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Christians in the Roman Army: Countering the Pacifist Narrative

April 20, 2012

Christian pacifism has raised its profile in recent years, likely prompted by dissatisfaction with increasing political polarization, and promoted by some influential writers. Ideas promoted in the past century by Cecil John Cadoux and John Howard Yoder with little headway have found a modern defender in Stanley Hauerwas and a popularizer in Shane Claiborne, whose books, speaking tours and radical lifestyle have attracted many admirers if few followers.

Central to all of these authors’ ideas is the concept of the “fall of the church.” They hold that early Christianity was pacifist and anarchist in character, and rejected the ideas of military service and loyalty to the state. As Christianity came to be accepted by the Roman government at around the time of Constantine, the church became corrupted by its relationship with state power. After Constantine the church became willing to acquiesce to state power and wage war, execute people in the name of the state, force conversions, and recognize the authority of rulers other than Jesus. According to Yoder, the behavior of the early church is important because the early Christians “read the Bible in a first-century context. They read the New Testament in the same world in which it was written, in the same language in which it was written. They probably read it, therefore, with more understanding than we do. Hence, how they read the New Testament is helpful to us in our reading of the New Testament, whatever the limits of their faithfulness.”[1]

While the emperors and soldiers of the late Empire clearly used Christian symbolism, what about the army before Constantine?

I shall leave the theological portion of this debate for other websites. What I will do is examine the central historical claim of the “fall of the church” thesis: That Christians before the era of Constantine were pacifists who did not enlist in the Roman military. Unfortunately, none of the pacifist authors who have tackled this question have much experience in ancient history and it has led them to make certain errors which have led to erroneous conclusions.

First, to cover some basics of the Roman Army from Augustus to Constantine. The Roman army during this period was an all-volunteer force. No one was in the army who didn’t want to join. The Army was made up of two groups: The Legions and the Auxilia. Recruitment for the legions was open only to Roman citizens, who served for 20 years unless they were injured and medically discharged or were kicked out. On the other hand, the auxilia were recruited from the peregrini, the non-citizens of the provinces. Their term of service was 25 years, after which they received Roman citizenship as well as conubium, the right to marry a non-Roman wife but still pass on Roman citizenship to their children. The navy was smaller and accepted more non-citizens, but the model was essentially the same. As a result, service in the auxilia was a common route for social and economic advancement for those who were not Roman citizens. In 212, the emperor Caracalla decreed that everyone in the Roman Empire was now a Roman citizen, but  the auxilia did not disappear (many units were now centuries old with a storied battle history they were loath to part with), rather, they ceased to be a method for social advancement and became just another type of unit which included special units such as cavalry and archers.

Like everything else in Roman society, the army also had a pagan religious element. Festivals, sacrifices, and sacred ceremonies honoring the gods, the emperor, the Legion’s standards, and nonspecific deified ideals such as virtus and disciplina were commonplace. How Christians in the ranks would deal with the requirement to partake in these ceremonies would become a major issue.[2]

In the 1st century, we have some scraps of evidence of Christians in the Roman military. The gospel of Luke states that some soldiers (possibly from the Roman puppet Herod’s auxiliary forces) asked John the Baptist for religious advice, and he told them “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.” Matthew mentions that Jesus was visited by a centurion in Capernaum who asked him to heal his sick servant. Later, the book of Acts records that Peter preached at the house of a centurion named Cornelius who was stationed in Caesarea, and the man and his household became some of the first non-Jewish converts to Christianity.[3]

From the conversion of Cornelius at about AD 39 to AD 173, we have absolutely no sources referencing Christian participation in the army. None. It may have happened, it may not have happened. Either way, we know nothing about it, so speculating is futile.[4]

In 173, we have a story that would be easy to dismiss were it not documented by five sources. During the Marcomannic Wars, emperor Marcus Aurelius was leading the Legio XII Fulminata (“Thunderstruck”) campaign along the Danube against the Quadi, erstwhile allies of Rome who had switched sides. The Quadi met the legion with a superior force and drove them to an open field away from water sources. It was a hot day, and the Quadi halted their attack to allow heat and thirst to take its toll.

Surrounded, outnumbered, out of water, growing weak from thirst and in desperate straights, what is clear from the sources is that lots of men began to pray. Soon, a thunderstorm materialized. Lightning struck the treeline where some of the Quadi had gathered, scattering many of them. Rain and hail poured from the sky. No battle could be fought in such weather, so the Quadi withdrew, which was fortunate for the Romans as they were so busy gulping down water collected in their helmets and shields that they were hardly in a position to fight.

Relief on the Column of Marcus Aurelius in Rome, showing Roman troops surrounded by the Quadi as a rain god arrives with a thunderstorm on the upper right.

Christian authors Tertullian and Apollinarius said that the Christians in the legion prayed and credited them with providing rain, adding that Marcus Aurelius thanked his Christian soldiers for their prayers. Pagan writer Cassius Dio credited an Egyptian magician named Arnuphis who “invoked by means of enchantments various deities and in particular Mercury.” The unknown author of the Historia Augusta credited the prayers of Marcus Aurelius himself, he did not note the receiving deity. The event is also depicted in a relief on a column commissioned by Marcus Aurelius in Rome, where the rain is seen coming in anthropomorphic form, with a rain god spreading his arms over the troops.[5]

What can one make of this? The presence of Christians in Legio XII cannot be casually dismissed. The legion was normally based in Melitene in Cappadocia, a place with a large Christian population. The earliest Christian writer to mention the incident was Tertullian, who wrote about it a mere thirty years after it happened. Apollinarius, the other Christian to mention it, was from Melitene.[6] The accounts are easily reconcilable. One can surmise that once the unit was surrounded and in dire straits, the men began praying to the gods of whatever religion they happened to follow. The Christians prayed their God and the pagans to every god they could possibly think of. When rain fortuitously came, each man walked away convinced that his prayers had caused his personal deity to come through for everyone.

