This September, Mythicist Milwaukee will be putting on Mythinformation Con IV, always a fun and excellent conference. You’ll definitely want to go this year. Some of the Mythicist Milwaukee team traveled to Italy recently, and among much else, took some photographs of the Column of Marcus Aurelius in Rome. This inspires me to relate a story I’ve discussed in my past books and lectures, but still most people know little or nothing about. It’s a great story that captures the whole core of what Mythicist Milwaukee is about: examining myths and how they get created, exposing the truth, but also learning what we can from the creation and defense of the myth.
The myth I shall be talking about today is the Rain Miracle of Marcus Aurelius. Which I’ve discussed before, in my book Sense and Goodness without God (IV.1.2.1), and in my talk Miracles and the Historical Method. But here I can summarize it for all and sundry, and add some new pics and sources, and update some of the content (so this supersedes those).
The Original Story
The Rain Miracle is an example of an extremely well-attested ancient miracle, far better attested than any Christian miracle of the era, in or out of the Bible. Yes, dear Christian apologists, it’s far better attested and evidenced than even the resurrection of Jesus. There is an entry on it at Livius. But I’ll go over the details here, too. And at the end of this essay is a full bibliography of all the scholars and sources I will be mentioning.
Ido Israelowich describes it best:
In the late 160s and the early 170s [the Roman Emperor] Marcus [Aurelius] was embroiled in wars against several of the German peoples. After the Iazyges and the Marcomanni were conquered, the emperor embarked on war against the Quadi in the year AD 172. [Cassius] Dio reported that it was “a great war against the people called the Quadi,” and that “it was his [that is, Marcus’] good fortune to win an unexpected victory, or rather it was vouchsafed him by heaven. For when the Romans were in peril in the course of the battle, the divine power saved them in a most unexpected way.”
It appears from Dio’s narrative that the Roman army found itself in a difficult position, surrounded by a Quadi force, suffering from the extreme heat, and on the verge of capitulation owing to a severe shortage of drinking water and being outnumbered. “Suddenly,” [Dio continues], “many clouds gathered and a mighty rain, not without divine interposition, burst upon them…when the rain poured down, at first all turned their faces upwards and received the water in their mouths; then some held out their shields and some their helmets to catch it, and they not only took deep draughts themselves but also gave their horses to drink.”
Dio’s intimation of divine intervention becomes even more explicit when he writes of the hail storm, which broke suddenly, and the numerous thunderbolts which fell on the ranks of the foe. He states, “Thus in one and the same place one might have beheld water and fire descending from the sky simultaneously; so that while those on the one side were being drenched and drinking, the others were being consumed by fire and dying.” The battle was soon won and Marcus was saluted imperator for the seventh time.
Israelowich further points out:
This description of Dio might suggest that he (or Xiphilinus, whose epitomes of Dio are all we have here) mixed two independent stories into one. The column of Marcus in Rome depicts two scenes of divine intervention. In scene XI, the emperor himself is present and he is saved by a lightning bolt that destroys the enemy’s war machine. In scene XVI, where the emperor is not present, there is a depiction of the rain miracle.
So already we have some conflation of events going on. This is how miracle stories become embellished through transmission. And yet Dio is writing in the 220s A.D., some fifty years after the event, the same span of time between the supposed ministry of Jesus and the Gospels. It’s unlikely the conflation is by Xiphilinus. The integrated tale is too coherent. This is Dio mixing the lightning miracle with the rain miracle. And probably in fact it was so mixed already by the soldiers passing the tale on for Dio later to hear of it. That conflation probably had already occurred within a year of the war.
But though Dio is our most reliable narrative source for this event, it’s actually confirmed in archaeology by an autograph depiction of it, in a scene carved on the Column of Marcus Aurelius, whose erection was begun in the late 170s and finally dedicated in 193 A.D. This is an attestation within ten to twenty years, which we don’t have for any miracle of Jesus. And as a stone inscription, carved by its very author, it is an autograph text, not a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy, as we are stuck with in the case of the accounts of Jesus. It also plausibly had eyewitnesses as its source, since it was an official state carving celebrating the tales of the very soldiers and officers fighting in the war, whom the inscription’s commissioners were seeking to honor. They would have been witnesses to its very publication, and the only likely sources to inspire it’s being placed there.
