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Christian Martyrs |
Their willingness to die hideously

Christian Martyrs is drawn from Chapter Three, beginning on page 92, 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 stalwart deaths of Crispus and Papylus, whose calm defiance infuriated their judge, typify the figure of the martyr that inspires and shapes the faith’s opening centuries

Christian Martyrs - Their willingness to die hideously–this fact, beyond all others, drew converts to Christ

Christian Martyrs - Their willingness to die hideously–this fact, beyond all others, drew converts to Christ
Details from The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian by Gerrit van Honthorst, seventeenth century.

The amphitheater was packed that day in the city of Pergamum, north of Ephesus, near the Aegean’s east coast. Once the seat of the Attalid kings, the Greek-speaking metropolis was now reduced to provincial status and overseen by a Roman proconsul named Optimus. Before him stood two men, charged with the crime of being Christian.

There is a Greek account, and a Latin, of the events that ensued–the Latin, probably an encapsulation of the Greek with a few details added. The chief controversy involves when it happened rather than what happened, whether in the mid-second century under Emperor Marcus Aurelius, or in the mid-third under Emperor Decius. Expert opinion favors the former.

From his official seat in the central balcony of the amphitheater, Optimus addressed the first prisoner, a rugged but elderly man. “What is your name?” he asked. “My first and most distinctive name is that of Christian,” replied the old man firmly. “But if you want my name in the world, it is Carpus.” (The Latin account names him as Bishop Carpus of Gordos, a city about two hundred miles to the east).

Optimus became grave. “You’re surely aware,” he said, “of the emperor’s decrees to venerate the gods who govern all things. So I suggest you right now offer sacrifice.” Offering sacrifice, meaning symbolically burning incense to the emperor as to a god, or swearing by the emperor’s “genius” or spirit, was the legal expedient developed to solve the Christian problem. Charging people with simply being something offended the Romans’ acute sense of justice. Charging them with doing something, or refusing to do it, that was a different matter.

But Christians everywhere, many of them anyway, were refusing to perform this simple sacrificial rite. That amounted to deliberate defiance of imperial authority, in effect treason, and the Romans well knew how to deal with treason. Yet the Christians’ reason for refusal was, for them, equally compelling. Had not Jesus, when challenged by the high priest, described himself with the unmentionable name of God, thereby assuring his Crucifixion? There comes a time, that is, when a man must speak the truth, even at the cost of his life.

Such a moment had now come for Carpus. “I am a Christian,” he declared, “and I venerate Christ, the Son of God, who has come in these latter times for our redemption.”1 Christians must worship God, “in truth,” he said, because people take on the image of what they worship. The images which the Roman world worshiped were the concoctions of the devil, and those who worshiped them would take on that diabolic image. “Wherefore, proconsul, know you that I shall not offer sacrifice to them.”

Optimus by now was furious. “Sacrifice to the gods!” he commanded. “Do not play the fool.”

Such an order from a proconsul was intended to terrify. Quaking dread was the expected response. But Carpus, says the Greek account, just smiled and “gently replied, ‘May the gods be destroyed, who have not made heaven and earth.’” Livid, Optimus stormed, “You must offer sacrifice! These are the emperor’s orders!”

“The living,” answered Carpus, “do not offer sacrifice to the dead.”

“Do you think the gods are dead?” demanded Optimus.

Carpus replied that they were not only dead; they had never lived. The only power they possessed was the one conferred upon them by the people who worship them. Take that away, “and you will discover that they are nothing, made of earth’s substance, and eventually they will be destroyed by time itself. Whereas our God, who has created the ages, is timeless and abides eternal and immortal, ever the same.”

Optimus was exasperated. “By allowing you to babble on so much, I have led you to blaspheme the gods, and the august emperors. We must let this go no further.” He ordered Carpus “scraped.” The old man was led before the crowd, now outraged by his defiant smile and screaming for him to suffer. He was “hung up,” says the Greek account, while two men, each armed with metal claws, tore and lacerated his flesh, Carpus meanwhile shouting, “I am a Christian! I am a Christian!” until his voice gave out.

A certain Papylus was now brought forward, a leading citizen of Thyatira, a town that would become familiar to generations of Bible-reading Christians as the home of Lydia, Paul’s first convert at Philippi, and one of the seven churches listed in the Book of Revelation. Was he a senator? demanded Optimus. He was not, said Papylus. Did he have children? Many children, he said.

“He means,” shouted someone in the crowd, “he has children in virtue of the faith which the Christians repose in him.”

He had “children in the Lord in every province and city,” said Papylus, and no, he would not sacrifice. “I have served God from my youth, and I have never offered sacrifice to idols. I am a Christian and you cannot hear any more from me than this, for there is nothing greater or nobler.”

Papylus was then hung up and “scraped,” uttering not a sound, says the account, and this no doubt enraged the crowd even further. Optimus ordered him burned. He was thereupon nailed to a stake. But as the wood was brought forward for the fire, he died where he was. “He prayed in peace,” says the account, “and gave up his soul.”

One final vengeance awaited the crowd, because Carpus was still alive. Bleeding from innumerable wounds and barely able to speak, he nevertheless still brazenly smiled. So he was pinned down and nailed to a stake, then raised for the shrieking crowd to behold. As the fire was lit at his feet, he delivered one last taunt, a burst of derisive laughter at the entire enraged assembly. “What are you laughing at?” said a bystander. The faint reply was heard and recorded: “Blessed are you . . . Lord Jesus Christ . . . Son of God . . . Because you thought me, a sinner . . . worthy to share this . . . with you.” With those words uttered, says the account, “he gave up the spirit.”

But the story was still not over. A woman named Agathonike was standing nearby, her young son beside her. She suddenly saw the glory of the Lord, she said, calling to her from heaven. She broke free and rushed towards the flames that were consuming Carpus. “Have pity on your son!” people in the crowd shouted to her. “He has God who can take pity on him,” she called, taking off her cloak and flinging herself on the fire. “God has providence over all.”

Then something astonishing happened. The temper of the crowd appeared at that instant to have changed. Stunned into silence by what the woman had done, they seemed to suddenly revise their view of the whole event. “This is a terrible sentence!” they began to shout. “These are terrible decrees!”

That transformation from outright hatred of Christians, to silent reconsideration of them, to the perception of injustice against them, and finally to acceptance, if not of their faith at least of their integrity, would gradually take place all over the empire during the next two centuries. What pivotally influenced that change has never been doubted. It was the startling testimony of those who refused on pain of death to renounce their faith. They would be known thereafter in Christian hymnology as “the noble army of martyrs.”

Until the empire-wide crackdown on Christianity by Decius in the mid-third century, outbreaks of persecution were sporadic, brief, and unpredictable. Apart from the highly profiled martyrdoms at Lyon, Carthage, Rome, and Alexandria, similar, less publicized cases kept occurring all over the empire. History records with little dramatic detail the martyrdom of Sagans, bishop of Laodicea, and Thraseas, bishop of Eumenia, together with his fellow Eumenians, Gaius and Alexander. The proconsul Sergius Paulus is remembered for creating martyrs in the largely Christian town of Sagaris in Laodicea. In a violent outbreak at Philadelphia, 110 miles southeast of Pergamum, eleven men were arrested, tortured, then sent down to Smyrna to be torn to pieces by animals at the provincial games. One of them, Germanicus, had to tug on a reluctant animal before it would eat him, a display that incensed the crowd. Elsewhere, Proconsul Arrius Antoninus, reputedly a bloodthirsty persecutor, was visited by a large crowd of Christians who offered themselves to him. He executed a few, but then contemptuously informed the rest that if they wished to die, they could easily find a rope or a cliff.

From Athens comes the report of a bishop named Publius, put to death along with most of the local Christian community. Even in immediate postbiblical times, Symeon ben Clopas, who had been a young cousin of Jesus and was now an aged bishop of Jerusalem, was “tortured in various manners,” writes the historian Hegesippus, and eventually martyred as a Jewish heretic.

Wrote the pagan scholar Lucian: “The poor wretches have convinced themselves that they are going to be immortal and live for all time. So they despise death and willingly give themselves into custody, most of them. Furthermore, their first lawgiver persuaded them that they are all brothers, after they have transgressed by denying the gods, worshiping that crucified sophist himself, and living under his laws.” The persecution was not centrally orchestrated, but local and spontaneous. Some provinces like Spain and Britain were little touched by it, but especially in the east, it was a dangerous time to be a Christian.