Since Cadoux and Yoder first published their views some decades ago, archaeology has shed new light on Christians in the Roman Army in the late 2nd and early 3rd centuries. A number of gravestones have been found that list a soldier’s religion as well as his unit. H. Leclerq recorded 8 pre-Constantian Christian gravestones of soldiers. The earliest is a gravestone of a Christian who served in Legio II Parthia and died in 201. This makes it not only the earliest Christian soldier’s inscription, but one of the oldest known Christian inscriptions period.[7] Legio II was raised by Septimius Severus in 197 in preparation for his invasion of Parthia, so the soldier in question cannot have served long before his death.

The remains of two Christian churches from the early 3rd century have been excavated by archaeologists, and both of them are linked to the Roman army. The oldest was discovered at Megiddo in Israel in the late 1990s. The church was built in a back room inside of a military fortress that served as the headquarters of the Legio II Traiana (“Trajan’s”) and Legio VI Ferrata (“Ironclad”). On the floor there is a mosaic depicting two fish as a symbol of Jesus Christ. Any doubt about the room’s use and the identity of its worshipers is removed by inscriptions written in Greek on the mosaics:

“The God-loving Akeptous has offered the table to God Jesus Christ as a memorial.”

“Gaianus, also called Porphyrius, centurion, our brother, has made the pavement at his own expense as an act of liberality. Brutius carried out the work.”

Mosaic on the floor of an early Christian church within the Roman army fortress at Megiddo.

Akeptous is a woman’s name, and the names of several other women were also written on the floor. This indicates women played some role in this church as well, despite having benefactors and a congregation likely made up of soldiers.[8]

The second church was located inside a house built against the city wall in the fortress city of Dura-Europos, on the west bank of the Euphrates on the Syrian frontier. The church was built around 241. The city also featured a synagogue as well as temples to Mithras and numerous polytheistic deities. Unlike Megiddo, we have no direct evidence that soldiers attended the church save the circumstantial evidence of its location inside a heavily fortified border garrison town that was home to thousands of Roman soldiers.

The church only operated for fifteen years. In 256, Dura-Europos became a target for Persian Shah Shapur I of the ascendant Sassanid Empire. In preparation for the siege, both the synagogue and the church were filled in with dirt in order to strengthen the walls (this preserved the numerous paintings which adorned the insides). It was futile. The city was taken in a violent assault that included one of the first recorded cases of the use of poison gas in warfare. The city was razed to the ground, its population deported, and was never rebuilt.[9]

Aerial view of the fortress town of Dura-Europos, on the west bank of the Euphrates on the border of Roman Syria.

Most of this archaeological evidence was unknown when Cadoux and Yoder were writing their works. As a result, the most discussed pieces of evidence are not the archaeological finds but the textual evidence from the early church fathers.

An often overlooked individual in this debate is a Christian named Sextus Julius Africanus. Born in Aelia Capitolina (formerly known as Jerusalem), he served as an officer in the Roman army before joining the civil service as a diplomat during the reign of Severus Alexander. For the rest of his life he traveled widely. He led an embassy to Edessa, sought funds to rebuilt Emmaus, worked to establish a library in Rome, visited Alexandria, Nysa and the site of Noah’s Ark. He met and later corresponded with Origen. The topics of his writings reveal him to be a polymath and one of the first Christian intellectuals to branch out of theology and into other fields. He wrote a work of history called the Chronography which drew on Christian, Jewish and Pagan sources. He engaged in textual criticism of the book of Daniel, proving that the additional sections in the Septuagint were not in the original text. Another work called the Kestoi dealt with science, magic and technology. Here he offered advice on military morale, tactics and technology, including swordsmanship, the proper use of war elephants and a recipe for making burning phosphorus. Unfortunately for his place in history, the vast majority of his writings have been lost.[10] His views on war and the validity of the state have not survived, but seeing as how he carried out the duties of both and wrote about them, it seems he did not categorically disapprove of either.

Most discussion of the textual evidence has centered around two prolific writers of the early 3rd century church: Tertullian and Origen. Here, the pacifists often commit what is known amongst ancient historians as the Everest Fallacy. That is, the lack of source material in the ancient world causes us to mistake the exceptional for the typical. The pacifists tend to take the writings of Tertullian and Origen as normative for Christian thought of the period, when in fact these two prodigious writers were exceptional theologians of their time. Using them as “typical” Christians of their time period is equivalent to seeing Mount Everest as a “typical” mountain, or William Shakespeare as a “typical” English playwright of the 16th century, or the Beatles as a “typical” British rock band of the 1960s. The truth is, many Christians of the early 3rd century were illiterate, and many other authors such as Julius Africanus have had their writings lost. Tertullian and Origen survived because they were considered exceptional, not because they were typical.

Reconstruction of the baptismal font in the church at Dura-Europos, at Yale University Art Gallery.

