Tertullian, To Scapula IV.5-6

Examples of Christianity’s aid of the Romans, and imperial recognition of this

Name of the author: 
212 CE
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Title of work: 
To Scapula



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

To Scapula is a letter from Tertullian addressed to Scapula, the proconsul of Africa, dated to 212 CE, and the latest of all Tertullian’s extant compositions. As Timothy Barnes highlights, the letter reasserts some of the arguments which were made several years earlier in the Apology (c. 197 CE), specifically the willingness of Christians to die for their beliefs, and an assertion of their admirable conduct and morality in daily life (Tertullian, p. 45). The letter responds to the persecution of Christians under the proconsul, and considers God’s divine retribution on those who oppress the Christians, specifically Roman magistrates both in this world and post-mortem (chapter III describes in graphic detail the gruesome death of Claudius Lucius Herminianus, proconsul of Cappadocia, who persecuted Christians out of anger when his wife converted). Similarly, Justin warns in his First Apology XVII.4 that Roman rulers should consider the fate of their soul after death, which risked eternal torture if they continued to mistreat Christians: “each of you will pay penalties in eternal fire according to the worth of his actions.” Tertullian claims, however, that he is not threatening the proconsul as such, but rather warning him as a courtesy, because the Christians love even their enemies, and do not wish God’s harshest judgements on anyone (see IV.1). In Barnes’s words, the horrors outlined in this text by Tertullian as being sent in response to persecution of Christians were “a small step towards giving the whole history of Rome and the Roman Empire a theological interpretation” (Tertullian, p. 142).

In this passage, as part of a wider rhetoric that Christianity is not the enemy of the empire, and in fact can be of great benefit to it (seen not only here, but also in the Apology XXV.12-17; XXXII), Tertullian offers examples of when the empire has been positively influenced by the Christians, and cites some notable Roman imperial authorities who have recognised this. Tertullian begins by citing Septimius Severus, whom he argues was cured by a Christian named Proculus Torpacion when he anointed the emperor with oil. Subsequently, Severus kept Proculus at his palace until the day he died. The circumstances of this anointing are not certain. Moreover, Septimius Severus’s son, Antonine/Antoninus, is described as having been “brought up” on “Christian milk” and also being close to Proculus. Peter Lampe points out that since a Christian slave woman was the wet-nurse to the young Caracalla (Antoninus) (see also Michael Grant, The Severans, p. 105 n. 18), when the Historia Augusta Caracalla I speaks of the young Antoninus playing with a young Jewish boy, this may have been the son of his wet nurse (Christians and Jews, Lampe states, could still be confused in this period) (see From Paul to Valentinus, p. 337). Proculus is also said to have managed the affairs of a woman named Euhodias. Ordinarily, the administrators of citizens, who organised their finances and/or managed household slaves, were at the very least freedmen; however, it could be that if Euhodias was the mistress of a more modest household, Proculus was also her slave. Perhaps, then, Severus purchased him from her (see Lampe, From Paul to Valentinus, p. 337). Regardless, Proculus seems to provide an example of a Christian at the imperial court who had the favour of the emperor (Tertullian also claims that Christians are at the imperial palace in Apology XXXVII.4). Tertullian also claims that Severus interceded on behalf of Christians who were suffering at the hands of accusatory crowds, and defended them openly (the historicity of these claims is uncertain; indeed, under Septimius Severus there were various localised persecutions of Christians, including that which inspired the famous martyrdom account of Perpetua and Felicitas, 202-203 CE).

Next, Tertullian discusses the famous story of Marcus Aurelius’s troops (the Legio XII Fulminata, who had a thunderbolt as their emblem) becoming overcome with thirst during their campaign against the Quadi. As the story goes, Christian soldiers in the army prayed to God for rain, and their request was granted. This story was evidently repeated by early Christians as an example of the superior power of the Christian God. For instance, Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History V.4 claims the event was recounted by Claudius Apollinaris, bishop of Hierapolis during the reign of Marcus Aurelius (161-180 CE) (the so-called miracle of the “Thundering Legion” is also referred to by Tertullian in the Apology V). However, Cassius Dio, Roman History LXXI.8-10 attributes this same miracle to Mercury, called upon by an Egyptian mage! A depiction of the miracle can be seen on the Column of Marcus Aurelius. As far as Tertullian is concerned, however, as with other droughts (verse 10), the end to the army’s thirst can be firmly attributed to the steadfast prayers of the Christians, something which in Apology XXX he is also keen to state have the health of the emperor, and the continuation and expansion of the empire on their agenda. The present passage concludes with the assertion that those who pray to the one omnipotent deity, believing this to be Jupiter, are in essence praying to the one true God of the Christians, since he is the only God in reality.

By providing stories about particular Roman emperors and their connections with Christians, Tertullian essentially hopes here to show that even those at the head of the imperial regime owe something to the Christians, both in the domestic sphere, as in the case of Severus, and the military sphere, as in the case of Marcus Aurelius. Tertullian wants to show that Christians penetrate every aspect of Roman society and ambition, and impact it for the better; as such, they should not be persecuted, but embraced.

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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

“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

“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


Dunn, Geoffrey D.bookTertullianLondonRoutledge2004
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