war, agriculture and trade with you. We take part in your pursuits, and give our labor for your use.”

But there were at that time some callings which either ministered solely to sinful gratification, like that of the stage-player, or were intimately connected with the prevailing idolatry, like the manufacture, decoration, and sale of mythological images and symbols, the divination of astrologers, and all species of magic. These callings were strictly forbidden in the church, and must be renounced by the candidate for baptism. Other occupations, which were necessary indeed, but commonly perverted by the heathens to fraudulent purposes — inn-keeping, for example — were elevated by the Christian spirit. Theodotus at Ancyra made his house a refuge for the Christians and a place of prayer in the Diocletian persecution, in which he himself suffered martyrdom.

In regard to military and civil offices under the heathen government, opinion was divided. Some, on the authority of such passages as Mat_5:39 and Mat_26:52, condemned all war as unchristian and immoral; anticipating the views of the Mennonites and Friends. Others appealed to the good centurion of Capernaum and Cornelius of Caesarea, and held the military life consistent with a Christian profession. The tradition of the legio fulminatrix indicates that there were Christian soldiers in the Roman armies under Marcus Aurelius, and at the time of Diocletian the number of Christians at the court and in civil office was very considerable.

But in general the Christians of those days, with their lively sense of foreignness to this world, and their longing for the heavenly home, or the millennial reign of Christ, were averse to high office in a heathen state. Tertullian expressly says, that nothing was more alien to them than politics. Their conscience required them to abstain scrupulously from all idolatrous usages, sacrifices, libations, and flatteries connected with public offices; and this requisition must have come into frequent collision with their duties to the state, so long as the state remained heathen. They honored the emperor as appointed to earthly government by God, and as standing nearest of all men to him in power; and they paid their taxes, as Justin Martyr expressly states, with exemplary faithfulness. But their obedience ceased whenever the emperor, as he frequently did, demanded of them idolatrous acts. Tertullian thought that the empire would last till the end of the world, — then supposed to be near at hand — and would be irreconcilable with the Christian profession. Against the idolatrous worship of the emperor he protests with Christian boldness: “Augustus, the founder of the empire, would never be called Lord; for this is a surname of God. Yet I will freely call the emperor so, only not in the place of God. Otherwise I am free from him; for I have only one Lord, the almighty and eternal God, who also is the emperor’s Lord … Far be it from me to call the emperor God, which is not only the most shameful, but the most pernicious flattery.”

The comparative indifference and partial aversion of the Christians to the affairs of the state, to civil legislation and administration exposed them to the frequent reproach and contempt of the heathens. Their want of patriotism was partly the result of their superior devotion to the church as their country, partly of their situation in a hostile world. It must not be attributed to an “indolent or criminal disregard for the public welfare” (as Gibbon intimates), but chiefly to their just abhorrence of the innumerable idolatrous rites connected with the public and private life of the heathens. While they refused to incur the guilt of idolatry, they fervently and regularly prayed for the emperor and the state, their enemies and persecutors. They were the most peaceful subjects, and during this long period of almost constant provocation, abuse, and persecutions, they never took part in those frequent insurrections and rebellions which weakened and undermined the empire. They renovated society from within, by revealing in their lives as well as in their doctrine a higher order of private and public virtue, and thus proved themselves patriots in the best sense of the word.

The patriotism of ancient Greece and republican Rome, while it commands our admiration by the heroic devotion and sacrifice to the country, was after all an extended selfishness, and based upon the absolutism of the State and the disregard of the rights of the individual citizen and the foreigner. It was undermined by causes independent of Christianity. The amalgamation of different nationalities in the empire extinguished sectionalism and exclusivism, and opened the wide view of a universal humanity. Stoicism gave this cosmopolitan sentiment a philosophical and ethical expression in the writings of Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. Terence embodied it in his famous line: “Homo sum; humani nihil a me alienum puto.” But Christianity first taught the fatherhood of God, the redemption by Christ, the common brotherhood of believers, the duty of charity for all men made in the image of God. It is true that monasticism, which began to develop itself already in the third century, nursed indifference to the state and even to the family, and substituted the total abandonment of the world for its reformation and transformation. It withdrew a vast amount of moral energy and enthusiasm from the city to the desert, and left Roman society to starvation and consumption. But it preserved and nursed in solitude the heroism of self-denial and consecration, which, in the collapse of the Roman empire, became a converting power of the barbarian conquerors, and laid the foundation for a new and better civilization. The decline and fall of the Roman empire was inevitable; Christianity prolonged its life in the East, and diminished the catastrophe of its collapse in the West, by converting and humanizing the barbarian conquerors. St. Augustin pointed to the remarkable fact that amid the horrors of the sack of Rome by the Goths, “the churches of the apostles and the crypts of the martyrs were sanctuaries for all who fled to them, whether Christian or pagan,” and “saved the lives of multitudes who impute to Christ the ills that have befallen their city.”


