The Governor's advisers did their best to deepen the adverse impression made upon his mind by the frank admission of the Elder. The philosophical Tacitus was especially urgent in his advice that this "execrable superstition," as he called it, should be rooted out. With others of the more thoughtful Roman statesmen, he saw quite plainly that this new faith was really the enemy of the old system of the Empire, and would destroy it if it were not itself destroyed. It was generally the best Emperors who were the persecutors of the Church. A weak tyrant might happen to indulge in some outbreak of caprice or cruelty; but the steady, systematic hostility—the hostility that was really dangerous—came from vigorous rulers: from such men as Aurelius, and Decius, and Diocletian. Tacitus accordingly was, even vehemently, on the side of severity; and Pliny, who always leaned on the stronger character of his friend, resolved to follow his advice.
Something like a reign of terror followed in Nicæa and the neighbourhood. A regular inquisition was made of all who were known or suspected to be Christians. The informers (who, as we know, had already been at work) became more busy than ever. Long lists of accused persons were drawn up, and, as usual at such times, private spite and malice found their opportunity. A jealous lover put down the name of a rival on the list, and a debtor thought it a good way of ridding himself of a troublesome creditor. As lists were received even without being signed, or with signatures about which no inquiry was made, scarcely any one could consider himself safe.
It was a formidable array of prisoners that was gathered on the day of the adjourned trial in the public hall of Nicæa, no room in the Governor's palace being sufficiently large to receive them. On this occasion all spectators were excluded, and the approaches to the hall were strongly guarded with troops. Within, the arrangements for the trial were much the same as before, except that an officer of the local military force sat below the bench occupied by the Governor and his assessors, in charge of a bust of the Emperor; and that a small movable altar had been arranged in front, with a brazier full of lighted coals upon it.
Anicetus and his companions, who had been arraigned on the occasion already described, were first called to answer to their names. Their cases would, it was thought, take but little time, for they had already confessed to the fact of being Christians. The only question was, Would they adhere to that confession or retract it?
We sometimes think that all the Christians of those early times, when the profession of the faith was never a mere matter of inheritance or fashion, were true to their Master in the face of all dangers, and under the pressure of the worst tortures. But this is a delusion. Human nature was weak then, as now. Men fell away under temptation, either because they had not a firm enough grasp of the truth which they professed, or because there was some weakness—it may be, some cherished sin—in them that sapped their strength. Sometimes, one can hardly doubt, God, for his own good purposes, suffered even His faithful servants to fall away from Him for a time. St. Paul hints as much when, describing his career as a persecutor in his defence before Festus and Agrippa, he says "he compelled" the objects of his hatred "to blaspheme." And we know that some of the bitterest and fiercest controversies of the early Church concerned the treatment of the lapsi, as they were called—those who had fallen away from their profession. One would gladly draw a veil over the weakness of these unhappy creatures, but to do so would make the picture of the time less faithful.
The first prisoner called upon for his answer by the Governor was the Elder. He, at all events, did not show the faintest sign of yielding.
The Governor addressed him: "You declared when you were last brought before me that you were a Christian. Do you still abide by that declaration?"
"I do," said the old man, in an unfaltering voice.
"Are you willing to burn incense to the likeness of our sovereign lord Trajan?"
"I am not willing."
"Not when I impose upon you the duty of thus proving that you are a loyal citizen?"
"Loyal I am, nor can any man prove that I have erred in this respect; but this I refuse."
"You refuse, then, to obey the commands of the Emperor himself? Listen."
The Governor produced a parchment, from which, after kissing it, he read these words: "I enjoin on my lieutenants and governors of provinces throughout the Empire that at their discretion they demand of all who may be accused of the Christian superstition that they burn incense to my likeness, by which act they will show their respect—not indeed to me, who am no better than other men—but to the majesty of the Empire."
He then went on: "In virtue of this authority, I command that you burn incense to the divine Trajan."
"If I must choose between two masters, I cannot doubt to prefer the Master who is in heaven. I refuse to burn incense."
"You are condemned of treason out of your own mouth," said the Governor.
