Pagan Reaction to Early Christian Women in the 2nd Century Part 2: Marcus Cornelius Fronto (Margaret Y. MacDonald, 1996)

NOTE: This article is taken from Early Christian Women and Pagan Opinion: The Power of the Hysterical Woman, pp. 59-67.


In one second-century source, the involvement of women is used to illustrate the clandestine nature of early Christianity. Unlike Pliny’s correspondence, there are no reports of incidents involving specific women. Yet women are present at the level of impression and appearance; their very visibility is used as evidence for crime. Marcus Cornelius Fronto (100-166 CE), the Roman orator and tutor of Marcus Aurelius, is believed to be the author of a critique of Christianity. This critique was later used in a work titled ‘Octavius’ by the Christian apologist Minucius Felix (200-240 CE). Minucius Felix’s work cites pagan criticisms of Christianity and it then offers a defence of Christianity against paganism. The following excerpts are highlights from the anti-Christian polemic probably based on Fronto’s thought:

is it not scandalous that the gods should be mobbed by a gang of outlawed and reckless desperadoes? They have collected from the lowest possible dregs of society the more ignorant fools together with gullible women (readily persuaded, as is their weak sex); they have thus formed a rabble of blasphemous conspirators, who with nocturnal assemblies, periodic fasts, and inhuman feasts seal their pact not with some religious ritual but with desecrating profanation; they are a crowd that furtively lurks in hiding places, shunning the light; they are speechless in public but gabble away in corners. . . They recognize each other by secret marks and signs; hardly have they met when they love each other, throughout the world uniting in the practice of a veritable religion of lusts. Indiscriminately they call each other brother and sister, thus turning even ordinary fornication into incest by the intervention of these hallowed names … On a special day they gather for a feast with all their children, sisters, mothers-all sexes and all ages. There, flushed with the banquet after such feasting, they begin to burn with incestuous passions … the light is overturned and extinguished, and with it common knowledge of their actions; in the shameless dark with unspeakable lust they copulate in random unions, all equally being guilty of incest, some by deed, but everyone by complicity.1 (Emphasis mine)

House of M.Cornelius Fronto, Pompeii AD40-50
House of M.Cornelius Fronto, Pompeii AD40-50

In keeping with stereotyped critiques of illegitimate cults during this era, the speaker is concerned with how women figure in the immoral activities of the group.2 The speaker describes the efforts of early Christians to seek out and corrupt women. Women are viewed as being inherently susceptible to such tactics. But if we probe the description further, we obtain interesting information about how the church is seen as violating the proper distinction between public and private domains. Described as a gang of desperadoes which is in opposition to the gods, early Christianity is perceived as a public threat. Women are present at ‘public’ church meals; men and women gather together for feasts without any consideration of propriety. However, what is cited as especially reprehensible in this case is that this public disorder operates through secret tactics, seeking the seclusion of the private domain. Meetings are held at night; words are exchanged in corners; all members of the family, including children, are present. Presumably, the author has in mind the kind of clandestine activities that might take place in a private home. The home, which should protect women and children from such destructive forces, becomes the very site of their corruption.

This funerary stele from the 3rd century is among the earliest Christian inscriptions, written in both Greek and Latin: the abbreviation D.M. at the top refers to the Di Manes, the traditional Roman spirits of the dead, but accompanies Christian fish symbolism
This funerary stele from the 3rd century is among the earliest Christian inscriptions, written in both Greek and Latin: the abbreviation D.M. at the top refers to the Di Manes, the traditional Roman spirits of the dead, but accompanies Christian fish symbolism

The reference to familial language (‘indiscriminately they call each other brother and sister’) is especially intriguing, given that usage of such language has been judged by scholars of early Christianity to be a sign that early church groups brought the public: male domain into the domestic: female sphere, and hence, opened up avenues for women’s activities that might not otherwise be available in society at large. There is a recognition of the blurring of lines between inside and outside in the accusation that Christians turn ‘even ordinary fornication into incest’: the common immorality of the outside world becomes indecency in the home. In essence, this text reveals the perception, which becomes even more strongly pronounced in Celsus’ critique, that the heart of Christianity’s threat lies in rendering the public sphere an extension of the private. In aiming to understand what this meant for early Christians, it becomes immediately clear that the private: household world of early Christianity did not shelter one from the public gaze. However much the reality of church as ‘new family’ facilitated the involvement of women, it clearly also heightened Christianity’s offensiveness and left women vulnerable to scrutiny.

While the critique of early Christianity recorded in the above speech is obviously polemical, and as always we must be aware of the distinction between appearance and reality, it nevertheless may offer substantial insight into how early Christians in the second century operated. Having studied the growth of Christianity from 100 to 400 CE Ramsay MacMullen notes a decline in references to missionary effort starting at the turn of the second century. In responding to the puzzling issue of under what circumstances most conversions actually took place, MacMullen points to the importance of the somewhat sequestered settings of home and work where news could be exchanged and healings and exorcisms performed. He concludes that early Christians were essentially cautious when it came to large-scale public appearances.

