Catholics and the Military in the Age of Catholic Martyrs (100 - 300 A.D.)


Catholics in the Military
---The Thundering Legion
---The Theban Legion
---The Catholic Soldiers of Alexandria

The Fathers Under Pagan Rome on Just War
---St. Irenaeus on the Military
---St. Clement of Alexandria on Just War
---Julius Africanus on Military Theory
---Tertullian on Just War
---Origen on Just War

Catholics in the Military

The Thundering Legion

~160 A.D. - “[The Christians] began the battle, not by preparing weapons, nor arms, nor bugles; for such preparation is hateful to them, on account of the God they bear about in their conscience...[but] they prayed not only for me, but also for the whole army...[and] upon the enemies of Rome [God poured] a withering hail.” (Marcus Aurelius, Letter to the Senate on the campaign in Germany)

The Thundering Legion was a military company with at least some Catholic soldiers in its ranks. In this passage Emperor Marcus Aurelius remarks that at least some of the Catholic soldiers had conscientious objections to bearing arms. Some use this as evidence that the early Christians were pacifists, but the passage doesn't say that. The soldiers were not pacifists because they prayed for God to help the Roman combatants and defeat their opponents. A pacifist would only pray that both sides lay down their weapons. These Christians seem to have believed that the Roman armies were justified in using weapons against the enemy, but some of the Christians wouldn't bear those arms themselves.

The Theban Legion

286 A.D. - St. Maurice - “We are your soldiers, but are servants of the true God. We owe you military service and obedience; but we cannot renounce Him who is our Creator and Master, and also yours, even whilst you reject him. In all things which are not against his law we most willingly obey you, as we have done hitherto. We readily oppose all your enemies, whoever they are; but we cannot dip our hands in the blood of innocent persons. ... You command us to punish the Christians: behold we are all such.” (Speech of St. Maurice to Emperor Maximian, in St. Eucherius's Passio Acaunensium Martyrum, excerpted and translated in Butler’s Lives of the Saints)

The Theban Legion was a military company in which a large number of Catholic soldiers were martyred during the persecution by Emperor Maximian. Its leader was St. Maurice. The story of the legion's martyrdom was written by St. Eucherius of Lyon in his Passio Acaunensium Martyrum. I am not aware of a complete English translation of this work, but extracts from it appear to have been included in the Golden Legend's account of the life of St. Maurice, and that work has been translated.

Eusebius of Caesarea, though he does not mention this company specifically, reports that Christian soldiers were the first to die in the persecution begun by Diocletian, who was Maximian's co-emperor. This report also confirms the presence of Christians in the army.

~324 A.D. - Eusebius of Caesarea - “[Diocletian] did not wage war against all of us at once, but made trial at first only of those in the army. For he supposed that the others could be taken easily if he should first attack and subdue these. Thereupon many of the soldiers were seen most cheerfully embracing private life, so that they might not deny their piety toward the Creator of the universe. ... For when the commander, whoever he was, began to persecute the soldiers, separating into tribes and purging those who were enrolled in the army, giving them the choice either by obeying to receive the honor which belonged to them, or on the other hand to be deprived of it if they disobeyed the command, a great many soldiers of Christ's kingdom, without hesitation, instantly preferred the confession of him to the seeming glory and prosperity which they were enjoying.” (Eusebius Church History Book 8 Chapter 3 Paragraphs 2-3)

The Catholic Soldiers of Alexandria

~253 A.D. - St. Dionysius of Alexandria - “[A] whole quaternion of soldiers—Ammon, Zenon, Ptolemy and Ingenuus, and an old man, Theophilus, with them, were standing before the judgment seat, whilst some one was being tried for being a Christian, and when he showed signs of denying the Faith they were so provoked as they stood by, nodding their heads, and stretching out their hands and making gestures with their bodies, that they drew the general attention to themselves, and then, before any could seize them, they leapt upon the stand of their own accord, saying they were Christians, so that the Prefect and his assessors were frightened, and those who were being judged seemed to take courage over what awaited them, and their judges lost heart. So these soldiers walked in brave procession from the court and rejoiced in their witness (martyrdom), God giving them a glorious triumph.” (Letter to Fabian Paragraph 7)

And: “[A] a soldier who stood by as [the martyrs] were carried along...protested against those who insulted them...[and] was denounced and brought up [himself], to wit God’s brave warrior Besas.” “[And] after heroic conduct in the great war of piety [he] was beheaded.” (ibid. Paragraph 4)

The Fathers Under Pagan Rome on Just War

St. Irenaeus on the Military

180 A.D. - St. Irenaeus - “[The] virtue[s], [which] are laborious, glorious, and skilful, which also are approved universally as being good…[include those] connected with a maritime life, gymnastic exercises, hunting, military and kingly pursuits.” (Against Heresies Book II Chapter 32 Paragraph 2)

This paragraph is one of the earliest writings of the Church Fathers, and it records an early Christian positive evaluation of military skill. By calling military pursuits a “virtue” which is “approved universally as being good,” St. Irenaeus indicates that the Catholics in his diocese had no problem with the idea of engaging in warfare, at least theoretically, and at least under the right circumstances. This helps disprove the theory that the doctrine of just war was a late development of Christianity. It is already implicitly acknowledged as a theoretical possibility as early as St. Irenaeus, because there could be no virtue in military pursuits if there could be no just war.

