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From the June, 2004
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Witnesses of the Passion by Kenneth D. Whitehead

Witnesses of the Passion

The Early Church’s Martyrs—A Tough but Necessary Act to Follow

by Kenneth D. Whitehead

In A.D. 177, in Lyons, a prosperous city in Roman Gaul located at the head of the navigable portion of the Rhone river, and in the nearby town of Vienne, a sizable number of Christians were arrested and thrown into prison, and subsequently savagely martyred—apparently, at first, simply for being Christians. Their persecution was typical of those periodically set in motion against the Christians in the ancient Roman Empire. From the time of the persecution launched by the Emperor Nero in the sixties of the first century A.D., the simple condition of being a Christian was periodically brought forward as ipso facto proof of crime.

Nero himself had accused the Christians of being responsible for the great fire that broke out in Rome during his reign, but it has long been thought that he accused them, at least in part, to deflect suspicion from himself. The Roman historian Tacitus wrote in his Annals that Christians dressed in animal skins “were torn to death by dogs or attached to crosses or, at nightfall, lit as living torches. Nero lent his garden for this spectacle, and there gave circus games, mixing with the crowd disguised as a groom or riding on a chariot.” According to Christian tradition, the apostles Peter and Paul perished in this Neronian persecution; Paul was beheaded, and Peter was crucified upside down.

The state did not always pursue or actively proceed against the Christians, nor was it always consistent in the measures it did take against them. But the state always could proceed against them, and sometimes it did so with a vengeance.

On these occasions, various requirements were often imposed, such as burning incense as a sign of religious worship of the emperor. It was known that true Christians would refuse to do such things; hence, they could be convicted and punished for their refusal itself. On other occasions, little or no attempt was made to establish rules that the Christians would then be obliged by their faith to break; they were made to suffer simply and solely because they were Christians.

Earlier in the second century, in fact, around A.D. 111, Pliny the Younger, while serving as Roman governor of the province of Bithynia in Asia Minor, wrote a letter to the Roman emperor Trajan seeking guidance about how he was to deal with what he called a “contagion of . . . superstition.” He was referring to Christianity. According to Pliny, it had “penetrated not only the cities, but also the villages and country places,” in some areas causing the pagan temples to be “deserted” and “long disused.” At first he had condemned Christians to be executed merely if they had confessed to being Christians and had refused to recant after they had been warned. “Whatever it was they admitted,” Pliny wrote, “obstinacy and unbending perversity certainly deserve to be punished.”

However, he became aware that some of the local citizens were trying to get even with their personal enemies simply by accusing them of being Christians. Pliny realized that a more exact and vigorous standard was required of precisely what constituted the “crime” of being a Christian. That was why he wrote to the emperor for guidance.

Trajan was not able to provide him with guidance that was either logical or consistent. “Nothing can be laid down as a general law which contains anything like a definite rule of action,” the emperor wrote. Christians “are not to be sought out. If they are accused and convicted, they are to be punished.” However, they could easily save themselves, by offering acts of worship to the pagan gods. The emperor also ruled out anonymous denunciations.

Apologists such as St. Justin the Martyr tried to point out the injustice inherent in the policy, indeed, the patent absurdity of punishing so severely “criminals” whom the state did not otherwise think it worthwhile to seek out or apprehend. “If one of the accused denies the charge,” St. Justin wrote in his First Apology, “you dismiss him, as having no proof of misconduct against him; but if he confesses . . . you punish him because of his confession.” Inconsistent as this policy of Trajan’s was, it remained the policy of the Roman Empire towards the Christians for more than a century, and was still operative when the persecution broke out in Lyons.

Lyons’ Heroes

In Lyons, the Christians were at first apparently set upon for no other reason than that they were Christians. They were first banished from the marketplaces, baths, and other public places, and local mobs taunted, assaulted, and stoned them. They were robbed and stripped of their possessions. Eventually they began to be arrested and taken before the magistrates of the city, who examined them in front of crowds of spectators, and then imprisoned them until they could be brought before the Roman governor.

