Having dealt fully with the apostolic succession in seven books, in this eighth section it is surely a matter of the highest importance that for the enlightenment of future generations I should set down the events of my own day, calling as they do for a most careful record. That shall be the starting-point for my account.
Events before the persecution of my time
1. How great, how unique were the honour, and liberty too, which before the persecution of my time were granted by all men, Greeks and non-Greeks alike, to the message given through Christ to the world, of true reverence for the God of the universe! It is beyond me to describe it as it deserves. Witness the goodwill so often shown by potentates to our people; they even put into their hands the government of the provinces, releasing them from the agonizing question of sacrificing, in view of the friendliness with which they regarded their teaching. What need I say about those in the imperial palaces and about the supreme rulers? Did they not permit the members of their households – consorts, children, and servants – to embrace boldly before their eyes the divine message and way of life, hardly minding even if they boasted of the liberty granted to the Faith? Did they not hold them in special esteem, and favour them more than their fellow servants? I might instance the famous Dorotheus, the most devoted and loyal of their servants, and on that account much more honoured than the holders of offices and governorships. With him I couple the celebrated Gorgonius, and all who because of God’s word were held in the same honour as these two. And what approbation the rulers in every church unmistakably won from all procurators and governors! How could one describe those mass meetings, the enormous gatherings in every city, and the remarkable congregations in places of worship? No longer satisfied with the old buildings, they raised from the foundations in all the cities churches spacious in plan. These things went forward with the times and expanded at a daily increasing rate, so that no envy stopped them nor could any evil spirit bewitch them or check them by means of human schemes, as long as the divine and heavenly hand sheltered and protected its own people, as being worthy.
But increasing freedom transformed our character to arrogance and sloth; we began envying and abusing each other, cutting our own throats, as occasion offered, with weapons of sharp-edged words; rulers hurled themselves at rulers and laymen waged party fights against laymen, and unspeakable hypocrisy and dissimulation were carried to the limit of wickedness. At last, while the gatherings were still crowded, divine judgement, with its wonted mercy, gently and gradually began to order things its own way, and with the Christians in the army the persecution began. But alas! realizing nothing, we made not the slightest effort to render the Deity kindly and propitious; and as if we had been a lot of atheists, we imagined that our doings went unnoticed and unregarded, and went from wickedness to wickedness. Those of us who were supposed to be pastors cast off the restraining influence of the fear of God and quarrelled heatedly with each other, engaged solely in swelling the disputes, threats, envy, and mutual hostility and hate, frantically demanding the despotic power they coveted. Then, then it was that in accordance with the words of Jeremiah, the Lord in His anger covered the daughter of Zion with a cloud, and cast down from Heaven the glory of Israel; He remembered not the footstool of His feet in the day of His anger, but the Lord also drowned in the sea all the beauty of Israel, and broke down all his fences.1 So also, as foretold in the Psalms, He overthrew the covenant of His bondservant and profaned to the ground (through the destruction of the churches) his sanctuary and broke down all his fences; He made his strongholds cowardice. All that passed by the way despoiled the multitudes of the people; moreover, he became a reproach to his neighbours. For He exalted the right hand of his enemies, and turned back the aid of his sword and did not assist him in the war. But He also cut him off from cleansing and threw down his throne to the ground, and shortened the days of his time, and finally covered him with shame.1
The destruction of the churches
2. Everything indetd has been fulfilled in my time; I saw with my own eyes the places of worship thrown down from top to bottom, to the very foundations, the inspired holy Scriptures committed to the flames in the middle of the public squares, and the pastors of the churches hiding disgracefully in one place or another, while others suffered the indignity of being held up to ridicule by their enemies – a reminder of another prophetic saying: for contempt was poured on rulers, and He made them wander in a trackless land where there was no road.2 But it was not for me to describe their wretched misfortunes in the event: nor is it my business to leave on record their quarrels and inhumanity to each other before the persecutions, so I have made up my mind to relate no more about them than enough to justify the divine judgement. I am determined therefore to say nothing even about those who have been tempted by the persecution or have made complete shipwreck of their salvation3 and of their own accord flung themselves into the depths of the stormy sea; I shall include in my overall account only those things by which first we ourselves, then later generations, may benefit. Let me therefore proceed from this point to describe in outline the hallowed ordeals of the martyrs of God’s word.
It was the nineteenth year of Diocletian’s reign and the month Dystrus, called March by the Romans, and the festival of the Saviour’s Passion was approaching, when an imperial decree was published everywhere, ordering the churches to be razed to the ground and the Scriptures destroyed by fire, and giving notice that those in places of honour would lose their places, and domestic staff, if they continued to profess Christianity, would be deprived of their liberty. Such was the first edict against us. Soon afterwards other decrees arrived in rapid succession, ordering that the presidents of the churches in every place should all be first committed to prison and then coerced by every possible means into offering sacrifice.
