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The Life and Works of Sextus Julius Africanus, Part 1: The Diplomat

January 22, 2014

bannerPt1Christianity at the end of the second century AD found itself at a crossroads. The new religion had survived persecutions and spread throughout the Mediterranean world and beyond. Yet, the last of those who had  known Jesus in the flesh had died a hundred years before. There were no longer any eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus, or even anyone left alive who knew the eyewitnesses. Knowledge about Jesus and the Apostles was now available only from church tradition and the written word.

At the same time, the growing faith was coming under increased intellectual attack. At around 165 AD the Syrian satirist and sharp-witted Epicurean Lucian of Samosata penned The Passing of Peregrinus, in which the title character, a murder and a child molester on the run from his native land, travels to Palestine and bamboozles the Christians into declaring him a prophet second only to Jesus.[1] Sometime towards the end of the century, Celsus published his famous critique of Christianity in which he argued that Jesus was a poor illegitimate child who learned sorcery while working in Egypt and returned to Galilee to proclaim himself a god.[2] Even the emperor Marcus Aurelius joined the discussion, writing in his Meditations that a man should be prepared to die at any moment, but ideally “this readiness comes from a man’s own judgment, not from mere obstinacy, as with the Christians, but considerably and with dignity and in a way to persuade another without tragic show.”[3]

The same basic criticism was being repeated by all three pagan critics: Christianity had no legs to stand on. Christians followed their religion on blind faith with no real intellectual argument as to why they or anyone else should do so.

In reverse, many Christians seemed to have decided that science, philosophy and reason were purely pagan constructs with no value. Clement of Alexandria lamented that some Christians “who think themselves naturally gifted, do not wish to touch either philosophy or logic; nay more, they do not wish to learn natural science.” Such people “demand bare faith alone, as if they wished, without bestowing any care on the vine, straightway to gather clusters from the first.”[4] His work titled Stromata was a double appeal for Christians to not reject Greek philosophy and Greeks to not reject Christianity as barbarian irrationality.

Traces of the Aelia Capitolina of Africanus' day peek up throughout modern Jerusalem. This street and accompanying shops of the Eastern Cardo were discovered next to the Western Wall plaza.

Traces of the Aelia Capitolina of Africanus’ day occasionally peek up through the surface of modern Jerusalem. This street and accompanying merchant’s stalls were discovered next to the Western Wall plaza.

Into this world walked Sextus Julius Africanus.

We do not know when exactly he was born, although we can estimate he was born sometime around AD 170. He once referred to Aelia Capitolina (Jerusalem, renamed by Hadrian after the Bar Kokhba revolt) as “the ancient fatherland” and also had longstanding ties to Emmaus a few miles away. If he wasn’t born in Jerusalem itself, it seems likely he was born and raised nearby.[5]

Of his family and early life we know nothing. His education, though lost to us, must have been extensive, for he showed not only command of Greek and Latin but also Hebrew and Aramaic. By faith he was most certainly a Christian, although when he came to this faith is not known. By nationality he was undoubtedly a proud Roman citizen. In his career he would serve as a military officer, diplomat and civil official in the empire who gained the Emperor’s ear at a time when Christians are often [mistakenly] thought to have pacifists and outsiders on the margins of society. As a scholar, he was a polymath with a wide variety of interests. Along with Clement and Origen, Africanus represented a new type of Christian intellectual, one who would harness the best of Greek and Roman philosophy and science in the service of Christianity.

Bust of Septimius Severus from the Altes Museum in Berlin.

Bust of Septimius Severus from the Altes Museum in Berlin.

At some point, likely early in his adult life, he entered the great source of social mobility in the Roman empire: the army. What has survived of his military writings reveals a man with plenty of experience fighting on the Euphrates frontier and an intimate familiarity with Parthian tactics  and weapons. There would be plenty of opportunities to gain experience.

