Romans, Egyptians, Persians, and others: Minucius Felix’s ethnographic defence of the Christian people (early third century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Romans, Egyptians, Persians, and others: Minucius Felix’s ethnographic defence of the Christian people (early third century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified April 6, 2024,

Ancient author: Minucius Felix, Octavius (before 250 CE) (link).

Comments: Marcus Minucius Felix’s defence of the way of life of Christians as a “people” (natio) – presented in the form of an intellectual or philosophical debate on the beach in Ostia (near Rome) between his two friends, Caecilius Natalis (against) and Octavius Januarius (for) – crackles with an ethnographic charge. Romans as a people are prominent throughout because Caecilius begins with his affirmation of the superiority of the ancestral customs and imperial power of the Romans, and all else needs to in some way respond to the claims. Yet there are numerous other peoples brought in for comparison by either of the two debaters, including Greeks, Persians (Magians), Egyptians, Africans, Gauls (Celts), Taurians (north of the Black Sea), and, of course, Judeans. Judeans of the old days are assessed positively, but not so with contemporaries. It is noteworthy that Minucius Felix puts into the mouth of Octavius quite clearly negative statements about Roman imperialism and conquest in the process.

This writing is also centred on common – and very old – negative stereotypes regarding distant (either geographically or socially) and “barbarous” peoples (on which see many examples in category two). In this case, Christians (rather than, say, Taurians, or Celts, or Germans, or Britons) are the target of rumours relating to the common threefold slanders of extremely uncivilized living: distorted sacrifice to gods in the form of human sacrifice, distorted meals in the form of drinking human blood and eating human flesh, and distorted families in the form of sexual perversion and incest. In all three cases, Octavius’s character (defending Christians) engages in retorsion: he turns these accusations back on Romans, but also back on many “barbarian” peoples who were frequently the targets of these very derogatory slanders in the first place. In these ways, Christians – not Romans – are presented as a superior group at the top of a hierarchy of peoples.


[Minucius Felix’s introduction to the debate between Caeclius and Octavius on what way of life is superior]

(1). . . So, as my thoughts ranged over the whole period of our [Minucius Felix’s and Octavius’] association and familiarity, my attention focussed above all else on that discourse of Octavius in which, by sheer weight of argument, he changed Caecilius, who was still immersed in pointless superstition (superstitio), over to the true form of obligation (religio). . . [omitted sections]. (2) . . . So then, early one morning, as we were walking seaward along the shore so that the fresh sea breeze might strengthen our limbs, and that the yielding sand might give the delightful sensation of sinking in the sand at each footstep, Caecilius noticed an image of [the Greco-Egyptian god] Sarapis, and – as is the superstitious habit of the populace – put his hand to his mouth and threw the image a kiss. (3) Then Octavius said: “With a friend who indoors and out clings to your side, no good man, brother Marcus [Minucius Felix], has the right to leave him in the thick darkness of the populace’s ignorance, and allow him in broad daylight to wreck himself on stones, however carved and anointed and garlanded they may be, when you know that the shame of his error redounds no less to your discredit than to his.” . . . [omitted further scene setting].

(4) While we were all enjoying the fun of looking on [at boys skipping rocks on the sea], Caecilius took no notice and did not laugh at the sport, but in silence, gloomy and aloof, showed in his face that he was troubled about something. I said to him: “What is the matter? Why no hint, Caecilius, of your usual liveliness, and why do we miss the happiness you show even when dealing with serious affairs?” Caecilius replied: “I have been brooding over the remarks of our friend Octavius, who stung and nettled me, when he attacked and chided you for negligence, but indirectly brought a heavier charge of ignorance against me [over throwing the kiss to Sarapis]. I will go further: I will have it out with Octavius from start to finish. If he is agreeable that I, as one of the following, should argue the case with him, he will, I am sure, find that it is easier to discourse among companions than to join battle in philosophy. Let us just sit down on those boulders piled to protect the baths that run out into the deep water, so that we may rest after our walk, and concentrate on the argument.”

