As Christianity spread through the Roman Empire, interesting rumors and conspiracies formed out of Roman misunderstanding of Christian ritual and belief. Many Romans were confused and ignorant of the Christian community of faith and the ceremonies that were practiced in house churches of Christianity’s first generations. The gatherings of the faithful: calling themselves brothers and sisters of Christ and sons and daughters of God, aroused suspicion of incest. The Eucharist, the symbolic or mystical consumption of the body and blood of Christ conjured an image of cannibalism. Strangely, few pagan sources from Rome collected and preserved these accusations against Christians, however, figures from the church itself did record the amusingly grotesque theories of Christian debauchery. The following five accounts can be found in Robert Louis Wilken’s fascinating book, Christians as the Romans Saw Them. The passages contain the outlandish rumors that circulated the Roman Empire as Christianity began to expand and the response of Roman officials who came in contact with the misinformed gossip.
The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci
1. The Octavius of Marcus Minucius Felix – Cannibalism and Incest
A young baby is covered over with flour, the object being to deceive the unwary. It is then served before the person to be admitted into the rites. The recruit is urged to inflict blows onto it—they appear to be harmless because of the covering of flour. Thus the baby is killed with wounds that remain unseen and concealed. It is the blood of this infant—I shudder to mention it—it is this blood that they lick with thirsty lips; these are the limbs they distribute eagerly; this is the victim by which they seal their covenant…
On a special day they gather in a feast with all their children, sisters, mothers—all sexes and all ages. There, flushed with the banquet after such feasting and drinking, they begin to burn with incestuous passions. They provoke a dog tied to the lampstand to leap and bound towards a scrap of food which they have tossed outside the reach of his chain. By this means the light is overturned and extinguished, and with it common knowledge of their actions; in the shameless dark with unspeakable lust they copulate in random unions, all equally being guilty of incest, some by deed, but everyone by complicity…. (Wilken page 19)
Marcus Minucius Felix (active approximately from 150 to 270 C.E.) recorded a perversion of Christian terminology and ritual. The symbolic or mystical absorption of Jesus’ blood and body devolved into licking the blood of a murdered child. The idea that the members of the Christian community are sons and daughters of God mutated into orgies of incestuous debauchery. The mutated portrayals of the Eucharist and the religious community combined into a shockingly horrifying scene of evil.
Bacchanal with a wine vat by Andrea Mantegna, 1475
2. Panarion by Epiphanius of Cyprus/Salamis (310-403 C.E.) — Phibionite Heretical Debauchery
When they thus ate together and so to speak filled up their veins from the surplus of their strength they turn to excitements. The man leaving his wife says to his own wife: "Stand up and perform the agape with the brother.” Then the unfortunates unite with each other, and as I am truly ashamed to say the shameful things that are being done by them, because according to the holy apostle the things that are happening by them are even shameful to mention, nevertheless I will not be ashamed to say those things which they are not ashamed to do, in order that I may cause in ever way a horror in those who hear about their practices. After they have had intercourse in the passion of fornication they raise their own blasphemy to heaven. The woman and man take the fluid of emission of the man into their hands, they stand, turn toward heaven, their hands besmeared with the uncleanness, and pray as a people called stratiotikoi and gnostikoi, bringing to the father the nature of all that which they have on their hands, and they say: "We offer to thee this gift, the body of Christ." And then they eat it, their own ugliness, and say: “This is the body of Christ and this is the Passover for the sake of which our bodies suffer and are forced to confess the suffering of Christ." Similarly also with the women when she happens to be in the flowing of blood they gather the blood of menstruation of her uncleanness and eat it together and say: "This is the blood of Christ." (Wilken 20).
This account seems too outlandish to be a simple misunderstanding of Christian ritual, but the passage does have some similarities with Christian ceremony. The account may be a corrupted representation of “passing the peace of Christ” in which the church community greets each other at the onset of the service. The final portion of the passage certainly was a perversion of the Eucharist ceremony and, perhaps, the collection of tithes. As in the previous passage, the rumor claimed that this sect of Christians actually drank human blood, far surpassing the symbolic or mystical Eucharist of the orthodox church of the time. The community of faith was, again, devolved from a gathering of the faithful, into an orgy of the sinful.
3. Emperor Trajan (53-117 C.E.) to Pliny the Younger (61-113) – Suspicion of the Masses
I have received your suggestion that it should be possible to form a company of firemen at Nicomedia on the model of those elsewhere, but we must remember that it is societies like these which have been responsible for political disturbances in your province, particularly in its cities. If people assemble for a common purpose, whatever name we give them and for whatever reason, they soon turn into a political club (hetaeria). (Wilken 12)
Trajan distrusted all gatherings of people for political reasons. In this passage, Trajan refused to allow a fireman’s club to form as he feared the political ramifications of such gatherings. Trajan’s fear of a simple fireman’s club suggests that he would have had an equal, or greater suspicion of Christian gatherings.
Statue of Pliny the Younger at the Cathedral of S. Maria Maggiore in Como
4. Pliny to Trajan - Roman Officials Countering Conspiracies
They declared that the sum total of their guilt or error amounted to no more than this; they had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately among themselves in honor of Christ as if to a god, and also to bind themselves by oath, not for any criminal purpose, but to abstain from theft, robbery, and adultery, to commit no breach of trust and not to deny a deposit when called upon to restore it. After this ceremony it had been their custom to disperse and reassemble later to take food of an ordinary harmless kind. (Wilken 22)
Pliny, a Roman governor, certainly came into contact with the elaborate rumors that targeted Christians. While he did not give any credence to the rumors in this passage, the fact that he took precious time to object to the rumors is proof that some Romans believed the rumors. Why challenge something if no one believes it to be true? Pliny clearly challenged the rumors of cannibalism when he stated that Christians eat “food of an ordinary harmless kind.” Pliny’s tone attempts to soothe the fearful when he stated that Christians did no more than pray to be virtuous people in their secret meetings during the early morning.
5. Trajan to Pliny - Do Not Hunt; Let Them Recant
You have followed the right course of procedure, my dear Pliny, in your examination of the cases of persons charged with being Christians, for it is impossible to lay down a general rule to a fixed formula. These people must not be hunted out; if they are brought before you and the charge against them is proved, they must be punished, but in the case of anyone who denies that he is a Christian, and makes it clear that he is not by offering prayers to our gods, he is to be pardoned as a result of his repentance however suspect his past conduct may be. But the pamphlets circulated anonymously must play no part in any accusation. They create the worst sort of precedent and are quite out of keeping with the spirit of our age. (Wilken 28)
Trajan did not start a hunt for Christians. If the faithful remained out of sight and mind of the Roman government, then Christians could live their lives with relative ease. Trajan even wanted the anti-Christian pamphlets to be ended, which were likely filled with all of the rumors of cannibalism and incest contained in the above passages. Emperor Trajan, however, observed Christians with the same suspicion he had for any gathering of people, such as the fireman’s club. Eventually, the gruesome rumors about Christianity would disperse, but it would be the true beliefs of the Christians—specifically the belief in one, and only one, God—that would cause emperors to hunt down the faithful until the rise of Constantine in the fourth century, which ushered in an acceptance of Christianity into the Roman Empire.