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A Tale of the Early Christians.
“By evil report and good report, as deceivers and yet true, as sorrowful yet always rejoicing.” – 2 Cor. VI, 8-10.
THERE are few things more profitable and interesting to us modern Christians than the history of the Church in the old times of persecution, before the lustre of her original purity was eclipsed and darkened by the shadows of erroneous doctrines.
And not only in the general history of the early Church, but often in that of her individual members, there are scenes pictured, and characters displayed which cannot fail to awaken at once our admiration and our sympathy.
In Rome especially, where the persecution of the Christians raged at times with the greatest violence, there were always found men and women endowed with such extraordinary grace and constancy that they overcame every obstacle thrown in their way, and signally defeated the design of their oppressors by choosing rather to die in the defence of their faith than to purchase life by the denial of it.
Thus the beauty and meekness of the Christian character continually increased, gaining new strength from every fresh persecution, while the fury of the pagans rose in proportion, their only difficulty consisting in the invention of new punishments and tortures to inflict on their victims.
In turn every Roman Emperor exerted himself by various means to overpower the faith, until in the reign of Diocletian and his colleague the imperial government made a final effort to exterminate the religion of CHRIST, and to restore entirely the worship of the gods.
From the year 302 to 305 A.D., therefore, the emperors busied themselves with destroying all the remaining monuments of Christianity in their empire, and published also an edict commanding “every Christian to sacrifice to the gods, or else to suffer confiscation of all his goods, lands, civil privileges and rights,
and to be degraded from all offices of state or public stations, and even from his rank in society.” This edict also required “that all copies of the Holy Scriptures should be seized and destroyed, Christian worship suppressed, and the churches razed to the ground.” This last clause obliged the faithful to celebrate divine service in the catacombs, subterranean retreats of which a further description will be given in another chapter.
In order to inflame the minds of the heathen populace to the more bitter persecution of the Christians, it had become the custom to bestow the whole or part of the property of the convicted Christians upon those by whose accusations they had been arrested and condemned. This custom however was not always observed, for in the event of the martyr’s leaving near relations, these often petitioned the Emperors for their share in the property, and if such a petition were granted the decree made to that effect was inviolable. However, the chance of obtaining some portion of spoil was a great inducement to avaricious pagans to hunt out and impeach their wealthier Christian neighbours, and many good and influential persons fell victims to this horrible system.
Among the martyrs of 303 were Simplicius and Faustinus, two Christian brothers, and soon after, their sister, the subject of the present narrative.
About the same time Donata, Juliana, and some others, all of whose authentic names have been very carefully retained, sealed their profession with their blood, and passed together from death unto life everlasting.
The facts connected with the following little story and the greater part of its incidental details are strictly true.
It only remains to be observed that the object of this narrative is to portray as faithfully as possible the spirit which actuated the saints of old, and the victory that their constancy obtained over the malice of their persecutors. And this victory was owing to the grace bestowed on them by the SAVIOUR, through Whom they vanquished even death itself, counting all things as nought that they might inherit eternal life. And now these blessed ones are before the throne of GOD, with palms in their hands, having exchanged death for life, affliction for glory, persecution for triumph, the cross for the crown. And this because they counted not their lives dear unto themselves, but trusted in CHRIST their Redeemer, keeping their souls pure before Him, and leaning on His promises and on His love.
Rome in all her grandeur and opulence fell, for her power was not of GOD, but the Church at first so insignificant, so oppressed, grew continually in strength through Him, until
she has spread her dominion over nearly the whole world, overcoming alike its persecutions and its allurements.
For, says the Apostle, “This is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.”
The celestial duties of this holy faith and of the early Christian character we have endeavoured to depict correctly in the hope that some few at least may be led to love the first and thence to esteem and imitate the second.
Let us picture to ourselves the city of Rome on a bright morning in the July of 303 A.D. Let us imagine the imperial city as it then stood in its splendour, adorned with countless temples, magnificent edifices, spacious forums, and noble mansions, all resplendent with the gleams of warm sunshine streaming lazily down on their many porticoes and baliscas, or glancing dreamily on the sleepy waters of the Tiber. Everywhere around the spectator rose superb and sumptuous buildings, some composed of marble others of stone or granite, but all equally beautiful in design and construction, if not in ornament.
The monotony of the scene was here and there agreeably relieved by the bright verdure of the pleasure gardens, through whose tress and shrubs the sunlight flickered and danced with fitful sportiveness.
To these gardens a crowd of the Roman
nobility daily resorted to loiter away their time in conversation and in idleness, enjoying at once the refreshing shade afforded by the trees and the pleasant scenery around them.
Near the baths of Diocletian, then newly erected, were some of the most beautiful and fashionable of these pleasure grounds, adorned with marble fountains, in whose white basins the silvery spray continually gurgled and splashed in drowsy cadence, the sunshine meanwhile reflecting in its torrent the brilliant hues of innumerable rainbows.
Close to the baths was collected a small group of idlers all eagerly listening to the discourse of an old white-haired man who stood in the midst of them.