We sat down, as he suggested, my friends flanking me, covering either side, and myself in the middle; not by way of etiquette as a mark of rank or distinction, for friendship always assumes or creates equality, but that I might act as arbiter, give close hearing to both, and as middle man part the two combatants.

[Caecilius Natalis states his position on what way of life is best]

(5) Then Caecilius led the way: “Although you, brother Marcus [Minucius Felix], have made up your mind on the subject of our inquiry, seeing that, after careful experience of either way of life, you have repudiated the one and approved the other, yet for the time being you must deliberately hold the balance of impartial justice, without any bias inclining to one side or the other, so that your decision may be felt to have been based on our disputation rather than the product of your own feelings. So if you will please take your seat as a novice, ignorant as it were of either side of the case, it will be easy to make it clear, that in human affairs everything is doubtful, uncertain, and in suspense, everything a matter of probability rather than truth; it is no wonder that people, tired of deeply investigating truth, should hastily yield to any random opinion, rather than with unremitting diligence persevere in the search. Everyone must feel indignant and annoyed that certain persons – persons untrained in study, uneducated in letters, ignorant even of the lowest skills – should come to fixed conclusions upon the universe in its majesty, which through the centuries is to this day matter of debate in countless schools of philosophy.” . . . [omitted sections on chance and the lack of providence by the gods].

[Ancestral customs as central to the proper way of life]

(6) “Seeing then that either chance is certain, or nature uncertain, how much more reverent and better it is to accept the teaching of our elders as the priest of truth; to maintain the obligations (religiones) handed down to us; to adore the gods, whom from the cradle you were taught to fear rather than to know familiarly; not to dogmatize about divinities, but to believe our ancestors who, in an age still uncivilized in the world’s nativity, were privileged to regard gods as kindly or as kings! So it is that throughout wide empires, provinces, and towns, we see each people having its own individual rites and worshipping its local gods, the Eleusinians worshipping Ceres [i.e. Demeter], the Phrygians the Great Mother, the Epidaurians Aesculapius [i.e. Asklepios], the Chaldaeans Bel [i.e. Marduk], the Syrians Astarte, the Taurians Diana [i.e. a local version of Artemis], the Gauls Mercury, the Romans one and all.

[Romans superior as a power and in piety towards the gods]

So it is that the Romans’ power and authority has embraced the circuit of the entire world, and has advanced the bounds of empire beyond the paths of the sun and the confines of ocean. While the Romans practise god-fearing valour in the battle field, make strong their city with awesome sacred rites, with chaste virgins, with many priestly dignities and titles. Even when besieged and imprisoned within the limits of the Capitol, they still reverenced the gods, whom others might have spurned as wrath. Through the ranks of Gauls and amazed at the Gauls’ undaunted superstition, they passed on armed not with weapons but with godly reverence and fear [perhaps alluding to an episode like that in Livy, Roman History 5.46].

[Romans’ piety in relation to the gods of other peoples and legitimate control of such peoples]

In captured fortresses, even in the immediate aftermath of victory, Romans reverence the conquered deities. Everywhere they entertain the gods and adopt them as their own. They also raise altars even to the unknown deities, and to the spirits of the dead. So they adopt the sacred rites of all peoples, and have earned control over all. As a result, the course of worship has continued without hesitating, not impaired but strengthened by the lapse of time. In fact, the ancients were accustomed to attach to ceremonies and to temples a sanctity in proportion to how long they had continued. . . [omitted section on Romans’ practices relating to divination].

(8) “Therefore, since all peoples (gentes) unhesitatingly agree as to the existence of the immortal gods, however uncertain may be our account of them or of their origin, it is intolerable that any man should be so full of pride and impious conceit of wisdom as to strive to abolish or undermine an obligation (religio) that is so ancient, so useful, and so praiseworthy. He may be a Theodoros of Cyrene, or an earlier Diagoras of Melos, labelled “atheist” by ancient people. By asserting that there were no gods, both of them cut at the root of all the fear and reverence by which humankind is governed. Yet they must never establish their impious principles under the name and authority of pretended ‘philosophy’. When Protagoras of Abdera, by way of debate rather than of profanity, discussed the godhead, the men of Athens expelled him from their borders, and burned his writings in the market-place.

