EXTRACTS FROM LETTER WRITTEN A.D. 177, PRESERVED BY EUSEBIUS (‘ECCLES. HISTORY’, BOOK V, CHAPS. I, II, III AND IV)
THE servants of Christ dwelling at Lyons and Vienne, in Gaul, to those brethren in Asia and Phrygia, having the same faith and hope with us, peace and grace and glory from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.
The greatness, indeed, of the tribulation, and the extent of the madness, exhibited by the heathen against the saints, and the sufferings which the martyrs endured in this country, we are not able fully to declare, nor is it indeed possible to describe them. For the adversary assailed us with his whole strength, giving us already a prelude how unbridled his future movements among us would be. And, indeed, he resorted to every means to accustom and exercise his own servants against those of God, so that we should not only be excluded from houses, and baths, and markets, but everything belonging to us was prohibited from appearing in any place whatever. But the grace of God contended for us, and rescued the weak, and prepared those who like firm pillars, were able, through patience, to sustain the whole weight of the enemy's violence against them. These, coming in close conflict, endured every species of reproach and torture. Esteeming what was deemed great but little, they hastened to Christ, showing in reality ‘hat the sufferings of this time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us.’ And first, they nobly sustained all the evils that were heaped upon them by the populace, clamours and blows, plundering and robberies, stonings and imprisonments, and whatsoever a savage people delighted to inflict upon enemies. After this they were led to the forum, and when interrogated by the tribune and the authorities of the city, in the presence of the multitude, they were shut up in prison until the arrival of the governor. Afterwards they were led away to be judged by him, from whom we endured all manner of cruelty. Vettius Epagathus, one of the brethren who abounded in the fulness of the love of God and man, and whose walk and conversation had been so unexceptionable though he was only young, shared in the same testimony with the elder Zacharias. He had walked, therefore, in all the commandments and righteousness of the Lord blameless, and with alacrity in kind offices to man, abounding in zeal for God, and fervent in spirit. As he was of this high character, he could not bear to see a judgment so unjustly passed against us, but gave vent to his indignation, and requested also that he should be heard in defence of his brethren, whilst he ventured to assert that there was nothing either at variance with religion or piety among us. At this those round the tribunal cried out against him, for he was a man of eminent standing. Nor did the governor allow a request so just and so properly made, but only asked whether he also were a Christian ? He confessed in as clear a voice as possible, and he, too, was transferred to the number of martyrs, being publicly called the advocate of the Christians.
But he had the Paraclete (Advocate) with him, viz., the Spirit, more abundant than Zacharias, which, indeed, he displayed by the fulness of his love; glorying in the defence of his brethren, and to expose his own life for theirs. He was, indeed, a genuine disciple of Christ, following the Lamb whithersoever He would go. After this the others were also set apart, and the first martyrs endured their sufferings with promptness and alacrity, most cheerfully finishing the confession of martyrdom. They appeared, indeed, unprepared and inexperienced, and yet so weak as to be incapable of bearing the intensity of the mighty contest. Of these, indeed, about ten also fell away, causing great sorrow and excessive grief to our brethren, and damping the ardour of those who had not yet been taken. These, however, although they endured all manner of affliction, nevertheless were always present with the martyrs, and never left them. Then, indeed, we were all struck with great fear, on account of the uncertainty of their holding out in the profession, not, indeed, dreading the tortures inflicted, but looking at the end, and trembling lest they should apostatize. Those, indeed, that were worthy to fill up the number of the martyrs were seized from day to day, so that all the zealous members of the two Churches, and those by whose exertions the Church had been there established, were collected. Some domestics that were heathen belonging to our brethren were also seized, as the governor had publicly commanded search to be made for all of us. But these, at the instigation of Satan, fearing the tortures that they saw the saints suffering, and the soldiers besides this urging them, charged us with feasts of Thyestes, and the incests of Oedipus, and such crimes as are neither lawful for us to speak nor to think; and such, indeed, as we do not even believe were committed by men.
