PERSECUTION of the early Christians was preordained by some of the most prominent and essential qualities of human nature. Every new habit of thought is at first looked upon with dislike. Political and religious innovations are especially regarded with disfavor, because their promulgation necessarily involves the disadvantage of official adherents of prevailing systems, as well as the causing of that most disagreeable form of mental irritation which follows upon the breaking in upon the inertia of long-established prejudices.
Christianity was calculated to arouse determined opposition both from the political and also the religious forces of the empire. It was looked upon as a menace to the state and a dishonor to the gods. Rome was extremely tolerant of new religions, and its policy was to allow the people of its widely diversified conquests to retain their traditional forms and objects of worship; but the Roman deities must not know disrespect, and the most fair-minded emperors could comprehend no reason, except a treasonable one, why subjects should scruple to render obedience to the statutes commanding that divine honors should be paid to their imperial selves. But the very genius of Christianity necessitated absolute intolerance of other religious cults. The worshippers of Cybele or Isis had not the least objection to paying their devotions to Vesta on the way to their own favorite temple; the women who besought Mars for the victory of their husbands, absent with the legions, freely offered incense before the statue of the emperor who sent forth those legions; but, for the Christians, to give Christ a place among the national deities was to do Him the greatest dishonor and to commit mortal sin, and to burn a handful of incense before the statue of the emperor was wicked idolatry and entailed the forfeiture of eternal salvation. Their missionary zeal compelled them to manifest the contempt in which they held the pagan gods, and thus the Christians laid themselves open to the charge of atheism as well as to that of treason. As Gibbon says: |By embracing the faith of the Gospel the Christians incurred the supposed guilt of an unnatural and unpardonable offence. They dissolved the sacred ties of custom and education, violated the religious institutions of their country, and presumptuously despised whatever their fathers had believed as true, or had reverenced as sacred.| And inasmuch as the religion of the state was a part of the constitution of the state, their resolute rejection of it marked them, in the eyes of the rulers, as enemies of the state.
As the history of martyrdom is in almost every instance written by the friends of the sufferers, the motive of the persecutors is usually represented as wanton cruelty, while in fact it frequently was the case that the civil magistrate honestly deemed himself to be carrying out necessary precautions for the welfare of society. This assertion, which tends to the defence of the credit of human nature, can confidently be made in regard to most cases of official persecution. |Revere the gods in everyway according to ancestral laws,| said Maecenas to Augustus, |and compel others so to revere them. Those, however, who introduce anything foreign in this respect, hate and punish, not only for the sake of the gods, -- want of reverence toward whom argues want of reverence toward everything else, -- but because such, in that they introduce new divinities, mislead many also to adopt foreign laws. Thence come conspiracies and secret leagues which are in the highest degree opposed to monarchy.| Julius Paulus laid down as a fundamental principle in Roman law: |Such as introduce new religions, whose bearing and nature are not understood, by which the minds of men are disquieted, should, if they are of the higher ranks, be transported; if of the lower, be punished with death.| To a Roman the state was everything; individual liberty could only run in such courses as were parallel with the policy of the state. Those who retained a sincere belief in the ancient deities worshipped them as the patrons and guardians of the imperial destinies; the philosophical sceptics were no less inclined to insist upon that worship as a thing of political necessity, a means of binding the unintelligent in loyalty to the government.
In view of this, it is not to be wondered at that the contemptuous attitude which the Christians manifested to the ancient religions seemed to some of the wisest Romans to be nothing other than a stubborn fanaticism, concealing a hateful antagonism to society. Their meetings, which persecution necessarily made secret, were believed to be treasonable; their resolute isolation from the common amusements, which were deeply tainted with vice, caused them to be stigmatized as haters of mankind; the mystery which surrounded their worship provided a ready acceptance for the popular slander that in their secret gatherings the worst atrocities were perpetrated. To such men as Trajan and Marcus Aurelius, all this seemed a spreading evil to be determinedly stamped out.
On the other hand, it is true that the persecution of the Christians was taken advantage of to minister to the lust for spectacles of blood and agony which degraded the ancient world. There were the lions waiting; there were Christians who deserved death: why waste so good an opportunity to make a characteristic |Roman holiday.|
We are appalled at the remembrance of civilized savagery which could delight in the sight of helpless women and tender maidens torn by beasts or writhing in the fire; and yet, almost equal cruelty, though not perpetrated in the same spirit, has been witnessed at so recent a date, and at the hands of |Christians,| that we can hardly with a good grace reproach paganism for its atrocities of this kind. The potential |devilishness| which is in human nature is surely one of its prime mysteries.