[Impiety of the Christian people and the decline of Roman ancestral customs]

“So is it not then deplorable that men – excuse my vehemence in using strong language for the cause I advocate – men, I say, of discredited and illegal desperadoes forming a faction against the gods? Men who gather together illiterates from the dregs of the populace and credulous women with their innate instability, and so organize a rabble of profane conspirators, leagued together by meetings at night and ritual fasts and unnatural banquets, not for any sacred service but for wicked rites. This is a secretive people (natio) that shuns the light, silent in the open, but talkative in hidden corners. They despise temples as if they were tombs, they spit upon the gods, and they jeer at our sacred rites. Pitiful themselves, they pity our priests. They despise titles and robes of honour, themselves going around half-naked. What extreme foolishness! What wild disrespect! They despise present tortures, yet dread those of an uncertain future. Death after death they fear, but death in the present they fear not. For them, illusive hope charms away terror with assurances of a life to come.”

(9) “Already – for dangerous weeds grow quickly – decay of morals grows day by day, and throughout the whole world the repulsive actions of this impious coalition multiply. Root and branch it must be exterminated and accursed. They recognize one another by secret signs and marks. They fall in love almost before they are acquainted. Everywhere they introduce a kind of lustful obligation (religio), a promiscuous ‘brotherhood ’and ‘sisterhood’ by which ordinary sexuality, under cover of a sacred name, is converted to incest. In this way their pointless and foolish superstition makes an actual boast of crime.

[Rumours of the Christian people’s rites]

If there was not some foundation of truth, shrewd rumour would not attribute extreme and unmentionable forms of vice. I am told that under some idiotic impulse they consecrate and worship the head of a donkey, the meanest of all beasts, an obligation worthy of the morals which gave it birth. Others say that they actually reverence the genitals of their director and high-priest, and adore them as parent of their being. This may be false, but such suspicions naturally attach to their secret and nocturnal rites. To say that a criminal put to death for his crimes, and wood of the death-dealing cross, are objects of their veneration is to assign fitting altars to abandoned wretches and the kind of worship they deserve.

[Initiation rites, human sacrifice, and consumption of the blood and flesh]

Details of the initiation are as revolting as they are notorious. An infant, cased in dough to deceive the unsuspecting, is placed beside the person to be initiated. The initiate is at that point induced to inflict what seem to be harmless blows upon the dough, and unintentionally the infant is killed by his unsuspecting blows. The blood – oh, horrible – they lap up greedily. They tear the limbs to pieces eagerly. Over the victim they make league and covenant, and by complicity in guilt pledge themselves to mutual silence. Such sacred rites are more foul than any sacrilege.

[Banquets and sexual perversion and incest]

Their form of feasting is notorious. It is in everyone’s mouth, as testified by the speech of our friend of Cirta [i.e. M. Cornelius Fronto from Numidia in a now lost writing]. On the day appointed they gather at a banquet with all their children, sisters, and mothers, people of either sex and every age. There, after full feasting, when the blood is heated and drink has inflamed the passions of incestuous lust, a dog which has been tied to a lamp is tempted by a morsel thrown beyond the range of his leash to run forward suddenly. The revealing light is turned over and extinguished, and in the shameless dark lustful embraces are indiscriminately exchanged. If not in act, at least by complicity, everyone is involved in incest, as anything that occurs by the act of individuals results from the communal intention.”

(10) “I deliberately skip over many other things. I have said more than enough, most or all of which is true, as is shown by the secrecy of this depraved rite. Why make such efforts to obscure and conceal the object of their worship, when honourable things are always happy with publicity, while guilt loves secrecy? Why don’t they have altars, temples, or recognized images? Why do they never speak in public, never meet in the open, if their object of worship and their concealment is not criminal or shameful?

