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The Golden Rule

Bread and Circuses gives us a rare close-up of a golden bust of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who reigned 161-180. Marcus was a stoic philosopher and the last of the so-called “Five Good Emperors.” While other pagan philosophers admired the fortitude of the Christian martyrs, Marcus held Christianity, and especially its martyrs, in contempt. In his Meditations, he mentions Christianity only once, disdainfully.

How blessed and happy is the soul that is always ready, even right now (if need be), to be separated from the body, whether by way of extinction, or dispersion, or continuation in another place and state. But its readiness must proceed, not from an obstinate and peremptory resolution of the mind, violently and passionately set upon opposition, as we find in Christians; but from a peculiar judgment, with discretion and gravity, so that others may be persuaded also and drawn to follow the example, without any noise and passionate exclamations.

Marcus was a persecutor of the Church. And, though he issued his executive orders in cold blood, his attitude inspired the non-stoic rabble to form murderous anti-Christian mobs. Between the executions and the riots, it was a difficult time for believers. Christian victims of Marcus’s reign include Justin Martyr, Blandina and Pothinus, and possibly Polycarp. But the same hostile climate also produced a great flowering of Christian apologetic literature, some of it directed at Marcus himself, from great Fathers such as Melito of Sardis. The sociologist Rodney Stark holds that the Church grew at an alarming pace during this period, at least 40% per decade. Further proof of The Tertullian Principle: The blood of the martyrs is seed.

Visit Bread and Circuses and behold the persecutor who inadvertently brought about such blessings in the Church. In spite of Marcus’s contempt for Christians, Christians have harbored a fondness for him. Witness the judgment of the old Catholic Encyclopedia: “Marcus Aurelius was one of the best men of heathen antiquity.”

I own a biography of the American martyr Father Marquette that concludes with a line not from Jesus Christ, but from Marcus Aurelius: “Take pleasure in one thing and rest in it, in passing from one act to another, thinking of God.”

4 thoughts on “The Golden Rule

  1. I think Marcus Aurelius’ reputation among Christians was softened because of his abrupt shift in policy, as reported by Eusebius (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 5,5and other church historians.

    The story goes that Marcus Aurelius was on his campaigns against the Germans and Sarmatians (so around the Danube, I should think) and found himself in a tight spot. His army was cut off from water and no rain was coming down. His men supplicated various gods, but it wasn’t until Christians from a legion (it is disputed which) prayed that rain came. Marcus Aurelius, on discovering the God which had saved his army, not only ordered an end to persecution, but punished anyone who dared to try to persecute Christians.

    There seems a historical kernal in this story because the earliest source that I know which reports it is Tertullian (Apologeticus, 5,6) who tells the story first and cites a letter by Marcus Aurelius as proof. I seem to remember a pagan author referring to this episode, but, predicatably, giving credit to either an Egyptian magician or to Marcus’ own prayers, not the Christian God (dio Cassius, 71,8; Capitolinus, Life of Marcus)


  2. I’m pretty sure that letter’s at the end of Justin Martyr’s First Apologia, too… Yup.

  3. The letter attributed to Marcus is appended to the earliest manuscripts of the First Apology. But it would have been a later addition, since the First Apology was addressed to Marcus’s predecessor, Antoninus Pius. Most recent translations don’t include the letter, but rather end with the note from Hadrian. CCEL says that the Marcus letter is likely spurious; another edition I have says it is “certainly fictitious.”

  4. I had forgotten that Justin had quoted the letter. Obviously, its authenticity is questionable because it is so neat and tidy to have it at hand. Ye, there remains the possibility that our Christian sources are depicting something historical in this incident. The problem is that we simply can’t know what version is right, although I suspect the situation may be historical.


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