Ignatius of Antioch (died c. 108) Writes Churches on His March to Death

Ignatius of Antioch Baring-Gould, Lives of the Saints [Public domain]

Around 107 Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, was arrested by Roman authorities for his Christian practice. Dispatched under guard to Rome to be executed in the arena, he met delegates of local churches along the way and also wrote letters encouraging the faith of various congregations.

In his letter to Roman Christians, he asked them not to try to intervene for him. He was eager to reach God through martyrdom. In his letter to the church at Smyrna, he explained why he was willing to die for Christ. (See the excerpt below.)

As it turned out, when he reached Rome, he was hustled immediately into the arena and devoured by wild animals.

Ignatius: Letter to the Church at Smyrna.

And why have I also surrendered myself to death, to fire, to the sword, to the wild beasts? [It is because] he who is near to the sword is near to God; he that is among the wild beasts is in company with God; provided only he [is there] in the name of Jesus Christ. I undergo all these things that I may suffer together with Him—strengthened inwardly by the one who became a perfect man.

Simeon, Bishop of Seleucia (died c. 343) on His Way to Prison Restores a Lapsed Christian

Coin of Shapur II, who appears as Saporis in the account below. Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5), GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

In Persia, about the middle of the fourth century, many Christians suffered under King Sapores. The idolatrous magicians of Persia had put their heads together to come up with a plan to stamp out Christianity. They accused Simeon and Ctesiphon to Sapores, saying the two were secretly in touch with the Roman emperor (who was then at war with Persia), and that they betrayed information to him about the kingdom. Angered, Sapores came down hard on all Christians, oppressing them with taxes and tributes until they were completely impoverished, and killing their priests.

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After that, he summoned Simeon the archbishop, who proved himself a worthy and valiant captain of Christ’s church. For when Sapores commanded he be tortured, he neither shrank from the ordeal with any show of fear, nor grovelled for mercy. At this the king, partly marveling and partly offended, asked why he did not kneel down as he was accustomed to do before. Simeon replied that on earlier occasions he had not been brought to the king in chains and ordered to betray the true God. While free, he readily bowed to the king, but now he could not, for now he was defending religion and true doctrine.

The king offered Simeon a choice: either worship the Persian gods with him and receive great gifts or refuse to worship, and suffer death himself and the destruction of all other Persian Christians. But Simeon, neither allured by promises, nor terrified by threats, continued steadfast in doctrine, and could not be induced to worship idols, or to betray the truth of his religion. Therefore the king committed him to prison, ordering that he be kept there until a decision was made as to what to do with him.

Simeon’s story as adapted from Foxe’s Actes and Monuments.

As he [Simeon] was going to prison, there was sitting at the king’s gate a certain eunuch, an old tutor or schoolmaster of the king’s, named Usthazares, who had once been a Christian, but afterward, falling from his profession of faith, had joined with the heathen multitude in their idolatry. This Usthazares, sitting at the door of the king’s palace, saw Simeon led past him to the prison, and rose up in respect to the bishop. Simeon, rebuked him with sharp words (as much as the moment would allow), and in great anger cried out against him, because, having once been a Christian, he had so cowardly revolted from his profession of faith, and returned to heathen idolatry.

At hearing these words, the eunuch immediately burst into tears; he stripped off his courtly apparel, which was sumptuous and costly, and put on a black mourning cloth, sitting before the palace gates weeping and wailing, saying to himself: “Woe is me! With what hope, with what face shall I look for my God after this, since I have denied my God, considering that Simeon, my familiar acquaintance, passing by me, disdains me so much that he refuses with a single gentle word to salute me!”

The eunuch’s words being brought to the ears of the king, (tale-bearers are never lacking at court,) roused against him no little indignation. Sapores sent for him, and with gentle words and courtly promises spoke to him, asking him why he had to mourn this way, and whether there was anything in his house which was denied him, or which he could not have merely for asking. To this, Usthazares replied that he lacked nothing in his earthly house, nor desired anything.

