Join a world-wide community in reading the church fathers daily.

Tag: persecution

Peter of Alexandria (and Balsamon and Zonaras)

Peter of Alexandria

We are now on our second of three days reading Peter of Alexandria. Peter of Alexandria was was Bishop of Alexandria from 300 to 311; his episcopate thus covered the Diocletianic Persecution, also called the Great Persecution — that last, great persecution of Christians by the Roman imperial powers that would leave an indelible mark upon the church’s identity and self-image ever after.

Eusebius, in Book 8.10 of the Ecclesiastical History, gives a description of the persecution in Alexandria from an eyewitness named Phileas:

And the spectacle of the outrages was varied and exhibited great malignity. For some, with their hands bound behind them, were suspended on the stocks, and every member stretched by certain machines. Then the torturers, as commanded, lacerated with instruments2542 their entire bodies; not only their sides, as in the case of murderers, but also their stomachs and knees and cheeks. Others were raised aloft, suspended from the porch by one hand, and endured the most terrible suffering of all, through the distension of their joints and limbs. Others were bound face to face to pillars, not resting on their feet, but with the weight of their bodies bearing on their bonds and drawing them tightly.

6. And they endured this, not merely as long as the governor talked with them or was at leisure, but through almost the entire day. For when he passed on to others, he left officers under his authority to watch the first, and observe if any of them, overcome by the tortures, appeared to yield. And he commanded to cast them into chains without mercy, and afterwards when they were at the last gasp to throw them to the ground and drag them away.

7. For he said that they were not to have the least concern for us, but were to think and act as if we no longer existed, our enemies having invented this second mode of torture in addition to the stripes.

8. “Some, also, after these outrages, were placed on the stocks, and had both their feet stretched over the four2543 holes, so that they were compelled to lie on their backs on the stocks, being unable to keep themselves up on account of the fresh wounds with which their entire bodies were covered as a result of the scourging. Others were thrown on the ground and lay there under the accumulated infliction of tortures, exhibiting to the spectators a more terrible manifestation of severity, as they bore on their bodies the marks of the various and diverse punishments which had been invented.

9. As this went on, some died under the tortures, shaming the adversary by their constancy. Others half dead were shut up in prison, and suffering with their agonies, they died in a few days; but the rest, recovering under the care which they received, gained confidence by time and their long detention in prison.

10. When therefore they were ordered to choose whether they would be released from molestation by touching the polluted sacrifice, and would receive from them the accursed freedom, or refusing to sacrifice, should be condemned to death, they did not hesitate, but went to death cheerfully. For they knew what had been declared before by the Sacred Scriptures. For it is said,2544 ‘He that sacrificeth to other gods shall be utterly destroyed,’2545 and, ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before me.’

However, as we see in the readings from Peter, not everyone withstood persecution so well. These people are the lapsed, much discussed several decades earlier in St Cyprian of Carthage’s works. Peter’s discipline for the lapsed in his Canons represents the standard line of what would be the mainstream tradition, that different offenders or kinds of lapse require different severities or lengths of penance and excommunication before restoration to fellowship, and clerics who lapse are to be cut off from ministry ever after.

Theodore Balsamon

Along with the canons of Peter, we find commentary by Balsamon and Zonaras. Theodore Balsamon (c. 1130 to after 1195) was Patriarch of Antioch (although he stayed in Constantinople), hegoumenos of Blachernai and the monastery called to Zipon, and a major canonist; that is, he compiled documents pertinent to canon law and commented on them, particularly those of the Nomokanon in Fourteen Titles which is the main source of Byzantine canon law, including many texts otherwise now lost and seeking to revise statements that were contradictory or obsolete. Interestingly, this is the same period as Gratian in the West and some of the major Latin canonists, as well.


Zonaras (d. after 1159) was a historian, theologian, canonist, and court official under Emperor Alexius I (1048-1118). After the death of Alexius, Zonaras left the civil service and became a monk at the monastery of St Glykeria. Besides writing commentaries on a number of sources for canon law, he also wrote an Epitome Historion, running from creation to death of Alexius in 1118. His perspective on running the empire was based on the Roman ideal of bureaucracy and officialdom, thus of meritocracy, over against the more feudal or “seigneurial” style of Alexius.

It’s never too late to join (and now’s a good time)

An icon of the first Council of Nicaea

After an unexpected hiatus, due largely to me moving across Ontario and starting a new job, Read the Fathers is back! We are picking up where we should be in the round of readings. I will continue striving to keep the Daily Readings posts current, and another volunteer is working at getting the calendar out as well.

This is a good starting point for a few reasons:

First, the next several days are short readings from texts that take only one or two days to read. We’re not re-starting in the middle of Lactantius’ Divine Institutes or something like that.

Second, the texts we’re about to encounter are of major significance for the unfolding of ancient ecclesiastical history and the history of dogma to this day — on Thursday, February 25, we read the first of the letters of Alexander of Alexandria about Arius. We are on the way to Nicaea (the title of a book by Fr John Behr probably worth reading just now!).

Third, before we hit Alexander, we also encounter matters to do with the lapsi in the work of one of his predecessors, Peter. The lapsi were the lapsed, those who gave in during persecution, and how exactly to treat them was already tearing the church asunder in the third century; things would only get worse in the fourth.

Fourth, it’s the First Sunday of Lent today by the western liturgical calendar. It seems that Reading the Fathers is an appropriate Lenten discipline! Unfortunately, East and West are pretty far apart for Easter this year, so Orthodox Lent does not begin until March 15. Still, if you’re Orthodox, it’s always a good time to read the Fathers!

Let’s get this rolling again!


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?

© 2022 Read the Fathers

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