Martyrs of Lyons

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St Polycarp (c. 69—155 ad)


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(d. 177).

Their early date, the factual and moving contemporary record, faithfully transcribed by Eusebius, together with their subsequent cult, make these protomartyrs of Gaul altogether notable. They suffered, like many elsewhere, in the persecution of Marcus Aurelius (161–80). One of the most interesting features of the account is the way that the varied personnel of the martyrs is stressed: bishops, priests, deacons and laity, men and women, slave and free. Some of them had come from the nearby church of Vienne. The account was written for the churches of Asia and Phrygia, from which some of these congregations had come, while Irenaeus, future bishop of Lyons, also took a copy to Eleutherius, bishop of Rome.

The document begins: ‘The severity of our trials here, the unbridled fury of the heathen against God's people, the untold sufferings of the blessed martyrs, we are incapable of describing in detail: indeed no pen could do them justice.’ Persecution had begun with social ostracism (exclusion from the market and the baths), it continued with popular violence (insults, blows, thefts, and stonings), and ended with official action. This brought Christians to the forum for interrogation and subsequent imprisonment. One young man called Vettius Epagathus asked to defend them against charges of treason and impiety. The judge then asked if he too were a Christian. When he answered that he was, he was also sent to prison. At this point the pressure was so intense that ten Christians abjured.

The next move was to arrest the slaves of Christians. Some of these accused their masters of cannibalism, incest, and other abominations. The mob's fury was then directed against Sanctus, a deacon from Vienne, who under repeated torture and interrogation answered only: ‘I am a Christian.’ Blandina, a slave, showed fortitude unexpected by her mistress. The aged bishop of Lyons, Pothinus, reputed to be aged ninety (Polycarp was claimed to be eighty-six) also suffered like the others. When asked to explain who was the God of the Christians, he replied: ‘If you are worthy, you will know.’ He was then beaten, kicked, and stoned until he was unconscious. Two days later, he died in prison.

The martyrs were killed in more ways than one. At least four were killed by wild beasts in the surviving amphitheatre; others were tortured with whips or roasted on the iron chair. Others died as a result of their varied sufferings. These tortures were repeated in some cases. Other lethal factors were the brutality of the gaolers and the bad conditions of imprisonment. The courage of the martyrs never faltered, but they also helped to reconcile those who had failed to be constant. The emperor's rescript condemned Christians to death, but ordered the release of those who had abjured. This, however, was the occasion for the lapsed to confess Christ boldly and to join the other martyrs.

On the last day of the ‘single combats’ Blandina was again brought into the amphitheatre together with a boy of fifteen called Ponticus. After he had endured every torment, he died. Blandina was thrown into a net and exposed to a bull. When she had been repeatedly tossed, she became unconscious but by no means unfaithful under the fatal goring. She too, ‘upheld by her faith and communing with Christ, was immolated…the pagans themselves admitted they had never known a woman to show such endurance.’


Subjects: Christianity.

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