“I would to God, O king, any other grief or calamity in all the world, whatever it were, had happened to me rather than this, for which I do most rightly mourn and sorrow. For it fills me with sorrow, that I am alive today, who should rather have died long ago, and that I see this sun, which, against my better judgment, to please you I pretended to worship; and because of this I am doubly worthy of death: first, that I denied Christ; and secondly, because I played the hypocrite with you.” Adding to these words, and swearing by the One who made both heaven and earth, he asserted in the strongest terms, that although he had played the fool before, he would never be so insane again as to worship the creatures which God had made and created rather than the Creator Himself.

King Sapores was astonished at the sudden change in this man, and questioned within himself whether to be angry with the enchanters or with him, and whether to treat him with gentleness or with rigor. At length he ordered that Usthazares, his ancient servant, and first tutor and trainer of his youth, be taken away, and beheaded. As Usthazares was being led to the place of execution, he asked the executioners to grant him a short stay, in order that he might send a message to the king, which was this, (sent in by certain of the king’s most trusty eunuchs) desiring him, that, for all the old and faithful service he had done to his father and to him, he would now requite him with one favor only: to order a public crier to proclaim these words: That Usthazares was beheaded, not for any treachery or crime committed against the king or the realm, but only because he was a Christian, and would not at the king’s pleasure deny his God.

His request was granted and carried out. Usthazares strongly desired that the cause of his death to be published because just as his earlier shrinking back from Christ was the occasion for many Christians to do the same, so now, hearing that Usthazares died for no other cause but for the religion of Christ, he hoped they would learn by his example to be fervent and constant in that which they professed. And that was how the blessed eunuch consummated his martyrdom.

Simeon, in prison, hearing of Usthazares death, was joyful, and thanked God. The following day, he too was brought before the king, and still refusing to yield to Sapor’s demand that he worship visible creatures, was beheaded in the same manner as the tutor by command of the king, along with a great number of other Christians, who also suffered the same fate that day. The total number is said to have been a hundred or more; all of whom were put to death before Simeon, who stood by and exhorted them with comforting words, admonishing them to stand firm and stedfast in the Lord; preaching and teaching them concerning death, resurrection, and true piety; and proving by the Scriptures that what he said was true: declaring also that true life was to die for Christ, and real death was to deny or betray God for fear of punishment; and adding that there was not a man alive but must die once.

[Here follows an example of his exhortation, which emphasizes the differing eternal destinies of the good and the bad, and calls martydom the greatest act one can render God.] With these words of comforting exhortation, the holy martyrs, being prepared, willingly yielded up their lives to death.

After they were all dispatched, Simeon was also executed with two other priests or ministers of his church, Abedecalaas and Ananias, who shared with him the same martyrdom.

Pamphilius of Caesarea (died 309) Translates the Septuagint Bible in Prison

A monk of Caesaria, by anonymous [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Not a household name today, Pamphilius was a Christian scholar and priest who developed a magnificent library in Caesarea near the end of the third and beginning of the fourth centuries. The famous Jerome, translator of scripture into Latin (The Vulgate) used that library some years after Pamphilius’ death. Rather than produce original writings, Pamphilius’ care was to copy and edit the texts which came under his purview. Allegedly his library was second only to that at Alexandria and contained several early copies of the Gospel of Matthew. Muslims destroyed this treasure house of books when they invaded Palestine in the seventh century.

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Arrested for his faith by a heathen governor, Pamphlius was cruelly tortured in prison. Nonetheless, he continued to edit the Septuagint (a Greek version of the Old Testament) during his two years in prison. With the help of Eusebius of Caesarea, he also wrote a defence of Origen, an earlier scholar who had settled in Caesarea.

After two years, a new governor beheaded Pamphilius. Eusebius of Caesarea, who became the first notable historian of the church, was so impressed by Pamphilius that he renamed himself Eusebius Pamphili.

Perpetua (died c. 202) Finds Prison a Stepping Stone to Heaven

Fourth-century Perpetua mosaic in North Africa, from James Rendel Harris’s and Seth K. Gifford’s The Acts of the Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas: the Original Greek text. … (Cambridge: Deighton, Bell and Co., 1890).

