Lessons from the Roman martyrs

    One of the greatest problems in the modern world is the absence of virtue.  This is more subtle than the obvious abundance of vice.  One reason is because it is an absence rather than a presence.  It is apparent if something happens that should not, but what if something that should happen does not?  That is much more difficult to perceive, in particular if we do not know what we should be looking for.  What tends to happen is that people have a general sense that something is not as it should be; but do not know what.  

    Two of the largest are the lack of courage and the lack of loyalty.  The story of early Christian martyrs provides an example of a time when both of these virtues were far stronger than they are now.  The courage of the martyrs is proverbial, but their story also shows the virtues of the Romans.  Although individual Roman emperors were depraved and wicked, many of the individual Romans were far superior to most moderns in honesty and courage.  For instance, when the Christians were asked to burn a pinch of incense to Caesar and be released or refuse and die, the Romans weren't lying.  They really did release those Christians who apostasized.  Compare this to the dishonest show trials of the twentieth and twenty-first century where those taken to trial are already marked for persecution and there is nothing they can do about it.  

    Despite their cruelty, the Romans were honest; they followed their own rules.  When Pontius Pilate released Barbbas, Barabbas really was released.  Paul was beheaded because he was a Roman citizen and Roman citizens could not be crucified.  The account of the martyrdom of Felicity and Perpetua states that Felicity was pregnant at the time of her condemnation, so she was not executed until she had given birth.  This is because the Romans considered it unjust to kill an unborn and innocent child along with the mother when the mother had been condemned to death.  

    By contrast, the dishonest anti-Christian governments of the 21st century do not follow their own rules.  Rules are applied selectively to Christians for the purpose of harming them.  Another contrast is that in many of the Christian perseuctions of the 20th century, the goal was either the elimination of groups that were Christian or the utter destruction of Christian belief along with demoralization of Chrisitans.  By contrast, genocide was not the goal of the Roman persecution.  Although pagan mobs sometimes did attack Christians indiscriminately at the time of the perecutions, the goal of the Roman officials was not to kill all Christians.  Their plan was to force the Christians into submission to the empire.  Indeed, the Romans were not concerned with the otherworldly beliefs of the Christians but only their refusal to honor the emperor as a god, which was seen as disloyalty to the state.

    Further, the Romans greatly respected courage.  Executions were public, so pagan Romans had seen many criminals killed.  But these criminals had no choice in the matter.  Once found guilty of a crime, they were condemned to be executed and outside of escaping from prison, there was no way to stop it.  One the other hand, up until the point they were sentenced to death the Christians really could have walked away at any time by honoring the pagan gods and so they were choosing to undergo torture and death.  This must have been astounding to the Romans.  Among Roman soldiers in particular courage must have been greatly honored.  Eusebius in his History of the Church relates an account of a soldier who became converted in seeing a Christian undergo torment and death: 

    "Seventh among them must be reckoned Basilides who led the renowned Potamiaena to execution.  The praises of this woman are even today loudly sung by her own people. ...  She had hardly spoken when she heard sentence pronounced, and Basilides, a member of the armed forces, seized her arm and led her away to execution.  As the crowd tried to plauge her and insult her with obscene jests, Basilides thrust them back and drove them away, showing the utmost pity and kindness towards her.  Potamiaena accepted his sympathy for her and gave him encouragement: when she had gone away she would ask the Lord for him, and it would not be long before she repaid him for all he had done for her.  This said, she faced her end with noble courage - slowly, drop by drop, boiling pitch was poured over different parts of her body, from her toes to the crown of her head.  Such was the battle won by this splendid girl. 

    Not long afterwards Basilides was for some reason asked by his fellow-soldiers to take an oath, but he insisted that he was unable to swear in any circumstances as he was a Christian and made no secret of the fact.  At first they thought he was joking, but when he stuck doggedly to his assertion he was brought before the magistrate, who, as he made no attempt to hide his convictions, committed him to prison.  When his brothers in God visited him and asked the reason for this amazing impulse and determination, he is said to have declared that three days after her martyrdom Potamiaena stood before him in the night, put a wreath about his head, and said that she had prayed for him to the Lord, had obtained her request, and before long would place him by her side.  At this the brethren bestowed on him the seal of the Lord [baptism], and the next day, nobly witnessing for his Lord, he was beheaded.  The records sate that at this period many other citizens of Alexandria accepted the teaching of Christ in a body, as Potamiaena appeared to them in dreams and called them."  

