Many were scarred from beatings and floggings. Several were missing eyes, others their arms. Paul of Neo-Caesarea’s hands dangled uselessly since he had been forced to grip red-hot iron. Paphnutius, a disciple of Anthony and bishop of extraordinary celebrity because of his miracles, had lost an eye and the use of a leg.
Theodoret was not indulging in his usual embellishment when he described the bishops gathered for the Council of Nicea in 325 as “an assembled army of martyrs.” And it was a victorious army. It was too much to be believed. Not unlike a recent pope, Constantine understood the frisson of the right gesture. The emperor doted on Paphnutius, and he sealed the seismic shift in imperial treatment of the Church by kissing the old bishop’s empty eye socket.
When, the following year, Constantine invited the bishops to celebrate his vicennalia, Eusebius marveled that once-hounded bishops could walk fearlessly past armed Roman guards into the emperor’s palace, where they were his companions, reclining at table like the apostles with Christ himself. “One might have thought that a picture of Christ’s kingdom was thus shadowed forth,” Eusebius wrote, “and a dream rather than reality.” It was for them a return from exile, to which the psalmist’s words apply: “When the Lord turned again the captivity of Zion, we were like them that dreamed. Then was our mouth filled with laughter and our tongue with singing. Then said we among the nations: The Lord has done great things for us, whereof we are glad.”
Constantine ended the Roman persecution of Christians, but Christians today are still persecuted and martyred. Many of our brothers and sisters remain in exile, and because the Christian Church is one, the whole body suffers in the suffering of African and Asian Christians. But modern states have learned from ancient Rome’s experience. They know the political dangers of public martyrdom because they know that, in dying, the early martyrs won the victory over the greatest empire the world had ever seen. Today’s tyrants know that martyrdom is a public performance, and so they have sought to perfect the technologies of surveillance and secrecy. They torture without leaving a mark; they find places to hide. The Suu Kyis and Chen Guangchengs must be kept far from the public eye, because once their sufferings are made public, they not only deeply embarrass the regime but even endanger it.
The political dynamics of martyrdom remain much as they were in the Roman Empire. Martyrs have ways of going public, and when they do they still have resources of political power that even the most efficient and cunning tyranny has difficulty neutralizing. There is an internal connection between martyrdom and the subsequent shape of Western political life. “The Western state actually exists,” writes Paul Kahn in Putting Liberalism in Its Place, “under the very real threat of Christian martyrdom: a threat to expose the state and its claim to power as nothing at all. In the end, sacrifice is always stronger than murder. The martyr wields a power to defeat his murderer, which cannot be answered on the field of battle.”
The Church moved from persecution to freedom and power. Was that a historical accident, or is there something inherent in martyrdom—or in Christian martyrdom in particular—that creates or exploits fissures in persecuting regimes? Is persecution of Christians the cause of the persecutor’s demise? Is martyrs’ blood what Tertullian said it was, the seed of the Church?
Lactantius thought so. In his vivid and violent treatise On the Deaths of the Persecutors, he exults in the fact that the Church’s adversaries are “destroyed”; peace reigns in Rome; the Church, once overthrown, has been rebuilt with more glory than before; and God has raised up “princes to rescind the impious and sanguinary edicts of the tyrants and provide for the welfare of mankind.” Everyone who tore down the temple of God has “fallen with more tremendous ruin.” God was granting victory after victory to Constantine, the man who vindicated the martyrs.
For the Romans, the political stakes could not have been higher. Romans were proud of their religiosity, and their respect for the gods was as political as it was religious. From the time of Augustus, Roman religion legitimated the expanding power of the empire. Pax romana depended on pax deorum. It is no accident that from Decius to Diocletian, the most intense persecutions broke out during the reigns of sternly conservative, moralistic emperors who attempted to consolidate a fragmented political order by reinforcing frayed Roman values. Romans understood self-sacrifice on behalf of the city and its goddess, but crowds raged in fright over fanatics who offered themselves in defiance of all decency and reason. Romans had long been suspicious of strange and secretive sects who might turn the gods against them, and in the Church they saw dangerous deviants. Romans distrusted Jews, too, but Jews at least had a claim to antiquity. Christians had sprung up only yesterday and now seemed to be everywhere.
For individual martyrs, testimony to Jesus before a Roman governor constituted a form of self-definition that defied and defiled Roman self-definitions. Exasperated, reluctant Roman governors cajoled and threatened, only to be answered with a defiant “Christianus sum” or the declaration “I wish to remain what I am.” In the eyes of Romans, Edward Gibbon observed, Christians “dissolved the sacred ties of custom and education, violated the religious institutions of their country, and presumptuously despised whatever their fathers had believed as true or had reverenced as sacred . . . . Every Christian rejected with contempt the superstitions of his family, his city, and his province.” The Romans saw Christians “to be antisocial in the deepest meaning of the word,” Joyce Salisbury notes in The Blood of Martyrs. “They were creating their own society within the Roman one, and their loyalties were to each other rather than to the family structures that formed the backbone of conservative Roman society. Their faith led them to renounce parents, children, and spouses, and Romans believed this actively undermined the fabric of society.”
