Emperor-Domitian

Alternative Facts: Domitian’s Persecution of Christians

Was Roman emperor Domitian really the great persecutor of Christians?

As I revisited a critical biography of the Roman emperor Domitian by the scholar Brian W. Jones recently,1 I was reminded that “alternative facts” and “fake news” are not just a contemporary phenomenon. On occasion ancient writers similarly tried to spin their version of the truth. Jones tackles the familiar line that Domitian, who reigned between 81 and 96 C.E., was a great persecutor of Christians. This “fact” is now standard stock in much popular writing on the book of Revelation and is even found in some scholarly tomes. In his discussion, Jones carefully rehearses how this “fact” developed.

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Ancient portrait of Roman emperor Domitian (r. 81–96 C.E.) set into a bust by Guglielmo della Porta (16th c. C.E.) at the National Archaeological Museum, Naples. Photo: Dan Diffendale/CC BY-SA 2.0.

Eusebius in his Church History (CH) provides the first reference to Domitian persecuting the church. Writing over three centuries later in the early fourth century C.E., this ancient Christian historian first quotes Melito of Sardis, who mentioned that Domitian brought slanderous accusations against Christians (CH 4.26.9). He also cites Tertullian, who claimed that Domitian was cruel like the emperor Nero (r. 54–68 C.E.), but that Domitian was more intelligent, so he ceased his cruelty and recalled the Christians he had exiled (CH 3.20.9). Eusebius also quotes Irenaeus, who claimed Domitian’s persecution consisted only of John’s banishment to Patmos and the exile of other Christians to the island of Pontia (CH 3.18.1, 5).

Despite these cautious statements by three earlier authors, Eusebius then spun his own alternative fact by claiming that Domitian, like Nero, had “stirred up persecution against us” (“anekinei diōgmon”; CH 3.17). From here the tradition was enlarged by Orosius (d. 420 C.E.), who, in his History Against the Pagans, wrote that Domitian issued edicts for a general and cruel persecution (7.10.5). Despite a lack of evidence, Jones observes that the tradition concerning Domitian’s persecution persists: “From a frail, almost non-existent basis, it gradually developed and grew large.”2 Thus the alternative facts sown by these ancient historians grew to a truism of Christian history.

No pagan writer of the time ever accused Domitian, as they had Nero, of persecuting Christians. Pliny, for example, served as a lawyer under Domitian and wrote in a letter to Trajan (r. 98–117 C.E.) that he was never present at the trial of a Christian (Letters 10.96.1). This is a strange claim for one of Domitian’s former officials if Christian persecution were so prevalent. The archaeologist Julian Bennett, who has written a biography of Trajan, also fails to mention any general persecution of Christians at this time. Domitian’s execution of Clemens has sometimes been linked to the senator’s apparent “atheism,” a term sometimes given to Christians. However, there is no “smoking gun” linking Clemens’s death to Christian persecution.3 So Jones concludes, “No convincing evidence exists for a Domitianic persecution of the Christians.”4

A related “fact” is that Domitian claimed the title Dominus et Deus (“Lord and God”). The evidence here is mixed. The poet Statius (Silvae 1.6.83–84) states that Domitian rejected the title Dominus as his predecessor Augustus (the first Roman emperor) had done. The historian Suetonius (Life of Domitian 13.2) does report that Domitian dictated a letter that began, “Our Lord and Master orders…,” but it was only his sycophantic officials who began to address him in this way. The story was again embellished by later historians to the point that Domitian is said to have ordered its use. Jones thinks the story incredible because Domitian was known for his habitual attention to theological detail in traditional Roman worship, so he would not have adopted such inflammatory divine language. After their deaths, the best that emperors could hope for was to be called Divus (Divine), not Deus (God). If Domitian were such a megalomaniac who ordered worship to himself, why haven’t any inscriptions been found using this formula? In fact, no epigraphic evidence exists attesting to Christians being forced to call him “Lord and God.”

Why is Domitian’s legacy so clouded in the ancient sources? Domitian’s assassination in 96 C.E. brought an end to the Flavian dynasty, and the dynasty founded by Nerva, the next Roman emperor, lasted into the third century C.E. Because Domitian had offended the aristocratic elite, the Senate ordered the damnation of his memory. Even though Suetonius (Domitian 8.1) stated that Domitian carefully and conscientiously administered justice, later writers such as Dio Chrysostom (67.2.4) perpetuated his damaged reputation using alternative facts.

