Martyrdom of St Margaret, Fresco in Santo Stefano Rotondo, Rome, early 1600s

Today, with The Martyrdom of Polycarp we read the first of many texts involving martyrdom that we will encounter in the course of reading the Fathers, especially the Ante-Nicene Fathers. The experience of martyrdom in the ancient church helped bind the Christians together even after the cessation of persecutions. It was a formative experience for ancient Christian identity.

In the case of Polycarp, it is also a good telling. I particularly like the voice from heaven, “Be strong, and show thyself a man, O Polycarp!” (ch. 9) — later reused by Latimer in the sixteenth century, “Play the man, Master Ridley; we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.” Or at the end of chapter 9, Polycarp’s resolve, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?”

However, although it is still a common phenomenon for many Christians today — I think immediately of the Copts martyred by ISIS in Libya several years ago — for us in the West, martyrdom is unthinkable. We consider it “persecution” if people make fun of us at school or work. When I have taught martyr texts in the past, undergraduates have responded in the vein of the soldiers leading Polycarp to his death:

“What harm is there in saying, Lord Cæsar, and in sacrificing, with the other ceremonies observed on such occasions, and so make sure of safety?” (ch 8)

Others have had little sympathy for Perpetua, a martyr we shall meet later, arguing that she was evil for abandoning her infant son and choosing to go to martyrdom. One student compared the catechist of the Carthaginians to a man in a film who was indoctrinating young people to become suicide bombers. The students who said these things were Christians. This is how foreign to us the idea of dying for one’s religion has become. Therefore, I feel that a few words about martyrdom and martyr narratives are in order.

Martyrdom in the Roman Empire

The popular notion, and certainly one I somehow had as a child, seems to be that until Constantine, Christians were systematically persecuted by the Roman state. They were forced to repent of their religion and sacrifice to the emperor or the gods. If they did not, they were thrown to wild animals, burned at the stake, forced to become gladiators (as in the sequel to The RobeDemetrius and the Gladiators). As a result, Christians went into hiding. They lived in the catacombs of Rome. They had to meet in house churches not simply out of apostolic purity but because they were not allowed to build public buildings. They made up secret codes to be able to know who was or was not a Christian.

As it turns out, persecution in the Roman Empire was very rarely ever systematic and always intermittent. There were also two types of persecution — state-sanctioned persecution of Christians, such as that we meet with Polycarp, and mob violence, such as the martyrs of Lyons.

State-sanctioned persecution in Asia Minor, evidence for which includes the letters of Pliny the Younger as well as the Martyrdom of Polycarp, was generally only interested in “ringleaders” and usually limited in scope and space. The reasons why the state might persecute Christians in these geographically limited cases usually had to do with keeping the peace. Perhaps, as in this case, the province had had sedition recently. Therefore, it was up to the governor to limit any access to free assembly or to voluntary associations, including not only churches but fire brigades as well. The High Empire may not yet have been an autocracy, but they were still not interested in free assembly of persons who could cause trouble.

At a certain level, this political and social unease is at the heart of all persecutions in the Roman Empire. Christians did not practice the traditional religion — they did not burn incense to the genius of the emperor. They did not participate in the great socially-unifying public festivals. They were not doing their part to uphold the pax deorum — the peace of the gods, that contract between the divine and human that upheld all of Roman society. And, unlike Jews, they were not an ancient group. Indeed, some Christians even saw themselves as a third race!

Setting aside the various charges alleged to have been brought against Christians, charges apologists loved to bring up, all one had to do to be acquitted of the crime of being a Christian was deny Christ burn the incense.

The Two Major Persecutions and the End of Persecution in the Roman Empire


The major persecutions we know about:

  • Decian Persecution (250s)
  • Diocletianic Persecution (303-306)

These persecutions were attempts at systematic, empire-wide persecution. The first resulted, most notably, in the death of Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage. The latter is described in all its gore by Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History.

Many people “lapsed” during both of these — they would either actually burn the required incense, or buy papers claiming that they had, or perhaps surrender the Scriptures to the imperial forces. Some bishops, apparently, handed over their copies of heretical/apocryphal Scriptures instead, knowing the soldiers wouldn’t have a clue. (One wonders about their reading habits and the implications this has for Ante-Nicene Christianity). The “lapsed” are the subject of one of Cyprian’s treatises as well as some of his letters. How to treat them also results in schism in Africa after the end of persecution.

The Diocletianic Persecution was ended by Constantine, who converted to Christianity by 312 and threw in his lot with the Christian god. Persecution still occurred outside the empire, sometimes now because Christians were perceived as being friendly to the enemy Romans! Persecution still continues to this day, as already noted.

Martyr Narratives

Martyr comes from the Greek word martus, which means “witness.” Martyrs, from St Stephen in Acts onward, were regarded as the ultimate witnesses to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Church became the Church of the Martyrs. Their example was remembered and their memory revered. We see this early reverence at the close of the Martyrdom of Polycarp:

Accordingly, we afterwards took up his bones, as being more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and more purified than gold, and deposited them in a fitting place, whither, being gathered together, as opportunity is allowed us, with joy and rejoicing, the Lord shall grant us to celebrate the anniversary (lit. birthday) of his martyrdom, both in memory of those who have already finished their course, and for the exercising and preparation of those yet to walk in their steps.

The day of their martyrdom was their birthday into heaven. These are the earliest beginnings of what would grow into the cultus of the saints.

Part of their commemoration was the writing down of the suffering and death of the witnesses to Christ. These narratives sometimes become stereotyped. It is clear that Polycarp’s, for example, is mirroring both Jesus’ passion and that of St Stephen. Some of them are also complete fabrications, made in Late Antiquity for a variety of reasons. It can be hard, if we are reading these with critical, modern eyes, to sift out the “historical truth” (as the Bollandists have valiantly attempted). This is especially hard if you believe in miracles — which miracles do you believe? How can you tell an act of God from an author’s embellishment?

They can, nevertheless, tell us things about ancient Christianity, though, even if we cannot be sure how much of any single story is precisely true. They show us the ideal that was upheld, even if the stories of the lapsed from the persecutions of Decius and Diocletian tells us that many failed to live up to that ideal. They show us the virtue of fortitude the early Christian communities valued. They show us how they perceived the Roman magistrates who ruled them. They show us how they perceived their great heroes.

The final question I want to address will have to wait. This is the question that we moderns have the hardest time with: Why die for something as intangible as faith in Jesus?

What do you think? Why did the martyrs choose death over recanting their religion?