"Nevertheless," returned the old man, resolute, like St. Paul, in asserting all lawful rights, "nevertheless, I appeal unto Cæsar."
"The appeal is allowed," said Pliny, "though I doubt whether it will much avail you."
The next prisoner called upon to answer was the old knight Antistius. The course of questions and answers was nearly the same as that which had been already described. The courage of Antistius faltered as little as that of his teacher and spiritual guide had done. From these two the infection of courage spread to the rest. Not one of the first batch of prisoners proved weak or faithless. They were, indeed, the most zealous, the most devoted, of the community—its chiefs and leaders, and they showed themselves worthy of their place.
But when the miscellaneous multitude that had been collected on the strength of the informations sent in to the Governor came to answer for themselves, all did not meet the test as well. Some had practically ceased to belong to the Church for many years; some had been excluded from it for conduct inconsistent with their profession; others had never belonged to it except in name—some passing fancy had attracted them, but they had shrunk back from the self-denial, the discipline, the strictly temperate rule of life which had been demanded of them. These had no difficulty in performing the acts enjoined upon them by the Governor. They threw the incense on the coals that were burning in the brazier with a careless gesture, repeating indifferently as they did so the formula: "Honour and worship to the divine Trajan and to all the gods who protect the city and Empire of Rome." They were almost as indifferent when they went on to satisfy the second test imposed upon them, and to curse the name of Christ. But these careless or reckless apostates—if they are to be so called—were but few in number. Many were reluctant to perform the idolatrous acts enjoined upon them; many shrank still more from the blasphemy which they were constrained to utter. The young Phrygian slave who has been described as accusing Verus to the Church was one of those whose courage failed them in this hour of trial. His was a weak nature, which curiously exemplified the famous saying in the "Odyssey"—that he who takes from a man his freedom, takes from him also half his manhood. Perhaps a finer temper would have disdained to play the part of the informer, even though this was done neither for revenge nor gain, but simply to serve (as he thought) the cause of the Church. Whatever the cause, he had a grievous fall, which Verus, of course, watched with malignant pleasure. At first it seemed as if his courage would hold out. When he was called upon to answer, he stood erect and answered with a firm voice, though his face was deadly pale and his limb could seem to tremble.
"Are you of the people who call themselves Christians?" asked the Governor.
"I am," said the young man.
"You make that answer deliberately, and after reflection? Take time to consider."
The poor creature seemed to feel that reflection would hardly serve to confirm his resolution, and he answered at once, "I do."
"The accused has confessed his crime. Let him be removed and dealt with after the manner of slaves."
When he heard these words a terrible vision of the punishment which they implied flashed across the young man's vision. He had seen a fellow-slave crucified a few days before. It was the wretched Lycus, the cupbearer, whose place he had taken on the memorable occasion of the banquet at which Verus was present. Sosicles, his master, had found that he had been guilty of a long career of thefts, and, enraged because the property stolen was lost beyond recovery, had pitilessly ordered him to the cross. From early dawn till late in the evening—when a feeling of weariness, rather than of compassion, had made Sosicles put an end to his sufferings—he had hung in torture. I would not describe those long hours of agony, even if I could. The young Phrygian had witnessed them. His master had compelled him to be present during the greater part of the day. "Go and see what your accursed folly may bring you to. It was, you tell me, your Master's fate—this Christus whom you are mad enough to worship; and it will be yours unless you take good heed. Judge for yourself how you would like it."
Sosicles spoke out of a certain regard—selfish, indeed, but still genuine—for the young man. He was diligent, sober, honest, and it would, he thought, be a grievous pity to lose him for some hare-brained fancy; and lose him he would to a certainty if this threatened movement against the Christians should come to anything.
It seemed now as if his worldly wisdom was not to fail of its effect. The terror of that thought, the horrors of the scene—every one of which memory seemed to bring up before the young man in a moment, and that with a hideous fidelity—overpowered him. "Hold, my lord," he cried, "I have reconsidered; I will obey your Excellency's command and offer the incense."