97. The Church and Slavery

See Lit. vol. I. § 48, especially Wallon’s Histoire de l’esclavage (Paris, new ed. 1879, 3 vols). Comp. also V. Lechler: Sklaverei und Christenthum. Leipzig, 1877, 1878; Theod. Zahn: Sklaverei und Christenthum In Der Alten Welt. Heidelberg, 1879. Overbeck: Verh. d. alten Kirche zur Sclaverei im röm. Reiche. 1875.

Heathenism had no conception of the general and natural rights of men. The ancient republics consisted in the exclusive dominion of a minority over an oppressed majority. The Greeks and Romans regarded only the free, i.e. the free-born rich and independent citizens as men in the full sense of the term, and denied this privilege to the foreigners, the laborers, the poor, and the slaves. They claimed the natural right to make war upon all foreign nations, without distinction of race, in order to subject them to their iron rule. Even with Cicero the foreigner and the enemy are synonymous terms. The barbarians were taken in thousands by the chance of war (above 100,000 in the Jewish war alone) and sold as cheap as horses. Besides, an active slave-trade was carried on in the Euxine, the eastern provinces, the coast of Africa, and Britain. The greater part of mankind in the old Roman empire was reduced to a hopeless state of slavery, and to a half brutish level. And this evil of slavery was so thoroughly interwoven with the entire domestic and public life of the heathen world, and so deliberately regarded, even by the greatest philosophers, Aristotle for instance, as natural and indispensable, that the abolition of it, even if desirable, seemed to belong among the impossible things.

Yet from the outset Christianity has labored for this end; not by impairing the right of property, not by outward violence, nor sudden revolution; this, under the circumstances, would only have made the evil worse; but by its moral power, by preaching the divine descent and original unity of all men, their common redemption through Christ, the duty of brotherly love, and the true freedom of the spirit. It placed slaves and masters on the same footing of dependence on God and of freedom in God, the Father, Redeemer, and Judge of both. It conferred inward freedom even under outward bondage, and taught obedience to God and for the sake of God, even in the enjoyment of outward freedom. This moral and religious freedom must lead at last to the personal and civil liberty of the individual. Christianity redeems not only the soul but the body also, and the process of regeneration will end in the resurrection and glorification of the entire natural world.

In the period before us, however, the abolition of slavery, save isolated cases of manumission, was utterly out of question, considering only the enormous number of the slaves. The world was far from ripe for such a step. The church, in her persecuted condition, had as yet no influence at all over the machinery of the state and the civil legislation. And she was at that time so absorbed in the transcendent importance of the higher world and in her longing for the speedy return of the Lord, that she cared little for earthly freedom or temporal happiness. Hence Ignatius, in his epistle to Polycarp, counsels servants to serve only the more zealously to the glory of the Lord, that they may receive from God the higher freedom; and not to attempt to be redeemed at the expense of their Christian brethren, lest they be found slaves to their own caprice. From this we see that slaves, in whom faith awoke the sense of manly dignity and the desire of freedom, were accustomed to demand their redemption at the expense of the church, as a right, and were thus liable to value the earthly freedom more than the spiritual. Tertullian declares the outward freedom worthless without the ransom of the soul from the bondage of sin. “How can the world,” says he, “make a servant free? All is mere show in the world, nothing truth. For the slave is already free, as a purchase of Christ; and the freedman is a servant of Christ. If thou takest the freedom which the world can give for true, thou hast thereby become again the servant of man, and hast lost the freedom of Christ, in that thou thinkest it bondage.” Chrysostom, in the fourth century, was the first of the fathers to discuss the question of slavery at large in the spirit of the apostle Paul, and to recommend, though cautiously, a gradual emancipation.

But the church before Constantine labored with great success to elevate the intellectual and moral condition of the slaves, to adjust inwardly the inequality between slaves and masters, as the first and efficient step towards the final outward abolition of the evil, and to influence the public opinion even of the heathens. Here the church was aided by a concurrent movement in philosophy and legislation. The cruel views of Cato, who advised to work the slaves, like beasts of burden, to death rather than allow them to become old and unprofitable, gave way to the milder and humane views of Seneca, Pliny, and Plutarch, who very nearly approach the apostolic teaching. To the influence of the later Stoic philosophy must be attributed many improvements in the slave-code of imperial Rome. But the most important improvements were made from the triumph of Constantine to the reign of Justinian, under directly Christian influences. Constantine issued a law in 315, forbidding the branding of slaves on the face to prevent the disfiguration of the figure of celestial beauty (i.e. the image of God). He also facilitated emancipation, in an edict of 316, by requiring only a written document, signed by the master, instead of the previous ceremony in the presence of the prefect and his lictor.

It is here to be considered, first of all, that Christianity spread freely among the slaves, except where they were so rude and degraded as to be insensible to all higher impressions. They were not rarely (as Origen observes) the instruments of the conversion of their masters, especially of the women, and children, whose training was frequently intrusted to them. Not a few slaves died martyrs, and were enrolled among the saints; as Onesimus, Eutyches, Victorinus, Maro, Nereus, Achilleus, Blandina, Potamiaena, Felicitas. Tradition makes Onesimus, the slave of Philemon, a bishop. The church of St. Vital at Ravenna — the first and noblest specimen of Byzantine architecture in Italy — was dedicated by, Justinian to the memory of a martyred slave. But the most remarkable instance is that of Callistus, who was originally a slave, and rose to the chair of St. Peter in Rome (218-223). Hippolytus, who acquaints us with his history, attacks his doctrinal and disciplinarian views, but does not reproach him for his former condition. Callistus sanctioned the marriages between free Christian women and Christian slaves. Celsus cast it up as a reproach to Christianity, that it let itself down so readily to slaves, fools, women, and children. But Origen justly saw an excellence of the new religion in this very fact, that it could raise this despised and, in the prevailing view, irreclaimable class of men to the level of moral purity and worth. If, then, converted slaves, with the full sense of their intellectual and religious superiority still remained obedient to their heathen masters, and even served them more faithfully than before, resisting decidedly only their immoral demands (like Potamiaena, and other chaste women and virgins in the service of voluptuous masters) — they showed, in this very self-control, the best proof of their ripeness for civil freedom, and at the same time furnished the fairest memorial of that Christian faith, which raised the soul, in the enjoyment of sonship with God and in the hope of the blessedness of heaven, above the sufferings of earth. Euelpistes, a slave of the imperial household, who was carried with Justin Martyr to the tribunal of Rusticus, on being questioned concerning his condition, replied: “I am a slave of the emperor, but I am also a Christian, and have received liberty from Jesus Christ; by his grace I have the same hope as my brethren.” Where the owners of the slaves themselves became Christians, the old relation virtually ceased; both came together to the table of the Lord, and felt themselves brethren of one family, in striking contrast with the condition of things among their heathen neighbors as expressed in the current proverb: “As many enemies as slaves.” Clement of Alexandria frequently urges that “slaves are men like ourselves,” though he nowhere condemns the institution itself. That there actually were such cases of fraternal fellowship, like that which St. Paul recommended to Philemon, we have the testimony of Lactantius, at the end of our period, who writes in his Institutes, no doubt from life: “Should any say: Are there not also among you poor and rich, servants and masters, distinctions among individuals? No; we call ourselves brethren for no other reason than that we hold ourselves all equal. For since we measure everything human not by its outward appearance, but by its intrinsic value we have notwithstanding the difference of outward relations, no slaves, but we call them and consider them brethren in the Spirit and fellow-servants in religion.” The same writer says: “God would have all men equal … With him there is neither servant nor master. If he is the same Father to all, we are all with the same right free. So no one is poor before God, but he who is destitute of righteousness; no one rich, but he who is full of virtues.”

The testimony of the catacombs, as contrasted with pagan epitaphs, shows that Christianity almost obliterated the distinction between the two classes of society. Slaves are rarely mentioned. “While it is impossible,” says De Rossi, “to examine the pagan sepulchral inscriptions of the same period without finding mention of a slave or a freedman, I have not met with one well-ascertained instance among the inscriptions of the Christian tombs.”

The principles of Christianity naturally prompt Christian slave-holders to actual manumission. The number of slaveholders before Constantine was very limited among Christians, who were mostly poor. Yet we read in the Acts of the martyrdom of the Roman bishop Alexander, that a Roman prefect, Hermas, converted by that bishop, in the reign of Trajan, received baptism at an Easter festival with his wife and children and twelve hundred and fifty slaves, and on this occasion gave all his slaves their freedom and munificent gifts besides. So in the martyrology of St. Sebastian, it is related that a wealthy Roman prefect, Chromatius, under Diocletian, on embracing Christianity, emancipated fourteen hundred slaves, after having them baptized with himself, because their sonship with God put an end to their servitude to man. Several epitaphs in the catacombs mention the fact of manumission. In the beginning of the fourth century St. Cantius, Cantianus, and Cantianilla, of an old Roman family, set all their slaves, seventy-three in number, at liberty, after they had received baptism. St. Melania emancipated eight thousand slaves; St. Ovidius, five thousand; Hermes, a prefect in the reign of Trajan, twelve hundred and fifty.