On New Year’s Eve AD 192, Marcus Aurelius’ son Commodus was murdered in Rome. The Praetorian Guard proclaimed Pertinax emperor, then murdered him three months later and sold the throne at auction to Didius Julianus. The sale of the entire empire scandalized Rome, and three generals from the provinces vied to seize the throne. Septimius Severus arrived first and dispatched Julianus, then defeated his other two rivals in a four year civil war.[6] In March 194 he defeated Pescennius Niger in a series of battles in Asia Minor, and then purged Syria of his supporters. Those who escaped execution fled across the Tigris into Parthia.[7]

While the Romans were fighting each other, their former client state of Osroene banded together with the Parthian client state of Adiabene and besieged the frontier city of Nisibis in Syria. Severus marched to relieve the city, then sent three armies into the renegade kingdoms to restore them to the Roman orbit. Abgar VIII of Osroene gave over some of his children as hostages to assure Severus of his future loyalty. The small kingdoms were brought to heel, but once they had to be occupied with garrisons they were no longer effective buffer states between Rome and Parthia. As Cassius Dio put it, Severus “used to declare that he had added a vast territory to the empire and had made it a bulwark of Syria. On the contrary, it is shown by the facts themselves that this conquest has been a source of constant wars and great expense to us. For it yields very little and uses up vast sums; and now that we have reached out to peoples who are neighbor of the Medes and the Parthians rather than of ourselves, we are always, one might say, fighting the battles of those peoples.”[8]

The Roman-Parthian face-off in the Near East. Roman provinces are in red and Roman client kingdoms in pink. Parthian territory is in brown and Parthian client kingdoms in orange.

The Roman-Parthian face-off in the Near East c. 200 AD. Roman provinces are in red and Roman client kingdoms in pink. Parthian territory is in brown and Parthian client kingdoms in orange.

While Severus was busy fighting his last rival in Gaul, Vologases V of Parthia saw an opportunity and in a surprise attack overran the Roman province of Mesopotamia and besieged Nisibis again. The siege was broken by the city’s own garrison. By the time Severus arrived, the Parthians had already left.[9]

Nevertheless, this meant war, and Severus was keen to punish the Parthians and their client kingdoms for supporting Niger in the civil war.[10] We have no record of when Africanus joined the army or what battles he fought in, but based on his writings about fighting the Parthians it seems likely that his first experience came in the army Severus recruited for his invasion of Parthia.

He chose to invade by water. Constructing a flotilla, his army sailed down the Euphrates. Vologases had not expected this move, and Severus captured Babylon and Seleucia without a fight. He then moved on and on January 28, 198 he captured the Parthian capital of Ctesiphon. Vologases fled, and the Romans sacked and plundered the city.[10]

The Parthian empire was organized as a feudal system, and its armies made up of citizen soldiers called up from all walks of life. Getting the army organized and into the field took time, and this made Parthia vulnerable to a surprise attack by Rome’s full-time professional military. Once they had a chance to organize, the Parthians were a formidable opponent.

Still awe-inspiring over 1,800 years later, the ruins of Hatra suggest the great wealth that the caravan route city once commanded.

Still awe-inspiring over 1,800 years later, the ruins of Hatra suggest the great wealth that the caravan route city once commanded.

Low on supplies and unfamiliar with the countryside, Severus quickly withdrew from Ctesiphon. The next target was the city of Hatra, a wealthy trading post in the midst of what is now Iraq’s Western Desert, and the capital of the Parthian client kingdom of Araba.

Of Severus’ first attack on Hatra we know little. Cassius Dio only notes that the attack “accomplished nothing; on the contrary, his siege engines were burned, many soldiers perished, and vast numbers were wounded.” His second attempt fared little better. Arab cavalry harassed Roman foraging parties that tried to gather food from the countryside. Ballistas mounted on the walls picked off Roman soldiers from a long range. When they approached the walls with siege engines the defenders loaded hornet’s nests into clay pots and dropped them on the defenders. They also used bituminous naphtha to set both soldiers and siege engines on fire. Camped in the desert sun with dwindling food and water, the conditions began to take their toll. According to Herodian, “the Romans found the air at Hatra intolerable, stifling from the hot sun; they fell sick and died, and more casualties resulted from disease than from enemy action.”[11]

Nevertheless, after twenty days the Roman siege engines succeeded in breaking down part of the city wall. Severus then stunned his soldiers by ordering them to pull back while he offered the Hatrans a chance to surrender. They refused, and Severus sent his soldiers to attack the breach the next day, only to find the defenders had repaired it during the night. His troops of European origin refused to attack. The Syrian troops led the assault and were repulsed with heavy losses. Severus realized a revolt was brewing and abandoned the siege, retreating to Syria Palestina and then to Egypt.[12]

In 211, Severus died of an illness in Eburacum (modern York) while campaigning in Britain. He left the empire to his sons Geta and Caracalla. Caracalla quickly had his brother murdered, his images erased and his supporters executed. Secure on the throne, in 212 he declared that all free inhabitants of the Roman Empire were citizens, a decree with far-reaching implications for Africanus’ home province.[13]

A mosaic from early third century Edessa, showing a well-to-do Essene family from the time of Africanus.

