Nicene and Ante-Nicene Fathers, Ser. II, Vol I:Early Church Fathers Index Previous Next
The Church History of Eusebius.: Section 3
§3. The Persecution of Diocletian.
In this delightful circle and engaged in such congenial tasks, the time must have passed very happily for Eusebius, until, in 303, the terrible persecution of Diocletian broke upon the Church almost like a thunderbolt out of a clear sky. The causes of the sudden change of policy on Diocletians part, and the terrible havoc wrought in the Church, it is not my intention to discuss here (see below, Bk. VIII. chap. 2, note 3 sq.). We are concerned with the persecution only in so far as it bears upon the present subject. In the first year of the persecution Procopius, the first martyr of Palestine, was put to death at Cæsarea (Eusebius Martyrs of Palestine, Curetons ed. p. 4), and from that time on that city, which was an important Christian center, was the scene of a tempest which raged with greater or less violence, and with occasional cessations, for seven years. Eusebius himself was an eyewitness of many martyrdoms there, of which he gives us an account in his Martyrs of Palestine. The little circle which surrounded Pamphilus did not escape. In the third year of the persecution (Mart. of Pal. p. 12 sq.) a youth named Apphianus, or Epiphanius (the former is given in the Greek text, the latter in the Syriac), who “resided in the same house with us, confirming himself in godly doctrine, and being instructed by that perfect martyr, Pamphilus” (as Eusebius says), committed an act of fanatical daring which caused his arrest and martyrdom. It seems that without the knowledge of his friends, concealing his design even from those who dwelt in the same house with him, he laid hold of the hand of the governor, Arbanus, who was upon the point of sacrificing, and endeavored to dissuade him from offering to “lifeless idols and wicked devils.” His arrest was of course the natural consequence, and he had the glory of witnessing a good profession and suffering a triumphant death. Although Eusebius speaks with such admiration of his conduct, it is quite significant of the attitude of himself, and of most of the circle of which he was one, that Apphianus felt obliged to conceal his purpose from them. He doubtless feared that they would not permit him to perform the rash act which he meditated, and we may conclude from that, that the circle in the main was governed by the precepts of good common sense, and avoided that fanaticism which so frequently led men, as in the present case it led Apphianus, to expose themselves needlessly, and even to court martyrdom. It is plain enough from what we know of Eusebius general character that he himself was too sensible to act in that way. It is true that he speaks with admiration of Apphianus conduct, and in H. E. VIII. 5, of the equally rash procedure of a Nicomedian Christian; but that does not imply that he considered their course the wisest one, and that he would not rather recommend the employment of all proper and honorable precautions for the preservation of life. Indeed, in H. E. IV. 15, he speaks with evident approval of the prudent course pursued by Polycarp in preserving his life so long as he could without violating his Christian profession, and with manifest disapproval of the rash act of the Phrygian Quintus, who presumptuously courted martyrdom, only to fail when the test itself came. Pamphilus also possessed too much sound Christian sense to advocate any such fanaticism, or to practice it himself, as is plain enough from the fact that he was not arrested until the fifth year of the persecution. This unhealthy temper of mind in the midst of persecution was indeed almost universally condemned by the wisest men of the Church, and yet the boldness and the very rashness of those who thus voluntarily and needlessly threw their lives away excited widespread admiration and too often a degree p. 9 of commendation which served only to promote a wider growth of the same unhealthy sentiment.
