Priscillian the noted originator or propagator of a heretical body of Christians who bore his name, was the first heretic who was executed after the establishment of Christianity by the Roman state. He was a native of the Iberian Peninsula, and of noble birth. He flourished in the second half of the 4th century, possessed much wealth, had great reputation for learning, and was generally revered for his severe austerity. 'What his early occupation was is not known. He first figures in history as the propagator of the heretical dogmas which a certain Egyptian called Marcus, from Memphis, came to Spain to teach there. Priscillian, by his personal influence, succeeded in spreading the heresy of Marcus all over Spain, making a number of proselytes of the female sex, convincing many priests, and even some bishops; among others, two bishops, Instantius and Salvianus, who became zealous defenders of the imported doctrines, which were substantially those of the Manicheans (q.v.). He taught expressly the Dualism and the Docetism of that sect, and it is charged that he adopted the strictest ascetic austerities in regard to celibacy, etc., by which they had rendered themselves obnoxious even to the civil authorities in the East and in Africa. There is some doubt as to the precise doctrines which Priscillian taught. As reported, his dogmas are a strange mixture of Gnostic and Manichean absurdities combined with allegorical interpretations and mystical rhapsodies. He was also Sabellian in tendency in his rejection of a personal distinction in the Godhead, for he denied the reality of Christ's birth and incarnation. Among other things, he maintained that the visible universe was not the production of the Supreme Deity, but of some demon or malignant principle who derived his origin from chaos or darkness; he adopted the doctrine of aeons, or emanations from the divine nature; he considered human bodies as compounded according to the twelve signs of the zodiac, and as prisons formed by the author of evil to enslave the mind; he also condemned marriage, and denied the resurrection of the body. The rule of life and manners which the Priscillianists adopted was so rigid and severe that the charges of dissolute conduct brought against them by their enemies appear to be groundless. That they were guilty of dissimulation, and deceived their adversaries by cunning stratagems in order to accomplish what they deemed a sacred purpose, is true. Their doctrine was, according to St. Augustine, that deception is allowed to hide one's faith, and to simulate Catholic belief ("jura, perjura, secretum prodere noli"). Neander (Ch. Hist. 2, 711) observes that the reproach of immorality rests on insufficient proofs. It is, however, a fact that at least a part of the Priscillianists were addicted to unnatural turpitudes, to which such a system must logically lead; but there is no evidence that they avowed that lying and perjury were lawful under all circumstances.
The bishop Hyginus of Cordova was the first to enter the lists against this heresy, and he strove, although without success, to gain back to the orthodox Church the bishops Instantius and Salvianus. Hyginus apprised Idacius, the bishop of Merida, of the Priscillianic disorders; but the hot- blooded zeal of this prelate was still more unsuccessful, and so were the efforts of all the other Catholic bishops. The boldness of the heretics increased every day, and bishop Hyginus himself, displeased with the severe measures inaugurated against them, became their protector. To arrest their progress, a synod was held in October, 380, at Saragossa, to which Instantius, Salvianus, Elpidius, and Priscillian were also invited. The heresiarchs failed to appear. The synod condemned their doctrines and resolved upon measures to stop their expansion. Catholic women were prohibited from attending the Priscillianist meetings; fasting on Sundays was interdicted; the anathema was launched against such as stayed from Church during the forty days of Lent and the three weeks of Epiphany, or received the Eucharist in the Church without partaking at once of the sacrament: the same penalty was pronounced against those who should assume the name and functions of teachers without episcopal approbation; and every clerk who should, out of pride and vanity, clothe himself in the monastical garment, was put under ban. The execution of the decrees against Priscillianists was committed to the bishop Ithacius of Sosuba. No worse choice could possibly have been made. He was a mere voluptuary, and utterly destitute of all sense for spiritual things.