That scene is depicted above at the top of this essay. To the right above is a view of the whole column, shot this very year, courtesy of Mythicist Milwaukee. To the left here is their shot of the rain miracle scene (center), in relation to the thunderbolt scene (bottom right of the photo). And below is their more direct shot of the thunderbolt scene (center right). When you look at the rain scene, which evidently occurred in a different battle after the thunderbolt miracle, you’ll notice it shows the enemy, soldiers and horses, being crushed and destroyed by a winged rain god pouring a deluge on all and sundry, while the Romans are reinvigorated by the same downpour, and filling their shields to drink. That use of the shields is a detail repeated in Dio’s narrative, clearly linking the two stories to a common source. But the inscription shows the rain destroying the enemy, as if by flooding and overwhelming them, whereas Dio has it that a deluge of lightning was doing the trick.
As Israelowich points out, in a completely different battle, as depicted elsewhere on the column, a thunderbolt destroyed an enemy’s siege tower, burning them alive, turning the course of the battle, a much more plausible role for an accident of lightning helping the Romans out. To the right is Mythicist Milwaukee’s photograph of that part of the column; above you can see more of it, just below the rain miracle. You can just about make out at the edge of the column a wooden-frame siege tower up against the wall of a Roman-held fortress, with a jagged lightning bolt striking down upon it, and billowing flames and smoke issuing from there. A classic example of just the sort of thing a superstitious pagan army would credit to the gods.
By the time the tale was being told, however, those two events had been conflated into one, and thus the Rain Miracle of Marcus Aurelius was invented, which involved a barrage of thunderbolts raking the enemy as rain refreshed the Romans and their horses, both a miraculous largesse and a miraculous wrath.
What the Christians Did with It
Centuries later the Christians co-opted the whole column. The original statue of Marcus Aurelius that stood atop it was replaced by a statue of “Saint Paul.” And inscriptions added to the base by a 16th century Pope now celebrate Paul and Christ, as the true conquerors of the Romans and Barbarians. But Christians also co-opted the story of the rain miracle. Almost from the very same decade it happened, Christians began retelling the tale as theirs.
Of course Dio’s account never mentioned any Christians at the battle. Instead, Dio goes on to explain that the miracle was brought about by an Egyptian sorcerer named Harnouphis, who was traveling with the legions, who summoned Hermes (Mercury, in Roman parlance; in either case, the god then believed to be the same as the Egyptian Thoth) to effect the spell and save the day. And that appears to be what everyone who was actually there believed happened.
- Only eight years after this astonishing event, the Christian apologist Apollinaris claimed the legion that was there that day was entirely comprised of Christians who prayed to their god for help, thus proving the true power of belief in Christ.
Indeed, Apollinaris says, that legion was then dubbed the Thundering Legion to honor this. We don’t have what Apollonaris wrote, but only a report and quote from Eusebius a couple centuries later:
It is reported that Marcus Aurelius…being about to engage in battle with the Germans and Sarmatians, was in great trouble on account of his army suffering from thirst. But the soldiers of the so-called Melitene legion, through the faith which has given strength from that time to the present, when they were drawn up before the enemy, kneeled on the ground, as is our custom in prayer, and engaged in supplications to God. This was indeed a strange sight to the enemy, but it is reported that a stranger thing immediately followed. The lightning drove the enemy to flight and destruction, but a shower refreshed the army of those who had called on God, all of whom had been on the point of perishing with thirst.
This story is related by non-Christian writers who have been pleased to treat the times referred to, and it has also been recorded by our own people. By those historians who were strangers to the faith, the marvel is mentioned, but it is not acknowledged as an answer to our prayers. But by our own people, as friends of the truth, the occurrence is related in a simple and artless manner. Among these is Apollinaris, who says that from that time the legion through whose prayers the wonder took place received from the emperor a title appropriate to the event, being called in the language of the Romans the Thundering Legion.
