Thursday, July 19, 2007
Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE)
This one thing, thoughts just, and acts social, and words which never lie, and a disposition which gladly accepts all that happens, as necessary, as usual, as flowing from a principle and source of the same kind.
The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: Selections Annotated and Explained
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Lecture: Marcus Aurelius and the Stoics
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The Meditations - Online
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Roman Emperor, A.D. 161-180, born at Rome, 26 April, 121; died 17 March, 180. His father died while Marcus was yet a boy, and he was adopted by his grandfather, Annius Verus. In the first pages of his "Meditations" (I, i-xvii) he has left us an account, unique in Antiquity, of his education by near relatives and by tutors of distinction; diligence, gratitude and hardiness seem to have been its chief characteristics.
From his earliest years he enjoyed the friendship and patronage on the Emperor Hadrian, who bestowed on him the honour of the equestrian order when he was only six years old, made him a member of the Salian priesthood at eight, and compelled Antoninus Pius immediately after his own adoption to adopt as sons and heirs both the young Marcus and Ceionius Commodus, known later as the Emperor Lucius Verus. In honour of his adopted father he changed his name from M. Julius Aurelius Verus to M. Aurelius Antoninus. By the will of Hadrian he espoused Faustina, the daughter of Antoninus Pius. He was raised to the consularship in 140, and in 147 received the "tribunician power".
His Reign (161-180)
His co-reign with Lucius Verus (161-169). In all the later years of the life of Antoninus Pius, Marcus was his constant companion and adviser. On the death of the former (7 March, 161) Marcus was immediately acknowledged as emperor by the Senate. Acting entirely on his own initiative he at once promoted his adopted brother Lucius Verus to the position of colleague, with equal rights as emperor.
With the accession of Marcus, the great Pax Romana that made the era of the Antonines the happiest in the annals of Rome, and perhaps of mankind, came to an end, and with his reign the glory of the old Rome vanished. Younger peoples, untainted by the vices of civilization, and knowing nothing of the inanition which comes from overefinement and over-indulgence, were preparing to struggle for the lead in the direction of human destiny. Marcus was scarcely seated on the throne when the Picts commenced to threaten in Britain the recently erected Wall of Antoninus. The Chatti and Chauci attempted to cross the Rhine and the upper reaches of the Danube. These attacks were easily repelled.
Not so with the outbreak in the Orient, which commenced in 161 and did not cease until 166. The destruction of an entire legion (XXII Deiotariana) at Elegeia aroused the emperors to the gravity of the situation. Lucius Verus took the command of the troops in 162 and, through the valor and skill of his lieutenants in a war known officially as the Bellum Armeniacum el Parthicum, waged over the wide area of Syria, Cappadocia, Armenia, Mesopotamia, and Media, was able to celebrate a glorious trumph in 166. For a people so long accustomed to peace as the Romans were, this war was wellnigh fatal. It taxed all their resources, and the withdrawal of the legions from the Danubian frontier gave an opportunity to the Teutonic tribes to penetrate into the rich and tempting territory. People with strange-sounding names -- the Marcomanni, Varistae, Hermanduri, Quadis, Suevi, Jazyges, Vandals -- collected along the Danube, crossed the frontiers, and became the advance-guard of the great migration known as the "Wandering of the Nations", which four centuries later culminated in the overthrow of the Western Empire. The war against these invaders commenced in 167, and in a short time had assumed such threatening proportions as to demand the presence of both emperors at the front.
After the death of Lucius Verus (169-180). Lucius Verus died in 169, and Marcus was left to carry on the war alone. His difficulties were immeasurably increased by the devastation wrought by the plague carried westward by the returning legions of Verus, by famine and earthquakes, and by inundations which destroyed the vast granaries of Rome and their contents. In the panic and terror caused by these events the people resorted to the extremes of superstition to win back the favour of the deities through whose anger it was believed these visitations were inflicted. Strange rites of expiation and sacrifice were resorted to, victims were stain by thousands, and the assistance of the gods of the Orient sought for as well as that of the gods of Rome.
The Thundering Legion incident (174). During the war with the Quadi in 174 there took place the famous incident of the Thundering Legion (Legio Fulminatrix, Fulminea, Fulminata) which has been a cause of frequent controversy between Christian and non-Christian writers. The Roman army was surrounded by enemies with no chance of escape, when a storm burst. The rain poured down in refreshing showers on the Romans, while the enemy were scattered with lighting and hail. The parched and famishing Romans received the saving drops first on their faces and parched throats, and afterwards in their helmets and shields, to refresh their horses. Marcus obtained a glorious victory as a result of this extraordinary event, and his enemies were hopelessly overthrown.
That such an event did really happen is attested both by pagan and Christian writers. The former attribute the occurrence either to magic (Dion Cassius, LXXI, 8-10) or to the prayers of the emperor (Capitolinus, "Vita Marci", XXIV; Themistius, "Orat. XV ad Theod"; Claudian, "De Sext. Cons. Hon.", V, 340 sqq.; "Sibyl. Orac.", ed. Alezandre, XII, 196 sqq. Cf. Bellori, "La Colonne Antonine", and Eckhel, "Doctrina Nummorum", III, 64). The Christian writers attributed the fact to the prayers of the Christians who were in the army (Claudius Apollinaris in Eusebius, "Hist. Eccl.", V, 5; Tertullian, "Apol.", v; ad Seap. c. iv), and soon there grew up a legend to the effect that in consequence of this miracle the emperor put a stop to the persecution of the Christians (cf. Euseb. and Tert. opp cit.). It must be conceded that the testimony of Claudius Apollinaris (see Smith and Wace, "Dict. of Christ. Biogr.", I, 132-133) is the most valuable of all that we possess, as he wrote within a few years of the event, and that all credit must be given to the prayers of the Christians, though it does not necessarily follow that we should accept the elaborate detail of the story as given by Tertullian and later writers [Allard, op. cit. infra, pp. 377, 378; Renan, "Marc-Aurèle" (6th ed., Pari 1891), XVII, pp. 273-278; P. de Smedt, "Principes de la critique hist." (1883) p. 133].
His death (180). The last years of the reign of Marcus were saddened by the appearance of a usurper, Avidius Cassius, in the Orient, and by the consciousness that the empire was to fall into unworthy hands when his son Commodus should come to the throne. Marcus died at Vindobona or Sirmium in Pannonia. The chief authorities for his life are Julius Capitolinus, "Vita Marci Antonini Philosophi" (SS. Hist. Aug. IV); Dion Cassius, "Epitome of Xiphilinos"; Herodian; Fronto, "Epistolae" and Aulus Gellius "Noctes Atticae".
General assessment. Marcus Aurelius was one of the best men of heathen Antiquity. Apropos of the Antonines the judicious Montesquieu says that, if we set aside for a moment the contemplation of the Christian verities, we can not read the life of this emperor without a softening feeling of emotion. Niebuhr calls him the noblest character of his time, and M. Martha, the historian of the Roman moralists, says that in Marcus Aurelius "the philosophy of Heathendom grows less proud, draws nearer to a Christianity which it ignored or which it despised, and is ready to fling itself into the arms of the Unknown God." On the other hand, the warm eulogies which many writers have heaped on Marcus Aurelius as a ruler and as a man seem excessive and overdrawn. It is true that the most marked trait in his character was his devotion to philosophy and letters, but it was a curse to mankind that "he was a Stoic first and then a ruler". His dilettanteism rendered him utterly unfitted for the practical affairs of a large empire in a time of stress. He was more concerned with realizing in his own life (to say the truth, a stainless one) the Stoic ideal of perfection, than he was with the pressing duties of his office.
