Tatian’s views on the Roman emperor
165 CE to 172 CE
Title of work:
Discourse to the Greeks
Keywords in the original language:
Thematic keywords in English:
Tatian was a pupil of Justin martyr, apparently born somewhere in Assyria (he tells us this himself in his Discourse to the Greeks XLII). In addition to the Discourse to the Greeks, his Christian apology from which the present extracts are taken, Tatian also composed a gospel harmony called the Diatessaron. Only the first of these works survives extant. Tatian himself refers to Justin in the Discourse to the Greeks (see chapters XVIII and XIX), and their association is also evidenced by other ancient writers (e.g. Irenaeus, Against Heresies I.28; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History IV.28). Justin was active in Rome during the 50s and 60s of the second century CE (see Sarah Parvis and Paul Foster, Justin Martyr, xiii), and so as Paul Foster argues, unless Tatian was a particularly young or unusually old pupil, it is reasonable to hypothesise that he might have been born during the 20s or 30s of the second century, during the reign of the emperor Hadrian (“Tatian,” p. 105). During Hadrian’s rule, an educational renaissance was underway which sought to recapture the philosophical greatness of fifth and fourth century BCE Attic writers (the period of renewed interest in the second century CE is known as the “Second Sophistic”), and this cultural context surrounded Tatian (on this, see Foster, “Tatian,” p. 105-106).
After converting to Christianity, however, Tatian turned against the ways of the Greek philosophers: “having taken my leave of Roman arrogance and Athenian cold cleverness – incoherent bases of doctrine – I sought out the philosophy which you consider barbarous (i.e. Christianity)” (Discourse to the Greeks XXXV). It is likely that the present text was written while Tatian was still in Rome (he left at some point after Justin was martyred). The work derides claims of Greek superiority over other nations in terms of culture, education, and understanding of the divine, but is largely influenced by the apologetic genre that Justin himself was influential in developing (for a brief introduction to Justin and his Apologies, see, for example, the opening section of the commentary on Justin Martyr, First Apology XVII.1-XVIII.3; see the various commentaries on Justin’s Apologies for detailed discussions of his arguments and style). Tatian’s own arguments both attack Greek practices (as well as Roman adoption of them), and insist upon the ancient heritage of Christianity and its superiority over Hellenistic ethical teachings (such tactics were common among the early Christian apologists). As Molly Whittaker notes, however, “Tatian’s apologetic is essentially hortatory rather than didactic” (Oratio ad Graecos, xv), and so it was likely written for a Christian audience rather than the Greek philosophers he supposedly attacks (Foster, “Tatian,” p. 110).
The two passages quoted above give a glimpse of Tatian’s views regarding the Roman emperor. In the first extract, Tatian affirms, as many other early Christian authors did (see below for examples), that while Christian teaching does not see it problematic to pay taxes required by the Roman emperor (indeed Jesus instructs that one can do this with a clear conscience as long as God remains at the centre of one’s focus and devotion; Matthew 22:15-22), it must be remembered that the emperor is ultimately merely a human being, and therefore not deserving of the same level of reverence as God. Tatian elaborates with the example of a nobleman and his servants, to illustrate the point that within the human realm there are hierarchies of power which can rightly be respected by those at each level. However, “only God is to be feared (in the sense of reverence/devotion).”
The second extract refers to the practice of deifying Roman emperors after their death, which of course to Tatian is unacceptable due to his firm assertion in section IV that human beings are only to be treated and honoured as such. For the origin of the tradition of emperors ascending into the heavens after their death, see Suetonius, Augustus 100: “There was even an ex-praetor who took oath that he had seen the form of the Emperor, after he had been reduced to ashes, on its way to heaven”; translation by John C. Rolfe, Loeb Classical Library). Tatian refers to Antinous, a favourite of the emperor Hadrian, originally from Bithynia. Antinous accompanied Hadrian to Athens for his initiation into the Eleusinian mysteries (these were annual rites performed by the ancient Greeks in the village of Eleusis, near Athens, in honour of Demeter and Persephone), but died under suspicious circumstances in 130 CE while on a flotilla with the emperor on the Nile. Cassius Dio, Roman History LXIX.11.1-4 tells us that after Antinous died (according to Cassius Dio he was offered as a human sacrifice), still in his youth, Hadrian honoured him by building a city named after him on the site of his death, and by setting up statues (“sacred images”) of him all over the empire. Hadrian subsequently claimed that he had seen a star which he identified with Antinous, and despite being ridiculed by some for this claim, was reassured by other associates that this star had indeed come into being from Antinous’s spirit. Antinous was subsequently venerated in various parts of the empire as a hero and/or a god, and Hadrian set up a statue of Antinous in the form of Osiris in his Tiburtine villa (now housed in the Vatican Museum) (see Christopher P. Jones, New Heroes in Antiquity, p. 75-83). Tatian attacks those who for either money or respect, are willing to claim (as Cassius Dio claims Hadrian’s associates did) that a man such as Antinous could attain a status within the heavens.
Tatian’s position on Roman rule, and the Roman emperor in particular, are essentially in line with those of other contemporary Christian apologists who maintain that while the Roman authorities can be legitimately honoured and respected as rightful earthly rulers, they are not to be worshipped as gods (see, for example, the commentaries on Athenagoras of Athens, Supplication for the Christians XXXVII; Theophilus of Antioch, To Autolycus I.11; Justin Martyr, First Apology XVII.1-XVIII.3; for the argument that God himself has sanctioned Roman rule, see Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:12-17; 1 Clement 60.4 – 61.3).