With that said, what do these two men say on the issue? Tertullian’s views changed over time. In the first years after his conversion, c. 197, he penned a work titled Apology (sometimes styled “Defense of the Christians”) where he argued that Christians were not dangerous subversives but were in fact loyal citizens of the Roman Empire deserving of official toleration and protection. After all, he said “We are not Indian Brahmins or Gymnosophists, who dwell in woods and exile themselves from ordinary human life.” Christians, he wrote, were normal members of society and valued the Empire because of the peace and security that it provided. Thus they prayed for its safety and continued survival. What did they pray for specifically? “We pray for life prolonged; for security to the empire; for protection to the imperial house; for brave armies, a faithful senate, a virtuous people, the world at rest, whatever, as man or Caesar, an emperor would wish.”[11]

To further his case, Tertullian pointed out that “We are but of yesterday, and we have filled every place among you— cities, islands, fortresses, towns, market-places, the very camp, tribes, companies, palace, senate, forum—we have left nothing to you but the temples of your gods.” Later, he added that “We sail with you, and fight with you, and till the ground with you…How it is we seem useless in your ordinary business, living with you and by you as we do, I am not able to understand.” Christians according to Tertullian were normal members of society in everything except their refusal to take part in pagan religious rites. They carried on commerce, farmed, and served in the navy and army (and were therefore found in “fortresses” and “the very camp.”). If they wanted to hurt the Empire they could, but they didn’t want to, because they were just as personally invested in its survival as everyone else.[12]

Later in life, Tertullian’s views changed. By about 206 he had embraced the Montanist movement, a sect of Christianity that put an emphasis on prophetic revelation and strict morality. Declaring that “what has not been freely allowed is forbidden,” he became legalistic, moralizing and harshly critical of the Roman government and political system.[13] When asked to comment on the propriety of Christians serving in the Roman military even if they were not required to make pagan sacrifices or execute people, he rejected the idea outright. Whereas he had once argued that Christians supported the Roman state, he now declared that “There is no agreement between the divine and the human sacrament, the standard of Christ and the standard of the devil, the camp of light and the camp of darkness. One soul cannot be due to two masters— God and Caesar…how will a Christian man war, nay, how will he serve even in peace, without a sword, which the Lord has taken away?”[14]

He expounded further on his views in another work titled “On the Military Crown.” This piece was occasioned by a Christian soldier who had refused to wear a laurel crown when his unit was personally inspected by the emperor. He was arrested for insubordination, tried, and sentenced to death. Some Christians condemned him for being an extremist and needlessly antagonizing the authorities. Tertullian came to his defense, arguing that the laurel crown was a symbol of the gods Apollo and Bacchus. While it might be permissible to use pagan goods for non-religious purposes, such as burning incense to get rid of a foul smell, he argued that crowns had no practical use outside of their symbolism and therefore Christians should have nothing to do with them.[15]

Inscription dedicating to “God Jesus Christ” a table which stood on the stone pedestal to the left, at the Megiddo church.

He then moved on to consider the issue of “whether warfare is proper at all for Christians.” He strongly concluded that it was not. How, he asked, could Christians wield a sword when Jesus told Peter to put his sword back in its place? How could a Christian soldier pull guard duty on the Sabbath when he won’t work? How could a Christian soldier guard pagan temples, or march under the flag of a regime hostile to Christianity? It was wrong, he argued, for Christians to have any loyalties but to Christ. Christians should not join the army and those in the army should leave immediately.[16]

Writing from Alexandria, Origen proposed a more systematic theory of Christian pacifism in his “Against Celsus.” Countering Celsus’ charge that Christians did not serve in the military, Origen argued that Christians did better by staying home and praying for the emperor, “wrestling in prayers to God on behalf of those who are fighting in a righteous cause, and for the king who reigns righteously, that whatever is opposed to those who act righteously may be destroyed.”

In response to Celsus’ charge that if everyone did as the Christians did the empire would be overrun by its enemies, Origen argued that Christianity uniquely had the potential to unite all the peoples of the world under one faith. Once everyone became a Christian and followed its pacifist teachings, there would be no more wars and no kingdom would have to worry about being conquered by another one.[17]

Where Origen went a bit fuzzy is about what was supposed to happen before this point. What happens when not all the world is Christian, and there are still wars and foreign invasions? He implied that some wars are just by saying that Christians should pray for the emperor’s success in war, but seemed to suggest that Christians become freeloaders and stay home while other people do the fighting.[18]

What is clear from this body of evidence is that in the late 2nd and early 3rd centuries many Christians were joining the army and many soldiers were converting. If they were not, Tertullian and Origen would not have felt the need to spill so much ink to write about it.[19]

Cleaning the Megiddo mosaic. The text on the left reads “Gaianus, also called Porphyrius, centurion, our brother, has made the pavement at his own expense as an act of liberality. Brutius carried out the work.”

There were several factors that made the army conducive to Christianity. Contrary to Claiborne’s claim that early Christianity was “filled with those who had been left in the wake of imperial progress – day laborers, working children, old folks, feisty revolutionaries, single working mothers, those with disabilities, immigrants, and other who just had nothing to lose,” early Christian conversion in fact was a province of the upper classes. Upon closer thought this should not be surprising, for a religion that is spread primarily by sacred texts presupposes the ability to read. Christianity spread along trade networks and into urban centers, amongst the merchants, administrators and tradesmen. The last areas penetrated by Christianity were the ranks of the rural poor.[20]

Roman soldiers, especially officers, were more likely to be literate as it was needed for administrative functions. Army units were constantly on the move throughout the empire, indeed, soldiers may have spread Christianity to some new areas such as Britain. After the sporadic persecutions of Nero, Trajan, and Marcus Aurelius in Lyons, Christianity entered a period of unofficial toleration. The emperor Alexander Severus even met with Origen personally and kept a statue of Jesus (along with statues of Orpheus, Abraham and Apollonius of Tyana) in his personal shrine. Caracalla’s decree in 212 granting citizenship to the entire empire likely opened the door for many more Christian recruits to join the legions. Throughout the first half of the 3rd century, “one gets the sense that the army had adopted a modus vivendi with its Christian troops by following an unofficial “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy” with regards to their religious beliefs and observance of Army religious practices. Likely, some form of accommodation and compromise was arrived at on the unit level. In Megiddo, it even appears that some of the officers themselves were Christians and funded church construction for their men. When the persecutions began during the reign of Diocletian, many commanders were reluctant to condemn their Christian soldiers, and some tried to give them every way out possible. They didn’t want to lose good soldiers over the seemingly arbitrary whims of the emperor.[21]

Against this evidence, Yoder was forced to admit that Christians did serve in the military before Constantine, but tried to justify his position by arguing that this time period was “The epoch of Pax Romana, an age of world peace. There were brushfire skirmishes with barbarians around the edge of the empire, but few Christians lived there. Most of the Mediterranean world had not seen war for centuries.” In this world, “Most Roman soldiers were simply bureaucrats. They carried the mail, administered roads, and enforced laws and the prison system.” Christians who joined the army  “probably did it because the work was easy and the rewards generous, without troubling themselves much with moral analysis.”[22]

This assessment of Roman history is, quite frankly, absolutely preposterous. First, to refute the idea that service in the Roman legions was “easy,” Flavius Vegetius’ account of the training of a Roman legionnaire can be found here. It included running, obstacle courses, vaulting over wooden horses in full armor, digging trenches, mock combat twice a day with “wooden swords double the weight of the common ones,” ruck marching with 60-pound packs, and field exercises featuring lengthy marches and maneuvering in formation. Conditions were harsh. Modern analysis of surviving legion rosters and discharge records estimates that only 50-60% of soldiers completed their full term of service. Combat, harsh military discipline, medical discharges, and disease took care of the rest.[23]

What is even more preposterous is the claim that the 3rd century was “an age of world peace.” Between the reign of Marcus Aurelius and the beginning of Constantine’s establishment as sole emperor in 324, there were no fewer than 21 wars against foreign enemies, three major secession movements, two major civil wars, and thirteen military coups. The period is referred to as the Third Century Crisis, and is generally seen as a time that nearly brought the Roman Empire to its knees. Of course most of these wars were on the borders of the empire. That is also where most of the soldiers were stationed.

Another pacifist, Roland Bainton, has claimed that Christians only served in non-combat positions, specifically in the positions of frumentarius, vigiles, beneficarius and protectores. The problem is, Bainton seems to have not been aware of what these positions actually were. A vigiles was a firefighter and could pass as a non-combat position, but the frumentarii were the emperor’s  intelligence agency and secret police. A beneficarius was a supply officer, but it was invariably an intermediate rank that a soldier held before his promotion to centurion. A protectores was an officer in charge of training, but the position did not exist before Constantine’s military reforms so no one would have held it pre-Constantine. Yoder and others have claimed that Christians served only as police to enforce civil order, not as soldiers, but this overlooks the fact that in most of the Empire soldiers were the police.[24]

Wall painting from the church at Dura-Europos showing Jesus and Peter walking on water.

The rapid growth of Christianity in the Roman Empire stoked fear and resentment amongst the pagan population, some of whom blamed the Christians for the gods’ apparent disfavor towards the empire. The first persecutions under Decius in 250 and Valerian in 260 were brief, and ended when each ruler was killed in battle.

Much worse came during the reign of Diocletian from 285 onwards. By this time, Christians had filled the ranks of the military to the point that Diocletian had doubts about the loyalty of his troops. Before he could begin a general persecution of Christians in the empire, he first had to purge the military of Christians. Soldiers were forced to offer a sacrifice to the Roman gods, if they refused they were to be expelled from service. Some were executed.

Numerous stories of military martyrs date to this time period. Many are unreliable, but many others are written in a style that indicate the accounts were based off of notes taken at an actual trial. The stories of soldiers such as Marinus, Maximilian, Marcellus, Dasius, Julius the Veteran, Tipasius and others are too lengthy to recount here. Their presence, however, reveals some facts about the presence of Christians in the Roman army. The men described were veterans and well-regarded by their fellow soldiers. Some of the men were officers or offered promotion to officer rank. Julius served 27 years, fought in seven campaigns and re-enlisted after his original term of service had expired. In many cases, their commanders were reluctant to act against them due to their exceptional service and offered them bonuses, gave them time to reconsider, or tried to make other accommodations to convince them to make the sacrifice and remain in the service.

What is important to note is that the soldiers’ trouble always came from refusing to sacrifice to the Roman gods or wear religiously symbolic clothing. We don’t have a case of a pre-Constantian soldier martyr who was brought to trial for refusal to fight. This indicates their objection was to Roman army religion, not to the concept of war and soldiering itself. Their long terms of service also seem to indicate that their rejection of army religion hadn’t been a problem for their officers until orders came down from above to start making it a problem.[25]

The debate over pacifism in the early church has often overlooked the views of Christians who lived outside of the Roman Empire. While few written sources that address the topic have survived, the actions of the kingdom of Armenia are an interesting case. Towards the end of the Diocletianic persecution Maximin Daia, the emperor of the east, attempted to extend the persecution into the Roman client state of Armenia. Armenia was at the time the world’s only officially Christian nation, and when Maximin’s troops attempted to enforce his decrees there the entire country rose in armed revolt and defeated the Roman forces.[26]

Wall painting from the church at Dura-Europos showing Jesus healing the paralytic.

So what are we to make of Origen and Tertullian? The available evidence seems to indicate that at the very least, a large number of Christians disagreed with them. Tertullian’s embrace of the Montanists clearly took him outside the mainstream of contemporary Christian thought of his era. Because of this, the pacifist views which he adopted after joining the sect were likely also outside of the mainstream. Origen is a more interesting case, but even here we can note that he corresponded with other scholars such as Julius Africanus who quite likely disagreed with him.

It is also interesting to note that the two scholars lived in the most peaceful parts of the Roman Empire at that time.[27] One can justifiably wonder if their views on war might have been different had they had lived in Britain, or the Danube frontier, or the border with the Sassanid Empire. As it was, once Constantine came to power and Christianity grew to encompass the majority of the population of the Roman Empire, Christians all of a sudden had to take on the duties of the responsible exercise of power. As a result, Ambrose and Augustine began to develop what became known as Just War theory, which has dominated Christian thought on the matter ever since.

There was no golden age of a pacifist church avoiding the worldly entanglements of politics, only to trade its soul to Constantine for earthly power. Instead, as Peter Leithart observes, “the story of the church and war is ambiguity before Constantine, ambiguity after, and ambiguity right to the present.”[28] The pacifists are reaching back for a mythical past that never existed. There has always been disagreement on the issues of war and the legitimacy of the state, and there likely always will be so long as the world breeds overreaching governments and discontented citizens.

Further Reading:

Cecil John Cadoux, The Early Christian Attitude Toward War (London: Headley, 1919), available online at:

John T. Helgeland, “Christians and the Roman Army, A.D. 173-337,” Church History, Vol. 43, No. 2 (Jun., 1974), pp. 149-163+200.

Peter J. Leithart, Defending Constantine (Madison, Wisconsin: InterVarsity Press, 2009).

John F. Shean, Soldiering for God: Christianity and the Roman Army (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2010).

Vassilios Tzaferis, “Inscribed ‘To God Jesus Christ’: Early Christian Prayer Hall Found in Megiddo Prison,” Biblical Archaeology Review, Vol. 33, No. 2 (March/April 2007), available online at:

John Howard Yoder, Early Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 2009).


[1] John Howard Yoder, Early Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 2009), 43.

[2] John T. Helgeland, “Christians and the Roman Army, A.D. 173-337,” Church History, Vol. 43, No. 2 (Jun., 1974), p. 149-163+200; John Helgeland, Robert J. Daly and J. Patout Burns, Christians and the Military: The Early Experience (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 48-55; Arthur Darby Knock, “The Roman Army and the Roman Religious Year” Harvard Theological Review 45 No 4, 1952, p. 223-229.

[3] Luke 3:14; Matthew 8:5-13; Acts 10:1-48.

[4] Peter J. Leithart, Defending Constantine (Madison, Wisconsin: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 260.

[5] Eusebius, The History of the Church, trans. by G.A. Williamson (New York: Penguin Books, 1965), 5.5; Tertullian, Apology, trans. by S. Thelwall (1885),, (accessed April 19, 2012), 5; Cassius Dio, Roman History, trans. by Earnest Cary (1927), LacusCurtius, (accessed April 12, 2012), 72.8-10; Historia Augusta, trans. by David Magie (1932), LacusCurtius, (accessed April 12, 2012), Life of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, 24.4.

[6] Helgeland, et. al, Christians and the Military: The Early Experience, 32-34.

Note, the Christians did mistakenly assert that the legion’s nickname Fulminata came from this event. In fact, inscriptions show the name dates to the time of Augustus over 150 years earlier. (See Shean, Soldiering for God, 190-191).

[7] John F. Shean, Soldiering for God: Christianity and the Roman Army (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2010), 183.

[8] Vassilios Tzaferis, “Inscribed ‘To God Jesus Christ’: Early Christian Prayer Hall Found in Megiddo Prison,” Biblical Archaeology Review, Vol. 33, No. 2 (March/April 2007), available online at:

[9] Carly Silver, “Dura-Europos: Crossroad of Cultures,” Archaeology, August 11, 2010 (online feature) (accessed April 19, 2010).

[10] Shean, Soldiering for God, 193-194.

[11] Tertullian, Apology, 30, 32, 42.

[12] Tertullian, Apology, 37, 42.

[13] “Tertullian,” The Catholic Encyclopedia,; “Montanists,” The Catholic Encyclopedia,; Tertullian, On The Military Crown, trans. by S. Thelwall (1885),, (accessed April 19, 2012), 2.

[14] Tertullian, On Idolatry, trans. by S. Thelwall (1885),, (accessed April 19, 2012), 19.

[15] Tertullian, On the Military Crown, 1-2, 7-10, 12.

[16] Tertullian, On the Military Crown, 11.

[17] Origen, Against Celsus, trans. by Frederick Crombie (1885),, (accessed April 19, 2012), 8.68-73.

[18] Leithart, Defending Constantine, 269.

[19] Leithart, Defending Constantine, 264-265.

[20] Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw, Jesus for President (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2008), 156; Shean, Soldiering for God, 113-114.

For more on the spread of Christianity, see Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity (HarperOne, 1997).

[21] Shean, Soldiering for God, 143-144, 155, 207-209, 244.

[22] Yoder, Early Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution, 50; John Howard Yoder, For the Nations: Essays Public & Evangelical (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1997), 70 n. 14.

[23] A Companion to the Roman Army, ed. by Paul Erdkamp (London: Blackwell, 2011), 427.

[24] Helgeland, “Christians and the Roman Army, A.D. 173-337,” 162-163.

[25] Helgeland, et. al, Christians and the Military: The Early Experience, 56-65; Shean, Soldiering for God, 186-205.

[26] Eusebius, The History of the Church, 9.8.

[27] Shean, Soldiering for God, 202-203.

[28] Leithart, Defending Constantine, 278.

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Article © Christopher Jones 2012.