Jones writes as a Roman historian outside of Biblical studies, but a New Testament scholar has similarly articulated this view. Leonard Thompson notes that a more critical reading of Eusebius raises doubts about a widespread persecution of Christians under Domitian. He concludes that “most modern commentators no longer accept a Domitianic persecution of Christians.”5 Some writers consider Revelation as a source for a persecution by Domitian, although John never identifies a specific emperor. If so, then Revelation would be the only ancient source pointing to such a persecution.

Over two decades since two Roman historians and a Revelation scholar have pronounced a Domitianic persecution moribund, such claims continue to circulate in articles, books and sermons. This shows how long it takes to repudiate “alternative facts” that have circulated for over 1,500 years in Christendom. Literary texts may sow alternative facts, but archaeological realia, such as inscriptions and coins, have assisted in discrediting those alleged facts. The “fake news” that Domitian instigated a severe persecution of Christians and that his claim to be “Master and God” provoked this persecution needs to be removed from our “facts” about the early church.

Notes:

  1. Brian W. Jones, The Emperor Domitian (New York: Routledge, 1992).
  2. Jones, Emperor Domitian, p. 114.
  3. Julian Bennett notes that the charge against Clemens and his family was that they had adopted Jewish religious ways. He then considers whether Judaism or Christianity is meant and opts for the latter as “more likely.” See Julian Bennett, Trajan: Optimus Princeps (London: Routledge, 1997), p. 68.
  4. Jones, Emperor Domitian, p. 117.
  5. Leonard L. Thompson, The Book of Revelation: Apocalypse and Empire (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1990), p. 16.
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Visiting Turkey: Museums of Archaeology Dazzle

Turkey museums boast mosaics, statues and more

The business of archaeology is booming these days in Turkey. For some sites, there is no longer a “season” for excavations; they continue year round. With each new discovery, this mantra is repeated: “More tourists will now visit the site.” To house all the fresh finds, new museums are being built. So I recently hit the road to see several of these.

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Statue of King Suppiluliuma in the Hatay Archaeological Museum. Photo: Mark Wilson.

While the archaeology museum in Antakya (ancient Antioch) was formerly in the city center, the new Hatay Archaeological Museum has been built north of the city past the Grotto of Saint Peter. Its displays are arranged chronologically with excellent presentations of the nearby sites of Tell Atchana and Tell Tayinat. The “Smurf-like” statue of King Suppiluliuma grabs one’s attention. The Roman period is represented with a well-preserved milestone from the period of Vespasian. Pride of place still goes to the Late Roman mosaics from the villas and bathhouses of nearby Daphne. However, their restoration has been shrouded in controversy with charges of an incompetent job. Compared to the mosaics in the other museums that I visited, the colors in these were dull and lifeless.

In Gaziantep I stopped at the Zeugma Mosaic Museum, the world’s largest mosaic museum. Although this museum is now several years old, I had only visited the old mosaic museum. Rescue excavations at Zeugma in the late 1990s on the Euphrates River brought to light outstanding mosaics from its Roman villas. These are now displayed in an attractive, well-lit fashion. I almost missed the mosaic with the iconic face of the gypsy girl, featured on all of the museum’s souvenirs. It is tucked away in its own corner room, so fortunately a guard directed me into its darkened corridor. This museum is a must-visit while in the area.

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The Zeugma Mosaic Museum in Gaziantep is the world’s largest mosaic museum. Photo: Mark Wilson.

At Şanlıurfa I was astounded by the massive new archaeology museum there. Again arranged chronologically, artifacts from the Paleolithic site of Göbekli Tepe comprise many of these displays. The dioramas depicting life at that time were visually appealing to Turkish children visiting the museum. The artifacts from Late Antiquity were especially interesting because Edessa, the city’s ancient name, was a center of Syriac culture. The dress of the figures was definitely eastern, and their inscriptions were in Syriac. I was disappointed that no displays featured the rich Jewish and Christian history of Edessa, chronicled decades ago by Judah Segal. Several years ago construction work south of the museum revealed a number of mosaics. To their credit, local officials preserved the mosaics and built a large, dome over them. Unlike the mosaics in the museums at Antakya and Gaziantep, the mosaics in Urfa’s Haleplibahçe Museum are in situ. Displayed near the exit is the Orpheus mosaic repatriated from the Dallas Museum of Fine Art.

