The emperor Marcus Aurelius was a disciplined and ascetic man, moderate in all things. He is counted the last of the “five good emperors” and usually anthologized with the great Stoic philosophers. His “meditations” sometimes seem almost Christian: “Take pleasure in one thing and rest in it, in passing from one act to another, thinking of God.” Yet his “God” was most certainly not the God of Christians and Jews. The deity, for Marcus, was more an impersonal principle that pervaded the universe, probably unconcerned with human events, like the Force in “Star Wars.” Marcus found Christianity distasteful, rife as it was with prayer of supplication, talk of divine Love, and unseemly zeal for martyrdom. This Oriental cult was hardly the stuff of good Roman Stoics.
But, again, Marcus was a moderate man, and so he didn’t initiate any new persecutions against the Christians. What he did instead was to ease up the restrictions on informers, making it more expedient for people to denounce their neighbors and rivals as Christians: no longer need they fear of counter-suits or consequences if their accusations didn’t hold up. So it became open hunting season.
In the year 177, the nobles of provincial Gaul — who customarily funded public entertainment for the local rabble — decided to take advantage of the situation. Rather than paying serious money for gladiators, they’d round up Christians and pit the poor saps against wild beasts and trained soldiers in the ring. It would be great fun, and at a low, low price. The local yokels liked the idea and lent their labors to the anti-Christian cause, forming mobs as needed.
These circumstances have left us with some of the most stirring examples of heroism we possess from the early Church. Perhaps the finest are in the Acts of the Martyrs of Vienna and Lyons. Today, June 2, is the memorial of those great saints. The most prominent Christian to go in that purge was Bishop Pothinus of Lyons. Here’s the account from a letter sent by the churches of Vienna and Lyons to the churches of Asia and Phrygia:
Now the blessed Pothinus, who had been entrusted with the bishopric of Lyons, was dragged before the judgment-seat. He was over ninety years of age and very infirm. Though he breathed with difficulty on account of the feebleness of the body, yet he was strengthened by spiritual zeal through his earnest desire to bear his testimony. His body, indeed, was already worn out by old age and disease, yet his life was preserved that Christ might triumph through him. When he was brought by the soldiers to the judgment-seat, accompanied by the civil magistrates and a multitude who shouted against him in every manner, as if he himself were the Christ, he gave the good testimony. When the governor asked who was the God of the Christians, he said, “If thou art worthy, thou shalt know.” Then he was unmercifully dragged away and endured many blows. Those near him struck him with their hands and feet, showing no respect for his age. Those at a distance hurled against him whatever they could seize. All of them thought they would sin greatly if they omitted any abuse in their insulting treatment of him. For they thought that in this way they would avenge their gods. And Pothinus, breathing with difficulty, was cast into prison, and died two days later.
Tradition tells us that Pothinus was the man who had invited the great St. Irenaeus to be a priest of Lyons. He may have been the one who ordained him. Irenaeus would soon succeed the old man in the office of bishop.
By far the most famous of the martyrs we celebrate today was a young girl named Blandina, a Christian slave who belonged to a Christian family. Blandina was frail in appearance, but she proved to be hardy in spirit, persevering in faith through days of torture. The eyewitness accounts were recorded and treasured in the early Church. The modern critical scholar Herbert Musurillo, S.J., places a high value on their historical content. The ancient acts are well summarized in the old Catholic Encyclopedia:
Her companions greatly feared that on account of her bodily frailty she might not remain steadfast under torture. But although the legate caused her to be tortured in a horrible manner, so that even the executioners became exhausted “as they did not know what more they could do to her”, still she remained faithful and repeated to every question “I am a Christian and we commit no wrongdoing.” … Blandina was … bound to a stake and wild beasts were set on her. They did not, however touch her. After this for a number of days she was led into the arena to see the sufferings of her companions. Finally, as the last of the martyrs, she was scourged, placed on a red-hot grate, enclosed in a net and thrown before a wild steer who tossed her into the air with his horns, and at last killed with a dagger.
The blood of the martyrs is seed, said Tertullian. It is the seed of succeeding generations, including our own. We are privileged to be the offspring of the young virgin-martyr Blandina and the wise old Bishop Pothinus. They continue to give us good example, and they intercede for us before the throne of almighty God. So make the most of their day.
It’s a pity I can’t send you to buy Herbert Musurillo’s anthology The Acts of the Christian Martyrs. Unfortunately, it’s out of print; and used copies are frightfully expensive. But it’s in most good libraries, so read it if you can lay hands on it.
And I beg and implore you to read In Procession Before the World: Martyrdom as Public Liturgy in Early Christianity by Robin Darling Young. Read it at least twice. It will blow your mind.