These legendary traditions may indeed be doubted as to the exact facts in the case, and probably are greatly exaggerated; but they are nevertheless conclusive as the exponents of the spirit which animated the church at that time concerning the duty of Christian masters. It was felt that in a thoroughly Christianized society there can be no room for despotism on the one hand and slavery on the other.

After the third century the manumission became a solemn act, which took place in the presence of the clergy and the congregation. It was celebrated on church festivals, especially on Easter. The master led the slave to the altar; there the document of emancipation was read, the minister pronounced the blessing, and the congregation received him as a free brother with equal rights and privileges. Constantine found this custom already established, and African councils of the fourth century requested the emperor to give it general force. He placed it under the superintendence of the clergy.



H. Wallon, in his learned and able Histoire de l’esclavage dans l’antiquité (second ed. Paris, 1879, 3 vols.), shows that the gospel in such passages as Mat_23:8; Gal_3:28; Col_3:11; 1Co_12:13 sounded the death knell of slavery, though it was very long in dying, and thus sums up the teaching of the ante-Nicene church (III. 237): “Minutius Félix, Tertullien et tous ceux communauté de, nature, cette communauté de patrie dans la république du monde, en un language familier à la philosophie, mais qui trouvait parmi les chrétiens avec une sanction plus haute et un sens plus complet, une application plus sérieuse. Devant cc droit commun des hommes, fondé sur le droit divin, le prétendu droit des gens n’était plus qu’ une monstrueuse injustice.” For the views of the later fathers and the influence of the church on the imperial legislation, see ch. VIII. to X. in his third volume.

Lecky discusses the relation of Christianity to slavery in the second vol. of his History of European Morals, pp. 66-90, and justly remarks: “The services of Christianity in this sphere were of three kinds. It supplied a new order of relations, in which the distinction of classes was unknown. It imparted a moral dignity to the servile classes, and it gave an unexampled impetus to the movement of enfranchisement.”


98. The Heathen Family

In ancient Greece and Rome the state was the highest object of life, and the only virtues properly recognized — wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice — were political virtues. Aristotle makes the state, that is the organized body of free citizens (foreigners and slaves are excluded), precede the family and the individual, and calls man essentially a “political animal.” In Plato’s ideal commonwealth the state is everything and owns everything, even the children.

This political absolutism destroys the proper dignity and rights of the individual and the family, and materially hinders the development of the domestic and private virtues. Marriage was allowed no moral character, but merely a political import for the preservation of the state, and could not be legally contracted except by free citizens. Socrates, in instructing his son concerning this institution, tells him, according to Xenophon, that we select only such wives as we hope will yield beautiful children. Plato recommends even community of women to the class of warriors in his ideal republic, as the best way to secure vigorous citizens. Lycurgus, for similar reasons, encouraged adultery under certain circumstances, requiring old men to lend their young and handsome wives to young and strong men.

Woman was placed almost on the same level with the slave. She differs, indeed, from the slave, according to Aristotle, but has, after all, really no will of her own, and is hardly capable of a higher virtue than the slave. Shut up in a retired apartment of the house, she spent her life with the slaves. As human nature is essentially the same in all ages, and as it in never entirely forsaken by the guidance of a kind Providence, we must certainly suppose that female virtue was always more or less maintained and appreciated even among the heathen. Such characters as Penelope, Nausicaa, Andromache, Antigone, Iphigenia, and Diotima, of the Greek poetry and history, bear witness of this. Plutarch’s advice to married people, and his letter of consolation to his wife after the death of their daughter, breathe a beautiful spirit of purity and affection. But the general position assigned to woman by the poets, philosophers, and legislators of antiquity, was one of social oppression and degradation. In Athens she was treated as a minor during lifetime, and could not inherit except in the absence of male heirs. To the question of Socrates: “Is there any one with whom you converse less than with the wife?” his pupil, Aristobulus, replies: “No one, or at least very few.” If she excelled occasionally, in Greece, by wit and culture, and, like Aspasia, Phryne, Laïs, Theodota, attracted the admiration and courtship even of earnest philosophers like Socrates, and statesmen like Pericles, she generally belonged to the disreputable class of the hetaerae or amicae. In Corinth they were attached to the temple of Aphrodite, and enjoyed the sanction of religion for the practice of vice. These dissolute women were esteemed above housewives, and became the proper and only representatives of some sort of female culture and social elegance. To live with them openly was no disgrace even for married men. How could there be any proper conception and abhorrence of the sin of licentiousness and adultery, if the very gods, a Jupiter, a Mars, and a Venus, were believed to be guilty of those sins! The worst vices of earth were transferred to Olympus.

