Catholics and the Military in the Age of Catholic Rome (300 - 500 A.D.)


Catholics in the Military
---The Thundering Legion

The Wars of Catholic Rome
---Constantine versus Licinius
---Against the Barbarians
---Against the Persians
---Theodosius the Younger
---Against the Donatists

The Fathers of Catholic Rome on Just War
---The Council of Arles on the Military
---Adamantius on Just War
---Eusebius of Caesarea on Just War
---St. Lactantius on Just War
---St. Athanasius on Just War
---St. Basil the Great on Just War
---St. Gregory Nazianzen on Just War
---St. Ambrose on Just War
---St. Augustine on Just War

Catholics in the Military

The Thundering Legion

St. Basil of Caesarea - “Having considered the climate of that land, for it was bleak, and the season of year, for it was winter, [the governor] observed that during the nighttime the chill attained its highest intensity, and moreover that a northerly wind then blew: therefore he gave the command that [the Christian soldiers] all [should] be left naked in the open air in the midst of the city, and thus being frozen, they should die.” (Homily on the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste, given in about 373 A.D.)

The Thundering Legion was martyred by Emperor Licinius in about 316 A.D. I believe their legion was connected through time to the regiment of the same name that was originally praised by Emperor Marcus Aurelius. These men were known to be valiant warriors on the battlefield. St. Basil reports them as encouraging each other with the following words: “How many of our companions in arms fell on the battle front, preserving their loyalty to a corruptible king? Is it possible that we should fail to sacrifice our lives in fidelity to the True King?” (ibid.) The governor who executed them mentioned that they were customarily “distinguished in valor during battle.” (ibid.) From these indications it appears that Christians were true warriors in the Roman armies, and not pacifists.

The Wars of Catholic Rome

Constantine versus Licinius

Eusebius - “[Licinius] determined to raise a general persecution of the Christians: and he would have accomplished his purpose...had not He who defends His own anticipated the coming evil, and by His special guidance conducted His servant Constantine to this part of the empire... He took with him also the priests of God, feeling well assured that now, if ever, he stood in need of the efficacy of prayer, and thinking it right that they should constantly be near and about his person, as most trusty guardians of the soul. ... [The] enemy soon fled before his victorious troops. And the emperor perceiving this, whenever he saw any part of his forces hard pressed, gave orders that the [image of the Cross] should be moved in that direction, like some triumphant charm against disasters: at which the combatants were divinely inspired, as it were, with fresh strength and courage, and immediate victory was the result.” (Life of Constantine Book 2 Chapters 2, 4, 7)

Against the Barbarians

~378 A.D. - St. Ambrose - “Your sacred Majesty, being about to go forth to war, requires of me a book, expounding the Faith, since your Majesty knows that victories are gained more by faith in the commander, than by valour in the soldiers. ... I must no further detain your Majesty, in this season of preparation for war, and the achievement of victory over the Barbarians. Go forth, sheltered, indeed, under the shield of faith, and girt with the sword of the Spirit; go forth to the victory.” (On the Christian Faith Book 1 Prologue, Book 2 Chapter 16)

Against the Persians

350 A.D. - St. Cyril of Jerusalem - “ 'And you shall hear of wars and rumours of wars.' Is there then at this time war between Persians and Romans for Mesopotamia, or no? Does nation rise up against nation and kingdom against kingdom, or no? ... I fear these wars of the nations; I fear the schisms of the Churches; I fear the mutual hatred of the brethren. But enough on this subject.” (Catechetical Lecture 15 Paragraphs 6, 18)

Theodosius the Younger

“[King] Vararanes [of Persia]... persecuted the Christians there with rigor...[who] therefore on account of the oppression [were] obliged to desert their country and seek refuge among the Romans, entreating them not to suffer them to be completely extirpated. Atticus the bishop [of Constantinople] received these suppliants with great benignity...[and] made the emperor Theodosius acquainted with the facts. ... [The] Persian king immediately sent an embassy to demand the fugitives. But the Romans were by no means disposed to deliver them up; not only as desirous of defending their suppliants, but also because they were ready to do anything for the sake of the Christian religion. For which reason they chose rather to renew the war with the Persians, than to suffer the Christians to be miserably destroyed. The league was accordingly broken, and a fierce war followed.” (Socrates Scholasticus's Church History Book 7 Chapter 18)