Notably, Eusebius clearly knows Dio’s account (and possibly other pagan accounts), and is annoyed that it never mentions Christians. He balks and trusts instead the most dubious of Christian apologists, Apollinaris and Tertullian. Apollinaris is known to have been dead by 180 A.D. (Jerome establishes that he did not survive beyond the reign of Aurelius: On Illustrious Men 26), so his Apology (which contained this tale) could not have been published more than eight years after the battle, and may have been published a mere few years after. That book was allegedly addressed to Marcus Aurelius himself, but probably never delivered; no emperor would read such droning tedious tomes—the similar “Apologies” of Tertullian and Justin are likewise far too long, dull, pretentious, and polemical to have ever warranted any emperor’s attention; their being addressed to Aurelius was simply a literary device (or at best a vain hope).
- Only twenty five years after the event, Tertullian, another Christian apologist, echoed the same story. Eusebius also mentions this fact. But in this case we actually have the writings of Tertullian.
Tertullian claims to have learned of this story from a letter written by Marcus Aurelius himself. Which we happen to have. It’s a fake. It now survives attached to the works of Justin Martyr (who was martyred, it’s believed, in 165 A.D.). Since it was known to Tertullian, it must have been forged pretty much within a decade of the event. Tertullian was especially gullible when it came to forged state documents. In the same place he infamously cites as authentic an obviously-forged Acts of Pilate that ridiculously had Pontius Pilate convincing Emperor Tiberius to deify Jesus, and being rebuffed by the Senate. The fake letter from Aurelius is no less ridiculous.
As Tertullian describes it:
We, on the contrary, bring before you one who was [our] protector, as you will see by examining the letters of Marcus Aurelius, that most grave of emperors, in which he bears his testimony that that Germanic drought was removed by the rains obtained through the prayers of the Christians who chanced to be fighting under him. (Apologeticum 5)
Marcus Aurelius also, in his expedition to Germany, by the prayers his Christian soldiers offered to God, got rain in that well-known thirst. When, indeed, have not droughts been put away by our kneelings and our fastings? (Ad Scapulam 4)
So already the myth of the miracle of the Christian legion, founded on a forgery, was spreading and roping in every sucker there was among the Christian leadership.
- Indeed, likely the whole myth originates with that fake letter of Marcus Aurelius, forged by whom we no longer know.
Since the letter has not yet added the detail of the Christians legion, it probably predates Apollinaris. Which would place the myth’s origin almost to the very year of the battle. That fake letter is worth reading in full, so you grasp the full scope and shamelessness of Christian dishonesty in fabricating it:
The Emperor Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, Germanicus, Parthicus, Sarmaticus, to the People of Rome, and to the sacred Senate, greeting!
I explained my plan to you and what advantages I had gained on the borders of Germany after much labor and suffering. Due to the circumstances of this war, I was surrounded by the enemy in Carnuntum. 74 cohorts cut us off from help, being stationed 9 miles off. Then the scouts pointed out to us that the enemy was at hand. Our general, Pompeianus showed us that a mixed multitude of 977,000 men was closing in on us, which we all could see. I was cut off by this vast host, and I had with me only a battalion composed of the first, tenth, double, and marine legions.
I examined my own position and my army, considered the vast mass of the barbarian enemy, and I quickly betook myself to prayer to the gods of my country. They disregarded me. So I summoned those among us who go by the name of Christians. After some inquiry, I determined that there was a great number and vast host of them. When they appeared before me, I raged against them. This was not appropriate, for afterwards I learned their power.
They began the battle not by preparing weapons or bugles. Such preparation is hateful to them because of the God they carry around in their conscience. We call them atheists, but it seems that they have a God as their ruling power in their conscience. I say this because they threw themselves on the ground and prayed not only for me, but for the whole army as it stood, so that they might be delivered from the present thirst and famine. For five days we had gotten no water because there was none. We were in the heart of Germany and in the enemy’s territory. As soon as they threw themselves on the ground and began praying to God—a God of whom I am ignorant—water poured from heaven. On us it was most refreshing and cool, but upon the enemies of Rome it was a withering hail. We also immediately recognized the presence of a God after their prayer, a God unconquerable and indestructible.
