I’m going to conclude this mini-series on Marcus by briefly addressing the question of whether he persecuted the then novel Christian sect. (Part I of the mini-series was on Marcus’ speeches, and part II on his sayings. Check this link for all my writings about Marcus.) If you have a particular interest on this topic, also take a look at Don Robertson’s comprehensive post. My notes here are based on the Delphi Complete Works of Marcus Aurelius, translated by C.R. Haines.
Haines correctly says that nothing has been more damaging to Marcus’ reputation that his alleged persecution of the Christians. He then focuses on all the passages in the Meditations that are pertinent to this question, which are: I.6, III.6, VII.68, VIII.48.51, and XI.3. On the basis of his analysis of those passages Haines states:
“Conduct such as that of the Christians was precisely what Marcus is never tired of recommending, viz., not under any compulsion to transgress the demands of the ruling Reason, and if it were found impossible to act up to the standard of right set by the conscience owing to external causes, then to depart cheerfully from life. It appears to me that Marcus in both these passages [VIII.48 and XI.3] is really approving of the resistance.”
XI.3 is interesting because of his contrast between the Christian and the Roman approach, as perceived by Marcus: “What a soul is that which is ready to be released from the body at any requisite moment, and be quenched or dissipated or hold together! But the readiness must spring from a man’s inner judgment, and not be the result of mere opposition [as is the case with the Christians]. It must be associated with deliberation and dignity and, if others too are to be convinced, with nothing like stage-heroics.”
What the emperor is condemning here is an eagerness to meet death without real justification and without due dignity, as he thought the Christians were doing. “Marcus looked upon the Christians as misguided enthusiasts, who had to be punished as the law then stood, but whom he no more than Hadrian and [Antoninus] Pius wished to punish.”
More broadly, Haines observes that those who think Marcus persecuted the Christians based their conclusion on doubtful circumstantial evidence, evidence that in fact goes directly against the testimony of Christian writers of the time: “His ‘filanthropia’ is mentioned by Galen, Dio, Philostratus, Athenagoras (twice), Melito, and Aristides (eleven times); and his humanitas by the eminent jurist Callistratus.”
Marcus himself writes in the eight book of the Meditations (which, remember, was not meant for publication, but was in fact his private diary), “Never have I willingly injured another,” which goes with his well documented passion for justice and scrupulous observance of the law.
Again, Haines: “That some Christians suffered for their religion in the reign of Marcus is most probable, though there is perhaps no single martyrdom attributed to this period of which the date is certain beyond cavil. That there was in any sense a general persecution of the Christians at this time is contrary to all the facts. There were numbers of them in Rome itself, with a Bishop at their head. There were actually Christians in the Emperor’s household and probably (e g. Apollonius) in the Senate itself.”
A major piece of evidence in Marcus’ favor comes from a letter he wrote to the Greek cities when he was subordinate ruler under Antoninus, a letter in which he expressly forbids attacks against the Christians:
“You harass these men [the Christians], and harden them in their conviction, to which they hold fast, by accusing them of being atheists. For indeed they would rather be thought to be accused and die for their own God than live. Consequently they even come off victorious, giving up their lives rather than comply with your demands. … And on behalf of such persons many Governors also of provinces have before now both written to our deified father, whose answer in fact was not to molest such persons unless they were shewn to be making some attempt in respect to the Roman Government, and to me also many have given information about such men, to whom indeed I also replied in accordance with my father’s view. And if any one persist in bringing any such person into trouble for being what he is, let him, against whom the charge is brought, be acquitted even if the charge be made out, but let him who brings the charge be called to account.”
The latter sentence especially is quite clear: don’t persecute Christians for being Christians, and hold accountable instead those who denounce them only on that count, rather than because of demonstrable harm to the interests of Rome.
Of course, Marcus was a man of his time, and couldn’t transcend many of the limitations that were part and parcel of his culture. (For that matter, neither could the Christians, when they came to power with emperor Constantine, and throughout the millennium and a half that followed.) But his understanding of Stoicism, and his seriousness in using it as a practical guide to live his life, have clearly shaped a man who used his power with equanimity and justice, looking after the interests of the State he inherited, but without indulging in gratuitous violence or enacting arbitrary and unjust decisions. Marcus was not perfect, whatever that means (he certainly was no Sage). But he was indeed the best example we have of the Platonic ideal of a philosopher-king.