Ordeals endured in the persecution: God’s glorious martyrs
3. Then, then it was that many rulers of the churches bore up heroically under horrible torments, an object lesson in the endurance of fearful ordeals; while countless others, their souls already numbed with cowardice, promptly succumbed to the first onslaught. Of the rest, each was subjected to a series of different tortures, one flogged unmercifully with the whip, another racked and scraped beyond endurance, so that the lives of some came to a most miserable end. But different people came through the ordeal very differently: one man would be forcibly propelled by others and brought to the disgusting, unholy sacrifices, and dismissed as if he had sacrificed, even if he had done no such thing; another, who had not even approached any abomination, much less touched it, but was said by others to have sacrificed, would go away without attempting to repudiate the baseless charge. Another would be picked up half dead, and thrown away as if already a corpse; and again a man lying on the ground might be dragged a long way by his feet, though included among the willing sacrificers. One man would announce at the top of his voice his determination not to sacrifice, another would shout that he was a Christian, exulting in the confession of the Saviour’s Name, while yet another insisted that he had never sacrificed and never would. These were struck on the mouth and silenced by a formidable body of soldiers lined up for the purpose: their faces and cheeks were battered and they were forcibly removed. It was the one object in life of the enemies of true religion to gain credit for having finished the job.
But no such methods could enable them to dispose of the holy martyrs. What could I say that would do full justice to them? 4. I could tell of thousands who showed magnificent enthusiasm for the worship of the God of the universe, not only from the beginning of the general persecution, but much earlier when peace was still secure. For at long last the one who had received the authority was as it were awaking from the deepest sleep, after making attempts – as yet secret and surreptitious – against the churches, in the interval that followed Decius and Valerian. He did not make his preparations all at once for the war against us, but for the time being took action only against members of the legions. In this way he thought that the rest would easily be mastered if he joined battle with these and emerged victorious. Now could be seen large numbers of serving soldiers most happy to embrace civil life, in order to avoid having to repudiate their loyalty to the Architect of the universe. The commander-in-chief, whoever he was,1 was now first setting about persecuting the soldiery, classifying and sorting those serving in the legions, and allowing them to choose either to obey orders and retain their present rank, or alternatively to be stripped of it if they disobeyed the enactment. But a great many soldiers of Christ’s kingdom without hesitation or question chose to confess Him rather than cling to the outward glory and prosperity they enjoyed. Already here and there one or two of them were suffering not only loss of position but even death as the reward of their unshakeable devotion: for the time being the man behind the plot was acting cautiously and going as far as bloodshed2 in a few cases only; he was apparently afraid of the number of believers, and shrank from launching out into war with them all at once. But when he stripped more thoroughly for battle, words are inadequate to depict the host of God’s noble martyrs whom the people of every city and every region were privileged to see with their own eyes.
Martyrs in Nicomedia and in the imperial palaces
5. When the edict against the churches was issued at Nicomedia and posted up in a conspicuous public place, a well-known person,1 by worldly standards of pre-eminence a man of the greatest distinction, was so stirred by religious enthusiasm and carried away by burning faith that he promptly seized it and tore it to shreds, as something unholy and utterly profane – and that, when two emperors were there in the same city, the most senior of them all and the one who held the fourth place in the government.2 But he was only the first of many who at that time distinguished themselves in this way and suffered the natural consequences of such bold conduct, preserving a cheerful, confident bearing to their very last breath. 6. Of all those who have at any time been praised in song for their virtues and lauded for their courage, among Greeks and non-Greeks alike, none was ever more remarkable than the divine martyrs produced by this occasion – Dorotheus and the imperial servants who followed his lead. They had been most highly honoured by their imperial masters and treated by them as if they had been their own children, but they accounted reproaches and sufferings for religion, and the many kinds of death invented against them, as in truth greater riches than worldly fame and luxury.3I shall describe the death that one of them met, and leave it to my readers to infer from that case what happened in the others.
In the city named above, the rulers in question brought a certain man into a public place and commanded him to sacrifice. When he refused, he was ordered to be stripped, hoisted up naked, and his whole body torn with loaded whips till he gave in and carried out the command, however unwillingly. When in spite of these torments he remained as obstinate as ever, they next mixed vinegar with salt and poured it over the lacerated parts of his body, where the bones were already exposed. When he treated these agonies too with scorn a lighted brazier was then brought forward, and as if it were edible meat for the table, what was left of his body was consumed by the fire, not all at once, for fear his release should come too soon, but a little at a time; and those who placed him on the pyre were not permitted to stop till after such treatment he should signify his readiness to obey. But he stuck immovably to his determination, and victorious in the midst of his tortures, breathed his last. Such was the martyrdom of one of the imperial servants, a martyrdom worthy of the name he bore – it was Peter.
The heroism of the others was just as great, but to preserve the proportions of this book I shall pass it over, only recording that Dorotheus and Gorgonius, with many more of the imperial household, went through a succession of ordeals and finally were put to death by strangling, carrying off the prizes of their inspired victory.
It was at that period that Anthimus, then head of the Nicome-dian church, bore witness to Christ and was beheaded. He was followed by a number of martyrs at once, for somehow or other at that very time there was a conflagration in the palace at Nicomedia, and through a groundless suspicion word went round that our people were responsible. By imperial command God’s worshippers there perished wholesale and in heaps, some butchered with the sword, others fulfilled by fire; it is on record that with an inspired and mystical fervour men and women alike leapt on to the pyre. A number of others were bound by the public executioners, dumped in small boats, and thrown into the depths of the sea. As for the imperial servants already dead and committed to the ground with fitting ceremony, they were dug up by their so-called masters, who thought it advisable to start again and throw them too into the sea, with the absurd notion that as they lay in their graves some people would worship them in the belief that they were gods!
