A Bishop Chickens Out. Would You?

“The incense is in that bowl, Basílides,” said the Roman official. “When you are finished making your offering to the emperor, I will give you this certificate with my signature. Keep it with you and show it to any Roman official who might ask to see it and you will not be bothered further.”

Basílides looked at the bronze tripod with the fire burning, and the bust of the Emperor Decius. He had only to put his hand in the bowl of incense, bring out a few grains, and sprinkle them onto the fire. It was nothing. The official sitting at his desk would then sign his name to the little parchment strip and stamp it.

The official pretended not to pay much attention but he was curious. What would this Basílides do? He was an intelligent and well-educated man in his fifties. If he did not sacrifice to the emperor he would be thrown into prison and then fed to the lions in the amphitheater once the next group of rebels had been rounded up. He was known to be a leader of the illegal Christian community. They called him a bishop.

The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer, a painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme (Wikimedia public domain photo)

“Please,” said the official. “I don’t have all day.”

Basílides stood taller for a moment, then walked over to the tripod and sacrificed to the emperor Decius.
He was the bishop of the diocese of Leon-Astorga in 250 during the Decian persecution. The bishop of Merida (Emerita) likewise apostated.

Their sin naturally angered their Christian communities, who wrote to the Bishop of Carthage, St. Cyprian, to ask for their dismissal.
Why did the Spanish Christians write to an African bishop to deal with this case? There was obviously a special relationship with the African Church. Most scholars believe Christianity came to Spain from Africa. Maybe Carthage was their Mother Church.

Cyprian fired the two apostates and called a synod of bishops. All this appears in the famous letter 65 of his correspondence, and it is the first real news we have of the infant Christian community in Spain (254 AD).

Basílides himself appealed to the bishop of Rome. The pope in Rome had no particular authority over the Spanish Church but Rome was reputed to be more tolerant. And in fact Pope Steven reinstated him. There is no record of the conflict this must have created.

Those bishops had sinned very gravely and needed some exemplary punishment, no doubt. The pile of stones is just over here….all you have to do is pick one up and throw it at them.


libellus This is a certificate like the one given to Basílides after he had offered sacrifice to the emperor as a god. It was called a libellus, and the owner, a libellaticus. Excavators in Egypt have turned up many of these. Every Roman citizen was obliged to possess one and show it on demand. The heavy writing in the middle is the signature of the presiding officer and the writing at the bottom is the date. It was issued in 250 AD, just the year Basílides apostated.

Read an actual letter from a Roman governor asking how to deal with the Christians in his province.



“Origen del cristianismo en Hispania”, pp.185-186, in Historia de la Hispania Romana, by A. Tovar and J. M. Blázquez; Alianza Editorial, S. A., Madrid, 1975

The photo of the libellus is from Ancient Times: A History of the Early World, p. 738, by James Henry Breasted; Ginn and Co., 1944



This entry was posted in books, Christianity, history, literature, Mérida, religion, Romans, Spain and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to A Bishop Chickens Out. Would You?

  1. Anonymous says:


  2. 100swallows says:

    Andrew: Thanks. Have you been to Carthage yet? I hope you go some day and tell us about it.

  3. It’s always nice to see a new post from you – I enjoyed reading this one!

  4. Elizabeth says:


  5. 100swallows says:

    I would suppose the law obliging everyone to sacrifice to the emperor was made for the Christians, but maybe not for them alone. Augustus started emperor worship—he did it to bring back the old values. He saw Rome was becoming decadent and he thought it needed more pietas, which included respect for the old gods. Some of what he meant by religion was to us simple patriotism. There had always been plenty of cults—worship of this or that god, odd superstitions—and Rome never minded. Remember, it was Gibbons’ view that because Christianity and the Jews were intolerant of other gods, they forced Rome to deal harshly with them. Conscientious governors like Pliny the Younger didn’t know how to handle the problem of these conscientious objectors and there is a famous letter of his to Trajan asking him how to proceed. I’m not sure when this kind of certificate was introduced-I would guess only after Christianity really started to become a “threat”. The ones that have been dug up are from Egypt. Maybe parchment or papyrus wasn’t even used in Hispania then for little documents. Basílides apostated during the Decian persecution (250). There were many. Lions in the amphitheater weren’t always the punishment (ad bestias)—maybe not in this case either. But he and Marcial, the bishop of Merida, might have been executed.

    For brevity I reduced his obligation to mere throwing incense on the fire. The certificate in my post in fact says: a Roman citizen named Aurelius Horion appeared before a government commission [not just a functionary] and not only affirmed that he had always been faithful in the worship of the gods, but also, in the presence of the commission and of witnesses, offered sacrifice (a slaughtered animal), presented a drink offering, and likewise consumed a portion of these offerings. That was the crow a Christian had to eat, as it were. Christians despised their own who had fallen, says my historian (Breasted). Like you I feel sorry for those two bishops but what about the Christians belonging to their church who DID NOT offer sacrifice and took the consequences? They naturally expected their leaders to be strong too. (Pant, pant! Erika—how you make me work!)

  6. erikatakacs says:

    Interesting story again, Swallows. According to this, Christians basically had to choose between life and death? For a piece of paper? What a moral dilemma…today seems so unfair to judge this bishop. But a lot of early Christians died in amphitheaters for their beliefs. So in their eyes the bishop’s only choice was martyrdom.
    Was this certificate given before Christianity, or was it a newer custom meant to identify and eradicate the members of the new religion?

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