A mosaic from early third century Edessa, showing a well-to-do Edessene family from around the time Africanus served as ambassador to the city.

It was around this time that Africanus was given the most important mission of his life, a posting as ambassador to Osroene. Africanus wrote that he was at the court in the Osroenian capital of Edessa with Ma’nu son of Abgar. Abgar VIII died sometime in the first decade of the third century and was replaced by Abgar IX, who grew up in Severus’ court as a hostage and took Severus’ name. His son was named Ma’nu, which puts the date of Africanus’ ambassadorship sometime prior to Abgar IX’s downfall in 213. Sometime around 200, Abgar VIII had converted to Christianity, and this may have been why the Christian Africanus was chosen for the ambassadorship.[14]

Africanus’ descriptions of life in Edessa survive only in snippets. At one time he trained the king’s son Ma’nu in how to estimate distances using string tied to a bow and arrow. Ma’nu was already an accomplished archer. According to Africanus:

He was so skillful an archer that, being on a hunt with us once about midday (actually, I myself happened also to be riding along, not being any hunter, but a spectator of the hunt), a forest bear starting up out of a certain lair, formidable to attack, something terrible to behold, also impossible to shoot quickly; and everyone being terrified and seeking ways for flight, Mannos [Ma’nu], encouraging us to be bold, dissolved all fear shooting two arrows; for shooting into the eyes of the bear he rendered it easily overcome, not even seeing the hunters.[15]

Africanus went on to describe several other skilled archers and their trick shots. He watched the famous philosopher Bardaisan perform a trick were he had a man stand before him holding a shield, and then proceeded to draw a picture of that man in arrows that he shot into the shield. “We marveled while watching,” Africanus recalled, “how the shooting was not a warlike pursuit, but it was both a somewhat delightful and dangerous pleasure.” Another trick shooter, a Scythian named Syrmos, would have an assistant standing some distance away shoot an unpointed arrow into the air, which Syrmos would then shoot down with his own bow. In such a way the arrow was seen “shattering the one meeting it, and it was dragging it along, hanging upon it like an enemy prisoner, but the one…having been seized, was no longer an arrow, but a arrow’s spoil.”[16]

After a devastating flood in AD 201, Abgar VIII had his palace built on a raised citadel overlooking the rest of the city. Edessa is now modern Şanlıurfa, Turkey.

After a devastating flood in AD 201, Abgar VIII had his palace built on a raised citadel overlooking the rest of the city. Edessa is now modern Şanlıurfa, Turkey.

Although seemingly cordial on the surface, Africanus’ real purpose in the court at Edessa was undoubtedly to report back to Rome on the continued state of Abgar’s loyalty. Osroene was under tighter Roman control than ever before, which in turn put Rome closer to Parthia than ever before, and the threat of Osroene suddenly flipping to the Parthian side was not to be underestimated. Africanus’ very presence was a reminder to Abgar that Rome was always watching.

As for Abgar himself, Cassius Dio wrote that after ascending to the throne the king, “when he had once got control of the kindred tribes, visited upon their leaders all the worst forms of cruelty. Nominally he was compelling them to change to Roman customs, but in fact he was indulging his authority over them to the full.”[17] Alignment with Rome was important to Abgar, and Africanus’ presence would have been an important sign of Roman support for the controversial leader.