Philosophy became a disease in his mind and cut him off from the truths of practical life. He was steeped in the grossest superstition; he surrounded himself with charlatans and magicians, and took with seriousness even the knavery of Alexander of Abonoteichos. The highest offices in the empire were sometimes conferred on his philosophic teachers, whose lectures he attended even after he became emperor. In the midst of the Parthian war he found time to keep a kind of private diary, his famous "Meditations", or twelve short books of detached thoughts and sentences in which he gave over to posterity the results of a rigorous self-examination. With the exception of a few letters discovered among the works of Fronto (M. Corn. Frontonis Reliquiae, Berlin, 1816) this history of his inner life is the only work which we have from his pen. The style is utterly without merit and distinction, apparently a matter of pride for he tells us he had learned to abstain from rhetoric, and poetry, and fine writing. Though a Stoic deeply rooted in the principles developed by Seneca and Epictetus, Aurelius cannot be said to have any consistent system of philosophy. It might be said, perhaps, in justice to this "seeker after righteousness", that his faults were the faults of his philosophy rooted in the principle that human nature naturally inclined towards evil and heeded to be constantly kept in check. Only once does he refer to Christianity (Medit., XI, iii), a spiritual regenerative force that was visibiy increasing its activity, and then only to brand the Christians with the reproach of obstinacy (parataxis), the highest social crime in the eyes of Roman authority. He seems also (ibid.) to look on Christian martyrdom as devoid of the serenity and calm that should accompany the death of the wise man.
His dealings with the Christians. In his dealings with the Christians Marcus Aurelius went a step farther than any of his predecessors. Throughout the reigns of Trajan, Hadrian, and Antoninus Pius, the procedure followed by Roman authorities in their treatment of the Christians has that outlined in Trajan's rescript to Pliny, by which it was ordered that the Christians should not be sought out; if brought before the courts, legal proof of their guilt should be forthcoming. [For the much-disputed rescript "Ad conventum Asiae" (Eus., Hist. Eccl., IV, xiii), see ANTONINUS PIUS]. It is clear that during the reign of Aurelius the comparative leniency of the legislation of Trajan gave way to a more severe temper. In Southern Gaul, at least, an imperial rescript inaugurated an entirely new and much more violent era of persecution (Eus., Hist. Eccl., V, i, 45). In Asia Minor and in Syria the blood of Christians flowed in torrents (Allard, op. cit. infra. pp. 375, 376, 388, 389). In general the recrudescence of persecution seems to have come immediately through the local action of the provincial governors impelled by the insane outcries of terrified and demoralized city mobs. If any general imperial edict was issued, it has not survived. It seems more probable that the "new decrees" mentioned by Eusebius (Hist. Eccl. IV, xx-i, 5) were local ordinances of municipal authorities or provincial governors; as to the emperor, he maintained against the Christians the existing legislation, though it has been argued that the imperial edict (Digests XLVIII, xxix, 30) against those who terrify by superstition "the fickle minds of men" was directed against the Christian society. Duchesne says (Hist. Ancienne de l'Eglise, Paris, 1906 p. 210) that for such obscure sects the emperor would not condescend to interfere with the laws of the empire. It is clear, however, from the scattered references in contemporary writings (Celsus "In Origen. Contra Celsum", VIll, 169; Melito, in Eus., "Hist. Eccl.", IV, xxvi; Athenagoras, "Legatio pro Christianis", i) that throughout the empire an active pursuit of the Christians was now undertaken. In order to encourage their numerous enemies, the ban was raised from the delatores, or "denouncers", and they were promised rewards for all cases of successful conviction. The impulse given by this legislation to an unrelenting pursuit of the followers of Christ rendered their condition so precarious that many changes in ecclesiastical organization and discipline date, at least in embryo, from this reign.
Another significant fact, pointing to the growing numbers and influence of the Christians, and the increasing distrust on the part of the imperial authorities and the cultured classes, is that an active literary propaganda, emanating from the imperial surrounding, was commenced at this period. The Cynic philosopher Crescens took part in a public disputation with St. Justin in Rome. Fronto, the precepter and bosom friend of Marcus Aurelius, denounced the followers of the new religion in a formal discourse (Min. Felix, "Octavius", cc. ix, xxxi) and the satirist Lucian of Samosata turned the shafts of his wit against them, as a party of ignorant fanatics. No better proof the tone of the period and of the widespread knowledge of Christian beliefs and practices which prevailed among the pagans is needed than the contemporary "True Word" of Celsus (see Origen), a work in which were collected all the calumnies of pagan malice and all the arguments, set forth with the skill of the trained rhetorician, which the philosophy and experience of the pagan world could muster against the new creed. The earnestness and frequency with which the Christians replied to these assaults by the apologetic works addressed directly to the emperors themselves, or to the people at large, show how keenly alive they were to the dangers arising from these literary or academic foes.
