Four days before the ides of March in the consulate of Tuscus and Anulinusl in Theveste in the Roman North African province of Numidia, Fabius Victor and Cæsar's procurator Valerian Quintian passed under Caracalla's quadrifontal arch. Following them was Victor's 21 year old2 son Maximilian, the matron Pompeiana,and a small crowd of fellow Christians. They strode towards the basilica, the large court house in the center of town, softly singing a hymn. They wound through the crowd around the high walls of the amphitheater, and passed a crowd of men milling around the nearby baths. "Atheists" one mumbled; "cannibals" said another under his breath; "shirkers" said one with a military air.3 Pompeiana shook her gray head and thought, it's starting up again. For the past few decades, since Valerian died there had been some respite.4 But now with Diocletian in power, the discrimination was starting up again. The procurator cast a sharp glance at the men. They retreated into the baths. The Christians passed on through the narrow streets, quickening their stride as they approached the temple of Minerva and its bellicose, but fair idols to Wisdom. Soon they approached the basilica. They climbed the broad steps between its double colonnades and entered the atrium.5
A guard led them to the large hall. Dion Cassius, the proconsul,sat in a throne-like chair on a raised dais at the far end of the hall. Victor, Maximilian, and their fellow Christians approached Dion and stood at the foot of the steps. The public prosecutor stood beside the seated Dion. Victor stepped forward.6
The public prosecutor, Pompeian, opened the case, and said, "Fabius Victor is here with Casar's commissary, Valerian Quin- tian. I demand that Maximilian, son of Victor, a conscript suitable for service, be measured." The proconsulDion asked the young man his name, and he answered, "What is the goodof replying?I cannot en- list,for I am a Christian..."7
Dion thought, these misguided fools, they are becoming dangerous. Only eleven years ago did a strong, well-meaning soldier, Diocletian, rise to the imperial throne. Prior to Diocletian, Numidia, and indeed the whole Empire had been in decline, neglected internally and dismembered. The cities were decaying; barbarians were encroaching everywhere; there were disruptive religions drawing folk away from their civil duties.8 Only twenty years ago, the Empire had all but disintegrated. Goths and Franks had raided into the Empire. Zenobia had annexed parts of the east. But emperors since had been pushing the tide back.9 and now Diocletian was determined to carry the restoration to internal affairs. He was from Dalmatia in Illyricum, where so many of the recent soldier-emperors had come, a province less diluted by foreign ways and more traditional.10 He was restoring the Empire, making it what it used to be: strong in might and strong in the favor of the gods. He had just recently initiated the tetrarchy of himself and Maximian as Augusti, and Galerius and Constantius as Cæsars. Maximian has been Augustus over Italy and Africa for nearly ten years and fully supported Diocletian's reforms.11 The tetrarchy was restoring Roman values and religion. They were seeking the favor of the gods; Jupiter and Hercules were their patrons. The Empire was sensing the aura of divine protection from internal as well as external enemies.12 But the Empire was not yet out of danger. Maximian has been campaigning against the Quinquegentani for the past six years. They had beenboldly raiding into North Africa, but were now contained.13 Constantius was reclaiming Britain, but Gaul was in rebellion. Nearby Julian had usurped the throne at Carthage, but Maximian had quickly stamped that out. Far away, Persia was stirring again and war seemed imminent.14
Domestically and militarily they were restoring discipline and order. Hopefully they would stop the decline of the old religion. The educated, like Dion, knew the values of the traditions and customs of the gods. The Empire had been losing favor with the gods, hence the decline. The new, Eastern religions were part of the problem. Christianity particularly did not encourage civic and military duty, gathering riffraff, slaves, and women to themselves -- no wonder they were hostile to civilization. It had been spreading in the rural areas for decades here in Numidia. (This Maximilian was one such villager.) If it spread too far, too many people will abandoned their duty, the Empire and the army, and then the barbarians will have free reign.15 Further, it was clear now that Christians were not just disillusioned riffraff; it had spread to the educated and was well organized, rivaling the Empire for the minds and hearts of the people.16 Dion wasn't sure about their morals. Some people still believed that Christians were cannibals. But Dion knew this wasn't true. And they did help anyone in need, not only themselves.17 But they were atheists, denying the gods,and they did help riffraff, polluting the Roman social order.
Dion heard Maximilian's reply echo, "MIHI NON LICET MILITARE,QUIA CHRISTIANUS SUM."18 Dion told the usher to measureMaximilian's height. The usher approached Maximilian. Maximilian said,"NON POSSUM MILITARE;NoNPOSSUM MALEFACERE.CHRISTIANUS SUM. I cannot serve; I cannot do evil. I am a Christian."19
The proconsul repeated his order, and the usher reported that Maximilian measured five feet ten inches. Then the proconsul said he was to be given the military badge, but Maximilian persisted, "Never! -- I cannot be a soldier."20
Maximilian remembered the teaching of Jesus in the sermon on the mount -- to turn the other cheek, to love your enemies, to walk the second mile.21 And he believed that "Christ in disarming Peter ungirt every soldier."22 The great Cyprian had discerned how homicide was a crime when private, and a virtue when public.23 He could not enlist, and shed blood.24 There was a time when a soldier could count on staying in the army a life time and never shed blood. He could collect tolls, build roads, patrol the interior, guard bridgesand roads.25 His father had hoped that this was possible. He had even bought Max a new coat to wear in the army.26 But Max could not count on staying out of the fighting.
And the revival of paganism about him was far worse in the army. With the increase dependency on the army and the increase demand for loyalty, idolatry was rampant. Though only the officers have to sacrifice, the time would come when Max would have to witness the rites to the god-emperoror to Mars or to Jupiter or to some other pagan god.27 Idolatry and bloodshed were irredeemable sins.28 He could not join.
Max had heard the tales of many of the older folk who had survived the persecutions of Decius and Valerian. He had heard of how the soldiers were the instruments of that persecution.29 You're not going to join them, are you? they had asked when he reported that his father had said it was his time.30 He felt to close to them, their trials, the community to forget Jesus' command to Peter to put away his sword.
Indeed,there were a few Christians in the military. Though this had only been the case during the last century.31 Some converted after they had joined and were allowed to remain32 -- to deal with their conflicts as they arose. Some hoped they would never see combat and remain private soldiers, never having to deal with blood shed and idolatry. Others fought, but refused to sacrifice. Christian soldiers had been martyred mostly for not sacrificing. A few decades ago, Marinus, an officer was martyred when he refusedto sacrifice. Others left the military.33 Max couldn't see how Christian soldiers could not be targets. The army was the instrument of Diocletian's restoration. It must be loyal to him and to the gods. How could the authorities trust Christian soldiers? They would not sacrifice to the gods, they may not fight. They would be a real danger -- bringing the wrath of the gods on the army, and weakening it with their non-fighting.34 No matter how it was rationalized, being Christian and being a soldier was not compatible.
Besidesas a Christian, Max was called to do goodand to love; he was a citizen of the Realm of God.The Empire would pass away, but the Realm would come. Jesuswas coming again...35
Dion leanedforward in his throne.
DION: You must serve or die.