Modesty forbids the mention of a still more odious vice, which even depraved nature abhors, which yet was freely discussed and praised by ancient poets and philosophers, practised with neither punishment nor dishonor, and likewise divinely sanctioned by the example of Apollo and Hercules, and by the lewdness of Jupiter with Ganymede.

The Romans were originally more virtuous, domestic, and chaste, as they were more honest and conscientious, than the Greeks. With them the wife was honored by the title domina, matrona, materfamilias. At the head of their sacerdotal system stood the flamens of Jupiter, who represented marriage in its purity, and the vestal virgins, who represented virginity. The Sabine women interceding between their parents and their husbands, saved the republic; the mother and the wife of Coriolanus by her prayers averted his wrath, and raised the siege of the Volscian army; Lucretia who voluntarily sacrificed her life to escape the outrage to her honor offered by king Tarquin, and Virginia who was killed by her father to save her from slavery and dishonor, shine in the legendary history of Rome as bright examples of unstained purity. But even in the best days of the republic the legal status of woman was very low. The Romans likewise made marriage altogether subservient to the interest of the state, and allowed it in its legal form to free citizens alone. The proud maxims of the republic prohibited even the legitimate nuptials of a Roman with a foreign queen; and Cleopatra and Berenice were, as strangers, degraded to the position of concubines of Mark Antony and Titus. According to ancient custom the husband bought his bride from her parents, and she fulfilled the coëmption by purchasing, with three pieces of copper, a just introduction to his house and household deities. But this was for her simply an exchange of one servitude for another. She became the living property of a husband who could lend her out, as Cato lent his wife to his friend Hortensius, and as Augustus took Livia from Tiberius Nero. “Her husband or master,” says Gibbon, “was invested with the plenitude of paternal power. By his judgment or caprice her behavior was approved or censured, or chastised; he exercised the jurisdiction of life and death; and it was allowed, that in cases of adultery or drunkenness, the sentence might be properly inflicted. She acquired and inherited for the sole profit of her lord; and so clearly was woman defined, not as a person, but as a thing, that, if the original title were deficient, she might be claimed like other movables, by the use and possession of an entire year.”

Monogamy was the rule both in Greece and in Rome, but did not exclude illegitimate connexions. Concubinage, in its proper legal sense, was a sort of secondary marriage with a woman of servile or plebeian extraction, standing below the dignity of a matron and above the infamy of a prostitute. It was sanctioned and regulated by law; it prevailed both in the East and the West from the age of Augustus to the tenth century, and was preferred to regular marriage by Vespasian, and the two Antonines, the best Roman emperors. Adultery was severely punished, at times even with sudden destruction of the offender; but simply as an interference with the rights and property of a free man. The wife had no legal or social protection against the infidelity of her husband. The Romans worshipped a peculiar goddess of domestic life; but her name Viriplaca, the appeaser of husbands, indicates her partiality. The intercourse of a husband with the slaves of his household and with public prostitutes was excluded from the odium and punishment of adultery. We say nothing of that unnatural abomination alluded to in Rom_1:26, Rom_1:27, which seems to have passed from the Etruscans and Greeks to the Romans, and prevailed among the highest as well as the lowest classes. The women, however, were almost as corrupt as their husbands, at least in the imperial age. Juvenal calls a chaste wife a “rara avis in terris.” Under Augustus free-born daughters could no longer be found for the service of Vesta, and even the severest laws of Domitian could not prevent the six priestesses of the pure goddess from breaking their vow. The pantomimes and the games of Flora, with their audacious indecencies, were favorite amusements. “The unblushing, undisguised obscenity of the Epigrams of Martial, of the Romances of Apuleius and Petronius, and of some of the Dialogues of Lucian, reflected but too faithfully the spirit of their times.”

Divorce is said to have been almost unknown in the ancient days of the Roman republic, and the marriage tie was regarded as indissoluble. A senator was censured for kissing his wife in the presence of their daughter. But the merit of this virtue is greatly diminished if we remember that the husband always had an easy outlet for his sensual passions in the intercourse with slaves and concubines. Nor did it outlast the republic. After the Punic war the increase of wealth and luxury, and the influx of Greek and Oriental licentiousness swept away the stern old Roman virtues. The customary civil and religious rites of marriage were gradually disused; the open community of life between persons of similar rank was taken as sufficient evidence of their nuptials; and marriage, after Augustus, fell to the level of any partnership, which might be dissolved by the abdication of one of the associates. “Passion, interest, or caprice,” says Gibbon on the imperial age, “suggested daily, motives for the dissolution of marriage; a word, a sign, a message, a letter, the mandate of a freedman, declared the separation; the most tender of human connections was degraded to a transient society of profit or pleasure.”

