The eagerness of lapsed Christians to sacrifice under the Decian edict
For a general introduction to Cyprian, please see the commentary on his Epistle LXXXI.
In 249 CE the emperor Decius issued an edict requiring that all inhabitants of the empire sacrifice to the Roman gods. The edict itself is lost, and so our knowledge of its contents and effect comes from the sources either reacting to it, or evidencing its implementation. For example, we possess numerous libelli (or “certificates/attestations”) on papyrus, which document the performance of sacrifice by certain individuals (see Papyrus Rylands 12 and 112a for two examples; for a bibliography of studies of Decius’s edict, see James Rives, “The Decree of Decius,” p. 137, n. 10). The edict was issued shortly after Decius became emperor, and was apparently a formal edict issued directly to the public (see chapter XXVII of the present treatise, which uses the term edictum when discussing the use of fake certificates obtained by some Christians who wished to maintain their Christian conscience, but did not want to suffer the punishments for refusing to perform the required sacrifice). These Christians who managed to obtain a certificate of sacrifice without actually performing it were termed as the libellatici, and were distinguished from the sacrificati, which referred to Christians who simply chose to perform the sacrifice. It is this latter group which Cyprian describes in the present extract. Cyprian is in fact one of our main sources of evidence for the edict, as he wrote numerous letters while in hiding from the “persecution” resulting from it, concerning Christians who had either refused to sacrifice and been imprisoned (or worse) as a result, or had given in to the demands of the emperor and were now a source of controversy for the leaders of the church. Indeed, Cyprian, speaks in his Epistle XXXV.7 of the “accursed food” of the sacrificial victim defiling the lips of those who chose to sacrifice in Rome.
While scholars have debated how much Decius’s edict had to do specifically with Christians at the outset (possibly it had nothing or very little to do with them), it is natural that the Christian sources frame it as a “persecution,” as not only would it have felt this way to those diehard believers who were punished for refusing to comply, but as with other instances where Christians were executed by Rome, the example of these steadfast believers provided excellent propaganda material for Christian authors seeking to promote Christianity’s integrity and legitimacy. As John Knipfling has stated, the nomenclature of the libelli we possess “[show] that Decius’ original edict…had been framed in general terms, with the command that all inhabitants whether Christian or pagan, citizen or non-citizen, male or female, major or minor, should sacrifice to the gods, a command which served as a model for two later edicts of the persecution of Diocletian, namely, the fourth edict of the year 304 and the fifth of the winter of 305-306” (“The Libelli,” p. 362). Rather than the edict being a measure which specifically targeted Christians, James Rives agrees with the likes of Géza Alföldy, who argues that it fits into a broader third-century picture of seeing the traditional gods as the answer to Rome’s problems (Géza Alföldy, “Die Krise des Imperium Romanum”; James Rives, “The Decree of Decius,” p. 142). For Cyprian, however, the Christians who decided to comply with the requirements of the emperor were now hugely problematic for the church. Not only had they “defiled themselves” by tasting the sacrificial meat and thereby shunning Christ, but they now posed a threat to the unity of the church, which was struggling to accommodate its mixture of the steadfast, many who had suffered in prison, the memory of those who had undergone martyrdom, and the weak-minded, who were seeking formal forgiveness and reacceptance. Many of Cyprian’s epistles deal with precisely these issues (see, for example, Epistles IX, X, XXVI, LII, and LIII).
The present extract vehemently lashes out at those who have apparently willingly hurried to perform their sacrifice to the Roman gods. Cyprian describes these Christians as a horde of eager individuals anxiously marching towards the Capitol in order to knowingly commit sacrilege. These Christians are not being dragged there in chains, they have not been questioned by the authorities, or arrested, but rather are making a conscious decision to go and sacrifice of their own free will. They have “hastened to their death” (i.e. the “death” of their faith), and are even so keen that it is as if they had been long awaiting this opportunity. Indeed, those who arrived too late at night for their sacrifice to be performed were frustrated that their “destruction” would have to wait until the morning! The image that Cyprian paints is of course highly rhetorically charged, but given that we know that some Christians at least were choosing to use falsified certificates of sacrifice, the fact that Cyprian outlines here an entirely different group of the “lapsed” tells us that Christian response to the edict was by no means uniform. If some Christians were indeed willingly performing the sacrifice, then there may have been numerous reasons for this, and this may give us valuable insight into just how diverse and conflicted the church was in terms of its understanding of its relationship to Roman power, Roman religious practice, and the identity and duty of Christians as citizens of the empire.
For leaders such as Cyprian, and those who wrote to him asking when (if ever) it was appropriate to grant peace to “the lapsed” in the congregation (bearing in mind they also ministered to confessors who had greatly suffered), Decius’s demand for sacrifice had threatened to destabilise the church, and the punishment of those who would not sacrifice warranted it being understood as a direct persecution of Christianity. The fact that Christianity was not likely Decius’s main concern at the outset mattered not in Cyprian’s mind (in his Epistle XXI he refers to Decius as “the pioneer of Antichrist”). However, possibly many of the “lapsed” Christians had hoped that they could simply perform the sacrifice, thereby ensuring their safety, without completely abandoning their Christian faith, and simply happily return to it afterwards in the knowledge that the idol they had sacrificed to was not really a god at all (see 1 Corinthians 8:4). Allen Brent argues that these Christians were actually expressing a conscious desire to willingly participate in imperial unity and triumph over the metaphysical chaos believed to be responsible for many of the problems the empire was facing in the third century (Cyprian and Roman Carthage, p. 225-227). Their choice to sacrifice, then, was not simply out of fear that they would be punished for refusing, but because they understood themselves as ordinary citizens who were just as much at risk if the empire suffered decline as anyone else. It was their “patriotic duty,” and many likely wanted to feel a part of the ideology behind this universal supplicatio, and join with their fellow citizens, even though their Christian beliefs might have prevented them from believing in the ultimate effect of their sacrificial performance.
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