O Lord, come!37 thought Maximilian. Max knew his church's community and all of its martyrs were with him as he stood before Dion and the Roman Empire. We are called to be God's Realm on earth. It is in God's Realm that the baby girl on the trash heap has a home; it is to this Realm, not to Rome, that the weak, the sick, and the struggling can come for sustenance. We nurture the oppressed and the dispossessed. We hold back the tide of idolatry, power, and violence.38
O Lord, come! We stand in opposition to the world and its values of hardness, meanness,and cruelty. God has elected us to fill the world with goodness and spirit. We are God's soldiers against the world.39 But we are not soldiers with swords of steel, but swords of words and actions. Jesus taught us to love one another, even in the face of death. If we love, his Realm will come. When the Romans persecute and kill us, we cannot take up arms and kill them. Just as Jesus died trying to transform the world, so we. We do not grasp for death; but we will not kill, we will not sacrifice. If death is the result, then let us rejoice in the privilege. We are soldiers who seek victory not bv slaughtering our enemies,but by offerling ourselvesto them.40 One by one we have been martyred -- Perpetua, Felicitas, Saturnus,41 Tertullian, Cyprian.42 But two by two, three by three, dozen by dozen people have come, joined, and abandoned the ways of the world for the Realm. We await the Lord's coming.43
A cloud of martyrs surrounded Maximilian, formed in an age old tradition. Many generations ago,S aturn had been worshiped with human sacrifice in Numidia.44 And now the rabbis and the Roman church had taught them that God's grace comes when one serves even with suffering and dying.45 Truly, if Dion had him killed, Max would rejoice in his perfection, in his second baptism, a baptism of blood in imitation of Jesus Christ's martyrdom; a sublime road to paradise. He would be a saint of the New Covenant.46 He would join an esteemed group, one more seed for the church.47 With exaltation Max looked forward to awaiting the Realm and his coming Sovereign in the company of martyrs.
Dion turned to Victor, maybe his father can talk some sense into him.
DION (to Fabius Victor): Put your son right.
The tales and disappointments of the persecutions told by the old folk rang in Max's ears. Decius had started the persecution. His policies were much like Diocletian's -- restoring the faith and honor of the old gods. His goals and problems and outlook were much the same.49 Some of the folk were confessors, having survived the persecution but suffered teribly in prison; others apostasizing had become sacrificati; others had been,em>libellatici purchasing false certificates (libelli) claiming they had sacrificed.50 When the persecution began, soldiers hunted down the leaders. Eventually everyone was required to sacrifice.51 Many in North Africa did, apostasizing. Many bought the libelli. Some confessors fled to Rome.52 Clergy deserted, whole congregations lapsed.s 53 The persecution was more terrible in North Africa, particularly here in Numidia than anywhere else.54
The bishops and many people did not want to forgive the sacrificati and the libellatici. But the confessors -- those imprisoned and tortured for confessing their Christian faith -- did. And the people recognized their power to do so. The great Cyprian, who would join the martyrs soon after, deep down wanted to too. With the almost universal forgiveness pronounced by the confessors, Cyprian proclaimed the appropriate penitence for them to return. The libellatici could return in this life, but the sacrificati could return onlv on their deathbeds.55
The church had suffered dearly; not so much in blood and physical pain, but in the spirit. The purity and holiness of the church was no longer in its people, but in its bishops.56 Max's community could not but help feel the current rising resentment and hatred not only among the populace, but among the authorities. Max was not going to lapse as others had in the persecution. He was not going to be banished in body or soul from the center of his hope and being. Victor knew this, and knew Max's heart was set on it.
Dion's anger and frustration rose. What a waste!
DION: I shall send vou to vour Christ at 0nce.
Dion was exasperated. Why was he even trying to get a Christian in the army? He would try one more time.
DION: There are Christian soldiers serving our rulers Diocletian and Maximian, Constantius and Galerius.
Dion threw up his hands. If the boy would not listen to reason, then he must become a lesson. He is beyond reason and deluded by his Eastern mystery religion. If he were alone, he would be more lenient. But it is his Christian friends who conspire with him. This dangerous treason must stop.60
Maximilian, his black62 face glistening stood tall in the deafening silence of the pronouncement. He had been shaped and hewed in the fires of the North African church. He had been raised in an Eschatalogical and prophetic63 community following in the way of Jesus, serving Jesus, and awaiting his coming. They imitated the life of Christ, a life of love, discipline, and service. Maximilian lived in a community that went beyond Roman morality to reach out to the hurting and broken world around it. Max would have seen, helped, lived with the rejects of the Roman Empire, as well as affluent people who had rejected the idolatrous world. Its members would have resisted the wealth and power of the Empire to nurture the sick, the slave,and the abandoned. They had set themselves apart as citizens of the Realm of God, striving for a world where the last would be first. They felt so strongly in their non-violent way of life that they would not resist violence even against themselves. They viewed this behavior as preparing them for when Jesus would cometo institute his way throughout the Empire. To do violence to anyone for any reason was anathema to Jesus'teaching and to the hope for his return, and to his saving grace. Taking another life, or hurting someone, or making someone broken was out of the question. So was being a soldier.