Against the Donatists

416 A.D. - St. Augustine - “[A] law had [recently] been published, that the heresy of the Donatists, being [very] savage...should for the future be prevented not only from being violent, but from existing with impunity at all; but yet no capital punishment was imposed upon it...but a pecuniary fine was ordained, and sentence of exile was pronounced against their bishops or ministers. ... [A]ssistance [was sought], therefore, from the Christian emperor...with the view of defending the Church entrusted to his charge. ... [For] war is waged against [the Church] by [the Donatists]...[and some of them] are lost [and] perish by a death which they brought upon themselves...” (Letter to Count Boniface Chapters 7-8 Paragraphs 26-28, 32)

And: “[After] the great masses of the people had been received by the true mother with rejoicing into her bosom, there remained outside cruel crowds, persevering with unhappy animosity in that madness. ... [T]hey assert...that we constrain them...[because] we wished to gain possession of their property...[but instead] let them rather cease themselves to covet [our churches] while they remain outside, and so let them enter within the bond of unity, that we may all alike administer, not only the property which they [stole from us], but also with it what is asserted to be ours.” (ibid. Chapters 7 & 9 Paragraphs 30 & 35-36)

The Fathers of Catholic Rome on Just War

The Council of Arles on the Military

~314 A.D. - The Council of Arles - “Those who throw down their arms in time of peace are to be separated from the [Church].” (Text - Canon 3)

Adamantius on Just War

~300 A.D. - Adamantius - “[The Old Testament] is not contrary [to the New Testament], but the circumstances are different: in the one instance, some were sent from Jerusalem by Christ, commissioned to preach peace; in [the Book of Exodus] certain people were driven out of Egypt by their own servants. [The Egyptians], since they had chosen war, had necessarily to be destroyed by war; even the Gospel recognizes the right of retaliation and the slaying of evil men. Thus it says, 'The lord of that evil servant will come on a day when he knows not, and in an hour when he is not expecting, and will cut him in two and will assign him a place among the unbelieving' [Luke 12:46]. Hence it is right to wage a just war against those who go to war unjustly.” (Dialogue on the True Faith Section 1 Chapter 10)

Eusebius of Caesarea on Just War

319 A.D. - Eusebius - “[The way of life] permits men to join in pure nuptials and to produce children, to undertake government, to give orders to soldiers fighting for right; it allows them to have minds for farming, for trade, and the other more secular interests as well as for religion…[for] all men, whether Greeks or barbarians, have their part in the coming of salvation, and profit by the teaching of the Gospel.” (Proof of the Gospel Book I Chapter 8)

St. Lactantius on Just War

~320 A.D. - St. Lactantius - “[The passions] are not evil of themselves, since God has reasonably implanted them in us; but inasmuch as they are plainly good by nature—for they are given us for the protection of life—they become evil by their evil use. And as bravery, if you fight in defence of your country, is a good, if against your country, is an evil, so the passions, if you employ them to good purposes, will be virtues, if to evil uses, they will be called vices.” (Epitome of the Divine Institutes Chapter 61)

St. Athanasius on Just War

~354 A.D. - “[It] is not right to kill, yet in war it is lawful and praiseworthy to destroy the enemy; accordingly not only are they who have distinguished themselves in the field held worthy of great honours, but monuments are put up proclaiming their achievements. So that the same act is at one time and under some circumstances unlawful, while under others, and at the right time, it is lawful and permissible.” (Letter 48)

St. Basil the Great on Just War

“[Killing] in war is not reckoned by our Fathers as [killing]; I presume [they wished] to make concession to men fighting on behalf of chastity and true religion. Perhaps, however, it is well to counsel that those whose hands are not clean only abstain from communion for three years.” (Letter 188 Canon 13)

St. Gregory Nazianzen on Just War

“[B]etter is a laudable war than a peace which severs a man from God: and therefore it is that the Spirit arms the gentle warrior, as one who is able to wage war in a good cause. ... But at the present time there are some who go to war even about small matters and to no purpose, and, with great ignorance and audacity, accept, as an associate in their ill-doing, anyone whoever he may be.” (Oration 2 Paragraphs 82-83)