Because of this, then, let us pardon such as are Christians, lest they pray for and obtain such a weapon against us! And I counsel that no such person be accused by our courts only on the ground of being a Christian. If anyone is found laying to the charge of a Christian that he is a Christian, I desire that it be made clear that he who is accused is a Christian. If he acknowledges that he is one and is accused of nothing else, then whoever arraigns him should be burned alive. I also desire that whoever is entrusted with the government of the province shall not compel the Christian, who confesses and certifies such a matter, to retract.
These things should be confirmed by a decree of the Senate.
I command that this my edict be published in the Forum of Trajan in order that it may be read. The prefect Vitrasius Pollio will also see that it is transmitted to all the provinces round about.
Note how this fake letter actually doesn’t say any of the Christians were in the army, or soldiers at all. The narrator just says he had some Christians summoned to him, after his own gods ignored him. And they prayed for rain. Tertullian appears to have assumed they were soldiers, and thus when twice he refers to this letter, he adds the detail that they were soldiers fighting under Aurelius. Unless he is relying on Apollinaris for that assumption, though in that case the detail had to be a deliberate fabrication (and Tertullian just a dupe for believing it). Otherwise, here we see legend growing by a common device: one author embellishes the story, by assuming things actually not in the source. And their mistake, stated with total confidence, is then transmitted and believed to be a part of the original. Another device by which legends rapidly grow is that of Apollinaris: just deliberately making shit up. Totally ridiculous shit. And then watching everyone believe it.
- Xiphilinus then paraphrases Dio’s account, and pauses to rant at him for leaving out the Christians.
This later version, from the 11th century, may be paraphrasing more of the text of Apollinaris when it “answers” its own paraphrase of Dio. Before getting to the point where Dio had added the bit about “a violent hail-storm and numerous thunderbolts” falling “upon the ranks of the foe,” here is what the Byzantine Christian author Xiphilinus does with his abbreviation of Dio:
The Quadi had surrounded them at a spot favorable for their purpose and the Romans were fighting valiantly with their shields locked together; then the barbarians ceased fighting, expecting to capture them easily as the result of the heat and their thirst. So they posted guards all about and hemmed them in to prevent their getting water anywhere; for the barbarians were far superior in numbers. The Romans, accordingly, were in a terrible plight from fatigue, wounds, the heat of the sun, and thirst, and so could neither fight nor retreat, but were standing at the line and at their several posts, scorched by the heat, when suddenly many clouds gathered and a mighty rain, not without divine interposition, burst upon them. Indeed, there is a story to the effect that Harnouphis, an Egyptian magician, who was a companion of Marcus, had invoked by means of enchantments various deities and in particular Mercury, the god of the air, and by this means attracted the rain.
This is what Dio says about the matter, but he is apparently in error, whether intentionally or otherwise; and yet I am inclined to believe his error was chiefly intentional. It surely must be so, for he was not ignorant of the division of soldiers that bore the special name of the “Thundering” legion—indeed he mentions it in the list along with the others—a title which was given it for no other reason (for no other is reported) than because of the incident that occurred in this very war.
It was precisely this incident that saved the Romans on this occasion and brought destruction upon the barbarians, and not Harnuphis, the magician; for Marcus is not reported to have taken pleasure in the company of magicians or in witchcraft. Now the incident I have reference to is this: Marcus had a division of soldiers (the Romans call a division a legion) from Melitene; and these people are all worshippers of Christ. Now it is stated that in this battle, when Marcus found himself at a loss what to do in the circumstances and feared for his whole army, the prefect approached him and told him that those who are called Christians can accomplish anything whatever by their prayers and that in the army there chanced to a whole division of this sect.
Marcus on hearing this appealed to them to pray to their God; and when they had prayed, their God immediately gave ear and smote the enemy with a thunderbolt and comforted the Romans with a shower of rain. Marcus was greatly astonished at this and not only honored the Christians by an official decree but also named the legion the ‘thundering’ legion. It is also reported that there is a letter of Marcus extant on the subject. But the Greeks, though they know that the division was called the “thundering” legion and themselves bear witness to the fact, nevertheless make no statement whatever about the reason for its name.