Various remedies were tardily adopted as the evil spread, but they proved inefficient, until the spirit of Christianity gained the control of public opinion and improved the Roman legislation, which, however, continued for a long time to fluctuate between the custom of heathenism and the wishes of the church. Another radical evil of heathen family life, which the church had to encounter throughout the whole extent of the Roman Empire, was the absolute tyrannical authority of the parent over the children, extending even to the power of life and death, and placing the adult son of a Roman citizen on a level with the movable things and slaves, “whom the capricious master might alienate or destroy, without being responsible to any earthly tribunal.”

With this was connected the unnatural and monstrous custom of exposing poor, sickly, and deformed children to a cruel death, or in many cases to a life of slavery and infamy-a custom expressly approved, for the public interest, even by a Plato, an Aristotle, and a Seneca! “Monstrous offspring,” says the great Stoic philosopher, “we destroy; children too, if born feeble and ill-formed, we drown. It is not wrath, but reason, thus to separate the useless from the healthy.” “The exposition of children” — to quote once more from Gibbon — “was the prevailing and stubborn vice of antiquity: it was sometimes prescribed, often permitted, almost always practised with impunity by the nations who never entertained the Roman ideas of paternal power; and the dramatic poets, who appeal to the human heart, represent with indifference a popular custom which was palliated by the motives of economy and compassion … The Roman Empire was stained with the blood of infants, till such murders were included, by Valentinian and his colleagues, in the letter and spirit of the Cornelian law. The lessons of jurisprudence and Christianity had been insufficient to eradicate this inhuman practice, till their gentle influence was fortified by the terrors of capital punishment.”


99. The Christian Family

Such was the condition of the domestic life of the ancient world, when Christianity, with its doctrine of the sanctity of marriage, with its injunction of chastity, and with its elevation of woman from her half-slavish condition to moral dignity and equality with man, began the work of a silent transformation, which secured incalculable blessings to generations yet unborn. It laid the foundation for a well-ordered family life. It turned the eye from the outward world to the inward sphere of affection, from the all-absorbing business of politics and state-life into the sanctuary of home; and encouraged the nurture of those virtues of private life, without which no true public virtue can exist. But, as the evil here to be abated, particularly the degradation of the female sex and the want of chastity, was so deeply rooted and thoroughly interwoven in the whole life of the old world, this ennobling of the family, like the abolition of slavery, was necessarily a very slow process. We cannot wonder, therefore, at the high estimate of celibacy, which in the eyes of many seemed to be the only radical escape from the impurity and misery of married life as it generally stood among the heathen. But, although the fathers are much more frequent and enthusiastic in the praise of virginity than in that of marriage, yet their views on this subject show an immense advance upon the moral standard of the greatest sages and legislators of Greece and Rome.

Chastity before marriage, in wedlock, and in celibacy, in man as well as in woman, so rare in paganism, was raised to the dignity of a cardinal virtue and made the corner-stone of the family. Many a female martyr preferred cruel torture and death to the loss of honor. When St. Perpetua fell half dead from the horns of a wild bull in the arena, she instinctively drew together her dress, which had been torn in the assault. The acts of martyrs and saints tell marvellous stories, exaggerated no doubt, yet expressive of the ruling Christian sentiment, about heroic resistance to carnal temptation, the sudden punishment of unjust charges of impurity by demoniacal possession or instant death, the rescue of courtesans from a life of shame and their radical conversion and elevation even to canonical sanctity. The ancient councils deal much with carnal sins so fearfully prevalent, and unanimously condemn them in every shape and form. It is true, chastity in the early church and by the unanimous consent of the fathers was almost identified with celibacy, as we shall see hereafter; but this excess should not blind us to the immense advance of patristic over heathen morals.

Woman was emancipated, in the best sense of the term, from the bondage of social oppression, and made the life and light of a Christian home. Such pure and heroic virgins as the martyred Blandina, and Perpetua, and such devoted mothers as Nonna, Anthusa, and Monica, we seek in vain among the ancient Greek and Roman maidens and matrons, and we need not wonder that the heathen Libanius, judging from such examples as the mother of his pupil Chrysostom, reluctantly exclaimed: “What women have these Christians!” The schoolmen of the middle ages derived from the formation of woman an ingenious argument for her proper position: Eve was not taken from the feet of Adam to be his slave, nor from his head to be his ruler, but from his side to be his beloved partner.

At the same time here also we must admit that the ancient church was yet far behind the ideal set up in the New Testament, and counterbalanced the elevation of woman by an extravagant over-estimate of celibacy. It was the virgin far more than the faithful wife and mother of children that was praised and glorified by the fathers; and among the canonized saints of the Catholic calendar there is little or no room for husbands and wives, although the patriarchs, Moses, and some of the greatest prophets (Isaiah, Ezekiel), and apostles (Peter taking the lead) lived in honorable wedlock.

