The Brilliant Career of the Procurator Hilarianus

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Manchester Museum, Mummy Portrait 11306 (Hawara, Egypt, ca. AD 185-95)

The last in my gallery of soliloquies for ancient villains from last week’s empathy workshop at the Manchester Museum is another figure from the prison diary of the martyr Perpetua. This is the procurator Hilarianus, who found himself standing in for the Roman governor of Africa, Minucius Timinianus, when Minucius suddenly died. Many readers find Hilarianus to be a curiously sympathetic figure, since he makes every effort to dissuade Perpetua from allowing herself to be executed – she tells us that he has offered that she can go home without punishment if she is willing to offer sacrifice. (This is the test of obedience that Pliny, then governor of Bithynia and Pontus, had established for dealing with adherents to the ‘superstition’ of Christianity at the beginning of the second century.)

For those who want to know more about Hilarianus, there is a wonderful article that tries to assess where the Carthage posting fit into his career as a Roman politician. (James B. Rives, ‘The Piety of a Persecutor’, Journal of Early Christian Studies 4 [1996], pp.1-25.)

Two students at our workshop wrote monologues for Hilarianus. Both showed awareness that a figure like Hilarianus would have seen the ‘Christian incident’ as only one of many different kinds of trouble to be ‘handled’ in the provinces, and that in all likelihood Hilarianus had troubles of his own. Remarkably interesting, I thought!

Charles Lynch (Merchant Taylor School, Liverpool) saw Hilarianus as a man of considerable experience, concerned above all with Rome’s glory:

‘I administer justice. I follow the law to the dot and there is little room for negotiation. We live in dark times where children are disobeying their parents, and being lenient to one case means being lenient to them all; it can’t be done. The shades of grey must be disregarded and the decision be made as black or white; guilty or not. I asked a girl, Perpetua, whether she was a Christian or not. Yes or not; black or white. She was abnormal or she wasn’t. She confessed despite her father’s meddling. I had him whipped for failing to control his daughter. She had her one chance; I asked her to sacrifice for the welfare of the emperors. She refused and was thus to be prosecuted. It is a uniform procedure; everyone gets one chance, and those who squander it shall be punished. [The girl’s father failed to realise this and attempted to pervert the course of justice. Again, this is one of the reasons I had him whipped.] I’ve had a long life and I’ve learned that stability comes from rigorous enforcement of our regime, not by radicalism of the youth. I’ve dealt with many Christians and will deal with many more; they fail to realise that their abnormal religion will never become the social norm, especially while our perfect system is in place. I have lived my life by being the hand of justice; cases are always the same. This ordeal with Perpetua is just a case of someone being obviously guilty. I cannot let my emotions get in the way; sympathy renders me inefficient. I have done my duty, and will continue to do so until the day I die.’

Cole McLean-Bailey (Thomas Whitham Sixth Form, Burnley) saw him as a careerist worried about defending his own position in the dog-eat-dog world of Roman politics:

‘However much I do sympathise with [Perpetua] there is no way I could change her sentence, as a procurator I am only a part of the Roman empire with simply no room for manoeuvre, I must follow the procedure of the empire to ensure that the system continues to function. If the empire is to continue we must remain harsh on those who don’t follow the Roman way of life. A libertarian empire would simply never work so however regrettable it is, if I want to keep my place at the top I need to follow Rome.

I don’t understand how this girl who lives under Roman rule could risk the safety of her father and child simply for devotion to religion. It is sacrificing to the emperor, nothing more, I’m not asking for her to completely abandon her religious beliefs. It is my duty as a governor to uphold Roman virtue even if it means resorting to cruel methods such as beating her father. I will do anything to uphold Rome’s power.’

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