Despite the geopolitical gravity of the situation, living in Edessa gave Africanus the opportunity to indulge his scholarly interests. Edessa was home to a great archive of Syriac literature, containing books preserved from Nisibis and as far away as Sinope on the Black Sea. It was of special interest to Christian researchers due to the early foothold which Christianity gained in the region. The Armenian fifth century historian Moses of Chorene credited Africanus with transcribing and preserving the archive for use by future generations. To read the archive, Africanus must have had picked up Aramaic at some point in his life along with Greek, Latin and Hebrew (which of these four was his native language is not at all clear).[18]

Although Edessa’s ruling family were Arabs of Nabataean descent, the population was a diverse mix of peoples from across the Near East, and its religious climate possibly even more diverse. Despite the conversion of the royal family various pagan temples remained open. There was also community of Jews. The aforementioned philosopher Bardaisan made his home there and composed works of philosophy and history in Syriac. Although at one time an orthodox Christian, Bardaisan eventually embraced Gnosticism.[19]

In the meantime, in 208 Vologases had died. As was typical in Parthia, his death set off a power struggle between his sons Vologases VI and Artabanus V. Caracalla sought to instigate conflict by demanding Artabanus turn over two fugitives who had fled to Parthia, but Artabanus called his bluff and turned the men over. Caracalla also tried to gain a greater degree of control over the buffer states and thereby surround Parthia on the north and west. In AD 213, he summoned Abgar to Rome on the pretext of friendship, and when he arrived he had him imprisoned. Osroene lost its independence and became a province of the Roman Empire.[20]

Our only family portrait of a Roman emperor shows Septimius Severus, Julia Domna and their sons Caracalla and Geta. When Caracalla had his brother murdered, he erased his face from the painting. In the Altes Museum in Berlin.

Our only known family portrait of a Roman emperor shows Septimius Severus, Julia Domna and their sons Caracalla and Geta. When Caracalla had his brother murdered, he erased his face from the painting. In the Altes Museum in Berlin.

But Caracalla was still determined to conquer Parthia. Artabanus had retained most of Parthia’s territory from his brother, so Caracalla then asked him for the hand of his daughter in marriage. Seeing through the ploy to take control of his empire, Artabanus steadfastly refused.

In 216 Caracalla then turned to a surprise attack, leading his army through the mountains into Media and bursting out into the Parthian client kingdom of Adiabene. The Parthians again had no time to gather their army, and the Romans quickly captured the capital of Arbela. The city was sacked, the tombs of the kings of Adiabene were broken open and desecrated, and Caracalla’s troops ran wild through the countryside killing, burning and looting. Herodian wrote that as Caracalla marched back to Roman territory, “En route he burned the towns and villages and permitted his soldiers to carry off as much as they could of anything they wanted.”[21]

As Caracalla overwintered in Osroene, Artabanus gathered an army to retaliate against Rome. Any plans Caracalla had made were forestalled on April 8, 217 when he was assassinated while urinating by the side of the road near the city of Carrhae. The assassin was a soldier whose brother Caracalla had executed, but many in Rome suspected that the general Marcus Opellius Macrinus had put him up to the task. With a Parthian invasion imminent, the troops declared Macrinus emperor. That summer, the two empires’ armies took the field and fought each other to a standstill in three days of bloody battle near Nisibis. After the battle, Macrinus sent a message to Artabanus emphasizing that Caracalla was dead and offering reparations for Caracalla’s actions.

Grandmother to two emperors, Julia Maesa engineered the coup that put her grandson on the throne and then engineered the coup that removed him in favor of his cousin. She had coins struck with her own likeness, such as this example from the Wheaton College Archaeology Museum.

Grandmother to two emperors, Julia Maesa engineered the coup that put her grandson on the throne and then engineered the coup that removed him in favor of his cousin. She had coins struck with her own likeness, such as this example from the Wheaton College Archaeology Museum.

Macrinus released all prisoners taken on Caracalla’s expedition, returned what had been plundered, and repaired the tombs of the royal house of Adiabene. Peace was restored, at the cost of 200 million sesterces.[22]

But in the strange, backstabbing world of Severan politics, nothing could remain at peace for long. In June 218, another revolt broke out in Phoenicia. Septimius Severus’ sister-in-law Julia Maesa had been sent to retire there, but instead of living out her golden years enjoying her considerable wealth, she instead instigated a revolt in the army to overthrow Macrinus and replace him with her fifteen year old grandson Elagabalus. Elagabalus proved to be a disaster, whose five marriages, including one to a vestal virgin, cross-dressing, homosexual behavior, rumored desire for sex-change surgery, and fanatical dedication to a Syrian sun god scandalized Rome. In an effort to reign him in, his mother and grandmother had him appoint his twelve year old cousin Severus Alexander as caesar, which legally meant adopting him as his son. On March 11 or 12, 222 the Praetorian Guard revolted, killed Elagabalus and his mother, and made Severus Alexander emperor.[23]

Bust of the young emperor Severus Alexander. Only thirteen when he took the throne, under his rule Africanus would enjoy a high degree of favor in the royal court.

