Members were forced to choose between obedience to the emperor and obedience to the church, and the recent increase in the number of Christians, many ofwhom were nominal, made the dilemma worse.
Prominent individuals, such as Fabian, bishop of Rome, and Babylas, bishop of Antioch, were arrested, tried and executed almost at once.68 Cyprian of Carthage was publicly proscribed and had left the city by March.69 On 12 March,70 the presbyter Pionius was executed at Smyrna. Proceedings, however, dragged on. In Egypt, the sacrifice test appears not to have been applied until the middle of the year. Forty-four certificates of sacrifice (libelli) have survived, dating from 12 June to 14 July, the elaborate formulae used attesting to the solemnity of the occasion.71
Available evidence suggests that the emperor's policy met with immediate success. The church was still very largely urban, and its leaders would be well known. They lost control of the situation. At Carthage there was mass apostasy. The crowd of would-be sacrificers was so great that the priests begged them to return the next day.72 At Smyrna, Polycarp's see, bishop Euctemon readily sacrificed, and encouraged others to do so.73 According to the dramatic account of events in the Martyrium Pionii, the pagan population, despite nearly two centuries of Christian mission, was clearly on top, alternately mocking the presbyter Pionius and his few companions and beseeching him not to throw away his life so foolishly. Although their urging was in vain, it was evident that the church had suffered a mighty blow, and, had the persecution been followed up, its recovery would have been slow and difficult.
As it was, fortune favoured the Christians. Decius and his son were killed in battle against the Goths in June 251. There were two more years of stress under the short-lived emperor Gallus (251-3 ce),74 enough for the mob to shout 'Cyprian to the lion'75 and for pope Cornelius to die in exile at Centumcellae in 253. In the same summer, however, the situation was partly stabilised by the removal of Gallus and the accession of Decius' friend, Valerian (253-60 ce).
68 Cypr. Ep. 55.9 (Fabian); Euseb. HE 6.39.4 (Babylas).
69 Cypr. Ep. 66.4.1. Rives, 'Decree of Decius', 141.
71 See Knipfing, 'Libelli of the Decian persecution', 363ff. A full list is given by Selinger, Mid-third century persecutions, 137-55.
73 M. Pion. 15. See Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians, 460-92, for a brilliant sketch of the events leading to Pionius' martyrdom.
74 See Frend, Martyrdom and persecution, 411-12. For an account of the confused events of the year 253, see Alfoldi, 'Age of Decius', 168-9.
75 Cypr. Ep. 59.8. On the number of Christian martyrs under Decius, see Frend, Martyrdom and persecution, 413.
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