Ancient Christian Church

To find a relatively poorly documented person of the second century, like Leonides, known only by virtue of the prestige of his son, requires a consideration of sources and an awareness of the peculiar development of “persecution” as a factor in Christian experience. Eusebius (c.260-340) began his account of the history of the Church with a concern for the various “successions from the holy apostles” illustrated not merely by “those who in each generation were ambassadors of the divine word,” but also with the innovators, and with the disasters which befell “the whole Jewish nation,” but especially with “the war which has been waged by the heathen against the divine word” such that there were “noble men who as occasion offered, endured death and torture in the conflict on its behalf” (H.E. I.1-2; Oulton 1927: 3).

Thus the “succession” of “martyrs” (originally those who gave “testimony” in their own defence and on behalf of their persuasion), and the narrative of those occasions which provoked this level of response, loom equally large in the overall account which Eusebius purports to tell. Perhaps by virtue of the extremity of these “persecutions” which immediately preceded his own day, which, in his opinion, saw the triumph of the Church by its coming under the protection and patronage of the imperial government, there is a particular necessity to reevaluate his evidence on the occasion of all interim instances (cf. Grant 1955 passim).

Therefore, when we read at the beginning of his sixth book, “Now when Severus also was stirring up persecution against the churches” such that “in every place splendid martyrdoms of the champions of piety were accomplished, but with special frequency at Alexandria” (H.E. VI.1; Oulton 1927: 177), while it is appropriate to observe some kind of phenomenon associated with that place at that time, it is also necessary to evaluate historically what actually happened (cf. Lawlor 1928: 191-192). For it is clear that Eusebius’ account at this point in his history is meant to provide a more thrilling context for the emergence of that one important figure, lifted up within the whole of his history, as the major Christian author of the period from the birth of the Church until his own day – namely, Horigenes Adamantius, called Origen (c.185-254), whose father Leonides was, but without whom Leonides might never have been recalled.

The Roman emperor Septimus Severus (193-211) in the tenth year after his power was secured against his various rivals (202) appears to have accepted the fact of some persecution (Frend 1967: 239-242), though with respect to Christians, “persecution at this time was due to private and/or local initiative” (Grant 1970: 100) in contrast to the impression given by Eusebius (H.E. VI.1). “Apart from the years 202-203, and the situation which had developed between the Christians and pagans in Carthage, the reigns of Septimus Severus and his son Caracalla (211-217) were tolerant” as recognized by Tertullian (Frend 1967: 242; cf. Grant 1970: 97-100).

However, persecution was severe in Alexandria, under Quintus Maecius Laetus, prefect of Egypt, where it touched the life of an adolescent whose father, Leonides, was executed, and who, but for his mother’s hiding of his clothes, would have followed in his father’s path. That youth was the budding biblical scholar, Origen, who became, in spite of his tender age, the director of the greatest Christian school, in Alexandria from 203 to 231, taking over from his own teacher, Clement of Alexandria (160-215), who had fled the city recalling “‘roastings, impalings and beheadings’ of Christians” (Frend 1984: 293).

The first known head of the Christian philosophical or catechetical school at Alexandria was Pantaenus, who is remembered chiefly as teacher of Clement. But it was of his generation that Leonides is to be dated, as well as to be defined as one closely tied in friendship as well as in a Christian persuasion “of the same broad-minded type” (Carrington 1957: II.278). Origen may well have been too young to have been taught directly by Pantaenus, but the influences would have been very close through Leonides or through Clement (cf. Carrington 1957: II.412).

Leonides was obviously married, though her name is nowhere preserved. From Jerome’s account of Origen, we learn that at the time of Leonides’ death, Origen “was left at the age of about seventeen, with his six brothers and widowed mother, in poverty” [J 54; NPNF 2 III (1892) 373], so the family of Leonides was large, but of no other of the sons is there any evidence. Origen “had to support his mother and his younger brothers by giving classes in the Greek language and literature” (Carrington 1957: II.423). That poverty is said to have been the consequence of “their property” having been confiscated “because of confessing Christ,” so one may assume not only an educated but also a well-off family. Eusebius tells us Leonides’ death was by beheading, which also implies status, perhaps even Roman citizenship, within the Alexandrian community. The story of the mother’s role in saving Origen from accompanying his father to death, “was told by Origen himself in one of his letters” according to the scholarly patriarch of Constantinople, Photios (c.810-893), and, while it is not otherwise preserved, Rufinus of Aquileia (c.345-410) “states that it was related in” an otherwise cited letter “which he seems to have read” (Lawlor 1928: 192; cf. Q2.1.4 pp. 73-74).

Clyde Curry Smith

Bibliography (see link to abbreviations table below):

FOTC 100 77; OEEC 480 (HCrouzel)

Supplementary Bibliography

Carrington 1957 The Early Christian Church, by Philip Carrington. Cambridge: At the University Press. 2 volumes.

Frend 1967 Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church: A Study of a Conflict from the Maccabees to Donatus, by William Hugh Clifford Frend. New York: New York University Press.

Frend 1984 The Rise of Christianity, by William Hugh Clifford Frend. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Grant 1955b

The Sword and the Cross, by Robert McQueen Grant. New York: The Macmillan Company.

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.

NPNF 2 III 1892 Jerome, De viris inlustribus, translated by Ernest Cushing Richardson, in A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Buffalo and New York: Christian Literature. Series 2, Volume III, pp. 359-384.

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 2001, was researched and written by Dr. Clyde Curry Smith, Professor Emeritus of Ancient History and Religion, University of Wisconsin, River Falls.

Click here forAbbreviations and Source References for Ancient African Christians.