Bust of the young emperor Severus Alexander. Only thirteen when he took the throne, under his rule Africanus would enjoy a high degree of favor in the royal court.

Alexander ruled thirteen years, restoring a semblance of stability to the empire. Only thirteen years old when he began to reign, the young emperor was merely a figurehead. Throughout his reign real power was wielded by his grandmother Julia Maesa, and after her death in 226 by his mother Julia Avita Mamaea.

It was under Alexander that Africanus’ career soared to new heights. Whether he remained in the Imperial service we do not know, but he turned much of his attention to writing and scholarship. He seems to have taken up residence in Emmaus along the road to Aelia Capitolina. He traveled to Rome as an ambassador in order to seek official recognition of his hometown as polis. Recognition was granted, the city was renamed Nicopolis, and ever since it has been known as Emmaus Nicopolis.[24] While in Rome, Africanus also reported that “I designed and built for the emperor” a library inside the the Pantheon, in which he placed texts including a variant reading of Homer that he had found in libraries in Aelia Capitolina and Caria.[25]

The court of Alexander seems to have taken a tolerant and even positive attitude towards Judaism and Christianity. According to the church historian Eusebius, there were many Christians in Alexander’s palace. The often unreliable but nevertheless occasionally interesting Historia Augusta claimed that Alexander considered building a temple to Jesus in Rome but was dissuaded by priests who argued that if he did all men would become Christians and other temples would close down. Nevertheless, he was said to keep statues of Jesus, Abraham, Apollonius of Tyana, the deified Roman emperors, and Alexander the Great in a small shrine near his bedroom. He also allegedly had the phrase “What you do not wish that a man should do to you, do not do to him,” inscribed upon official buildings and the imperial palace, which according to the Historia Augusta “he had heard from someone, either a Jew or a Christian.”[26]

Mamaea was terrified that if her son were left to his own devices he would turn out like his cousin Elagabalus, so she carefully controlled access to the young emperor. Only teachers deemed to be a good influence were allowed near him, which meant that if Africanus was building a library for the use of the emperor he had certainly gained the approval of Mamaea.[27]

The Pantheon in Rome, where Africanus founded and directed a library on behalf of the young Alexander Severus.

The Pantheon in Rome, where Africanus founded and directed a library on behalf of the young Alexander Severus.

Sometime around 227-231, Africanus published a collection of scientific, medical and military knowledge called the Kestoi (meaning “embroidered girdles,” collections of miscellaneous knowledge were often given fancy names). He dedicated the work to Severus Alexander. The work was once divided into 24 sections, the majority of which have been lost. Sections have survived as excerpts in later works, and a few longer sections were found amongst the Oxyrhynchus papyri. What survives includes lengthy sections on military tactics and equipment, converting between different units of measurement, military medicine, medical cures for both humans and horses, and textual criticism of Homer.

In sometimes shocking language, Africanus advocated total war against the Parthians. In a chapter titled “The Destruction of Enemies,” he wrote that “by time, first, and by pressure and famine and especially destruction, one must work against the barbarians.” This included destroying crops, poisoning food, and the use of chemical and biological weapons. The Kestoi contain no clearly Christian elements, but also no pagan ones. The text is what one would expect from a Christian writing a work meant to advise a pagan emperor. If he cannot speak on religious common ground with the emperor, he must present only neutral knowledge.[28]

Part of the purpose of the Kestoi may have been to advise Alexander as the empire turned to face the imminent danger of another war in the east. In 224, the former Persian vassal Ardashir I overthrew Artabanus, destroyed the Arsacid dynasty, and installed himself as the first king of the Sassanid empire. Ardashir both centralized and energized the formerly fragmented feudal state, and gave it a much more zealous religious orientation. Seeking to re-establish the ancient boundaries of Achaemenid Persia, he then invaded Roman province of Mesopotamia in 230.

Alexander Severus held the title of emperor, but his mother Julia Avita Mamaea wielded the true power within the empire during his reign. If Africanus had Alexander’s favor, it meant that he had Mamaea’s as well. Mamaea also had her likeness depicted on coins, such as this example from the Wheaton College Archaeology Museum.

