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5. Irenaeus |
The mass slaughter of Lyon

Irenaeus is drawn from Chapter Five, beginning on page 142, of Volume Two, A Pinch of Incense of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

The first great French Christian, Irenaeus faced two foes: one, false teaching; the other, the mob

Irenaeus - The mass slaughter of Lyon’s Christians

Irenaeus - The mass slaughter of Lyon’s Christians
The slave Blandina is thrown by a bull in the arena at Lyon (Lugdunum), but the animal’s attack fails to kill her. Having endured unspeakable torture for several days, she has refused to deny her faith and, surviving the attack of the bull, is eventually stabbed to death, the final victim of the persecution of the summer of A.D. 177.

Blandina gazed up into the summer sky as if searching for a familiar face. Thunder rolled in the distance, but the sky was bright and clear. Summers in Gaul’s Lugdunum, a city that would later be known as Lyon, had always been pleasant. Standing in the sunshine in the center of the arena, she welcomed the soothing warmth after the long days and nights in the cold, damp prison cell that made her frail, bruised body ache with sickness and pain.

Thunder reverberated again, and Blandina lowered her gaze to the only other survivor, the badly beaten teenager Ponticus, who lay helplessly on his back, his eyes also fixed on the sky. She started to ask him if he thought a storm was coming, but her voice was drowned out by another thunderclap, closer and louder, and then the roar of ten thousand voices as the interrogator struck her and repeated a question she had heard many times before. The cacophonous crowd fell silent, waiting expectantly for her answer. Her mind turned to Bishop Ponthinus, to Attalus and Biblias, and the nearly fifty others who had gone before her.

The question came again, underscored by another painful blow, and Blandina answered strongly: “I am a Christian, and there is nothing vile done by us!”

The public torture in the year 177 of the brave Christian slave Blandina and scores of other Christians drew large and attentive audiences for many days to Lyon’s amphitheater. Lyon was the capital of Gaul, and Gaul was considered the “giant of the empire,” Rome’s most cherished possession, populated by huge people, or so the Romans thought them.1

“Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres,” Julius Caesar had written famously in 53 b.c., providing translation practice for generations of students learning Latin: “All Gaul is divided into three parts.” He continued: “One part of these, which it has been said that the Gauls occupy, takes its beginning at the river Rhone. . . .”2

Within the borders of Gaul, encompassing 535,000 square miles, lay all the lands of what would become France, Belgium, and Luxembourg, and large portions of the Netherlands, Germany, and Switzerland. It was a wild place of rushing rivers, strong winds and tides, thick forests, and impenetrable marshlands that served as borders for the several Gallic nations which were rich in agriculture, natural resources, and people.

In 43 b.c., Gallic War general Lucius Munatius Plancus, appointed governor of Gaul by Caesar, founded Lugdunum as the capital of all three Gauls on the hill of Fourvière (from Forum Vetus, or Old Forum), at the confluence of the rivers Rhone and Saone. Roman Lyon sat astride the major road connecting modern-day Cologne and Marseilles. Lyon became the western empire’s cultural center and its imperial mint, because of its location on a major trade route and despite the river swamplands that gave it a reputation as an unhealthy place to live. At its peak, its population approached fifty thousand, and the city counted among its natives the future emperors Claudius (a.d. 41—54) and Caracalla (a.d. 212—217), and Claudius’s ill-fated brother Germanicus who died in 15 b.c.

South of the Fourvière and across the Saone sat the amphitheater dedicated to the emperor Augustus in a.d. 19 and expanded during the reign of Hadrian (a.d. 117—138). It could seat ten thousand spectators. It was here that the bloody gladiatorial games were held, and where, in the year 177, Gallic Christianity received a terrible baptism: immersion in the blood of innocent martyrs.

Lyon had not always been a city of prominence. Before the Roman conquest, the region’s principal city was Vienne, twenty miles to the south. An intercity rivalry flourished across the decades, including a civil war between them during the final years of the first century a.d. Lyon would be sacked a century later, in 197, after backing the losing side in a civil war between two Roman generals. One result was the assumption of its economic functions by Vienne and two other cities.

