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Rev. Alban Butler (1711–73). Volume IX: September. The Lives of the Saints. 1866.

September 4

SS. Marcellus and Valerian, Martyrs

        From St. Gregory of Tours, l. De Glor. Mart. c. 54, and the Acts of their Martyrdom, inserted in the Chronicle of Tournus, compiled by Falco, monk of that place, in the eleventh age, published by F. Peter Fr. Chifflet, at Dijon, in 1664, in an appendix to his Histoire de Tournus.

A.D. 179.

ANTONINUS PIUS and his adopted son and successor, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, surnamed the Philosopher, were renowned for their wisdom, moderation, and attention to the good of the Roman empire. The latter is no less admirable for the government of himself, if his meditations 1 are the portraiture of his practice. His virtues and wise administration are represented to advantage by Crevier; but their lustre is not without shades. In the very book of his meditations, where he commends necessary resignation to death, he condemns that of the Christians, 2 which he ascribes to mere obstinacy. Their constancy he had experienced, having raised the fifth general persecution of the church, and published fresh edicts, by which he commanded Christians to be punished with death, as is attested by St. Melito, quoted by Eusebius. 3 After his victory over the Quadi and Marcomanni, in 174, he ordered peace to be restored to the Christians: but did not check the fury of the populace, or of particular governors, who, in several places, often availed themselves of former laws made against them.
  The horrible massacre of the martyrs at Lyons and Vienna happened in the year 177. In the former of these cities Marcellus and Valerian withdrew themselves from that tempest by a seasonable flight, and preached the gospel in the neighbouring provinces, and were crowned with martyrdom in 179. Marcellus was apprehended in the country near Challons, and, after enduring many torments in that city, was buried alive up to the middle, in which posture he died on the third day, which was the 4th day of September. St. Valerian fell into the hands of the persecutors near Tournus, a town built on the Saone, between Macon and Challons. After suffering the rack and being torn with iron hooks, he was beheaded at Tournus on the 15th of September. The relics of St. Marcellus are honourably kept in the great church which bears his name at Challons, and belongs to a royal monastery, which King Gontran founded in his honour. A church was built at Tournus over the tomb of St. Valerian, before the time of St. Gregory of Tours. 4 SS. Marcellus and Valerian are honoured as the apostles of that country. The great abbey of St. Valerian at Tournus is the head of a monastic congregation to which it gives its name. It was a small monastery when, in 875, Charles the Bald gave it to the monks of the isle of Nermoutier, or Ner, or Hero, on the coast of Poitou, who had been expelled by the Normans. They carried with them the relics of St. Filibert, or Filbert, their founder. This abbey was rebuilt in 1018; from which time it took the name of St. Filbert. In the sixteenth age the Huguenots plundered this church, and burnt part of the relics of St. Valerian; but the principal portion escaped their sacrilegious search. The abbey of Tournus was converted into a college of secular canons in 1627; only the dignity of abbot was retained with an extensive jurisdiction and large revenue. It was enjoyed in commendam by Cardinal Fleury.  2
  The two holy martyrs, whom we honour on this day, made the whole tenour of their lives a preparation to martyrdom, because they devoted it entirely to God by the constant exercise of all virtues. To be able to stand our ground in the time of trial, and to exercise the necessary acts of virtue in the article of death, we must be thoroughly grounded in strong habits of all virtues; and we shall not otherwise exert them readily on sudden and difficult occasions. He whose soul is well regulated, and in whose heart virtue has taken deep root, finds its practice easy and, as it were, natural in times of sickness, persecution, or other occasions. Nay, he makes every thing that occurs matter of its exercise, subjects to himself even obstacles, and converts them into occasions of exerting the most noble and heroic virtues, such as resignation, patience, charity, and good will towards those who oppose or persecute him.  3