[God of this people and relation to Judeans]

“Where does this ‘One and only God’ come from, who and where is he, this solitary and forlorn god that no free people, no kingdom, and no superstition known to Rome has knowledge of? The miserable Judean descent group (gens) did indeed worship one God. However, even so they did this openly in temples with altars, and with victims and rites. Yet a god so weak and powerless that he and his dear people (natio) with him are in captivity to Rome. Yet again, what monstrous absurdities these Christians invent about this God of theirs, whom they can neither show nor see! They say that he searches diligently into the ways and actions of everyone, yes even their words and hidden thoughts, hurrying here and there, all over the place. They make him out a troublesome, restless, shameless and interfering being, who has a hand in everything that is done, interferes at every turn, and can neither attend to particulars because he is distracted with the whole or attend to the whole because he is engaged with particulars.” . . . [omitted critique of apocalyptic expectations of the end of the world and of resurrection of bodies and final statement of an Academic, skeptical position on matters].


[Octavius’ response to Caecilius]

(16) And Octavius said: “I will answer to the best of my ability, and I must rely on your assistance to release the river of truth to dilute the most bitter slander. To begin with, I must honestly say that our good [Caecilius] Natalis’ views have been so wavering and erratic, so vague and slipshod, as to raise a doubt whether his learning has led to confusion, or whether his vacillations are due to misunderstanding. For he wavered from belief in the gods, at one moment, to keeping the question open at another, so that the ambiguity of statement might make my own line of reply more ambiguous. But to my friend Natalis, I will not and do not impute trickery. Disingenuity is alien to his simplicity. Rather he is like a man who does not know the right way, when the road happens to fork off in several directions. . . [omitted lengthy discussion of God and providence along with other related philosophical issues raised by Caecilius Natalis, responding point by point].

[Romans’ origins as criminals and the impiety of Roman expansionism]

(25) “All the same, you say, this so-called superstition [Octavius has characterized Roman myths as superstition] gave a world-wide empire to the Romans, increased and established it, for their strength rested not so much in courage as in obligation and piety. Are you saying the noble and majestic fabric of Roman justice drew its auspices from the cradle of infant empire? Yet were Romans not in origin a collection of criminals? Didn’t they grow by the iron terror of their own savagery? The plebeians first congregated in a city of refuge. Ruffians, criminals, profligates, assassins and traitors fled to that place, and Romulus himself, to secure criminal pre-eminence in office and rule, murdered his own brother. Such were the initial auspices of our dutiful community! . . . [omitted sentences]. Everything that the Romans hold, occupy and possess are the spoils of outrageous violence. Their temples are built from spoils, drawn from the ruin of cities, the plunder of gods and the slaughter of priests.”

“It is an insult and a mockery to serve defeated ceremonies, first to enslave and then worship the vanquished. To adore what you have seized by force is to consider sacred the sacrilegious, not deities. Each Roman triumph has meant a new impiety, and all trophies over peoples are new acts of plundering the gods. The Romans then have grown great not by a sense of obligation (religio), but through unpunished sacrilegious actions, because in their actual wars they could not have had the assistance of the [foreign] gods against whom they took up arms. A triumph over trampled gods is the preliminary to their worship. Yet what can such gods do for Romans, when they could not help their own worshippers against the weapons of Rome?”