Xiphilinus Dunning-Kruger’s his way into being sure Aurelius never trafficked with sorcerers (in fact we have that inscription attesting otherwise) and that the Thundering Legion was so named for this event, merely because he didn’t have a record of when or why else it was so-named (in fact we have that inscription attesting it was so-named a century earlier). And he gullibly believes the fake letter, and probably whatever myth was spun by Apollinaris (although he may be relying on the same text we have from Eusebius). Thus perpetuating the myth Christians invented in the very time of Aurelius himself.
Evidence vs. Myth
Of course there wasn’t any miracle. The amazing tale in Dio is distorted and conflated. The column itself, our earliest source, depicts entirely natural and even expected events. Torrential rains after periods of drought are a common thing, and lightning striking a tall wooden tower is quite predictable without positing the intervention of gods. Contrary to Dio’s narrative, those two events did not happen at the same battle, and there was no deluge of thunderbolts decimating the enemy ranks. Natural events, interpreted as divine, solely because they were opportune. Random good luck and random bad luck are an inevitable feature of every inhabited godless universe (as I’ve noted and explained several times before). So they aren’t at all evidence of the supernatural. (On this methodological point, see my whole talk on Miracles.)
But there still remains the mundane historical question of who’s god was credited on the battlefield. Was it a Christian legion who prayed to Christ before the lucky events transpired, and who was thus honored? Or was it an Egyptian sorcerer who cast a spell, and whose pagan gods were thus honored?
I’ve discussed before how we determine what most likely happened in history: we need to estimate the prior probability of the competing theories, and then ask how likely the evidence is on each theory, and put those two together to see what logically follows. (See If You Learn Nothing Else about Bayes’ Theorem; and my most complete discussion in Proving History.)
Within a year or two of the battle commemorated on the Column with rain-god imagery, Aurelius dedicated a statue of Jupiter Thunderbolter in the same region (above, right)—establishing that who he thought should be credited with the lightning miracle was most decidedly not Jesus. And from 172 to 174 A.D., thus starting the very year of that battle, Aurelius commissioned a coin praising the “Religion of the Emperor” while depicting the god Hermes standing in an Egyptian temple (shown to the right). Likewise, in the very time and region the war was being fought, near one of Aurelius’s camps, an actual Harnouphus dedicated an inscription to the Egyptian god Isis (below, right), proving indeed there was such a man, there and then (and he was accompanied in his dedication by a Roman citizen, likely a soldier). That inscription, and the coin series, are both very unlikely coincidences with Dio’s account, unless Dio was correct on who was believed responsible for the miracle.
As to priors, they don’t favor the Christian account. The prior probability of there being a Christian legion employed in Aurelius’s Germanic wars is extremely small. There is no evidence any Christians were serving in the legions at that time (at least openly), much less a whole legion of them. Though Aurelius probably did not persecute Christians, Aurelius would not have been a fan. Though the evidence by which to know is less secure than once I thought.
We just saw his letter praising the Christians is fake. But even Aurelius’s sole mention of Christians in his diary (Meditations 11.3), criticizing their irrationality, was probably a later interpolation (it is an ungrammatical insertion, and not adequately explained). His other alleged letter, calling for restraint in policing them, is probably also a fake. And even if authentic, it simply says lay off the crazies; it is not an endorsement of Christians, much less for military service. Christian apologists had written lengthy letters to Aurelius begging him to stop treating Christians as criminals or reprobates; but Christians tended to be liars, and such elaborately long treatises as these were almost certainly never really delivered to any emperor. Quite in line with that, the fanciful mass persecution at Lyons under his reign is probably a total Christian fabrication. And though Justin and Polycarp were executed (if they were executed at all…again, Christians were such ready liars, who knows what actually happened to them), that would have been under Pius, when Aurelius was co-managing the empire but not yet sole ruler.