Note 1. We admire in the writings of Plato, Seneca, Tully, Plutarch, and other heathen philosophers, many excellent precepts of morality. To wear quite out the knowledge of virtue and the image of God, originally stamped on the rational soul, has been beyond the power either of the vices of men or the malice of devils. It was an effect of the Divine goodness, that the traces of this image should be preserved amidst the ruins that followed the defection of man from his Creator; that he might always have some knowledge of evil, and be condemned if he sinned, by the testimony of his own conscience; also that by these helps he might apply himself to know and seek God, and discover the conformity of his most sublime revealed law with that of reason. Nevertheless, how imperfect and insufficient a guide reason is in the path of perfect morality, and how much it stands in need of the superior light of revelation, is manifest, not only because faith alone can point out the remedy and true cause of our spiritual wounds and corruption, and it can alone both teach us, and conduct us to our last end; but the same also appears from several capital errors against the law of nature itself, which are contained in some of the precepts of the aforesaid philosophers, and from their entire ignorance of the essential virtues of humility, perfect self-denial, love of enemies, forgiveness of injuries, entire resignation to the divine appointments, &c. Two Stoic philosophers, Epictetus and Antoninus, express some divine sentiments of these virtues, but learned them from their acquaintance with the Christian precepts of morality. Epictetus wrote his Enchiridion at Rome in the reign of Domitian, by whom he was banished that city with the whole tribe of philosophers. He seems to have died soon after at Smyrna. Marcus Aurelius called it the greatest favour he had received in his whole life from the gods, that he had read the Enchiridion of Epictetus. In this book admirable rules for the conduct of life are laid down, extensively applied, and pathetically enforced by a variety of striking arguments; yet in this work too great a loose is given to the most unbridled of human passions, and many essential defects occur.
  The Meditations of Antoninus are a fuller exposition of the same precepts of the Stoical school. They have been ascribed by some to Antoninus Pius, but certainly belong to Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, surnamed the philosopher. In them we have the most excellent system of moral precepts that ever came from the pen of a heathen, for which the author was much indebted to the light of that faith which he a long time persecuted and contemned. Arian, the Stoic, who illustrated Epictetus’s Enchiridion with valuable comments, and enjoyed the friendship of Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius, was perhaps an assistant in drawing up this work. The author, in the first book, informs us in what manner he learned from his parents, masters, and virtuous acquaintance to curb anger and other passions, and to inure himself to habits of every virtue; and he gives an amiable description of the moderation, and both social and princely virtues of Antoninus Pius, who had adopted and raised him to sovereignty. He says he was not fickle and capricious, but loved to continue in the same places and businesses; had no vanity in building; showed by the moderate care of his body that he was neither anxious about his life, nor despised it; his apparel was plain and homely: he was never solicitous about his meat; he never did anything with such keenness as one could say he was sweating about it; but in all things he acted distinctly, as at leisure, calmly, regularly, resolutely, and gracefully. He knew both how to abstain from or enjoy those things, in the want whereof most men show themselves weak, and in the fruition intemperate; he remained firm and constant in both events, with a just self-government, and showed a perfect and invincible soul. (b. 1, c. 13, p. 53.) In the following parts of this work our author lays down maxims of morality. He exhorts men to the constant practice of virtue as the highest dignity, perfection, and happiness of our nature. “Nothing,” says he, “is more excellent than the divinity that is seated within you, when it hath subjected to itself all its passions, examined all appearances (or occasions) which may excite them, and as Socrates expresses it, has torn itself off from the attachments to sense; has subjected itself to the gods, and has an affectionate care of mankind.” (b. 3, c. 6.)
  He affirms the original fabric of the soul to be destined for the knowledge and love of God, and an entire harmony of will with him by resignation, and the constant love and practice of virtue: he also acknowledges its present degenerate state, as it is often counteracting its original destination. (b. 9, c. 3.) Perfect virtue, according to him, consists in the highest love of the supreme goodness and excellence; in resignation to infinite wisdom and steady obedience to his will, especially in all acts of beneficence and goodness to our fellows. (b. 11, c. 10.) It is his fundamental maxim that the gods chiefly require that rational beings become by virtue like unto themselves. “Keep in mind,” says he, “that that is a fig-tree which performs the business of a fig-tree, a bee which performs that of a bee, and a man who performs the business of a man,” which is virtue. (b. 10, c. 9.) A virtuous man he describes as follows: “What any one may say or think of him or do against him, he spends not a thought. He satisfies himself with these two things; with acting justly what he is at present doing; and with loving what is at present appointed for him. He has thrown off all hurry and bustle, and has no other will but this; to go on in the straight way according to the law and to follow God.” (b. 10, c. 1.)
  He reckons vain-glory among vices or the affronts men do to themselves. (b. 2, c. 6; b. 16; b. 3, c. 6; b. 4, c. 3, 18, 32; b. 5, c. 6; b. 8, c. 7; b. 9, c. 29.) He recommends humility, (b. 10, c. 19,) and sincere simplicity, being equally an enemy to flattery and ostentation. “How rotten and insincere are these professions, I resolve to act with you in all simplicity and candour! What need you tell me this? O man! it will appear of itself. This profession should be written on your forehead. Your temper should sparkle out in your eyes, as the person beloved discerns the affection in the eyes of the lover. The ostentation of simplicity is like a dagger for insidious designs. Nothing is more odious than the friendship of the wolf in the fable.” “Shun this above all things.” (b. 11, c. 15.) He alludes to the fable of the treaty between the sheep and the wolf, in which the sheep gave up their dogs as hostages to the wolf upon his kind professions of friendship. Resignation to the will of heaven, which is always full of wise providence, is a favourite virtue, which he frequently inculcates, as b. 2, c. 3; b. 3, c. 11, 16; b. 5, c. 8; b. 7, c. 45. Upon the same, see Arian the Stoic, in his notes on Epictetus. (b. 2, c. 16; b. 7, c. 57.) To this Aurelius joins contentedness in every station, of which Epictetus says, (Enchir. 15,) “Remember you ought to behave yourself in life as at an entertainment. Does anything come in course to you? Stretch out your hand, and take it gracefully. Does it go by you? Do not stop it. Is it not come yet? Do not long after it; but wait till it come to you.” (Epictet. ib.)
  Antoninus lays down the doctrine of doing good to men from the most single disinterested view; and enforces the divine sentiment of returning good for evil. (b. 6, c. 47; b. 7, c. 22; b. 9, c. 3.) He teaches the necessity of prayer to obtain all virtues, (b. 9, c. 40,) which Arian, (b. 2, c. 18,) Epictetus, and other Stoics often mention. He cautions men against engaging themselves in a superfluity of exterior employments, especially about other persons, as what such a one is doing, saying, thinking, or projecting. “This attention to the affairs of others,” says he, “makes a man wander from his own business, the guarding of his own soul. We ought to exclude from the series of our thoughts whatever is superfluous and vain.” (b. 3, c. 4.) To converse much with ourselves he calls the great means of attaining all virtues. “Look inwards,” says he, “within is the fountain of good, which is ever springing up, if you be always digging in it.” (b. 7, c. 59.)
  This author had the best opportunity of trying all the happiness that can arise from external things, but found that the dissipating pursuits of such objects stupify the nobler powers, and that it is only by recollection that we find the dignity of our nature, and that the diviner powers of our souls are disentangled, and exert themselves in all the affections of social and heavenly virtues, in which the mind has an inexpressible delight. Hence he calls men home to converse much with themselves, by reflection and self-examination. “Let nothing that befals thee from without, distract thy mind,” says he, “and take leisure to thyself.” (b. 2, c. 7.) “Such as observe not the motions of their own souls, or their affections, must necessarily be unhappy.” (Ib.) “One may be a most divine man, and yet be unknown to all. Remember this always; and also that the happiness of life consists in very few things. You will find it in becoming free, modest, kind, social, and resigned to God.” (b. 7, c. 67.) He laments that many “trifle away their activity by wearying themselves in life, without having a settled scope or mark to which they direct all their desires and projects.” (b. 2, c. 7.) He compares the employs of most men to the fluttering of affrighted flies, and the involuntary agitations of puppets by wires; amidst which, he says, we must persist without storming at them. (b. 7, c. 3.) He will have us be always earnest, remembering the shortness of life. His maxims on this head are: “Allow to thyself the little time thou hast.” (b. 8, c. 44.) “Yet a little, and the time to honour thyself (by virtuous deeds) shall be gone. Each man’s life is flying away, and thine is almost gone, before thou hast paid just honour to thyself.” (b. 2, c. 6.) “Undertake each action as one aware he may next moment depart out of life.” (b. 2, c. 11.) “Regulate thy life as waiting for the signal to retreat out of it without reluctance.” (b. 3, c. 5.) “Fate can never surprise such a life unfinished, as one says of a tragedian who goes off before he ends his part.” (b. 3, c. 8.) “It becomes a man of wisdom neither to be inconsiderate nor impetuous, nor ostentatiously contemptuous about death.” (b. 9, c. 3.)