“We know the indigenous gods of the Romans: Romulus, Picus, Tiberinus, and Consus and Pilumnus and Volumnus. Tatius invented and worshipped Cloacina; Hostilius invented Pavor (Panic) and Pallor. Some one or other canonized Febris (Fever). Such, in superstition, is the foster-child of your city of diseases and maladies. Presumably Acca Larentia too and Flora, prostitutes lost to shame, may be numbered among the diseases – and the gods – of Rome. In reality, such were the powers who carried forward the banners of Rome against the gods worshipped by other peoples. For Thracian Mars, or Cretan Jupiter, or Argos’ Juno, Samian and Carthaginian by turns, Taurian Diana [from north of the Black Sea], or the Idaean Mother [from Phrygia], or the Egyptian monsters rather than deities never took sides for you against their own people. But perhaps your virgins were more chaste, or your priests had a better sense of obligation [than other peoples conquered by Romans]. No, but in more of the virgins than not, who committed indiscretions with men, no doubt without the knowledge of Vesta, immorality was brought home. Among the rest impunity resulted not from stricter chastity, so much as more fortunate indulgence. And where are more lewd bargains made, assignation arranged, and adulteries planned, than by priests among the altars and sanctuaries? Lust gratifies its flames in the apartments of the temple-keepers more often than in the houses of prostitutes.

“And after all, under God’s dispensation, before Romans existed, Assyrians, Medes, Persians, Greeks, and Egyptians ruled great empires, although they had no high priests, no Arval Brothers, no Salian priests, no Vestal virgins, and no Augurs [Roman-style diviners], no cooped chickens to rule the destinies of the People by their appetite or distaste for food. . .” [omitted discussion of Roman divination practices as facilitated by evil lower spirits].

[Divination practices of Persian Magians and evil lower spirits (“demons”)]

(26) . . . “There are unclean and wandering spirits, whose heavenly vigour has been overlaid by earthly soils and lusts. These spirits, burdened and steeped in vices, have lost the simplicity of their original substance. As some consolation for their own disaster, these lost spirits continually conspire to cause loss to others, to deprave them with their own depravity, and under the alienation of depraved forms of obligation to separate them from God. Such spirits are recognized as ‘demons’ [i.e. the Greek concept of daimones, lower spirits] by the poets, are discussed by philosophers. They were also known to Socrates who, at the instigation and will of his attendant ‘demon,’ declined or pursued certain courses of action.

“The Magians not only know about the ‘demons,’ but by their aid perform their wonders. By their suggestion and secret contribution they produce their feats of conjuring, making things visible that are not, or things that are invisible. Ostanes (link), whose eloquence and faculty give him first place among the Magians, renders appropriate honour to the true God. Ostanes tells us that angels – ministers and messengers of God – attend the throne of God, and stand by to render worship, trembling and afraid at the nod and appearance of their Lord. He has borne witness also to ‘demons’ of the earth, ranging back and forth, the enemies of humankind. Does not Plato too, who accounted it a hard matter to find out God, find it no hard matter to speak about angels and ‘demons.’ In his Symposium is he not at pains to define their nature? He will have it that there is a substance intermediate between mortal and immortal, that is, between body and spirit, compounded of an admixture of earthly weight and heavenly lightness. Out of this substance, he tells us, Love is fashioned and glides into the hearts of men, stirs their senses, shapes affections, and instils the passion of desire.”

(27) “These unclean spirits, or ‘demons,’ as revealed to Magians and philosophers, find a lurking place under statues and consecrated images, and by their breath exercise influence as though a present god: at one place, they inspire prophets; at another, they haunt temples; at still another, they animate the fibres of entrails, govern the flight of birds, determine lots, and are the authors of oracles mostly wrapped in falsehood. Deceived as well as deceivers, these unclean spirits do not know essential truth, and what they know they confess not to their own undoing. . .” [omitted sections].

[Refuting the rumours about the customs of the Christians]

(28) “How unfair it is to pass judgement, as you do, without knowledge and investigation, a guilty conscience reminds us. We too were once in the same case as you, blindly and stupidly sharing your ideas, and supposing that the Christians worshipped monsters, devoured infants, and joined in incestuous feasts. We did not understand that the ‘demons’ were always disseminating fables without either investigation or proof. . .” [omitted details refuting the rumours].

