We know relatively little for certain about Melito, apparently the bishop of Sardis (not far from Smyrna, modern day Izmir, Turkey), and are largely reliant on what Eusebius tells us in his Ecclesiastical History. It seems that Melito was active during the second half of the second century CE, and according to Eusebius, he was a eunuch (meaning unmarried in context) who lived entirely “in the Holy Spirit” (Ecclesiastical History V.24.5). We are informed that Melito composed several works which were lost by the time Eusebius himself wrote (IV.26.1), but the two which survive to us today are his homily on the Passover (known as the Peri Pascha) and the present Apology addressed to the emperor Marcus Aurelius, which Robert Grant dates to 176 CE immediately after the Revolt of Avidius Cassius (Greek Apologists, p. 95). Gaius Avidius Cassius was a Roman general who ruled Egypt and Syria for a short period in 175 CE after being proclaimed emperor when Marcus Aurelius’s death was falsely announced. The ancient sources suggests that Marcus Aurelius’s wife, Faustina, worried about her husband’s ill health and the youth of their son, Commodus wanted to ensure a protector for the latter should her husband die. Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations do in fact state that he had been ill, but recovered, by which time Cassius had been acclaimed emperor by the Egyptian legion II Traiana Fortis. He was soon after declared a public enemy by the Senate and Marcus Aurelius was again recognised as emperor in the summer of 175 CE. Eusebius’s Chronicle, however, tells us that the apology was presented to Marcus Aurelius between 169 and 170 CE, during the controversy over Easter in Laodicea.
Eusebius’s quotation of the Apology claims immediately prior to the present extract (IV.26.5-6) that a wave of persecutions against Christians have occurred in Asia by imperial decree. These imperially sanctioned decrees which Melito refers to have been interpreted in various ways (for a bibliography, see Stuart Hall, Melito of Sardis, p. 63 n. 2, and the discussion in Grant, Greek Apologists, p. 93-94). Appealing to the emperor’s just nature, Melito argues that if indeed he has ordered these actions against the Christians, then he must have believed it to be for a genuinely good reason, as no righteous emperor (the implication being that Marcus Aurelius is precisely such) would allow such unjust events to be undertaken under his rule. He therefore compels the emperor to stop these abuses of Christians if it is not in fact his will (the tactic of appealing to the legitimacy, righteousness, and good judgement of the emperor was a popular tactic among the early Christian apologists; see, for instance, Athenagoras of Athens, Plea for the Christians XXXVII; Justin Martyr, First Apology LXVIII.1-LXX.4). Melito then goes on to argue in the present extract that while Christianity first arose among “the barbarians,” it flourished during the time of Augustus (Grant suggests that Melito’s synchronism of Augustus and the success of the empire likely is indebted to Luke’s mention of a decree from Caesar Augustus at the time of Jesus’s birth; Greek Apologists, p. 93), and became a good omen for the empire’s prosperity and health. This, Melito claims, is evidenced by the fact that under Augustus the empire became glorious, and continued to grow and expand. It is notable that Melito refers to Christianity as “our philosophy,” which according to Judith Lieu places Melito alongside other Christian apologists who attempted to situate Christianity in “the values of the wider society without compromising its distinctive character (“They Speak to us,” p. 43). As far as Melito is concerned, it was only during the times of Nero and Domitian that emperors were responsible for the slandering and ill treatment of Christians; this contemptible situation was reversed, however, by the current emperor, Marcus Aurelius’s Antonine successors, who challenged those persecuting Christians.
In a similar manner to Justin in his First Apology LXVIII.1-LXX.4, Melito calls here upon the emperor Hadrian’s letter to the proconsul Minucius Fundanus (see the commentary on the previously cited section of Justin’s First Apology for a discussion of this), as well as a letter from Antoninus Pius to the Larissaeans, the Thessalonians, the Athenians, and all the Greeks (during which time Melito states Marcus Aurelius shared rule with his father). Both documents (the historicity of which is debated) instruct that Christians are not to be punished without due cause. Melito encourages Marcus Aurelius to follow in the pious footsteps of his imperial predecessors. Hall argues that the mention of Antoninus Pius’s letters to the Larissans, Thessalonians, Athenians, and Greeks may have prompted the fabrication of the Rescript to the Commune Asia which we find in Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History IV.13 and in the single manuscript of Justin’s Apologies, where it comes after the First Apology. The latter claims that it comes from Antoninus Pius, but only lists Asia as the recipient (not Larissa, Thessaloniki, Athens, and Greece as Meltio does) (Melito of Sardis, p. 64 n. 4).
Melito willingly accepts the legitimacy of the emperor, as did other early Christians, and draws upon the notion of their honourable morality, piety, and judgement to imply that an emperor who embodies these characteristics should logically oppose the persecution of a religion which has significantly aided Rome’s expansion. As Grant observes, Melito claims for Christianity what Roman religion claimed for itself – that piety was the reason for the empire’s increase (Greek Apologists, p. 95). In Judith Lieu’s words, the Apology “celebrates the co-terminence of church and Empire” (“They Speak to us,” p. 43).
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