“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church”
It was 177AD in the City of Lyon, and the churches were under severe threat from persecution stirred up by the mob and executed by the Roman authorities. Having been conquered by the Romans, Lyon had become a proudly cosmopolitan city, teeming with officers, administrators and merchants drawn from across the Roman world. And as the effective capital of Gaul since the time of Augustus, it possessed a temple complex dedicated to the former Roman emperor who, of course, was now regarded as a god to be worshipped along with many others. Altars to other gods abounded, including one to Cybele, a primal nature goddess worshipped with orgiastic rites by castrated priests.
This made the situation of Christians in the city precarious. Although the formal, state-sponsored persecution unleashed by the likes of Nero had petered out, the fact that Christians – like the Jews – did not worship the gods or celebrate their feast days, made them suspect to the populace in general. And whereas the Jewish religion enjoyed protection under Roman law, Christianity – this strange offshoot of Judaism – enjoyed no such amnesty from persecution.
The very distinctiveness of how Christians worshipped made them objects of much scandalous gossip among the population in general. After all, they had no image of a god to worship, so this made people suspect them of being ‘atheists’. What’s more, it was rumoured, they committed incest, worshipped the genitals of their elders and bishops, and even indulged in cannibalism. While Christians indignantly refuted these claims, fake news – then as now – tended to carry its own stigma. There was no smoke, surely, without fire, reasoned the heathen populace, their hostility stoked by the fact that many of the Christians were immigrants who had settled in the city from Asia Minor.
This xenophobic prejudice against these foreigners who worshipped a crucified criminal as Lord rather than Caesar, and refused to engage in the city’s ritual sacrifices to the gods on feast days, was easily kindled. Even though the governors had a legal obligation not to disturb the order of the provinces by rooting out minority groups who to them presented no threat to civic order, the mob felt no such constraint.
Hence in 177, when the rage of the mob finally erupted against the Christian population in Lyon, it seemed to have come from the darkest reaches of hell itself. Violence against the followers of Christ spread with alarming swiftness and savagery, with groups of armed thugs roaming the streets, hunting down Christians of all classes wherever they could find them. Men and women were dragged through the streets amid a hail of fists and stones to the central square of Lyon and then flung into gaol to await the sentencing of the governor for their ‘subversive’ activities.
Being confined in the darkest and most awful part of the prison, many of the Christians suffocated there. Some were placed in stocks while others were placed in a hot-iron seat where their flesh was burned. This was literally a human barbecue where the victim was chained onto a grate over burning coals. An example of this barbaric torture instrument can still be seen today at the archeological museum at Lyon.
Even Pothinus, the 92-year-old Bishop of Lyon, was not spared the cruelty, and died in his prison cell two days after his torture. That cell too can still be visited today in Lyon. It is about the size of a home electric dishwasher, so cramped he could not have even stood up straight.
It is said that when Pothinus was carried before the governor and was asked, “Who is the God of Christians?” the old man simply answered, “If thou be worthy, thou shalt know.” The bishop, old and feeble as he was, was then dragged about by soldiers, and such of the mob as could reach him gave him blows and kicks, while others, who were further off, threw anything at him which came to hand. After being so brutally treated, he was put back into his tiny cell, where he died within two days.
Sanctus, a deacon from Vienne stood firm in his faith, even after red hot plates were fastened to the most tender parts of his body, making his torso appear to be one complete wound and bruise. He was, says Eusebius, “an example for the others, showing that nothing is fearful where the love of the Father is, and nothing is painful where there is the glory of Christ.”
Interrogated in the forum by the provincial governor, those who professed to being Christians and did not save themselves by renouncing their faith were horribly tortured and condemned to the beasts of the amphitheatre, “being [according to Eusebius] made all day long a spectacle to the world in place of the gladiatorial contest in its many forms.” One feature of each Roman city was the arena, where cheering crowds gathered to enjoy the brutality of gladiatorial games or, for a divergence, the sight of criminals being torn apart by wild animals or enduring the sort of agonising tortures that depraved minds conjured up.
For the Christians, however, their conviction was that in all this they were following their Lord who had suffered and died on the hill at Golgotha. Paul had later compared himself and his companions to ‘men condemned to death in the arena’, so to these courageous followers of Christ the humiliations and agonies heaped on them in the arena was an opportunity to let their light shine in a public display of their devotion to the crucified Messiah.
So whether savaged by wild dogs, gored by bulls or roasted on red hot iron chairs in the most brutal fashion, according to Eusebius, they only cried out “the words they had repeated all along – the declaration of their faith.” In doing so the Christians were sending out the most subversive message possible to the might of the Roman Empire that, “the things reckoned by men as low, invisible, and contemptible, are precisely what God ranks as deserving of great glory.”
This article was taken from the January - March 2020 issue of Heroes of the Faith.
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