Maximilian knew that if his community died, he would die; Maximilian had faith that if his communitv lived, he would live. They gently contended with the idolatrous world, constantlv threatened by it, often succumbing to it. They were soldiers of Christ in this battle, holding the line against the idols; willing to die for their vision. Unlike the pagans who sought favors from their gods to manipulate them into aggrandizing themselvesa nd the Empire, the Christians served Jesus, not to use him for benefits, but to have grace and salvation. Max was surrounded by the idolatrous world with its temptations of material wealth and security, power, and prestige. Max could have all of this if he would accept the soldier's badge. But he would have to desert the Realm of God. the hope for a humane way, and his salvation and joining with God. Joining the army would be treason.
Max had faith that the martyrs were with Jesus now and would return to his community when Jesus came again. They were perfected. They were baptized anew. They were ecstatic. Each one that had died set the example for all of the community. They were its life-blood. They redeemed it from apostasy. They preparedit for Jesus'coming.Max thought, VENIO DOMINE, VENIO!
Dion stood up; looking out over the assembled Christians, he read the sentence: "Maximilian has refused the military oath through impiety. He is to be beheaded." Maximilian cried. "God lives!"64 A guard stepped up to Maximilian; Maximilian turned to his fellow Christians, "Beloved brethren, make haste to attain the vision of God and to deserve a crown like mine with all your strengthand with the deepest longing."65 -- And indeed many martyrs would follow Max in Numidia where Diocletian's persecution would hit hardest.66
The guard led him out of the basilica to a courtyard. The lictor'-- the executioner67 -- awaited them. Maximilian turned to his father, "That cloak you got ready for when I was a soldier, give it to the lictor'. The fruits of this goodwork will be multiplied a hundredfold. May I welcome you in Heaven and glorify God with you!"68 His fellow Christians knelt and sang a sacramental69 hymn.
The lictor pronounced the sentence again,70 and at once beheaded Maximilian. Pompeiana brought Maximilian's body to Carthage and had it buried close to Cyprian. Victor rejoiced in sending his son as a gift to Heaven. Soon he would follow him.71
112 March 295.
2Maximilian's age was 21 years, il months, and 18 days according to Butler's Lives [HThurs 1956]. Therefore he was born 22 November 274.
3[WWalk1985], period I, chapter 10.
4[WWaIk19e5J, period II, chapter 17 and [WFren1965], chapter xiv.
5The geography of Theveste is described in [NEBrit 1985], Tebessa, p. 600. The arch was built in A. D. 214.
6A view of a Roman North African law court in a basilica is shown in [GGrosv 1953], p 344; "In a Court of Law."
7[HThur1956], p. 571-573 All quotations from the passion of Maximilian are from Butler's Lives. This narrative follows Max's passion, and thus quotes most of the passion occurring in Butler's Lives.
8[WFren 1985], chapter xiv.
9[WWalk 1985], period II, chapter 17.
11[EGibb], chapter XIII.
12[WFren 1965], ibid.
13[WFren1965], chapter xiv. [EGibb], chapter XIII explains that the Quinquegentani were a confederacy of five Moorish nations.
16[HWork], chapter IV.
17[WFren1965] points out that the Christian social conscious was having an impact in this time.
18[CCado 1925],, chapter VII provides some of the original Latin speeches.
19[HThurs 1956], ibid; [CCado1925],ibid.
20[HThurs 1956], ibid.
21[RBain1 1960], p. 61 states this is the authority used.
22Tertullian ([RBain1 1960], chapter 5).
24[RBain2 1960], chapter 2 and [CCado1925],chapter VII
25[RBain1 1960], chapter 5.
