Bread and Circuses gives us a rare close-up of a golden bust of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who reigned 161-180. Marcus was a stoic philosopher and the last of the so-called “Five Good Emperors.” While other pagan philosophers admired the fortitude of the Christian martyrs, Marcus held Christianity, and especially its martyrs, in contempt. In his Meditations, he mentions Christianity only once, disdainfully.
How blessed and happy is the soul that is always ready, even right now (if need be), to be separated from the body, whether by way of extinction, or dispersion, or continuation in another place and state. But its readiness must proceed, not from an obstinate and peremptory resolution of the mind, violently and passionately set upon opposition, as we find in Christians; but from a peculiar judgment, with discretion and gravity, so that others may be persuaded also and drawn to follow the example, without any noise and passionate exclamations.
Marcus was a persecutor of the Church. And, though he issued his executive orders in cold blood, his attitude inspired the non-stoic rabble to form murderous anti-Christian mobs. Between the executions and the riots, it was a difficult time for believers. Christian victims of Marcus’s reign include Justin Martyr, Blandina and Pothinus, and possibly Polycarp. But the same hostile climate also produced a great flowering of Christian apologetic literature, some of it directed at Marcus himself, from great Fathers such as Melito of Sardis. The sociologist Rodney Stark holds that the Church grew at an alarming pace during this period, at least 40% per decade. Further proof of The Tertullian Principle: The blood of the martyrs is seed.
Visit Bread and Circuses and behold the persecutor who inadvertently brought about such blessings in the Church. In spite of Marcus’s contempt for Christians, Christians have harbored a fondness for him. Witness the judgment of the old Catholic Encyclopedia: “Marcus Aurelius was one of the best men of heathen antiquity.”
I own a biography of the American martyr Father Marquette that concludes with a line not from Jesus Christ, but from Marcus Aurelius: “Take pleasure in one thing and rest in it, in passing from one act to another, thinking of God.”