St. Clement of Alexandria on Just War

195 A.D. - St. Clement of Alexandria - “[For Moses] there was just cause of hostilities [against the Egyptians]. The Hebrews came as suppliants to the Egyptians on account of famine; and they, reducing their guests to slavery, compelled them to serve them after the manner of captives, giving them no recompense.” “[Therefore,] as may be alleged is done in war, [the Israelites] thought it proper [to] exercise...the rights of conquerors...[against] their enemies, as those who have gained the day do from those who are worsted.” (Stromata Book 1 Chapter 23)

And: “Tactics belong to military command, and the ability to command an army is among the attributes of kingly rule. ... Of the kingly office one kind is divine—that which is according to God and His holy Son… And there is a second kind…[the human,] which brings to the task of government merely the high mettle of the soul; after which fashion Hercules ruled the Argives, and Alexander the Macedonians. The third kind is what aims after one thing—merely to conquer and overturn… [This attitude] is solely the result of passion, and acquires power solely for the sake of domination; while, on the other, the love of good is characteristic of a soul which uses its high spirit for noble ends.” (Stromata Book 1 Chapter 24)

And: “Sail the sea, you who are devoted to navigation, yet call the while on the heavenly Pilot. Has [saving] knowledge taken hold of you while engaged in military service? Listen to the commander, who orders what is right.” (Exhortation to the Heathen Chapter 10)

In these passages St. Clement is an early witness to the Christian tradition of just war. The pagan thinkers such as Cicero had already laid out some of the conditions of just war that can be known through reason. St. Clement appears to base his evaluation of Moses' conduct on one of these principles: that a community can rebel against a tyrant if they have no further recourse, a reasonable chance of success, and do not cause further harm by rebelling than would be endured by submitting. St. Clement doesn't go into all that detail, but by evaluating the cause of hostilities in Moses' case, he laid the groundwork for later Christians to evaluate other wars in a similar way.

In his second quote St. Clement indicates that, humanly speaking, it is not always evil to wage war. He mentions that a human government might make war either for the sake of passion or for noble ends and out of a love of good, and he gives the mythical Hercules and the real Alexander the Great as examples of the latter.

In the third quote St. Clement indicates that Christians do not need to leave the military in order to follow Christ. You can conceivably be a faithful Christian and a Roman soldier, in the mind of St. Clement. This is important for providing independent evidence that Christians were in the Roman armies during the age of Catholic martyrs, probably as a result of the fact that not all emperors persecuted Christians during this age.

Tertullian on Just War

197 A.D. - Tertullian - “We pray to the empire; for protection to the imperial house; for brave armies, a faithful senate, a virtuous people, the world at rest, whatever, as man or Caesar, an emperor would wish.” (Apology Chapter 30) And: “We sail with you and fight with you, and till the ground with you; and in like manner we unite with you in your traffickings.” (Apology Chapter 42)

This passage from Tertullian helps show that the early Catholics were not pacifists. First of all, a pacifist would not pray for brave armies to secure the empire and protect the emperor. Second, a pacifist would not fight alongside the Roman armies. But Tertullian indicates that the early Catholics did both of these things. Therefore, the acknowledged that a war could justly be waged, and they participated in them.

Julius Africanus on Military Theory

~229 A.D. - Julius Africanus - “Among all the areas of knowledge, that of war is especially valuable. ... Thus one must not only attack adversaries with an open battle; it is also necessary to combat enemies with a crowd of ruses, even the most secret. ... [For example, one could] simulat[e] a precipitous retreat and the face of the [enemy], one's camp filled with [poisoned] food.” (The Seventh Cestus Chapters 1-2. Also translated in Cesti: The Extant Fragments by William Adler)

Origen on Just War

248 A.D. - Origen - “[W]hile others are engaged in battle, [Christians] engage as the priests and ministers of God, keeping their hands pure, and wrestling in prayers to God on behalf of those who are fighting in a righteous cause, and for the king who reigns righteously, that whatever is opposed to those who act righteously may be destroyed!” (Contra Celsus Book 8 Chapter 73)

Origen, like his predecessor St. Clement, uses some of the traditional language of the just war tradition, speaking of a “just cause” for fighting in a war. His description of the prayer Christians offer gives evidence that he was no pacifist, for a pacifist would never pray that his country's enemies be destroyed by righteous armies, but only that all hostilities would cease. Note: praying that all hostilities would cease would also be a good prayer. In Catholicism, there's room for both kinds of prayer. In pacifism, there isn't.

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