He took the pinch of incense from the plate and threw it on the fire, muttering as he did so the prescribed formula of words.
"You are wise in time," said the Governor; "you may stand down. Take heed that you do not repeat this folly, or it will not go so easily with you."
"May I speak, my lord?" said Verus, who saw with rage and disgust that his promised revenge was slipping out of his grasp.
"Speak on," said Pliny, who loathed the man, but could not refuse his request.
"Your lordship is aware that many who do not refuse to burn incense are unwilling to curse the name of their Master, as they call Him. I submit that the more effectual test should be applied to the accused."
"Let it be so," said the Governor.
One of the clerks of the court read out a formula which the wretched young man was to repeat after him. He began—
"I, having been accused of impiety and of neglect of the ancient gods, and of following after strange superstitions, hereby curse as a malefactor and deceiver——"
He had gone so far, and had now come to the holy name. Then he halted. In an agony of fear and doubt he looked round the court. All eyes were upon him. Stern reproach was in the looks of those who had witnessed their confession and had not failed. No face wore a sterner regard than that of Rhoda. It was pale and wasted; for the shock of the torture, though this had not been carried to any grievous extent, had sorely tried her sensitive frame. But this gave a more terrible fierceness to the fire of righteous indignation which seemed almost literally to blaze from her eyes. As the young Phrygian shrank from this scorching gaze, he met the gentle, pitying, appealing look of Cleoné. The girl was not one of those who are insensible to fear. Rhoda was an enthusiast who, as we sometimes read of martyrs of the more heroic mould, would have found a positive rapture of pleasure in the pain endured for conscience' sake. Cleoné was a delicate, sensitive woman, who had a natural shrinking from pain, but yet could nerve herself to bear it. She could sympathize with the poor young Phrygian's dread. Though she had never seen a sufferer on the cross, her vivid imagination helped her to realize its agony, and she pitied more than she abhorred the weakness which made him shrink from it. That look of pity saved him.
"Ah!" he thought to himself, "that was the way in which the Master looked at Peter when he had denied Him. I have denied Him, too; but Peter found a place of repentance, and so may I."
He turned boldly to the Governor. "No! I will not curse Him who has blessed me so often. I have sinned grievously in burning incense to that idol"—and he pointed as he spoke to the image of the Emperor—"but I will not add to my sin the burden of this intolerable iniquity."
"Ah!" whispered Tacitus to the Governor, "I have always heard that the genuine Christian stops short at this."
"Let the law have its course with the accused," said the Governor.
"Ah! my friend," said Verus to himself in a savage whisper, "you will not go interfering again with a gentleman's amusements."
"A curse on the obstinate villain!" muttered Sosicles, his master; "there go twenty-five minæ as good as lost, except I can get some compensation out of the Government. What business is it of theirs what the man believes? He belongs to me."
The young Phrygian's repentance seemed to give new boldness to all that remained to be examined. There were no more cases of apostasy.
The result of the day's proceedings was the condemnation of a crowd so numerous that they Governor was fairly staggered by the difficulty of having to deal with it. A few who could plead Roman citizenship were reserved for the judgment of the Emperor; but there remained many—both free persons and slaves—with whom it was his own duty to deal. To execute them all would be to order something like a massacre. Such severity might defeat its own object, for it might cause a reaction in favor of the Christians. Pliny's caution, not to speak of his humanity, made him shrink from incurring such a risk. He resolved to consult the Emperor by letter on the course which he ought to pursue. Till the answer should arrive, the condemned were to be shut in prison. The common gaol of Nicæa was not large enough to receive so many inmates, and many of the prisoners had to be sent to private houses, whose owners were to be held responsible for their safe custody. Rhoda and Cleoné were among those who were thus disposed of. The Governor was too humane and right-feeling to allow two young women so carefully nurtured to be exposed to the horrors of a gaol. They were committed to the care of Lucilius, whom the reader will remember to have been one of the conspirators who set on foot the movement against the Christians. The man, though hard and greedy for money, had a fair character for respectability; and his wife, as the Governor happened to know, was an amiable woman—much too good for her miserable husband.