Not all the Christians of Lyons were arrested at once. One young man among them, Vettius Epagathus, indignant at the cruelty and injustice being meted out to others (although the account of the persecution carefully specifies that he was “filled with the fullness of love towards God and his neighbor”), demanded to be heard in defense of the Christians when they were brought before the governor. Epagathus asserted that “nothing godless or impious” had been proved against them. The crowd shouted him down. The governor asked him if he were a Christian. When he admitted that he was, he was added to the prisoners in the dock. It was enough simply to be a Christian. One needed to commit no other “crime” to be sent to prison, tortured, and often killed.

In Lyons, the martyrs had to be taken into the arena several times before they were finally finished off. There, they had to undergo tortures such as running the gauntlet through lines of men armed with whips and scourges; being mauled by wild beasts; and being strapped to a device called the “iron chair,” on which their flesh was literally roasted. In the prison, in between appearances in the arena, they were placed in stocks and their limbs stretched.

In the face of such tortures, it is not surprising that some Christians broke, gave in, and renounced Christ. More remarkably, though, some of these, shamed and inspired by those who did endure, later renounced their renunciations, confessed Christ again, and joined the martyrs once and for all.

By the time a large number of the Christians of Lyons had already been imprisoned, some of the pagan slaves among them, in order to gain their freedom, began denouncing them for conducting secret, sinister rites at which they consumed the flesh of slain children and committed crimes such as incest. No doubt these accusations served to confirm the authorities in the conviction of their own rectitude in having arrested the Christians in the first place. Certainly they served to arouse the mob against them.

A laconic comment in the ancient account of the persecution, however, dismissed such accusations as “crimes which we are not permitted to mention or imagine, or even to believe that such things ever happened among men.” The moral purity of the early Christians comes across so clearly in some of the ancient documents that it is hard to credit the animosity also recorded against them in the same ancient sources—or perhaps this animosity arose at least in part because of the moral purity of the early Christians!

Blandina’s Sacrifice

The aged bishop of Lyons, Pothinus, was over ninety years of age. Dragged before the governor, it was demanded of him to state who the God of the Christians was. “If you are worthy, you will know,” he replied. He was mercilessly scourged, and died shortly afterwards in the prison. Two others, Maturus and Sanctus, finally perished in the iron chair, the latter repeating to the end his invariable and consistent confession: “I am a Christian.” Many others died similarly.

Among the Christians who went to their deaths in the arena was a young woman, Blandina, who proved herself to be one of the great heroines of Christian history. The ancient account recorded that through her “Christ made manifest that what things appear paltry . . . are accounted of great honor with God.” The other Christians were afraid that Blandina would not be able to hold out because of her bodily weakness. Instead, it turned out that

she was filled with so much power that even those who tortured her in relays in every way from morning until evening were faint and weary. Indeed they themselves confessed that they were beaten, having no longer any more that they might do to her, wondering that she remained alive, all her body being broken and torn. . . . But the blessed woman, as a noble athlete, renewed her strength in her confession [of Christ], and it was refreshment and peace and freedom from pain amid her sufferings to repeat, “I am a Christian, and there is no evil done among us.”

The ancient account of the martyrdom continued thus:

Blandina was exposed, hung on a stake, to be the food of the beasts let loose upon her. Alike by the sight of her hanging in the form of a cross, and by her earnest prayer, she put much heart into the combatants; for they saw during the contest, even with the eyes of flesh, in the person of their sister, Him who was crucified for them, to assure those who believed in Him that everyone who suffered for the glory of Christ forever had fellowship with the living God. . . . None of the beasts at that time touched her; she was brought back again to the prison to await another contest.

It was not long in coming. Blandina was brought out for the last time accompanied by a fifteen-year-old boy, Ponticus. The maddened crowd “neither pitied the age of the boy nor reverenced the sex of the woman. They exposed them to every terror; they made them pass through every torment in turn.” Ponticus was encouraged and sustained by the words and exhortations of Blandina. “Even the heathen saw that she was exhorting and strengthening him.” Finally he could endure no longer and fell down dead.