Perpetua, a young Christian mother, was imprisoned for her faith pending her execution in a public spectacle. Educated, she wrote an account of her incarceration and trail, up to the day before her execution. This is the first writing that we have from a Christian woman, apart from Mary’s “Magnificat” which is recorded in the Gospel of Luke.

Perpetua’s Account of Her Imprisonment

When, she said, we were still under legal surveillance and my father was liked to vex me with his words and continually strove to hurt my faith because of his love: “Father, said I, Do you see (for example) this vessel lying, a pitcher or whatsoever it may be?” And he said, “I see it.” And I said to him, “Can it be called by any other name than that which it is?” And he answered, “No.”

“So can I call myself nought other than that which I am, a Christian.”

Then my father angry with this word came upon me to tear out my eyes; but he only vexed me, and he departed vanquished, he and the arguments of the devil. Then because I was without my father for a few days I gave thanks unto the Lord; and I was comforted because of his absence.

Excerpted from the video curriculum series, The Trial and Testimony of the Early Church takes a close-up look at two Early Church martyrs, Polycarp and Perpetua, who would rather pay with their lives than deny their faith.

polycarp and perpetua dvd

In this same space of a few days we were baptised, and the Spirit declared to me, I must pray for nothing else after that water except only endurance of the flesh. After a few days we were taken into prison, and I was much afraid because I had never known such darkness. O bitter day! There was a great heat because of the press, there was cruel handling of the soldiers. Lastly I was tormented there by concern for the child.

Then Tertius and Pomponius, the blessed deacons who ministered to us, obtained with money that for a few hours we should be taken out to a better part of the prison and be refreshed. Then all of them going out from the dungeon took their pleasure; I suckled my child that was now faint with hunger. And being concerned for him, I spoke to my mother and strengthened my brother and commended my son unto them. I pined because I saw they pined for my sake. Such cares I suffered for many days; and I obtained that the child should abide with me in prison; and straightway I became well and was lightened of my labor and concern for the child; and suddenly the prison was made a palace for me, so that I would sooner be there than anywhere else.

Then said my brother to me: “Lady my sister, you are now in high honor, even such that you might ask for a vision; and it should be shown you whether this be a passion or else a deliverance.” And I, as knowing that I conversed with the Lord, for Whose sake I had suffered such things, did promise him nothing doubting; and I said: “Tomorrow I will tell you.” And I asked, and this was shown me.

I beheld a ladder of bronze, marvelously great, reaching up to heaven; and it was narrow, so that not more than one might go up at one time. And in the sides of the ladder were planted all manner of things of iron. There were swords there, spears, hooks, and knives; so that if any that went up took not good heed or looked not upward, he would be torn and his flesh cling to the iron. And there was right at the ladder’s foot a serpent lying, marvelously great, which lay in wait for those that would go up, and frightened them that they might not go up. Now Saturus went up first (who afterwards had of his own free will given up himself for our sakes, because it was he who had edified us; and when we were taken he had not been there). And he came to the ladder’s head; and he turned and said: “Perpetua, I await you; but see that the serpent does not bite you.” And I said: “it shall not hurt me, in the name of Jesus Christ.” And from beneath the ladder, as though it feared me, it softly put forth its head; and as though I trod on the first step I trod on its head. And I went up, and I saw a very great space of garden, and in the midst a man sitting, white-headed, in shepherd’s clothing, tall milking his sheep; and standing around in white were many thousands. And he raised his head and beheld me and said to me: “Welcome, child.” And he cried to me, and from the curd he had from the milk he gave me as it were a morsel; and I took it with joined hands and ate it up; and all that stood around said, “Amen.” And at the sound of that word I awoke, yet eating I know not what of sweet.

And at once I told my brother, and we knew it should be a passion; and we began to have no hope any longer in this world.

A few days later, the report went abroad that we were to be tried. Also my father returned from the city spent with weariness; and he came up to me to cast down my faith saying: “Have pity, daughter, on my grey hairs; have pity on your father, if I am worthy to be, called father by you; if with these hands I have brought you unto this flower of youth—and I—have preferred you before all your brothers; give me not over to the reproach of men. Look upon your brothers; look upon your mother and mother’s sister; look upon your son, who will not endure to live after you. Give up your resolution; do not destroy us all together; for none of us will speak openly against men again if you suffer aught.”