Marriage was regarded in the church from the beginning as a sacred union of body and soul for the propagation of civil society, and the kingdom of God, for the exercise of virtue and the promotion of happiness. It was clothed with a sacramental or semi-sacramental character on the basis of Paul’s comparison of the marriage union with the relation of Christ to his church. It was in its nature indissoluble except in case of adultery, and this crime was charged not only to the woman, but to the man as even the more guilty party, and to every extra-connubial carnal connection. Thus the wife was equally protected against the wrongs of the husband, and chastity was made the general law of the family life.

We have a few descriptions of Christian homes from the ante-Nicene age, one from an eminent Greek father, another from a married presbyter of the Latin church.

Clement of Alexandria enjoins upon Christian married persons united prayer and reading of the Scriptures, as a daily morning exercise, and very beautifully says: “The mother is the glory of her children, the wife is the glory of her husband, both are the glory of the wife, God is the glory of all together.”

Tertullian, at the close of the book which he wrote to his wife, draws the following graphic picture, which, though somewhat idealized, could be produced only from the moral spirit of the gospel and actual experience: “How can I paint the happiness of a marriage which the church ratifies, the oblation (the celebration of the communion) confirms, the benediction seals, angels announce, the Father declares valid. Even upon earth, indeed, sons do not legitimately marry without the consent of their fathers. What a union of two believers — one hope, one vow, one discipline, and one worship! They are brother and sister, two fellow-servants, one spirit and one flesh. Where there is one flesh, there is also one spirit. They pray together, fast together, instruct, exhort, and support each other. They go together to the church of God, and to the table of the Lord. They share each other’s tribulation, persecution, and revival. Neither conceals anything from the other; neither avoids, neither annoys the other. They delight to visit the sick, supply the needy, give alms without constraint, and in daily zeal lay their offerings before the altar without scruple or hindrance. They do not need to keep the sign of the cross hidden, nor to express slyly their Christian joy, nor to suppress the blessing. Psalms and hymns they sing together, and they vie with each other in singing to God. Christ rejoices when he sees and hears this. He gives them his peace. Where two are together in his name, there is he; and where he is, there the evil one cannot come.”

A large sarcophagus represents a scene of family worship: on the right, four men, with rolls in their hands, reading or singing; on the left, three women and a girl playing a lyre.

For the conclusion of a marriage, Ignatius required “the consent of the bishop, that it might be a marriage for God, and not for pleasure. All should be done to the glory of God.” In Tertullian’s time, as may be inferred from the passage just quoted, the solemnization of marriage was already at least a religious act, though not a proper sacrament, and was sealed by the celebration of the holy communion in presence of the congregation. The Montanists were disposed even to make this benediction of the church necessary to the validity of marriage among Christians. All noisy and wanton Jewish and heathen nuptial ceremonies, and at first also the crowning of the bride, were discarded; but the nuptial ring, as a symbol of union, was retained.

In the catacombs the marriage ceremony is frequently represented by the man and the woman standing side by side and joining hands in token of close union, as also on heathen documents. On a gilded glass of the fourth century, the couple join hands over a small nuptial altar, and around the figures are inscribed the words (of the priest): “May ye live in God.”

Mixed marriages with heathens and also with heretics, were unanimously condemned by the voice of the church in agreement with the Mosaic legislation, unless formed before conversion, in which case they were considered valid. Tertullian even classes such marriages with adultery. What heathen, asks he, will let his wife attend the nightly meetings of the church, and the slandered supper of the Lord, take care of the sick even in the poorest hovels, kiss the chains of the martyrs in prison rise in the night for prayer, and show hospitality to strange brethren? Cyprian calls marriage with an unbeliever a prostitution of the members of Christ. The Council of Elvira in Spain (306) forbade such mixed marriages on pain of excommunication, but did not dissolve those already existing. We shall understand this strictness, if, to say nothing of the heathen marriage rites, and the wretchedly loose notions on chastity and conjugal fidelity, we consider the condition of those times, and the offences and temptations which met the Christian in the constant sight of images of the household gods, mythological pictures on the walls, the floor, and the furniture; in the libations at table; in short, at every step and turn in a pagan house.

Second marriage. — From the high view of marriage, and also from an ascetic over-estimate of celibacy, arose a very prevalent aversion to re-marriage, particularly of widows. The Shepherd of Hermas allows this reunion indeed, but with the reservation, that continuance in single life earns great honor with the Lord. Athenagoras goes so far as to call the second marriage a “decent adultery.”

The Montanists and Novatians condemned re-marriage, and made it a subject of discipline.

