MARCUS AURELIUS had persecuted the Christians from principle, being a bigoted Pagan: but his son, Commodus, who, in 180, succeeded him in the empire, after some time, though a vicious man, showed himself favourable to them out of regard to Marcia, a lady whom he had honoured with the title of empress, and who was an admirer of the faith. During this calm, the number of the faithful was exceedingly increased, and many persons of the first rank enlisted themselves under the banner of the cross, of which number was Apollonius, a Roman senator. He was a person very well versed both in philosophy and the holy scripture. In the midst of the peace which the church enjoyed, he was publicly accused of Christianity by one of his own slaves, named Severus, before Perennis, prefect of the Prætorium. The slave was immediately condemned by the prefect to have his legs broken, and to be put to death, in consequence of an edict of Marcus Aurelius, who, without repealing the former laws against convicted Christians, ordered by it that their accusers should be put to death. The slave being executed, pursuant to the sentence already mentioned, the same judge sent an order to his master, St. Apollonius, to renounce his religion as he valued his life and fortune. The saint courageously rejected such ignominious terms of safety, wherefore Perennis referred him to the judgment of the Roman senate, commanding him to give an account of his faith to that body. The martyr hereupon composed an excellent discourse, but which has not reached our times, in vindication of the Christian religion, and spoke it in a full senate. St. Jerom, who had perused it, did not know whether more to admire the eloquence, or the profound learning, both sacred and profane, of its illustrious author: who, persisting in his refusal to comply with the condition, was condemned by a decree of the senate, and beheaded, about the year 186, of Commodus the sixth. 1
It is the prerogative of the Christian religion to inspire men with such resolution, and form them to such heroism, that they rejoice to sacrifice their life to truth. This is not the bare force and exertion of nature, but the undoubted power of the Almighty, whose strength is thus made perfect in weakness. Every Christian ought to be an apologist for his religion by the sanctity of his manners. Such would be the force of universal good example, that no libertine or infidel could withstand it.—But by the scandal and irregularity of our manners, we fight against Christ, and draw a reproach upon his most holy religion. Thus, through us, are his name and faith blasphemed among the Gentiles. The primitive Christians converted the world by the sanctity of their example; and, by the spirit of every heroic and divine virtue which their actions breathed, spread the good odour of Christ on all sides; but we, by a monstrous inconsistency between our lives and our faith, scandalize the weak among the faithful, strengthen the obstinacy of infidels, and furnish them with arms against that very religion which we profess. “Either change thy faith, or change thy manners,” said an ancient father.
Note 1. It seems a strange inconsistency, that Marcus Aurelius should be the author of such an edict as was before mentioned. But no less glaringly absurd and unjust was the answer of Trajan to Pliny the Younger, that Christians ought not to be sought after, yet that they were to be condemned, if accused: which Tertullian justly confutes by a keen raillery, and this dilemma: “If they are criminal, why are they not sought after? if innocent, why are they punished?” (Apol. c. 2.) It is certain that Marcus Aurelius, with all his philosophical virtues and princely qualities, did not love the Christians; as is clear from unquestionable authority, even from his own book. And besides a tincture of superstition and philosophic phrenzy, a mixture of weakness was blended in his character, notwithstanding the boasted cry of his wisdom. And it was certainly to act out of character, and more like a pedant than a prince, for a Roman emperor, in his old age, to trudge with his book, like a schoolboy, to the house of Sextus the philosopher, to learn his lesson. After his miraculous victory in Germany, in 174, he published an edict in favour of the Christians: but his boon was not complete. Commodus did not persecute them, yet would not protect them against the senate, which, in general, was never favourable to Christianity; and some emperors who were mildly inclined, seemed to have oppressed the Christians only to gain the esteem of that respectable body. It is again objected by some to this history of St. Apollonius, that no slave would have exposed himself to certain death by accusing his master. But this the informer did not expect would be his fate. He might be ignorant of such an edict, or persuaded he had nothing to fear from it: and the hope of liberty, the encouragement of some powerful Pagan, and other such motives, might prompt him to perpetrate this villany. He doubtless hoped to make his court to some persons; for men in power are often fond of informers. The perjuries and villanies of those miscreants had rendered them odious at Rome. Tacitus, the historian, calls them, genus hominum publico exitio repertum, et pœnis nunquam satis coercitum. Titus, Nerva, and Trajan, had made severe edicts against that tribe. St. Cyprian, when asked at his trial the names of the priests at Carthage, answered, that the civil laws justly condemned delators. A slave that accused his master by the Roman laws was liable to be put to death. (See Cod. l. x. tit. xi. and the notes.) In the present case, the senate might condemn St. Apollonius by the rescript of Trajan to Pliny, or other former laws; yet punish the slave, not to encourage such base informers.
Butler’s Lives of the Saints