This he said fatherly in his love, kissing my hands and grovelling at my feet; and with tears he named me, not daughter, but lady. And I was grieved for my father’s case because he would not rejoice at my passion out of all my kin; and I comforted him, saying: “That shall be done at this tribunal, whatsoever God shall please; for know that we are not established in our own power, but in God’s.” And he went from me very sorrowful.

Another day as we were at meal we were suddenly snatched away to be tried; and we came to the forum. Therewith a report spread abroad through the parts near to the forum, and a very great multitude gathered together. We went up to the tribunal. The others being asked, confessed [Christ as Lord]. So they came to me. And my father appeared there also, with my son, and would draw me from the step, saying: “Perform the Sacrifice; have mercy on the child.” And Hilarian the procurator — he that after the death of Minucius Timinian the proconsul had received in his room the right and power of the sword – said: “Spare your father’s grey hairs; spare the infancy of the boy. Make sacrifice for the Emperors’ prosperity."

And I answered: “I am a Christian.” And when my father stood by me yet to cast down my faith, he was bidden by Hilarian to be cast down and was smitten with a rod. And I sorrowed for my father’s harm as though I had been smitten myself; so sorrowed I for his unhappy old age. Then Hilarian passed sentence upon us all and condemned us to the beasts; and cheerfully we went down to the dungeon. Then because my child had been used to being breast fed and to staying with me in the prison, straightway I sent Pomponius the deacon to my father, asking for the child. But my father would not give him. And as God willed, no longer did he need to be suckled, nor did I take fever; that I might not be tormented by concern for the child and by the pain of my breasts.

A few days after, while we were all praying, suddenly in the midst of the prayer I uttered a word and named Dinocrates; and I was amazed because he had never come into my mind before then; and I sorrowed, remembering his fate. And straightway I knew that I was worthy, and that I ought to ask for him. And I began to pray for him long, and to groan unto the Lord. Immediately the same night, this was shown me.

I beheld Dinocrates coming forth from a dark place, where were many others also; being both hot and thirsty, his raiment foul, his color pale; and the wound on his face which he had when he died. This Dinocrates had been my brother in the flesh, seven years old, who being diseased with ulcers of the face had come to a horrible death, so that his death was abominated of all men. For him therefore I had made my prayer; and between him and me was a great gulf, so that either might not go to the other. There was moreover, in the same place where Dinocrates was, a font full of water, having its edge higher than was the boy’s stature; and Dinocrates stretched up as though to drink. I was sorry that the font had water in it, and yet for the height of the edge he might not drink.

And I awoke, and I knew that my brother was in travail. Yet I was confident I should ease his travail; and I prayed for him every day till we passed over into the camp prison. (For it was in the camp games that we were to fight; and the time was the feast of the Emperor Geta’s birthday.) And I prayed for him day and night with groans and tears, that he might be given me.
On the day when we abode in the stocks, this was shown me.

I saw that place which I had before seen, and Dinocrates clean of body, finely clothed, in comfort; and the font I had seen before, the edge of it being drawn to the boy’s navel; and he drew water thence which flowed without ceasing. And on the edge was a golden cup full of water; and Dinocrates came up and began to drink from it; which cup failed not. And being satisfied he departed away from the water and began to play as children will, joyfully.

And I awoke. Then I understood that he was translated from his pains.

Then a few days after, Pudens the adjutant, in whose charge the prison was, who also began to magnify us because he understood that there was much grace in us, let in many to us that both we and they in turn might be comforted. Now when the day of the games drew near, there came in my father to me, worn out with weariness, and began to pluck out his beard and throw it on the ground and to fall on his face cursing his years and saying such words as might move all creation. I was grieved for his unhappy old age.