[Retorsions: Romans and other peoples as engaging in practices like the rumours]

“This is where the gossip which you say you hear about our treating the head of a donkey as divine comes from. Who would be foolish enough to worship that? Who more foolish still, to believe in such worship? Perhaps an exception is those of you who keep whole asses in your stalls consecrated to your or their Epona, and decorate them ceremonially in company with Isis, or who sacrifice and worship heads of oxen and of wethers, and dedicate gods half-goat, half-man, and lion-headed or dog-headed deities. Do not you join the Egyptians in adoring and feeding the bull Apis? Do you not approve rites instituted in honour of serpents and crocodiles and all the other beasts, birds and fishes, gods whose slaughter is made punishable by death? And yet these same Egyptians, like most of you, stand in no more awe of Isis than of a pungent leek, or no more awe of Sarapis than a fart.

“The man who fakes up stories of our adoring the genitals of a priest is only trying to foist his own abominations upon us. Indecencies of that kind may be countenanced, where modesty in any kind of sexual relation or exposure is unknown. But, disgusting! . . . their obscenities are more revolting than modern refinement can stomach, or servitude endure. (29) Such filth and beastliness are an offence to our ears; for most the mere mention of them, even in self-defence, is a disgrace; to modest and clean-living folk you impute acts which we should regard as impossible, did you not prove them by your own practices.”

[Egyptian practice of honouring a man as god]

“As for the worship of a criminal and his cross, which you ascribe to our sense of piety (religio), you stray very far from the truth in supposing that a criminal deserved or that a mortal man had the right to be believed in as God. Pitiable indeed the man whose hope is rests on a mortal man, with whose death all that he builds on comes to an end! True indeed that Egyptians choose a man for their worship. They propitiate him and him alone, they consult him on all matters, and they kill victims in his honour. But though to others he is a god, to himself at least he is a man, whether he likes it or not. For he does not impose upon his own consciousness, even if he deludes others. Princes and kings may rightly be hailed as great and elect among men, but worshiping them as gods is low and lying flattery. Honour is the truer tribute to distinction, affection the more acceptable reward to worth. Yet that is the way men invoke their deity, make supplications to their images, pray to their genius (spirit), that is their ‘demon,’ and think it safer to swear falsely by the genius of Jupiter than by that of their emperor. . . ” [omitted sections].

[Romans and other peoples engaging in human sacrifice]

(30) “I should now like to confront the man who says or believes that we are initiated by the slaughter and blood of an infant. Can you think it possible that its tender, tiny body should be gashed by fatal wounds? That any man alive would sacrifice, and spill, and drain the innocent blood of a barely born baby? None can believe it, but one capable of the crime. Among you I do see newly-born sons at times exposed to wild beasts and birds, or violently strangled to a painful death; and there are women who by medicinal potions extinguish in the womb and commit infanticide upon the offspring yet unborn.”

“Such practices of course follow the precedents set by your gods. Saturn did not indeed expose his sons, but devoured them. Not without reason in some parts of Africa infants were sacrificed to him by their parents, and their cries smothered by endearments and kisses for fear of a victim being sacrificed in tears. Among the Pontic Taurians and for the Egyptian Bousiris, the custom was to sacrifice foreigners. For the Gauls, to slay human – or rather inhuman – victims to Mercury. The Romans, by way of sacrifice, buried alive a Greek man and woman, and a Gaulish man and woman. Still today a human victim is offered to Jupiter Latiaris, and, as becomes the son of Saturn, he clasps on the blood of a criminal offender. It was he, I believe, who instructed Catiline to cement conspiracy with a covenant of blood, and Bellona to stain her sacrifice with draughts of human blood. To heal the falling sickness with a man’s blood is a cure worse than the disease. They are on a par with those who eat of wild beasts from the arena, fresh glutted with blood and gorged with the limbs and entrails of men. For us it is not permissible either to see or to hear of human slaughter. We have such a strong hesitancy about human blood that, at our meals, we avoid the blood of animals that we eat.”