40 Comments leave one →
  1. April 20, 2012 3:19 PM

    I just read a book that deals with more or less the same subject matter: Donald O’Reilly, “The Lost Legion Rediscovered”. To be honest, it is not a good book; the author makes many mistakes. Nevertheless, he offers arguments that the legend of the Theban Legion (with Christian soldiers serving Probus, Carus, and Maximian) may contain an element of truth. Although I remain sceptical, I cannot deny that I also had the impression that O’Reilly may indeed have found the place where an incident like that of the Theban Legion might fit.

  2. April 20, 2012 3:49 PM

    Thank you, I’ll have to give that a look. I might do a post some time in the future on the stories of the military martyrs from a human interest angle. Right now it’s time to move on to writing about some other things.

  3. May 31, 2012 10:54 AM

    Hippolytos wrote in c. 200:
    “A soldier of the civil authority must be taught not to kill men and to refuse to do so if he is commanded, and to refuse to take an oath. If he is unwilling to comply, he must be rejected for baptism. A military commander or civic magistrate who wears the purple must resign or be rejected. If an applicant or a believer seeks to become a soldier, he must be rejected, for he has despised God.” (Hippolytos, Apostolic Tradition 16:17-19)

  4. June 1, 2012 10:44 AM

    I chose to leave Hippolytus out of this article because although he tells us that he is opposed to Christians serving in the army, he doesn’t tell us why.

  5. September 10, 2012 9:12 PM

    The reference to Christians serving under Marcus Aurelius is brought up without mentioning the following passage.

    “Having then examined my own position, and my host, with respect to the vast mass of barbarians and of the enemy, I quickly betook myself to prayer to the gods of my country. But being disregarded by them, I summoned those who among us go by the name of Christians. And having made inquiry, I discovered a great number and vast host of them, and raged against them, which was by no means becoming; for afterwards I learned their power. Wherefore they began the battle, not by preparing weapons, nor arms, nor bugles; for such preparation is hateful to them, on account of the God they bear about in their conscience. ”

    One may argue that the writing is a forgery, but wouldn’t that also limit its use to prove Christians served under Marcus Aurelius?

  6. January 25, 2014 6:57 AM

    Very interesting read. Thanks!

  7. March 1, 2015 1:35 AM

    Great articles. I’d be curious to read a review by you of George Kalantzis’s book Caesar and the Lamb. Also one minor correction. Claudius Apollinaris of Hierapolis is actually the earliest Christian author to attribute the rain miracle to the prayers of Christian soldiers. He states it in his apology addressed to Marcus Aurelius, which he most likely wrote in 176 A.D. when the emperor was touring the eastern provinces after the revolt of Avidius Cassius.

  8. -JzK- permalink
    April 16, 2015 3:58 AM

    You can read a whole book about this issue: The early Christian attitude to war: a contribution to the history of Christian ethics

  9. December 26, 2015 4:03 AM

    One clearly written book showing the true character and “grit” of Roman Christians as a group in the Roman Legions?, read, Fox’s “Book of Martyrs”.

  10. February 2, 2016 12:49 PM

    Dr Jones (I presume you’ve achieved your doctorate by now), this is some good and helpful research. But I think you are in danger of falling into the opposite ditch of the idealists. Yes, these examples demonstrate that things were never as simplistic (the early church was entirely pacifist) as some have argued. But that doesn’t then prove that in the dark all cats are gray, and we live in just about the same moral darkness now as then.

    It is nonetheless stunning that in a culture that celebrated and loved war there was a movement that deeply shunned and criticized it – not perfectly and without exception, but still for the most part. Your examples don’t disprove the pacifism of the early church, they simply qualify and complexify it. There are many Christian stories, in the NT and outside it, that are receptive to Roman soldiers (and it’s interesting that, in the NT, they are all officers!). But the NT and the later teachers of the church are also opposed to war and the things that make for war.

  11. March 5, 2016 7:12 PM

    Interesting read, thank you for writing it. Leaving aside the moral complexities of reconciling faith with the state, it definitely took courage to be a Christian in those days. I fear we are slowly headed back in that direction.

  12. Rick permalink
    March 30, 2016 4:16 PM

    Excellent article. Thank you.

  13. August 30, 2016 9:15 PM

    Pure gold! My Christian mentor is a hyper-pacifist. Over the last 20 years of bible study with him, I never really questioned his pacifist stance. But now that I’m older, I have started to question his pacifist/anarchist position because it makes no sense to me. This article is pure gold for me! he always positioned himself with the “Early Church” and that their pacifist theology was a slam dunk. But to be a pacifist/anarchist, one must ignore God’s law! Jesus came to fulfill the law, not abolish it! Thanks for this article!

    • csrobins permalink
      October 25, 2021 3:37 AM

      Greg, if you’re interested, you might want to check out a book called Fight by Preston Sprinkle. He has some interesting incites from a former Navy Seal sniper and a discussion about Just War Theory.

  14. August 31, 2016 11:34 AM

    As Mark Rich notes, the evidence in article helps to paint a more complex story but it is not a slam dunk by any stretch. The most troubling part of it is the very incomplete representation of pacifist arguments in the early Church. Tertullian and Origen are not only not the only two advocating nonviolence, they’re not even the most compelling. You even admitted, here in the comments, to deliberately leaving out a third example in Hippolytus. Here is just a sampling of others:

    Justin Martyr
    And when the Spirit of prophecy speaks as predicting things that are to come to pass, He speaks in this way: “For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. And He shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people; and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” And that it did so come to pass, we can convince you. For from Jerusalem there went out into the world, men, twelve in number, and these illiterate, of no ability in speaking: but by the power of God they proclaimed to every race of men that they were sent by Christ to teach to all the word of God; and we who formerly used to murder one another do not only now refrain from making war upon our enemies, but also, that we may not lie nor deceive our examiners, willingly die confessing Christ. For that saying, “The tongue has sworn but the mind is unsworn,” might be imitated by us in this matter. But if the soldiers enrolled by you, and who have taken the military oath, prefer their allegiance to their own life, and parents, and country, and all kindred, though you can offer them nothing incorruptible, it were verily ridiculous if we, who earnestly long for incorruption, should not endure all things, in order to obtain what we desire from Him who is able to grant it. (First Apology 39)

