Cannibals at an Orgy

How Roman conspiracy theories threatened the early Christian movement.

St Peter. Vatican, Rome.
St Peter. Vatican, Rome. Author photograph.

Some people claim that the Christians actually worship the penis of their high priest, and adore the generative organ as if it was their own father. — Minucius Felix, Octavius 9.4.

This startling claim was reported by a Roman writer named Minucius Felix. Found in a catalog of rumors that Romans spread about the emerging religion, it raises an obvious question: How did Christianity, a religion associated with rigorous morality and upright conduct ever generate such an odd idea?

For most Romans, Christianity was an unwelcome development. The new faith was disruptive: Christians taught people to reject the gods that had granted the Romans their unparalleled success. If the Christians succeeded in their goal of spreading the Gospel to the ends of the earth, if they persuaded Romans to forsake Jupiter, Mars, and the rest of the imperial pantheon, then the gods would turn against the state. They would withdraw divine favor and the empire would be swamped by her enemies.

The Jews dispersed through the Empire also refused to worship the gods, but they practiced an ancient religion, one that predated the foundation of Rome. The Romans might not agree with Jewish theology — they considered many of their ideas odd or even reprehensible — but they admired the antiquity of the belief.

In Rome, old ideas were the best ideas.

This reverence for antiquity made Christianity a hard sell. The Christians substituted new, untested beliefs for the ancient ideas of their ancestors. They had rebelled against the Jewish faith of their forefathers and practiced a religion that had emerged during the reign of the Emperor Tiberius. Once Christians broke with Judaism, they lost the patina of antiquity.

Not only were they rebels against tradition, but they had chose an unlikely candidate to lead their new movement. The Christians followed a criminal, a Jewish carpenter who had been tried, convicted, and executed by the Roman state. They were, by extension, criminals themselves.

As the faith spread out of Israel and began to attract negative notice, the Christians were driven underground. They began to gather in people’s homes, meeting in secret, under the cover of darkness. Traditional Roman religions were practiced openly — in temples and community festivals. If Christianity was a legitimate religion, why sneak around?

Obviously, said some Romans, the practitioners of this new religion were up to no good. And it didn’t take very long for rumors to circulate about what Christians did in their secret meetings.

Minucius Felix

In the late second century (a precise date is still debated), an elegant Roman author named Minucius Felix wrote a clever defense of the faith, the Octavius. Minucius was a Christian convert and an orator, a master of persuasive speech. Like most of his generation, he was deeply influenced by Cicero, and when he decided to defend his Christian beliefs, he framed them in a Ciceronian manner. Rather than simply composing a treatise to explain Christian ideas, Minucius wrote a dialogue in which two men — a pagan (Caecilius) and a Christian (Octavius) — debated the merits of their religious positions.

The dialogue is set in the bucolic port city of Ostia. The three friends — Caecilius, Octavius, and Minucius, who acts as a narrator — have fled the heat of Rome and traveled to the sea shore. They spend a pleasant afternoon strolling on the beach and watching children skip stones across the water. Finally, they take seats in the afternoon sun to begin a discussion of religion.

Caecilius is given the task of offering a pagan critique of Christianity. He gleefully attacks the folly of the faith. In chapter nine of the work, he offers a catalog of rumors that are circulating about the religion. Christianity, he argues, is an immoral cult. In addition to the penis-worship cited above, Christians are also known to participate in incestuous orgies:

People everywhere talk about their banquets — it is a well-known fact, attested by the speech of our friend from Cirta. On a solemn day they gather for a feast — all the children, sisters, mothers, people of every sex and age. Then, after much feasting, when the temperature of the company has risen, the party has heated up, and, driven by drunkenness, incestuous lust has reached a fever pitch, a dog tied to the lampstand is provoked. Someone throws a small piece of meat further than the length of the cord. The dog springs forward to catch the meat, pulls over the lampstand, and douses the light. Then, in the concealing darkness, the couplings of frenzied lust involve them in the possibility of incestuous intercourse. (Min. Oct. 9)

It is like the worst Thanksgiving dinner imaginable. After stuffing themselves with food, and growing far too drunk on Roman wine, the Christians descend into debauchery by tearing off their clothing and participating in an orgy. Although this conduct is unsavory, it becomes even worse when we remember that these are families meeting for this banquet. In the alcohol-soaked darkness, members of the same household join in illicit intercourse: “children, sisters, mothers, people of every sex and age.” It is not merely an example of uninhibited sexual activity. It is transgressive, incest carrying it across the border that separates unseemly behavior from contemptible.