These things being spread abroad among the people, all were so savage in their treatment of us, that if before some had restrained themselves on account of some affinity, they now carried their cruelty and rage against us to a great excess. Then was fulfilled the declaration of our Lord ‘that the day would come when every one that slayeth you will think he is doing God a service’.
The holy martyrs, after this, finally endured tortures beyond all description; Satan striving with all his power that some blasphemy might be uttered by them. Most violently did the collective madness of the mob, the governor and the soldiers rage against the holy deacon of Vienna and against Maturus, a new convert, indeed, but a noble champion of the faith. Also against Attalus, a native of Pergamus, who was a pillar and foundation of the Church there. Against Blandina also, in whom Christ made manifest that the things that appear mean and deformed and contemptible among men are esteemed of great glory with God on account of love to Him, which is really and powerfully displayed, and glories not in mere appearance. For whilst we were all trembling and her earthly mistress, who was herself one of the contending martyrs, was apprehensive lest through the weakness of the flesh she should not be able to profess her faith with sufficient freedom. Blandina was filled with such power that her ingenious tormentors, who relieved and succeeded each other from morning till night, confessed that they were overcome and had nothing more that they could inflict upon her. Only amazed that she continued to breathe after the whole body was torn asunder and pierced, they gave their testimony that one single kind of the torture inflicted was of itself sufficient to destroy life without resorting to so many and such excruciating sufferings as these. But, this blessed saint, as a noble wrestler, in the midst of her confession itself renewed her strength, and to repeat ‘I am a Christian, no wickedness is carried on by us’ was to her rest, refreshment and relief from pain. But Sanctus himself, also nobly sustaining beyond all measures and human power the various torments devised by men, whilst the wicked tormentors hoped that by the continuance and the greatness of the tortures they would get to hear something from him that he ought not to say, withstood them with so much firmness that he did not even declare his name, nor that of his nation, nor the city whence he was, nor whether he was a slave or a freeman, but to all the questions that were proposed he answered in the Roman tongue, ‘I am a Christian.’ For this he confessed, instead of his name, his city, his race, and instead of everything. No other expression did the heathen hear from him.
Whence, also, an ambitious struggle in torturing arose between the governor and the tormentors against him, so that when they had nothing further that they could inflict they at last, fastened red-hot plates of brass to the most tender parts of his body. But he continued unsubdued and unshaken, firm in his confession, refreshed and strengthened by the celestial fountain of living water that flows from Christ. But the corpse itself was evidence of his sufferings, as it was one continued wound, mangled and shrivelled, that had entirely lost the form of man to the external eye. Christ suffering in him exhibited wonders, defeating the adversary, and presenting a kind of model to the rest, that there is nothing terrific where the love of the Father, nothing painful where the glory of Christ, prevails. For when the lawless tormentors tortured the martyr again during the day, and supposed that whilst the wounds were swollen and inflamed, if they applied the same torments they would subdue him, as if he would not then be able to bear even the touch of a hand, or else that dying under his tortures he would strike a terror into the rest, not only was there no appearance like this, but, beyond all human expectation, the body raised itself and stood erect amid the torments afterwards inflicted, and recovered the former shape and habit of the limbs, so that his second tortures became, through the grace of Christ, not his torment, but his cure.
But the devil also led forth a certain Biblias to punishment, who was one of those that had renounced the faith, thinking that he had already swallowed her, was anxious to increase her condemnation by blasphemy, and constraining her as a frail and timid character, easily overpowered to utter impieties against us. But in the midst of the torture she repented and recovered herself and, as if waking out of a deep sleep, was reminded by the punishment before her of the eternal punishment in hell. And accordingly she contradicted the blasphemers in her declarations. ‘How’, said she, ‘could such as these devour children who consider it unlawful even to taste the blood of irrational animals?’ After that she professed herself a Christian, and was added to the number of martyrs. But as all the tortures of the tyrants were defeated by Christ, through the patience of the martyrs, the devil devised other machinations; among these were their confinement in prison, in a dark and most dismal place, their feet also stretched in the stocks and extended to the fifth hole, and other torments which the enraged minions of wickedness, especially when stimulated by the influence of Satan, are accustomed to inflict upon the prisoners.