In the fifth year of the persecution Pamphilus was arrested and thrown into prison, where he remained for two years, when he finally, in the seventh year of the persecution, suffered martyrdom with eleven others, some of whom were his disciples and members of his own household. (Pal. Mart. Curetons ed. p. 36 sq.; H. E. App. chap. 11.) During the two years of Pamphilus imprisonment Eusebius spent a great deal of time with him, and the two together composed five books of an Apology for Origen, to which Eusebius afterward added a sixth (see below, p. 36). Danz (p. 37) assumes that Eusebius was imprisoned with Pamphilus, which is not an unnatural supposition when we consider how much they must have been together to compose the Apology as they did. There is, however, no other evidence that he was thus imprisoned, and in the face of Eusebius own silence it is safer perhaps to assume (with most historians) that he simply visited Pamphilus in his prison. How it happened that Pamphilus and so many of his followers were imprisoned and martyred, while Eusebius escaped, we cannot tell. In his Martyrs of Palestine, chap. 11, he states that Pamphilus was the only one of the company of twelve martyrs that was a presbyter of the Cæsarean church; and from the fact that he nowhere mentions the martyrdom of others of the presbyters, we may conclude that they all escaped. It is not surprising, therefore, that Eusebius should have done the same. Nevertheless, it is somewhat difficult to understand how he could come and go so frequently without being arrested and condemned to a like fate with the others. It is possible that he possessed friends among the authorities whose influence procured his safety. This supposition finds some support in the fact that he had made the acquaintance of Constantine (the Greek in Vita Const. I. 19 has žγνωμεν, which implies, as Danz remarks, that he not only saw, but that he became acquainted with Constantine) some years before in Cæsarea. He could hardly have made his acquaintance unless he had some friend among the high officials of the city. Influential family connections may account in part also for the position of prominence which he later acquired at the imperial court of Constantine. If he had friends in authority in Cæsarea during the persecution his exemption from arrest is satisfactorily accounted for. It has been supposed by some that Eusebius denied the faith during the terrible persecution, or that he committed some other questionable and compromising act of concession, and thus escaped martyrdom. In support of this is urged the fact that in 335, at the council of Tyre, Potamo, bishop of Heraclea, in Egypt, addressed Eusebius in the following words: “Dost thou sit as judge, O Eusebius; and is Athanasius, innocent as he is, judged by thee? Who can bear such things? Pray tell me, wast thou not with me in prison during the persecution? And I lost an eye in behalf of the truth, but thou appearest to have received no bodily injury, neither hast thou suffered martyrdom, but thou hast remained alive with no mutilation. How wast thou released from prison unless thou didst promise those that put upon us the pressure of persecution to do that which is unlawful, or didst actually do it?” Eusebius, it seems, did not deny the charge, but simply rose in anger and dismissed the council with the words, “If ye come hither and make such accusations against us, then do your accusers speak the truth. For if ye tyrannize here, much more do ye in your own country” (Epiphan. Hær. LXVIII. 8). It must be noticed, however, that Potamo does not directly charge Eusebius with dishonorable conduct, he simply conjectures that he must have acted dishonorably in order to escape punishment; as if every one who was imprisoned with Potamo must have suffered as he did! As Stroth suggests, it is quite possible that his peculiarly excitable and violent temperament was one of the causes of his own loss. He evidently in any case had no knowledge of unworthy conduct on Eusebius part, nor had any one else so far as we can judge. For in that age of bitter controversy, when mens characters were drawn by their opponents in the blackest lines, Eusebius must have suffered at the hands of the Athanasian party if it had been known that he had acted a cowardly part in the persecution. Athanasius himself refers to this incident (Contra Arian. VIII. 1), but he only says that Eusebius was “accused of sacrificing,” he does p. 10 not venture to affirm that he did sacrifice; and thus it is evident that he knew nothing of such an act. Moreover, he never calls Eusebius “the sacrificer,” as he does Asterius, and as he would have been sure to do had he possessed evidence which warranted him in making the accusation (cf. Lightfoot, p. 311). Still further, Eusebius subsequent election to the episcopate of Cæsarea, where his character and his conduct during the persecution must have been well known, and his appointment in later life to the important see of Antioch, forbid the supposition that he had ever acted a cowardly part in time of persecution. And finally, it is psychologically impossible that Eusebius could have written works so full of comfort for, and sympathy with, the suffering confessors, and could have spoken so openly and in such strong terms of condemnation of the numerous defections that occurred during the persecution, if he was conscious of his own guilt. It is quite possible, as remarked above, that influential friends protected him without any act of compromise on his part; or, supposing him to have been imprisoned with Potamo, it may be, as Lightfoot suggests, that the close of the persecution brought him his release as it did so many others. For it would seem natural to refer that imprisonment to the latter part of the persecution, when in all probability he visited Egypt, which was the home of Potamo. We must in any case vindicate Eusebius from the unfounded charge of cowardice and apostasy; and we ask, with Cave, “If every accusation against any man at any time were to be believed, who would be guiltless?”
From his History and his Martyrs in Palestine we learn that Eusebius was for much of the time in the very thick of the fight, and was an eyewitness of numerous martyrdoms not only in Palestine, but also in Tyre and in Egypt.
The date of his visits to the latter places (H. E. VIII. 7, 9) cannot be determined with exactness. They are described in connection with what seem to be the earlier events of the persecution, and yet it is by no means certain that chronological order has been observed in the narratives. The mutilation of prisoners—such as Potamo suffered—seems to have become common only in the year 308 and thereafter (see Masons Persecution of Diocletian, p. 281), and hence if Eusebius was imprisoned with Potamo during his visit to Egypt, as seems most probable, there would be some reason for assigning that visit to the later years of the persecution. In confirmation of this might be urged the improbability that he would leave Cæsarea while Pamphilus was still alive, either before or after the latters imprisonment, and still further his own statement in H. E. VII. 32, that he had observed Meletius escaping the fury of the persecution for seven years in Palestine. It is therefore likely that Eusebius did not make his journey to Egypt, which must have occupied some time, until toward the very end of the persecution, when it raged there with exceeding fierceness during the brief outburst of the infamous Maximin.
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