Scenes From the History of the Early Christians

TOWARDS the close of the second century we hear of the sufferings for the sake of Christ of some Christians in the cities of Lyons and Vienne, where Asiatic colonies had settled. The details of this persecution have come down to us in a letter from the Church in those parts of France addressed to their brethren in Asia. In language pathetic in its simplicity the writer tells how a sudden attack was made upon the brethren, who had been living in safe seclusion. They were first excluded from the baths and markets; then, as an easy prey, robbed of their goods; presently beaten, stoned and dragged about the streets, and accused of crimes "so dark," says the writer, "that it is not lawful for us to speak or even think of them." About sixty were apprehended, and of these, ten drew back in the hour of trial, though afterward some who had denied Christ through fear, when brought to trial a second time, sealed their testimony with their blood. Many perished in the loathsome dungeons into which they were cast, and those who survived imprisonment and torture were reserved only to be exposed to wild beasts in the amphitheater. Great efforts were made to search out victims, even slaves being induced by offers of reward or threats of torture to deliver up their Christian masters; and in this way many were betrayed.
The faith and steadfastness of one Christian slave, however, are specially recorded. The mistress of Blandina, who was herself among those who were taken before the magistrates, trembled for her, lest the young girl should not be able to endure the great sufferings which were inflicted upon the accused, if by any means they might be induced to deny their Lord. But in the midst of all, she was calm, and only repeated her simple confession—"I am a Christian, and no wickedness is practiced amongst us.”
The letter also speaks of the sufferings of one named Sanctus, saying that the way in which he endured was a cheer to his brethren, proving to them that "there is nothing terrible where the Father's love is, and nothing painful where there is Christ's glory." It is especially noticed that the bodies of those who had thus yielded up their lives amid tortures, the very record of which may well make us shudder, were burned, and their ashes were cast into the swift-flowing Rhone: for their persecutors believed that they should thus deprive the martyrs of what was most precious to them—the "sure and certain hope" of a joyful resurrection.
In the year 202, the Emperor Severus issued an edict forbidding any of his subjects to embrace Judaism or Christianity. It is thought that the refusal of the Christians in many distant parts of the empire to join in the public rejoicings which welcomed the emperor's return to Rome was the occasion of this edict. We must remember that this refusal does not prove that the Christian subjects of the emperor were disloyal to him, but rather that their loyalty to Christ would not suffer them to take part in the heathen rites which accompanied public rejoicings.
It was about the time of this edict that the martyrdom of some Christians in Egypt and in Africa took place. The story of two African women, Perpetua and Felicitas, is well known. They suffered, with five others, near Carthage, and it is most interesting to read a narrative of their trial and imprisonment, written by Vivia Perpetua with her own hand. She was a young widow lady, whose mother was a Christian, but whose father was a heathen. At the time of her imprisonment her husband had but lately died, and her only child was an infant. Of a faithful and tender heart, Perpetua's greatest trials came from those who were dearest to her by the ties of nature.
“When we were in the hands of the persecutors," she says, “my father, in his tender affection, sought with all his power to turn me away from the faith. ‘Father,' I said, do you see this little pitcher lying here?' He said, I see it.' Then I said, Can it be called by any other name than what it is? ‘He answered, No." Neither can I,' I replied, call myself anything else but what I am—a Christian.' My father looked at me as if he could have plucked my eyes out; but he only harassed me and departed. Then, after being a few days without seeing my father, I was enabled to give thanks to God, and his absence was tempered to my spirit.”
Alluding to their being removed to a place of closer confinement, she writes: "Again a few days, and we were cast into prison. I was terrified; for I had never before seen such total darkness. What a dreadful day! The excessive heat occasioned by the multitude of prisoners, the rough behavior of the soldiers, and anxiety on account of my child, overwhelmed me. Two of our deacons, however, by the payment of money, obtained our removal for some hours in the day to a more open part of the prison. Each of the captives then pursued his usual occupation; but I sat and nursed my infant, who was wasting away with hunger. In my anxiety, I addressed and consoled my mother, and commended the child to my brother; and I began to pine away at seeing them pining away on my account. For many days I suffered this anxiety, and accustomed the child to remain in the prison with me; and I immediately recovered strength, and was relieved of toil and trouble for my infant, and the prison became to me like a palace; indeed I was happier there than I should have been anywhere else.”