Such was the state of affairs at Nicomedia in the early stages of the persecution. But when a little later, in the district of Melitene and all over Syria as well, attempts were being made to attack the empire, an imperial decree was circulated that the heads of the churches everywhere should be fettered and imprisoned. The spectacle of what happened after this beggars description: in every town great numbers were locked up, and everywhere the gaols built long before for homicides and grave-robbers were crowded with bishops, presbyters and deacons, readers and exorcists, so that now there was no room in them for those convicted of crimes.
It was not long before the first decree was followed by another, in which it was laid down that if the prisoners offered sacrifice they should be allowed to go free, but if they refused they should be mutilated by endless tortures. Now once more, how could one count the number of martyrs in every province of the Empire, especially those in Africa and Mauretania, in the Thebais and Egypt? From Egypt at this time some went off to other cities and provinces, where they showed their worth by martyrdom.
Egyptian martyrs in Phoenicia, in Egypt itself, and in the Thebais
7. At any rate we know those of them who became shining lights in Palestine, and we know those at Tyre in Phoenicia. Did any man see them without being amazed at the merciless floggings and the endurance displayed under them by these truly astounding champions of pure religion; at the ordeal with man-eating beasts which came directly after the floggings, when they were attacked by panthers, bears of different kinds, wild boars, and bulls goaded with red-hot irons; at the unflinching courage of these noble people in the face of every one of the beasts? When these things were going on I was there myself, and there I witnessed the ever-present divine power of Him to whom they testified, our Saviour Jesus Christ Himself, visibly manifesting itself to the martyrs. For some time the man-eaters did not dare to touch or even approach the bodies of God’s beloved, but rushed at the others who apparently were irritating and provoking them from outside; only the holy champions; as they stood naked, and in accordance with their instructions waved their hands to attract the animals to themselves, were left quite unmolested: sometimes when the beasts did start towards them, they were stopped short as if by some divine power, and retreated to their starting-point. When this went on for a long time it astounded the spectators, so that in view of the ineffectiveness of the first a second and third beast were set on to one and the same martyr.
Nothing could be more amazing than the fearless courage of these saints under such duress, the stubborn, inflexible endurance in youthful bodies. You would see a youngster not yet twenty standing without fetters, spreading out his arms in the form of a cross, and with a mind unafraid and unshakeable occupying himself in the most unhurried prayers to the Almighty: not budging in the least and not retreating an inch from the spot where he stood, though bears and panthers breathing fury and death almost touched his very flesh. Yet by some supernatural, mysterious power their mouths were stopped, and they ran back again to the rear. Again you would have seen others – there were five altogether – thrown to an infuriated bull. When others approached from outside he tossed them with his horns into the air and mangled them, leaving them to be picked up half-dead; but when in his fury he rushed head down at the lonely group of holy martyrs, he could not even get near them, but stamped his feet and pushed with his horns in all directions. Provoked by the hot irons he breathed rage and threats, but divine providence dragged him back. So, as he too did his intended victims no harm whatever, other beasts were set on them. At last, when these animals had launched their terrible varied assaults, the martyrs were one and all butchered with the sword, and instead of being buried in the earth were given to the waves of the sea.
8. Such was the ordeal of the Egyptians who championed the faith so gloriously at Tyre. But we should feel equal admiration for those of them who were martyred in their own country, where immense numbers of men, women, and children, despising this transient life, faced death in all its forms for the sake of our Saviour’s teaching. Some were scraped, racked, mercilessly flogged, subjected to countless other torments too terrible to describe in endless variety, and finally given to the flames; some were submerged in the sea; others cheerfully stretched out their necks to the headsman’s axe; some died under torture; others were starved to death; others again were crucified, some as criminals usually are, some with still greater cruelty nailed the other way up, head down, and kept alive till they starved to death on the very cross.
9. But words cannot describe the outrageous agonies endured by the martyrs in the Thebais. They were torn to bits from head to foot with potsherds like claws till death released them. Women were tied by one foot and hoisted high in the air, head downwards, their bodies completely naked without a morsel of clothing, presenting thus the most shameful, brutal, and inhuman of all spectacles to everyone watching. Others again were tied to trees and stumps and died horribly; for with the aid of machinery they drew together the very stoutest boughs, fastened one of the martyr’s legs to each, and then let the boughs fly back to their normal position; thus they managed to tear apart the limbs of their victims in a moment. In this way they carried on, not for a few days or weeks, but year after year. Sometimes ten or more, sometimes over twenty were put to death, at other times at least thirty, and at yet others not far short of sixty; and there were occasions when on a single day a hundred men as well as women and little children were killed, condemned to a succession of ever-changing punishments.
I was in these places, and saw many of the executions for myself. Some of the victims suffered death by beheading, others punishment by fire. So many were killed on a single day that the axe, blunted and worn out by the slaughter, was broken in pieces, while the exhausted executioners had to be periodically relieved. All the time I observed a most wonderful eagerness and a truly divine power and enthusiasm in those who had put their trust in the Christ of God. No sooner had the first batch been sentenced, than others from every side would jump on to the platform in front of the judge and proclaim themselves Christians. They paid no heed to torture in all its terrifying forms, but undaunted spoke boldly of their devotion to the God of the universe and with joy, laughter, and gaiety received the final sentence of death: they sang and sent up hymns of thanksgiving to the God of the universe till their very last breath.