St. Ambrose on Just War

“[In] matters of war one ought to see whether the war is just or unjust. ... David never waged war unless he was driven to it. Thus prudence was combined in him with fortitude in the battle. ... [And] he never entered on a war without seeking counsel of the Lord.” (On the Duties of the Clergy Book 1 Chapter 35)

“For courage, which in war preserves one's country from the barbarians, or at home defends the weak, or comrades from robbers, is full of justice. ... [For] the law of courage [is not] exercised in causing, but in driving away all harm.” (On the Duties of the Clergy Book 1 Chapters 27, 36)

“How great a thing justice is... It must even be preserved in all dealings with enemies. For instance, if the day or the spot for a battle has been agreed upon with them, it would be considered an act against justice to occupy the spot beforehand, or to anticipate the time. ... It is clear from this that faith and justice should be observed even in war; and that it could not but be a disgraceful thing if faith were violated.” (ibid Chapter 29)

“Joshua did not attack the Gibeonites, who had tried the people of our fathers with guile rather than with war, but punished them by laying on them a law of bondage. [Joshua 9] Elisha again would not allow the king of Israel to slay the Syrians when he wished to do so. He had brought them into the city, when they were besieging him, after he had struck them with instantaneous blindness, so that they could not see where they were going. For he said: 'You shall not smite those whom you have not taken captive with your spear and with your sword. Set before them bread and water, that they may eat and drink and return and go to their own home.' Incited by their kind treatment they should show forth to the world the kindness they had received. 'Thus' (we read) 'there came no more the bands of Syria into the land of Israel.' ” (ibid Chapter 29)

St. Augustine on Just War

“A great deal depends on the causes for which men undertake wars, and on the authority they have for doing so; for the natural order which seeks the peace of mankind, ordains that the monarch should have the power of undertaking war if he thinks it advisable, and that the soldiers should perform their military duties in behalf of the peace and safety of the community.” (Contra Faustum Book 22 Paragraph 75)

“[O]bviously the Romans have a plausible defence for undertaking and carrying on such disastrous wars—to wit, that the pressure of their enemies forced them to resist, so that they were compelled to fight, not by any greed of human applause, but by the necessity of protecting life and liberty. Well, let that pass.” (City of God Book 3 Chapter 10)

“Just wars are customarily defined as those which avenge injustices, if a nation or state that is to be attacked has neglected to punish transgressions by its side, or to return what has been unjustly taken away.” (Quaest. Hept. 6.10)

“[In] some cases it is plainly the will of God that [a soldier] should fight, and in others, where this is not so plain, it may be an unrighteous command on the part of the king, while the soldier is innocent, because his position makes obedience a duty.” (Contra Faustum Book 22 Paragraph 75)

“[W]hen faith is pledged, it is to be kept even with the enemy against whom the war is waged, how much more with the friend for whom the battle is fought! Peace should be the object of your desire; war should be waged only as a necessity, and waged only that God may by it deliver men from the necessity and preserve them in peace.” (Letter 189 Paragraph 6)

“[Ambushing an enemy] is not an unjust thing to do for those who are waging a just war. So a just man should think of nothing specially in these matters except undertaking a just war, if he is allowed to wage war, for not everyone is allowed. But when he has undertaken a just war, it makes no difference to its justice whether he wins by an open fight or by ambush.” (Quaest. Hept. 6.10)

“But, say they, the wise man will wage just wars. As if he would not all the rather lament the necessity of just wars, if he remembers that he is a man; for if they were not just he would not wage them, and would therefore be delivered from all wars. For it is the wrongdoing of the opposing party which compels the wise man to wage just wars.” (City of God Book 19 Chapter 7)

“The real evils in war are love of violence, revengeful cruelty, fierce and implacable enmity, wild resistance, and the lust of power, and such like; and it is generally to punish these things, when force is required to inflict the punishment, that, in obedience to God or some lawful authority, good men undertake wars.” (Contra Faustum Book 22 Paragraph 74)

On restraining violence even in war: