Eusebius and the Christian Martyrs

Jul 15 21:00 2004 Kathy Simcox Print This Article

Lyons and Vienne were cities situated on the River Rhone (139) in Gaul, or ... France. These cities were part of the Roman Empire in the second century A.D. Although the text doesn’t ...

Lyons and Vienne were cities situated on the River Rhone (139) in Gaul,Guest Posting or modern-day France. These cities were part of the Roman Empire in the second century A.D. Although the text doesn’t specifically state this, it does give us many clues. The author points out that the Christians were barred from the baths and forum (139), both of which were part of the Roman infrastructure, as was the amphitheatre, where many of the executions took place (144). The author also makes reference to the gladiatorial contest (145), which was also a Roman phenomenon. The most telling argument about these cities being Roman cities, however, is a political one. Attalus, a Christian later to be executed, was put on trial and led around the amphitheatre. When the governor heard he was a Roman citizen, he ordered Attalus to be put back in prison before torturing him first. Roman Christians were to be beheaded instead of tortured to death (146). This implies that the authority structure in Lyons and Vienne was Roman and that Roman Christians, although still executed, were nonetheless given preferential treatment due to their citizenship. The political implications of this will be discussed later. Another clue as to who the persons were that took the lead in the Christian persecutions lies in the person the governor appealed to: Caesar himself, the supreme ruler of the Roman Empire. All of these clues lead to the conclusion that Lyons and Vienne were Roman-occupied cities, and that their citizens took part in attacking the Christian communities founded therein.

The attitude these Roman citizens held toward the Christians in the second century A.D. was one of pure hatred. The governor at the time publicly announced that they were to be deliberately hunted out and brought before the tribunal and city authorities (141). Christians were led into the forum where the entire city could watch the proceedings. The martyrs were then treated with savagery and cruelty and endured every kind of torture the city authorities and populace heaped upon them: noisy abuse, blows, dragging along the ground, stoning, and imprisonment (139). The whole fury of crowd, governor and soldiers was unleashed at the mere mention of the phrase ‘I am a Christian’. But why? What I find interesting about the popular attitudes that made the arrests and executions possible is that in the report in Eusebius’ History, the Christian community appears harmless. A few of the martyrs gave testimony to this:

As such [Vettius Epagathus] found the judgment so unreasonably given against us more than he could bear: boiling with indignation, he applied for permission to speak in defense of the Christians, and to prove that there was nothing godless or irreligious in our society. (140)

I [Sanctus] am a Christian: we do nothing to be ashamed of. (141)

The Christians felt like they had done nothing wrong; according to the above references this seems to be true, so why such hatred? Of what offense were they being charged?

There were several of what I call “surface-level” accusations – accusations that were stated with the intent to expose something much deeper. According to the author of this report, the soldiers were known to accuse the Christians of “Thyestean banquets” and “Oedipean incest” (141). As horrible as the charges may have been, the writer claims these accusations were false. We don’t know whether the Christian community in the second century was in fact guilty of these charges; all we have is the author’s account. I believe the accusations were indeed false, for not only do they seem too absurd for people who claimed to be upholding a particular standard, there was something deeper behind these charges and the eventual punishments and deaths: the crime the martyrs committed was that they simply were what they were: Christian. This statement in and of itself seems simple enough, but by confessing their faith in Christ, the Christians deeply offended the religious beliefs of the Roman population, and so were deemed scapegoats. Many attempts were made to make the martyrs swear allegiance to the “heathen idols”, but the Christians could not be swayed. This infuriated the Romans, who would inflict insurmountable cruelty up their captives, almost always to the death, with the hopes of “avenging their gods” (143, 146-47). This statement alone indicates that the Romans were highly offended at the Christians’ claim to a higher God, a god who is different than that of the Romans. By inflicting pain and suffering on the Christians, the Romans thought their gods would have their revenge for being rejected. It seems the only crime committed by the Christians was the declaration of their faith:

When they confessed Christ, they were locked up in gaol to await the governor’s arrival…[who] treated them with all the cruelty he reserves for Christians. (140)

When Vettius Epagathus defended his faith, the crowd round the tribunal howled him down…and he, too, was admitted to the ranks of the martyrs. (140)

Pothinus…was conveyed to the tribunal by the soldiers, accompanied by the civil authorities and the whole populace, who shouted and jeered at him as though he were Christ himself. (143)

The latter quote brings up another interesting point. The author attributed Pothinus’ trial to that of Christ before His own trial. During the trial of Attalus, the Roman authorities went a step even further. It wasn’t enough just to torment him. They led him around the amphitheatre with a placard, on which was written in Latin: “This is Attalus the Christian” (145). Not only was this man mocked like Christ, but the placard he bore was similar to Christ’s, which read “The King of the Jews”. Christ was crucified for political reasons – “King of the Jews” implied that Jesus, the Christ, was claiming superiority over Caesar, which was considered a political crime in the Roman provinces. One could say that Attalus and his fellow Christians were being martyred for the same reason – politics. Although they weren’t claiming supremacy over Caesar, they were implying by their defiant actions (their refusal to give up Christ as Lord) that their God was superior over the Roman gods. Throughout his report the author, someone clearly Christian as his use of “us”, “our”, and “we” made apparent, referenced the Roman gods as “heathen idols” (146), which would imply that these gods were the wrong gods to worship and the Christian God, “the Way”, had supremacy over them. Since the Romans were so intent on avenging their rejected gods, it is clear that the martyrs’ attitude offended the Roman populace. Another attitude I found interesting was the distinction being made between Roman Christians and non-Roman Christians. None of the martyrs were treated well, that much is obvious. But what is also obvious from the text is the preferential treatment given to the Roman Christians by Caesar:

For Caesar had issued a command that they should be tortured to death…so at the inauguration of the local festival, the governor summoned them to his tribunal, making a theatrical show of the blessed ones and displaying them to the crowds. After re-examination, all who seemed to possess Roman citizenship were beheaded and the rest sent to the beasts. (146)

Clearly the Roman Christians were offered a swift, painless death, while their non-Roman compatriots were made to withstand a much slower torture.
At the risk of playing devil’s advocate, from the Romans’ perspective the Christians were disobedient and avoided the specific questions the governor asked them. For example, during his trial, Sanctus was severely tortured but stood up to the onslaughts. When asked, he didn’t tell the governor his name, race, birthplace, nationality, or whether “he was a slave or free”. Instead, to every question he replied that he was a Christian. (142) Pothinus, when asked who the Christians’ god was, replied “If you are a fit person, you shall know”. (143) And Alexander, when asked what name God had, he replied “God hasn’t a name like a man”. (146) The governor had also asked who Alexander was, to which Alexander replied “I am a Christian”. (146) The martyrs perceived these answers as a testimony to their faith, but the Romans perceived them as antagonistic; the governor would lose his temper and patience each time a Christian declared his or her faith (a rejection of the Roman gods), or answered his questions in riddles. The Romans were not getting the results they wanted from the Christians (conformity to the Roman gods instead of Christ) due to what they considered to be the Christians’ insubordination and would thus send them “to the ranks of the martyrs”.

If there is one thing the writer of this account wants us to realize is the apparent superhuman strength the Christians displayed while enduring the most abominable punishments and tortures inflicted upon them. They remained unbending and unyielding to the Romans, firm in their confessions of faith and noble and heroic in their actions. (139, 141) The strength they found seemed to come from another world, for the punishments the writer describes is enough to make even the strongest person quiver with fright:

Again they ran the gauntlet of whips…they were mauled by the beasts…culminating in the iron chair which roasted their flesh and suffocated them with the reek. (144)

This strength not only enabled each Christian to individually endure the impossible, it also strengthened the resistance of the Christians who were watching, encouraging them on to Christ’s glory:
…the endurance of the blessed saints, strengthened by the Lord and fortified in body and soul, stimulating and encouraging the rest. (143)