Wonderful as these were, far, far more wonderful were those who were conspicuous for their wealth, birth, and reputation, and for learning and philosophy, yet put everything second to true religion and faith in our Saviour and Lord Jesus Christ. One was Philoromus, who had been entrusted with an important office in the imperial administration at Alexandria, and with his authority and Roman rank had a military bodyguard and conducted judicial investigations every day. Another was Phileas, Bishop of Thmuis, a man esteemed for his patriotic activities and public services, and for his work as a philosopher. Great numbers of relations and friends implored them, as did prominent officials, and the judge himself appealed to them to pity themselves and spare their wives and children; yet all this was not enough to make them yield to love of life and despise our Saviour’s warning about confessing and denying Him. So with manly and philosophic determination, or rather with heartfelt devotion and love of God, they stood like rocks against all the judge’s threats and insults, and were both beheaded.
Phileas the martyr’s written account of events at Alexandria
10. Since I have said that Phileas made his mark by his secular learning too, let him come forward as his own witness, to make clear what sort of man he was and at the same time to describe, more accurately than I could and in his own words, the martyrdoms that took place at Alexandria in this day.
EXCERPT FROM THE LETTER OF PHILEAS TO THE THMUITES
With all these examples and precedents and trustworthy signposts before their eyes in the inspired and holy Scriptures, the blessed martyrs among us did not hesitate, but directing the eye of the soul1 with all earnestness towards the Almighty, and resolved to die for their faith, they clung firmly to their vocation, aware that our Lord Jesus Christ became man for our sakes, in order to destroy every kind of sin and make it possible for us to enter into eternal life. For He did not regard it as a prize to be on an equality with God, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bondservant, and appearing in human shape submitted humbly to death, and death on the cross.2 So, eagerly desiring the greater gifts,3 the Christ-bearing martyrs endured every kind of suffering and every outrage that iniquity could invent, not once but twice in some cases; and then their armed guards competed not only in making all sorts of threats against them, but also in carrying them out, they never wavered, because perfect love casts out fear.1
What words would suffice to recount their heroic courage under every torture? Liberty was given to all who wished to insult them, and some struck them with cudgels, some with sticks, some with whips, others with straps, and yet others with rope-ends. The spectacle of these outrages was constantly changing and abominable through and through. Some, with their hands tied behind them, were hung from the gibbet and all their limbs were pulled apart by machines; then the torturers were ordered to get to work on every part of their helpless bodies, not as with murderers applying their instruments of correction to sides alone, but even to belly, legs, and cheeks. Others were hung by one hand from the porch and hauled up: no agony could have been so horrible as the stretching of their joints and limbs. Others were bound to pillars, facing inwards, with their feet off the ground and the weight of the body drawing the ropes tighter and tighter. This they endured, not only while the governor was busy haranguing them, but almost all day long. Whenever he went on to another group, he left subordinate officials to keep an eye on the first, in case anyone succumbed to the tortures and seemed to be giving in. He instructed them to add unsparingly to their bonds, and then when they were at the last gasp to cut them down and drag them away. They were not to show the least consideration for us but to regard us and treat us as if we no longer existed, this being the second torture devised by our adversaries in addition to the floggings. Some, even after these outrageous sufferings, were put in the stocks with their feet stretched out all four holes apart, so that they were forced to he on their backs, incapacitated by the open wounds with which the blows had covered their entire bodies. Others were hurled to the ground and lay helpless as a result of the concentrated onslaught of the torturers, presenting to the spectators a sight more horrible than the torture itself, as they bore in their bodies marks of the elaborate and unlimited ingenuity of the torturers.
In this state of affairs some died under their tortures, shaming their adversary by their unshakeable determination; others were locked up in prison half dead, and a few days later were overcome by their agonies and so found fulfilment; the rest responded to treatment and time, and their stay in prison restored their confidence. So when the order was given, they were invited to choose between touching the abominable sacrifice (in which case they would go unmolested, receiving from their persecutors the freedom that brought a curse with it) and refusing to sacrifice and so incurring the supreme penalty. Without hesitating a moment, they went gladly to their death, knowing what Holy Scripture has laid down for us: ‘He who sacrifices to other gods shall be utterly destroyed’,1 and ‘You shall have no gods other than Me’.2
Such was the message that the martyr, truly both lover of wisdom and lover of God, sent to the Christians of his diocese before the final sentence, while he was still undergoing imprisonment, explaining his own situation and at the same time urging them on to hold firmly, even after his approaching fulfilment, to true religion in Christ.
Martyrs in Phrygia; various ordeals of many others of both sexes
But why need I tell a long story, piling up examples of the victories won by devoted martyrs all over the world, especially those who were attacked now not under common law but as enemies in war? 11. For example a little Christian town in Phrygia was encircled by legionaries, who set it on fire and completely destroyed it, along with the entire population – men, women, and children – as they called on Almighty God. And why? Because all the inhabitants of the town without exception – the Mayor himself and the magistrates, with all the officials and the whole populace – declared themselves Christians and absolutely refused to obey the command to commit idolatry.
There was also a man whom the Romans had raised to high office, Adauctus by name. He came from a distinguished Italian family, and had progressed through all the offices tenable under the emperors, giving complete satisfaction in the general administration of what the Romans call magistratus or the ministry of finance. As in addition to all this he set a shining example by the splendid things he did in his religious fervour, and by his bold confession of the Christ of God, he was adorned with the crown of martyrdom: he was still serving as finance minister when he faced his ordeal for his religion’s sake.
