1864: Thomas Dawson, manhood sealed 1889: The first executions in French-occupied Tunis

Feast Day of Popes Cletus and Marcellinus

April 26th, 2015 Headsman

Back before being pope meant jeweled slippers and your own guillotine, the bishopric of Rome — at least as chronicled in the early histories of the Church — was a virtual halfway house to a pagan executioner.

Granted, the very earliest pontiffs are mostly ciphers to posterity; little dependable information about most of them survives. We have sketchy documentation, conflated names, and traditions of legendary hagiography further to the glory of Christianity’s earliest fathers. They are almost universally ranked as both saints, and martyrs.

But is it really right that literally none of these heirs of St. Peter for three centuries reached leadership positions by dint of being venal political hustlers? Or that none just dropped dead of some inglorious disease before they could exalt their deaths in martyrdom?

Persecutions of Christianity were not, after all, literally continuous throughout this age; indeed, prominent as they are in our latter-day remembrance, instances where they turned deadly were likely rather few and far between. Roman governors had provinces to administer; not many of them viewed hunting down and killing otherwise law-abiding cultists as the most important thing to prioritize.

“Christians and pagans could live on very good terms with each other,” Victor Duruy writes in his History of Rome, and of the Roman People, from its Origin.

Asper declared openly that he was disinclined to prosecutions of that kind … Severus furnished them the reply which permitted him to discharge them … Candidus treated them as contentious persons, and sent them back to their towns with these words: “Go, and be at peace with your fellow-citizens.” “Unhappy men,” said another to them [i.e., to Christians seeking their own martyrdom], “if you are resolved to perish, are there not ropes or precipies enough for you?” and he drives them from his tribunal.

Little as we know of these men, it is a sure thing that, pre-Constantine, they did run some risk of life and limb to profess Christianity under the noses of Rome’s rulers. Even a period of toleration could turn ugly with the rise of a hostile emperor or some chance shift of the political winds; the first persecution, after all, is supposed to have been initiated by Nero as an expedient to deflect anger over the Great Fire of Rome. But despite this site‘s use of the martyrology, we can hardly take for granted that any early Christian of significance was put to a baroque death by bloodthirsty Romans.

April 26 is or was the shared feast date of two of these popes from Rome’s antiquity — both of them traditionally considered martyrs, but both now on the outs with Rome’s official chronicle. It’s a reminder that even the ancient past isn’t really past and that history, like religion, is not so much holy writ as an eternal process of becoming.

Pope Cletus was the third pope, and the second in a row after Peter’s direct successor Pope Linus to make you think of a cartoon character. One early chronology named Cletus and Anacletus (or Anencletus) as the third and fourth popes; it is generally understood now that these were merely two different names for one single man. In 1960 a distinct July 13 feast for “Saint Anacletus” was removed from the calendar, collapsing everything to April 26.

Still, basically nothing definite is known of Pope St. Cletus — including the occasion or circumstances of his death, which may well have been promoted to a martyrdom simply from reverence of Cletus’s Erdos numberChrist number of 3 or less. Cletus is said to have ordained 25 priests, and died in the year 88 or 92. He was ultimately removed from Catholicism’s liturgical calendar in 1969, though he still remains in the Roman Martyrology.

Near the opposite chronological end of Rome’s era of official intolerance we find Pope St. Marcellinus.

Marcellinus was the 29th pope, and had the tiara* when the Diocletian persecutions began in 303. While such information as survives about Marcellinus is also not very substantial, it is quite interesting.

When anti-Christian persecutions did crop up, those Christians who weren’t in active pursuit of martyrdom had a difficult choice to make: either apostasy, or punishment. Confronted in the breach with a demand to make the requisite obeisance to the gods of Rome, many ordinary Christians preferred the expedient burning a few sacrificial herbs to the prospect of, if not death, prison, torture, exile, harassment, property seizure, or whatever else was on offer for their sect at that moment. These were the lapsi — the lapsed ones.

Such episodes tended to create post-persecution friction between the go-along, get-along crowd on the one hand, and the purists who refused any such accommodation on the other. Could lapsi be re-admitted to the communion after renouncing their faith to please a Roman proconsul? (Broadly speaking, the official church did welcome lapsi back with some kind of penance and absolution.)

Pope Marcellinus is interesting because he too is said to have lapsed under the initial pressure of Diocletian’s persecution. The Liber Pontificalis, likely combining distinct traditions that were in circulation about Marcellinus, says that he burned incense to the Roman gods when it was demanded of him — and that only afterwards did he repent his weakness and confess Christianity unto martyrdom.

It is not at all certain that Marcellinus did apostatize, but it is clear that a story to that effect (disputed by ex-apostate St. Augustine, among others) was out there in late antiquity — and it’s a bit suspicious that Marcellinus’s name is omitted from some early lists of popes. (It’s possible he was being conflated with his successor, Marcellus: the opposite of what happened with Pope Cletus.) It’s also very uncertain that Marcellinus was in fact martyred; the Catholic encylopedia considers his “in all probability, a natural death” in 304. And it was probably not in April that this death occurred.

Given all those question marks, Marcellinus’s April 26 celebration was booted from the liturgical calendar in the same 1969 cleanup that fixed Pope Cletus.

* The papal tiara did not yet literally exist at this point, of course.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Ancient,Disfavored Minorities,God,History,Italy,Martyrs,Not Executed,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Uncertain Dates

Tags: , , ,

0 thoughts on “Feast Day of Popes Cletus and Marcellinus”

  1. Philippe says:

    Hello,

    As most people I don’t have the occasion to see the name Cletus very often. But seeing it in your post reminds me that one character in The Dukes of Hazzard – with Tom Wopat and John Schneider ( who later played Jonathan Kent the adoptive dad of Clark Kent – Superman in Smallville ) – is called Cletus.
    Cletus Hogg ( actor Rick Hurst ), remote cousin of the baddie Boss Hogg and deputy sheriff to sheriff Roscoe Coltrane.

    Best Regards

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>


Calendar

Archives

Categories

Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!


Recent Comments

  • jimmy45: Incorrect. German military was OFTEN subject to summary execution in the field. 3 actual examples from...
  • Sarah Johnson: Well, G.D., while I don’t know Charles II’s specific reasons, I think Vane’s trial...
  • G.D. Hodgson: I have searched over many years without success to unearth just what this enigmatic historical...
  • Lynda Norris: Dear Rudy: You are family! Was Nestor Flores your father or grandfather? Travis from the above reply is...
  • markb: Hello, Bart. i am also into a writing project. i would recommend you take a good look at dennis rader, the...