    Other Roman soldiers who died for their faith are the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste, condemned to freeze to death.  In general, Romans were far more courageous than modern Westerners and soldiers even more so.  So it is no surprise that many soldiers became Christians.  

  In addition to their courage, the early Christians were extraordinarily tight-knit.  An egregious misunderstanding in the modern days is that it is somehow above tribalism to hate one's own family and one's own culture.  By contrast, the early Christians took the love and devotion of the family and extended it to the other members of their communities.  They moved above tribalism, while modern liberal Christianity falls below it.  In particular, there was no magic word beginning with "R" that caused early Christians to throw each other to the pagan mob.  

    The early Christians also helped each other in times of trouble.  If Christians in one city were suffering, Christians from other cities would bring food or money.  And in those days, this meant personally travelling across many miles with the possibility of encountering bandits.  Felicity and Perpetua both had young children and yet they knew that after they died their children would be cared for by the Christian community.  Indeed, a frequent exhortation used by Roman magistrates to convince Christian parents to apostasize was to consider their duty for family; who would take care of them if they died?  But the Christian parents were willing to die because they knew their children would be cared for.  But not only that, the martyrs were willing to accept the death of their entire family because they did not view it as the end; they had faith in life after death to an extent that is astounding.  

    This is shown by the fact that the feast day of martyrs was the day they died; viewed as the day they were born to eternal life.  

    So, in general, people in Roman times were far more courageous and loyal than people now and Christians most of all.  Furthermore, loyaly and faith strengthen courage.  In these days, reading about the Roman martyrs is informative because it shows us the significance of these three virtues: loyalty, faith, and courage.


  1. This post reminded me of one of my favorite novels of all time -
    "The Robe" by Lloyd C. Douglas (published 1942)...

    Though not actually about "early Christian martyrs" (the setting is just prior to and shortly after the crucifixion), the main character "Marcellus Gallio" perfectly depicts the type of Roman virtue, honor, and courage you describe above.

    I can't recommend this book highly enough, especially to those who enjoy historical fiction, particularly of the spiritually moving sort...
    Set in the time of the very beginnings of Christianity, yet from the POV of a most honorable young Roman who sets out to discover just 'who' this "Jesus of Nazareth" truly was, the book offers very 'well drawn' characters, accurate depictions of the timeframe - from a variety cultural settings, and a highly compelling plot.

    Here's a link to read it free online- http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks04/0400561h.html

    If you (or any of your readers) take a chance on it - I would really love to know what you think, or maybe even have an online discussion opportunity.

    1. Thanks for the recommendation. It sounds like an interesting novel.

  2. In my experience in medicine, academia and science; there is so little courage that people will not even 'risk' the slightest disapproval from colleagues and superiors.

    Nearly everybody will do whatever they are told by management - even when (as was initially often the case) the thing is wrong and there are no sanctions against Not doing it.

    there has been such an inversion of attitude since the 1980s when I started my working life. Then there were quite a lot of professionals would would do what they believed right unless they were actively prevented.

    From about 2000 such people seem all-but extinct - and the attitude is 'tell me what to do, and I will believe it is good, and do my best to do it'

    - Even when doctors/ scientists/ academics are being 'told' by professional generic managers or bureaucrats without knowledge-of or interest-in the specific work.

    Clearly, with such attitudes, people are incapable of any kind of courage; indeed they cannot even begin to act with the kind of courage you describe because they do not want to. It is more than a failure of courage - more an inversion of the virtue.

    1. You're right; it's amazing how many people will do what they are told by officials, even when it has just been invented and is clearly harmful and unhelpful. An inversion of courage is a good way to describe it.

      Even though the sort of heroic courage that the martrys displayed is not likely for most people (even then, it seemed to be miraculous in many cases). But, learning about the martyrs can still give ordinary Christians inspiration to be more courageous than they would normally have been even if it doesn not rise to the same level of heroism.

      Even if courage is difficult, if there was one lesson from the early Christians that I wish mainstream Christians paid more attention to, it is loyalty. If Christians stopped giving the benefit of the doubt to their enemies and if they supported fellow Christians whom they knew personally, they would find it easier to be brave.


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