But Blandina was hung on a post and exposed as food for the wild beasts let loose in the arena. She looked as if she was hanging in the form of a cross, and through her ardent prayers she stimulated great enthusiasm in those undergoing their ordeal, who in their agony saw with their outward eyes in the person of their sister the One who was crucified for them. (145)

I felt a sense of urgency from this writer; as he was describing each account, he was quick to point out several times how the martyrs were hastening to their deaths with a sense of purpose and resolve, filled with an almost unworldly bliss as their paths wound closer to the one they called Master:

…they made light of their heavy load as they hastened to Christ. (139)

…they made a full confession of their testimony with the greatest eagerness. (140)

The faithful stepped out with a happy smile, wondrous glory and grace blended on their faces. (144)

Attalus too was loudly demanded by the mob, as he was a man of note. He strode in, ready for the fray, for he had trained hard in the school of Christ. (145)

Attalus’ actions, that he “strode in”, imply defiance and the steadfast faith the martyr had in his God, actions the Romans again found infuriating. Some of Attalus’ fellow Christians reacted in the same manner:

Day after day they had been taken into watch the rest being punished, and attempts were mad to make them swear by the heathen idols. When they stood firm and treated these efforts with contempt, the mob was infuriated with them. (147)

The Christian community’s members shared a common bond in Christ that gave them a sense of brotherhood; they treated each other with love and support. This bond, along with the belief that they were gaining Christ’s approval for not denying Him in the face of agony, enabled the group to stand up to the Roman authorities with courage and resolve, acknowledging not only the support of one another, but that of Christ himself:

…as [Vettius] showed by the fullness of his love when he gladly laid down his own life in defense of his brother Christians. (140)

With all the horrible torture and death the Romans inflicted on the Christian community in Lyons and Vienne, one is led to believe the author blamed them for the Christians’ pain and suffering. This is not the case. Evidence of the writer’s target is made obvious in the first few sentences of the report:

The adversary swooped on us with all his might, giving us now a foretaste of his advent, which undoubtedly is imminent. (139)

He left no stone unturned in his efforts to train his adherents and equip them to attack the servants of God. (139)

Hence, it was not necessarily the Romans inflicting the punishments, but rather an unseen yet potent evil spirit, a being the Christians would call their adversary, Satan, or the Devil, that was influencing the Romans’ actions. In the text there were many references regarding how Christians were “handed over to punishment by they devil”, endured the onslaught of the “evil one”, ensnared by “Satan”, and how they “unhesitatingly declared their faith without one thought for the devil’s promptings. (139,141, 147) These statements make clear that although the Romans themselves were doing the slaughtering, Satan was in fact influencing them to do so.

Vienne and Lyons, Roman-occupied cities in the second century A.D., hosted some of the most gruesome spectacles in the history of the Christian church. The small community that confessed Christ as their Lord was mercilessly mauled and slaughtered because its beliefs were considered offensive to the Roman gods and its actions insubordinate to city authorities. The writer of these accounts considered Satan, the adversary, to be extremely active in these tortures, influencing the Roman authorities to send the Christians to their deaths, martyring them in the name of the One they worshiped. The martyrs endured each punishment with resistance, strength of conviction, and joy, so much so that the reader is left to marvel at the faith they had in their Christ, faith that was so profound that it has lasted for 2,000 years.

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1. Eusebius: The History of the Church from Christ to Constantine. Translated by G.A. Williamson. Penguin Books, 1965. pp. 139-148

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About Article Author

Kathy Simcox
Kathy Simcox

About the Author
Kathy Simcox, Columbus, Ohio, United States
Kathy works as an Administrative Assistant in the College of the Arts at The Ohio State University. She holds a BA in Psychology and is currently working on a second BA in Religious Studies. In addition to writing, her passions include hiking, biking, kayaking, photography, and singing in her Lutheran church choir. She is also known to read an occasional book.

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