The day before we fought, I saw in a vision that Pomponius the deacon had come here to the door of the prison, and knocked hard upon it. And I went out to him and opened to him; he was clothed in a white robe ungirdled, having shoes curiously wrought. And he said to me: “Perpetua, we await you; come.” And he took my hand, and we began to go through rugged and winding places. At last with much panting we came to the amphitheatre, and he led me into the midst of the arena. And he said to me: “Be not afraid; I am here with you and labor together with you.” And he went away. And I saw much people watching closely. And because I knew that I was condemned to the beasts I marvelled that beasts were not sent out against me.

And there came out against me a certain ill-favored Egyptian with his helpers, to fight with me. Also there came to me comely young men, my helpers and aiders. And I was stripped naked, and I became a man. And my helpers began to rub me with oil as their custom is for a contest; and over against me saw that Egyptian wallowing in the dust. And there came forth a man of very great stature, so that he overpassed the very top of the amphitheatre, wearing a robe ungirdled, and beneath it between the two stripes over the breast a robe of purple; having also shoes curiously wrought in gold and silver; bearing a rod like a master of gladiators, and a green branch on which were golden apples. And he besought silence and said: “The Egyptian, if shall conquer this woman, shall slay her with the sword; and if she shall conquer him, she shall receive this branch.” And he went away. And we came near each other, and began to buffet one another. He tried to trip up my feet, but I with my heels smote upon his face. And I rose up into the air and began so to smite him as though I trod not the earth. But when I saw that there was yet delay, I joined my hands, setting finger against finger of them. And I caught his head, and he fell upon his face; and I trod upon his head. And the people began to shout, and my helpers began to sing. And I went up to the master of gladiators and received the branch. And he kissed me and said to me: “Daughter, peace be with you.” And I began to go with glory to the gate called the Gate of Life.

And I awoke; and I understood that I should fight, not with beasts but against the devil; but I knew that mine was the victory.

Thus far I have written this, till the day before the games; but the outcome of the games themselves let him write who will.

Blandina (died c. 177) Inspires Fellow Prisoners Under Terrible Tortures

Maturus, Sanctus, Blandina, and a youth from Pontus, most miserably tormented, on the River Rhone, about the year 172 by Jan Luyken (1649–1712) The Martyrs Mirror [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

During the reign of Marcus Aurelius, terrible persecution broke out against Christians, and the pagan emperor, seemingly enlightened in other areas, tolerated it. One episode took place in Lyon, France (or Gaul, as it was then known). Christians were tormented in the arena as a cheap form of public entertainment. Their sufferings were grave, their courage fine, and no more so than in the slave girl Blandina. As a rebuttal to meterialism, especially as manifested in the writings of Ernest Renan, John Reilly Beard produced A Manual of Christian Evidence, from which this account of Blandina is taken.

Blandina Excerpt from Beard’s A Manual of Christian Evidence

Most formidable was the persecution which raged over the Gallic Churches of Lyons and Vienne, in the year 177, A.d. The rage of the adversary was great, and no torture too cruel to be employed by him against the followers of Christ; but still greater was the steadfastness of the sufferers, and again still greater was the inspiration which God poured into their hearts during their “fiery trial.” Truly might each one of “the martyrs of Lyons” apply to himself the Apostle’s words: “I can do (bear) all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). And yet, so much confidence not one of them would venture to assume as true of himself. Their weakness was their strength. They were sustained not by their own arm, but by the arm of the Almighty. Conscious of their trepidation, with bodies vibrating with the anticipated, torture, with hearts writhing under the agonies of their fellow-sufferers, yet with minds fully bent and set to meet death heroically, each one of them might, with more propriety, adopt that other word of Paul’s : “I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake, for when I am weak, then am I strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).

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One aim the persecutors pursued with full determination. They spared no means in order to extort from their victims an avowal of the crimes with which the Christians were publicly and privately charged. As in the ages of (so to call it) Christian superstition, the persecutor sought for self-exculpation by wringing out of his victims a confession of the witchcraft laid to their charge, so those pagan persecutors grew furious against a sufferer in the degree in which they were foiled by his stedfastness in asserting his own innocence and the innocence of his fellow-believers.