Alexander Severus held the title of emperor, but his mother Julia Avita Mamaea wielded the true power within the empire during his reign. If Africanus had Alexander’s favor, it meant that he had Mamaea’s as well. Mamaea also had her likeness depicted on coins, such as this example from the Wheaton College Archaeology Museum.

Alexander, now 22 years old but still accompanied by his mother, began gathering an army in Antioch. A round of diplomacy proved fruitless, and Alexander stepped off to invade the Sassanid empire. The army was divided into three wings, one of which rampaged through Media burning and destroying until winter set in. The second blundered into the desert, straight into an ambush by the feared Parthian horse archers, and was wiped out. The third withdrew. Ardashir also suffered heavy casualties, which led to several years of calm while both sides rebuilt their forces.

Meanwhile, the Alamanni crossed the frozen Danube and invaded Illyria. As Herodian recorded, “the men who had undergone many hardships in the Persian expedition now learned that their families had been slaughtered by the Germans.” Alexander and Mamaea moved to fight the Germans, but with the army spoiling for a fight Alexander chose instead to buy them off. This led to his downfall. The army now saw their emperor as weak, and in 235 a Thracian soldier named Maximinus Thrax led a revolt which killed Alexander and Mamaea and seized control of the empire.[29]

Maximinus persecuted Christian leaders, since they had been supporters of Alexander, and we can be sure that Africanus enjoyed no imperial favor after this point.[30] He returned home to Palestine, where he seems to have spent his final decades in scholarship.

We know that he traveled, although we do not know when he undertook most of his journeys. He claimed to have visited Mount Ararat and the city of Celaenae in Phrygia, both of which were rumored locations of Noah’s Ark.[31] He also visited Egypt several times, most notably to visit Heraclas, the philosopher and Christian bishop of Alexandria. During an earlier trip to Egypt (prior to writing the Kestoi) he had also purchased an Egyptian sacred book (although we do not know if he read it in translation, or added Egyptian to his repertoire of languages). While researching the genealogy of Jesus and the differing accounts in Matthew and Luke, he made contact with living relatives of Jesus in Nazareth and Cochaba in Galilee to find out their own accounts of their family history. He also corresponded with Origen and sparred with him over whether the Apocrypha belonged in the Bible.[32]

Ruins of a Byzantine church in Emmaus Nicopolis, where Africanus may have taken up residence later in his life.

Ruins of a Byzantine church at Emmaus Nicopolis. Africanus led a delegation to Rome on behalf of the settlement in order to obtain official recognition as a city.

At some point Africanus completed his magnum opus: a comprehensive history of the world using sources from multiple cultures. Before his time, historians who had set out to write history from the beginning of time to the present worked from the viewpoint of a single culture: Diodorus Siculus wrote for Greeks, Livy for Romans, Berossus for Babylonians, Manetho for Egyptians, and Josephus for Jews. No one had tried to write a history which used the written history of all peoples and tried to synthesize it into one universal history.

The result was the five-volume Chronographia, which has most unfortunately been lost but significant portions survive quoted in other works. What survives shows a great attention to chronology and the problems of synchronizing chronologies of different authors and different cultural traditions. The surviving fragments show a strong focus on Israelite and Biblical history, which may reflect the interests of those Christian authors who quoted bits of it as part of their own work. Other surviving sections include an extensive list of winners at the Olympic Games, which were useful as a chronological tool as well as showing evidence of Africanus being a sports-statistics nerd.[33] Although the Chronographia has not survived intact, it launched a new literary genre unique to early Christianity, as other scholars such as Eusebius sought to construct their own universal histories which reconciled the historical narratives of different cultures.

Coin of Maximinus Thrax, who led an army revolt in 235 which killed Alexander and Mamaea and almost certainly ended Africanus’ period of favor in the imperial court. Coin from the Wheaton College Archaeology Museum.

Coin of Maximinus Thrax, who led an army revolt in 235 which killed Alexander and Mamaea and almost certainly ended Africanus’ period of favor in the imperial court. Coin from the Wheaton College Archaeology Museum.