So we don’t really have any evidence regarding Aurelius’s opinions of Christians. Which leaves us only knowing what he would have thought given all we know of the politics and culture of his time. And that tells us that Christians could not serve the state, because they could not bow to the gods of the state. It’s thus almost inconceivable that Aurelius would have allowed any in his army, or tolerated any discovered there. Christians could not even participate in the religious observances required of soldiers to demonstrate their loyalty to the emperor. All legionaries had to offer daily prayers to the emperor’s guardian spirit and routinely praise Jupiter Optimus Maximus, “Jupiter Best and Greatest,” protector of the legions. But since these were things no Christian could do, it is essentially impossible for Christians to have been in any legion at the time. As with Jews, there might have been some Christians in the auxilia, the non-citizen troops that were hired on to assist the legions (usually as vanguard fodder), who were rewarded with citizenship upon completing twenty years of service, but that’s not “being in a legion,” and in those secondary ranks their specific presence and role in any battles would have been invisible, even to Aurelius, certainly to posterity.
Our sole reference by any contemporary of Aurelius to any Christian being in any army is Tertullian’s De Corona 1, in which Tertullian reports the moment a soldier was found out as a Christian—which was evidently a bizarre occurrence as he relates no one expected there to be one—he was discharged and imprisoned; Tertullian doesn’t say whether that man was in the legions or auxilia, but he does go on to argue that no Christian should ever serve in any army (De Corona 11). So either way, there certainly would never have been a whole Christian legion; and no significant number of Christians in any military unit.
On background evidence alone, already the Christian account is so unlikely to be true, we can assume it’s not.
When we look at foreground evidence, it gets even more unlikely.
We have an unbiased source in a rational historian, Cassius Dio, who shows no knowledge of any Christian involvement, but rather specific knowledge of the sorcerer Harnouphis’s involvement. We have the Column, which likewise indicates nothing about Christians but looks conspicuously pagan. We have the coins issued right after the battle, which peculiarly praise the religion of the emperor in connection with Hermes and Egyptian cult, not anything connected with Christianity. We have the dedication by Aurelius to Jupiter Thunderbolter in the very region the battle was fought; no dedications to Christ. We have the inscription attesting an Egyptian priest named Harnouphis was indeed traveling with the legions there; we have no inscriptions attesting any Christians doing so.
And on top of all that, contrary to the tale told even by the earliest Christian authors that the legion responsible won its new name for that very miracle, that legion had already been called the Thundering Legion for a hundred years. Which demonstrates point blank: those Christians were lying. Ironically, we know this from an inscription associated with another miracle, that of the moaning statue of Memnon in the Egyptian city of Thebes. Wealthy visitors who experienced the miracle there would commission inscriptions celebrating their witness. Notably, this means we have not only numerous eyewitness accounts to this miracle, but the actual autograph copies of those accounts, carved in stone. Good luck finding evidence like that for any miracle in the Bible. Anyway, one of those inscriptions was commissioned by some officers of the 12th legion, and the inscription gives the epithet of the legion, “Thundering.” And indeed, that’s the very legion our sources say had at least a detachment fighting with Aurelius a century later. The inscription itself says it was carved in the eleventh year of Nero’s reign: 64 A.D.
All this evidence (and lack thereof) combined is certainly much less likely on the “Christian prayers were credited” theory than on the “Egyptian spells were credited” theory. So the likelihood ratio leaves the Christian version much more likely a myth than history. And when we add in the prior probability from our available background knowledge, we end up with an effective certainty that the Christian story was totally made up. And yet it was fabricated in less than a decade’s time. That’s how fast legends can completely eclipse the truth (on rapid legendary development as in fact a common thing, contrary to Christian apologists who lie about that being impossible, see On the Historicity of Jesus, Chapter 6.7). And of course, since a century after Dio the Christians controlled all literature for a thousand years, only the Christian version was ever mentioned in subsequent histories of Rome.
Christians rewrote history, to invent a miracle proving their religion. Sound familiar?
More likely than not, the Rain Miracle of Marcus Aurelius began as just a couple of fortunate coincidences, later conflated, that then all who were there praised as a miracle of pagan magic. A few years later, Christians changed the entire account to make them the heroes, forging state documents, fabricating narratives, and inventing a whole fake legion. Rapid legendary development, completely eclipsed subsequent history. Christian lies triumphed. A myth was born by pagans, and then out of that, an even more absurd myth was born in its place by Christians. That’s how all religious history was created (OHJ, Element 44, pp. 214-22; OHJ, Chapter 9; OHJ, Chapter 10).
