This week, one of the classes I’m running tutorial seminars for is looking at martyrdom. Amidst the many interesting texts (from A New Eusebius, 2nd ed, 16-17, 20-24) was the account of the martyrs of Lyons and Vienne, in AD 177 (#23). This account was contained in a letter sent to the churches of Asia (Minor) because the ties between the Gallic and Asian churches were strong, many Gallic Christians being in fact from Asia. Their next bishop, St Irenaeus, was himself from Asia.
This particular persecution seems to have broken out as mob violence at first; the Christians were attacked and dragged before the magistrates by their fellowmen. The authorities, now confronted with these Christians, investigated what the charges against them were — beyond the usual ‘Christians are bad as business’, as old as the riots at Ephesus in Acts.
Some of the Christians recanted their faith. Many did not. All of them, ‘apostate’ or not, were tortured and tried for their crimes — including not just being Christians and therefore not burning incense to the genius of the Emperor but also ‘Thyestean banquests and Oedipodean intercourse.’ Freud has made the second reference obvious to us; the former is to cannibalism, specifically of children; in myth, Atreus served up to his brother, Thyestes, the man’s own children. Read the play Thyestes by Seneca for the full horror of what that would entail.
This time, recantation did not help anyone. And some, when being tortured, and seeing how the faithful held up under torture, returned to the Christian faith that they had shunned to avoid a torture that had arrived anyway.
The faithful held up well in prison:
They went forth with joy, great glory and grace blended on their countenances, so that even their chains hung around them like a goodly ornament, as a bride adorned with golden fringes of diverse colours, perfumed the while with the sweet savour of Christ, hence some supposed that they had been anointed with earthly ointment as well. (ch. 35)
According to this account, people were converted to the Way by the bravery of the martyrs in the arena. I am reminded by the famous Tertullian quote:
The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.
For a population fond of Stoicism and its ideals of enduring with dignity any horrors and terrors of this life, the brave face put on by many Christians when faced by beasts — if non-citizens — or the sword — if citizens — would have been appealing. They would have seen that these dying people had found something truly worth living for; these Christians were people who were truly living according to the balance of nature, perhaps!
During this persecution, many members of the church at Lyons were gathered up by the authorities and tortured. 47 or 48 of them were slain for their faith. What makes this account notable for me is that many of them were afraid of torture and and actually cried out in pain — a far cry from Perpetua or Polycarp. Something a bit more human. For did our Lord not also cry out on the Cross?
Another realistic detail is the fact that while Blandina, after being tortured, is put in a basket to be tossed around by a bull. The text says:
For a time the animal tossed her, but she had now lost all perception of what was happening, thanks to the hope she cherished, her grasp of the objects of her faith, and her intercourse with Christ. (ch. 56)
I cannot help think that perhaps she was simply in shock. I know I would have been.
The martyrs were perceived as combatants. These, not monks, are the original milites Christi — soldiers of Christ. They are the brave souls whose faithfulness to and faith in Christ are truly put to the ultimate test. Are you willing to gain the world by renouncing him at the risk of your soul? What matters more — this earthly life or the heavenly life?
These are the questions posed to us by the martyrs. How faithful will we be today in our soft lives of ease?