Christians renounced all the names that society imposed on them. They wanted to be named only by the single name of Jesus. Their renunciation of traditional markers of identity had direct political and legal effects. Higher-status Romans, honestiores, escaped painful and humiliating punishments but could lose their freedom, property, and power to will or inherit property, and this was enough to keep most of them in line, while humiliores could be crucified, flogged, or thrown to beasts.
Christians, by contrast, were convinced that social reputation was an illusion; they were a community without slave or free, honestiores or humiliores. What could Roman authorities do with people who sought glory in public humiliation and ignominious death, who thought they could make a name by losing their names? Roman punishments were supposed to vindicate and reinforce Roman order and conceptions of the self, but Christians who went singing to gruesome deaths threw the Romans into an identity crisis. From all appearances, the Romans won over and over, each time they executed a Christian. Roman gods, not the Christian God, came away vindicated. Why were the Christians so happy, so confident that they were the victors?
The Christians’ heroic endurance in the arena chipped away at the Romans’ view of the world and of themselves in another way. Romans knew what gladiatorial combat was supposed to look like. Gladiators would display Roman fortitude, accepting death with Stoic acquiescence. Criminals would be comically frightened, kicking and scratching to avoid death. Romans came to the arena to be reassured that Roman power was secure, to be assured that chaos was at bay. In the conflict between gladiators and criminals, Rome was again assured that all was well. Execution of criminals demonstrated that Rome was capable of suppressing all her enemies.
Christians who faced their death in the arena calmly and bravely exploded this assumption. The martyr’s death did not look like victory, but it did not look like defeat either. Christians were redefining and reconfiguring the power, mastery, and honor the Romans most valued. Mobs became furious: How could these antisocial insects mimic and even outdo gladiators? The fury of the crowd only sent more Christians into the arena, which further eroded confidence in Rome’s scale of values. By their very resilience, Christians subverted Romanitas, and they subverted it in the spectacles of the arena, the very temple of Romanitas. The irony could not have been more luscious if it had been scripted. (Perhaps it was.)
During the first centuries of Christianity, laws governing the faith were tightened and relaxed in response to circumstances, and even the empire-wide edicts of the Great Diocletian Persecution were unevenly enforced. In Gaul, Caesar Constantius, father of Constantine, did his best to protect Christians and churches, while in the east Galerius raged against them. When Roman officials insisted that they condemned Christians according to the law, they were referring not to any specific written edict but to the authority they had to exercise their discretion in a particular case.
Martyrs and their apologists exploited this tentativeness, ambiguity, and imprecision. Germanicus, a bit player in the martyrdom of Polycarp, pulled a beast onto himself so he could “be released sooner from unjust and lawless life.” The apologists saw Roman officials as arbitrary, pliable, and manipulable by angry crowds who did not condemn Christians on the basis of law, for Christians were peaceable and law-abiding citizens of the empire. They condemned Christians on the basis of a name. Lawless as the Romans were, they must, Christians concluded, be agents of the devil, the father of lawlessness. This elevated the conflict with Rome to cosmic dimensions: Since Rome was exposed as diabolical, resistance to Rome was an apocalyptic battle with the principalities and powers of darkness.
Martyrdom exposed the impotence of state violence. Torture did not change most Christians. As Salisbury writes, the Romans misconstrued the psychology of torture. Torture does not “reassociate” but “disassociates” its victims. Roman torturers tried to force Christians back into conformity with Romanitas, but the more they tortured, the more Christians detached themselves from Rome. Roman power met its limits because the Christian Church had already opened doors to a new world within the Roman world, a social and heavenly world to which Christians were more attached than they were to Rome. No amount of pain could force them back in, and the more Rome tried, the more Rome showed its impotence. Before the martyrs, Roman law was unmasked as brute power and arbitrary will and, what was worse, ineffective power and will.
For the Romans, to sacrifice was to acknowledge a commitment to the institutions and social order of the Roman empire, which the gods had established forever. The Christian’s refusal to sacrifice proved his rejection of the entire order of Rome. Anyone who so thoroughly refused to play by Roman rules deserved all the horrors the Roman imagination could concoct. If Christians refused to sacrifice willingly, they would become sacrifices unwillingly. Nothing so resembles a human sacrifice as an early Christian martyrdom.