In the literature of Christian martyrdom it is frequently assumed that there were ten general persecutions; but, as Mosheim says, this number is not verified by the ancient history of the Church. For if, by these persecutions, such only are meant as were singularly severe and universal throughout the Empire, then it is certain that these amount not to the number above mentioned. And if we take the provincial and less remarkable persecutions into the account, they far exceed it. The idea that the Church was to suffer ten great calamities arose from an interpretation of certain passages of Scripture, particularly one in Revelations.
In these days of gentler manners and easier faith, we are hardly more amazed at the cruelties which were enacted to abolish Christianity than we are astonished at the fortitude with which its adherents endured them. Never did punishment so signally fail as a deterrent. The Church grew most rapidly when to be a Christian almost certainly ensured martyrdom. It is a marvellous history, that of the three hundred years of struggle between Christianity and paganism, in which all earthly considerations were abandoned for a conception of morality and for a faith in the existence of a life beyond the grave. The same spirit has always characterized Christianity, but never with such enduring persistence or with such success as in the early days.
In the records of this struggle it is abundantly shown that women were not spared, nor did they bear their part with less honor or courage than the men. It was in the Church as it has been in all history: while the government and the superior fame are awarded to one sex, equality in the opportunity and in the endurance of suffering are not denied to the other. The weaker sex has never been inferior in the ability to bear pain, or in the courage to go cheerfully to a martyr's death. It was no more common for women under the stress of torture to relinquish their faithfulness than for men. In the enthusiasm born of their hope in the Gospel, it was as much the wont of young virgins to meet the lion's eye without flinching as it was that of wise and venerable bishops.
The first principal persecution took place under Nero. There is no sign of any general edict by him against the Christians; so it is probable that the severities in this reign were confined to Rome. It is even doubtful if Nero cherished any purpose of suppressing Christianity. He found the Christians the most convenient victims for a charge of burning the city; so he satisfied the people by affixing the guilt to these hated sectaries, and at the same time amused the idle Roman populace by an unusual exhibition.
There is no mention of the names of those who suffered under the imperial actor; but there is no doubt there were many women in the number. Doubtless, some of those women to whom Paul sent greeting and gave other mention in his Epistle suffered at this time. Though their names are not recorded in the chronicles of martyrdom, the blood of many of the Apostle's feminine friends at Rome helped to cement the foundation of the Church. Of all the tragedies witnessed by the City of the Seven Hills, in which women had taken a part, none was so significant as this. The wives and daughters of kings, consuls, and emperors had met death in the pursuit of ambitious projects. To them the fatal violence of tyrants meant hopeless failure; to these Christian women, who belonged to the lowest walks of society, it meant glorious success. When those died, their ambitions ended; when these perished, the faith which they so bravely confessed was only made stronger by their sufferings.
It is not unlikely that Poppaea, the wife of Nero, may have played an important part in this persecution. The Christians encountered as bitter opposition from the Jews as from the heathen. The fellow countrymen of Paul frequently succeeded in stirring up the animosity of the rulers against him and the other teachers of the new religion. While, as a rule, they themselves were extremely obnoxious to the Romans, it happened that at this time they had a powerful friend in the wife of the tyrant. Josephus relates how Poppaea befriended him, and he is enthusiastic in his praise of her |religious nature.| So it may very likely have been -- as the gifted author of Quo Vadis? describes -- that the accusation of firing the city was fastened upon the Christians by the instrumentality of the Jews, and that Nero found a readier access to this welcome expedient through the counsel of Poppaea.
