Witch-hunts and persecutions thrive in environments where certain conditions are met. There must be some driving motivation, such as greed, envy, ideology, or hate; there must be willing accomplices who spread accusations and create new ones; and there must exist some tolerance of the persecution, whether from the leadership at the top or from the affected group at large. When these conditions are met, witch-hunts can seize hold of a group and spread as quickly as a wildfire. They are sustained by fear and hysteria; the affected group is made to feel as if hidden enemies are lurking around every corner and hiding behind every curtain.
To better explore the anatomy of the witch-hunt, we will consider one such persecution that took place during the reign of Roman emperor Constantius II. Constantius employed in his service an evil and brutal hatchet-man named Paulus. The historian Ammianus Marcellinus (Res Gestae XIX.11) tells us that his nickname was Tartareus (“The Diabolical”); another of his monikers was Catena (“The Chain”). Had he lived in the twentieth century, he is the type of person who would have found productive employment as the head of the secret police in some authoritarian state. He first gained his sinister reputation for his “work” in Britain, rounding up suspected supporters of a usurper to the throne named Magnentius. These events took place after Magnentius’s fall in 353 A.D. Paulus’s fondness for chains as an instrument of torture and humiliation was what earned him the name Catena.
But as often happens in these situations, once accusations and persecutions begin, even their initiators lose control over them. Cruel and vindictive people are not driven by altruistic motives; they enjoy their power for the feeling it gives them. And when there are no targets for their witch-hunts, they invent targets. The fires need to be fed. Paulus’s reign of terror became so out of control that one of the emperor’s officials in Britain, a man named Flavius Martinus, tried to put an end to them. Martinus had become horrified at Paulus’s kangaroo courts, spurious accusations, and vindictive lies. Unsurprisingly, Paulus then leveled accusations against Martinus himself; he would eventually be forced to end his own life.
Paulus’s career did not end there. The historian Ammianus reports (XIX.11) that Catena delighted in putting innocent people under a cloud; his resolution to do evil was “fixed and unshakeable” (obstinatum fixumque). In Roman Egypt there was a province (called a “nome”) called Thebais. In this province was a town called Abydum, where an old local god named Besa was worshipped. In those days, just as happens now in many parts of the world, people would visit holy sites and write prayers or requests on small slips of paper and deposit them at shrines of worship. Some of the emperor’s spies were in the habit of reading such private notes, and maliciously passed them on to the imperial authorities. Apparently some of these little notes contained offensive sentiments.
Constantius was a weak and narrow-minded man, the kind of insecure leader who cannot tolerate even the thought of dissent or disagreement. His entourage at court was filled with useless people who did little else but fan the flames of conspiracy and paranoia. Because he was “suspicious and mean-spirited” (suspicax et minutus), he resolved to purge the imaginary traitors that he believed existed in Thebais. This is how these things start. Constantius sent his chief inquisitor, his major hatchet-man, to do the dirty work; and this man was of course Paulus Catena. Ammianus tells us that Paulus took to his job with a salivating glee.
Such people live for opportunities to vent their sadistic impulses on the innocent or harmless. Paulus used the opportunity to conduct a reign of terror on an extensive scale. He based himself in Scythopolis, a city in Palestine, so chosen because it was “midway between Antioch [in Syria] and Alexandria.”
Paulus pulled a great number of important officials and learned men into his accusatory dragnet. Most of the accused were put to the torture; many were sent into exile and had their possessions seized. Those who were able to save themselves from the false charges were the ones who stood up to Paulus’s lies and responded vigorously to them. Paulus liked to use deception and obfuscation to trick people into confessing things they had never done. Things got to the point where even someone’s appearance and demeanor could set off an accusation:
If someone was wearing on his neck a remedy [i.e., charm or medal] against the quartan fever or some other sickness, or was alleged to have passed by a funerary monument at night as supposed evidence of engaging in sorcery, or of collecting the sickening relics of tombs and communing with the spirits that inhabit such places, he was pronounced guilty and put to death. [Res Gestae XIX.13]
This is how bad things were: almost anything could trigger an accusation. Even trumped-up “evidence” of witchcraft and sorcery was used to malign and destroy innocent people. Yet there does seem to be a measure of justice in the world that falls on those who encourage and perpetrate such outrages. Accusers are often consumed by the lies and frauds that they themselves set in motion; and so are the wicked entrapped by the evil schemes they intend for others. So it was with Paulus Catena. When Constantius died, he was replaced by one of the most remarkable men ever to occupy the throne of Caesar: Julian, also known as Julian the Apostate. Julian was aware of Paulus’s murderous record as a persecutor and a maligner of innocent people. He had Paulus arrested, put on trial, and burned alive in 361 or 362.
The lessons are obvious for us today. If someone is lying about you, trying to demean your accomplishments, or smear you with innuendo, it is important to correct the record with vigor and persistence. Lies, if repeated long enough without rebuttal, can sadly take on the patina of truth; and we live in a world where people too often believe the first thing that reaches their ears or eyes. Achievement will attract the malicious envy of detractors. Take heart, fight your corner, and keep working diligently towards your goals.
Read more about personality and character in history in my new translation of Sallust: