Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus (AD 121—180) was a Roman emperor (161—180) and Stoic philosopher. He may be best known in pop culture as the father of the villainous emperor Commodus, the antagonist in the 2000 film Gladiator. He is known in other circles as the author of Meditations, a guide to self-improvement based on Stoic philosophy, which is still being published and read today.
Marcus Aurelius is also known by many as a persecutor of Christians, in large part due to the record of John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, which states, “Marcus Aurelius, followed about the year of our Lord 161, a man of nature more stern and severe; and, although in study of philosophy and in civil government no less commendable, yet, toward the Christians sharp and fierce; by whom was moved the fourth persecution.
“The cruelties used in this persecution were such that many of the spectators shuddered with horror at the sight, and were astonished at the intrepidity of the sufferers. Some of the martyrs were obliged to pass, with their already wounded feet, over thorns, nails, sharp shells, etc. upon their points, others were scourged until their sinews and veins lay bare, and after suffering the most excruciating tortures that could be devised, they were destroyed by the most terrible deaths.
“Germanicus, a young man, but a true Christian, being delivered to the wild beasts on account of his faith, behaved with such astonishing courage that several pagans became converts to a faith which inspired such fortitude” (from “The Fourth Persecution, Under Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, A.D. 162,” https://www.biblestudytools.com/history/foxs-book-of-martyrs/the-fourth-persecution-under-marcus-aurelius-antoninus-a-d-162.html, accessed 4/14/20).
Foxe, writing in the mid-1500s, does not cite his sources. Many modern scholars dispute this picture of Marcus Aurelius. Donald Robertson, author of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius (St. Martins Press, 2019), challenges this assumption in a rather convincing manner in an article on his website (https://donaldrobertson.name/2017/01/13/did-marcus-aurelius-persecute-the-christians/, accessed 3/25/20). Robertson quotes H. D. Sedgwick, an earlier researcher on Marcus Aurelius, who says, “The only evidence there is that Marcus Aurelius had any direct relation with any of these cases is this statement in Eusebius that during the trial at Lyons the governor wrote to ask him for instructions.” Eusebius, writing some 300 years later in his Ecclesiastical History, records some reports of persecution in the city of Lyons during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. However, there is no mention in Eusebius that Marcus Aurelius himself instigated the persecution. Furthermore, other Christian writers who were closer to or living at the time of this persecution do not make as much of it.
Robertson notes the words of Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons: “Through their [the Romans’] instrumentality the world is at peace, and we walk on the highways without fear, and sail where we will” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, tr. by Alexander Roberts and William Rambaut, Book IV, Chapter 30, section 3). Tertullian, who lived during the time of Marcus Aurelius, calls Marcus Aurelius a protector, and he uses this fact to demonstrate that Christianity is not bad for the world: “But of all the emperors down to this present reign, who understood anything of religion or humanity, name me one who persecuted the Christians. On the contrary, we show you the excellent M. Aurelius for our protector and patron; for if you look into his letters, you will find him there testifying that his army in Germany being just upon perishing with thirst, some Christian soldiers which happened to be in his troops, did by the power of prayer fetch down a prodigious shower to the relief of the whole army; for which the grateful prince, though he could not publicly set aside the penal laws, yet he did as well, he publicly rendered them ineffectual another way, by discouraging our accusers with the last of punishments, viz. burning alive” (The Apology of Tertullian, tr. by Wm. Reeve, online facsimile of the 1709 text, p. 8, http://www.tertullian.org/articles/reeve_apology.htm, accessed 3/25/20).
This position as protector is bolstered if we accept that “The Epistle of Antoninus to the Common Assembly of Asia in Regard to Our Doctrine” is actually written by Marcus Aurelius. The following is recorded in Eusebius, who attributes the letter to someone else, but the text of the document attributes it to Marcus Aurelius:
“1. The Emperor Cæsar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, Armenicus, Pontifex Maximus, for the fifteenth time Tribune, for the third time Consul, to the Common Assembly of Asia, Greeting.
“2. I know that the gods also take care that such persons do not escape detection. For they would much rather punish those who will not worship them than you would.
“3. But you throw them into confusion, and while you accuse them of atheism you only confirm them in the opinion which they hold. It would indeed be more desirable for them, when accused, to appear to die for their God, than to live. Wherefore also they come off victorious when they give up their lives rather than yield obedience to your commands.
“4. And in regard to the earthquakes which have been and are still taking place, it is not improper to admonish you who lose heart whenever they occur, and nevertheless are accustomed to compare your conduct with theirs.
“5. They indeed become the more confident in God, while you, during the whole time, neglect, in apparent ignorance, the other gods and the worship of the Immortal, and oppress and persecute even unto death the Christians who worship him.
“6. But in regard to these persons, many of the governors of the provinces wrote also to our most divine father, to whom he wrote in reply that they should not trouble these people unless it should appear that they were attempting something affecting the Roman government. And to me also many have sent communications concerning these men, but I have replied to them in the same way that my father did.
“7. But if any one still persists in bringing accusations against any of these people as such, the person who is accused shall be acquitted of the charge, even if it appear that he is one of them, but the accuser shall be punished.”
(The above is from A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series, under the editorial supervision of Philip Schaff and Henry Wallace, https://biblehub.com/library/pamphilius/church_history/chapter_xiii_the_epistle_of_antoninus.htm, accessed 3/25/20).
The evidence we have is scant and somewhat contradictory, although the current scholarly consensus is that Marcus Aurelius was not a persecutor of the church. This would seem to be in keeping with his Stoic philosophy, which emphasized virtue. As C. R. Haines notes, “Marcus has been condemned as a persecutor of the Christians on purely circumstantial and quite insufficient grounds. The general testimony of contemporary Christian writers is against the supposition. So is the known character of Marcus” (The Communing with Himself of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, Emperor of Rome, Together with His Speeches and Sayings, tr. by C. R. Haines, London: Wm. Heinemann, 1906, p. 384).
If Marcus Aurelius was a persecutor of the church, he was simply one in a long line of persecutors. If he was not, his treatment by subsequent Christian writers demonstrates that even Christians writing for a good purpose may at times distort the facts—a temptation for any who write with intent to persuade others of their position.