Treatise on Tolerance

by Voltaire (1763)

The Martyrs

There were Christian martyrs in later years. It is very difficult to discover the precise grounds on which they were condemned; but I venture to think that none of them were put to death on religious grounds under the earlier emperors. All religions were tolerated, and there is no reason to suppose that the Romans would seek out and persecute certain obscure men, with a peculiar cult, at a time when they permitted all other religions.

Titus, Trajan, the Antonines, and Decius were not barbarians. How can we suppose that they deprived the Christians alone of a liberty which the whole empire enjoyed? How could they venture to charge the Christians with their secret mysteries when the mysteries of Isis, Mithra, and the Syrian goddess, all alien to the Roman cult, were freely permitted? There must have been other reasons for persecution. Possibly certain special animosities, supported by reasons of State, led to the shedding of Christian blood.

For instance, when St. Lawrence refused to give to the Roman prefect, Cornelius Secularis, the money of the Christians which he held, the prefect and emperor would naturally be irritated. They did not know that St. Lawrence had distributed the money to the poor, and done a charitable and holy act. They regarded him as rebellious, and had him put to death.

Consider the martyrdom of St. Polyeuctes. Was he condemned on the ground of religion alone? He enters the temple, in which thanks are being given to the gods for the victory of the Emperor Decius. He insults the sacrificing priests, and overturns and breaks the altars and statues. In what country in the world would such an outrage be overlooked? The Christian who in public tore down the edict of the Emperor Diocletian, and drew the great persecution upon his brethren in the last two years of the reign of that emperor, had more zeal than discretion, and, unhappily, brought a great disaster on the body to which he belonged. This unthinking zeal, which often broke out, and was condemned even by some of the fathers of the Church, was probably the cause of all the persecutions.

I do not, of course, compare the early Protestants with the early Christians; one cannot put error by the side of truth. But it is a fact that Forel, the predecessor of Calvin, did at Arles the same thing that St. Polyeuctes had done in Armenia. The statue of St. Antony the Hermit was being carried in procession, and Forel and some of his companions fell on the monks who carried it, beat and scattered them, and threw St. Antony in the river. He deserved the death which he managed to evade by flight. If he had been content to call out to the monks that he did not believe that a crow brought half a loaf to St. Antony the Hermit, or that St. Antony conversed with centaurs and satyrs, he would merely have merited a stern rebuke for disturbing public order; and if, the evening after the procession, he had calmly studied the story of the crow, the centaurs, and the satyrs, they would have had no reproach to make him.

You think that the Romans would have suffered the infamous Antinous to be raised to the rank of the secondary gods, and would have rent and given to the beasts those whose only reproach was to have quietly worshipped one just God! You imagine that they would have recognised a supreme and sovereign God, master of all the secondary gods, as we see in their formula, Deus optimus maximus, yet persecuted those who worshipped one sole God!

It is incredible that there was any inquisition against the Christians—that men were sent among them to interrogate them on their beliefs—under the emperors. On that point they never troubled either Jew, Syrian, Egyptian, Druid, or philosopher. The martyrs were men who made an outcry against what they called false gods. It was a very wise and pious thing to refuse to believe in them; but, after all, if, not content with worshipping God in spirit and in truth, they broke out violently against the established cult, however absurd it was, we are compelled to admit that they were themselves intolerant.

Tertullian admits in his Apology (ch. xxxix.) that the Christians were regarded as seditious. The charge was unjust, but it shows that it was not merely their religion which stimulated the zeal of the magistrates. He admits that the Christians refused to decorate their doors with laurel branches in the public rejoicings for the victories of the emperors; such an affectation might easily be turned into the crime of treason.

The first period of juridical severity against the Christians was under Domitian, but it was generally restricted to a banishment that did not last a year. "Facile coeptum repressit, restitutis quos ipse relegaverat," says Tertullian ["He quickly repressed the work, restoring those whom he had banished"]. Lactantius, whose style is so vehement, agrees that the Church was peaceful and flourishing from Domitian to Decius [96-250 A.D.]. This long peace, he says, was broken when "that execrable animal Decius began to vex the Church."

We need not discuss here the opinion of the learned Dodwell that the martyrs were few in number; but if the Romans persecuted the Christian religion, if the Senate had put to death so many innocent men with unusual tortures—plunging Christians in boiling oil and exposing girls naked to the beasts in the circus—how is it that they left untouched all the earlier bishops of Rome? St. Irenæus can count among them only one martyr, Telesphorus, in the year 139 A.D.; and we have no proof that Telesphorus was put to death. Zepherinus governed the flock at Rome for twenty-eight years, and died peacefully in 219. It is true that nearly all the popes are inscribed in the early martyrologies, but the word "martyr" was then taken in its literal sense, as "witness," not as one put to death.

It is difficult to reconcile this persecuting fury with the freedom which the Christians had to hold the fifty-six Councils which ecclesiastical writers count in the first three centuries.

There were persecutions; but if they were as violent as we are told, it is probable that Tertullian, who wrote so vigorously against the established cult, would not have died in his bed. We know, of course, that the emperors would not read his Apology—an obscure work, composed in Africa, would hardly reach those who were ruling the world. But it must have been known to those who were in touch with the proconsul of Africa, and ought to have brought a good deal of ill-feeling on its author. He did not, however, suffer martyrdom.