  These and many other such precepts are interspersed throughout this work, and inculcated with surprising strength and life. This testimony from enemies is of great weight to confirm the sanctity of the Christian morality; for a cause must be good which is gained when its very enemies sit judges. These great maxims, moreover, wonderfully set off the superior excellency of divine faith. For, whereas the morality of the gospel is throughout most perfect, pure, and holy, that of the greatest philosophers is, in some parts, blind, false, and defective, and too weak for the reformation of manners. Antoninus was in the dark as to the most important of all points in morality, the end of man. If he believed that the soul does not perish in death, and speaks sometimes like Plato of a future state of rewards and punishments, he, in other places, doubts whether its destination is not to pass by a metempsychosis or continual migration from one being into another. To reform habitual offenders, he tells them that they act in contradiction to their reason, and below the dignity of their nature. What force can such motives have upon depraved minds, which this system makes accountable only to themselves? Conscience is little more than an empty name, if it do not bind men over to appear before a higher tribunal, or if moral duties are not enforced by stronger motives of divine love made manifest by revelation. Hence the practical treatises of most of the heathen philosophers, are rather vain-glorious boasts, or high flights of eloquence, than suitable antidotes against the more dangerous vices. The persuasives and reproofs which they display are too feeble to support our courage under fiery trials, or constantly to stem the impetuous torrent of the most unruly passions.
  Justus Lipsius, lying on his death-bed, when some advised him to make use of that Stoic philosophy of which he had been the great admirer, to comfort himself in those moments of distress, answered: “It is not philosophy, but faith only that can now give me strength.” Neither can empty exclamations on the beauty of virtue, or the dignity of our nature, which are so pompously set forth by these heathens, and repeated by the noble author of the Characteristics, and other modern enemies to revelation, restrain all the sallies of human passions. This is the privilege of the law of holy faith. (Ps. cxviii. 9.) For, as experience shows, the motives of the divine love and mercy, and those of eternal punishments and rewards, subdue the most rebellious, pierce to the bottom of the heart, and leave the dart deep fixed in the soul. The mixture of folly, weakness, and blindness which is blended in the moral writings of Plato and other infidel writers, shows the incompetence of reason alone in our corrupted state, without the assistance of a superior light. How much do the holy maxims of the gospel on vice and virtue excel in purity and perfection the most admired and sublime lessons of philosophers found in Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Dacier’s preface on Plato, Carpenter’s Life of Socrates, Stanley’s Lives of Philosophers, &c.? How infinitely superior are our divine principles of humility, resignation, meekness, charity, &c.? What is the boasted contentedness of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, to the calm and entire resignation of St. Paul! (2 Cor. vi. 10; Phil. iv. 11,) &c. Nevertheless, how great a reproach is it to slothful Christians, that their lives, amidst the full light and most powerful helps of faith, fall far short even of the morality of heathens; and that they are strangers not only to the spirit and precepts of that divine religion which they disgrace by professing it, but even to those maxims of reason itself which heathen philosophers have delivered! How will Tyre and Sidon (Matt. xi. 21,) and the isles of Cethim (Jer. xi. 10,) condemn them at the last day!