From such and so many causes it is not surprising that Christian blood flowed freely in all parts of the empire. The excited populace saw in the misery and bloodshed of the period a proof that the gods were angered by the toleration accorded to the Christians, consequently, they threw on the latter all blame for the incredible public calamities. Whether it was famine or pestilence, drought or floods, the cry was the same (Tertull., "Apologeticum", V, xli): Christianos ad leonem (Throw the Christians to the lion). The pages of the Apologists show how frequently the Christians were condemned and what penalties they had to endure, and these vague and general references are confirmed by some contemporary "Acta" of unquestionable authority, in which the harrowing scenes are described in all their gruesome details. Among them are the "Acta" of Justin and his companions who suffered at Rome (c. 165), of Carpus, Papylus, and Agathonica, who were put to death in Asia Minor, of the Scillitan Martyrs in Numidia, and the touching Letters of the Churches of Lyons and Vienne (Eus., Hist. Eccl., V, i-iv) in which is contained the description of the tortures inflicted (177) on Blandina and her companions at Lyons. Incidentally, this document throws much light on the character and extent of the persecution of the Christians in Southern Gaul, and on the share of the emperor therein. [Adapted from Catholic Encyclopedia (1907)]
Marcus Aurelius and the Stoics
Russell McNeil, PhD (Copyright 2005)
What I'd like to do here is to highlight the key features of stoicism in general with reference to Marcus Aurelius in particular. I will also look specifically at those features of Stoicism which may have influenced the development of Christianity as well as offer a caution on a potentially dangerous misapplication of the stoic approach. I ask for your indulgence somewhat on this lecture. Stoicism and Aurelius is new terrain for me, so I have chosen to rely on several secondary sources for this overview. The skeleton for my remarks I've adapted from a short overview of the main features of Stoicism by William Conneley, with the Department of Philosophy at the University of Evansville--an article you might wish to review which is available on the Internet. I have also consulted and drawn on some material from Gibbon's, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Shmuel Sambursky's Physics of the Stoics, The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and Encarta on CD-ROM. I have drawn most heavily from Marcus himself, and have let the text do the talking wherever it should.
Emperor Marcus Aurelius is an excellent representative of a tradition which has had enormous influence on Western thinking. Stoicism became one of the most important traditions in the philosophy of the Greek and later Roman world and eventually had considerable influence on the development of early Christianity.
The Roman Stoics, Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius in particular were widely read and absorbed by the Western cultural tradition. The very word 'stoic' has, in the popular sense, come to represent courage and calmness in the face of adverse and trying circumstances.
One phrase that captures a sense of Stoicism--is one attributed to the Stoic Epictetus, a former slave:
Do not seek to have events happen as you want them to, but instead want them to happen as they do happen, and your life will go well.
Several modern maxims seem to reflect stoic influence: C'est la vie, Que sera sera. Whatever happens, happens for the best.
The emergence of this philosophical perspective was influenced in part by the decline of the Greek city state and the emergence of identity with empire. Interest shifted from the grand speculative systems of classical Greece to a concern for the individual's well-being in this more complex cultural environment. Stoic thinking arose as Greece went into decline. It was developed by and applied equally to people from various cultural and social backgrounds. This cosmopolitanism is manifest in the idea that all people share in one universal spirit and should live in brotherly love. The various external differences such as rank and wealth are of no importance in the social sphere. All humans were regarded as equal.
Its founder, Zeno of Citius, a Cypriot living in Athens, who was 13 when Aristotle died, discussed philosophical ideas at the agora in the, Painted Colonnade, or porch and thus his followers came to be called Stoics or "philosophers of the porch". Like so many others, Zeno was impressed with the thought and character of Socrates. Zeno admired most in Socrates his strength of character and independence of external circumstances. From Zeno's point of view, virtue resided not in externals like fortune, wealth, honor, but in rational internal self-sufficiency.
The stoics held that all reality is material, but that matter proper, which is passive, is to be distinguished from the animating or active principle, Logos, which stoics conceived as both the divine reason and as simply a finer kind of material entity, an all-pervading breath or fire. According to them the human soul is a manifestation of the Logos. Living according to nature or reason, they held, is living in conformity with the divine order of the universe.
