Tertullian (Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Tertullian (Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus)

Tertullian (Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus) (ca. A.D. 155-after 220) Carthaginian essayist and polemist

The first notable apologist for Christianity, Tertullian formalized many standard Christian religious terms and agitated for religious freedom. The son of a Roman centurion based in Carthage (present-day Tunisia), he apparently was a trial attorney and spirited forensic orator. His scholarship and command of rhetoric attests to a good education in grammar, literature, logic, oratory, and philosophy. In his late teens and early manhood, Tertullian studied law. After a conversion from paganism to Christianity in A.D. 196, he spurned Athenian philosophers for their worldliness and attacked the Roman culture of barbaric sport at gladiatorial events. He became a disciple of the prophet Montanus, a millennialist, and a teacher of orthodox theology. Some biographies surmise that Tertullian was ordained into the priesthood, a preface to his rise to prominence as one of the early Latin fathers. During the disastrous reign of Septimius Severus and the improved conditions under Caracalla, Tertullian's essays in both Greek and Latin, “Ad martyras” (“To the Martyrs,” A.D. 197), “De idolatria” (“Of Idolatry,” ca. A.D. 200), “De corona” (“Of the Crown,” A.D. 201), “Scorpiace” (“Antidote for the Scorpion's Sting,” ca. A.D. 211), and “Ad Scapulam” (“To Scapula,” A.D. 214), reviled Roman attitudes on religion, the soul, and morality and shamed the persecution of Jews and Christians, even though their loyalty to Rome was unimpeachable.

The thrust of Tertullian's reasoned essays gave insight into concepts of nationhood and ethnicity during the Roman Empire. He defended a maligned faith by recalling the crucifixion of Peter, the stoning of Stephen, the beheading of James, and the imprisonment of Paul, a Roman citizen. His Apologeticus (The Apology, ca. A.D. 198), a forceful attack on imperial persecution of minority faiths, declares martyrdom the foundation on which the church would grow and survive. The text lauds Emperor Tiberius for recognizing Christians as a sect in the years following Christ's death. Tertullian accuses later Roman emperors of cowardice for fearing the worshippers they condemned and crucified: “Men cry out that the state is beset, that the Christians are in their fields, in their forts, in their islands” (Tertullian 1854, 2). As proof of disquiet over the sect's growth, Tertullian lists the pagan faiths of tribes throughout the empire who incur no reproof from Rome for clinging to traditional gods and altar sacrifices. To substantiate his allegations, he quotes the letter that Emperor Trajan received from PLINY THE YOUNGER, a respected attorney for the imperial court during hearings on Christian worship and hymn singing.

Tertullian made his points with irony, pun, and SATIRE as well as invective. His range of topics covers problematic sources of religious antipathy, particularly the sacraments of baptism and the eucharist. In defense of Christians, his “Ad natio- nes” (“To Nations,” ca. A.D. 197) repudiates the charges against the sect of infanticide, bestiality, and incest and identifies the anti-Christ—the beast predicted in the biblical book of Revelation—as the Roman Empire, which he equated with the sinful empire of Babylon. “De spectaculis” (“Of Public Shows,” ca. A.D. 201) denies that Christians court death sentences and use executions in the arena as masochistic displays of religiosity. For scriptural support, the author quotes the prohibition against killing from the Ten Commandments in the book of EXODUS and cites the PSALMS of David for blessing Hebraic piety, humility, and peacekeeping. In contrast, he maligns imperial dynasties for public vulgarity, “a pomp preceding, proving in itself whose it is, by the long line of images, by the host of statues, by the chariots, by the sacred carriages, by the cars, by the chairs, by the crowns, by the robes” (197). He concludes that the imperial grandeur and cruelty of the Roman circus “offends God” (197).


Dunn, Geoflrey D. Tertullian. New York: Routledge, 2004. Tertullian. Tertullian: Apologetic and Practical Treatises.

Translated by C. Dodgson. Oxford: F. & J.

Rivington, 1854.