It remained for Blandina to drink the cup of suffering to the lees in imitation of her divine Master and Savior. The ancient account describes her as being “like a noble mother that has encouraged her children and sent them before her crowned with victory to the king . . . [and then] hastened towards them rejoicing and triumphing in her departure, as though she were being called to a marriage supper instead of being cast to the beasts.” At the end of her suffering,

After the whips, after the beasts, after the frying pan [the iron chair], she was thrown at last into a net, and cast before a bull. And after being tossed for some long time by the beast, having no further sense of what was happening because of her hope and hold on the things she had believed, and because of her communing with Christ, she was herself also offered up, the very heathen confessing that they had never known a woman to endure so many and such great sufferings.

The Martyrs’ Triumph

Anyone who does prove able to pass such a test, as did Blandina and the other ancient martyrs, will surely make quite an impression on others. Is it any wonder, really, that the Christians eventually triumphed? There is, in fact, an important sense in which they were invincible: They proved in the Roman amphitheaters that nothing anyone could do to them could ever separate them from the love of Christ.

This pattern had been established in the Church from the time of the first martyr, St. Stephen, whose sublime end is recounted in the Acts of the Apostles. As his persecutors were stoning him, “he knelt down and cried with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ And when he had said this, he fell asleep” (Acts 7:59–60), as Christ himself had proclaimed from the cross: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Not surprisingly, the last words of St. Stephen were quoted in the account of the martyrdoms at Lyons; later Christian martyrs gave up their lives in the same self-sacrificing spirit of the first martyr.

Those who stoned Stephen “laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. . . . And Saul was consenting to his death” (Acts 7:58; 8:1). We all know what eventually became of Saul: It was true in an amazing number of cases that witnesses of the early Christians’ distinctive form of self-sacrifice, namely, martyrdom, sooner or later become Christians themselves. All this happened perhaps before a single word of the New Testament had even been written down. This ultimately proved to be true of the persecuting Roman Empire itself, of course: It finally succumbed to the very victims whom it had so many times crushed with overwhelming material strength in the amphitheater.

A particularly touching example was the martyrdom of Saints Marcellus and Cassian, who were martyred in the year 298, during the persecutions unleashed by the Emperor Diocletian. Marcellus was a Roman centurion in Tingis (modern Tangier). He was expected to offer sacrifice to the emperor in the course of the general celebrations and feasting for his birthday. Instead, he threw away his soldier’s belt in front of the standards of the legion and declared, “I serve Jesus Christ, the Eternal King. Henceforth I cease to serve your emperors, and I scorn to worship your gods of wood and stone, which are deaf and dumb idols. If such be the terms of service that men are forced to offer sacrifice to gods and emperors, behold, I cast away my vine-switch and belt, I renounce the standards, and refuse to serve.”

Marcellus was thrown into prison and interrogated several times. He admitted everything, and eventually found himself dragged before a Roman magistrate named Aurelius Agricolan. The account of his examination says that Aurelius Agricolan “strove with many threats to seduce him from perseverance in his confession. But the blessed Marcellus by the power of his constancy, so that all henceforward considered him the judge’s judge, proclaimed that he was a soldier of Christ, and could not serve the cares of the world, while Aurelius Agricolan on the other hand poured forth words of fury.”

When Cassian, the secretary taking down these statements, saw Aurelius Agricolan, “beaten by the devotion of so great a martyr, pronounce the sentence of death, he vowed with an imprecation that he would go no farther, and threw on the ground his pen and notebook.” He told Agricolan that he had dictated an unjust sentence, and Agricolan ordered him to be thrown in prison with Marcellus and become his companion in martyrdom.

This was the extraordinary impression—but an increasingly common one—that was made by the patent injustice of the Roman state’s proceedings against Christians. Eventually, whatever passed for public opinion at that time began to shift to the side of the victims; the martyr became his “judge’s judge”; the Roman magistrates were “beaten by the devotion” of the martyrs instead of the other way around.

Secular Testimony

The “acts,” or narrative accounts, of the early Christian martyrs are of two types, those written by the Christians themselves and those written by others, but both leave the same kind of unforgettable impression of the martyrs they describe: simplicity, childlike faith in God and in the redemption wrought by Jesus Christ, utter confidence in the reality of the Heaven that awaited them after death, compassion for their fellow victims, boundless charity for their persecutors, and selfless, heroic courage in the face of their own torments and sufferings.