Numbers of them were therefore suffocated in prison, so many, viz., as the Lord would have to depart, thus showing forth His glory. Some of them, indeed, had been cruelly tormented, so that it appeared they could scarcely live, though every means were applied to recover them. Though confined in prison, devoid of all human aid, they were strengthened by the Lord, and filled with power from Him, both in body and mind, and even stimulated and encouraged the rest. But the new converts, and those who were recently taken, whose bodies were not exercised in trial, did not bear the oppression of incarceration, but died within the prison.
But the blessed Pothinus, who had faithfully performed the ministrations of the episcopate at Lyons, and who was past his ninetieth year and very infirm in body, who, indeed, scarcely drew his breath so weak was he in body at the time, yet in the ardour of his soul and his eager desire for martyrdom he roused his remaining strength and was himself also dragged to the tribunal. Though his body, indeed, was already nearly dissolved, partly by age and partly by disease, yet he still retaining his life in him that Christ might triumph by it. When carried by the soldiers to the tribunal, whither the public magistrates accompanied him, as if he were Christ Himself, and when all the mob raised every outcry against him, he gave a noble testimony. When interrogated by the governor who was the God of the Christians? he said, ‘If thou art worthy, thou shalt know.’ After this he was unmercifully dragged away and endured many stripes, whilst those that were near abused him with their hands and feet in every possible way, not even regarding his age. But those at a distance whatsoever they had at hand every one hurled at him, all thinking it would be a great sin and impiety if they fell short of wanton abuse against him. For they supposed they would thus avenge their own gods.
Thus scarcely drawing breath he was thrown into prison, and after two days he there expired. A wonderful interposition of God was then exhibited, and the boundless mercy of Christ clearly displayed a thing that had rarely happened among brethren, but by no means beyond the reach and skill of Christ. For those that had fallen from the faith on the first seizure were also themselves imprisoned, and shared in the sufferings of the rest. Their renunciation did them no good at this time, but those that confessed what they really were, were imprisoned as Christians, no other charge being alleged against them. But these at last were confined as murderers and guilty culprits, and were punished with twice the severity of the rest. The former, indeed, were refreshed by the joy of martyrdom, the hope of the promises, the love of Christ, and the Spirit of the Father; but the latter were sadly tormented by their own conscience. So that the difference was obvious to all, in their very countenances, when they were led forth. For the one went on joyful, much glory and grace being mixed in their faces, so that their bonds seemed to form noble ornaments and, like those of a bride, adorned with various golden bracelets, and impregnated with the sweet odour of Christ, they appeared to some anointed with earthly perfumes. But the others, with downcast look, dejected, sad, and covered with every kind of shame, in addition to this were reproached by the heathen as mean and cowardly, bearing the charge of murderers, and losing the honourable, glorious and life-giving appellations of Christians. The rest, however, seeing these effects, were so much the more confirmed, and those that were taken immediately confessed, not even admitting the thought suggested by diabolical objections.
After these things their martyrdom was finally distributed into various kinds; for, platting and constituting one crown of various colours and all kinds of flowers, they offered it to the Father. It was right, indeed, that these wrestlers, who had sustained a diversified contest, and had come off with a glorious victory, should bear away the great crown of immortality.
Maturus, therefore, and Sanctus, and Blandina and Attalus were led into the amphitheatre to the wild beasts, and to the common spectacle of heathenish inhumanity, the day for exhibiting the fight with wild beasts being designedly published on our account. Maturus, however, and Sanctus again passed through all the tortures in the amphitheatre, just as if they had suffered nothing at all before, or rather as those who in many trials before had defeated the adversary, and now, contending for the crown itself, again as they passed bore the strokes of the scourge, usually inflicted there, the draggings and lacerations from the beasts, and all that the madness of the people, one here and another there, cried for and demanded, and last of all the iron chair, upon which their bodies were roasted, while the fumes of their own flesh ascended to annoy them. The tormentors did not cease even then, but continued to rage so much the more, intending, if possible, to conquer their perseverance. They could not, however, elicit or hear anything from Sanctus besides that confession which he had uttered from the beginning.