Origen taught publicly at Alexandria, and was not put to death. This same Origen, who spoke so freely to both pagans and Christians—announcing Jesus to the former and denying a God in three persons to the latter—says expressly, in the third book of his Contra Celsum, that "there have been few martyrs, and those at long intervals"; although, he says, "the Christians do all in their power to make everybody embrace their religion, running about the towns and villages."

It is clear that a seditious complexion might be put by the hostile priests on all this running about, yet the missions were tolerated, in spite of the constant and cowardly disorders of the Egyptian people, who killed a Roman for slaying a cat, and were always contemptible.

Who did more to bring upon him the priests and the government than St. Gregory Thaumaturgus, a pupil of Origen? Gregory saw, during the night, an old man, sent by God, and a woman shining with light; the woman was the Virgin, and the man St. John the Evangelist. John dictated to him a creed, which Gregory went out to preach. In going to Neocæsarea he passed by a temple in which oracles were given, and the rain compelled him to spend the night in it, after making many signs of the cross. The following day the sacrificing priest was astonished to find that the demons who were wont to answer him would do so no longer. When he called, they said that they would come no more, and could not live in the temple, because Gregory had spent the night in it and made the sign of the cross in it.

The priest had Gregory seized, and Gregory said: "I can expel the demons from wherever I like, and drive them into wherever I like." "Send them back into my temple, then," said the priest. So Gregory tore off a piece from a book he had in his hand and wrote on it: "Gregory to Satan: I order thee to return to this temple." The message was placed on the altar, and the demons obeyed, and gave the oracles as before.

St. Gregory of Nyssa tells us these facts in his Life of St. Gregory Thaumaturgus. The priests in charge of the idols must have been incensed against Gregory, and wished, in their blindness, to denounce him to the magistrates. But their greatest enemy never suffered persecution.

It is said that St. Cyprian was the first bishop of Carthage to be condemned to death, in the year 258. During a very long period, therefore, no bishop of Carthage suffered for his religion. History does not tell us what charges were made against St. Cyprian, what enemies he had, and why the proconsul of Africa was angry with him. St. Cyprian writes to Cornelius, bishop of Rome: "There was, a short time ago, some popular disturbance at Carthage, and the cry was twice raised that I ought to be cast to the lions." It is very probable that the excitement of the passionate populace of Carthage was the cause of the death of Cyprian; it is, at all events, certain that the Emperor Gallus did not condemn him on the ground of religion from distant Rome, since he left untouched Cornelius, who lived under his eyes.

So many hidden causes are associated at times with the apparent cause, so many unknown springs may be at work in the persecution of a man, that it is impossible, centuries afterwards, to discover the hidden source of the misfortunes even of distinguished men; it is still more difficult to explain the persecution of an individual who must have been known only to those of his own party.

Observe that St. Gregory Thaumaturgus and St. Denis, bishop of Alexandria, who were not put to death, lived at the same time as St. Cyprian. How is it that they were left in peace, since they were, at least, as well known as the bishop of Carthage? And why was Cyprian put to death? Does it not seem as if the latter fell a victim to personal and powerful enemies, under the pretext of calumny or reasons of State, which are so often associated with religion, and that the former were fortunate enough to escape the malice of men?

It is impossible that the mere charge of being a Christian led to the death of St. Ignatius under the clement and just Trajan, since the Christians were allowed to accompany and console him during his voyage to Rome. Seditions were common at Antioch, always a turbulent city, where Ignatius was secret bishop of the Christians. Possibly these seditions were imputed to the Christians, and brought the authorities upon them.

St. Simeon, for instance, was charged before Sapor with being a Roman spy. The story of his martyrdom tells that King Sapor ordered him to worship the sun, but we know that the Persians did not worship the sun; they regarded it as an emblem of the good principle Ormuzd, the god whom they recognised.

However tolerant we may be, we cannot help being indignant with the rhetoricians who accuse Diocletian of persecuting the Christians as soon as he ascended the throne. Let us consult Eusebius of Cæsarea, the favourite and panegyrist of Constantine, the violent enemy of preceding emperors. He says (Ecclesiastical History, Bk. VIII.): "The emperors for a long time gave the Christians proof of their goodwill. They entrusted provinces to them; several Christians lived in the palace; they even married Christians. Diocletian married Prisca, whose daughter was the wife of Maximianus Galerius."

We may well suspect that the persecution set afoot by Galerius, after a clement and benevolent reign of twenty-nine years, was due to some intrigue that is unknown to us.

The story of the massacre of the Theban Legion on religious grounds is absurd. It is ridiculous to say that the legion came from Asia by the great St. Bernard Pass; it is impossible that it should be brought from Asia at all to quell a sedition in Gaul—a year after the sedition broke out, moreover; it is not less incredible that six thousand infantry and seven hundred cavalry could be slain in a pass in which two hundred men could hold at bay a whole army. The account of this supposed butchery begins with an evident imposture: "When the earth groaned under the tyranny of Diocletian, heaven was peopled with saints." Now, this episode is supposed to have taken place in 286, a time when Diocletian favoured the Christians, and the empire flourished. Finally—a point which might dispense us from discussion altogether—there never was a Theban Legion. The Romans had too much pride and common-sense to make up a legion of Egyptians, who served only as slaves at Rome; one might as well talk of a Jewish Legion. We have the names of the thirty-two legions which represented the chief strength of the Roman Empire, and there is no Theban Legion among them. We must relegate the fable to the same category as the acrostic verses of the Sibyls, which foretold the miracles of Christ, and so many other forgeries with which a false zeal duped the credulous.

Next: Section 10

Monadnock Valley Press > Voltaire > Treatise on Tolerance