The time is the early morning of an April day in the year of Our Lord 112. So early is it that the dawn has scarcely yet begun to show in the eastern sky. The place is a burial-ground in the outskirts of Nicæa, one of the chief towns of the Roman province of Bithynia. We must imagine an oblong building, about sixty feet in length and forty in breadth. The roof is arched, and at the highest point, perhaps twenty feet from the ground. The further end from the door is semicircular, like what is called an apse in church architecture. There are four windows in each of the side walls; these, however are not glazed, but furnished with wooden blinds, which can be opened or shut as the weather serves. The building is commonly lighted with lamps, six of which hang from the roof. It has little ornament about it; the floor is tessellated, but the work is rough; the little cubes of which the pattern is made are of baked clay, not stone or marble, which are more expensive materials; and the patterns themselves are rude and carelessly worked. The walls are of rough stone, plastered and colour-washed. The semicircular end only is hung, to a distance of about six feet from the ground, with purple curtains.
Such was a Christian church in the early part of the second century.
It must not be supposed that even this simple building had been erected for its own use by the Christian community. Even if it could have found the means to do so, it would not have ventured so to attract public attention. For the Christian faith was not one of the religions which were sanctioned by the State; and it existed only by sufferance, or rather, we might even say, by stealth.
This meeting-house of the Christians of Nicæa was really the club-house of the wool-combers of that city. The wool-combers' guild or company had, for some reason, passed to other places. Old members had died, and few or no new members had been admitted. Much of its property had been lost by the dishonesty of a treasurer. Finally the few surviving members had been glad to let the building to persons who were acting for the Christian community. No questions were asked as to the purpose for which it was to be used; but, as two or three out of the half-dozen of surviving wool-combers were Christians, it was well understood what this purpose was. It would have been, by the way, more exact to say "a burial club." This was the object for which it had been founded. Its social meetings had been funeral feasts; hence its situation in the near neighbourhood of a cemetery. This made it particularly suitable for meetings of the Christians. Assemblies held before dawn—for this was the custom—and close to a burial-ground, would be little likely to be observed.
The congregation may have numbered one hundred persons, of whom at least two-thirds were men. There was a division between the sexes—that is to say, the men occupied all the seats (benches of the plainest kind) on one side of the building, and the front half of those on the other. It was easy to see that, with a very few exceptions, they were of humble rank. Many, indeed, were slaves. These wore frocks reaching down to the knees, cut square at the neck, and for the convenience of leaving the working arm free, having one sleeve only. These frocks were made of coarse black or brown serge, trimmed at the bottom with sheepskin. Two or three were sailors, clad in garments so coarse as almost to look like mats. Among the few worshippers of superior station was an aged man, who wore a dress then rarely seen, the Roman toga. The narrow purple stripe with which it was edged, and the gold ring which he wore on the forefinger of his left hand, showed that he was a knight. His order included, as is well known, the chief capitalists of Rome, and, among other speculations, was accustomed to farm the taxes. Titus Antistius—this was the old man's name—had been the agent for this purpose in Bithynia, but he had for some time retired from the occupation. His age, his blameless character, and the wealth which he dispensed with a liberal hand, helped, together with his rank, to make him the principal character in the Christian community of Nicæa. He sat on a cushioned chair, but the privilege had been conceded to him quite as much on account of his age and infirmity as of his social position.
The only other member of the congregation whom it was necessary to mention was an elderly man who sat immediately behind Antistius. His dress, of plain but good material, showed that he belonged to the middle class. His name was Caius Verus.
The semicircular end of the building was reserved for the clergy, of whom three were present. They wore the usual dress of the free citizen of the time, a sleeved tunic, with a cape over the shoulders that reached to the waist. The only thing that distinguished them from the congregation was that their dress was wholly white. One of the three was an old man; his two colleagues were middle-aged. The three sat facing the people, with a plain table used for the Holy Supper in front of them. On either side of the apse, as we may call it, on the line which divided it from the main body of the building, were two reading desks. On each a volume was laid. One of these volumes contained the Old Testament, in the Greek version of the Septuagint, the other the New.
The minister left his seat behind the Table, and advanced to address the people. It was evident that his agitation was great; indeed, it was some time before he could command his voice sufficiently to speak.
"Brothers and sisters," he said, "I have a grave and lamentable matter to lay before you. Serious charges have been brought against our brother Verus—for brother I will yet call him. It has been alleged against him that he has gambled, and that he has sacrificed to idols. Caius Verus," he went on, "answer as one who stands in the presence of God and His angels. Do you know the house of the merchant Sosicles?"
Verus stood up in his place. Whatever he may have felt about the truth of the charges and the likelihood of their being proved, he did not lose his confident air. He had stood not once or twice only in his life in positions of greater peril than this, and he would not allow himself to be terrified now.
"I know it," said the accused, "as far as a man may know a house which he enters only for purposes of business. I have had dealings with Sosicles on account of the Church, as the brethren know. He is a heathen, but a man of substance and credit; and the moneys of the Church have increased in his hand."
"It is true," said the minister; "and I have often wished that it could be otherwise. But the holy Apostle Paul tells us that if we would have no dealings with such men, we must needs go out of the world. But you affirm that you have not companied with him as with a friend?"
"I affirm it."