These two, therefore, in whom life for the most part had remained through the mighty conflict, were at last despatched. On that day they were made an exhibition to the world, in place of the variety of gladiatorial combats. Blandina, however, was bound and suspended on a stake, and thus exposed as food to the assaults of wild beasts, and as she thus appeared to hang after the manner of the cross, by her earnest prayers she infused much alacrity into the contending martyrs. For as they saw her in the contest with the external eyes, through their sister they contemplated Him that was crucified for them, to persuade those that believe in Him that every one who suffers for Christ will for ever enjoy communion with the living God. But as none of the beasts then touched her, she was taken down from the stake and remanded back again to prison to be reserved for another contest, so that by gaining the victory in many conflicts she might render the condemnation of the wily serpent irrefragable, and though small, weak and contemptible, but yet clothed with the mighty and invincible wrestler Christ Jesus, might also encourage her brethren. Thus she overcame the enemy in many trials, and in the conflict received the crown of immortality.
But Attalus himself, being vehemently demanded by the populace, as he was a distinguished character, came well prepared for the conflict, conscious as he was of no evil done by him, and as one who had been truly exercised in Christian discipline, and had always been a witness of the truth with us. When led about in the theatre with a tablet before him on which was written, in Latin, ‘This is Attalus the Christian’, and the people were violently incensed against him, the governor, learning that he was a Roman, ordered him to be remanded back again to prison with the rest concerning whom he had written to Caesar, and was now awaiting his determination. But he (Attalus) in the meantime was neither idle nor unprofitable to them, but by their patient endurance the immeasurable mercy of Christ was manifested. For by means of those that were yet living were things dead made to live. And the martyrs conferred benefits upon those that were no martyrs (i.e., upon those that had fallen away).
Much joy was also created in the Virgin Mother (the Church), for those whom she had brought forth as dead she recovered again as living. For by means of these the greater part of those that fell away again retraced their steps, were again conceived, were again endued with vital heat, and learned to make the confession of their faith.
And now living again and strengthened in their faith, they approached the tribunal where that God that willeth not the death of a sinner, but inviteth all to repentance, sweetly regarding them, they were again interrogated by the governor. For as Caesar had written that they should be beheaded, but if any renounced the faith these should be dismissed, at the commencement of the fair which is held here, which indeed is attended by an immense concourse of people from all nations, the governor led forth the martyrs, exhibiting them as a show and public spectacle to the crowd. Wherefore he also examined them again, and as many as appeared to have the Roman citizenship, these he beheaded. The rest he sent away to the wild beasts. But Christ was wonderfully glorified in those that had before renounced Him, as they then, contrary to all suspicion on the part of the Gentiles, confessed. And these, indeed, were separately examined, as if they were soon to be dismissed; but as they confessed they were added to the number of the martyrs. Those, however, who had never any traces of the faith, nor any conception of the marriage garment, nor any thought of the fear of God, remained without, who, as the sons of perdition, blasphemed the way by their apostasy.
All the rest, however, were attached to the Church, of whom, when examined, a certain Alexander was found to be one, a Phrygian by birth and physician by profession. Having passed many years in Gaul, and being well known for his love of God, find his freedom in declaring the truth, for he was not destitute of apostolical grace, he stood before the tribunal, and by signs encouraged them to a good confession, appearing to those around the tribunal as one in the pains of childbirth. The mob, however, chagrined that those who had before renounced the faith were again confessing, cried out against Alexander, as if he had been the cause of this. And when the governor urged and asked him who he was, and he replied that he was a Christian, in his rage he condemned him to the wild beasts and, accordingly, on the following day, he entered the arena with Attalus. For the governor, to gratify the people, also gave up Attalus a second time to the beasts. Thus, enduring all the torments that were invented as punishment in the amphitheatre, and after sustaining the arduous conflict, these were likewise finally despatched.
