Tertullian, On the Military Garland XI.1-4 

The contradiction between Roman military service and God’s laws

Name of the author: 
211 CE
Literary genre: 
Rhetorical treatise
Title of work: 
On the Military Garland

For a general introduction to Tertullian please see the commentary on Apology V.

Tertullian’s attitude towards Christians in the Roman military has been much discussed. In On Idolatry XIX the Roman military is said to be unsuitable for Christians, partly because of the potential for exposure to pagan religious practices; as such, believers are discouraged from enrolling. In the opening passage of the present treatise, On the Military Garland, Tertullian defends the conduct of a Christian soldier whose Christianity had become apparent when he refused to put on the laurel crown during a donativum (a gift of money given to soldiers; in this case perhaps that given upon the death of Septimius Severus) (see On the Military Garland I.1-4). The present extract from chapter XI elaborates on the contradiction between Christian faith and the military profession, and opens by admitting that the laurel crown is actually rather incidental: “What sense is there in discussing the merely accidental, when that on which it rests is to be condemned?” (verse 1). There are much broader issues at stake when it comes to the issue of Christians in the army. Indeed, the rest of the treatise is devoted to outlining precisely how the laurel crown amounts to idolatry, with prominent arguments including that it is unnatural to wear foliage on one’s head, because the aroma cannot be smelt there (I.6-VII.2), and that it has a long connection with pagan cults (VII.3-XI).

Tertullian expands in verse 1 upon the notion of serving two masters (see Matthew 6:24; Luke 16:13). The “human oath” (the military oath sworn by soldiers; the sacramentum militare) and the “divine” oath cannot both be fulfilled to the necessary extent, as each require the full and unquestioning commitment of the individual. The swearing of the military oath bound the individual to the emperor as supreme commander, and while no text of the oath has survived to the present day, it is believed that it essentially consisted of swearing never to desert, to consistently follow orders, and to give up one’s life for the empire. It was recited upon enlistment, on New Year’s Day, and on the anniversary of the emperor’s accession (see John Helgeland, “Christians in the Roman Army,” p. 151). A shortened form of a military oath is found in the morning report of the Cohors XX Palmyrenorum (see Robert Fink, Roman Military Records, p. 179-180). For Tertullian, the swearing of the oath was not merely a statement of commitment to one’s profession, it presented a religious conflict. This argument is also found in On Idolatry XIX.2, where Tertullian argues that the “human sacrament” and the “divine sacrament” (which likely refers to baptism, when “one binds oneself to God”; see Jan Waszink and Jacobus van Winden, Tertullianus, De Idololatria, p. 272) are incompatible—one can either commit himself to God, and undergo the initiation of baptism, or one can commit himself to serving Caesar in the army.

As Stephen Gero argues, through his arguments in this chapter Tertullian highlights the implications of “cultural separatism” which are unavoidable for the Christian believer. Having made clear that serving both Christ as master of all and Caesar as supreme commander is not feasible, in verse 2 he asserts that Christians, who should not even attend Roman law courts in order to avenge wrongs done to them (see 1 Corinthians 6:1-8), should certainly not be carrying swords (here he draws on Jesus’s statement in Matthew 26:52) and engaging in wars for other causes (“Miles Gloriosus,” p. 294). Interestingly, Tertullian also may be drawing on Matthew 26:52 (when Jesus reprimands a disciple for cutting off the high priest’s ear with his sword) in On Idolatry XIX.3, when he claims that Jesus’s disarming of Peter (whom Tertullian seems to interpret as the disciple in Matthew 26) symbolically disarms all soldiers (see Waszink and van Winden, Tertullianus, De Idololatria, p. 269). Along with the use of the sword, Tertullian also highlights torture and the chaining of prisoners as activities which a Christian soldier might be compelled to partake in. It seems that despite the clear prominence of idolatry in Tertullian’s discomfort with Christians in the Roman army (in both the present treatise and in On Idolatry, for which the central issue of concern is hinted at in the name), violence and bloodshed are not an insignificant factor. If scholars such as Gero are correct, who argue that increased enlistment in the army due to the militarisation of the empire during the Severan period partly lie behind Tertullian’s concern with the military (“Miles Gloriosus,” p. 291), then it could well be that violence takes a back seat in his arguments because recruitment often would be to positions involving largely administrative or ceremonial duties, and little to no combat at all.