  Gataker and the authors of the life of M. Aurelius Antoninus, prefixed to the Glasgow edition of his meditations, in 1752, excuse his idolatry, and his mistaken principles in sometimes persecuting the Christians, in order to canonize his memory. We ought rather, upon their own plea, to deplore the weakness of a virtue which is merely human, when we find this emperor sometimes persecuting the servants of God, always shutting his eyes to the divine light, and disgracing his moral virtues with many inexcusable crimes. His idolatrous superstition, which reason and his own avowed principles condemned, degenerated into the utmost folly and extravagance. He assembled priests from all quarters, and multiplied sacrifices; he employed every kind of lustration, and introduced foreign religious rites, before his time unknown to the Romans. His tears and entreaties to obtain of the senate that his predecessor Adrian, infamous for many vices, should be enrolled among the gods, have been already mentioned. His vanity and impiety were yet more monstrous in causing his wife Faustina, whose public debaucheries were a scandal and reproach to the empire, to be worshipped as a goddess after her death; in erecting a temple with silver statues to her, instituting a community of girls called Faustinianæ to attend it, and commanding all young married women in Rome to come with their husbands, and offer sacrifice to the goddess Faustina. When Lucius Verus, his most vicious colleague, adoptive brother and son-in-law, died, he prevailed with the unwilling senate to rank him also among the gods, though Dio was persuaded he had procured his death by poison; but this, some attribute to Verus’s wife Lucilla, the debauched daughter of M. Aurelius. His passion for the Stoic philosophy was pedantic; and his excessive desire to be esteemed good, mild, and pious, made him fall into a softness of temper very inconsistent with true virtue. It seems to have been with a view to please the senate and people that he for a long time oppressed the Christians, and when he had suspended the persecution, had not the courage effectually to protect them. His remissness in chastising the faults of others, especially senators, made him think, as Dio says, that he ought not to inform himself of them.
  Whilst he spun out fine disputations on the precepts of philosophy, and on the duties of governing an empire, he suffered the provinces to be plundered by their governors for fear of appearing severe in punishing them. He put his son Commodus in the hands of preceptors, who were men of abilities indeed, but of debauched morals, who, by indulging his passions, added fuel to his depraved inclinations. When the son was already ruined by their lenity and example, the father removed them; but the prince complaining of the severity of his new tutors, the emperor had the weakness to replace his former masters, to put the finishing hand to his ruin. Blinded by fondness he forgot how dangerous it usually is for young persons to find themselves their own masters, when he raised such a son to the first dignities of the empire at fifteen years of age. The Emperor Severus said he ought rather to have put such a monster to death than to have left him master of the empire. (See Guion, Hist. Romaine, t. 5, p. 329; Tillemont, Hist. des Empereurs, t. 2.) Far from depreciating the moral virtues of this emperor, which justly raise our admiration, we join his warmest panegyrists in giving them due praise; yet must not be so blind as to call them perfect, or to canonize his virtues.
  Some apologize for his persecuting the Christians upon the principles of Machiavel, by which Mr. Melmoth, in his notes on Pliny’s letters, attempts to excuse the like persecution in Trajan, whose inconsistent answer to Pliny he endeavours to vindicate against Tertullian. His observation is clear from Livy, Valerius Maximus, and Tertullian, that it was an ancient law in the Roman state to suffer no new religious worship to be introduced, which was not authorized by the senate. But his second remark that any idolatrous or other religion which is established by law, becomes a civil part of the constitution, and that no alteration must be allowed in it by the prince, lest it should overturn the state, is a maxim of Machiavel and Mr. Melmoth, which can by no means be admitted, unless it be granted, that true religion, justice, and virtue may be trampled under foot, and are neither the basis of government, nor ends to be promoted by it.
  The gross idolatry which Marcus Aurelius abetted, could only be meant by him as a popular farce of religion; nor ought he ever to have been a stranger to the innocence and sanctity of the Christian morals. As the apotheosis of his most infamous relations is a flagrant instance of extravagant pride and impiety, so were his remissness in punishing powerful delinquents, and his persecution of the Christians proofs of a servile condescension and humane respect. Many actions of his life and several passages in his first book, strongly savour of that vanity which he condemns in his precepts. Whatever were his private sentiments at his death, which were known to God alone, such a life ill deserves the extravagant eulogiums which are bestowed on him by modern advocates for natural religion as the secret enemies of revelation affect to style themselves. See Voltaire, Dialogue entre Marc Auréle et un Recollet, t. 4, p. 382, in the new edition of his works, published in seventeen volumes, under the author’s direction, by the Cramers at Geneva, 1756, 1757. [back]
Note 2. Medit. l. 11, c. 3, p. 238. [back]
Note 3. Eus. l. 4, c. 26. Tillemont, t. 3, Ant. Pagi in Critica Baronii; Ruinart, Præf. in Acta Martyr, et Francisci Balduini Commentarius ad Edicta veterum Principium Rom. de Christianis. [back]
Note 4. Pet. Fr. Chifflet, Hist. de Tournus, and Abbé Pavillon, Bibliothèque des Auteurs de Bourgogne, 1742. [back]