Africanus slowly faded into the background. According to the medieval Byzantine writers Symeon Logothetes and Michael Psellus, he lived until the reign of Decius (249-251). Decius began the first empire-wide persecution of Christians, but there is no evidence that Africanus died in this persecution instead of by old age, since he would have been around eighty years old at the time.[34]

His legacy remains mixed. His works survived in the Byzantine east at least until the Middle Ages. He was often listed with Origen and Clement of Alexandria as intellectual giants of the early church, but unlike them, his work has been largely lost while extensive writings of Origen and Clement have survived. Georgius Syncellus even faulted Eusebius for focusing too much on praising the condemned heretic Origen at the expense of Clement, Africanus and others whom he found much more interesting.[35] Jerome praised him and other Christian scholars for their command of both pagan and Christian works, writing that “All these writers so frequently interweave in their books the doctrines and maxims of the philosophers that you might easily be at a loss which to admire most, their secular erudition or their knowledge of the scriptures.”[36]

Nevertheless, unlike Clement and Origen his works were largely lost and his name largely forgotten. As we will see over the next few weeks, some of his arguments have outlived his name. We are left wanting to know much more about the life of the fascinating figure who wrote them.

Coming Soon:
The Life of Sextus Julius Africanus, Part 2: The General.
The Life of Sextus Julius Africanus, Part 3: The Scientist.
The Life of Sextus Julius Africanus, Part 4: The Scholar.
The Life of Sextus Julius Africanus, Part 5: The Historian.

References:

[1] Lucian of Samosata, The Passage of Peregrinus, trans. by A.M. Harmon (http://www.tertullian.org/rpearse/lucian/peregrinus.htm, accessed November 9, 2013), 11-12.

[2] Origen, Against Celsus, trans. by Frederick Crombie (1885), NewAdvent.org, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0416.htm (accessed November 9, 2013), 1.28.

[3] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books, 1991), 11.3.

[4] Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, trans. by William Wilson, 1885, NewAdvent.org, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0210.htm (accessed July 5, 2011), 1.9.

[5] Kestoi, fr. 5, in Francis C.R. Thee, Julius Africanus and the Early Christian View of Magic (Tübingen, Germany: J.C.B. Mohr, 1984), 182; Chronographiae: The Extant Fragments, trans. by William Adler, ed. by Martin Wallraff (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2007), XVI.

[6] Cassius Dio, Roman History, trans. by Earnest Cary (1927), LacusCurtius, http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Cassius_Dio/home.html (accessed December 23, 2013), 74.1-75.1-3.

[7] Herodian, Roman History, trans. by Edward C. Echols (1961), Livius.org, http://www.livius.org/he-hg/herodian/hre000.html (accessed December 27, 2013), 3.4.7-8.

[8] Herodian, Roman History, 3.9.2; Dio, Roman History, 75.1-3.

[9] Dio, Roman History, 76.9-10.

[10] Herodian, Roman History, 3.5.1.

[11] Dio, Roman History, 76.10-11; Herodian, Roman History, 3.9.4-7.

There is some confusion between the sources as to when Hatra was actually besieged. Dio places both sieges after the sack of Ctesiphon on January 28, 198. Herodian places them before, and puts the sack of Ctesiphon after the failed siege of Hatra. I have chosen to follow Dio, for the ease which Severus captured Ctesiphon would indicate he had the element of surprise, which would have been lost if he had engaged in an unsuccessful siege of Hatra prior to moving south. Second, the near-mutiny of his troops at the conclusion of the siege make an attempt on Ctesiphon after his failure at Hatra much less likely. It is possible, however, that he moved south after his first attempt on Hatra, then returned to it later.

[12] Dio, Roman History, 76.13.

[13] Dio, Roman History, 78.9-12; Herodian, Roman History, 4.6.4.

[14] Kestoi, 7.20, in Thee, Julius Africanus and the Early Christian View of Magic, 145-148;Michael Sommer, “Modeling Rome’s Eastern Frontier: The Case of Osrhoene,” 217-226 in Kingdoms and Principalities in the Roman Near East (Stuttgart, Germany: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2010), 221-223; Warwick Ball, Rome in the East: The Transformation of an Empire (New York: Routledge, 2000), 91-93.

[15] Kestoi, 7.20, in Thee, Julius Africanus and the Early Christian View of Magic, 145-147.

[16] Kestoi, 7.20, in Thee, Julius Africanus and the Early Christian View of Magic, 147-148; J.B. Segal, Edessa: The Blessed City (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), 35-36.

[17] Dio, Roman History, 78.12.

[18] T88, in Chronographiae, 260-261.