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Mosaic depicting the Amazon queen Melanippe in Urfa’s Haleplibahçe Museum. Photo: Mark Wilson.

My visits to these super-sized new museums raised a comparison with the Ephesus Archaeology Museum that reopened earlier this year. Rather than build a new structure to house the multitudinous artifacts from Ephesus, Turkey’s most visited archaeological site, local authorities simply remodeled the old, small museum. The result is a disappointing display of familiar pieces with minimal explanation; for example, “Roman period.” Given that the Austrian Archaeological Institute has been excavating in Ephesus for over a century, it is surprising that the signage is not in German as well as in Turkish and English.

It is wonderful that the signage in these museums is now in English. But why isn’t a native English speaker brought in to proofread these? Frequent grammatical errors dotting these signs create an unnecessary annoyance. One object’s mistranslation brought a smile to my face in the museum at Urfa: “Wave Tunes.” The artifact was in a display of cooking utensils, and the Turkish phrase “Ezgi Taşı” should have been translated “Grinding Stone.”

Because of the unstable security situation along the Syrian border, few foreign tourists are visiting southeastern Turkey now. Our BAS trip to the area was cancelled two years ago. The only group that I saw was a small American one in the Gaziantep Museum. I purposely traveled by public bus between and in these cities and walked extensively in their streets. I never felt unsafe at all. Normal life continues, although many Syrian refugees can be seen in the cities. Hopefully the marvelous artifacts in these new archaeology museums will soon be seen by more than just local people.

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The Starbucks Guide to Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology

Participants on my tours buy a variety of souvenirs—olive-wood crèches in Bethlehem, ceramics in Corinth, carpets in Ephesus and parchment in Pergamum. These days, however, I usually bring home only one thing—Starbucks mugs featuring archaeological sites.

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Author Mark Wilson’s collection of Starbucks mugs featuring archeological sites. Photo: Mark Wilson

On a recent trip to Crete I visited ancient Kydonia. Walking around the historic port of modern Chania, I saw the familiar Starbucks symbol. After drinking a cup of Ethiopian blend, I spotted a lacuna in my collection—Crete. The mug depicted the Minoan palace at Knossos. On this trip I also picked up the Rhodes mug showing the Doric Temple of Athena Lindia at Lindos. Paul visited both islands on his journeys (Acts 21:1; 27:7–13).

Starbucks has no shops in either Italy or Israel, so they are unrepresented in my collection. However, Turkey, Jordan, Greece and Cyprus are amply represented.

The city mug belonging to my hometown Antalya, ancient Attalia (Acts 14:25), depicts the temple of Apollo in Side. Only six columns still stand at the temple, which is now under restoration. A second Antalya mug depicts the theater at Aspendus (see below), the best-preserved Roman theater in Turkey. With a capacity of 7,000 persons, it still holds operatic performances. The back of the mug shows the falls of the Katarrhactes mentioned by the geographer Strabo, which today cascade over 100 feet into the Mediterranean Sea. Nearby is Magydus, the seaport of Perga, where Paul arrived in Pamphylia (Acts 13:13).

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The theater at Aspendus in Antalya Province, Turkey. Photo: Mark Wilson.

The Ankara mug shows its ancient citadel with walls dating from the Hellenistic to Ottoman periods. Ancient Ancyra, Turkey’s capital today, was formerly a Galatian center before becoming the capital of the Roman province of Galatia in 25 B.C.E. The colorful mug from Bodrum (ancient Halicarnassus) displays the Castle of the Knights of St. John on the back. Built with stones from the Tomb of Mausolus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the castle now houses the noted Museum of Underwater Archaeology. Last but not least, the Turkey country mug shows the monumental heads of King Antiochus and some of the Commagenian gods standing on Mount Nemrut. This tumulus, 161 feet tall and 499 feet in diameter, was constructed in the first century B.C.E. and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Cyprus city mug shows the Greco-Roman theater at Kourion. Situated with its breath-taking view of the Mediterranean, it could seat some 3,500 spectators. The excavations there are now being led by my friend Tom Davis. A second Cyprus cup shows a rock-cut chamber from the Tombs of the Kings in Paphos, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Paul visited Paphos on his first journey (Acts 13:6).

The Jordan mug shows the Artemis temple at Gerasa (Jerash) completed during the reign of Antonius Pius. Eleven columns of the hextastyle portico still stand. Situated on a high point, the temple dominated Gerasa’s landscape.

On Thessaloniki’s city mug is its iconic structure—the White Tower. Although dating from the Ottoman period, it still reminds me of Paul’s multiple visits to the city (Acts 17:1; 20:2–3). Missing from my Greece collection, however, is the country mug depicting the tholos at Delphi and the Athens city mug showing the Parthenon. Hopefully on a future visit I can locate them.

I haven’t visited Egypt or Lebanon yet so more of the Biblical world still awaits me. Since the Starbucks mugs from these countries also feature archaeological sites, I look forward to adding them to my collection. It’s wonderful that this Seattle-based coffee vendor has put the archaeological wonders of the eastern Mediterranean on its mugs. Coffee drinkers like me get to appreciate them anew each time we take a sip.

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Destroying a Temple

The burning of the Ephesian Temple of Artemis by Herostratus

The apostle Paul, writing from Ephesus to the Christians in Corinth, warned: “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple” (1 Corinthians 3:17).

The remains of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. The magnificent structure was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Photo: Mark Wilson.

July 21 marked the anniversary of one of the most infamous destructions of a temple in history. On that night in 356 B.C.E., an Ephesian named Herostratus set out to make his mark in history. He walked to the Temple of Artemis with fire and flammable materials with the intention of burning it down.

The construction of this temple, which is one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, was sponsored in part through the benefaction of Croesus, the wealthy king of the Lydian empire. Begun around 550 B.C.E. under the direction of the Cretan architect Chersiphron and his son Metagenes, 36 of its columns were decorated with relief carvings, according to Pliny the Elder. A massive structure—it was 377 feet long and 151 feet wide, the size of a football field—it was supposedly the first Greek temple built of marble.

Herostratus must have been an unhappy man who had failed to achieve honor and status in Ephesus. So he became determined to put his name in the history books. Herostratus knew that he could not do much damage to the marble itself. However, if he could get to the wooden furnishings inside the temple, he would have a great chance of success.

Sneaking past the temple guards, Herostratus placed the rags in key places inside the naos, the inner sanctuary. He then lit each one, probably using the small flame from the olive oil lamp he would have carried. Soon fire was raging with flames climbing up the wooden beams to engulf the wooden ceiling. Even the cult statue of Artemis, made of ebony or grapewood by the noted Athenian sculptor Endoios (also spelled Endoeus), was burning. By morning all that remained was a smoldering ruin of 40-foot high columns.

The Ephesian Artemis. Ephesus Museum, Selçuk, Turkey. Photo: Mark Wilson.

Instead of fleeing the scene, Herostratus was boastful about his deed. He surrendered to the temple authorities and was imprisoned. Ephesian officials, to discourage similar acts in the future, quickly executed Herostratus and attempted to remove his name from memory by forbidding its mention under penalty of death. However, an ancient historian named Theopompus recorded Herostratus’s arson in his book Hellenics. The arsonist’s name that the Ephesians had tried to erase has thus been preserved to this day.

Later Greek and Roman tradition states that Alexander the Great was born in Macedonia on that same night, July 21, 356. The Roman historian Plutarch suggested in his Life of Alexander that the goddess Artemis was so busy attending to Alexander’s birth that she failed to protect her temple. Alexander later tried to pay for the temple’s rebuilding, but was told by Ephesian officials that it was not right for a god to build a temple for another god.

Herostratus’s destruction of the Temple of Artemis led to the coining of the phrase “Herostratic fame” meaning someone who commits a criminal act in order to receive the notoriety that follows. And reference to him and his arson has appeared in the works of noted authors such as Chaucer, Cervantes and Sartre.

The Temple of Artemis that stood during Paul’s visits to Ephesus was the successor to the one Herostratus had burned down. Is it possible that Paul and his audience in Corinth knew the story of Herostratus and his infamous destruction of the Temple of Artemis? I think it is probable that this incident was in mind when Paul wrote the well-known verse (quoted above) to the Corinthians. He was accusing them of perpetrating a similar shameful act: destroying the temple of God in Corinth—the church—through their immature and immoral behavior.

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Pella: A Window on Survival

Before writing my doctoral thesis two decades ago, the only Pella that I knew about was a small town in south central Iowa famous for its windows and doors. But in the course of my research, I discovered fascinating data about another Pella located in the Perean foothills of the Jordan River. In March I finally had the opportunity to visit the Pella located in northwestern Jordan.

Mark Wilson describes a visit to Pella, an ancient city located in the Perean foothills of the Jordan River where Jesus’ followers sought refuge while escaping Jerusalem’s destruction.

Jesus, while looking over the temple mount in Jerusalem shortly before his death, prophesied that its beautiful stones would be thrown down within a generation. He warned that the residents should flee Jerusalem to the mountains when they saw the Roman armies surrounding the city. Jesus’ admonition is found in each of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 24:15–22; Mark 13:14–20; Luke 21:20–24). Perhaps Jesus visited Pella during his visit to the Decapolis (Mark 7:31) and Perea (Matthew 19:1; Mark 10:1), and recalling its secure location, cryptically referred to it in this prophecy. Eusebius’s Church History (3.5.3) recounts that the Jewish followers of Jesus heeded his warning and fled to Pella for safety before Jerusalem’s destruction. Birgil Pixner believes that, after the city’s destruction, they returned to Jerusalem to rebuild their Jewish-Christian synagogue on Mount Zion.*

Today, Pella sits outside Tabaqat Fahl, twenty miles south of the Sea of Galilee. I was eager to see the geographical setting of the site to find out whether it qualified as a mountainous retreat. The University of Sydney has been conducting excavations at Pella since 1979. Remains from the Natufian through the Islamic period have been discovered – a period spanning over 10,000 years. But my interest was on structures that would have existed in the late first century C.E. However, few Roman buildings from that period remain because massive construction projects in the Byzantine period destroyed them. However, there are remnants of a Roman odeon, bathhouse and necropolis. Roman milestones found in the nearby hills show that roads directly connected Pella was with the important Decapolis city of Gerasa, modern Jerash.

Some scholars believe that the escape of the women’s offspring into the wilderness in Revelation 12:6, 14–17 uses mythological language to describe the flight of the Jerusalem church to Pella. While Revelation 12 is difficult to interpret, there does seem to be a historical basis for the events it describes. The dragon’s attempt to destroy the Jewish Christians, first in Zealot-controlled Jerusalem, and then while crossing the Jordan during the winter floods, came to naught. Instead, the Gentile churches of the Decapolis rescued and aided the Jewish-Christian refugees. With the Jerusalem church safe, the dragon next gave his attention to making war against the rest of the saints (12:17). While a bit fanciful, such a reconstruction must be taken into consideration, since others have little to commend them.

Although Pella is only in the foothills of the Transjordanian Mountains, the site seems to fulfill Jesus’ prophecy of a city of refuge. Standing in the upper basilica, the view across the Jordan Valley is spectacular. Mount Gilgal rises to the northwest, Beth-Shean/Scythopolis looms on the northeast. It was easy to imagine a weary company of refugees arriving in this city in the late 60s while attempting to survive the chaos falling upon Jerusalem.

Interestingly, the Pella in Iowa was founded in 1847 by 800 Dutch immigrants seeking religious freedom. Their minister Dominee Hendrik P. Scholte knew his church history and decided to name the new city after its Perean counterpart. Pella, old and new, still stands as a symbol of refuge and hope in a time of great crisis.

* In the article “Church of the Apostles Found on Mt. Zion”, Bargil Pixner writes “The Judeo-Christian community in Jerusalem escaped this terrible catastrophe by fleeing to Pella in Transjordan and the countryside of Gilean and Bashan in expectation of the Parousia, the second coming of Christ.

When this did not occur and they realized that the time of Jesus’ return was not yet at hand, they decided to go back to Jerusalem to rebuild their sanctuary on the site of the ancient Upper Room—where the Last Supper had been held, where the apostles returned after witnessing Jesus’ ascension on the Mount of Olives and where Peter delivered his Pentecost sermon as recorded in Acts 2. It was this site on which they made their synagogue. They were free to do this because they enjoyed a certain religious freedom from the Romans (religio licita) inasmuch as they were Jews who confessed Jesus as their Messiah, and not gentile converts.”

Read “Church of the Apostles Found on Mt. Zion” as it appeared in Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 1990.