The martyrs agreed that they were sacrifices. When the Christian Eucharist was still a mysterious private rite, martyrdom was the primary public form of Christian sacrificial liturgy. Sacrificial motifs are very common in patristic treatises on martyrdom and in the Acts of the Martyrs. Ignatius of Antioch’s long procession to his death in Rome was a parody of an imperial triumph, which ended at the altar of Jupiter. For Origen, martyrs were a liturgical “procession before the world.” Each Christian is a temple of the Spirit, and therefore each Christian body and the assembled Christian body is a place of sacrifice. The martyr’s body comes to its fulfillment as a temple when the saint offers the final sacrifice.
Martyrs imitate Christ’s own sacrifice and by imitating they share in his work. In the Martyrdom of Polycarp, the elderly Polycarp rode into Smyrna on a donkey, and his martyrdom step-by-step reenacted the death of Jesus. Finally, he was tied to a stake “like a noble ram out of a great flock for an offering, a burnt sacrifice made ready and acceptable to God.” He prayed that by his death he would become “a rich and acceptable sacrifice.”
In Ignatius’ letters, this sacrificial imagery was integrated with imagery taken from the arena, in which the martyr was victorious not in spite of but because of his martyrdom. Ignatius imagined himself a gladiator. Alluding to Paul, he claimed to “fight with wild beasts” during his whole journey to Rome, a combat that would climax in the arena itself: “Come fire and cross and grapplings with wild beasts, wrenching of bones, hacking of limbs, crushings of my whole body, come cruel tortures of the devil to assail me.” A fearless gladiator, Ignatius was sure he would stand firm and fight to the end to attain to Christ. Polycarp too was an “athlete of God,” and Origen compared the spectacle of martyrdom to the games of the Roman amphitheaters. All the martyrs and those who wrote about them agree: Because the martyr refuses to bow to idols and witnesses to Jesus to the end, his death is a victory, not a defeat. Romanian Baptist pastor Josef Tson’s challenge to Romanian communists captures the strange triumphalism of the early martyrs: “Your supreme weapon is killing. My supreme weapon is dying.”
Romans imposed sacrifice to re-found their earthly city. Martyrs viewed their sacrificial deaths as sharing in Christ’s foundational sacrifice of an alternative city. At the very least, many martyrs hoped that their deaths would inspire faith among believers who observed them or heard about them. Ignatius assured the Trallians that he would continue to teach them after he “attain[ed] to God.” His letters were full of exhortations to unity, orthodoxy, and submission to the bishops, and he implied that his death would help nurture these virtues in the Church. Origen claimed more generally that martyrdom builds the Church, and he hoped that at his death he would leave many “children” behind. Polycarp told the Philippians to pray for their persecutors, “that your fruit may be manifest to all.” By hearing the stories of martyrs, commemorating them on feast days, and celebrating the Eucharist at their graves, the Church was forged into a company of potential martyrs, ready to stand fast when persecution next broke out.
By sacrifice, the martyr ascends to God and escapes the carapace of flesh, but he desires not only his own fulfillment. His sacrifice contributes, like Christ’s, to the redemption of the world. Consider, wrote Origen, “whether baptism by martyrdom, just as the Savior’s brought cleansing to the world, may not also serve to cleanse many.” At the end of his Exhortation, he added, somewhat hesitantly, “Perhaps just as we have been redeemed by the precious blood of Jesus . . . so some will be redeemed by the precious blood of the martyrs.” According to Mar Jacob, one martyr’s death cleared the air of Edessa: “The firmament was fetid with the exhalations from the altars; then there rose up the sweet perfume of the martyr, and it grew sweet thereby.” His martyrdom brought “the pious rest from their persecutions,” for shortly after his death, Licinius waned and Constantine waxed. According to other writers, martyr sacrifices provide fragrance, and food, also for their persecutors.
Despite all of Rome’s efforts, the Church continued to grow in numbers and in respectability. In later persecutions, sympathetic pagans helped Christians hide or escape the authorities. Intensified persecution could only erode Roman authority further. Yet to concede permanent legal standing to the Christians was an admission that, in the gladiatorial contest between Rome and the Church, the martyrs were, as they claimed, indeed victorious. This was a blow to Roman pride that few Romans, not to mention Roman emperors, were willing to accept. No wonder, as Potter notes, Roman officials were so reluctant to try and condemn Christians; no wonder they wanted to “avoid such spectacles as much as possible.”
Sociological and political explanations of the martyrs’ triumph are commonly Nietzschean. In their ressentiment, martyrs slyly ensure the triumph of weakness over strength, sickness over health. For sociology and political theory, martyrdom is a veiled bid for power. Martyrdom is indeed a power, but its power is not the power of heroic endurance or the inverted power of ressentiment. Martyrdom speaks of Jesus, and hence of the determination of the Triune God to establish his justice and peace in his world. The political power of martyrdom is the power of truth-telling, the power of the gospel itself.