[19] Segal, Edessa: The Blessed City, 35-38.

[20] Dio, Roman History, 78.12, 19-21.

[21] Dio, Roman History, 79.1-3; Herodian, Roman History, 4.11.1-9.

[22] Dio, Roman History, 79.3, 5-6, 25-27; Herodian, Roman History, 4.15.1-9.

[23] Herodian, Roman History, 5.3.2-6.1.1; Dio, Roman History, 79.1-19.

[24] Chronographiae: The Extant Fragments, 5-7.

[25] Africanus, Kestoi, fr. 5, Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 412, in Thee, Julius Africanus and the Early Christian View of Magic, 182.

[26] Eusebius, The History of the Church, trans. by G.A. Williamson (London: Penguin,1965), 6.28; Historia Augusta, “Life of Severus Alexander,” trans. by David Magie, LacusCurtius (http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/historia_augusta/home.html, accessed December 28, 2013), 29.2, 43.6-7, 51.7-8.

The saying is in its negative form, and is closer to the form in which it was taught by Rabbi Hillel than the form in which it was taught by Jesus.

[27] Herodian, Roman History, 6.1.5.

[28] Africanus, Kestoi, 7.2, in Thee, Julius Africanus and the Early Christian View of Magic, 107-111.

[29] Herodian, Roman History, 6.2.1-6.9.8; Dio, Roman History, 80.3-4.

[30] Eusebius, The History of the Church, 6.28.

[31] Africanus, Chronographia, F23 in Chronographiae: The Extant Fragments, 49-51.

[32] Africanus, Chronographia, fr. 2 in Thee, Julius Africanus and the Early Christian View of Magic, 197; Africanus, Chronographia, F98 in Chronographiae: The Extant Fragments, 293; Africanus, Letter to Aristides, NewAdvent.org (http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0614.htm, accessed December 28, 2013), 5; Africanus, Letter to Origen, trans. by Frederick Crombie (1885), NewAdvent.org (http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0413.htm, accessed December 28, 2013).

[33] Africanus, Chronographia, F65 in Chronographiae: The Extant Fragments, 177-183.

[34] T4a, T4b in Chronographiae: The Extant Fragments, 10-11.

[35] Various excerpts in Chronographiae: The Extant Fragments, 3-17.

[36] Jerome, Letters, trans. by W.H. Fremantle, G. Lewis and W.G. Martley (1893), NewAdvent.org (http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3001070.htm, accessed December 28, 2013), 70.4.

Article © Christopher Jones 2014.

Image Sources: [Banner] Scenes from the life of a Severan army officer taken from his sarcophagus, showing his marriage and his military uniform. In the Altes Museum in Berlin. Photos © Christopher Jones 2012. Map based on free maps from the Ancient World Mapping Center [http://awmc.unc.edu/wordpress/free-maps/].

[Article]: Photos of Aelia Capitolina streets and Severus bust © Christopher Jones 2012; Map based on free maps from the Ancient World Mapping Center [http://awmc.unc.edu/wordpress/free-maps/]; United States Marine Corps Photo taken by Lance Cpl. Albert F. Hunt; Edessan ‘family portrait’ mosaic public domain [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Moqimu_mosaic_Edessa.jpg]; picture of Edessa ruins by Verity Cridland, licensed under Creative Commons [http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Urfa_from_the_Citadel.jpg]; photo of Severan family portrait © Christopher Jones 2012;  Photo of Julia Maesa coin © Christopher Jones 2014; Severus Alexander bust photo is public domain [http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Alexander_Severus_Musei_Capitolini_MC471.jpg]; Pantheon photo licensed under Creative Commons [http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rom_Pantheon_mit_Obelisk.jpg]; Photo of Julia Mamaea coin © Christopher Jones 2014; Emmaus Nicopolis basilica photo licensed under Creative Commons [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Emmaus_Nicopolis_basilica.JPG]; Photo of Maximinus Thrax coin © Christopher Jones 2014.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. April 23, 2014 7:50 AM

    you have a very nice blog – I will follow. Found your through looking for links to the Sea People.

  2. March 20, 2015 5:05 PM

    Thank you for this blog! So much great information and the fact that it’s all cited is very impressive. Keep up the awesome work.

  3. April 8, 2015 11:46 AM

    Very cool! Where’s the rest! 🙂

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