The foundation of Stoic ethics is the principle that good lies not in external objects, but in the state of the soul itself, in the wisdom and restraint by which a person is delivered from the passions and desires that perturb the ordinary life.
from the Republic: wisdom, courage, justice, and moderation. The major differences in stoic thinking in contrast to those of Plato and Aristotle are its rejection of "abstract" Platonic universals, its materialism, determinism, and its unique concept of nature.
There are no abstract universals, like the good, as Plato would have it. Only particular things exist. We come to know things through the impressions they make upon the soul.
Constantly regard the universe as one living being [an abstraction in a way, but less fuzzy], having one substance and one soul; and observe how all things have reference to one perception, the perception of this one living being; and how all things act with one movement; and how all things are the cooperating causes of all things which exist.
Stoic thinking was grounded in a Physics in which the individual was seen as subordinate to the law of nature or logos. The Stoics identified the active principle of reality I mentioned earlier with an idea of God. The interdependence of the active and passive principles contrasts with Christian or Judaic conceptions.
For there is one universe made up of all things, and one God who pervades all things, and one substance, and one Law, one common reason in all intelligent animals, and one truth; if indeed there is also one perfection for all animals which are of the same stock and participate in the same reason.
Unlike later Christian versions of stoic thought, Stoics seem to view God in materialistic and pantheistic terms. God has no existence distinct from nature and should not be construed as a
personal transcendent deity we've "heard" from in Genesis,
Exodus, or Job or will hear and see from in the Gospels next semester.
The Stoics were also determinists, even fatalists. Whatever happens happens necessarily. Not only is the world such that all events are determined by prior events, but the universe is a
perfect, rational whole.
Love that only which happens to thee and is spun with the thread of thy
...no man can escape his destiny...
And as the universe is made up out of all bodies to be such a body as it is, so out of all existing causes necessity (destiny) is made up to be such a cause as it is. And even those who are completely ignorant understand what I mean, for they say, It (necessity, destiny) brought this to such a person.
Whatever of the things which are not within thy power thou shalt suppose to be good for thee or evil, it must of necessity be that, if such a bad thing befall thee or the loss of such a good thing, thou wilt blame the gods, and hate men too, those who are the cause of the misfortune or the loss, or those who are suspected of being likely to be the cause; and indeed we do much injustice, because we make a difference between these things.
Knowledge of nature is useful , but as a means. Nature is not something you can shape to suit your purpose, but something you use to shape your lives by living in accord with nature's principles.
In other words, a life of virtue is a life led in accordance with nature, which is rational and perfect. This does not mean that we are powerless. Certain things are within our power while other things are not. However, it is important to understand the difference.
Every nature is contented with itself when it goes on its way well; and a rational nature goes on its way well, when in its thoughts it assents to nothing false or uncertain, and when it directs its movements to social acts only, and when it confines its desires and aversions to the things which are in its power, and when it is satisfied with everything that is assigned to it by the common nature.
What then do we have control over? Opinions are within our power.
Reverence the faculty which produces opinion. On this faculty it entirely depends whether there shall exist in thy ruling part any opinion inconsistent with nature and the constitution of the rational animal. And this faculty promises freedom from hasty judgment, and friendship towards men, and obedience to the gods.
The only thing then over which we do have absolute control is our capacity for judgment. Much of the things external to us, what others do to us or especially what they think about us, are basically beyond our control. On these Aurelius recommends an attitude of indifference and apathy.
External issues, Aurelius claims, upset us not--so much because they need to--but because of the way we choose to judge them. Death, for example, isn't such a dreadful thing in itself (as Socrates demonstrated in the Apology). It is our judgment about death that is dreadful.
But death certainly, and life, honour and dishonour, pain and pleasure, all these things equally happen to good men and bad, being things which make us neither better nor worse. Therefore they are neither good nor evil.
Death is such as generation is, a mystery of nature; a composition out of the same elements, and a decomposition into the same; and altogether not a thing of which any man should be ashamed, for it is not contrary to the nature of a reasonable animal, and not contrary to the reason of our constitution.
Do not despise death, but be well content with it, since this too is one of those things which nature wills.
Now it is in my power to let no badness be in this soul, nor desire nor any perturbation at all; but looking at all things I see what is their nature, and I use each according to its value.- Remember this power which thou hast from nature.