Excluded from the Church, the Priscillianists now took more decided measures for establishing themselves, and they had the boldness even to cause the consecration of Priscillian as their bishop of Avilla by the bishops Instantius and Salvianus. Of course, by this step the Spanish Catholic prelates were greatly embittered, and the Idacius above mentioned, together with Ithacius, bishop of Ossonova, who is represented by Sullpicius Severus as a troublesome zealot, were dispatched to the emperor Gratian for the purpose of obtaining an order of banishment against Priscillian, Instantius, and Salvianus. Gratian having issued the rescript thus demanded, the three heresiarchs repaired to Rome, in order to vindicate themselves before pope Damasus. But the pope refused to justify them. Salvianus died at Rome, and his two companions went to Milani, where they tried, as unsuccessfully, to persuade St. Ambrose of their innocence. However, they succeeded in bribing an influential functionary (magister officiorum) named Macedonius, who obtained for them an imperial decree which allowed them to return to Spain and take possession of their sees, and ordered Volventius, vicar of Spain, to examine further into the matter. Priscillian and Instantius returned to Spain, as in triumph; and Ithacius, now in turn accused as a disturber of the public peace, was driven out of Spain. The latter was even on the very point of being arrested in Treves, where he had established himself, and of being transported back to tie peninsula for trial, when things assumed, under the usurping emperor Maximus, a different aspect. As soon as this new Caesar arrived at Treves, Ithacius appeared before him against the Priscillianists. Maximus, who desired the whole matter to be disposed of as a purely ecclesiastical affair, ordered a synod to be held, in 384, at Bordeaux, to which the heresiarchs were summoned. Instantius was deposed by the vote of the assembly, and Priscillian, foreseeing a similar fate, tried to prevent it by appealing to the emperor. This step was the cause of his ruin. The emperor now took the matter in hand: Priscillian and his associates were brought to Treves, where Maximus resided at the time, and the most violent adversaries of the sect, Idacius and Ithacius, appeared as accusers. The latter of these two prelates, if Sulpicius Severus is to be trusted, suspected of Priscillianism any man whom he saw studying and fasting much; and, against all precedents, appeared as anl impassioned accuser, before a worldly tribunal, in a religious affair. St. Martin, bishop of Tours. a truly pious man, also at the time at the imperial court, held it to be an unspiritual innovation that an ecclesiastical matter should be tried by a secular court-that heretics should become liable to punishment with torture and death— and besought the emperor to leave the affair in the hands of the bishop, or, at least, to decide it without bloodshed. As long as Martin was present, the trial was delayed; on his departure, Maximus promised there should be no bloodshed, but he was induced by Ithacius and two other Spanish bishops, Rufus and Magrnus, to break his word. The prefect who tried the case probably employed tortures to obtain avowals. Priscillian, the rich widow Euchrocia, and several others were accused of criminal disorders, and condemned not only as false teachers, but also as violators of the civil laws. They were either beheaded or punished with confiscation and exile (365).
The execution of Priscillian by the sword, and of several of his associates, did not ruin the sect, but seemed rather to give it new life and vigor. The Priscillianists got possession of the bodies of their dead, and brought them to Spain, where Priscilla was honored as a martyr. People swore by his name. The most distinguished bishops, Martin of Tours, St. Ambrose, Theognistus, and pope Siricius, sternly blamed the cruelty with which Ithacius and his friends had treated the heretics, and marked their abhorrence of the cruelty by separating from the communion of Ithacius and the other bishops who had approved the death penalty for heresy in the Christian Church. But the emperor Maximus went on until his death (387) persecuting the Priscillianists as criminal Manichueans, and was even on the point of sending to Spain a military commission with unlimited powers to pursue the accused and punish the guilty with confiscation and death; and only abandoned this project by intercession of St. Martin.
The gravity of the measures adopted for the punishment of heresy at the time to which we here refer obliges us to turn aside to remark
(1.) that heresy was declared against by the State for the first time under Theodosius the Great, the first emperor who was baptized in the Nicene faith. He was determined to put an end to the Arian interregnum, and therefore proclaimed the exclusive authority of the Nicene Creed, and at the same time enacted the first rigid penalties not only against the pagan idolatry, the practice of which was thenceforth a capital crime in the empire, but also against all Christian heresies and sects. The ruling principle of his public life was the unity of the empire and of the orthodox Church. In the course of fifteen years this emperor issued at least fifteen penal laws against heretics (comp. Cod. Theodos. 16, tit. 5, leg. 6-33), by which he gradually deprived them of all right to the exercise of their religion, excluded them from all civil offices, and threatened them with fines, confiscation, banishment, and in some cases (as the Manicheans, the Audians, and even the Quarto decimanians) with death. From Theodosius, therefore, dates the State-Church theory of the persecution of heretics and the embodiment of it in legislation. His primary design, it is true, was rather to terrify and convert than to punish the refractory subjects (so Sozomen asserts, Hist. Ecclesiastes lib. 7 c. 12). From the theory, however, to the practice was a single step; and this step his rival and colleague, Maximus, took when he inflicted capital punishment on Priscillian and some of his followers. This was the first shedding of the blood of heretics by a Christian prince for religious opinions.
(2.) We wish to note also that, while the execution of the Priscillianists is the only instance of the bloody punishment of heretics in this period, as it is the first in the history of Christianity, the propriety of violent measures against heresy was thenceforth vindicated even by the best fathers of the Church (see on this point Augustine's position as marked out by Neander, Ch. Hist. 2, 217 sq.; Schaff, Ch. Hist. 2, 144,145), and soon none but the persecuted parties were heard to protest against religious persecution. We need hardly add that in due time the Church of Rome, with Leo the Great as its first and clearest representative, became the advocate and executioner of the death penalty for heresy. SEE HERESY; SEE INQUISITION; SEE ROMANISM.
After the death of Maximus, the emperor Theodosius ordered a synod to be held in 389, to settle the difficulties that had arisen among the bishops of Gaul Spain, and Italy on account of Ithacius. The latter and bishop Idacius were deposed by that assembly. But the disputes which had been called up by them continued in some parts of Spain, fostered especially by the Priscillianists, who were still numerous. In the year 400 the sect appears in a decaying condition. At the synod held in that year at Toledo, several Priscillianist bishops, among others Symphosius and Dictinnlius, returned to the Church. The latter wrote a work entitled the Scules, in which the principles of the Priscillianists are expounded, but as he was an apostate he can hardly be regarded as a safe expositor of Priscillianism. The sect revived iu the middle of the 5th century, especially in Gallicia. The active exertions of bishop Turibius, of Astorga, succeeded in extinguishing it gradually. He punished and imprisoned heretics, etc., but he was also busy in their instruction, both orally and by his writings. The same bishop sent to Leo the Great a refutation of Priscillianism, which Leo honored with an answer, praising his zeal and recommending the holding of a Spanish synod, which he consequently convened in Gallicia in 448. Leo's letter is important for the refutation of Priscillianism contained in it. Among the most noteworthy literary attacks upon Priscillianism in the first half of the 5th century, we may mention here, besides, Ad Paulum Orsium contra Priscillinistas et Origenistas (411); Costra mendacium, addressed to Consentius (420); and in part the 190th Epistle (alias Ep. 157), to the bishop Optatus, on the origin of the soul (418), and two other letters, in which he refutes erroneous views on the nature of the soul, the limitation of future punishments, and the lawfulness of fraud for supposed good purposes. The Priscillianists, notwithstanding the severest measures inaugurated against them and the polemics that were written against them, continued to exist, and at all times during the mediaeval period we find their traces under various names and forms, especially in the north of Spain, Languedoc (France), and Northern Italy. The Synod of Braga, in 563, condemned several Priscillian errors, about which we owe to this assembly most interesting information. See Sulp. Severus, Hist. Sacra, 2, 46-51; Dial. 3, 11 sq.; Orosius Comumitorium de Errore Priscillianistarum, etc.; Leonis Magni Ep. 15, ad Turibium; Walch, Ketzerhistorie, 3. 378 sq.; Alex. Natalis, Hist. Ecclesiastes; Fleury, Hist. Eccl.; Van Fries, Dissertatio Critica de Priscill. (Ultraj. 1745); Lübkert, De Haeresi Priscill. (Havn. 1840); Mandernach, Gesch. des Priscillianismus (Treves, 1851); Hefele, Conciliengesch. 1, 719; 2, 27 sq.; 3, 13 sq.; Milman, Lat. Christianity, 1, 276-78; Pusey, Hist. of the
Councils A.D. 51-381 (1875); Alzog, Kirchengesch. 1, 372 sq.; Neander, Ch. Hist. 2, 710, 718.