No description could be more vivid, or more trustworthy, -- seeing that his prejudice is entirely against the Christians, -- than that given by Tacitus of the cruelties perpetrated by Nero upon the followers of Christ. |He inflicted the most exquisite tortures on those men (we know from other evidence that there was no discrimination in regard to sex in these sufferings) who, under the vulgar appellation of Christians, were already branded with deserved infamy. They derived their name and origin from Christ, who in the reign of Tiberius had suffered death by the sentence of Pontius Pilate. For a while this dire superstition was checked; but it again burst forth; and not only spread itself over Judaea, the first seat of this mischievous sect, but was even introduced into Rome, the common asylum which receives and protects whatever is impure, whatever is atrocious. The confessions of those who were seized discovered a great multitude of their accomplices, and they were all convicted, not so much for the crime of setting fire to the city as for their hatred of human kind. They died in torments, and their torments were embittered by insult and derision. Some were nailed on crosses; others sewn up in skins of wild beasts, and exposed to the fury of dogs; others again, smeared over with combustible materials, were used as torches to illuminate the darkness of the night. The gardens of Nero were destined for the melancholy spectacle, which was accompanied with a horse-race, and honored with the presence of the emperor, who mingled with the populace in the dress and attitude of a charioteer. The guilt of the Christians deserved indeed the most exemplary punishment, but the public abhorrence was changed into commiseration, from the opinion that those unhappy wretches were sacrificed, not so much to the public welfare as to the cruelty of a jealous tyrant.| Gibbon, commenting on this passage, adds the reflection that in the strange revolutions of history those same gardens of Nero have become the site of the triumph and abuse of the persecuted religion. Where the first Roman followers of the Galilean Carpenter suffered for their confession, the successors of Peter exert a world-embracing hierarchical sway and a power far surpassing that of the greatest emperor.
No nation besides Rome ever systematically turned the torture of criminals into a popular pastime; but there the people had become so accustomed to the butchery of human beings in the public games that nothing was so welcome as a new device for heightening the effect of agonized death throes, except a large supply of judicially condemned men and women on whom to prove it. Nero had good reason to be well assured that he would not incur the displeasure of the people by condemning the Christians to the circus and the amphitheatre.
They were arrested in great numbers and crowded into a prison the loathsomeness of which was itself a horrible torture. A holiday was appointed so that the whole populace might be regaled by the sufferings of these men and women. The orgy of cruelty which ensued seems beyond the power of human nature to witness, much less to inflict. It is with great reason that the early Christians looked upon Nero as the Antichrist, the one representing in his nature the infinity of opposition to the Saviour. From none of those horrors were women exempt. Like the men they were crucified; they were covered with the skins of wild beasts and mangled by dogs; and, their garments being dipped in pitch, they were converted into living torches to light the gardens at night. Clement of Rome also tells us that many Christian women were made to play the part of the Danaids and of Dirce. It was the custom to give realistic representation to mythological subjects by compelling criminals to take the part of the victim of the tragedy. Consequently, the women who represented Dirce were tied to the horns of a wild bull and dragged about the arena until they were dead. The well-known piece of ancient sculpture known as the Farnese Bull is the original tragedy pictured in stone. An inscription in Pompeii indicates that this exhibition was a common sight in the arena, women who were condemned being frequently put to death in this manner. No point likely to add to the effect of the scene was sacrificed to decency. The shame at being exposed naked, which would humiliate a Christian maiden even at the moment of impending death, simply afforded an element of jocularity to the tragedy in the eyes of that barbarous Roman multitude.
Doubtless the imperial author of these scenes took more pleasure in them than did any of his subjects. Renan thus pictures him: |As he was nearsighted, he used to put to his eye on such occasions a concave lens of 'emerald,' which served him as an eyeglass. He liked to exhibit his connoisseurship in matters of sculpture; it is said that he made brutal remarks on his mother's dead body, praising this point and criticising that. Living flesh quivering in a wild beast's jaw, or a poor shrinking girl, screening herself by a modest gesture, then tossed by a bull and cast in lifeless fragments on the gravel of the arena, must exhibit a play of form and color worthy of an artist-sense like his. Here he was, in the front row, on a low balcony, in a group of vestals and curule magistrates, -- with his ill-favored countenance, his short sight, his blue eyes, his curled light-brown hair, his cruel mouth, his air like a big silly baby, at once cross and dull, open-mouthed, swollen with vanity, while brazen music throbbed in the air, turned to a bloody mist. He would, no doubt, inspect with a critic's eye the shrinking attitudes of these new Dirces; and I imagine he found a charm he had never known before in the air of resignation with which these pure-hearted girls faced their hideous death.|
Were these poor women, as they awaited in prison their doom, comforted and encouraged by the presence of the Apostle charged to |feed my lambs|? We do not know. But the firmness and constancy with which they endured trials so horrible even unto death bespeak the marvellous effect of the early enthusiasm of the Christian faith. These women were in the vanguard of the Christian army which first met the deadly force of heathen opposition; and because they did not flinch, but bore the pains of martyrdom for their faith, that faith ultimately triumphed and filled the world with its light. For more than two hundred years, however, the women who embraced this faith were to live in the daily dread of the terrible cry: |The Christians to the lions.|
After the death of Nero, for a time the Church was, comparatively speaking, unmolested; though as Christianity was increasing in strength, it was regarded with greater hatred on the part of the general populace. Ugly stories began to be set afloat referring to the practices of this new sect. Later on it came to be believed that its adherents were in the habit of feasting, in their secret gatherings, on the body of a newborn child. This feast was said to be followed by an entertainment in which men and women abandoned themselves to the most abominable and promiscuous licentiousness. These charges, absurd as they were, served to obliterate any ray of pity which otherwise might have visited the minds of their persecutors.
In the year 81, Domitian, whom Tertullian describes as |of Nero's type in cruelty,| succeeded Titus on the imperial throne. Influenced by his suspicion of all organizations, and also by the refusal of the Jewish people to pay the capitation tax which was designed to provide for the finishing of the Capitol, he instituted a persecution of the Jews, which, for want of better knowledge on the part of the Romans, could not fail to involve the Christians. His own niece, Domitilla, who had been married to his cousin Flavius Clemens, was an avowed Christian, though up to this time the faith had made few converts among the high and mighty. Domitian banished her to the Island of Pandataria, and put to death her husband, probably on the same charge. They were accused rather vaguely of atheism and Jewish manners; but it seems probable that the Church has made no mistake in placing them among her first sufferers. This persecution by Domitian is counted as the second in the list of ten; but, though many besides Domitilla were put to death, it hardly seems possible that the persecution could have become very general, for only a few months after it began Domitian was assassinated by a freedman belonging to Domitilla, who, as Gibbon remarks, surely had not embraced the faith of his mistress.
The reign of the Emperor Trajan was, in many respects, marked by the greatest prosperity and the best administration that Rome ever enjoyed; but his strict government and close supervision, combined with his loyalty to the ancient traditions, made that reign an era of severity for the Christians. Pliny was governor of Bithynia and Pontus, and thence he wrote to the emperor informing him that the Christians were gaining headway everywhere, so much so that the temples of the gods were being forsaken by the people of all classes. He desired advice as to how he should proceed. By the application of torture to two maidservants who held the office of deaconesses in the local church he had elicited the information -- for the learning of which, doubtless, torture was entirely unnecessary -- that |the whole sum of their error consisted in this, that they were wont, at certain times appointed, to meet before day, and to sing hymns to one Christ their God. They also agreed among themselves to abstain from all theft, murder, and adultery; to keep their faith, and to defraud no man: which done, they departed for that time, and afterwards resorted again to take a meal in companies together, both men and women, and yet without any act of evil.|
To this Trajan replied that the Christians should not be sought after, nor should anonymous accusations be received; but when they were brought before the magistrate they should be punished. A most inconsistent decision; for, as Tertullian pointed out, if they deserved to be punished when caught, they ought also to be sought after as guilty.
In the legends of the martyrs there is an account of a widow named Symphrosa who, with her seven sons, suffered death by the command of Trajan. They refused to sacrifice to the gods at his behest. First, the mother was tortured by being hung up for some time in the temple of Hercules by the hair of the head, and then drowned; afterward, her sons were by various means tortured and put to death.
We now come to the time of the philosophic emperor, Marcus Aurelius. During the reign of his predecessor, Antoninus Pius, the Christians were generally left to practise and propagate their religion in peace. Consequently, the Gospel made rapid inroads upon paganism; so much so that the latter was stirred to a more bitter opposition than had ever before been instituted. At the first glance it appears a difficult problem in moral philosophy to explain how so wise and righteous a ruler as Marcus Aurelius could bring himself to persecute so cruelly an inoffensive people like the Christians. But in the first place it must be remembered that ecclesiastic history of that time, as we have it, is very uncertain; in fact, it is greatly distorted and exaggerated. There are good reasons for believing that what is called a general persecution was confined largely to the one province of Gaul. Then it is very likely that the emperor knew but little of the character of the Christians or of the nature of their doctrines; that he held an unfavorable opinion of them is shown by his own words. It also seems to be the fact that he issued no new edict against them; but the rescript of Trajan was still in force, which was to the effect that Christians, when accused in legal form, and failing to recant, should be punished. Marcus Aurelius simply allowed this rule to be enforced by the magistrates. He saw in the Christians only stubborn recalcitrants against the established government. Whatever may have been the amount of the emperor's direct responsibility in the matter, during his reign the flame of persecution again burst out; and among many others, some women won lasting fame by the glorious constancy and courage of their martyrdom.
One of the most illustrious was Felicitas, a Roman lady of good family and the mother of seven sons. It was the policy of the magistrates not to punish unnecessarily, but to endeavor to win those who were accused to an acknowledged abandonment of their faith. In this case the judge deemed it the more efficacious method to proceed against the mother first, in the hope that in winning her to change her religion, he would have less trouble with her sons; but neither promises of freedom nor threats of total destruction of herself and her family could prevail. Then he caused each son to be brought before him separately, and endeavored both by menaces and persuasion to turn them from their allegiance. Felicitas, however, had too thoroughly instilled into her sons' minds the principles upon which her own faith and courage were founded; they were unanimous in their steadfastness. The consequence was that the mother was doomed to see her offspring executed one by one; and at last, her resolution being invincible even before this terrible trial, Felicitas herself was beheaded.
The brunt of the persecution which took place in the reign of Marcus Aurelius was borne by the Christians of Gaul, particularly those of Lyons and Vienne. We possess a good description of these sufferings in a letter which has been preserved by Eusebius, and which was sent by the survivors of these devoted churches to their brethren in the other parts of the empire. |The greatness of the tribulation in this region,| says the epistle, |and the fury of the heathen against the saints, and the sufferings of the blessed witnesses, we cannot recount accurately, nor indeed could they possibly be recorded. For with all his might the adversary fell upon us, giving us a foretaste of his unbridled activity at his future coming. He endeavored in every way to practise and exercise his servants against the servants of God, not only shutting us out from houses and baths and markets, but forbidding any of us to be seen in any place whatever. But the grace of God led the conflict against him, and delivered the weak, and set them as firm pillars, able through patience to endure all the wrath of the Evil One.|
The letter goes on to relate how the heathen servants of many of the Christians were arrested, and, through fear of suffering the same dreadful tortures which they saw visited upon the believers, testified falsely that the Christians were wont to indulge in the most atrocious practices. This was believed by the common people, with the result that all pity was extirpated from their breasts, and they hunted the Christians with a rage which could only be likened to that of wild beasts.
One of the most renowned of the sufferers on this occasion was the slave Blandina, |through whom Christ showed that things which appear mean and obscure and despicable to men are with God of great glory.... For while we all trembled, and her earthly mistress, who was herself also one of the witnesses, feared that on account of the weakness of her body she would be unable to make a bold confession, Blandina was filled with such power as to be delivered and raised above those who were torturing her by turns from morning until evening in every manner, so that they acknowledged that they were conquered, and could do nothing more to her. And they were astonished at her endurance, as her entire body was mangled and broken; and they testified that one of these forms of torture was sufficient to destroy life, not to speak of so many and so great sufferings. But the blessed woman, like a noble athlete, renewed her strength in her confession; and her comfort and recreation and relief from the pain of her sufferings was in exclaiming, 'I am a Christian, and there is nothing vile done by us.'|
All this torture seems to have taken place in the examination of Blandina before the tribunal; for we read how, later, she with others was taken to the amphitheatre to be exposed to the wild beasts, a spectacle having been arranged in order that the people might be regaled with the sight of the Christians' sufferings. At this exhibition the people themselves decided as to what forms of cruelties the victims should endure, shouting out their demands for the fiery stake or the beasts, as their horrible fancies dictated.
Blandina was suspended on a cross, and there left to the mercy of any of the numerous wild beasts prowling around the arena that might choose to attack her. But on this occasion she was left unmolested; and the sight of her, hanging from the stake and thus reminding them of the Master they served, as well as the prayers she continually offered, so heartened her comrades that they were the better enabled to meet their death with a good courage.
