Monday 20 June 2016

Written in Water #4: Vengeance is Mine

The Labarum.
Imagine if you and everyone you knew had spent years in danger of being tortured and killed. Imagine if, just for their religious faith, you'd seen your parents burned alive, your children taken from you and slaughtered. Imagine finding out that someone you loved had been betrayed, fatally, by someone else you loved. A government stealing everything you have, tearing down your homes, prohibiting you from holding down any kind of work even in the good times.

Now imagine that everything changes, suddenly, unexpectedly; suddenly you, the hunted, the hated, the persecuted, are not only permitted to come out in the open but that you are now in control of the very apparatus of state that once had been set on destroying you. You're in charge now. Your church is the church of state; you don't only have freedom, you have power.

It would be hard not to take revenge.

See, now that all of the enemy have been destroyed, calm has been restored through all the world. The church, not long ago oppressed, rises up again, and although once torn down by the hands of evil men, the temple of God has been built again, more glorious than ever... The men who insulted God are laid low. The men who turned over the sanctuary of the temple have fallen into an even worse ruin. And the ones who tortured decent people now bleed to death, afflicted with plagues from heaven and well-deserved torments.
Lactantius, The Deaths of the Persecutors, I.2, 5. 
(Note: Unless I say otherwise, all of the quotes I use in my writings here are in my own translation: most of the publicly accessible translations are very old and pretty archaic, so much so they almost need translation of their own. Also, I kinda think I can do better at least half the time because I'm arrogant like that.

Lactantius was old when he wrote this. He'd converted to Christianity late in life, and had had to abandon his job as a civil servant when the Great Persecution began. 

In 303 Diocletian (and more about him in a later post, but for the time being just know that he ended an apocalyptic civil war and restored the Roman economy through a series of brutal, bloody acts) made one final, concerted attempt to wipe out Christianity forever.

One of the big misconceptions people have about Christianity in Rome is that Romans were kicking down Christian doors and throwing Christians to the lions consistently through those first three centuries of the religion's history. This wasn't exactly true. Yes, Christianity was illegal the whole time, but there were times when you were, if not exactly welcome, pretty much able to be Christian and get away with it if you were discreet and didn't bother anyone. Granted, bothering people was part of the whole Christian MO back then but just generally letting the Christians get on with it unless they put their heads above the parapet meant that the religion grew in secret, steadily. Most of the time, the Romans had their own problems!

Nero was the first to hunt down Christians (64-67CE), scapegoating them for the Great Fire of Rome. But then there wasn't a concerted, directed effort to destroy Christians until the middle of the third century. Decius (249-251) and Valerian (253-259) both made a real effort to exterminate the Christians. This is the period in which the Romans threw them to the lions. Both of these persecutions ended because Rome frankly had worse problems. The near-total collapse of the Roman Empire and the untimely deaths both men met brought them to an end.
After many years, that revolting animal Decius arose to trouble the Church — who but an evil man would persecute good people? ... (Decius) was surrounded by barbarians and killed along with most of his army. He didn't even get the dignity of a burial: naked and stripped he was left to be eaten by the beasts and the vultures, which is just what an enemy of God deserves.
Lactantius, The Deaths of the Persecutors, IV

And more than anything, those untimely ends are what Lactantius is interested in writing about. This isn't the only thing he did. He was a high ranking official, and he was involved in the setting up of a state church. He was tutor to Constantine's ill-fated son Crispus (and the Strange Case of Crispus is probably the subject of another upcoming post). He wrote on issues of his day. He wrote works of doctrine. There's quite a lot of this.

This one though, this one has an extra element. This one has hate.   
God punished Valerian in a unique way, so that in future ages people might know the reward for wickedness. Captured by the Persians, he didn't just lose his empire, but also his freedom. King Shapur (who had captured him) used to order the Roman to kneel, head down, whenever he wanted to get down from his horse or from some other conveyance, and stepped down on Valerian's back... Although his son was also emperor, no one came to take revenge for his imprisonment and slavery. After he'd lived out the rest of his life, humiliated like this, they skinned him, dyed his hide purple and put on show in the temple of the barbarian gods, so that it might always be displayed to our ambassadors...
Lactantius, The Deaths of the Persecutors, V. 2-3, 5-6
And in the Great Persecution, instituted by Diocletian and his colleagues Galerius and Maximian which mainly ran from 303 to 311, worse in some places than others, the Romans burnt churches, burned books, and burned the Christians if they wouldn't recant. Some Roman officials were more enthusiastic than others: in Britain, for example, hardly anyone was persecuted at all. In the Middle East, the smell of burning paper and burning flesh was a constant horror.