After describing a dream which she had in the dungeon, in which she believed she had received a token for herself and her brother, who was among those who were imprisoned, by which they might know that their martyrdom was at hand, Perpetua's narrative, so touching in its simplicity, proceeds—
“After a few days, there was a rumor that we were to be heard. My father came from the city, wasted with anxiety, to pervert me; and he said, Have pity on my gray hairs, my daughter, and do not expose me to the scorn of men. Look on thy brother, look on thy mother and thy aunt; look on thy child, who cannot live without thee. Do not plunge us all into ruin.' Thus spake my father, kissing my hands in his fondness, and throwing himself at my feet; and in his tears he called me not 'daughter' but lady.' And I was grieved for the gray hairs of my father, because he alone, of all our family, did not rejoice in my martyrdom; and I strove to comfort him, saying, On that scaffold whatever God wills will come to pass; for we stand not in our own strength, but in the power of God.' And he went away sorrowing.
“Another day, while we were at dinner, we were suddenly taken to the town hall, where an immense multitude was assembled. We ascended the platform; the rest were interrogated and made their confession, and it came to my turn, and my father instantly appeared with my child, and he drew me down the step, and said in a beseeching tone, Have pity on your babe.' The procurator Hilarianus also said, Spare the gray hairs of your father; spare your infant; offer sacrifice for the welfare of the Emperor.' And I answered, I will not sacrifice.' Art thou a Christian? ‘said Hilarianus. I answered, I am a Christian.' And while my father was still standing there, trying to persuade me, Hilarianus ordered him to be thrust down and beaten with rods. And the misfortune of my father grieved me, and I was as much grieved for his old age as if I had been beaten myself. He then passed sentence on us all, and condemned us to the wild beasts, and we went back in cheerfulness to the prison.”
The martyrs were to be kept for the birthday of the Emperor's son, but before that day came one of their number died in prison, and Perpetua was no longer allowed to have her child. But God gave them favor with their keeper, and the little company of confessors was cheered during this time of suspense by being allowed to receive visits from some of the brethren. As the time for their martyrdom drew near, the faithful heart of Perpetua was once more wrung by the sight of the anguish of her father on her account. "As the day of the games approached," she says, " my father entered, worn out with affliction, and began to pluck his beard, and to throw himself down with his face upon the ground, and to wish that he could hasten his death; and to speak words which might have moved any living creature—and I was grieved for the sorrows of his old age.”
The slave, Felicitas, may be remembered on account of the beautiful answer she gave to the taunt of one of the servants of the prison, addressed to her when she was in great suffering. Hearing her cry out in her pain, he said, "If your present sufferings are so great, what will you do when you are exposed to the wild beasts? You did not consider this when you refused to sacrifice." "I bear now my own sufferings," she replied, "then there will be another with me who will suffer for me, because I shall suffer for His sake.”
The end of these martyrs is related by someone who continues the narrative of Perpetua in an exalted strain very unlike her own simple language. We learn from it that "When the day of their victory shone forth" they wore a joyful look, and that they refused to be arrayed, as was the custom, in robes of sacrifice; the men in scarlet, as priests of Saturn; the women in yellow, as priestesses of Ceres. They said they were going to their death because they would take no part in such profane customs, and the justice of their plea was allowed. And so they came forward in their simple dress, Perpetua singing psalms, and others rebuking the curiosity of the hungry multitude who pressed around to gaze upon them. The men were given to lions, bears and leopards, and the women to a fierce cow. After Perpetua had been exposed to the fury of this wild creature, she turned, forgetful of her own suffering, to help and comfort Felicitas, who lay in the arena, crushed and mortally wounded; and with her last words she besought her brother to be steadfast in the faith. For each of these martyrs of Carthage the end soon came, either by the fangs of a wild beast, or the more merciful sword-thrust of a gladiator; it mattered not by which means they found the way through death to life. Truly did a teacher of the Church in Africa, who died eighteen years later, write—" We conquer by being killed. Call us, if you will, men of the fagot, or of the half-axle (in which we are burned or racked); this is our robe of victory, this is our chariot of triumph. It is victory to gain that for which one fights; our spoil is life eternal. We grow by being mown down. The blood of Christians is the seed of the Church." C. P.