The memory of Blandina has justly been preserved through all these centuries as one of the bravest and best in the noble |army of martyrs.| No doctor of theology ever bore more effective testimony to the faith; no Christian soldier ever contended more earnestly for the cause; no philosopher ever advanced a stronger argument in evidence of the truth of religion than this poor slave woman who thus suffered in the bloody arena where Christianity fought and conquered seventeen centuries ago. Women were not allowed by the law of the Church to teach in the assembly; but Blandina, from her rostrum of pain which was set up in the amphitheatre at Lyons, by her faith which could enable her to forget her own misery in the desire to cheer other sufferers, preached such a sermon as sentences of polished eloquence can never emulate.
We cannot better finish our account of this great martyr than by quoting the description of her end as it is given in the letter mentioned above. |On the last day of the contests, Blandina was again brought in, with Ponticus, a boy about fifteen years old. They had been brought every day to witness the sufferings of the others, and had been pressed to swear by the idols. But because they remained steadfast and despised them, the multitude became furious, so that they had no compassion for the youth of the boy nor respect for the sex of the woman. Therefore, they exposed them to all the terrible sufferings and took them through the entire round of torture, repeatedly urging them to swear, but being unable to effect this; for Ponticus, encouraged by his sister so that even the heathen could see that she was confirming and strengthening him, having nobly endured every torture, gave up the ghost. But the blessed Blandina, last of all, having, as a noble mother, encouraged her children and sent them before her victorious to the King, endured herself all their conflicts and hastened after them, glad and rejoicing in her departure as if called to a marriage supper; rather than cast to wild beasts. And, after the scourging, after the wild beasts, after the roasting seat, she was finally enclosed in a net, and thrown before a bull. And after being tossed about by the animal, but feeling none of the things which were happening to her, on account of her hope and firm hold upon that which had been entrusted to her, and her communion with Christ, she also was sacrificed. And the heathen themselves confessed that never among them had a woman endured so many and such terrible tortures.|
The horrible circumstances attending the persecution at Lyons seem to have been largely instigated by the fury of the ungovernable mob; there are indications that the trial of Christians was oftentimes carried on in strict conformity with legal measures, and also with some show of pity on the part of the judges. The punishments in cases like these were no less severe; but there is some, comfort in thinking, inasmuch as the persecutors were members of the human race like ourselves, that they felt bound by their consciences to proceed to these extreme measures in the endeavor to put down what they believed to be a dangerous innovation. To understand persecution rightly, it is necessary not only to sympathize with the sufferers, but also, so far as is possible, to take the viewpoint of the persecutors. It is only in comparatively recent times that barbarities in legal proceedings have been discontinued. Age has not yet destroyed all the implements of torture that were considered part of the necessary furniture of a European prison. Far down in Christian times, the examination of a prisoner was considered to be very properly and justly facilitated by the application of thumbscrews and iron boots. Even our own memory is not entirely lacking in incidents where water has been used to the great discomfort of a prisoner, with the object of expediting his confession. Hence, it would be absurd to expect to find a Roman magistrate of the second century after Christ contenting himself with expostulating with those whom the laws, the traditions, and the customs of his country condemned. This failing, he would naturally try a stronger argument.
This is illustrated in the cases of the renowned martyrs Perpetua and Felicitas. These were ladies of Carthage, who suffered during the reign of Severus. Perpetua was only a learner in the Christian faith, not yet having been baptized. She was young, married, and possessed a still stronger tie to existence in the young infant which she carried in her arms. Her father, by whom she was greatly beloved, visited her in prison and endeavored to persuade her to renounce Christianity. Failing in his arguments and entreaties, he even exercised the parental right which the law of his day gave him to chastise his daughter; but he could elicit no word of decision from her other than: |God's will must be done.|
While in the prison she was baptized, and was thus still more strongly fortified to meet the trial which was before her. At her examination we have such a picture as is indicated above. The judge entreated her to have compassion on her father's tears, on her infant's helplessness, as well as on her own life. He pointed out to her the cruel position in which she was placed by her religion, and used this as an argument against it. But it all availed nothing. She was returned to the prison to await the day of execution. Her companion in this direful anticipation was Felicitas, a married woman who was about to become a mother. This Christian woman also, on being brought before the procurator, had been entreated by him to have pity upon herself and her condition; but she had replied that his compassion was useless, since no thought of self-preservation could induce her to be unfaithful to her religion. While in the prison she gave birth to a girl, which was adopted by a Christian woman who as yet was free.
