Eusebius of Caesarea, Ecclesiastical History III.17

The Persecution under Domitian

Name of the author: 
Eusebius of Caesarea
313 CE to 325 CE
Caesarea Maritima
Literary genre: 
Title of work: 
Ecclesiastical History

For a general introduction to Eusebius and the Ecclesiastical History, please see the commentary on I.6.6-11.

In this short chapter from the Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius discusses the relative positions of three Roman emperors in relation to the Christians; namely, Domitian, Nero, and Vespasian. Eusebius’s portrayal of Domitian can be compared with that of the second-century apologist Tertullian (Apology V), who in his own survey of Roman emperors says the following of Domitian: “Domitian, too, a man of Nero’s type in cruelty, tried his hand at persecution; but as he had something of the human in him, he soon put an end to what he had begun, even restoring again those whom he had banished” (V.4). Tertullian notes that while Domitian had attempted to follow in the footsteps of Nero in terms of cruelty, he was ultimately possessing of more humanity, ceasing his efforts and reversing banishments. Indeed, scholars disagree over the level of Christian persecution that occurred under Domitian, with some, such as Timothy Barnes, having argued on the basis of the fragmentary evidence which we possess that there was little to none at all (see “Legislation”).

While he quotes Tertullian’s account of Domitian slightly later on in III.20.9, here in III.17 Eusebius, chooses to emphasise in his own words a similarity between Nero and Domitian; i.e. that both emperors excelled in cruelty and enmity towards God (in III.20.10 he mentions that under Nerva’s administration, all those banished under Domitian were allowed to return from exile). He also agrees with Tertullian that Vespasian was among those emperors never to target the Christians (Apology V.7; Tertullian notes, however, that Vespasian supressed the Jews, and Eusebius claims that Vespasian sought out those in the Davidic line, resulting in persecution of the Jews: III.12). This connection between Nero and Domitian is interesting, and might be better understood when the broader polemical narrative of the Ecclesiastical History is taken into account. In III.20.1-5, Eusebius, apparently drawing on Hegesippus, narrates that certain relatives of Jesus, were brought to trial before Domitian because the emperor was suspicious of their Davidic lineage, and concerned that they might seek to cause trouble for Rome on account of Jewish messianic hopes (on this issue, and its discussion by Hegesippus and Eusebius, see Richard Bauckham, Jude and the Relatives of Jesus, p. 99-106). After questioning them, Domitian decides that they in fact pose no threat; he releases them and orders the current persecution of the Christians to cease. The story is very unlikely to be historical, and should rather be interpreted as an apologetic attempt to show that Jewish Christianity was harmless to Roman power, by having the Roman emperor recognise and affirm this fact himself. By placing emphasis on Domitian’s brutality in the present passage, therefore, Eusebius perhaps attempts to show through his account of history that a once cruel Roman authority was able to be changed of his opinion by two significant Christian figures, descendants of Christ himself.

On the contrary, however, Nero is portrayed in Eusebius’s narrative as taking the opposite journey, with his tolerance for and behaviour towards Christians only worsening over time until it climaxed with the martyrdoms of numerous apostles during his reign. In II.22.1-8, Eusebius discusses the Apostle Paul’s imprisonment in Rome, before later confirming his martyrdom during Nero’s reign in II.25.1-5. In the earlier passage, it is claimed that Paul’s execution did not occur immediately due to Nero initially being of milder disposition. However, when Eusebius returns to discuss Nero again in II.25, his tyranny is described as climaxing in his determined hatred for the Christians, as well as Paul’s martyrdom. The narrative therefore traces the increasing ferocity of the emperor, and Eusebius makes optimum rhetorical use of this to claim Christianity’s legitimacy and worthiness, as he argues that Nero was known not to have made himself an enemy of anything other than the truly excellent. In Domitian’s case, we see something different: this latter emperor who Eusebius claims sought to be a successor of Nero in terms of his enmity towards the Christian religion, was eventually convinced of the error of his ways by the Lord’s relatives.

The fact that Domitian and Nero are painted similarly by Eusebius as savage persecutors of the Christians, yet with the former graduating from cruelty to understanding in relation to Christianity, and the latter rather descending from earlier mildness to utter maniacal brutality, arguably makes a multi-faceted statement about Roman power. On the one hand, Eusebius paints Nero’s ferocity towards the Christians as something which highlights Christianity’s status, showing it as a force to be reckoned with, a fact recognised by the most brutal wielder

of Roman power. On the other hand, the image we get of Domitian in the present passage, when read alongside the account of his meeting with Jesus’s relatives in III.20, is one which sees the Roman authorities as able to be changed for the better by representatives of the Christian faith. This was an important polemical message of the Ecclesiastical History, which emphasised that Christianity, although suffering a great deal under Rome, was still able to come out on top, and assert its influence even over the most powerful imperial authorities.

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