It’s Sunday as I write and my mind turns to saints martyred by the Romans – particularly under the emperor Diocletian and to a lesser extent, Trajan Decius. These emperors attempted to reunite a fractured empire by enforcing a unity among the population which involved sacrificing to the divine person of the emperor – this was a new innovation and born of desperate times. Needless to say the Christians had no intention of taking part in such a ritual – or at least, some of them didn’t while some of them gave in and did.
Our two main sources for the deaths of these good Christians are somewhat compromised figures – Eusebius and Lactantius, both men of Christ and thoroughly hostile to the pagans. It was in their interests – and that of the newly legalised and growing church – to paint the pagans as monsters and the Christians as blameless victims.
The Templars were particularly fond of these martyred saints of the late Roman period as they exemplified the heroic ideal. Going to their death instead of rejecting their faith. This appealed to the Templar who would never leave a battlefield against the Saracen unless the standard was lowered. Better to die than retreat as other knights did.
But back to those saints.
Many of them volunteered for martyrdom even when Roman governors and other officials pleaded with them endlessly to see sense and just burn some incense and say a prayer for the emperor. I always have a sneaking sympathy for the poor governor, schooled in the Greek and Roman classics, who must have wondered what exactly these people were on. Take Julian, a Christian who on being told that he was to be burned to death slowly in the arena, danced for joy. He was elated that God had chosen him to be martyred in such a public and cruel way.
One governor called Firmilian decided that to ‘encourage’ the Roman Christians to worship the emperor, he would refuse permission for martyrs’ bodies to be buried. Eusebius claims to have been a witness to body parts and ‘bowels’ spread all over the plain of Caesaria. The whole area became one big – and presumably very smelly – charnel house.
In north Africa, one young Christian called Ulpian was sewn in to the tough skin of an ox along with a live dog and a poisonous viper – then thrown in the sea. There are countless stories of Christians being tortured to the point where any normal person would have expired but somehow surviving, still remaining defiant (or insolent if you were a pagan Roman) and then being executed. Some went on to pick up their own head and walk off !!
If they didn’t get executed, the Christian who refused to bend the knee to the divine emperor wished they had lost their head. Because the alternative was the mines. Copper mines in Palestine or Porphyry digging in Egypt. The tendon on their left foot slashed and the right eye gouged out to prevent escape. If you didn’t die on the long trek to the mines, eaten by jackals and picked clean by vultures, then you wouldn’t expect to live long in the mines, your back lashed by the whip.
Many of these martyrs with their lurid tales of death – Apolonia having her teeth pulled out and Agatha losing her breasts – were enormously popular in the Middle Ages. The skulls of these saints – and other bones and sacred artefacts – were revered. The Templars adored Saint Katherine of Alexandria and Saint George as well as Saint Euphemia (killed by a bear in the arena) and Saint Polycarp (stabbed when the fire heaped around him failed to burn his body). Polycarp was an earlier martyr from the second century after Christ.
It’s worth noting that more Christians in all likelihood died at the hands of other Christians in the two hundred years after the religion was officially tolerated by Constantine then enforced by emperor Theodosius I, than died in front of lions in all the centuries previously.
The pagan Roman was ultimately concerned with imperial unity and loyalty – than the small points of theological debate. But Christians would go on to slaughter each other over definitions of Christ’s nature, whether Mary was the mother of God or not and the doctrine of the Trinity.
Christians would also lay in to each other over those who had backslid during the persecutions of Diocletian and those who had remained firm. The Donatists, possibly the majority of Christians in north Africa during the fourth century, would refuse to take communion from Christians who had given in to pagan Roman pressure. They had a point, after all some bishops had even informed on their congregations to save their skins.