On the day of their execution, Perpetua and Felicitas were taken to the amphitheatre and stripped of their clothing; but on this occasion, however lacking the people may have been in the quality of mercy, they at least showed some feelings of decency, for they requested that the women might be allowed to have their garments. The two martyrs were then exposed to the fury of an enraged bull. The animal attacked them both; but as neither of them was mortally wounded, an officer despatched them with his sword.
The authorities doubtless congratulated themselves that by the death of these poor women the hated religion was by so much reduced; but |the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church,| and by the courage of its martyrs more people were incited to investigate the new faith than by their sufferings were deterred from following it. In fact, there are instances on record that the constancy of the Christians in their sufferings bore immediate fruit in the conversion of the spectators; where those who came to revile shared in the end the death of those they helped to persecute. The most noted example of this kind is that of Potamiana, who suffered under the emperor Severus. Rufinus says that she was a disciple of Origen. We are also informed by Palladius that she was a slave, and that her condemnation originated in the passion of her master. Angered by her steadfast refusal to submit to his desires, he accused her to the judges as a Christian, and bribed them to endeavor to break her resolution and afterward return her to himself; but their tortures proved as ineffectual as his persuasions. At last, being sentenced to death, she was given in charge of Basilides, an officer of the army, to be led to the place of execution. On the way thither, when the people sought to annoy her by insult and abuse, Basilides drove them back, and, probably more by his actions than by words, manifested for her much kindness and pity. Eusebius says that Potamiana, |perceiving the man's sympathy for her, exhorted him to be of good courage, for she would supplicate her Lord for him after her departure, and he would soon receive a reward for the kindness he had shown her. Having said this, she nobly sustained the issue, burning pitch being poured, little by little, over various parts of her body, from the soles of her feet to the crown of her head. Such was the conflict endured by this famous maiden.|
Shortly after this, Basilides, being requested by his fellow soldiers to take an oath, refused; and he gave it as his reason that it was not lawful for him to swear, he being a Christian. At first they thought he was jesting; but as he persistently affirmed it, they took him before the judge, with the result that the next day he was beheaded. He was reported to have said that for three days after her martyrdom Potamiana stood by him night and day, and that she placed a crown upon his head, telling him that she had besought the Lord for him and had obtained what she asked, which was that he should soon be with her.
In the year 250 the Emperor of Rome was Decius. During his brief reign he instituted one of the severest persecutions that the Church was called upon to endure. Yet there is reason to believe that this emperor was a man of superior character and high principles. Alarmed at the corruption that prevailed in the empire, he sought to restore the ancient customs and to strengthen the primitive religion. As a means deemed by him necessary to this end, he endeavored to extirpate Christianity. This was the first persecution in which the attempt was universally made to destroy the Church. This persecution was consequently far more terrible than any which had preceded it. Fortunately, the reign of Decius lasted only two years; but during that time vast numbers of Christians were put to death, and the women were as little spared as they had been on former occasions. There is no need of recounting their individual sufferings, as it would simply be a repetition of the horrors described above.
In the meantime, the Church had greatly changed in its character. It had grown sufficiently strong to compete with paganism even in point of numbers. During the periods of peace there were taken into its fold a great many who were not strongly grounded in the faith, nor had they the mind to endure in the time of persecution. Consequently, when it came to the trial, great numbers would return to a formal practice of heathen worship, with the purpose in mind of returning to the Church after the storm had passed over. These often obtained certificates from the magistrates to the effect that they had made the required recantation. The Church had also begun to define its creed with metaphysical nicety of expression, with the consequence that many discussions arose and numerous heretical sects came into being. The heathen, however, did not discriminate; therefore, the heretical had their martyrs as well as the orthodox; and there is no proof that the former were less ready to die for their faith than the latter. But, to show the jealousy which variety in religious opinion will engender, it is recorded that even when members of the various sects of Christians were suffering martyrdom together, they refused to recognize each other.