12. Need I now mention the rest by name, or count all the men, or depict the constantly changing outrages suffered by the amazing martyrs? Sometimes they were killed with the axe, as it happened to those in Arabia; sometimes their legs were broken – the fate of those in Cappadocia. Sometimes they were hung up by the feet head down over a slow fire, so that the smoke rising from the burning wood choked them, as was done to those in Mesopotamia; sometimes noses, ears, and hands were severed, and the other parts and portions of the body cut up like meat – the procedure at Alexandria.
Need I rekindle the memory of the martyrs at Antioch, who were roasted over lighted braziers, not roasted to death but subjected to prolonged torture? Or of others who plunged their hands right into the fire sooner than touch the abominable sacrifice? Some of them were unable to face such a trial, and before they were caught and came into the hands of their would-be destroyers, threw themselves down from the roofs of tall houses, regarding death as a prize snatched from the scheming hands of God’s enemies.
At Antioch there was a saintly person1 whose woman’s body housed an indomitable spirit. Universally respected for wealth, birth, and good judgement, she had brought up on religious principles a couple of unmarried daughters in the full flower of their girlish charm. These aroused a great deal of envy: as a result every effort was made to track them to their hiding-place; and when it was discovered that they were living abroad they were purposely summoned to Antioch, and were at the mercy of the soldiers. Seeing that her daughters and herself were in dire peril she opened their eyes to the dreadful things they must expect at human hands, and of all dreadful things the most unbearable – the threat to their chastity. She impressed on the girls and herself too the necessity of shutting their ears to any such suggestion, declaring that to surrender their souls to be enslaved by demons was worse than any death and any destruction, and putting it to them that the only way to escape from it all was to take refuge with the Lord. All three agreed on this, so they arranged their garments neatly about them, and when they had travelled exactly half way they modestly requested the guards to excuse them a moment, and threw themselves into a river that flowed by.
These three made away with themselves. But there was another couple of girls, again at Antioch, Christians in every respect and sisters indeed, aristocratic by birth, splendid in their lives, young in years, charming in appearance, serious in their outlook, religious in their conduct, admirable in their devotion; but as if such perfection was too much for the earth to support, they were thrown into the sea by command of the demon’s devotees.
Things that would make the hearer shudder were done to others in Pontus. Pointed reeds were driven into the fingers of both hands under the ends of the nails; in other cases lead was melted over a fire and the boiling seething mass poured down their backs, roasting the vital parts of the body; others endured in their private parts and bowels sufferings shameful, merciless, and unmentionable, which the noble judges, upholders of the law, showing off their brutality as proof of their cleverness, most ingeniously devised: by constantly inventing new outrages, as if they were taking part in a prize competition, they tried their hardest to put each other in the shade.
These miseries came to an end when, worn out at last by their ghastly wickedness, tired of killing, satiated and surfeited with bloodshed, they turned to what seemed to them kindness and humanity: they thought they were no longer doing us any harm. It was not in good taste, they said, to pollute the city with the blood of people of their own race, or to lay the highest levels of government open to the charge of cruelty, a government mild and gentle to all; rather ought the beneficence of the humane imperial authority to be extended to everybody, no one henceforth being punished with death: they had already ceased to impose this penalty on us, thanks to the emperor’s humanity. Orders were then issued that eyes should be gouged out and one leg maimed. That is what they meant by ‘humanity’ and ‘the lightest of punishments’ inflicted on us. As a result of this ‘humanity’ shown by God’s enemies, it is no longer possible to count the enormous number of people who first had the right eye hacked out with a sword and cauterized with fire, and the left foot rendered useless by branding-irons applied to the joints, and then were condemned to the province’s copper mines, not so much to secure their services as to subject them to ill-treatment and physical hardship, to say nothing of the various other ordeals that befell them and were too numerous to list, for their heroic achievements went beyond all reckoning.
In these trials the splendid martyrs of Christ let their light so shine over the whole world that they everywhere astounded the eyewitness of their courage – and small wonder: they furnished in themselves unmistakable proof of our Saviour’s truly divine and ineffable power. To mention each one by name would be a lengthy task – nay, an impossibility.
Church leaders who by their blood proved the religion they preached genuine
13. Of leading churchmen martyred in important cities the first whose name we must blazon on monuments to God’s faithful servants as a martyr of Christ’s kingdom was Bishop Anthimus of Nicomedia, who was beheaded. Of the martyrs at Antioch the one who was noblest throughout his life was a local presbyter, Lucian, who at Nicomedia, when the emperor himself was there, had proclaimed the heavenly kingdom of Christ, first by a spoken defence of the Faith, then by deeds as well. Of the martyrs in Phoenicia the most famous are surely God’s altogether beloved pastors of the spiritual nurslings of Christ – Tyrannion, bishop of the church at Tyre, Zenobius, presbyter of the church at Sidon, and Silvanus, Bishop of Emesa and the neighbouring churches. Silvanus became food for beasts with others at Emesa itself, and was taken up into the choirs of martyrs; the other two glorified the word of God in Antioch by enduring to the last. One of them, the bishop, was thrown into the depths of the sea, while Zenobius, the best of physicians, died bravely under the torments applied to his sides. Of the martyrs in Palestine, Silvanus, Bishop of Gaza and the neighbouring churches, was beheaded at the copper mines in Phaeno, with thirty-nine others. There also two Egyptian bishops, Peleus and Nilus, with several others, were burnt at the stake.