Yet another of countless examples of Christian authors making up stories to sell Christianity by, routinely fabricating history and forging documents to do so. It didn’t matter that their stories are thoroughly implausible and fairly easy to refute for anyone who took the trouble to check the facts. It is clear no one did. Few could (Not the Impossible Faith, Chapter 7); and none were encouraged to (Not the Impossible Faith, Chapter 17). And if any did, nothing they said would be preserved by the subsequent Christian gatekeepers of all print media, who delighted in “disappearing” every book there was that ever challenged or criticized Christianity—or even their preferred sect of it.
And so, Christian chronicles a century later, and throughout the Middle Ages, celebrated the miracle of the Christian Legion. The Christians won the propaganda war. Though it is clear that Dio’s account, written by a sober historian simply trying to convey the facts as best he could, is probably the only one close to correct, hardly anyone paid any attention to it. Instead we have a legend, complete with forged documents, springing up just eight years after the fact, when thousands of eye witnesses were surely still alive, when the government was already promoting its alternative account, when all the necessary records were available. And despite these seemingly unfavorable conditions, this legend beat out the truth.
As I concluded in Sense and Goodness:
This is not an isolated case. Historians see this happening again and again, in all ages of history. We recognize that almost any story can be an invention. So the First Rule of Historical Method is: don’t believe everything you read. A believable history has to be constructed from several converging lines of evidence that have been critically and skillfully examined, and not every piece of evidence is equally trustworthy. Humans are notorious liars, eager exaggerators, and happy to believe almost anything they agree with. Skepticism is a virtue—but unfortunately a rare one, even rarer than honesty. This is the problem anyone faces, right from the start, who wants to find evidence of genuine miracles in historical records.
For those interested in studying the rain miracle further, I provided the following bibliography on it in Sense and Goodness without God (pp. 230-31). And to that should now be added:
- Ido Israelowich,”The Rain Miracle of Marcus Aurelius: (Re-)construction of Consensus,” Greece and Rome 55.1 (2008): 83-102.
- Péter Kovács, Marcus Aurelius Rain Miracle and the Marcomannic Wars (Brill 2009).
Then there are the sources I cited in Sense and Goodness…
Ancient sources on the rain miracle:
- Cassius Dio, Roman History 71.8.10 (a paraphrase of book 72 by Xiphilinus)
- Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 5.5.1-4.
- Eusebius, Chronicon 1.206-7 and 2.619-21.
- Tertullian, Apologeticus 5.6.
- Tertullian, Ad Scapulam 4.
Scene XVI of the Column of Marcus Aurelius:
- Giovanni Becati, Colonna Di Marco Aurelio (1957).
The Harnouphis Inscription:
- Marie-Christine Budischovsky, La Diffusion des Cultes Isiaques Autour de la Mer Adriatique (1977): 124-25 (no. 25).
The Statue of Jupiter Thunderbolter:
- Werner Jobst, 11. Juni 172 n. Chr.: der Tag des Blitz- und Regenwunders im Quadenlande (1978): Abb. 29 – 30 (No. 24 / Bd. 335).
The Hermes Coin:
- Mattingly & Sydenham, Roman Imperial Coinage (1930), vol. 3: pl. 12, no. 247.
- Garth Fowden, “Pagan Versions of the Rain Miracle of AD 172” Historia: Zeitschrift für alte Geschichte 36 (1987): 83-95.
- Michael Sage, “Eusebius and the Rain Miracle: Some Observations,” Ibid.: 96-113.
- Michael Sage, “Marcus Aurelius and ‘Zeus Kasios’ at Carnuntum,” Ancient Society 18 (1987): 151-72.
- Julien Guey, “La Date de la «Pluie Miraculeuse» (172 Aprés J.-C.) et la Colonne Aurélienne,” Mélanges d’Archéologie et d’Histoire de l’École Française de Rome 60-61 (1948-49): 105-27, 94-118.
- Julien Guey, “Encore la «Pluie Miraculeuse»: Mage et Dieu,” Revue de Philologie 22 (1948): 16-62.
And for evidence that Marcus Aurelius was intolerant of Christians:
- T.D. Barnes, “Legislation against the Christians,” Journal of Roman Studies 58 (1968): 39-40.