In many respects, Lyon was no different from the major trading centers of the late twentieth century, with its unending ethnic immigration and the myriad religions that accompany the movement of peoples. Gallic, Celtic, Greek, and Roman gods dominated the pantheons of Lyon and all of Gaul. Julius Caesar writes that Mercury was one of Gaul’s most popular gods. The Near-Eastern deities Silenus and Isis, and Cybele, the “Great Mother” of the Phrygian gods, were also revered. Though officially prohibited, human sacrifices and cannibalism were still practiced, particularly among the Druids (see sidebar). But Druidism was on the decline, after a final outbreak of Druidic nationalism during a rebellion that resulted in what is known as the Year of the Four Emperors in a.d. 69, prior to the accession of Vespasian the following year. The most important cult in Lyon, however, involved worship of the Roman emperor.

Into this theological and philosophical mishmash came Christian traders and settlers from Asia, Phrygia, and other parts of the Roman world where “The Way,” as the Christians originally called themselves, had taken root. The new Christian citizens of Lyon practiced their faith both in their private lives and in their businesses; they prospered and their influence grew. They also provoked fear and suspicion among the pagans, who viewed the followers of a crucified Jewish criminal as atheists at best. By the summer of 177, Christians were seen as the fount of every calamity, including war, plague, drought, and economic downturn.

Pagan writers of the time regarded the main body of Christians as the illiterate dregs of the population, the outcasts of Greco-Roman civilization. This characterization was far from true in Lyon, where Christians were to be found among the physicians and lawyers. As such, they spoke Latin and Greek, and in the ordinary fashion of the time, some of them owned slaves. Often these slaves did not subscribe to the new faith of their masters, and took every advantage to spread scurrilous tales about unspeakable acts they claimed to have witnessed at Christian gatherings. Such fabrications contributed to the gruesome persecutions that were shortly to befall Blandina and forty-seven other Christians.

As Lyon and its fledgling Christian community were growing, the Apostolic Age was ending. John, son of Zebedee and last of the original apostles, is generally believed to have died around the close of the first century at Ephesus. Early Christian accounts, the accuracy of some of them disputed, record that he appointed Polycarp as bishop of Smyrna on the Aegean coast, in what would become Turkey. Polycarp, it is said, in turn taught what he had learned from John and from others who had seen and talked with Jesus, to those who would lead the Church through the first century of the Post-Apostolic Age.

Perhaps Polycarp’s most eager student was Irenaeus (pronounced I-re-NAY-us), a young man born some time between 115 and 140 to Christian parents in Antioch, where followers of Jesus had first been called Christians (Acts 11:26). In his later writings, Irenaeus described how his teacher Polycarp “related his life together with John, and with the others who had seen the Lord, and how he remembered their words, and what he heard about the Lord from them, about his miracles and teachings.”

Sometime around the year 150, twenty-five years before the Lyon persecutions began and about five years before his own martyrdom, Polycarp appointed another of his pupils, Ponthinus, as the first bishop of Lyon and all of Gaul. Irenaeus was sent to accompany his older fellow student, probably because he was from Asia, home to many of the new citizens of Lyon. Irenaeus employed his knowledge of Greek, Latin, and Celtic to spread the gospel, even though he considered the latter the language of barbarians. And while the church of Lyon was multi-ethnic, the Greek Scriptures used in worship were not translated into the local languages.

Because Lyon was a Christian center of the Western empire, it attracted all manner of offspring practices, including the rapidly growing Gnosticism that had taken a firm hold in Christianity by the middle of the second century. The licentious version of Gnosticism became particularly active at Lyon and attracted women in search of escape from the superficially stringent cultural and sexual mores of Roman society.

Irenaeus therefore faced two problems. On the one hand, his flock was threatened with extermination by the mob hostility rising against them. On the other, they faced spiritual doom, as he saw it, if they fell into the hands of the Gnostics. To Irenaeus, the Gnostics were the more dangerous influence. They were mentally ill and void of morals, he declared, particularly in their sexual practices and in their habit of stealing Christian wives. He would later write that the disciples of the Gnostic luminary Valentinus embraced all forms of pleasure and lust, ate meat offered to idols, attended gladiatorial games, and seduced women.

But he directed his harshest criticism on the flashy Marcus, whose Gnostic sex clubs pulled in many Christians of Lyon with their elaborate and expensive ceremonies. Their practices in magic and mathematical tricks caused considerable consternation among the non-Christian populace, who tended to lump in the Gnostics with the Christians. Such anxiety may have contributed to the great anti-Christian pogrom to come.

Marcus was a smooth operator who knew the right things to say to the right people. He attracted society women, the rich and elegant of the landed and political classes.3 According to Irenaeus, Marcus would convince a woman that by sharing his learning, she would be given the gift of prophecy. More often, however, she would be bewitched and bewildered, filled with the pride that comes with the acquisition of special prophetic powers. It was obvious to Irenaeus that such women suffered from infatuation, that their property and their bodies were easy prey for Marcus. Thus Irenaeus wrote:

Some of his disciples, too, addicting themselves to the same practices, have deceived many silly women and defiled them. They proclaim themselves as being “perfect” so that no one can be compared to them with respect to the immensity of their knowledge, not even were you to mention Paul or Peter or any of the other apostles. They assert that they themselves know more than all others, and that they alone have imbibed the greatness of the knowledge of that power which is unspeakable. They also maintain that they have attained to a height above all power, and that therefore they are free in every respect to act as they please, having no one to fear in anything.

The Gnostics did not, however, charm all of the Christians in Lyon. The orthodox faithful scorned them for eating food sacrificed to idols and for denying their faith in the face of opposition. Although Gnostics agreed with Christians and Jews that martyrdom atoned for sins, the ultimate act of sacrifice was seen as a means for personal enlightenment rather than as a victory over evil. In later years, Irenaeus noted with derision that very few Gnostics died with their martyred orthodox brothers and sisters. “The church does in every place send forward, throughout all time, a multitude of martyrs to the Father; while all others, not only have nothing of this kind to point to among themselves, but even maintain that such witness-bearing is not at all necessary, for that their system of doctrines is the true witness.”

If weak or prideful persons always found a reason to turn away from God, and if traveling salvation-shows always found their way to town, what was the great concern over the arrival of another faddish sect from the East? For Irenaeus, Gnosticism was less a rival to traditional Christianity than it was a threat to the eternal salvation of his people: “Those who do not partake of him [Christ] are neither nourished into life from the mother’s breasts, nor do they enjoy that most limpid fountain which issues from the body of Christ, but they dig for themselves broken cisterns out of earthly trenches, and drink putrid water out of the mire, fleeing from the faith of the Church lest they be convicted; and rejecting the Spirit, that they may not be instructed.”

Irenaeus knew that the physical death of each member of his flock was as certain as Roman taxation; and that although heaven was not a certainty for anyone, Gnosticism did not provide the keys to the kingdom. To the Christian historian Eusebius, Gnosticism created division within the church, which he believed to be a greater threat than persecution. That was a bold contention, considering the events that would turn the summer of 177 into one of the darkest periods in the early history of Christianity.

No one can say with any certainty what finally set the pagans of Lyon so decisively against their longtime Christian neighbors. It may have been a combination of seemingly unrelated events, including a war and the need to find scapegoats for the ills of everyday life. A war, indeed, had broken out in the spring of 177, and angry eyes turned upon the Christians. Was it not obvious that all major disasters–wars, earthquakes, floods, and prolonged droughts–were caused by the displeasure of the gods at these Christian “atheists?”

Moreover, you could see they weren’t really part of the community. Many did not partake in the revelry of Roman life, which included the frequent games and festivals with their accompanying gladiatorial contests and bloody public executions. Christians refused to make sacrifices to the popular gods and did not participate in emperor worship. And if rumors and innuendos could be believed, in their meetings they were worse than the Druids–after all, they engaged in sorcery, sexual orgies, human sacrifice and incest. Worse still, they refused to worship the Great Mother Cybele, who had been made an official god of Gaul in 160.

Others no doubt saw in the Christians an opportunity to cut costs. It fell as a duty upon the wealthy to provide and fund the great festivals, to sponsor the games and the lavish entertainment that was involved. The cost was stupendous and bankrupted more than one family. But the highest cost of all was the purchase price of gladiators, and the provision of victims for public execution. Taking human life in the arena was not cheap.