The issue of idolatry (which for scholars such as Hans von Campenhausen, Tradition and Life, p. 163, is Tertullian’s main problem with the army) is specifically raised in verse 3, when Tertullian mentions the roles of guarding pagan temples and eating sacrificial meat. This lengthy verse lists various army practices in direct opposition to Christ and Christian values, in order to make abundantly clear that the soldier will find it impossible to maintain his profession and his faith. The hypocrisy of guarding pagan temples (which it is implied house demonic spirits) when the Christian exorcises such beings is pointed out, as is the use of a spear when this very weapon was used to pierce Christ’s side after his crucifixion, to ensure he was dead. Moreover, the carrying of a flag/standard (vexillum) is viewed as hostile to Christ. The army standards were considered sacred, and kept in a sanctuary (aedicula) in the permanent camp; for Tertullian, they belonged to the devil (On Idolatry XIX.2) (see Helgeland, “Christians in the Roman Army,” p. 151-152). The signal (signum) (translated above as “watchword”) of the emperor, which in military language can specifically refer to the standards themselves, is also placed in opposition to that of God. Finally, practices surrounding the death of the soldier are also brought into question for the Christian, both in terms of the trumpets which one might have at a funerary procession (contrasted with the trumpet of God’s angels), and the burning of the soldier’s body, which is seen as ironic given that Christians are forbidden to burn incense, and the very fires of hell are what Christianity offers salvation from (soldiers killed in battle would often be cremated in en masse) (see Jocelyn Toynbee, Death and Burial, p. 43-44).

Finally, Tertullian deals with the issue of those who convert when already members of the army. Their case, he concedes, is slightly different to those who are already Christians when they consider enlisting (on this issue, see Gero, “Miles Gloriosus,” p. 295-296, who argues that this is the earliest literary evidence for already-baptised Christians joining the army). In support of his sympathy for soldiers who find faith having already served in the military, he cites the example of those whom John the Baptist baptise (see Luke 3:14), in addition to the story of the faithful centurion Cornelius (see Acts 10:1-30). However, Tertullian argues that when a soldier becomes a Christian, really he should abandon the army. He also appears to suggest that if the Christian soldier does not leave the military, he may be forced to resort to acts of deception in order to avoid contradicting God’s laws when required to perform certain duties, which is forbidden even for civilians. Tertullian concludes by affirming that if the converted soldier is not willing to leave his profession (as he claims many have chosen to do), then he must be just as willing to die for Christ as any other Christian.

While the general point Tertullian is making in this passage is that the army is incompatible with Christianity due to the potential for duties that may conflict with faith, the specific notion that both God and Caesar cannot be served at the same time is actually somewhat contrary to Tertullian’s arguments elsewhere that Christians are not only perfectly capable of rendering their service (mainly through prayers) to Caesar, but are happy to do so (see Apology XXX). Chapter XXX.4 of the Apology even explicitly states that Christians offer prayers specifically for the bravery of the army, suggesting further that Tertullian is happy with the army performing its functions of protecting the empire and preserving the pax Romana.

Bibliographical references: 

“Was Tertullian a Jurist?”

Rankin, David Ivanarticle-in-a-bookStudia Patristica 31: Papers presented at the Twelfth International Conference on Patristic Studies held in Oxford 1995Elizabeth A. Livingstone335-342“Was Tertullian a Jurist?” Studia PatristicaLeuvenPeeters1997


Dunn, Geoffrey D.bookTertullianLondonRoutledge2004

“On the Problem of Church and Empire in Tertullian’s Apologeticum”

Evans, Robert F.article-in-a-bookStudia Patristica 14: Papers Presented to the Sixteenth International Conference on Patristic Studies held in Oxford 1971Elizabeth A. Livingstone21-36“On the Problem of Church and Empire in Tertullian’s Apologeticum” Studia PatristicaBerlinAkademie Verlag1976


Ferguson, Everettarticle-in-a-bookEarly Christian Thinkers: The Lives and Legacies of Twelve Key Figures Paul Foster85-99“Tertullian” LondonSPCK2011

“Pagan Perceptions of Christianity”

Barnes, Timothy D.article-in-a-bookEarly Christianity: Origins and Evolution to AD 600Ian Hazlett 231-243“Pagan Perceptions of Christianity” LondonSPCK1991

“Tertullien et les poètes latins,”

Braun, Renéarticle-in-a-bookApproches de Tertullien: vingt-six études sur l’auteur et sur l’oeuvre (1955-1990) René Braun“Tertullien et les poètes latins”ParisInstitut d'Études Augustiniennes1992
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