Almost always, the pogrom came in response to popular wrath against the Christians, whose repudiation of the gods was blamed for every flood, famine, fire, or plague. “Rid the earth of the likes of these! They don’t deserve to live,” one mob at Rome had shouted. “Christians shared with murderers and informers the lowest depths of unpopularity,” writes the historian W. H. C. Frend in his exhaustive study, Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church. Tertullian, the outspoken evangelist and apologist from Carthage, recounts the way Christians were alluded to in street gossip: “It’s surprising that a wise man like Lucius Titius has suddenly become Christian. . . . Such a good man, that Seius Gaius, except that he’s a Christian . . .” and with a sneer, “The smart set, now they’re becoming Christians!” The Roman Caecilius, a literary invention of the Christian apologist Municius Felix, writes of the Christians:

Fellows who gather together they illustrate the dregs of the populace and credulous women with the instability natural to their sex . . . a secret tribe that shuns the light, silent in the open, but talkative in hid corners; they despise temples as if they were tombs; they spit upon the gods; they jeer at our sacred rites; they despise titles and robes and honor.

Rome’s officialdom, however, was always loath to act in response to mob fervor, because it invited anarchy. A complaint process was developed under which accusers could levy charges of Christianity against other citizens. If the charge was proved–usually because the accused refused to make the requisite sacrifice or take the oath–the penalty involved the man’s whole family. Not only would he pay with his life or be sent to die working in the mines, but his estate would be seized and his wife and children left impoverished. Since the informant shared in the man’s estate, the process led to horrendous abuse. The emperor Hadrian sought to prevent this by subjecting the informant to the same penalties if the charge was not upheld. However, Hadrian’s successors repealed that reform, and the abuse was resumed.

Once the law had formally spoken, the authorities were free to use the punishment as a means of satiating the blood lust of the mob, and the descriptions of what followed would challenge belief, were they not so unanimously and widely attested to. “Here we are touching one of the most obvious symptoms heralding the moral disintegration of Roman society and its future decadence,” writes historian Henri Daniel-Rops in The Church of Apostles and Martyrs. “This civilization was prepared to debase mankind, and itself, in spectacles of unbelievable bestiality.”

As the crowds screamed and jeered, the victims were hanged by their hands and lashed. Vinegar or salt was rubbed into their wounds. They were nailed to crosses and crucified. Nails were driven between their eyes. They were branded with red-hot metal. Their limbs were hacked off, their bodies torn to shreds. They were tied to posts and burned alive.

The greatest crowd-pleaser, however, was provided by wild animals. Lions, tigers, panthers, wild bulls, and bears were carefully starved, or taught to savor human flesh, or antagonized into a frenzy, then turned loose on a prisoner tied to a stake or bound up and pushed forward on a cart into the faces of the snarling beasts. Usually the animal would leap upon the victim and begin tearing chunks of flesh from an arm or a thigh. But the behavior of such creatures is never predictable. Sometimes they would refuse to attack the victim. In one celebrated case, a wild cat lay down at a woman-martyr’s feet, much to the disgust of the crowd and the awe of her Christian companions.

“A certain taste for blood had always existed at Rome,” notes Daniel-Rops. “The people were fairly accustomed to taking the sight of it for granted. After all, their religion, whose ceremonies had the appearance of veritable butcheries, would not have predisposed the Romans to any refinement of sensibilities. The custom of carrying out capital punishment in public encouraged the mob to enjoy degrading spectacles. It was quite common for a slave to be beaten to death. The public’s taste for blood was systematically used by the government for the ‘distraction of the mob.’ . . . Collective degradation was henceforth a government affair.”

That those who bravely endured such an ordeal should be revered by their comrades in the faith was certainly understandable. Few were men and women of great distinction. Nearly all were simple working people–tradesmen, small merchants, mothers of families; many were slaves. Their bodies, or what was left of them, were carefully gathered up by their fellow Christians–sometimes officials had to be bribed to release them–and reverently buried. Commemorations of their deeds on the anniversaries of their deaths began early on to take place at their tombs, and churches were eventually built atop many of them.

What harried the Christians was the uncertainty. Bloody pogroms developed in some cities, not in others. Some individuals were singled out, some not, and often without regard to their status in the Christian community. It was soon concluded, therefore, that it must be God who did the selecting, choosing some and not others for the “honor” of sharing in Christ’s own fate. Martyrs came to be seen as a class apart, those who had come the closest to the imitation of Christ. As they awaited death, their dreams were accepted as prophetic. They were considered to have a special power to forgive other people’s sins.

The word “martyr” derives from the Greek word for “witness,” and the martyr was seen as bearing witness by his sacrifice to the sacrifice made by Christ. But Paul took this idea even further. Not only did the martyr witness to Christ’s martyrdom, he actually fulfilled or completed it. Thus in Paul’s memorable words: “Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church” (Col. 1:24). The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews sees Christians as “surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses” that they should “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily besets us” (Heb. 12:1). “I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge,” says the writer of the Book of Revelation. “And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their witness for Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or his image” (Rev. 20:4). Apart from stirring the hearts of the faithful, however, martyrdom also posed ecclesiastical problems. Who exactly was a martyr? If a man was imprisoned rather than executed, was he a martyr? No, the Christians decided, to be a martyr, one must die. Those who suffered without dying were termed “confessors.” What if a man or woman perished in serving Christ–a missionary who drowned, say, or a soldier killed in a just war? It was decided these may be considered heroes of the faith, but not martyrs. For a martyrdom, the death must be caused by a Christian’s refusal to deny Christ.2

Moreover, while the Christian must expect martyrdom, he must not court it. At Carthage, Tertullian pleaded with the Roman governor to stop the persecutions. “He who does not avoid persecution, but out of daring presents himself for capture, becomes an accomplice in the crime of persecution,” writes Clement of Alexandria. Death must not be sought, he adds, because those who court martyrdom are not really martyrs at all. They are calling attention to themselves rather than to Christ. But the state’s authority is beneath that of God, he says, and the state must be defied when it ventures into outright idolatry.

What, one wonders, were the effects of such exhibitions on the people who attended them? Watching the grisly gladiatorial performances could profoundly affect individuals. In his Confessions (written in about a.d. 400), Augustine describes a student friend, Alypius, whose companions cajoled him into attending a gladiatorial show in Rome over his initial protests:

“The whole place was seething with savage enthusiasm, but he shut the doors of his eyes and forbade his soul to go out into a scene of such evil. . . . (Finally) he was overcome by curiosity and opened his eyes . . . (and) he then received in his soul a worse wound than that man, whom he had wanted to see, had received in his body. . . . He saw the blood and he gulped down savagery. Far from turning away, he fixed his eyes on it. Without knowing what was happening, he drank in madness, he was delighted with the guilty contest, drunk with the lust of blood. . . . He looked, he shouted, he raved with excitement. He took away with him a madness which would goad him to come back again, and he would not only come with those who first got him there; he would go ahead of them and he would drag others with him.”

Joyce E. Salisbury, in her splendid book on the martyrdom of Perpetua at Carthage, Perpetua’s Passion, observes that the later amphitheaters offered superb acoustics. Spectators were given an intimate relationship with what was transpiring in the arena. It became a shared experience, reinforced by the ceremonial meal before the show began. So much so that Tertullian warned his fellow Carthaginian Christians to stay away from the amphitheater shows. This shared experience was real, he said. It bonded people, and they need not be bonded with those who collectively enjoyed human suffering.

Imperial officialdom had a different view of these “circuses,” where gladiators routinely butchered each other and the torture-death of Christians was only one highlight of the program. Gladiatorial shows “inspired the audience to noble wounds and to despise death,” wrote Pliny the Younger. There was “no better schooling against pain and death” than watching criminals die, wrote Livy. It taught them not to be afraid of blood and thus made them better soldiers.

Not everyone shared this positive viewpoint. The Christians, who often died fearlessly and courageously, striking awe and respect into many who watched them suffer, also caused some to have second thoughts. That response gradually gained ground until the Christians prevailed and such public exhibitions were prohibited.

But not permanently. One of the most chilling stories of martyrdom describes groups of Christian men being lined up before their tormentor and being asked to renounce Jesus Christ. As each refused, a three-inch nail was hammered into the top of his head while the others watched. That report came neither from the second century nor the third, but from the twenty-first. The scene was a Christian village in southern Sudan under persecution by a militant Muslim government.3

The total number of Christians who perished under Roman persecution in the first three centuries is not known, but probably comes to several thousand. The real Age of Christian Martyrdom lay far ahead. At the close of the twentieth century, organizers of the International Day of Prayer estimated that two hundred million Christians were facing active persecution. A report from the Christian History Institute put the number of twentieth-century Christians killed for their faith at twenty-six million.

This is the end of the Christian Martyrs category article drawn from Chapter Three, beginning on page 92, of Volume Two, A Pinch of Incense. To continue reading more about Christian Martyrs 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