To ease the burden, the emperor and the Senate had agreed to allow rich landowners and others to acquire condemned criminals from the imperial procurators for about six gold aurei coins a head. This was a substantial sum (roughly five or six months’ wages for a soldier), but it was nevertheless a fraction of the cost of hiring or buying a gladiator on the open market. Now the Christians who refused to repudiate their faith automatically became criminals, and while most could not serve as gladiators, their public torture and prolonged execution was always a dependable crowd-pleaser. A roundup of Christians therefore represented a veritable bonanza for those who had to fund the big shows, and their torture and death a major attraction for those who would attend them. It would be a win-win situation for everyone, except, of course, for the ill-fated Christians destined to provide the entertainment.

The pogrom in Lyon and Vienne began slowly, with the occasional assault on a Christian citizen or merchant. It escalated into enforced isolation, robberies of Christian homes and businesses, then stonings, imprisonment, and torture. Details are given in the dramatic Letter from the Churches of Vienne and Lyon to the faithful in Asia and Phrygia, distributed widely among the Christian churches of the Roman world and included in Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History.4 The protracted nightmare was so great that the writers of the letter warned from the start that recording all the events would be impossible.

In the beginning, the Christians endured the scorn of the townspeople silently, but that only further infuriated the mobs. Soon, Christians were banned from the baths, the markets, other public places, and then their own businesses. If caught in the streets, they were beaten or stoned. When Christians could no longer be found outside their homes, the mobs broke down their doors and dragged them into the streets, where they were beaten and bloodied. Apparently none of their personal property was ever confiscated, however, and for that reason some scholars believe the persecution had a more personal agenda, with the targeting of specific individuals. If so, this would explain why Irenaeus was free to leave the city in the middle of the crisis.5

Another important consideration is that the persecution began when the governor was away and the soldiers and city magistrates were in charge of law and order. After many days of violence, the authorities ordered several dozen Christian leaders taken into custody, saying it was for their own protection. In reality, they were forced from their homes and taken to the forum, where they were questioned in front of the mob. After confessing their faith, they were thrown into the foul, dark prison to await the return of the governor.

Trials of the Christians began at some point after the governor’s arrival. There was no record of distrust or animosity in the governor’s attitude toward the Christians prior to the persecution. The question that must be asked, then, is why the governor would so quickly sanction a series of events whose goal was the death of the prisoners. The basic human and political drive for self-preservation was likely at work. A crowd was a powerful political force in the Roman Empire, one that could threaten even the emperor himself, unless it was placated with sufficient quantities of bread and blood. For a mere governor, lacking the emperor’s protection of several thousand soldiers, a basic policy of appeasement was a matter of survival.

When summoned, the prisoners were asked to give a declaration of faith, either voluntarily or after a round of torture. Their treatment was such that Vettius Epagathus, a Christian who had not been rounded up with the others, stepped forward to protest to the governor. According to the letter from the martyrs, Vettius “could not endure the unreasonable judgment against us, but was filled with indignation, and asked to be permitted to testify on behalf of his brethren, that there is among us nothing ungodly or impious.” After those surrounding the judgment seat raised vehement objections, the governor rejected the request, and then asked if Vettius was a Christian himself. In a loud voice, Vettius proclaimed that he was. He was arrested immediately and given the unenviable role of advocate for the Christians.

The accused fell into two groups. The first witnesses to the faith eagerly confessed their belief; the rest were not so ready. Some appeared confused, weak, and unable to endure the physical and spiritual conflict. About ten recanted their faith, causing the brethren much consternation. Among those who had not been arrested but remained free, the great concern was that the ordeal would cause the weak to fall away, and therefore to be robbed of the opportunity for martyrdom.

Anxiety grew among Christians in Lyon and Vienne as the ensuing days saw more arrests, until about forty-eight prisoners were held. Even the slaves, regardless of religious affiliation, were seized by order of the governor. Heathen slaves, “being ensnared by Satan, and fearing for themselves the tortures which they beheld the saints endure,” accused the Christians of many things, including Thyestean banquets, meaning cannibalism (because they spoke of devouring the body and blood of their leader); Oedipal intercourse, meaning incest (because they spoke of “loving” their brothers and sisters in Christ); “and deeds which are not only unlawful for us to speak of or to think, but which we cannot believe were ever done by men.”

The entire community was so incensed by the testimony of the slaves that the people were described as raging like wild beasts “so that even if any had before been moderate on account of friendship, they were now exceedingly furious and gnashed their teeth.” As a result, all of those who confessed their faith were tortured “beyond description.”

How long these ordeals lasted is not known. It is possible they took place over several days. During this time, “the wrath of the populace, and governor, and soldiers” was concentrated on four individuals. Sanctus was a deacon from Vienne, who may have been visiting Lyon when he was arrested, since Vienne was not in the governor’s jurisdiction. Maturus was a recent convert. Attalus was from Pergamum, where he was a leader in the Christian community. And Blandina was a slave in a Christian household, her mistress also one of those facing martyrdom.

Sanctus suffered greatly at the hands of his torturers, but he was like a prisoner of war who gives only his name, rank, and identification number, even when the questions were reinforced with pain. What is your name? Where are you from? What do you do? Are you a free man? To every question, Sanctus replied in Latin: “Christianus sum” (“I am a Christian.”) This pleased neither the governor nor the torturers, who increased the torment and expanded the methods by which it was inflicted. At the end of the day, when Sanctus would not add to his declaration, the torturers pressed red-hot brass plates against his genitals. Those witnessing the spectacle were amazed that he held firm to his confession, “refreshed and strengthened by the heavenly fountain of the water of life flowing from the bowels of Christ.” Sanctus was returned to prison “one complete wound and bruise, drawn out of shape, and unlike a human form.”

The Christians were not sure what to expect when it was Blandina’s turn to face the torturers. She was not strong, and there are indications that she may have suffered from a deformity. She was described as possessing an appearance that was “mean and obscure and despicable.” The Christians feared that her weak physical condition would cause her to succumb to her tormentors and deny her faith. She proved them wrong, astonishing her friends and foes by enduring broken bones and mangled flesh, and every form of torture that would have killed another individual.

Biblias, another Christian woman but otherwise unidentified, who had been arrested in the early days of the persecution and denied Christ upon initial interrogation, was brought before the governor at the judgment seat for additional torture, in the hope her weakened condition would allow her to add to her recantation details of wickedness performed by the other Christians. She refused to aid the spread of falsehoods and, “as if awakening from a deep sleep, and reminded by the present anguish of the eternal punishment in hell,” took back her earlier confession as well. Against the charge that Christians committed cannibalism, she demanded: “How could those eat children who do not think it lawful to taste the blood even of irrational animals?” (The church was presumably observing the Old Testament proscription against consuming the blood of animals, Gen 9:4).

One of the next to be dragged in by the soldiers and civil magistrates was the aged and sick bishop, Ponthinus. He was more than ninety years old and illness made his breathing labored.

“Who was the God of the Christians?” the governor asked the bishop.

“If you are worthy, then you will know,” Ponthinus replied.

That was not the answer the crowd wanted to hear. In their rage, some advanced and pummeled the old man with their fists, their feet, and anything else they could immediately get their hands on. Those not close enough to strike him picked up whatever they could and threw it at him, “all of them thinking that they would be guilty of great wickedness and impiety if any possible abuse were omitted.” When the savagery abated, Ponthinus was returned to his prison cell, which was about the size of a small closet. There, two days later, he died.

All the prisoners were taken back to their cells and subjected to more torture, including the “stretching of the feet to the fifth hole in the stocks.” Many were suffocated. Others were hauled before the crowd for more abuse after several days. Sanctus was one of them. The mob remembered how he had been beaten and broken, how his “most tender parts” had been burned, and how he could not bear the touch of a human hand. A stunned silence must have come over the crowd as Sanctus was led into the amphitheater. Against all expectations, “his body arose and stood erect in the midst of the subsequent torments, and resumed its original appearance and the use of its limbs, so that, through the grace of Christ, these second sufferings became to him, not torture, but healing.”

It was at this point that those who had recanted their faith in hopes of escaping further tortures were tossed into prison with the faithful, where they were charged with murder and defilement, and punished twice as severely as those whom they had accused. The faithful, on the other hand, were never charged with any crimes, because the practice of Christianity was not in itself a violation of Roman laws. Only if they refused an imperial order, such as a demand to make an oath on the name of the emperor as a god, or to burn incense to him, did it constitute an indictable offense. They had been condemned, that is, without a specific charge, a gross miscarriage of justice in an empire forever renowned for its commitment to the rule of law.

The case therefore posed a legal problem for the governor, who used this time to write to the emperor, describing the situation and seeking instructions on how to proceed and what to do with the Christians who were Roman citizens. Marcus Aurelius was involved in a military campaign on the Danube, and a response was a long time coming.

While the prisoners prayed for strength and pondered their fate, a situation arose with one of their number whose asceticism had alienated him from the others. Alcibiades had led a very austere life before the persecutions, one that included eating only bread and water. His insistence on continuing his diet while in prison became a cause of dissension among the other prisoners. This problem was revealed in a dream to Attalus, the accused Christian leader from Pergamum, who spoke about it with Alcibiades. From that moment on, he ate the same food that was prepared for all the prisoners.

The second round of tortures began on June 2, the day later set aside to commemorate the martyrdom of the Christians of Lyon. The prisoners were led out into the amphitheater, carrying themselves in a manner that made the faithful among the spectators believe their brethren were clothed in beautiful garments, “as those of a bride adorned with variegated golden fringes; and they were perfumed with the sweet savor of Christ.” The others, those who had recanted their faith or who accused the Christians of indulging in unspeakable acts against God and nature, were dejected “and filled with every kind of disgrace, and they were reproached by the heathen as ignoble and weak, bearing the accusation of murders, and having lost the one honorable and glorious and life-giving Name.”

Into this arena of suffering were led Maturus, Sanctus, Blandina, and Attalus, to do battle with the wild beasts, entertaining and fulfilling the blood lust of the pagan crowd. Maturus and Sanctus were subjected to another round of contests and tortures–running the gauntlet, battling the beasts, suffering all manner of physical abuse–which they endured as before.

The last of the tortures was the awful iron chair. This was a device into which the victim was seated and placed amid flames. One does not need much imagination to picture what happened. The chair heated up to a red-hot level, cooking the victim alive. The goal was to force a victim to confess before dying amid the fumes of his roasting flesh. Sanctus, however, further enraged the crowd by repeating his earlier statement. What Maturus said is not recorded, but we are told that both men were sacrificed “after their life had continued for a long time through the great conflict.”

Next up was the slave girl Blandina. She was suspended from a stake in a way that made it appear as though she were crucified, but according to the Letter, that only strengthened the will of the Christians, who “beheld with their outward eyes, in the form of their sister, him who was crucified for them.” Then, wild animals were turned loose to eat her alive. They circled her as the crowd cheered them on. “Blandina looked upon them and prayed for strength to her Father in heaven, and when the animals turned away and would not touch her, she was removed from the stake and returned to her prison cell.”

The people then cried out for Attalus, who entered the amphitheater willingly, because of his clear conscience, and because his devotion to Christ removed his fear of the fate that awaited him. A tablet, on which was written “This is Attalus the Christian,” was carried in front of him as he was led around the amphitheater in front of the screaming mob. At some point the governor was informed that Attalus was a Roman citizen, and therefore could not be condemned to be eaten by the beasts. The governor ordered him returned to the prison until the response from the emperor was received.

The imprisoned Christians used the following days to their best advantage, caring for their wounds and tending to the spiritual strength of the wavering. Their influence and demeanor caused many of those who had recanted to reaffirm their faith. The time was also spent discussing their concerns about fellow Christians outside Gaul, particularly those involved in Montanism. The Christians of Lyon did not like dissension and conflict within the body of the Church. This attitude may have been the reason the prisoners wrote letters regarding their feelings about the Montanist controversy in Asia and Phrygia. The letters, urging peace in the churches along with the recounting of what was happening in Lyon, were given to Irenaeus to take to Bishop Eleutherus in Rome. According to Eusebius, the prisoners also recommended Irenaeus to the bishop as highly worthy of his position as priest. The persecutions had ended by the time Irenaeus returned to Gaul as the new bishop.

The emperor’s response to the governor’s query about the Romans among the prisoners finally arrived before August 1, the start of Gaul’s great festival commemorating the dedication of the temple to Augustus in 12 b.c. Marcus Aurelius ordered the continuation of Trajan’s policy of sixty years earlier: Anyone who recanted his faith was to be set free, but all who persisted in asserting they were Christians were to be executed. Roman citizens confessing the Christian faith were to be beheaded, a method of death said to be quick and possibly even painless.

The festival games began with the faithful brought before the governor and the judgment seat, “to make a show and a spectacle for the multitude.” The governor asked each prisoner if he or she was a Christian. Those who recanted the faith “blasphemed The Way through their apostasy.” Roman citizens who confessed were beheaded. Some of those who had earlier denied Christ now confessed him, and were added to the rest who had held firm in their faith from the beginning.

During the interrogation, Alexander, a Phrygian physician who had lived in Gaul for several years and who was known for his Christian belief, used hand gestures to encourage the others to confess their faith. The crowd noticed him instructing those who had recanted earlier and furiously blamed him for causing them to change their testimonies. The governor heard the commotion, called Alexander to stand before the judgment seat, and asked him, “Who are you?” “I am a Christian,” Alexander replied, for which he, too, was sentenced to face the wild beasts.

The next day, Alexander and Attalus were returned to the arena, where they were tortured for a long time with every instrument available. Alexander would not speak, and was finally stabbed to death. Attalus, although a Roman citizen, was placed in the iron chair. As his flesh burned, he spoke in Latin to the crowd, saying, “Look! This which you do is devouring men; but we do not devour men; nor do any other wicked thing.” He was asked for the name of God, and he answered before he died, “God has not a name as man has.”

Finally, just two of the Christians remained. Blandina and the fifteen-year-old Ponticus were brought into the arena for what would be the final day of the games. They had been forced each day to watch the suffering and death of their friends, and had repeatedly been urged to recant and to swear by the idols. Because they would not yield, the crowd granted them no mercy. Each was taken through every round of torture and treated to the pain of every instrument, all the while being asked to swear by the idols. Blandina encouraged the boy to stay strong and to keep focused on God, and so he did until he died.

The last to die was Blandina, “having, as a noble mother, encouraged her children and sent them before her victorious to the King.” After the whippings and beatings, the wild beasts, and the iron seat, and after her continued refusal to swear, a net was placed around her and she was thrown before a bull. When the bull tossed her about but failed to kill her, Blandina was stabbed to death. “And the heathen themselves confessed that never among them had a woman endured so many and such terrible tortures.”

But the madness of the crowd did not stop with Blandina. The bodies of those who had died in prison were fed to the dogs, and a twenty-four-hour guard was placed around the remains, the Romans knowing that bones and bodies of martyrs could be venerated later, and that the Christians believed in bodily resurrection. After six days, all of the remains were burned and the ashes were thrown in the river, thus ending the summer of terror for the Christians of Lyon and Vienne.

Irenaeus would live another twenty-five years. Scholars disagree as to whether or not he, too, died a martyr in 202. His remaining years, however, were spent studying Gnostic beliefs and writing the definitive works against them, the most famous of which was the Adversus Haereses, or the Against Heresies. He also intervened in the date-of-Easter controversy about 188, urging the bishop of Rome to be tolerant of different practices regarding the Lenten fast and the dates used to celebrate Easter (see page 280).

Although Irenaeus was a vociferous opponent of heresies, in particular those of Valentinus and Montanus, he was averse to dividing the body of the Church, as witnessed by his position in the debate regarding Easter, and also by his pleading in Rome on behalf of the imprisoned Christians of Lyon regarding the Montanist controversy. In Adversus Haereses, Irenaeus provided a warning for Christians of his time, and for future Christians who would face great controversies that would splinter the Church: “He shall also judge those who give rise to schisms . . . who look to their own special advantage rather than to the unity of the Church . . . men who prate for peace while they give rise to war.”

Though it would never die, Gnosticism would fade, and the violence and brutality of the Roman amphitheater would one day be prohibited. What would not fade, however, was witness borne by the Christians at Lyon, and the valor of the young slave girl who perished with them–simple people with a simple faith, whose light would shine as a beacon for the Christian millions in the centuries that lay ahead.

This is the end of the Irenaeus category article drawn from Chapter Five, beginning on page 142, of Volume Two, A Pinch of Incense. To continue reading more about Irenaeus from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at