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  • The Piety of a Persecutor 1
  • James Rives (bio)

In the Passio Perpetuae, the procurator Hilarianus appears as a stock persecutor, with no real character of his own. A careful examination of epigraphic evidence, however, allows us to fill this gap somewhat. The Hilarianus of this text is very likely identical with the P. Aelius Hilarianus who dedicated two altars in Spain. This identification allows us not only to sketch in his background, but also to reconstruct his religious attitudes, since the language of the Spanish dedications suggests someone with sharply conservative views. Moreover, given the great latitude that Roman governors enjoyed in their conduct of trials, and given Hilarianus’ noticeably harsh treatment of Perpetua, we may take this episode as a good example of the extent to which the personal attitudes of individual Roman officials influenced the persecution of Christians in the period before Decius.

In the year 203 c.e., Vibia Perpetua, a young woman of good family and a recent convert to Christianity, was executed in Carthage by being thrown to the beasts in the amphitheater. Perpetua herself has deservedly attracted a great deal of interest for a number of reasons, chief among them the fact that we have her own account of her trial and stay in prison. This account gives us a rare insight into the thoughts of a Christian martyr and an even rarer insight into the experience of a woman in the early days of Christianity. 2 Just as rare, however, are insights into the thoughts [End Page 1] of those who were responsible for martyrs, the Roman officials who tried and condemned them, and presided over their deaths. In the case of Perpetua and her colleagues, this was a Roman procurator named Hilarianus, who had assumed the job of governor after the death of the regular proconsul. While the text informs us of his name and position, it says nothing about his concerns or motivations. On the contrary, it gives him a purely mechanical role, presenting him not so much as a person as simply the efficient cause of Perpetua’s martyrdom.

In this respect, Hilarianus is like all other Roman officials who appear in Christian writings, especially martyrologies. We know that they persecuted Christians, but we know very little about their own attitudes. This is not surprising, since the evidence for the persecutions almost all comes from the Christian side. There are indeed a few documents that represent the viewpoint of the persecutors; the fullest is the famous letter of Pliny to Trajan concerning his treatment of Christians in Bithynia. Other evidence for the attitudes of non-Christians has been carefully collected and discussed, as for example in the admirable book of Robert Wilken. Yet Pliny remains the only good source for the thoughts of an official who actually presided over the trials of Christians. 3

In the case of Hilarianus, however, there is a possibility that epigraphic evidence may cast some light on his concerns and attitudes. Several scholars have briefly suggested that the Hilarianus who condemned Perpetua may have been the same as the P. Aelius Hilarianus who as a procurator in Spain erected two dedications in the town of Asturica. 4 While this is an intriguing possibility, one may ask how much insight we could gain from the connection. Given the scrappy nature of our evidence, the possibility of a solid identification would seem to be slight, while the brief [End Page 2] and schematic nature of dedications means that they rarely provide much insight into the specific beliefs of those who made them. But although our evidence for this particular case is indeed scrappy, our evidence for the period as a whole is relatively abundant. By examining the particular evidence for Hilarianus against this broader context, we can extract from it much more information than we might at first sight think. For example, onomastic considerations and the known patterns of contemporary procuratorial careers make the identification of the two Hilariani highly probable, although still uncertain. Similarly, the phrasing of the dedications includes some unusual features that on close examination are very suggestive of the dedicator’s attitudes, if again undecisive.

It is worth developing these arguments, even...

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