“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.
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