"Cleon, come forth!" said the minister to a young man who was sitting on one of the back benches.
Cleon was a slave from the highlands of Phrygia—not a Greek, but with the tinge of Greek manners, which had reached by this time to all but the most inaccessible parts of Lesser Asia. He was a new-comer. Verus scanned his face narrowly, but apparently without any result.
"Tell your story," said the minister; "and speak without any fear of man."
Cleon went on in somewhat broken Greek. It is a month since I came into the possession of the merchant Sosicles. He bought me of the heir of the widow Areté, of Smyrna. She had provided in her will that I should be free; but her heir disputed it, and the Proconsul gave judgment against me." The poor lad choked down a sob as he said this, and a thrill of sympathy ran through his audience. "Sosicles knew that I was a Christian, and took two hundred drachmæ from the price for that reason. I heard him say that Christians had scruples and were obstinate. I worked chiefly in the garden; but about a week since I had to take the place of Lycus, the cup-bearer. The master had flogged him so severely for stealing a flagon of Chian wine that he could not stand. When I came into the dining-chamber the dishes had been removed. I mixed the first bowl, and set it on the table before Sosicles. I filled the cups out of it. Sosicles poured out a libation. 'To Apollo and Aphrodite,' he said. I filled the other cups. There were eight guests in all. They all said the same words, excepting Verus, who lay on the host's right hand. I observed that he drank without speaking. When I saw this, I thought to myself that he must be a Christian; and then I remembered that I had seen him here. The drinking went on. I filled the cups many times. Towards the end of the first watch, Sosicles, who by this time was, as I should judge, half-tipsy, poured out a libation to Hermes. He said to Verus: 'This toast you shall not refuse. For Apollo and his harp you care not; no, nor for Aphrodite with her girdle of love; but Hermes, with his money-bags, is your true god.' Verus laughed, and said nothing. Then Sosicles grew angry. I had heard that he was apt to be quarrelsome in his cups. 'By Hercules,' he said, 'you shall drink it! I will have no dealings with atheists. Drink it, or we close our accounts.' Verus tried to put him off; but it was of no use—Sosicles only grew the more furious. At last I heard Verus mutter the words. About the middle of the second watch I came in again. Some of the guests had gone away; others were asleep. My master and Verus were playing at dice. Each had a pile of money before him. I watched them for a time, and it seemed to me that my master scarcely knew what he was doing. About half an hour afterwards Verus went home. I noticed that he had a bag of money with him. It seemed heavy. He was quite sober."
Self-possessed as he was, the accused could not quite hide the dismay with which he listened to this narrative. He had not noticed the new cup-bearer at Sosicles' entertainment. He had often heard his host say that he would have no Christian slaves: they were troublesome, and made difficulties about doing what they were told. Accordingly, he had made sure that he was safe. He would gladly have escaped saying the idolatrous words. His Christian belief, without being sincere, was yet strong enough to make him shrink from committing so manifest an offence against it. Of love for Christ he had nothing; but he certainly feared Him a great deal more than he feared Hermes. Still, when he came to balance his scruples against the present loss of breaking with his host, they were found the lighter of the two. So he had come to speak the words; but he had followed them up with a sentence muttered under his breath: "Who, for all that, is a false demon." With this he had salved his conscience, which by this time had come to heal of its wounds with a dangerous ease.
Now he rapidly reviewed his position, and thought that he saw a way of escape. He spoke with an appearance of moderation and candour that did credit to his power of acting.
"I have a fault to confess, but it is not the grievous sin of which Cleon accuses me. It is true that I was at Sosicles' banquet. I repent me of having concealed this from the brethren. But it is not true that I spoke the blasphemous words. What I said was a colourable imitation of them, intended to appease the unreasonable rage of a tipsy man. Who knows what trouble might have arisen—not to me only, but to the whole community—if I had angered him? As for the dice-playing, I played, indeed; but I played to humour him. I so contrived it that he won back the greater part of what he had lost. If I gained anything, I gave the whole of it to the poor. As for the bag of money which Cleon saw me carry away, it was given to me in payment of an account. These things I confess, because I would not hide any thing from my brethren, and desire to make any amends that they may judge to be fitting. Yet there is something that I would urge. Does not the holy Apostle command that an accusation be not believed against an elder except from two or three witnesses? If I am not an elder, yet the Church has put me in a place of trust. Were I standing on my trial before the unbeliever, would he condemn me on the testimony of a single slave?"
"Take heed what you say," interrupted the minister. "In this house there is neither bond nor free."
"It is so," said Verus. "I spoke after the fashion of the world. But who is this young man? Is he not a stranger, known to you only by a letter which he brought from the elders of Smyrna? Can you condemn me for aught beyond that which I have myself willingly owned on his single testimony?"
He looked round on the congregation as he spoke, and saw that his appeal had not been without its effect. It was true that, as the minister had said, all in that house were equal; but the difference between slave and free man was too deeply ingrained into human nature in those days to be easily forgotten. And no one felt it more than the slaves themselves. It was they who would have been most shocked to see a respectable merchant found guilty on the single evidence of one of their own class. A murmur of approval ran round the congregation; and when the minister put the question, though some did not vote either way, the general voice was for acquittal.
Before the minister could speak, the old knight rose in his place.