The narratives composed by the Christians themselves describing the sufferings of the martyrs are frankly “pious” and even “propagandistic” documents. But some of the most famous, as well as the most touching, of the accounts of the martyrs consist of almost nothing but the transcribed court record of an appearance before a Roman magistrate of Christians hauled in during times of persecution.

A good example of this type of ancient “act” is the one recording the martyrdom of the Scillitan Saints, twelve Christians, men and women, who in 180 were brought before a proconsul named Saturninus in Scillium in North Africa. He insisted that the Christians before him should “swear by the genius of our Lord the Emperor.” This they refused to do. Instead, they either declared without further elaboration that they were Christians, or interjected what in the eyes of the magistrate were irrelevancies, such as the following protest by their spokesman Speratus, who declared: “We have never done harm to any, we have never lent ourselves to wickedness; we have never spoken ill of any, but have given thanks when ill-treated, because we hold our own Emperor [Christ] in honor.”

After several stern admonitions from the magistrate, they persisted in affirming their faith. The court transcript goes on, laconically describing how Saturninus asked if they wanted to persist in being Christians and they all replied, simply, “I am a Christian.” He then asked them if they wanted time to think about it. The court record continued:

Speratus said: “When the right is so clear, there is nothing to consider.”

The proconsul Saturninus said: “What have you in your case?”

Speratus said: “The books, and the letters of a just man, one Paul.”

The proconsul Saturninus said: “Take a reprieve of thirty days and think it over.”

Speratus again said: “I am a Christian.” And all were of one mind with him.

The proconsul Saturninus read out the sentence from his notebook: “Whereas Speratus, Nartzalus, Cittinus, Donata, Vestia, Secunda, and the rest have confessed that they live in accordance with the religious rites of the Christians, and, when an opportunity was given them of returning to the usage of the Romans, they persevered in their obstinacy, it is our pleasure that they should suffer by the sword.”

Speratus said: “Thanks be to God!”

Nartzalus said: “Today we are martyrs in heaven: thanks be to God!”

They all said: “Thanks be to God!”

Acts of the Church

The early Christians saw the sacrifices of the martyrs not merely as isolated acts of heroism but rather as communal acts. The martyrdoms, in other words, were acts of the Church. An early Father of the Church, Origen (ca. 185–254), himself the son of a Christian martyr, who later himself personally suffered in the persecutions unleashed by the Emperor Decius in 250, taught in his Exhortations to Martyrdom: “Just as the expiation of the Cross was for the whole world, so [the baptism of martyrdom] is the cure of many who are thereby cleansed. . . . Just as we have been redeemed with the precious blood of Christ . . . so by the precious blood of the martyrs will others be redeemed.”

Similarly, Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150–220) wrote in his Miscellanies: “The Church is full of those, as well chaste women as men, who all their lives have courted the death which raises up to Christ. . . . We call martyrdom perfection, not because the man comes to the end of his life as others, but because he has exhibited the perfect work of love.”

Perpetua and Felicity were a noblewoman and a slave who perished together in the arena at Carthage in 203. Both went to their deaths in a way that inspired great awe in those who witnessed their sufferings. Perpetua was still able to declare, after having been tossed in a net by a maddened heifer: “Stand fast in the faith and love one another. Be not offended by our sufferings.”

The narrative in which all this was described was able to conclude with the following words of praise: “O valiant and blessed martyrs! O truly called and chosen to the glory of Jesus Christ our Lord! He who magnifies, honors, and adores that glory should recite to the edification of the Church these examples also, not less precious than those of old.” The Church, the assembly of Christ’s followers, the members of the body of Christ, was the beneficiary of all these sufferings—just as the whole human race was intended to be the beneficiary of the sufferings of Christ on the cross.

Other acts of the martyrs testify to the same fundamental truth. The famous martyrdom of St. Polycarp was prepared and sent out by “the Church of God which dwells in Smyrna to the Church of God which dwells in Philomelium and to all the dioceses of the Holy Catholic Church in every place.”

It may help us to understand the attitude of the early Church that honored the martyrs so highly and considered their sacrifices one of her own works if we read another account describing an encounter between Church and state undergone by still another ancient church figure who was not, strictly speaking, a martyr, but who, in fact, lived under an emperor who was himself a Christian, though a heretical one. Yet this church figure formulated in an enduring way the convictions that underlay the willingness of the members of the Church of the Martyrs to make the supreme sacrifice of their lives.

St. Basil the Great (ca. 330–379) was the bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia (eastern Turkey). The Praetorian Prefect Modestus, who was the Arian Roman emperor’s delegate, reproached him for “not worshipping after the emperor’s manner.” The saint replied that he had a Sovereign whose will was otherwise. Enraged, the Roman praetorian prefect demanded to know, “For whom do you take me?” Basil replied: “For a thing of naught while such are your commands.” This angered the prefect, who rose from his chair and asked Basil if he did not fear his power. Basil asked what he should fear. Modestus then threatened him with the confiscation of his goods, exile, torture, and death, and Basil replied:

Think of some other threat. These have no influence on me. He runs no risk of confiscation who has nothing to lose except these mean garments and a few books. Nor does he care for exile who is not circumscribed by place, who does not make a home of the spot he dwells in, but everywhere a home whithersoever he be cast, or rather everywhere God’s home is, whose pilgrim he is and wanderer. Nor can tortures harm a frame so frail as to break under the first blow. You could strike but once, and death would be a gain. It would but send me the sooner to Him for whom I live and labor, for whom I am dead rather than alive, to whom I have long been journeying.

The exchange ends with Modestus declaring, “No one yet ever spoke to Modestus with such freedom,” and Basil replying, “Peradventure Modestus never yet fell in with a bishop. . . .”

Whether delivered by a bishop, a priest, or a layperson, the Church of the Martyrs witnessed that Christians were prepared to sacrifice their lives for their faith. Jesus had bid his followers to “be like men who are waiting for their Master to come” (Luke 12:36), and in the early Church, an extraordinary number of them proved that they had taken Jesus at his word.

Certainly not all Christians of that day were as heroic as the best of them. Some denied Christ, though some of them returned under the inspiration of the heroism of the martyrs. Many of the major disputes in the Church in the second and third centuries, in fact, concerned arguments over the way to treat lapses and defections on the part of those Christians who had caved in under the pressure of persecution and denied Christ or some article of faith or offered sacrifice to the emperor. Then, as now, some Christians proved to be mediocre in the face of a real test.

But many did not. Many took with utter and profound seriousness the teachings of their divine Master: He had given his disciples a new commandment, that they love one another, even as he had loved them (cf. John 13:34); and then he had gone on to teach that the greatest expression of this love was “that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13), even as he laid down his. In the Church of the Martyrs, many others were found willing to do precisely that.

They Were Able

Jesus once asked James and John, and through them the Christians of every subsequent generation: “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” Both replied, perhaps rashly: “We are able” (Mark 10:38–39). No doubt, as Jesus himself remarked, they did not really know what they were asking, or what they were committing themselves to, just as today too many of us fail to realize what the cost of our faith commitment might turn out to be or fail to realize that it might involve any cost at all.

When we read such accounts of the ancient Christian martyrdoms, we begin to understand how the word martyr came to mean what it means. The Greek word originally meant simply “witness.” The early martyrs witnessed to their faith when they underwent such persecutions. It was a test of whether or not one took one’s professed faith seriously—a test not too many Christians in the modern democratic West have yet been obliged to take. Any one of us might honestly ask whether we could really pass that kind of test.

The Founder of Christianity, after all, clearly teaches: “You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. . . . They will deliver you up to tribulation, and put you to death” (Matt. 10:22; 24:9). The ancient account of the persecution in Lyons quoted yet another Gospel passage, to the effect that the time would come when “whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God” (John 16:2). It cannot be said that the Christians subjected to martyrdom had never been forewarned or that they were faced with a novel and unforeseen idea when they had to suffer as their Lord and Master had suffered.

All this should give us a strong sense of the seriousness with which these early Christians took their faith and their commitment to it. Many Christians were prepared to show forth their love by “doing good,” even to the point of giving up their lives, just as Jesus had given up his life. The Church of the Martyrs understood that this was what Jesus meant when he told his disciples to “love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12).


Kenneth D. Whitehead is the 2004 recipient of the Blessed Frederic Ozanam Award for Catholic Social Action of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists (SCSS). He writes frequently on Catholic social and moral issues.

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