As to Alexander, he neither uttered a groan nor any moaning sound at all, but in his heart communed with God; and Attalus, when placed upon the iron chair, and the fumes from his roasting body arose upon him, said to the multitude in Latin, ‘Lo, this is to devour men what you are doing, but as to us, we neither devour men nor commit any other evil.’ And when asked what was the name of God, he answered God has no name like a man. After all these, on the last of the show of gladiators, Blandina was again brought forth, together with Ponticus, a youth about fifteen years old. These were brought in every day to see the tortures of the rest. Force was also used to make them swear by their idols; and when they continued firm, and denied their pretended divinity, the multitude became outrageous at them, so that they neither compassionated the youth of the boy nor regarded the sex of the woman. Hence they subjected them to every horrible suffering, and led them through the whole round of torture, ever and anon striving to force them to swear, but were unable to effect it. Ponticus, indeed, encouraged by his sister, so that the heathen could see that she was encouraging and confirming him, nobly bore the whole of these sufferings, and gave up his life. But the blessed Blandina, last of all, as a noble mother that had animated her children and sent them as victors to the great King, herself retracing the ground of all the conflicts her children had endured, hastened at last, with joy and exultation at the issue, to them as if she were invited to a marriage feast, and not to be cast to wild beasts. And thus, after scourging, after exposure to the beasts, after roasting, she was finally thrown into a net and cast before a bull, and when she had been well tossed by the animal and had now no longer any sense of what was done to her by reason of her firm hope, confidence, faith and her communion with Christ, she, too, was despatched.
Even the Gentiles confessed that no woman among them had ever endured sufferings as many and great as these. But not even then was their madness and cruelty to the saints satisfied, for these fierce and barbarous tribes, stimulated by the savage beast Satan, were in a fury not easily to be assuaged, so that their abuse of the bodies assumed another novel and singular aspect. Not abashed when overcome by the martyrs, but evidently destitute of all reason, the madness both of the governor and the people, as of some savage beast, blazed forth so much the more to exhibit the same unjust hostility against us; that the Scriptures might be fulfilled, ‘He that is unjust, let him be unjust still, and he that is righteous, let him be righteous still’ (Rev. 22 :11). For those that were suffocating in the prison they cast to the dogs, carefully watching them night and day lest any should be buried by us, and then also cast away the remains left by the beasts and the fire, howsoever they had either been mangled or burnt. They also guarded the heads of the others, together with the trunks of their bodies, with military watches, for many days in succession, in order to prevent them from being buried. Some, indeed, raged and gnashed their teeth against them, anxious to find out some better way of punishment. Others, again, laughed at and insulted them, extolling their idols, and imputing to them the punishment of the martyrs. But others, more moderate, and who in some measure appeared to sympathize, frequently upbraided them, saying, ‘Where is their God, and what benefit has their religion been to them, which they preferred to their own life?’
Such was the variety of disposition among the Gentiles, but among our brethren matters were in great affliction for want of liberty to commit the bodies to the earth. For neither did the night avail us for this purpose, nor had money any effect to persuade, nor could any prayers or entreaties move them. But they guarded them in every possible way, as if it were a great gain to prevent them from burial.
The bodies of the martyrs, after being abused in every possible manner, and thus exposed to the open air for six days, were at length burned and reduced to ashes by the wretches, and finally cast into the Rhone, that flows near at hand, that there might not be a vestige of them returning on the land. These things they did as if they were able to overcome God and destroy their resurrection.
As they themselves gave out, ‘that they might not have any hope of rising again, in the belief of which they have introduced a new and strange religion, and contemn the most dreadful punishments, and are prepared to meet death even with joy. Now we shall see whether they will rise again, and whether their God is able to help them and rescue them out of our hands.’
