Emperor Marcus Aurelius & Fronto vs. The Early Christians

8 Dec

CORNELIUS FRONTO 

An interesting account we have of early criticism towards Christianity has been preserved for us by Marcus Minucius Felix, circa 210-230 AD.  It can be read in the Ante-Nicene Fathers 4.02.01-04 and it is about a Christian named Octavius Januarius debating a pagan named Q. Caecilius Natalis. 

Marcus Cornelius Fronto (100-166 AD) was a Latin rhetorician and a tutor of Marcus Aurelius. Most scholars agree that we have a fragment of Fronto’s words on Christianity preserved in Minicius Felix’s Octavius (31.1-2; cf. 9.5-6), via the anti-Christian speeches from the character named Caecilius.

It is a brief piece of slander that claims Christians feast once a week until the “flame of impure lust and drunkenness has been lit”. Then, Fronto via Caecilius claims those gathered entice a dog that has been tied to a lampstand to “jump and dance by a little cake tossed beyond the area of its tether”. This has the intended effect of extinguishing the light and then people of all ages – including family members – have sex with the first person they bump into in the dark. As Fronto reports, they “embrace one another in their unspeakable lust as chance brings them together and … all alike are incestuous…”. In the second century, the charge of incest was a common one against Christians and could even be found on the lips and pens of educated Romans.

Caecilius accused Christians of all sorts of mischievous behavior: secret signs, clandestine meetings, arrogance, ignorance, exclusivity, gullibility, anti-social tendencies, boorish, uncultured, rude, sexually promiscuous, drunken party animals, infant killers and cannibalism. The following are notable: “I hear that they adore the head of an ass” and “some say they worship the genitals of their priests”, although he does admit he is unsure if these rumors are true. Caecilius even used a primitive form of Hume’s “wicked or weak” argument against the Christian god in light of human pain and suffering (especially amongst the Christians themselves!).

Caecilius made fun of the idea of resurrection and was especially annoyed with the idea of this nosy and bossy (omnipresent and omniscient) god. Many of these critiques were nothing new; for similar arguments were most likely found in the now lost works of Fronto (see Edward Champlin, Fronto and Antonine Rome. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980, 64-66).

More basic were Fronto’s put downs (again, via Minicius Felix’s character Caecilius) towards Christians as people “who lack education and culture, and are crude and ignorant”[Octavius 12] and who propagate “sick delusions”, a “senseless and crazy superstition”, and an “old-womanly superstition”. The crucifixion also finds its way into Fronto’s critical cross-hairs: “To say that their ceremonies center on a man put to death for his crime and on the fatal wood of the cross is to assign to these abandoned wretches sanctuaries which are appropriate to them and the kind of worship they deserve” [11.1; 13.5; 9.4.].

FOR THIS SECTION, I AM INDEBTED TO STEPHEN BENKO’S CHAPTER ON “PAGAN CRITICISM OF CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY AND ETHICS”, 140-162.
-For great overview of this narrative, cf. Henry Wace and William C. Piercy A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography: A Reference Guide to Over 800 Christian Men and Women, Heretics, and Sects of the First Six Centuries (Hendrickson Publishers, 1999), 727-730 and for a commentary on this literature, see G.W. Clarke, The Octavius of Minucius Felix (NY: Newman Press, 1976), especially pages 1-14.
-For a helpful discussion on a terminus a quo on Octavius, see Michael E. Hardwick, Josephus as an Historical Source in Patristic Literature through Eusebius Brown Judais Studies 128 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989), pages 20-23.

MARCUS AURELIUS

Fronto’s former pupil, Marcus Aurelius, became emperor in 161 AD. He reigned until 180 AD. Marcus was a Stoic philosopher critical of Christianity.  There are a few citations against Christian practices in his Meditations (1.6; 3.16.1; 7.68; 8.48; 8.51.2; 11.3) but Meditations 11.3 is the most explicit. 

Marcus begins by saying it is “admirable” for the soul to be ready when facing death. He says “this readiness must come from its own decision, not from mere opposition like the Christians, but rationally, religiously, and so as to persuade others, without dramatics”. Marcus admires the person who looks death calmly in the face – but not out of sheer force of will but despises the Christian who dies with excessive flair out of an irrational and contrarian compulsion. His view of Christian martyrs was they were “playing the tragedy-hero” and in doing so “are immature and insincere” (Robert M. Grant, Greek Apologists of the Second Century. Philadelphia, Westminster Press: 1988, p 78). Marcus thought the reason Christians faced death with such eagerness was non-sensical, unattractive, and done more out of the rebellious nature of their religion than of any individualistic determination.
Marcus persecuted the church during his reign. He probably witnessed his fair share of martyrs. It is likely he was annoyed by the bible verses, prayers and preaching that often came before the Christian’s last breath.
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 ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Vocab Malone is a Christian hip hop artist and slam poet. He is Pastor of Teaching  and Evangelism at Roosevelt Community Church in Phoenix, Arizona. Vocab holds a Master’s Degree from Phoenix Seminary and is  pursuing a D. Min at Talbot. He has been married for 11 years and has adopted four boys.  He can be heard every Sunday night on Urban Theologian Radio on 1360 KPXQ. Follow him on Twitter @VocabMalone
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3 Responses to “Emperor Marcus Aurelius & Fronto vs. The Early Christians”

  1. Tomjua September 21, 2014 at 10:02 pm #

    Very well written, meaningful and necessary blog I will follow. I offer in addition christianitykeptsimple.com which I post as an entry level method of evangelization for your enjoyment. Please visit.

  2. Emma December 15, 2014 at 12:59 am #

    I want to point out that the quote provided is accompanied by an image of Caracalla, not Marcus Aurelius.

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