Christians in the Employ of the Pagan Empire

On a recent re-reading of Eusebius’ writings about the Great Persecution and the subsequent rule of Constantine, I was struck by how he records quite a few Christians working in the army and imperial administration decades before Constantine was running the show. Sometimes, for instance, it is alleged that the pre-Constantinian church flatly opposed participation in the military. That claim (or versions of it) was always oversimplifying matters, and one can spot it right in the sources themselves.

Take Ecclesiastical History 8.4 (and I shall describe, paraphrase, quote lightly from sources in rather than en bloc for brevity in this post). Eusebius suggests that “he who has taken power”—which I take to be the devil rather than the emperor—thought the best starting place to begin an attack on the church would be the army itself, which itself is a telling remark about where Christians were known to exist in the public sphere. “Very many” faithful Christian soldiers lost their status in the process, claims Eusebius, though here and there some were also killed for their constancy. When telling the stories of the martyrs he knew most personally, Eusebius marks out one such soldier named Seleucus, in the Martyrs of Palestine 11.26. Having already accepted punishment and discharge from the army, Seleucus then faced danger again by associating with the Christians of Caesarea, which led to his death. In general, however, this particular stroke against the Christian soldiery was moderate and not especially violent, comments Eusebius dryly.

In Ecclesiastical History 8.6, Eusebius also mentions one Dorotheus and others working in the imperial palace of Nicomedia, who were probably slaves. Further down, in 8.9, he notes the hitherto respected Philoromos, who sat as an imperial judge “with status and Roman honor” in Alexandria daily escorted by soldiers. In recompense for his unyielding Christianity, the empire had Philoromos condemned and beheaded. Likewise in 8.11, Eusebius goes so far as to claim that the complete population of an entire small town in Phrygia suffered burning en masse, including the imperial accountant on site and the local town officials, all of whom were Christians. Here too Eusebius mentions Adauktos, who came from a notable Italian family and had achieved status and served in imperial magistracies; at the time of his martyrdom, he was currently serving as a financial officer or comptroller general.

Obviously, these cases don’t add up to a huge number of Christians in the employ of the emperor. In fact, for that reason, I tend to think Eusebius is not especially exaggerating the scale or severity here: these are the just the instances that had come to his attention, and he seems better informed about the particulars in some examples than in others (e.g., the nameless town in Phrygia with the anonymous officials). If one skims through, say, his Martyrs of Palestine, it is clear that Eusebius knew how to discuss the persecution in more elevated rhetoric meant to maximally impress ugly violence upon the reader. But he doesn’t seem to be doing that as much for these examples, even going out of his way to acknowledge the moderate harshness of the persecution against Christians in the army.

The overall impression is that Christians not uncommonly served the empire in various capacities. It stands to reasons that plenty of others had become confessors and martyrs without their stories reaching Eusebius, though it is hard to say how many. And presumably, other Christians either caved, found ways of dodging the persecution, or else had good fortune—which Eusebius says did happen (Ecclesiastical History 8.3). While the publication and editing process of the Ecclesiastical History has been the subject of much discussion, it is generally thought that Eusebius certainly drafted and redrafted the bulk of the text before Constantine had defeated Licinius in autumn 324 and the subsequent council at Nicaea in 325. Eusebius’ stories, in other words, did not come out of a radical paradigm shift among Christians leaders and intellectuals, as if to say, “Well, with a Christian emperor in the picture, we can all start serving in the army and the administration now.”

By extension, those Christians in the generation leading up to Constantine’s ascent appear not to have been strictly pacificist or “Anabaptist” (for lack of a more convenient term) in their politics. At risk of beating the same old drum, bits of information like this consistently underscore for me the value in studying the history of Christianity between the New Testament and, say, Augustine. Especially for modern Christians who feel alarm or simply aporia at the prospect of de-Christianization, there are helpful and sometimes surprising models to be considered in this era.


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