And now also mention must be made of the chief glory of the Caesarean community, Pamphilus, a presbyter and the most wonderful man of my time, the marvel of whose heroic achievements I shall describe when the moment is opportune. Of those at Alexandria and throughout the Thebais and the rest of Egypt who found glorious fulfilment, I must mention first Peter, Bishop of Alexandria itself, a splendid example of the teachers of true religion in Christ; of the presbyters with him, Faustus, Dius, and Ammonius, fulfilled martyrs of Christ; and Phileas, Hesychius, Pachymius, and Theodore, bishops of the Egyptian churches. Besides these there were countless other prominent persons who are commemorated by the churches to their area and locality.
To commit to writing the ordeals of those who battled all over the world for the true worship of the Deity, and to set out in detail everything that happened to them, are no tasks for me: they are surely reserved for those who saw the events with their own eyes. But the struggles I myself witnessed I shall put on record, for the benefit of future generations, in another work. However, in the present book I shall follow up my record with the recantation of the measures taken against us and all the events that followed the opening of the persecution, matters of very great moment to my readers.
As regards the state of the Roman government before the war against us, in every period when the emperors were friendly to us and peaceably disposed, it is beyond the power of words to describe the harvest and abundance of good things that it enjoyed, when the supreme rulers of the world-wide empire, on reaching their tenth and twentieth year, spent their time in festivities and public gatherings, in the gayest of banquets and jollifications, with complete and stable peace. But as there was no obstacle to the growth of their authority, which daily became more inflated, they suddenly abandoned their peaceful attitude to us and launched an implacable campaign. The second year of this kind of activity had not yet run its course, when a shock at the centre of affairs turned the whole system upside down. An unfortunate illness struck down the most senior of the four emperors,1 resulting in mental derangement; so, together with the one next to him in order of precedence,2 he returned to normal private life. And this had not yet come about when the whole empire was split in two, a thing that had never happened before, if memory serves.
Not very long afterwards the Emperor Constantius, who throughout his life showed a gentle and kindly spirit towards his subjects and a friendly attitude to the divine teaching, after appointing his lawful son Constantine Emperor and Augustus in his place, paid his debt to nature, and so became the first of the four to be proclaimed one of the gods by the Romans, the recipient of every posthumous honour that could be bestowed on an emperor, and the kindest and mildest of emperors. He was the only one in my time who spent the whole of his reign in a manner worthy of his exalted position. In all ways he showed himself most considerate and benevolent towards everyone: above all he took no part in the campaign against us – indeed he saved God’s servants among his subjects from injury and ill-usage, and he neither pulled down church buildings nor caused us any other mischief. So he achieved a conclusion to his life that was happy and supremely blest; for he alone while still emperor died in an atmosphere of goodwill and glory, to be succeeded by a lawful son in every way most prudent and most religious.
His son Constantine was immediately proclaimed Absolute Ruler and Augustus by the legions – and long before them by the Supreme Ruler, God Himself; and he determined to emulate his father’s reverent attitude to our teaching.
Later Licinius, by common vote of the princes, was declared Emperor and Augustus. This was a bitter blow to Maximin, who was everywhere still entitled only Caesar. So, being a tyrant to the marrow, he impudently usurped the honour and became a self-appointed Augustus. Meanwhile, it was discovered that a plot to kill Constantine had been hatched by the man who, as already explained, had abdicated and then resumed office, and he died a most ignominious death: he was the first whose complimentary inscriptions and statues, and everything else that it is customary to set up, were thrown down as being reminders of a foul monster.
The conduct of the enemies of true religion
14. His son Maxentius, who assumed autocratic power in Rome, began by making a pretence of our faith in order to gratify and flatter the citizens. He commanded his subjects to cease persecuting the Christians, putting on the guise of religion and trying to appear considerate and much gentler than his predecessors. But what people hoped he would be was very different from what he turned out to be. He plunged into every kind of depravity, and there was not one filthy, dissolute act of which he was innocent, given up as he was to adultery and sexual corruption in all its forms. He would take respectable married women away from their husbands, insult and grossly dishonour them, and send them back to their husbands; and he took care not to victimize unknown or obscure persons, but to make the most outstanding of the senior members of the Roman Senate the chief recipients of his besotted attentions. The whole city cowered before him, common people and magistrates, well known and unknown, worn down by his cruel tyranny: not even when they stayed quiet and made doormats of themselves was there any escape from the tyrant’s bloodthirsty cruelty. With a trivial excuse he once handed the people over to be massacred by his bodyguard, and thousands of Roman citizens were killed in the heart of the city, not by Scythians or other foreigners, but by their fellow-citizens in full military array. How many senators were massacred because of designs on their property cannot possibly be determined: for one fabricated reason or other hundreds were put to death. The culmination of the tyrant’s crimes was his resort to witchcraft: full of magical notions, he sometimes ripped up pregnant women, sometimes scrutinized the entrails of new-born babies, slaughtered lions, and invented unspeakable rites to call up demons and avert the threat of war; for in these practices lay all his hope of emerging victorious.
What this man did while lording it at Rome to enslave his subjects defies description: they were reduced to such desperate straits for lack of even essential food as my contemporaries inform me have never once been known at Rome.
The eastern despot Maximin, as if he were tarred with the same brush, made a secret alliance with Maxentius in Rome, and for a long time imagined that no one was any the wiser. (Actually he was later found out and paid the penalty he deserved.) It was wonderful what blood-brothers in crime the two of them appeared, or rather how Maximin robbed his opposite number of the first prize for villainy. Quacks and impostors held the highest place in his esteem; terrified at every sound, and horribly superstitious, he was at the mercy of his illusions about idols and demons. Without divinations and oracles he could not bring himself to move a hair’s breadth. The result was that he devoted himself to the persecution against us with more vehemence and determination than his predecessors, ordering temples to be built in every city and the sacred precincts which had gone to ruin with the lapse of time to be carefully restored; he appointed priests of idols in every locality and city, and over these a high priest of every province chosen from the public servants of the first rank and distinguished in every branch of civic life, with a bodyguard of armed soldiers; and with utter recklessness he rewarded all impostors, as the pious darlings of the gods, with governorships and the highest privileges.
From that time on he tortured and oppressed not one city or district, but the provinces under him, whole and complete, by exactions of gold and silver and goods without stint, and by very heavy impositions and a variety of judicial penalties. Robbing the wealthy of the property their ancestors had bequeathed to them he lavished unbounded wealth and mountains of goods on his circle of flatterers. His drunken orgies he carried to such a pitch that in his cups he went crazy and out of his mind, and issued orders when drunk which he regretted next day when sober. In debauchery and wild self-indulgence he brooked no rival, appointing himself a teacher of wickedness to those round him, both rulers and ruled. He induced the army to grow soft through utter self-indulgence and wantonness, and invited governors and army commanders to ruin their subjects with plundering and extortion, as if they were his co-tyrants. Need I recall his crimes of lust, or count the host of women he seduced? He was incapable of passing through a town without leaving a trail of dishonoured wives and ravished maidens. These things went as he wanted with all except Christians, who laughed at death and snapped their fingers at his vile tyranny. The men endured fire and sword and crucifixion; wild beasts and submersion in the sea; severance of limbs and branding; stabbing and gouging out of eyes; mutilation of the entire body; and, in addition, starvation, fetters, and the mines – they were prepared to endure anything for religion’s sake, rather than give to idols the reverence due to God. As for the women, schooled by the divine word, they showed themselves as manly as the men. Some underwent the same ordeals as the men, and shared with them the prize of valour; others, when dragged away to dishonour, gave up their souls to death rather than their bodies to that dishonour. Alone among those whom the tyrant tried to seduce at Alexandria, a Christian woman of the greatest eminence and distinction1 won the victory by her heroic spirit over the lustful and wanton soul of Maximin. Famed for her wealth, birth, and education, she put everything second to modesty. In spite of his constant advances and her willingness to die, he could not put her to death, because desire was stronger than anger; but he exiled her as a punishment, and appropriated all her possessions. Numberless others were assailed by provincial governors, but refusing even to listen to a threat of sexual relations, underwent every kind of punishment: they were racked and tortured till they died.
Wonderful as were these, the palm goes to a woman at Rome2 – like them a Christian – who was quite the noblest and most modest of all the intended victims of the besotted tyrant there, Maxentius, whose conduct was only too like Maximin’s. When she was told that the tyrant’s pandars were at her door, and that her husband – a Roman prefect at that – through fear had given them leave to seize her and take her away, she begged to be excused a moment, as if to dress herself for the occasion. Then she went into her own room, shut the door, and stabbed herself to the heart, dying instantly. Her dead body she left to the emperor’s pimps; but by deeds that spoke more loudly than any words she proclaimed to all men then living or yet to come that the only unconquerable and indestructible possession was a Christian’s virtue. So far could vileness be carried, as practised at one and the same time by the two tyrants who had divided east and west between them. Would anyone who sought the reason for these crimes fail to put his finger on the persecution against us? Particularly as this appalling state of confusion did not come to an end until Christians got back their freedom.
What happened to those outside the Church
15. Throughout the ten-year period of the persecution, their plotting and campaigning against each other continued without intermission. The seas were unnavigable, and wherever people sailed from they could not avoid being subjected to outrages of every sort: they were racked, and had their sides torn open, and were interrogated with the aid of an endless variety of tortures, on the pretext that they might be enemy agents; finally they were subjected to crucifixion or to punishment by fire. Then again the manufacture of shields and breastplates, and the preparation of javelins, spears, and other munitions of war, not to mention warships and naval equipment, went on apace everywhere, and no one could look for anything but an enemy attack any day. On them, too, fell the famine and pestilence that followed. I shall give the necessary details at the proper time.
The change for the better
16. Such were the conditions that persisted throughout the persecution, which in the tenth year by the grace of God came to a complete end, having begun to die down after the eighth. For when it became evident that we were in the kindly, beneficent keeping of divine and heavenly grace, an amazing thing happened – our rulers, the very people who had long been the driving force behind the campaign against us, changed their minds in a most astonishing manner and solemnly recanted, extinguishing by means of decrees sympathetic to us and ordinances of the mildest character the fire of persecution which had raged so fiercely. It was no human initiative that brought this about – no pity, as might be suggested, or humanity on the part of the rulers. Anything but that: they were from the start daily devising against us still further measures yet more drastic; by multifarious and constantly changing schemes they were for ever inventing new ways of outraging us. It was a manifest visitation of divine providence, which became reconciled to the common people but took action against the perpetrator of these crimes,1 indignant with him as being primarily responsible for the whole iniquitous persecution. It was indeed inevitable that these things should come about as a divine judgement, but ‘Woe’, the Scripture says, ‘to the man through whom the stumbling-block comes’.2 He was pursued by a divinely ordained punishment, which began with his flesh and went on to his soul. Without warning, suppurative inflammation broke out round the middle of his genitals, then a deep-seated fistular ulcer: these ate their way incurably into his inmost bowels. From them came a teeming indescribable mass of worms, and a sickening smell was given off; for the whole of his hulking body, thanks to over-eating, had been transformed even before his illness into a huge lump of flabby fat, which then decomposed and presented those who came near with a revolting and horrifying sight. Of the doctors, some were unable to endure the overpowering and extraordinary stench, and were executed on the spot; others, unable to be of any assistance now that the entire mass had swollen up and deteriorated beyond hope of recovery, were put to death without mercy.