    Justin Martyr
    And we who were filled with war, and mutual slaughter, and every wickedness, have each through the whole earth changed our warlike weapons, – our swords into ploughs, and our spears into implements of tillage, – and we cultivate piety, righteousness, philanthropy, faith, and hope, which we have from the Father Himself through Him who was crucified. (Dialogue with Trypho 50)

    For it is not in war, but in peace, that we are trained. War needs great preparation, and luxury craves profusion; but peace and love, simple and quiet sisters, require no arms nor excessive preparation. The Word is their sustenance. (Instructor I 12)

    Nor an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, for him who counts no man his enemy, but all his neighbors, and therefore can never stretch out his hand for vengeance. (Proof of the Apostolic Preaching 96)

    Ignatius of Antioch
    Nothing is more precious than peace, by which all war, both in heaven and earth, is brought to an end. Therefore have need of meekness, by which the prince of this world is brought to nought. (Epistle to the Trallians 4)

    How, then, when we do not even look on, lest we should contract guilt and pollution, can we put people to death? And when we say that those women who use drugs to bring on abortion commit murder, and will have to give an account to God s for the abortion, on what principle should we commit murder? For it does not belong to the same person to regard the very foetus in the womb as a created being, and therefore an object of God’s care, and when it has passed into life, to kill it. (A Plea for the Christians 35)

    The whole world is wet with mutual blood; and murder, which in the case of an individual is admitted to be a crime, is called a virtue when it is committed wholesale. Impunity is claimed for the wicked deeds, not on the plea that they are guiltless, but because the cruelty is perpetrated on a grand scale. (To Donatus 6)

    The theme that Christian pacifism is a proof of Jesus’ Messiahship – that Christians have fulfilled the prophecy of swords being turned into plowshares – is one that turns up constantly. It would be a difficult argument to make if Christian pacifism was not widespread and notable (at least notable enough that Celsus could in turn criticize Christians for it). Tertullian and Origen were hardly exceptional in their defense of pacifism. It seems to be unanimous among the Church Fathers who spoke about the subject, whose arguments only made sense if they were describing a lived reality among the majority of Christians.

  15. Thomas the doubter permalink
    September 18, 2016 9:25 PM

    Great scholarly discussion. I wonder about the bit of the roman army being a volunteer army as I read some 20 years ago a scholarly article (one with citations anyway) arguing that the demise of the Roman Empire came about after all the small farms of the many were consolidated into vast estates of the few. The claim being each landholding family was required to provide one family member to the army for conscription. An additional claim that citizens of the city of Rome were not required to serve. Thus the army collapsed. Perhaps it was bunk or perhaps ?

  16. January 14, 2017 11:13 AM

    Imagine this – Christians in the army of one nation fighting Christians in the army of another nation. Christians killing each other. If truly a Christian, then truly righteous in Christ. If both Christians, then both truly righteous in Christ. Can the righteous kill the righteous? Would a son of God kill his own brother at the behest of men lusting after worldly kingdoms?

    Pledging allegiance to anyone or anything other than Jehovah, His Word (Yeshua), His Kingdom, and His people is idolatry. As expected, idolatry ALWAYS leads to the murder of innocents or the approval thereof.

    As Yeshua said, His Kingdom is not of this world. If it were, he would have told his followers to take up the sword.

    As Paul says, the weapons of our warfare are not carnal…

    • March 10, 2019 11:01 AM

      Brian, in my forthcoming book, I point out precisely your noted contradiction. Both the U.S. and Russia have basically the same percentages of “Christian citizens,” according to data from Pew. Yet, 24/7/365 they have entire systems of nuclear weapons, armies, navies, surveillance in space, full-scale systems of lies called propaganda, some “intelligence” personnel engaged in murder-assignments, investments of their national budgets overwhelming devoted to wars and war-preparations, YET THEIR CLERGY SAY NOTHING, AND THEIR RESPECTIVE POPULATIONS SAY NOTHING. I am a historian, so have done some calculations on the history of Christians killing since the Fourth Century. I come up with a Half Billion dead, and much of those victims were Christians killing Christians. I like your orientation, Brian……John D. Willis, PhD, Leadership Ethics Online

  17. John Prangley permalink
    February 26, 2017 3:26 PM

    The horrors and cruelty unleashed by war are vile and multiple. Cold-blooded killing of prisoners, torture and maiming and rape are unleashed in all their ferocity by warfare-bringing guilt and mental breakdown on combatants and non-combatants alike. Surely the Christian mind entranced by Jesus’ non-violence and gentleness towards victims would have been converted to pacifism. On a gravestone of a Christian Roman soldier was carved this message; ‘licet mihi militari sed non bellari’ -I may serve in police duties not in killing. There are incidents in history of Chrisian legionaries erfusing to fight. Gandhi and Martin Luther King responded to Jesus’ revolutioinary counsel as if He meant what He said.

  18. Danny permalink
    April 6, 2017 9:03 PM

    As a person fascinated by fighter jets, enough to learn to fly an accurately simulated f-16 and take the Air Force Officer Qualifying Test, being a Christian has led to a deep search on the issues of war, pacifism and God.