[Romans and other peoples engaging in sexual perversion and incest]

(31) “The tall story of incestuous banqueting is a lying concoction of ‘demons’ leagued against us to throw the mud of infamous aspersions upon our boasted purity. This is done so that, before looking into the truth, popular opinion might be turned against us by shocking and horrible imputations. In this way your own Fronto did not produce evidence as on affidavit, but spattered abuse like an agitator.”

“The truth is such practices originated with your own people. Among the Persians the law approves unions with mothers. In Egypt and at Athens marriage with sisters is legal. Your legends and tragedies glory in tales of incest, which you read and listen to with excitement. The gods you worship have incestuous relations with a mother, a daughter, or a sister. No wonder then that among you cases of the same offence are often exposed, and constantly practised.”

“Without knowing it, you may incur the risk of illicit connections with promiscuous lovers, with children begotten here or there. With frequent exposure of legitimate children to the mercy of strangers, you inevitably return upon your own tracks and violate children of your own. Unwittingly you involve yourselves in a tragedy of guilt. On the other hand our modesty lies not in outward look, but in soul; of our own free will we cleave to the bond of single marriage . . .” [omitted sentences about wonderful practices of chastity, on not coming from the lowest levels of society and on lack of images and sacrifices].

[Earlier Judeans as a positive example, but later Judeans deserted with the destruction of the temple]

(33) . . . “But what did it profit the Judeans that they, too, with most scrupulous reverence, worshipped one God with altars and with temples? There you are betrayed into ignorance, if you forget or ignore their earlier history, and remember only the later. The Judeans, so long as they worshipped our God – one God, the same for all – in purity and innocence and holiness – so long as they obeyed his precepts of salvation, grew from a small people to a numberless people, from being poor to rich, from being slaves to kings. Few in numbers and unarmed they overwhelmed armies, and at the command of God with the assistance of the elements pursued them in their flight. Read their own writings. Or, omitting the ancients, turn to Flavius Josephos. Or, if you prefer Romans, consult Antonius Julianus on the Judeans, and you will see that it was their own wickedness which brought them to misfortune, and that nothing happened to them which was not predicted in advance, if they persisted in rebelliousness. You will understand that they deserted God before he deserted them, and that they were not – as you profanely say – led captive with their God, but were handed over by God as deserters from his disciplines. . .” [omitted defence of apocalyptic expectations and notions of resurrection].

[Conclusion of the debate and Caecilius’ change of mind]

(39) When Octavius had closed in this way, we kept our eyes fixed on him for a while, in silent amazement. For myself, I was lost in admiration at the way in which by argument and illustration and quotation of authorities he had handled subjects easier to feel than to express, and by the way in which he had disarmed ill-will by the very weapons which the philosophers use for their attack. He had set forth the truth in a guise at once so easy and so attractive. (40) As I was turning over these thoughts in silence, Caecilius burst out: “Congratulations ever so many, dear Octavius! And a share for me too! I need not wait for the ruling. We are finished, as it stands, for I too have the face to claim a victory! If he has been victorious over me, I too have had my triumph over error. On the main issue I admit his pleas for Providence and his belief in God. As to the sincerity of your sect – now my own – I am at one. But there remain still some minor difficulties, not contradictions fatal to the truth, but yet requiring more complete elucidation; these – for the sun is already setting – we will do better to discuss tomorrow, in agreement on general principles.”

I [Minucius Felix] said, “No one of us has cause for heartier satisfaction than I in the victory won by Octavius. It relieves me from the resentment-causing task of passing judgement. But no words of praise are adequate to what he deserves. Man’s witness – and that too an individual’s – is but weak. Man’s gift and his reward is from God, to whose help and inspiration he owes his eloquence and his success.”

At that point, we went our way happily and light-hearted: Caecilius in attaining belief, Octavius in winning a victory, and I in my friend’s belief and my friend’s victory.


Source of the translation: T.R. Glover and G. H. Rendall, Tertullian: Apology, de Spectaculis. Minucius Felix, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1931), public domain (Rendall passed away in 1945), thoroughly adapted by Harland with reference to the Latin.

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