This, argues Caecilius, is what Christians are like; this is what they do in their secret meetings. Could anyone doubt that such a wicked people deserved to be identified and punished? Unfortunately, incestuous orgies did not represent the low-water mark of Christian depravity. They did something that was even worse:

Now the story about the initiation of young novices is both disgusting and well-known. A baby is concealed in a loaf of bread to deceive the unsuspecting new member. The loaf and a knife are placed before the new member. They tell him to use the knife to cut the bread. When he does, his “harmless” blows kill the infant.

Next the Christians rush forward to lick up the baby’s blood. They rip its body apart and eat the flesh. Then, the new member, who has committed this terrible crime is bound by his guilt to a pledge of silence. These “sacred” rites are more disgusting than any sacrileges. (Min. Oct. 9)

Christians, allege Caecilius, murder babies. Although Rome’s early history offered examples of human sacrifice for religious purposes, the practice had been officially outlawed in 97 B. C. Human sacrifice and cannibalism were what outsiders, non-Romans, and barbarians did. The rumor that Christians killed and consumed babies emphasized the contemptibility of their beliefs. Enlightened Roman religion had long ago moved on from offering human lives to the gods.

Moreover, the Christians knew this; their sacrifice was not intended to appease a savage deity. It was designed to bind the new member into an unbreakable relationship with the cult. Initiates were compelled to do something so horrifically illegal that they could never report their deed to the authorities. This terrible act linked them eternally to the rest of their dark society.

Unlike the other rumors, the belief that Christians practice cannibalism has a theoretical basis. Believers practiced the Eucharist, in which they ate the body and drank the blood of Christ (Matt. 26:26–28). It is not difficult to imagine how this practice could be misunderstood and employed to support a rumor of cannibalism.

When the time comes in the dialogue for Octavius to rebut Caecilius’ claims of Christian depravity, he ridicules the charges (who could believe that any man would slaughter an innocent baby?) and then shifts the debate by employing the thoroughly modern line of counterattack, “what-about-ism.” Even if Christian did do these horrible things, what about the Romans? They expose unwanted babies — leaving them outside their homes to be killed by the elements or wild dogs — and women take herbs to induce the abortion of unwanted fetuses (Min. Oct. 30). The Christians are a model of probity. They would never participate in incest or orgies, but what about the Romans who married their sisters, or the gods who did the same (Min. Oct. 31)?

The problem with using “what-about-ism” as a rhetorical strategy — both in the Octavius or modern political discourse — is that it does not clear the accused of a charge. It only reduces the accuser to the level of the accused. Minucius Felix is very effective in defending Christianity in other parts of his work, but I find his debunking of the rumors less robust than it might have been. Far preferable was the rebuttal offered by Tertullian, an early third century African lawyer. Tertullian suggested that if people thought Christians were engaged in these vile practices, then a full investigation should be launched. “A judge,” he wrote:

should wring out of each one of us how many murdered babies we had tasted, how many incestuous orgies we had joined in the dark — who were the cooks and how many dogs were present? My, how great would be the glory of the judge who uncovered a Christian who had eaten one hundred babies! (Tert. Apology, 2.5)

Rumor and innuendo are used to marginalize groups of people. Adversaries of Christianity spread dark tales about the emerging faith that were intended to portray its adherents as a debauched, un-Roman cult — one that stood outside the pale of acceptable behavior and morality.

From the distance of nearly 2,000 years these rumors seem absurd and risible. Nevertheless, one cannot deny the susceptibility of the human mind to this form of propaganda. We need only recall the recent “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory that has convinced far too many Americans that Democratic operatives were involved in human-trafficking and running child sex rings. When it comes to baseless rumors and conspiracy theories, humans are no more immune today than they were in Roman antiquity.

Sources: Minucius Felix, Octavius; Tertullian, Apology. All translations are by the author.

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Written by

Author and history professor. Excavating the past for fun and profit. Web-site: www.richardjgoodrich.com

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