He wore the dress and had the manners of a Roman citizen, and though evidently upwards of seventy years he yet retained some of the vigorous action of younger manhood.
“I tell you it is true,” he exclaimed vehemently in reply to some expostulation from a youth at his side, “I had it from the Prefect himself; they are to be tried before his tribunal in the Forum this very week.”
“But,” continued the young man, “how can that be, since I saw Beatrice herself this morning, who in answer to my question told me gaily enough that her brothers were well? surely she would not have said so if they were
in prison, and could they be there, think you, and she not know of it?”
“Well,” retorted the old man, “I tell you the truth; ask the Prefect if you cannot believe me. I have no time to stand here discussing with incredulous boys.” And he shuffled off with a discontented look, leaving his hearers to settle their own disputes.
“What is all this about? and who is going to be tried?” cried a tall Roman centurion pushing in among the crowd.
“Oh, nothing particular,” returned one of them, “only that Simplicius and Faustinus are to be brought before the Prefect the day after next on a charge of being Christians.”
“Stop, Cornelius, don’t go yet!” exclaimed a woman among them to the last speaker, who was edging off, “I want to hear about these Christians, for I can never understand what they are; and you are so clever, and know so much about them: come, you must positively tell me all you know!”
“Well,” replied the other with an air of great importance, “since you are so anxious you shall hear what I can tell you. I picked up my information from the accounts of those who have heard the confessions of the Christians themselves when condemned for their scandalous practices.
“Their founder was a poor man at Jerusalem
some three hundred years back, who was put to death for misleading the people; but the dangerous superstition he taught unfortunately did not die with him, but on the contrary his death seemed to give new zeal to his disciples, who are now spread everywhere, corrupting men’8 minds with their wicked discourses.”
“But what do they? what do they believe?” cried several voices.
“Everything that is horrible and impious,” replied Cornelius pompously, “for instance, they meet together in the night in their underground dens, and after inflaming themselves with wine they begin to howl and yell like wild beasts until dawn, when they are compelled to return home.
“In these vile places too they concoct all sorts of horrid plots, even against the divine Emperors themselves, and were they more powerful than they are they would doubtless murder every one of us. It is also very well believed that they practise the black art, and in fact that it is only by virtue of their sorceries that they support the tortures inflicted on them by way of punishment.”
“How shocking,” exclaimed the voices of his listeners in a horrified tone, “but cannot all this be stopped by blocking up their hiding places?”
“There are few,” replied the orator, “who
choose to expose themselves to the danger of their enchantments, they might turn one into some reptile, or bury one alive in their caves with the greatest ease.”
Speaking these words Cornelius concluded his oration, and pressing through his audience turned into the gardens adjoining the Baths. The others soon followed his example, and dispersed themselves on their respective errands, until only two were left, both women. One of them was apparently about seventeen, the other some ten years older.
They stood a few minutes conversing together in low eager tones, as though fearful of being overheard by those who might pass by. The elder of the two was evidently of high rank, as both her dress and conversation indicated. Nevertheless her manner was far from haughty and her eyes beamed with a sweet pious expression which was unusual with other Roman ladies.
“No, Donata,” she said earnestly to her companion, “we cannot save them. And why should we desire their life? is it not far better for them to pass from this troublesome world to eternal rest than to linger behind amid persecution?”
“But Beatrice, what will she do when her brothers are dead?”
“Live like a true Christian as she has always
done,” replied the other, “I spoke to her yesterday, and she told me that it would comfort her to know her brothers were beyond the reach of suffering and temptation. As for themselves they look forward to their death as to an hour of triumph. Therefore, dear child, do not fear for them, only let us hope that we may be the next to follow them to glory. Perhaps before this year is out we may all be singing the same song in heaven.”
“But oh, Lady Juliana!” exclaimed the young girl in a tone of vexation, “is it not dreadful to hear our holy religion abused and derided as we have heard it this morning? why cannot these people understand us?”
“Hush, Donata,” returned her friend calmly, “other ears beside mine may hear you, and remember, dear child, that GOD in His own time will open the eyes of Rome to His truth. We may not murmur, but endure that we may glorify CHRIST in our life as well as in our death, living and dying for His blessed sake. Let us endure patiently therefore a little longer; have you never heard of the Phoenix from whose ashes after death arises a new bird in the full vigour of life? So from our ashes may come forth the glorious messenger of life and light, the bearer of good tidings, so the drooping persecuted Church may give birth to a new and triumphant catholicity. Our patient
martyrdom may convince our persecutors of the truth of CHRIST’S Gospel, for in due season we shall reap if we faint not. Farewell, little one, for the present; I am going up the Ostian Road to visit the widow Lucina. It is a long journey for me, and I must make haste. So till we meet again, dear girl, I bid you farewell. Commend me to the good deacon Cyriacus.”
So saying the Lady Juliana passed on her way with a pleasant smile on her face, leaving Donata looking wistfully after her.
In a little while she too sighing heavily withdrew, and with slow steps continued her journey in the opposite direction.