As Jesus promised, his disciples stood before kings and had an opportunity to testify (Luke 21:12-13). Martyrs won because they confessed to the death the truth about Rome, the world, and God, because they witnessed to Jesus in their word and suffering, because they not only imitated Jesus but participated in his cross. The courage and endurance of the Lyons martyr Blandina impressed many, but that is not what the author of the Martyrs of Lyons wanted his readers to see. Instead, he wrote: “Blandina was hung on a post and exposed as bait for the wild animals that were let loose on her. She seemed to hang there in the form of a cross, and by her fervent prayer she aroused intense enthusiasm in those who were undergoing their ordeal, for in their torment with their physical eyes they saw in the person of their sister him who was crucified for them.”
Even before Constantine abandoned traditional Roman sacrifices, the martyrs had begun to transform Roman spectacles into Christian liturgies. By the early fourth century, the cross of Jesus had been re-erected in real-life passion plays throughout the empire. Every arena became a new Calvary. Jesus was the secret power behind the martyrs’ victory, for how can you kill a movement whose members believe that their death in union with Jesus is the salvation of the world?
Repeatedly enacting the cross of Jesus, the martyrs engaged in a supreme act of political defiance that exposed the fragility of Roman order and widened cracks in the foundations of Roman civilization. The martyrs destabilized Roman power and damaged Roman self-confidence; they exposed the brutality of Roman law and justice and, in their joy, displayed a power that Roman threats could not quench. A Constantine was, we might almost say, inevitable. Martyrs’ blood was the seed of the Church, in part because it made pagan Rome drunk, mad, and finally too unsteady to stand.
What challenged and overthrew Romanitas and Rome as the Romans knew it was not a utopian scheme for social order, not an ideology, not the proclamation of the gospel in itself. That gospel triumphed because it was enacted in witness. The martyrs operated with an alternative theory of power according to which suffering martyrdom in union with the chief martyr, Jesus, triumphed over force. What overcame bestial Rome was just what Revelation predicted would triumph: “They overcame [the dragon and the beast] because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the word of their testimony, and they did not love life even to death.”
This is why secular states fear religious intrusions. Western fear of religious infiltration of politics is not originally a fear of theocracy but a fear that Christianity will expose the impotence of the state. What threatens modern Western states as it once threatened Rome, Paul Kahn argues, is “not simply an idea that the state poses a danger to religion, but equally the opposite idea that religion poses a threat to the state because it reveals the insubstantiality of the concerns of the state and the limits of the state’s power over the individual. The state’s power is ultimately the power to threaten life, but Christianity begins with a sacrificial act that undermines that threat by announcing life to be death, and true life to be beyond death.”
Even after Christianity reconciled with empire, “the threat of martyrdom is always a dangerous power that the religious can wield against the state. It is the means by which the religious claim an indefeasible power: If defeat means martyrdom, then the state’s victory is always precarious.”
Our age is skeptical of martyrs for the same reasons the Romans were. Civilized behavior, human behavior, has been so identified with the virtues and values of liberal modernity—especially the values of ironic detachment and tolerance that anyone who defies them seems “antisocial in the deepest meaning of the word.” Even Christians have so identified with the values of liberal modernity that we often regard martyrs as delusional fanatics. This temptation is the more difficult to identify and renounce because many liberal values are wispy specters of what were once full-bodied Christian virtues. But Christian and liberal values are not the same, and if the Church is to be a faithful witness she must learn to discern and act on the difference.
Early Christians were ready to die for the faith because they had been nurtured in the practice of courageous and often defiant witness. They had been trained to expect to share the cross with Jesus and trained to speak truth in spite of threats of terror and torture. Western Christians do not face such threats. But if we should not exaggerate the threats, we should not minimize them either. In many areas, we non-martyrs have opportunities to stand in the name of Jesus against the petty tyrannies of the state and the far more subtle and dangerous toxins in the cultural air we all breathe. Christian physicians, hospital administrators, and insurance brokers must resist the pressure to accommodate the abortion regime, even at the cost of lucrative jobs and comfortable retirements. Christians in the military must be prepared to defy orders that would violate longstanding Christian principles of ius in bello, and court martial be damned. Pastors must be prepared to call sin sin, regardless of threats of legal action.
If the Church of the martyrs has one thing to teach us, it is this: The Church is most politically potent not when she has a place in the halls of power, but when she shares the testimony of Jesus regardless of the consequences. If the Church hopes to see a “new evangelization” of the Western world, she must train her members to be ready for witness unto death, even when deadly threats are a distant prospect.
Peter J. Leithart, a member of First Things’ advisory council, is a senior fellow of theology and literature at New St. Andrews College, Moscow, Idaho, and serves on the pastoral staff of Trinity Reformed Church.