Relief from the Arch of Titus in Rome depicting a menorah and other spoils from the Temple of Jerusalem carried in Roman triumph.
Relief from the Arch of Titus in Rome depicting a menorah and other spoils from the Temple of Jerusalem carried in Roman triumph.

If MacMullen’s conclusions are correct, then early Christian texts encouraging visibility and public declarations of faith must be analysed carefully. It is worth considering one example which may have points of contact with Fronto’s polemic. Writing in the early to mid-second century, the author of the Pastoral Epistles is intent on encouraging community gatherings involving preaching, teaching and the public reading of scripture (1 Tim. 4.12-15; cf. 5.19-21; 2 Tim. 2.2).33 However, at times almost imperceptibly, the focus of these exhortations changes from the internal assembly to relations between the church and the world. Clearly the Pastoral Epistles voice an interest in conversion (e.g. 1 Tim. 2.3-4; 2 Tim. 4.2-5), despite any attendant risks of persecution entailed in proselytizing. Indeed opponents are to be countered with ‘sound speech that cannot be censured’ in order to avoid any possibility of the slander of the community (Tit. 2:7-8). The focus on the public sphere in the Pastoral Epistles seems to have two dimensions. On the one hand there is an encouragement of community members to gather together openly as well as an interest in the public dimension of ministry. On the other hand there is concern with the impression made on outsiders and with giving the mission a universal appeal.

The two-dimensional focus on the public domain in the Pastoral Epistles is probably related to two interrelated problems. The way these texts focus on the public sphere may be a response to pagan accusations of secretive activity, a response which aims to quiet pagan attack. Yet, the public emphasis may also be a response to an internal problem. It has been suggested that there is a connection between appeals to the public nature of Timothy’s ministry (1 Tim. 4.12-15; 2 Tim. 4.2-5) and the tactics of false teachers who were thought to pose an internal threat to the group by sneaking into the household, upsetting the faith, and capturing ‘silly women’ (2 Tim. 3.6; cf. Tit. 1.11).34 If this is the case, we have here an example of an early Christian author aiming to admonish community members by warning them to avoid the kind of behaviour of which, in all likelihood, they themselves had been accused during the course of pagan critique.35 In other words, an early Christian author is capable of attributing the same vice to members of the internal group that has been used to label the group by outsiders. Moreover, pagan opinion concerning the vulnerability of women to conversion to Christianity is reworked within a church context into the vulnerability of women to allegedly heretical teaching. This is an example of a phenomenon we will encounter frequently during the course of our study: external values and labels are appropriated by the group during the process of self-definition. Such appropriation illustrates the importance of the perception of outsiders in the development of a community’s sense of boundaries setting it apart from both internal enemies and the external world.

Brescia Casket, an ivory box with Biblical imagery (late 4th century)
Brescia Casket, an ivory box with Biblical imagery (late 4th century)

As is typical for early Christian authors of this period, the author of the Pastoral Epistles appears to be waging a battle on two fronts – internal enemies and outsiders – and it is often not easy to see clearly the author’s line of vision. This dual perspective is evident in the teaching on widows in 1 Timothy 5 where young widows (probably under the influence of the ‘false teaching’ mentioned above) are said to be wasting time, wandering from house to house saying what should not be said, and contributing to the slander of the community. The author’s recommendation is unambiguous: the young widows should marry, have children and manage their households (1 Tim. 5.11—15). Not only does this exhortation curtail the expansion of an unacceptable ascetic teaching (1 Tim. 4.3), but it also quiets the behaviour of women which was drawing unwanted attention from outsiders. Women become relegated to their proper place in the private domain of the household. But it is important to realize that such strong efforts to reinforce the traditional boundaries separating the male, public sphere from the female, private sphere were destined to have only limited effect. By virtue of its interest in transforming society and of its physical manifestation as an association of house groups, the household of God (1 Tim. 3.15) would remain visible as a movement where the private and public merged, and gender distinctions were threatened.

To return to Fronto’s polemic, it is important to recognize that the secretive nature of the church’s activities did not curtail speculation and detailed comment on those activities by outsiders. Christian rites were visible enough at least to generate rumours: all notions of table etiquette and propriety have been abandoned, promiscuity and incest are said to be rampant, brotherhood and sisterhood language reaches far beyond symbolic proportions. Fronto states that immorality involves all ages and sexes, but it is important to note his effort to be more precise about the nature of the scandal. He stresses the involvement of women, sisters, and mothers in the feasts: the corruption of women and children undoubtedly is a sign of the group’s sinister nature. Church authors from the second century onward demonstrate an awareness that Christians are accused of such things. But what is remarkable is that church authors can also apply such descriptions to distinguish their ‘authentic’ views from various ‘heretical’ groups. In the middle of the second century Justin, for example, claimed (in the style of Fronto) that some gnostic groups ‘overturned the lamp’, had promiscuous intercourse and ate human flesh. According to Clement of Alexandria, the Carpocratians (a libertine gnostic group) held their wives as common property.