Lactantius had to quit his job. He got off easy. Historians use Lactantius here because, thanks to his access to public documents, he was able to quote the various decrees beginning and ending the Great Persecution and describe how the Persecution took its course. Lactantius, writing under the Emperor Constantine has to admit that the other colleague, Constantine's father Constantius Chlorus, also took part, but he plays that down. But on the whole, Lactantius is a pretty decent eyewitness source for the government stuff. He knows the legislation and knows about the internal politicking that characterised the period. The history of this time is complex, with multiple emperors, heirs apparent and pretenders with claims, and Lactantius does a decent enough job of that part.

This is not of course what Lactantius cares about.

He cares about justice. He cares about revenge.
(Galerius's) disease got worse. It was close to its final state, and corrupted the whole of his lower body. His bowels fell out of his body; his private parts putrefied. The luckless doctors didn't have any hope of effecting a cure, but they continued to try anyway. With his humours expelled from his body, the corrution took hold of his intestine, and bred worms inside him. The stench spread not only through his palace but through the whole city. No wonder, because the faeces and urine all mixed up inside him. His body, in indescribable torment, began to dissolve into one mass of corruption.

...So they put warm meat on the diseased areas, hoping that the warmth might bring the tiny worms out. And in fact when the dressings were removed, the worms swarmed out, too many to count. Nevertheless, the disease had hatched whole swarms of worms set on eating him from the inside out...
Lactantius, The Deaths of the Persecutors, XXXIII. 6-9
Lactantius tells the story of how the Christians came to be in charge in some detail.  

This happened: on 28th October 312, two armies met by the Milvian Bridge, near Rome. One supported Maxentius, one Constantine. They were both sons of Emperors. Maxentius, son of Maximian, held Rome. He had the Roman Senate behind him. The challenger, pretender from the North, Constantine, son of the Emperor Constantius Chlorus. He'd been unilaterally declared ruler of the Roman Empire by the army in York and the conflict between the two claimants to the throne had been brewing for the last six years. Maxentius was better supplied, better armed and in a better position.

Shortly before the battle, something strange happened.

Constantine saw (or dreamed he saw) a vision in the sky. The specifics vary: one  version describes three chi symbols (X, the Greek Ch, the Roman numeral 10) and the words IN HOC SIGNO VINCES. In this sign, you will prevail. Lactantius's version is simpler, less embellished.
Constantine was convinced by a dream to paint the heavenly sign of God on the shields of his soldiers. He did what he had been told to do. He had them paint on every shield an X with a perpendicular line through it and bent over, which is the sign of Christ.
Lactantius, The Deaths of the Persecutors, LXIV. 5
Someone on Constantine's staff convinced him that it was the sign of the Christians, it seems (in a BBC dramatisation of this story some years back, they had Lactantius himself do it). It was a vision sent by the Christian God, they said.

By the end of the day of the battle, Constantine was victorious, and Maxentius drowned in the River Tiber.

He marched into Rome. And he declared Christianity the religion of state.

It was so long ago, so foundational to the History of Europe, that it's hard really to express how unexpected, how strange, how absolutely perverse this development was. Christianity went from being outlawed and punishable by death, victim to the worst atrocities, to being in charge. In a few months Constantine had ended the final vestiges of persecution and began to construct the Christian Church as an apparatus of state, a church universal. Catholic.

And here is the big problem, the thing that made the birth of the Catholic Church such a painful process: a people who had been brutally treated, now in control of the system that had hunted them.

And we've seen some of the toxicity that trauma can bring – the death fetish that invaded the stories of Christian heroes and heroines, for instance – but as we'll see in future posts, there is a thirst for revenge. Now the shoe was on the other foot, now a reckoning would be had. This isn't for all of its similarities a survivor's story, or at least it isn't directly. Lactantius survived the persecution, but for him, the issue isn't guilt, it's rage. One of the very first writers to write in a Christian Rome, he let all of his hatred, all of his trauma loose in this one book, this act of revenge, the retrospective murder and torture of the men who had decreed the same for his people.