The recantation of the emperors
17. As he wrestled with this terrible sickness, he was filled with remorse for his cruel treatment of God’s servants. So he pulled himself together, and after first making open confession to the God of the universe, he called his court officials and ordered them to lose no time in stopping the persecution of Christians, and by an imperial law and decree to stimulate the building of churches and the performance of the customary rites, with the addition of prayers for the Emperor’s Majesty. Action immediately followed the word, and imperial ordinances were published in all the cities, setting forth in the following terms the recantation by the emperors of our time:
The Emperor Caesar Galerius Valerius Maximianus Invictus Augustus, Pontifex Maximus, Germanicus Maximus, Egyptiacus Maximus, Thebaicus Maximus, Sarmaticus Maximus five times, Persicus Maximus twice, Carpicus Maximus six times, Armeniacus Maximus, Medicus Maximus, Adiabenicus Maximus, Holder of Tribunician Authority for the twentieth time, Imperator for the nineteenth, Consul for the eighth, Pater Patriae, Proconsul; the Emperor Caesar Flavius Valerius Constantinus Pius Felix Invictus Augustus, Pontifex Maximus, Holder of Tribunician Authority, Imperator for the fifth time, Consul, Pater Patriae, Proconsul; and the Emperor Caesar Valerius Licinianus Licinius Pius Felix Invictus Augustus, Pontifex Maximus, Holder of Tribunician Authority for the fourth time, Imperator for the third, Consul, Pater Patriae, Proconsul – in the people of their several provinces, greeting.
Among the other steps that we are taking for the advantage and benefit of the nation, we have desired hitherto that every deficiency should be made good, in accordance with the established law and public order of Rome; and we made provision for this – that the Christians who had abandoned the convictions of their own forefathers should return to sound ideas. For through some perverse reasoning such arrogance and folly had seized and possessed them that they refused to follow the path trodden by earlier generations (and perhaps blazed long ago by their own ancestors), and made their own laws to suit their own ideas and individual tastes and observed these; and held various meetings in various places.
Consequently, when we issued an order to the effect that they were to go back to the practices established by the ancients, many of them found themselves in great danger, and many were proceeded against and punished with death in many forms. Most of them indeed persisted in the same folly, and we saw that they were neither paying to the gods in heaven the worship that is their due nor giving any honour to the god of the Christians. So in view of our benevolence and the established custom by which we invariably grant pardon to all men, we have thought proper in this matter also to extend our clemency most gladly, so that Christians may again exist and rebuild the houses in which they used to meet, on condition that they do nothing contrary to public order. In a further letter we shall explain to the justices what principles they are to follow. Therefore, in view of this our clemency, they are in duty bound to beseech their own god for our security, and that of the state and of themselves, in order that in every way the state may be preserved in health and they may be able to live free from anxiety in their own homes.
So ran the edict in the original Latin, which I have turned into Greek to the best of my ability. What happened subsequently it is now time to consider.
The author of the edict had no sooner made this confession, than he was released from his bodily torments; but in a very little while he was dead. It is on record that he had been the prime mover in the calamitous persecution, for long before the other emperors made a move he had used physical violence to pervert the Christians in the armed forces, after starting with the members of his own household. Some he had deprived of their military rank, some he had insulted most shamefully, others he had actually threatened with death. Finally, he had incited the fellow-emperors to undertake a worldwide persecution.
It would not be proper to pass over the deaths of these men in silence. Of the four who had shared worldwide rule, the two who were senior in years and status1 abdicated less than two years after the start of the persecution, as I have already explained, and after passing the rest of their lifetimes like any ordinary citizens, met their end as follows. The one who had reached first place in status and years2 succumbed to a prolonged and very painful physical disease. The one who held second place strangled himself, thereby fulfilling a demon-inspired prediction, for he had been guilty of innumerable atrocities. Of the junior pair, the occupant of the last place,3 who as already stated was the person behind the whole persecution, suffered the fate described above, but his immediate superior, the kindest and mildest of emperors, Constantius, spent the whole of his reign in a manner worthy of his exalted position. In all ways he showed himself most considerate and benevolent towards everyone; above all, he stayed outside the campaign against us and saved God’s servants among his subjects from injury and ill-usage, and he neither pulled down the church buildings nor caused us any other mischief whatever. So he truly achieved a conclusion to his life that was happy and supremely blest; for he alone while still emperor died in an atmosphere of goodwill and glory, to be succeeded on the throne by a lawful son in every way most prudent and religious. He was immediately proclaimed Absolute Ruler and Augustus by the legions, and he determined to emulate his father’s reverent attitude to our teaching.
Such were the ways in which, one by one, the lives of the four men of whom I have written above came to an end. Last of them to survive was the man of whom I wrote a little way back.1 He, with those later admitted to the highest office,2 in the document reproduced above published for all to read the confession which I have described.