The story of Apollonius, an Alexandrian by birth, is derived from mixed sources and minimal manuscript transmission, so that it has become a complicated web that requires a sorting out of what can in fact be stated about this person.
Eusebius (c.260-340) in his *Ecclesiastical History *(5.21) begins the account with an awareness that while “during the reign of [Lucius Aelius Aurelius] Commodus [161-192, co-emperor from 177, sole ruler from 180 until his assassination on December 31, 192], our affairs took an easier turn,” there was nevertheless the activity of “the demon who hates the good,” which brought before the imperial court “in the city of the Romans” Apollonius, “one of the faithful of that city, a man famed for culture and philosophy,” through the instigation of an unnamed informer, himself one of the former’s “ministers.” The informer was, however, caught on the technicality that “informers of such things might not live” so that “his legs were broken immediately” to cause his death.
Eusebius then indicates that Apollonius was asked “to render an account before the Senate” wherein “he made a most eloquent defense before them all of the faith to which he bore witness.” Nevertheless, he was sentenced to decapitation as a consequence of his refusal “in any way to recant” - presumably of the crime of merely being Christian, though one may suspect as well beneath the scene at this particular time (and as to be noted subsequently from the other sources) a failure on the part of Apollonius to comply with the necessity of swearing an oath of loyalty to the imperium (cf. Grant 1970:95-96).
Eusebius concludes, but without citation, that “the man’s words before the judge, the answers he made in reply to the questions of Perennius, and the defense in full which he delivered to the Senate, may be learnt, by anyone who wishes to know exactly, from the record we have collected of the ancient martyrdoms” (H.E. 5.21, employing the translation throughout of Oulton 1927:167).
Jerome (c.347-419), in his relatively chronologically arranged listing of the “Lives of Illustrious Men,” identifies as active in the reign of Commodus two named Apollonius – the former [J 40; FOTC 100 (1999) 64-65] related to the “Cataphrygian” (or Montanist) heresy against which this Apollonius wrote (partially quoted in Eusebius 5.18), and which provoked Tertullian (c.160-220) in his later years to write “Against Apollonius” [for a more precise consideration of these issues within “a history of the development of doctrine,” see P 1.97-108].
The latter Apollonius [J 42; FOTC 100 67], the one known from Eusebius’ martyr description, Jerome identifies as “a Senator of the City of Rome” who, having been “denounced as a Christian by a slave,” was granted “his request to render an account of his faith” for which he “composed a remarkable work which he read in the Senate.”
Jerome then adds, as informative elaboration upon the ultimate charge against Apollonius which led to his execution, the existence “of a decree in the Senate . . . on the basis of an old law” wherein “Christians who had once appeared before them for judgment could not be let off unless they abjured their faith” (following throughout the translation by Halton). Whether such a decree or “old law” can actually be documented remains moot, but the assumption of its existence is frequently mentioned in the surviving “Acts” of his martyrdom (Greek text ##13-14, 23, 45).
These Acts are preserved in two versions - an Armenian from the fifth century, and one unique Greek codex of the eleventh century [Musurillo 1972: xxiii-xxv, with Greek text and translation on pp.90-105]. It is from these that the ancestry of Apollonius is confirmed, but the location of the hearing before “Perennis” has been displaced from Rome to the “province of Asia,” whereat the latter is “proconsul” (anthupatos). However, the Armenian version reads “Tarruntenus,” pointing thereby to Paternus Tarrentenus, who along with Tigidius Perrenis, had been inherited in 180 by Commodus as his two praetorian prefects. Perrenis was able to dispose of his rival in 183 and thereafter “controlled the administration for two years [before] being deposed and put to death in 185” (Carrington 1957: II.304; cf. Lawlor 1928:184 sub Eusebius H.E. 5.21.3). Either way, a date for these events, including Apollonius’ trial and death, is defined within a narrow range, and appropriate in light of the comparable events narrated in the “Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs” and other contemporary executions identified by Tertullian for this same period.
