Exactly on this day, 1,765 years ago, in a small town in central Egypt, a father accompanied by his daughter and son entered the local temple and there, in front of assembled witnesses including at least one magistrate, offered a sacrifice to the gods on behalf of the Roman Empire and its new Emperor. This act appears to have been triggered by a campaign of enforcement to ensure that every member of the Empire participated in these sacrifices. Evidence suggests that, in June 250 C.E., an enforcement team was sent to investigate the scattered villages and towns of central Egypt. Those suspected of non-compliance were ordered to provide a certificate (libellus) of proof, signed by official witnesses, of their participation. For Christians living in this area, these were troubling times and potentially life-threatening choices lay ahead…
Sometime before June 250 C.E., a commission was sent to central Egypt to ensure compliance in the offering of proper sacrifices to the Roman gods for the well being of the new Emperor Trajan Decius, who had become emperor a year earlier. In January 250*, Decius had issued an edict that all those who were living in the empire would be required to offer appropriate sacrifices, witnessed by their local civic magistrates, for the well being of the empire. The requirement included: the offering of a sacrifice to the traditional god(s), the pouring of a liquid libation and the eating (tasting) of the sacrificial meat. Failure to participate was viewed as an offence against the state and could be punishable by death.
Uniting the Empire or Destroying Christianity?
Those suspected of not complying with the edict were compelled to show written evidence of their participation to the commission in the form of a libellus that was signed by the magistrate and witnesses stating their attendance and participation in offering the appropriate sacrifices. Williams (2012:184), taking Dionysius’ letter to Fabius (bishop of Antioch) of Christians being called to account in Alexandria (in Eusebius’ Hist Eccl. 6.41:11), suggests that census records could have been used to monitor and maintain compliance. Jews would have been exempt from this edict (as Judaism was named on the list of permitted religions; religio licita). However, although we have no evidence that they were ever specifically targeted, Christians would have been among those who were expected to comply. Dionysius describes how Alexandrian Christians who held public office were compelled and even physically dragged to make these “impure and unholy sacrifices.” He also notes how large numbers would gather and heap mockery on those Christians that did offer these sacrifices (Eusebius Hist Eccl. 6.41:9-13). Even though, as Williams (2012:183) and Horsely (1982:183) argue, some Christians perceived Decius’ edict as an attempt to eradicate their faith, it must be noted that none of the surviving libelli (plural of libellus) – we have around 47 of them – make any reference to a requirement for a
declaration of renunciation of any particular religion (contra Pliny the Younger’s letter to Trajan c.112 C.E. concerning Christianity). Rather than being an attempt to abolish particular religions, it is thought that Decius was trying to establish an empire-wide religious practice (rather than religion) in order to create a sense of unity and social cohesion.**
‘It Has Always Been My Custom…’
On the 26th June at the Egyptian village of Alexander’s Island, 72 year old Aurelius Diogenes, known by the scar over his right eye, was issued with the certificate of having sacrificed to the gods. 12 days before (on 14th June 250) another certificate (P.Oxy iv.658) was issued to a father (perhaps widowed) and his children:To the Superintendents of offerings and sacrifices at the city from Aurelius [….]thion, son of Theodorus and Pantonymis, of the said city. It has always been my custom to make sacrifices and libations to the gods and now also I have, in your presence, in accordance with the command, poured libations, sacrificed and tasted the offerings, together with my son Aurelius Dioscorus and my daughter Aurelia Lias. I therefore request you to certify my statement. The 1st year of the Emperor Caesar Gaius Messius Quintus Trajanus Decius Pius Felix Augustus, Pauni 20 (June 14th).
Translation following Grenfell and Hunt (1904)
On the same day, another libellus (P. Ryl. 12) was issued for Aurelia Demos (without father – possibly illegitmate) in the quarter of Helleneum. As she was illiterate the statement was written by her husband Aurelius Irenaeus.
One week later (June 21st), another women, Bellias, accompanied by her daughter Kapinis, offered the statutory sacrifices in the village of Theadelphia. The sacrifice was witnessed by two attending officials, Serenus and Hermas. The large lettering of Hermas’ untutored hand (reminiscent of Paul’s reference to his handwriting; Gal 6:11) can clearly be seen on the certificate (P. Mich. inv. 263), pictured right and also here with Arthur Verhoogt’s notes (scroll down to pp.10-11).
Of the four surviving copies of libelli found at Oxyrhynchus Grenfell and Hunt refer to two more that are associated with the neighbouring town/city of Fayûm. They all appear to share a number of similarities suggesting that they cohere to a standard (perhaps even nation-wide) form. Grenfell and Hunt (1904:50) also note that the libelli are evidence that, as we have seen, women were also included in the Decian Edict, observing that other examples also include references to women and the naming of wives. This throws interesting light on the place of women within the the religious and state institutions. P.Oxy xii. 1464 even appears to suggest that sacrifices could be made in proxy of others.
Other libelli (also from the Egypt) include notification of sacrifices made by an eleven year old boy, Aunes, identifiable by “a scar on my right elbow” on the 4th June 250 (Horsley, 1982:180-181) and Aurelia Ammonus, daughter of Mystus and pagan priestess of the crocodile god Petesouchos (Knipfing, 1987:214).
To Sacrifice or Not to Sacrifice?
Although failure to comply was punishable by death, it is unknown how rigorously checks were made concerning the ownership of these certificates. Nevertheless, the edict was taken seriously, with a number of Christian leaders refusing to comply and subsequently being executed. Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage, famously went into hiding – an act viewed by other church leaders as cowardice. Moreover, Frend (1984) notes that, at Carthage, so many Christians sought libelli that the authorities were overwhelmed and were told to return the next day!
Images of the Oxyrhnchus libelli are copyright to the Egyptian Exploration Society. However, a good quality image of P.Oxy. LVII 3929 can be found here.
* Horsley argues that it could be as early as December 249 C.E. See: Horsley, 1982:183
** For those arguing that the Decian persecution did have (at least a partially) an anti-Christian sentiment, see Brent’s discussion: 2010: 123-143, partic. 130-131
Brent, A. (2010) Cyprian and Roman Carthage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Frend, W.H.C. (1984) The Rise of Christianity. Minneapolis: Fortress Press
Grenfell, B.P. and Hunt, A.S. (1904) The Oxyrhynchus Papyri Part IV. London: Egyptian Exploration Society.
Horsley, G.H.R. (1982) New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity: A Review of the Greek Inscriptions and Papyri Published in 1977. Vol 2. Northride: Macquarie University.
Knipfing, J.R. (1987) ‘Libelli of the Persecution of Decius 250′. In. Stevenson, J. and Frend, W.H.C. (eds.) A New Eusebius: Documents Illustrating the History of the Church to AD 337. (1987) London: SPCK.
Williams, T.B. (2012) Persecution in 1 Peter: Differentiating and Contextualizing Early Christian Suffering. Leiden: Brill.