A Roman priest, his head ritually covered with a fold of his toga, extends a patera in a gesture of libation (2nd–3rd century)
A Roman priest, his head ritually covered with a fold of his toga, extends a patera in a gesture of libation (2nd–3rd century)

Later in the same century, Irenaeus explained that as part of their previous religious lives some Christian women had taken part in promiscuous rites. From the fourth-century Christian author Epiphanius of Cyprus comes an especially dramatic account of the Christian group known as Phibionites which has much in common with Fronto’s description of the Christians from the second century. According to Epiphanius, the members of this group have ‘their women in common’. During the course of a meeting a husband ‘says to his own wife, stand up and perform the agape [make love] with the brother’. At the end of his account Epiphanius claimed that his detailed knowledge of the group was based on personal experience; he had been lured into the group by attractive young women.

When we see the similarity between what pagans said about Christians and what Christians said about internal enemies, we are left with many questions about the influence of stereotypical categories and about historical accuracy. It is not enough today to say that pagan critique was based exclusively on the activities of so-called extremist early Christian groups. Scholars now read church authors very much aware of the possibility of an exaggerated difference between what was heretical and what was orthodox. If we recall the need to wage a battle on two fronts, the attempt to communicate the message, ‘it may be true of them, but not us’ should come as no surprise. Neither should we be surprised that Christians adopted conventional polemical language and concepts to make accusations against alleged heretics, including charges about the corruption and inappropriate visibility of heretical women. But rather than seeing the similarity between pagan impression of Christians and Christian impression of deviant groups as evidence of the historical unreliability of this material, it is important, given the great diversity in early Christianity, to take seriously the possibility that rumours among the pagans do reflect the actual practices of some groups.

Statuettes representing Roman and Gallic deities, for personal devotion at private shrines
Statuettes representing Roman and Gallic deities, for personal devotion at private shrines

Even those texts which have been transmitted in Christian tradition as representative of orthodoxy give indications that the negative comments of outsiders were based on the observations of actual rites, which were then subject to a variety of interpretations. Early in the second century, Ignatius of Antioch sought to ensure that the bishop would have authority over the agape (Ign. Smyrn. 8.2). Although the agape here is usually understood in conjunction with the Eucharist, we cannot be certain of the specifics of his reference. The fact that this kind of language was used in relation to a gathering would be enough to raise suspicion, even if the love feast’ was not of the kind corrupted by the immorality of false teachers mentioned in Jude 12 or of the kind ascribed to the Phibionites by Epiphanius in the fourth century.44 Even in the earliest New Testament period, there are indications that religious rites were subject to public scrutiny. Paul clearly is afraid that the gift of tongues will be misunderstood by outsiders (1 Cor. 14.22-5). This kind of concern for propriety may also underlie his awkward response to the practice of women uncovering their heads when the community gathers for prayer and prophecy (1 Cor. 11.2-16).

This behaviour may have been inspired by Paul’s own teaching of the principle that in Christ, ‘there is no male and female’ (Gal. 3.28), a teaching which Pauline Christianity shares in common with aspects of Syrian early Christianity and Valentinian Gnosticism, and which may draw its origins from a saying in a baptismal rite that predates Paul. Although Paul seems to have been convinced of the importance of avoiding such interpretations, in other circles this teaching was interpreted as referring to the transcendence of sexual differentiation and the return to androgynous perfection.


Unity was an ideological goal which could be enacted in many dramatic forms in early Christianity, and these practices could have varying effects on public opinion. Although offering no mention of the activities of specific early Christian women, the remarks attributed to Marcus Cornelius Fronto have enabled us to reflect about the place of women in the charge of immorality which figures in pagan critique. Women, along with their children, are depicted as engaging in promiscuous rites and of violating the appropriate order of society, including the lines of division between private and public. As is the case with Pliny’s remarks, we find in Fronto’s polemic a strong curiosity about the rituals of early Christianity, including dining practices. This text is especially interesting because of the repeated focus on the visibility of women in the those rites. It does seem, however, that as we move from Pliny to Fronto we have left the firm grounds of history and have moved to the more speculative world of impression, rumour, and stereotype. But as we begin to think about the complicated question of the relationship between pagan critique and the content of early Christian literature, we will see that, with respect to women at least, this speculative world is no less important than the bedrock of historical fact. Through very real activities, and at times even by their silent presence or semblance of visibility, early Christian women became the indicators par excellence of perversion or of sanctity.


1 Octavius 8-9, in The Octavius of Marcus Minucius Felix, trans. G. Clarke (New York: Newman, 1974). O n the use of Fronto in Octavius see pp. 8-9, 221-4, n. 123. Cf. AJVF 4.177.

2 Cf. for example, Tacitus’ description of the Jews in Histories 5.5: ‘Toward every other people they feel only hate and enmity. They sit apart at meals, and they sleep apart, and although as a race they are prone to lust, they abstain from intercourse with foreign women; yet among themselves nothing is unlawful.’ Histories, trans. C. Moore (LCL 1931).



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