Treatise on Tolerance

by Voltaire (1763)

Whether the Romans Were Tolerant

Among the ancient Romans you will not find, from Romulus until the days when the Christians disputed with the priests of the empire, a single man persecuted on account of his opinions. Cicero doubted everything; Lucretius denied everything; yet they incurred not the least reproach. Indeed, license went so far that Pliny, the naturalist, began his book by saying that there is no god, or that, if there is, it is the sun. Cicero, speaking of the lower regions, says: "There is no old woman so stupid as to believe in them (Non est anus tam excors quæ credat)." Juvenal says: "Even the children do not believe (Nec pueri credunt)." They sang in the theatre at Rome: "There is nothing after death, and death is nothing (Post mortem nihil est, ipsaque mors nihil)." We may abhor these maxims, or, at the most, forgive a people whom the light of the gospel had not reached; but we must conclude that the Romans were very tolerant, since they did not excite a single murmur.

The great principle of the Senate and people of Rome was, "Offences against the gods are the business of the gods (Deorum offensa diis curæ)." They dreamed only of conquering, governing, and civilising the world. They were our legislators and our conquerors; and Cæsar, who gave us roads, laws, and games, never attempted to compel us to abandon our druids for him, great pontiff as he was of our sovereign nation.

The Romans did not profess all cults, or assign public functions to all, but they permitted all. They had no material object of worship under Numa, no pictures or statues; though they presently erected statues to "the gods of the great nations," whom they learned from the Greeks. The law of the Twelve Tables, Deos peregrinos ne colunto ["Foreign gods shall not be worshipped"], means only that public cult shall be given only to the superior divinities approved by the Senate. Isis had a temple at Rome until Tiberius destroyed it. The Jews were engaged in commerce there since the time of the Punic war, and had synagogues there in the days of Augustus. They kept them almost always, as in modern Rome. Can there be a clearer proof that toleration was regarded by the Romans as the most sacred line of the law of nations?

We are told that, as soon as the Christians appeared, they were persecuted by the Romans, who persecuted nobody. It seems to me that the statement is entirely false, and I need only quote St. Paul himself in disproof of it. In the Acts of the Apostles (xxv. 16) we read that, when Paul was dragged before the Roman Governor by the Jews in some religious quarrel, Festus said: "It is not the manner of the Romans to deliver any man to die before that he which is accused have the accusers face to face, and have license to answer for himself." These words are the more remarkable for a Roman magistrate, because he seems to have had nothing but contempt for Paul. Deceived by the false light of his reason, he took Paul for a fool, and said: "Much learning doth make thee mad." He was, therefore, having regard only to the equity of Roman law in giving his protection to a stranger for whom he had no esteem.

Thus the Holy Spirit, in inspiring Acts, testifies that the Romans were just, and did not persecute. It was not the Romans who fell upon Paul, but the Jews. St. James, the brother of Jesus, was stoned by the order of a Jewish Sadducee, not of a Roman. The Jews alone stoned St. Stephen; and St. Paul, in holding the cloaks of the executioners, certainly did not act as a Roman citizen.

The first Christians had, no doubt, no cause of quarrel with the Romans; their only enemies were the Jews, from whom they were beginning to separate. We know the fierce hatred that sectarians always have for those who leave the sect. There were probably disturbances in the synagogues at Rome. Suetonius says, in his life of Claudius: "Judæos impulsore Christo assidue tumultuantes Roma expulit." He was wrong in saying that they were instigated by Christ, and was not likely to be well informed in detail about a people so much despised at Rome as the Jews were; but he was not mistaken as to the subject of the quarrels. Suetonius wrote under Hadrian, in the second century, when the Christians were not distinct from the Jews in Roman eyes. His words show that the Romans, instead of oppressing the first Christians, rather coerced the Jews who persecuted them. They wished the Roman synagogue to deal as indulgently with their separated brethren as the Senate did. The banished Jews returned soon afterwards, and even attained high positions, in spite of the laws which excluded them, as Dio Cassius and Ulpian tell us. Is it possible that, after the ruin of Jerusalem, the emperors should lavish honours on the Jews, and persecute, and hand over to the executioner or the beasts, Christians, who were regarded as a Jewish sect?

It is said that Nero persecuted them. Tacitus tells us that they were accused of setting fire to Rome, and were abandoned to the fury of the people. Was that on account of their religious belief? Certainly not. Shall we say that the Chinese who were slain by the Dutch a few years ago in the suburbs of Batavia were sacrificed on account of religion? However much a man may wish to deceive himself, it is impossible to ascribe to intolerance the disaster that befell a few half-Jewish, half-Christian men and women at Rome under Nero.

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