    In the Old Testament, war is a way to deal with evil. The most obvious story is David, a man of war and a man after God’s own heart. Abram, before God changed his name to Abraham, took to war to get Lot back. He returned having achieved the goal, by slaughtering Chedorlaomer in the valley of Shaveh.

    Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, we agree. An article I recently read mentioned that Jesus would not have told His disciples to fight for Him because prophecy had to be fulfilled.

    A book called Jesus and Mohammed by Mark A. Gabriel, a convert from Islam to Christianity, describes Mohammed’s life as a river of blood and sums up the founders of each faith in this way, “Mohammed washed his followers’ swords, Jesus washed His followers’ feet.”

    So what’s the problem?

    The New Testament book of Romans, specifically chapter 13, which says the state is God’s avenger of evil.

    A sermon summed it up this way: War was not intended at creation. God does not approve of vigilantism. All power on earth is given from God (Consider what Jesus said to Pilate). All wars anticipate one war and do not be on the wrong side of the final war that ends all wars.


  19. Dave Millsap permalink
    May 11, 2017 10:41 AM

    After reading through this article and thread, I notice a glaringly obvious wrinkle. It’s arguing for or against a practice/ethic based on tradition, be that 1600 or 60 years old. I can see many traps to fall into if we lay scrutiny of a truth at the feet of people called Christians rather than Christ Himself. Especially those who are outside the purview of walking with Him in person. We have Christ’s words and his Apostles (authorized) to direct us. Finding support elsewhere that seems to contradict their words should have the same weight as Joe Schmoe who writes articles today. I don’t think any “church fathers” had any more truth or insight than you or I do today reading this. They were closer to some action, be we have their words as well as many others from all over those regions. Our ability to tap into records and quotes from North Africa to Rome, to Germany etc far surpasses the resources they had at their fingertips to draw upon. I assume.

  20. March 10, 2019 10:55 AM

    Christopher, I like what you have done here, and would like some communication. My PhD from the University of Chicago centered on historical theology, the history of ethics, and the history of Christian violence. My dissertation was, “‘Love Your Enemies’: Sixteenth Century Interpretations,” (UChicago, 1989), 3 volumes. I have just put this essay in a footnote for my book, “Our Violent World and the Nonviolent Ethics of Jesus.” I hope you are making progress towards finishing your PhD. John Willis

  21. csrobins permalink
    October 25, 2021 3:33 AM

    You mentioned Cadoux in your first paragraph, but I get the feeling you didn’t read his book. You have also missed some very important lines from Tertullian and Marcus Aurelius also which I will include below.

    Two big beefs with your article though are about Tertullian. You quote his Apology XXXVII, but you don’t continue on the end of the paragraph: “Your temples indeed we leave to yourselves, and they are the only places you can name without Christians. What
    war can we now be unprepared for ? And supposing us unequal in strength, yet considering our usage, what should we not attempt readily? we whom you see so ready to meet death in all its forms of cruelty, was it not agreeable to our religion to be killed rather than to kill.”

    That last line is pretty hard to get around. Christians may well have been in the camps and fortresses in many capacities, just like in the military today, but many of those positions don’t actually require fighting, much less killing. And so even before he became a Montanist, he was already showing that it was not acceptable for Christians to kill. In fact, in XXXVI, he says about Christian treatment of their enemies, “To wish ill, to do ill, to speak ill, or to think ill of any one, we are equally forbidden without exception.”

    Likewise, when you quote from XLII, “we fight with you” is “vobiscum et militamus” which could simply be translated “we serve in the army with you.” Again, just as many conscientious objectors have served in the military as cooks, medics, couriers, etc. The Roman Legions needed the same things. That’s not to say that there were not some Christians which fought bravely as you mention (Cadoux has 16 pages of examples of pre-Constantinian Christian participation in warfare). But the vast majority of Christians avoided it.

    This brings me to my other issue, you mentioned the story of praying for rain during the days of Marcus Aurelius, but you didn’t actually quote any of the sources. But here is one important fact that the emperor reported to the Roman Senate, speaking of the Christians: “Wherefore they began the battle, not by preparing weapons, nor arms, nor bugles; for such preparation is hateful to them, on account of the God they bear about in their conscience. Therefore it is probable that those whom we suppose to be atheists have God as their ruling power entrenched in their conscience. For having cast themselves on the ground, they prayed not only for me, but also for the whole army as it stood, that they might be delivered from the present thirst and famine.”

    So the Roman Emperor in 173 testified that it was hateful to Christians to prepare weapons or arms (or even bugles) because of their conscience in following God. All they did was pray for rain and the army was delivered from thirst, and also from battle according to your account. That seems to be quite a remarkable piece of evidence which you have overlooked.

  22. May 6, 2022 1:11 PM


    Azis S. Ataya, History of Eastern Christianity P. 156 mentions an unit of 11 000 Christian soldiers serving at the time of Traian (c. 98 A.D.)

    The claim that Christians did not serve in the army before 170 A.D. seems unfounded.

    • csrobins permalink
      May 8, 2022 3:13 AM

      I believe I found the reference you mention on page 174 of the copy on, but it doesn’t mention a “unit” of 11,000. This is the quote, speaking of Antiochene martyrs:

      “Perhaps the most conspicuous example was that of the eleven thousand martyrs, soldiers who espoused Christianity wholesale in the reign of Trajan, and were banished by the emperor in the wilds of Armenia, to be massacred in the reign of his successor, Hadrian.”

      He doesn’t give the source if this particular legend, but according to this ( it is based on a 9th-century Greek document, but the connection to Hadrian was not made until the 14th century by Peter of Equillo. In any case, it was claimed to be a miraculous conversion by an angel before an important battle, and so if it is not entirely apocryphal, it is certainly not a tale of ordinary Christians chosing to serve in the army.


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