(Distress--getting bent out of shape--is the result of our attitudes towards external things, not the things themselves. It is absurd to get tied up in knots over externals for the same reason that it is absurd to worry about the past. The past and other people's opinions are really beyond our power, so why worry.
Socrates used to call the opinions of the many by the name of Lamiae, bugbears to frighten children.
After all, the things that really count won't change, no matter what the rabble thinks.
Will then this which has happened prevent thee from being just, magnanimous, temperate, prudent, secure against inconsiderate opinions and falsehood; will it prevent thee from having modesty, freedom, and everything else, by the presence of which man's nature obtains allthat is its own?
Pay attention to where negative opinion is really coming from. What Aurelius is saying here is, if people knock us--consider the source.
Constantly observe who those are whose approbation thou wishest to have, and what ruling principles they possess. For then thou wilt neither blame those who offend involuntarily, nor wilt thou want their approbation, if thou lookest to the sources of their opinions and appetites.
The one arena where humans really do have power is within--and this internal territory is an enormous resource--a high ground where most of our real active life occurs. Because this arena is an important and tranquil space, we may retire there in active contemplation or meditation.
It is in thy power whenever thou shalt choose to retire into thyself. For nowhere either with more quiet or more freedom from trouble does a man retire than into his own soul, particularly when he has within him such thoughts that by looking into them he is immediately in perfect tranquillity; and I affirm that tranquillity is nothing else than the good ordering of the mind. Constantly then give to thyself this retreat, and renew thyself; and let thy principles be brief and fundamental, which, as soon as thou shalt recur to them, will be sufficient to cleanse the soul completely, and to send thee back free from all discontent with the things to which thou returnest.
I think Aurelius was onto something quite useful here. Meditation can be and is a potent psychological device, as many eastern traditions and countless other less traditional
practitioners of "meditative arts" have discovered in more recent times. Internal withdrawal is sufficient to, as Aurelius says, cleanse the soul completely. This taken at face value seems to imply community is not important, insofar as deliberation or contemplation is concerned. The intellectual checking that emerges from dialogue and discourse which we've seen for example in the Platonic dialogues is missing I don't think Aurelius intend this meaning. In fact, he would argue that rational thinking does involve social component.
The intelligence of the universe is social.
The prime principle then in man's constitution is the social.
...make thy acts refer to nothing else than to a social end.
This one thing, thoughts just, and acts social, and words which never lie, and a disposition which gladly accepts all that happens, as necessary, as usual, as flowing from a principle and source of the same kind.
Stoicism and Christianity
While stoic attitudes differ from Christianity in fundamental ways (it was materialistic and pantheistic), nonetheless Christianity defined itself in an intellectual environment
pervaded by Stoic ideas.
Stoic ideas of moral virtue have been second to none in influence. Stoic ideas regarding the natural order of things and of each rational soul as a divine element provided one basis upon which later ideas of natural law were erected.
The notion of virtue as conforming to the rational order of things suggests the Christian idea of conforming one's will to divine providence.
But the motion of virtue is in none of these: it is something more divine, and advancing by a way hardly observed it goes happily on its road.
All that is from the gods is full of Providence. That which is from fortune is not separated from nature or without an interweaving and involution with the things which are ordered by Providence. From thence all things flow.
The universe is either a confusion, and a mutual involution of things, and a dispersion; or it is unity and order and providence.
Trust the future to providence, and direct the present only conformably to piety and justice.
Either there is a fatal necessity and invincible order, or a kind Providence, or a confusion without a purpose and without a director (Book IV). If then there is an invincible necessity, why dost thou resist? But if there is a Providence which allows itself to be propitiated, make thyself worthy of the help of the divinity.
Perhaps one of the strongest influences of this thinking is its suggestion that "error," sin if you will, can be repaired. If you go astray, it is within your personal power to return to the fold. Christian thinking may have assimilated this concept as redemption.
Suppose that thou hast detached thyself from the natural unity- for thou wast made by nature a part, but now thou hast cut thyself off- yet here there is this beautiful provision, that it is in thy power again to unite thyself. God has allowed this to no other part, after it has been separated and cut asunder, to come together again.
Marcus Aurelius - I should emphasize - was not a Christian. According to Gibbon he in fact despised Christians and persecuted them during his entire reign as emperor.