26[HWork], chapter II and [CCado1925], chapter VII suggest that Victor was a soldier or a veteran, since he had bought Max a new coat for the army. Victor was a "temonarius" responsible for collecting money of conscripts in lieu of service. Yet Victor is supportive of his son. Can we believe he was prepared to shed blood? Or had Victor just recently converted?
27[RBain1 1960], ibid, and [CCado 1925], chapter VII.
28Tertullian ([RBain1 1960],ibid)
29[RBain1 1960], ibid, and [CCado 1925], chapter VII.
30[RMcSo 1985],chapter 4 suggests that joining the army would have been deserting friends and family.
31[RBain1 1960], ibid reports that there is no evidence of Christians in the army before 170 A.D.
32[EGibb], chapter XV.
33[CCado1925], chapter VII. Marinus was martyred in 260 A.D.
34[CCado 1925], ibid reports various attempts to purge soldiersin 298 and 299.
35[RBain1 1960], ibid and [WFren 1965].chapter xii. Bainton suggests indifference to the world as a result of waiting for the eschaton as a reason for resisting military service. Frend suggests the North African church was strongly apocalyptic.
36[HThurs 1956], ibid; [CCado 1925], ibid.
37[ACum1982] gives this as the cry of the persecuted.
38[RBain2 1960], chapter 2. Christians lived aloof of society. Because trades and other professions were pervaded with paganism, Christians did not participate in them. Christians forbade abortions, infanticide, theater (it was lewd), and discouraged mixed marriages. Christians disapproved of violence, thus did not attend gladitorial games, participate in war, or accept magisterial positions (they may be required to impose the death penalty. )
39[WWalk 1985], period II, chapter 7 points out that the North African church viewed itself as a martyr's church in opposition to the secular world; the elect of God awaiting vindication; similarly [WTren1965], chapter XII.
40[WFren 1965], chapter xii. Tertullian was the great theologian of North African martyrdom, often appropriating military terms to describe it.
4I[HWorkl], chapter IV.
42Cyprian was martyred 14 September 258; [HWork ], ibid.
43[WFren 1965], ibid.
44[WFren 1965], ibid.
45[WFren 1965], ibid.
46[ACunn 1982] and [WFren 1965],ibid
47[WFren 1965], ibid.
48[HThurs 1956], ibid; [CCado 1925] ,ibid.
49[WWalk 1985], period II, chapter 10.
50[WWalk 1985], period II, chapter 7.
51[WWalk 1985], period II, chapter 10.
5265 according to [HWork], chapter IV
53[WFren 1965], chapter xiii
55[WWalk 1985], period II, chapter 7.
56[WWalk 1985], ibid.
57Max was baptized.
58[HThurs 1956], ibid.
59[HThurs 1956], ibid.
60[CatEn 1911], , Maximilian (3), p 75 points out that death was not the legal punishment for draft resistors. Max was beheaded because he was a Christian. But [WFren 1965],chapter xiv suggests that Max was executed not for being a Christian, but for refusing militarv service.
61[HThurs 1956], ibid.
62Was Max a berber? [NEBrit 1985], North Africa, tells how the berbers inhabited that land then as peasants. And Max was a villager. If his family were not transplanted Italians, then in all probability he was a berber. His passion does not hint one way or the other.
63Prophetic in the sense of denouncing immorality and social ills, and proposing a better way, much as Tertullian did.
64[HThurs 1956], ibid
65[HThurs 1956], ibid
66[WFren 1965], chapter xiv.
67[Dsimp 1968]; entryfor LICTOR.
68[HThurs 1956], ibid
69[ACunn 1982]] indicates that martytdom was a sacrament.
70[DSimp1 1968]; ibid.
71[HThurs 1956], ibid.