Tertullian came forward with the greatest decision, as advocate of monogamy against both successive and simultaneous polygamy. He thought thus to occupy the true middle ground between the ascetic Gnostics, who rejected marriage altogether, and the Catholics, who allowed more than one. In the earlier period of his life, when he drew the above picture of Christian marriage, before his adoption of Montanism, he already placed a high estimate on celibacy as a superior grade of Christian holiness, appealing to 1Co_7:9 and advised at least his wife, in case of his death, not to marry again, especially with a heathen; but in his Montanistic writings, “De Exhortatione Castitatis” and “De Monogamia,” he repudiates second marriage from principle, and with fanatical zeal contends against it as unchristian, as an act of polygamy, nay of “stuprum” and “adulterium.” He opposes it with all sorts of acute argument; now, on the ground of an ideal conception of marriage as a spiritual union of two souls for time and eternity; now, from an opposite sensuous view; and again, on principles equally good against all marriage and in favor of celibacy. Thus, on the one hand, he argues, that the second marriage impairs the spiritual fellowship with the former partner, which should continue beyond the grave, which should show itself in daily intercessions and in yearly celebration of the day of death, and which hopes even for outward reunion after the resurrection. On the other hand, however, he places the essence of marriage in the communion of flesh, and regards it as a mere concession, which God makes to our sensuality, and which man therefore should not abuse by repetition. The ideal of the Christian life, with him, not only for the clergy, but the laity also, is celibacy. He lacks clear perception of the harmony of the moral and physical elements which constitutes the essence of marriage; and strongly as he elsewhere combats the Gnostic dualism, he here falls in with it in his depreciation of matter and corporeity, as necessarily incompatible with spirit. His treatment of the exegetical arguments of the defenders of second marriage is remarkable. The levirate law, he says, is peculiar to the Old Testament economy. To Rom_7:2 he replies, that Paul speaks here from the position of the Mosaic law, which, according to the same passage is no longer binding on Christians. In 1Co_7:1-40, the apostle allows second marriage only in his subjective, human judgment, and from regard to our sensuous infirmity; but in the same chapter (1Co_7:40) he recommends celibacy to all, and that on the authority of the Lord, adding here, that he also has the Holy Spirit, i.e. the principle, which is active in the new prophets of Montanism. The appeal to 1Ti_3:2; Tit_1:6, from which the right of laymen to second marriage was inferred, as the prohibition of it there related only to the clergy, he met with the doctrine of the universal priesthood of believers, which admitted them all both to the privileges and to the obligations of priests. But his reasoning always amounts in the end to this: that the state of original virgin purity, which has nothing at all to do with the sensual, is the best. The true chastity consists therefore not in the chaste spirit of married partners, but in the entire continence of “virgines” and “spadones.” The desire of posterity, he, contrary to the Old Testament, considers unworthy of a Christian, who, in fact, ought to break away entirely from the world, and renounce all inheritance in it. Such a morality, forbidding the same that it allows, and rigorously setting as an ideal what it must in reality abate at least for the mass of mankind, may be very far above the heathen level, but is still plainly foreign to the deeper substance and the world-sanctifying principle of Christianity.

The Catholic church, indeed, kept aloof from this Montanistic extravagance, and forbade second marriage only to the clergy (which the Greek church does to this day); yet she rather advised against it, and leaned very decidedly towards a preference for celibacy, as a higher grade of Christian morality.

As to the relation of parents and children, Christianity exerted from the beginning a most salutary influence. It restrained the tyrannical power of the father. It taught the eternal value of children as heirs of the kingdom of heaven, and commenced the great work of education on a religious and moral basis. It resisted with all energy the exposition of children, who were then generally devoured by dogs and wild beasts, or, if found, trained up for slavery or doomed to a life of infamy. Several apologists, the author to the Epistle of Diognetus, Justin Martyr, Minutius Felix, Tertullian, and Arnobius speak with just indignation against this unnatural custom. Athenagoras declares abortion and exposure to be equal to murder. No heathen philosopher had advanced so far. Lactantius also puts exposure on a par with murder even of the worst kind, and admits no excuse on the ground of pity or poverty, since God provides for all his creatures. The Christian spirit of humanity gradually so penetrated the spirit of the age that the better emperors, from the time of Trajan, began to direct their attention to the diminution of these crying evils; but the best legal enactments would never have been able to eradicate them without the spiritual influence of the church. The institutions and donations of Trajan, Antonins Pius, Septimius Severus, and private persons, for the education of poor children, boys and girls, were approaches of the nobler heathen towards the genius of Christianity. Constantine proclaimed a law in 315 throughout Italy “to turn parents from using a parricidal hand on their new-born children, and to dispose their hearts to the best sentiments.” The Christian fathers, councils, emperors, and lawgivers united their efforts to uproot this monstrous evil and to banish it from the civilized world.