That the events of both Acts date from the interval 180-183, while thereafter the church in relation to the administration of Commodus appears to have experienced a basic peace (so also Eusebius, H.E. 5.21.1) not interrupted again until after the era of Septimus Severus (146-211, emperor from 13 April 193), aside from very specific local instances, can be best explained with reference to Marcia Aurelia Ceionia Demetria, daughter of Marcus Aurelius Sabinianus, as mistress to Commodus from 183. In that year Commodus had instigated the murder of Marcus Ummidius Quadratus, nephew of Commodus’ father and preceding emperor, Marcus Aelius Aurelius Verus (121-180), taking among other properties the victim’s concubine. Frederick Norris has observed that being “given honors as an empress, she used her influence in behalf of Christians” (GEEC 714). Marcia had been raised by a Christian presbyter, whether she can be called a Christian herself or not. But obtaining from Victor, bishop of Rome, a list of names of those exiled to forced and fatal labor in the Sardinian mines, she helped secure the release of many Christians after the date of the martyrs of these several Acts.
Herbert Musurillo, as editor of the collected Acts of the Christian Martyrs (1972), has observed that “our text [of the Acts of Apollonius] suggests two hearings separated by an interval of three days; and the martyr delivers two long speeches” (p. xxiv). Together these provide an apologetic “in the manner of Clement of Alexandria on the folly of pagan beliefs,” specifically those “of the Athenians, the Cretans, the Egyptians, Syrians and others,” but without attention, says Musurillo, being paid to materials local to Rome itself which might have been expected (ibid.).
As positive theology, Philip Carrington has summarized what Apollonius knew and included:
He went on to speak of the Logos, and his appearance on earth in the person of Jesus Christ. He quoted the famous passage from the Republic of Plato [ii.5, 361e in the words of Glaukon spoken to Sokrates], which said that if a truly righteous man appeared on earth, he would be scourged, bound, have his eyes put out, and at last be crucified. He touched on the prophets, and concluded with a reference to the resurrection and the judgement of God.
Such a summary made Carrington conclude that Apollonius belonged “to the theological school of Justin” (1957: II.305). [On Justin’s own martyrdom, see Musurillo 1972:42-61; for the theology of Justin see Q 1.207-219.]
Within the Greek text, Apollonius is regularly styled “Apollos, otherwise known as Sakkeas.” Musurillo observes that this “cognomon is obscure and may suggest
the man in sackcloth' . . . especially since the Armenian version translates it as the ascetic’” (1972:xxiv). But we can equally denote that the consistent usage of the hypocoristic “Apollos” reminds us of that New Testament figure from Alexandria - the eloquent “Jew” whose preaching and baptizing at Corinth and at Ephesus preceded the work of the Apostle Paul.
Clyde Curry Smith
Bibliography (see abbreviations table below):
J 42; FOTC 100 67
OEEC 59-60 (VSaxer)
Carrington 1957 The Early Christian Church, by Philip Carrington. Cambridge: At the University Press. 2 volumes.
Grant 1970 Augustus to Constantine: The Thrust of the Christian Movement into the Roman World, by Robert McQueen Grant. New York, Evanston, and London: Harper and Row.
Lawlor 1928 Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, The Ecclesiastical History and the Martyrs of Palestine, translated with Introduction and Notes, by Hugh Jackson Lawlor and John Ernest Leonard Oulton. London: SPCK. 2 volumes. Volume II: Introduction, Notes, and Index, by Hugh Jackson Lawlor.
Acts of the Christian Martyrs: Introduction, Texts and Translations, by Herbert Musurillo. Oxford: At the Clarendon Press.
Oulton 1927 Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, The Ecclesiastical History and the Martyrs of Palestine, translated with Introduction and Notes, by Hugh Jackson Lawlor and John Ernest Leonard Oulton. London: SPCK. 2 volumes. Volume I: Translation, by John Ernest Leonard Oulton. (Specific references also cited as H.E. with book and chapter).
This article, received in 2004, was researched and written by Dr. Clyde Curry Smith, Professor Emeritus of Ancient History and Religion, University of Wisconsin, River Falls.