(Such were the occurrences that befell the Church of Christ, under the above-mentioned Emperor, from which it is easy to conjecture what was the probable course of things in the remaining provinces. It may be well here to add to these accounts other extracts from the same epistle, in which the moderation and benevolence of these martyrs whom we have mentioned is recorded in the following words):
They were also so zealous in their imitation of Christ, who, though in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God, that though they were esteemed in the same light, and had neither once nor twice but frequently endured martyrdom, and had been again taken away from the beasts to prison, and had brands and scars and wounds spread over them, they did not proclaim themselves martyrs, for it did not become us to apply this name to them; but if any one of us either by letter or in conversation called them martyrs they seriously reproved us. For they cheerfully yielded the title of martyr to Christ, the true and faithful Martyr (witness), the First-begotten from the dead, the Prince of Divine life. They also made mention of those martyrs that had already departed and said, ‘They are now martyrs whom Christ has thought worthy to be received in their confession, setting the seal to their martyrdom (testimony) by the issue. But we are but indifferent and mean confessors’, and with tears did they entreat the brethren that they should offer up incessant prayers, that they might be made perfect. They exhibited, indeed, the power of martyrdom in fact, exercising much freedom in declaring themselves to all people, and manifesting their noble patience and fearless intrepidity; but the name of martyrs (witnesses) they declined receiving from the brethren, filled as they were with the fear of God ….
They humbled themselves under the mighty hand by which they were now highly exalted. Then, however, they pleaded for all, they accused none, they absolved all, they bound none, and prayed for those that were so bitter in their hostility, like Stephen that perfect martyr, ‘Lord, impute not this sin to them’; but if he prayed for those that stoned him, how much more for the brethren! ….
This was their greatest conflict against him (the devil) on account of the genuine character of their love, that the beast being choked and throttled might be forced to return alive again (to vomit up) those whom he had already thought to have swallowed. For they did not arrogate any superiority over the backsliders; but in those things wherein they themselves abounded, in this they supplied those that were deficient, exercising the compassion of mothers and pouring forth many prayers to the Father on their account. They implored life and He gave it to them, which they also shared with their neighbours; coming off victorious over all, to God; always lovers of peace, they always recommended peace, and with peace they departed to God. Not leaving grief to their mother (the Church), no discord or dissensions to the brethren, but joy and peace, unanimity and love. This account may be profitably added, respecting the love of those blessed brethren towards those that fell away, on account of those also who, after these events, unsparingly exercised an inhuman and merciless disposition towards the members of Christ.
(The same epistle of the above-mentioned martyrs also contains another account worthy of record, which no one could regret to be presented to the knowledge of our readers. It is as follows):
'A certain Alcibiades, who was one of these (martyrs), and who had led a hard and rough kind of life, partook of no food usually eaten, but merely bread and water. When cast into prison, and he attempted to lead the same kind of life, it was revealed to Attalus after the first conflict which he finished in the amphitheatre that Alcibiades did not do well in not making use of the creatures of God, and affording an example of offence to others. Alcibiades, therefore, in obedience to this, partook of all kinds of food, and gave thanks to God; for neither were they destitute of Divine grace, but the Divine Spirit was their counsellor.’
But let this suffice concerning these. Now as Montauris and Alcibiades and Theodotus in Phrygia, then first began to be esteemed by many of their gifts (as there were many other wonderful powers of Divine grace yet exhibited even at that time in different Churches), they created the belief with many that they also were endued with prophecy. And as there was a discussion in consequence of these men, the brethren in Gaul again presented their own pious and correct judgment also concerning these, and published several letters of the martyrs that had been put to death among them. These they had written whilst yet in prison, and addressed to the brethren in Asia and Phrygia. And not only to these, but likewise to Eleutherus, who was then bishop of Rome, negotiating, as it were, for the peace of the Churches. But these same martyrs recommending also Irenaeus, who was then a presbyter of the Church at Lyons, to the bishop of Rome before mentioned, bear abundant testimony in his favour, as the following extracts show:
'We pray and desire, Father Eleutherus, that you may rejoice in God in all things and always. We have requested our brother and companion, Irenaeus, to carry this epistle to you, and we exhort you to consider him as commended to you as a zealous follower of the testament (covenant) of Christ. For if we knew that any place could confer righteousness upon any one, we would certainly commend him among the first as a presbyter of the Church, the station that he holds.’
Why should we here transcribe the list of those martyrs given in the above-mentioned epistles, of whom some were made perfect by decapitation, some cast to be devoured by wild beasts, and others again fell asleep in prison? Why repeat the number of confessors still living? For whoever wishes to learn these can more easily obtain the fullest account by consulting the epistle itself, which, as I said, has been inserted by us in our collection of martyrs. But such were the events that happened under Antonine.