By this time also the doctrine of the superior sanctity of virginity had become firmly established in the Church. It was probably owing to this that, in the later persecutions, we frequently find reference made to women being threatened with unchaste attacks on their persons with the sole purpose of driving them to the abjuring of their religion. Gibbon, referring to this, speaks of it in the following manner: |It is related that pious females, who were prepared to despise death, were sometimes condemned to a more severe trial, and were called upon to determine whether they set a higher value upon their religion or upon their chastity. The youths to whose licentious embraces they were abandoned received a solemn exhortation from the judge to exert their most strenuous efforts to maintain the honor of Venus against the impious virgin who refused to burn incense on her altars. Their violence, however, was commonly disappointed, and the seasonable interposition of some miraculous power preserved the chaste spouses of Christ from the dishonor of even an involuntary defeat. We should not indeed neglect to remark that the more ancient as well as authentic memorials of the Church are seldom polluted with these extravagant and indecent fictions.|
There is no doubt that the monks of later times did waste their leisure in fabricating such miraculous interposition; but there surely is a flippancy in the tone of what is above quoted, as indeed in Gibbon's whole treatment of the persecution of the early Christians, which is not worthy of the great historian.
[Illustration 3: CHRISTIANS IN THE ARENA After the painting by L. P. de Laubadere.
Were these poor women, as they awaited in prison their doom, comforted and encouraged by the presence of the Apostle charged to |feed my lambs|? We do not know. But the firmness and constancy with which they endured trials so horrible even unto death bespeak the marvellous effect of the early enthusiasm of the Christian faith. These women were in the vanguard of the Christian army which first met the deadly force of heathen opposition; and because they did not flinch, but bore the pains of martyrdom for their faith, that faith ultimately triumphed and filled the world with its light. For more than two hundred years, however, the women who embraced this faith were to live in the daily dread of the terrible cry: |The Christians to the lions.|]
Eusebius informs us that |the women were no less manly than the men in behalf of the teaching of the Divine Word, as they endured conflicts with the men, and bore away equal prizes of virtue. And when they were dragged away for corrupt purposes, they surrendered their lives to death rather than their bodies to impurity.| He instances the case of a woman and her two daughters, whom Chrysostom, in an oration in their honor, names as Domnina, Bernice, and Prosdose. These women, being as beautiful in their persons as they were virtuous in their minds, were threatened during the Diocletian persecution with violation. While the guard was taking them back to the place from which they had fled to avoid this danger, they took advantage of a moment in which they were not watched to throw themselves into the river, where they found safety in death. Another case was that of the wife of the prefect of Rome. Maxentius, the emperor, being seized with a passionate desire for her, sent officers to bring her to the palace. The lady begged time in which to adorn herself for the occasion. This being granted, as soon as she found herself alone, she stabbed herself, so that the messengers going to her room found nothing but her dead body. These instances are recorded with great admiration by both Eusebius and Chrysostom, showing that the leaders of the early Church deemed it less prejudicial to a woman's salvation for her to take her own life than to suffer even the involuntary defilement of her body.
The reign of Diocletian and his colleagues saw the final struggle between Christianity and paganism. It was a bloody conflict for the Christians; and yet, though they refrained from resisting evil with material weapons, they conquered. Women in great numbers were again faithful unto death. Some were for the time frightened from their allegiance to Christ; for the pure precepts were becoming increasingly diluted with worldliness as well as superstition. Among these women were the wife and daughter of Diocletian, Prisca and Valeria. These had become converts to the faith; but when the edict was published against the Christians, they sacrificed to the traditional gods. It availed them little, however; for they gained only a few years of most distressful life at the cost of the martyr's crown. In the end the violent death came to them without the honor, for in the year 314 Licinius caused them to be beheaded and their bodies thrown into the sea. They had committed no fault of which any evidence is left; and for several years they had suffered from the loss of their property and from the hardships of exile. Diocletian was still alive, but could render them no aid, as he had abdicated the throne and was now busying himself solely in growing vegetables. Licinius was mistakenly supposed to be a friend to Christianity; Constantine had become its champion. But, as Victor Duruy says: |Notwithstanding celestial visions and marvellous dreams, these men were destitute of heart, and their faith, if they had any, was without influence upon their conduct. Their cruelty was universally commended; in reference to all these murders, the Christian preceptor of a son of Constantine utters a cry of triumph. The inspiration of the gentle Galilean Teacher was replaced by that of the implacable Jehovah of the Mosaic law.| The tables had turned; Christianity was now in power; the heretofore persecuted soon set out on the way to become the persecutors.