The hope of the adversary was strongly excited by the appearance at the bar of a slave girl, Blandina by name. Here was a fine opportunity. Of course she knew all that went on in her mistress’s family, and that all, everybody said, contained many a frightful deed. “Only, then, use torture enough, and we shall obtain such a confession as, pertaining to this distinguished household, will prove to everybody that we are doing no more than our duty in bringing such crimes to light.” The rack (to use a modern term) was applied, freely applied; more freely still. In vain. Her only confession was: “I am a Christian, nothing wicked is done among us.” The greater the torture the stronger she seemed to grow.

Taken back to prison, she spent the night in communicating her own courage to fellow-prisoners. Produced again in public the next day and subjected to fresh torments, she said merely, “I am a Christian, and nothing wicked is done among us.” The day of her doom was come. It was “a Roman holiday,” made such, not by gladiatorial fights, but by agonies inflicted on an innocent and defenceless girl and her religious associates. A deacon, called Sanctus, and a fellow-believer named Maturus, were first flogged and then set on a burning iron chair; while Blandina, bound to a stake, had her limbs contemptuously contorted into the shape of a cross. Thus hanging there, this slave girl uttered no complaint, begged no pity, entreated no alleviation, but simply sang praise to God for the faith he gave, and implored similar support for her fellow-sufferers. The executioners, according to their nature, remained unmoved, simply letting out the wild beasts on their victims. The brutes, less brutish than their human masters, drew back from the offensiveness of the half-burnt bodies. Thereupon, the skulls of Sanctus and Maturus were split with a poleaxe, and Blandina was conveyed back to prison.

Among the Christian captives there were Roman citizens. “What is to be done with them?” asked the Praetor of his master. The answer was‚ “Unless they deny Christ let them be beheaded.” Remaining faithful they suffered decapitation. Those, however, who, not being members of the Roman empire, were accounted slaves were put to death by the most excruciating methods. Blandina and a boy, named Ponticus, were first compelled to witness the execution of others. The expectation was that they would lose courage at the sight and make confession. The expectation was disappointed. Full of courage, Blandina communicated her spirit to the youth, who, after bearing his sufferings calmly, sank like a young fawn hunted to death on its native hills. These over, now came Blandina’s turn. By her persistence, and by the spirit she communicated, she had given her torturers much trouble, and shall now receive her reward. A burning gridiron is brought forth on which she is laid. She prays and suffers, but still lives. Then they roll her in a net and throw her thus entangled to a maddened bull. It is a plaything for him. He gores her and tosses her about until the spectators are sickened at the sight, and order their victim to receive the coup de grace. Thereupon she is dispatched with a sword. Even the pagans allowed that never was so much heroism seen in a slave girl. The Christians looked to a higher power, and gave the glory to God.

Pothinus (died 177) Expires Under the Rigors of Prison

Gate of cell where Pothinus was held, CHI archives.

Pothinus was the elderly bishop of Lyons in 177. Seized with many of his church people, he was locked in a prison cell about the size of a wash machine. Here is an account from a contemporary letter, describing the abuse he suffered. He is remembered because of this suffering.

The blessed Pothinus, who had been entrusted with the bishopric of Lyons, was dragged to the judgment seat. He was more than 90 years of age, and very infirm, scarcely indeed able to breathe because of physical weakness; but he was strengthened by spiritual zeal through his earnest desire for martyrdom. Though his body was worn out by old age and disease, his life was preserved that Christ might triumph in it.

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Trial and Testimony of the Early Church

When he was brought by the soldiers to the tribunal, accompanied by the civil magistrates and a multitude who shouted against him in every manner as if he were Christ himself, he bore noble witness.

Being asked by the governor, Who was the God of the Christians, he replied, “If you are worthy, you shall know.” Then he was dragged away harshly, and received blows of every kind. Those near him struck him with their hands and feet, regardless of his age; and those at a distance hurled at him whatever they could seize; all of them thinking that they would be guilty of great wickedness and impiety if any possible abuse were omitted. For thus they thought to avenge their own deities. Scarcely able to breathe, he was cast into prison and died after two days.