Tuesday, June 12, 2018

"The Oblivion of a Silent Age" ~ The effort of Diocletian and Galerius to wipe out Christian literature during the Great Persecution

A later representation of Saints Emeterius and Celedonius in Calahorra Cathedral.
In a previous post entitled The Scriptures Destroyed by Fire ~ An official Roman transcript of the Great Persecution of AD 304, we examined the transcript of an investigation of several Christians in Roman north Africa. The accused were under suspicion of possessing and hiding Christian literature which had been banned by imperial edict. This document gives an idea of how thorough the Roman legal apparatus could be when enforcing the law, even as far from the centers of power as the town of Cirta, situated about 200 miles west of Carthage.

We know that destroying Christian books and literature was a facet of the Great Persecution because it is explicitly mentioned by Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History. Aside from the above-mentioned transcript of the investigation in Cirta, there are other ancient sources which back up this aspect of the persecution—that is, the desire of Diocletian and and Galerius to completely extirpate all written knowledge of Christianity from the face of the earth. Here are a few additional examples.

In the authentic acts of Saints Chionia, Agape and Irene who were martyred during the Great Persecution in Thessalonica, there exists another official trial transcript which is believed by most scholars to be genuine. In it we find the following exchange between Dulcetius, governor of the province of Macedonia, and Saint Chionia:
Dulcetius: "Have you not some books, papers, or other writings, relating to the religion of the impious Christians?" 
Chionia said: "We have none: the emperors now reigning have taken them all from us."
Soon after, Chionia and Agape were condemned to death, while Irene was sent back to prison. It seems that a search was done of Irene's home and Christian writings were indeed found there. Dulcetius called Irene before him to face cross-examination regarding this new evidence.
Dulcetius: "Your madness to plain, since you have kept to this day so many books, parchments, codicils, and papers of the scriptures of the impious Christians. You were forced to acknowledge them when they were produced before you, though you had before denied you had any. You will not take warning from the punishment of your sisters, neither have you the fear of death before your eyes: your punishment therefore is unavoidable. In the mean time I do not refuse even now to make some condescension in your behalf. Notwithstanding your crime, you may find pardon and be freed from punishment, if you will yet worship the gods. What say you then? Will you obey the orders of the emperors? are you ready to sacrifice to the gods, and eat of the victims?"

Irene: "By no means: for those that renounce Jesus Christ, the Son of God, are threatened with eternal fire."

Traditional image of Saints Agape,
Irene and Chionia.
Dulcetius: "Who persuaded you to conceal those books and papers so long?"

Irene: "Almighty God, who has commanded us to love him even unto death; on which account we dare not betray him, but rather choose to be burnt alive, or suffer any thing whatsoever than discover such writings."

Dulcetius: "Who knew that those writings were in the house?" 
Irene: "Nobody, but the Almighty, from whom nothing is hid: for we concealed them even from our own domestics, lest they should accuse us."

...

Dulcetius: "After you returned from the mountains, as you say, did you read those books to anybody?" 
Irene: "They were hid at our own house, and we durst not produce them; and we were in great trouble, because we could not read them night and day, as we had been accustomed to do."

Dulcetius: "Your sisters have already suffered the punishments to which they were condemned. As for you, Irene, though you were condemned to death before your flight for having hid these writings, I will not have you die so suddenly; but I order that you be exposed naked in a brothel, and be allowed one loaf a day, to be sent you from the palace; and that the guards do not suffer you to stir out of it one moment, under pain of death to them."
A hint of how successful the efforts had been to annihilate Christian writings during the Great Persecution may be found in The Peristephanon or Martyr's Garland of the late 4th century Spanish poet, Prudentius. In the poem celebrating the martyrs of Calahorra, Saints Emeterius and Celedonius, written about 80 years after their deaths, we read the following lines:
But oh, the oblivion of a silent age!
     Extinguishing the record of such deeds,
The infidel long since destroyed the page,
     Which else had taught us how a martyr bleeds,

Envying to learned times that they should tell
     That passion’s history for all future years,
The order, time, and way how it befell—
     Sweet words to sound forever in men’s ears.

Yet this alone is what we cannot say,
     Whether, in prison pent, their hair grew long,
Or of their torments reckon the array...
[Taken from: A Hymn of Prudentius, published in The Month, Magazine and Review, 1873]
This provides a reasonable explanation as to why so many accounts of the ancient martyrs are fantastic stories of considerably later provenance, no doubt generated from dubious oral tradition. In many cases, probably little more was known than the name of the saint and the place of his or her martyrdom. It also makes the several authentic accounts that somehow survived the flames—such as that of Chionia, Agape, and Irene—that much more precious.