The young Lucilius was still hovering between life and death when the long-expected answer from the Emperor arrived at Nicæa. It was exactly the document that any one acquainted with the character of Trajan might have expected. Above all things he was a soldier, and had a soldier's regard for discipline and obedience. Where these were concerned he was inflexible.
Certain forms of worship were sanctioned by the State; all others were forbidden. Any one who adhered to these forbidden rites and refused, when called upon, to abandon them, was breaking down the established order of things, and must be punished. He might believe what he liked in his own heart—with belief the State had nothing to do—but in practice he must conform to certain rules. Refusal was an act of rebellion; the thing might be the merest trifle in itself, but the principle concerned was at the foundation of all order.
The practical application was perfectly simple. Those who had acknowledged themselves to be Christians, and persisted in the acknowledgment, were to be punished. But the offence was of such a kind that every loophole should be left by which the accused might escape, so long as the principle remained unimpaired. These were not a set of criminals whom it would be desirable to bring into the grasp of the law, by stopping every way of escape. On the contrary, ways of escape must be made easy and multiplied for them. The simple denial of any one that he belonged to the society of Christians was to be accepted. There was to be no question about the time to which the denial referred, so that it at least referred to the present. If a man affirmed, "I have ceased to be a Christian," there was to be no curious inquiry as to when his withdrawal took place.
But the most practically important direction in the Emperor's rescript referred to the anonymous informations. All proceedings founded on them were to be annulled. Roman law took no cognisance of such things; and persons accused under them were to be treated as if their names had never come before the court. The immediate result of this order was a release of a number of prisoners. Of the two Roman citizens who had appealed to Cæsar, one—the Elder, Anicetus—was sent back into the province. The Emperor had heard his cause, and condemned him. The Governor was to deal with him on the spot, where the spectacle of his punishment might act as a salutary deterrent to his followers. The old knight, Antistius, by a merciful ordering of Providence, had passed beyond the reach of his judges. On the morning of the day on which he was to appear before the tribunal of Cæsar he had been found dead in his bed.
The Governor's first duty, on the reassembling of the court, was to deal with the prisoner who had been thus remitted to him. The Elder was placed before the tribunal, and the Governor addressed him—
"Anicetus, or (as I should rather call you by the Roman name which, however unworthily, you bear) Lucius Cornelius: the Emperor, having heard you on your appeal and confirmed the sentence which was here passed upon you, has remitted you to my jurisdiction, thinking it well that you should suffer the penalty of your misdeeds in the same place wherein you have committed them. I should do no wrong were I, without further parley, to hand you over to the executioner. Nevertheless, I am persuaded that, in the great clemency of our gracious lord and Emperor, Trajan Augustus, he will approve my offering you yet another opportunity of repentance. Are you willing to renounce, now, at the last moment, this odious superstition which you have been convicted of holding, against the laws of the Senate and People of Rome?"
"For your clemency," said the Elder, in reply, "I heartily thank both Trajan Augustus and yourself, most excellent Plinius. Yet, were I to accept it on the conditions which you offer, I should be casting away that which, for my whole life, I have held most precious. That which you call an odious superstition I do verily believe to be a truth worthy of all love and honour. The laws of the Senate and People of Rome I have ever most scrupulously obeyed, and to the Emperor I have ever been faithful and loyal. But there are laws to which I am yet more bound, and a Master whom I must prefer even to Augustus himself. But these things you have heard already, nor is there any need that I should repeat them. Let me not waste your time any further, nor do you delay to give me that which I hold to be more precious than all other things—the crown of martyrdom."
The executioner was summoned into court, and took his place in front of the tribunal. The Governor then pronounced his formal sentence—
"In virtue of the power of life and death specially delegated to me in the case of the citizen Lucius Cornelius (commonly called Anicetus) by our Lord Trajan Augustus, I hereby hand over to you the body of the said Lucius Cornelius. Take him to the third milestone on the road to Nicomedia, and there strike off his head with the axe. In consideration of his blameless life, I grant to him, as a special favour, that he be neither blindfolded nor bound. Of this sentence let there be immediate execution, of which execution I require that testimony be given me before sunset this day."
The court was adjourned till the next day, when the remainder of the prisoners would be dealt with. An interval of two hours was conceded to the condemned man. This the Governor's humanity permitted him to spend with his fellow-prisoners.
Of earthly ties he had none. His wife—for in those days it was held a duty, as the Eastern Church still holds it, for a Christian minister to be a husband—had entered into her rest some two years before. His marriage had been childless, and his brothers and sisters had predeceased him. Hence he could give up the time that had been allowed him to comforting and strengthening his brethren and sisters in the faith.
To Cleon, the young Phrygian slave who had fallen, and so manfully recovered his fall, he was especially tender. The unhappy youth was overwhelmed with shame and remorse.
"I have denied Him! I have denied Him!" he would go on repeating day after day, from morning till evening, and nothing that his fellow-prisoners could urge seemed to give him any comfort.
Anicetus was one of those who were accustomed to express somewhat stern views about the sin of the lapsi (those who fell away), but this was not a case in which he could insist on them. He even felt that to do so might be to place a fatal stumbling-block in the way of an imperilled soul. If this poor wretch was left in this despairing mood, he might even fall into the more deadly sin from which he had once been rescued.
"My son," were his parting words to the unhappy Cleon, "my son, listen to me, not only as to him whom God has entrusted with the charge of your soul, but as one to whom He has given the great honour of witnessing for His truth in this place. You have sinned, but God has forgiven you, even as He forgave the blessed Peter. God pardon you; I pardon you in the name of the brethren."
He laid his hands upon the young man's head, and pronounced the solemn words of forgiveness. That finished, he gave him the kiss of peace, and so took the fallen back into the brotherhood of Christ.
We shall not have occasion to speak of the young slave again. Let it be sufficient to say that he suffered the next day the cruel death of crucifixion with an exemplary courage and patience. His agony, however, was not protracted as long as it was in the case of some sufferers, for the Governor, who had been struck with the real heroism with which he had struggled against the weakness of a timorous nature, gave instructions to the centurion in charge that death should be hastened with a spear-thrust.
To return to Anicetus. His solemn declaration of forgiveness to the penitent Phrygian was but just spoken when the presence of the executioner was announced.
"I am ready," he said to the apparitor who summoned him. Then turning to his fellow-prisoners, he stretched out his hands: "The blessing of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost be upon you. Pray for me, and for yourselves, that we may be faithful and steadfast to the end. So shall we be together in Paradise."
The procession of death moved through the city. In front was a guard of half a century of soldiers. They were armed with swords only, and wore no armour beyond their helmets. Then came the executioner, carrying his axe with the edge turned towards the condemned man, who had also a soldier fully armed on either side. The remainder of the century marched behind him. A vast concourse of all ages followed. No man was better known to the poor of the city of Nicæa, and no one certainly more beloved than Anicetus. He had fulfilled to the utmost the apostolic precept, "Do good unto all men," putting less stress, perhaps, than some of his brethren thought right, on the words that follow, "especially unto them that are of the household of faith." It was no idle curiosity, therefore, that brought this great crowd to see him die. To judge from their dress, one would have said that they came from the rabble of the city; but they followed with a silence and an order that would not have misbecome the funeral of the first citizen of the place.
At the spot appointed for the execution there was an open space of about an acre in extent. The milestone stood where four roads met, and close to it, as marking where the territory of Nicæa touched that of a neighbouring township, stood one of the statues of the god Terminus, the boundary-marker, a roughly hewn pedestal of granite, surmounted with a human bust of the rudest shaping. In old time it had been an object of reverence, and had been daily adorned with fresh garlands of flowers or evergreens, according as the season served. Two or three of these still hung from it, but they were dry and withered, and the decaying fragments of others, which no one had taken the pains to clear away, lay at the base of the pedestal; while the pedestal itself had long leaned somewhat out of the perpendicular. It was a type of the neglect into which the old worship was everywhere falling. Possibly this was the motive that made the Governor choose the spot as the place of execution.
The block was placed close to the pedestal. The soldiers drew a cordon round it, but as the ground rose somewhat on all sides, this did not shut out the view from the crowd which thronged the whole of the open space. The centurion in command had forbidden the condemned man to address the spectators, and Anicetus, always obedient to lawful commands, so that they did not trench on higher duties, did not attempt to speak. He contented himself with stretching out his hands in a mute gesture of blessing. Many of those who could see him bowed their heads in reverence, and, dangerous as it was to show anything like sympathy with the faith of the sufferer, some even fell upon their knees. All kept a silence which was almost terrible in its depth and intensity. Then, after a pause, which seemed to the strained attention of the crowd to last for hours, the executioner raised his axe and struck. It was a strong and skilful blow, nor was there any need to repeat it. The head of the martyr fell upon the ground, and the blood, spouting out in a torrent, drenched the pedestal of the god.
THE MARTYTDOM OF ANICETUS
And then followed one of those strange occurrences which we may or may not call miracles, but which are certainly signs; so full are they of meaning, and not the less truly signs because they come from causes strictly natural. The statue of the boundary-god had been leaning, as has been said, for some time out of the perpendicular, and the piety of the two townships, whose borders it marked, had not been active enough to restore it. Any one might have known that but a little impulse would be sufficient to overthrow it; and this impulse was given by the slight shock of an earthquake at the very moment when the martyr's blood spurted on the pedestal. The half-suppressed groan which had followed when the headsman's axe was seen or heard to fall was checked; first, by the sensation of terror as the spectators felt the ground reel, as it were, under their feet, and then by awe as the statue of the god was observed first to totter and then to fall.
No one in all that great assembly was so dull as not to read something of the future when this ancient landmark—symbol as it was held to be of all that was most stable—was removed, as it were, from its place by the touch of the martyr's blood. If the champions of the old faith had thought to advance their cause by that day's spectacle, they had signally failed. The "senseless earth," as the philosophers called it, had seemed to speak against them, and its voice had found its way into many hearts. Seldom has the saying been proved more true than it was that day, that "the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church."
It was an incidental result of this strange event that the friends of Anicetus were allowed, without hindrance, to take possession of his remains. Commonly the authorities took care to dispose of them otherwise. In the consternation that followed the fall of the statue this care was forgotten, and the Elder's body was quietly removed, and accorded Christian burial.