Maximilian's passion resounds down to our age. We in America live in an age very much like the Roman age. Like the Romans we have felt that our recent past was one of loss strength, loss stability, loss pride. We look nostalgically back to the American Empire, when the U.S.A. was unchallenged at home and abroad. But that has past away. Abroad our power and our values are challenged. At home, traditional values are in decline, crime and hedonism is on the rise. But now we have sought and found champions of the traditional vision of Empire abroad and puritanism at home, with the attendant rise in intolerance and militarism -- like Diocletian's Rome. And like Rome, religion has been used to validate the system. Our civic religion appropriates God as protector of the state, corporate America as its Messiah, and terrorism as its devil. Salvation is through rugged individualism and consumerism. Self, wealth, and power have become our idols. Violence is used as a tool and as an entertainment. As Rome had gladiators, we have Rambo. Like Rome, any religion is tolerated so long as it is willing to accept the social idols. Christian churches have not beenimmuned to this syncretism.
Like Dion, many Americans are consumed by the demands and expectations of society. Their lives are consumed with striving for power and wealth. And when they encounter a prophet, they can be well-meaning in their response, but they are often limited by the standard of the civic religion. When someone comes along to challenge their values or life style, they are at a lost to understand them and are threatened bv them.
But like the North African church. out of our religious (and non-religious) traditions now and then come prophets, and even a few martyrs. Today we seea rising tide of "confessors" in such movements as the Sanctuary movement and the anti-war movement. More and more mainline churches are loosening the ties to the civic religion and declaring themselves peace orjust peace churches, and in solidarity with the marginalized people of our society. These actions are reclaiming the Eschatalogical and prophetic vision of the Realm of God on earth.
But unlike the North African church, we have the tradition of transforming our society. The ancient Romans did not know or understand how they could work en masse and militantly for nonviolent social change. So they resorted to martyrdom. They created their Eschatalogical communities and resisted the social order by living their Christian lives and offering refuge -- dying when attacked. But today we know how to resist non-violently and still live to do it again and again.
But Max's passion still speaks to us today as an example of commitment to the vision of the Realm of God, a commitment that goes beyond oneself to claim union with a timeless community that can permeate society, transform it, and overcome the death of power, position, and pride, and restore the life of service, healing, and love. We must stand over against the idolatries of our age, live in and yet transcend society to work for the Realm of God and to serve Jesus, spreading peace,justice, and freedom.So that like Max, in the end we will be able to cry, "God lives!"
|ACunn 1982||AgnesCunningham, editor. The Early Church and the State. Philadelphia: Fortress Press,1982.|
|CatEn 1911||The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York Robert Appleton Co.,1911.|
|CCado 1925||Cecil John Cadoux. The Early Church and the World. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1925.|
|DSimp 1968||D. P. Simpson. Cassell'sNew Latin Dictionary. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1968.|
|EGibb||Edward Gibbon. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume I 180 A.D.-395 A.D. New York The Modern Library.|
|GGrosv 1953||Gilbert Grosvenor. Everyday Life in Ancient Times. National Geographic Society,Inc., 1953.|
|HThurs 1956||Herbert J. Thurston and Donald Attwater, editors. Butley's Lives of the Saints. Complete Edition, Volume 1. London and Tunbridge Wells: Burns & Oates, 1956.|
|HWork||Herbert B. Workman. The Martyrs of the Early Church. London: Charles H. Kelly.|
|NEBrit 1985||The New Encyclopredia Britannia.15th Edition. Encyclopredia Britannia. Inc., 1985.|
|RBainl 1960||Roland H. Bainton. Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace: A Historical Suruey and Critical Re-evaluation. New York Abingdon Press,1960.|
|RBain2 1960||Roland H. Bainton. Early Christianity. Princeton: D. Van Nostrand Company,Inc., 1960.|
|RMcSo 1985||Richard McSorley. New Testament Basis of Peacemaking. Third Edition, Revised and Expanded. Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press,1985.|
|WFren 1965||W. H. C. Frend. Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church: A Study of a Conflict from the Maccabees to Donatus. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, MCMLXV.|
|WWalk 1985||Williston Walker, et al. A History of the Christian Church. Fourth Edition. New York Charles Scribner's Sons, 1985.|