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MARTYRDOM OF POLYCARPUS.
Polycarpus returned to Symrna, as far as we can make out, in the autumn of 154. A death worthy of him awaited him there. Polycarpus had always professed the doctrine that one ought not to court martyrdom; but many people who were not possessed of his virtue were not so prudent as he. To be in the vicinage of the sombre enthusiasts of Phrygia was dangerous. A Phrygian named Quintus, a Montanist formerly, came to Smyrna and attracted a few enthusiasts, who followed his example of self-denunciation, and provoked penal condemnation. Sensible men blamed them, and said, with good reason, that the Gospel did not demand such a sacrifice. Besides these fanatics, several Smyrniote Christians were also imprisoned. Amongst them were found some Philadelphians, whom either accident had conducted to Smyrna or whom the authorities, after arresting them, had caused to be transferred to Smyrna—a city of very considerable importance, in which were celebrated great games. The number of those so detained was about a dozen. According to the hideous usage of the Romans, it was in the 243stadium, in default of an amphitheatre, that their execution took place.
The tortures endured by these unfortunates were of the most horribly atrocious character. Some were so lacerated by whips that their veins, their arteries, and the whole of their intestines were exposed. Onlookers wept over them, but they could not extort from them either a murmur or a plaint. The idea was hence spread abroad that the martyrs of Christ, during the torture, were separated from the body, and that Christ himself assisted them, and spoke with them. Fire produced on them the effect of a delicious coolness. Exposed to wild beasts, dragged over sand full of jagged shells, they appeared insensible to pain.
One only succumbed, and that was rightly the one who had compromised the others. The Phrygian was punished for his boasting. In sight of the wild beasts he began to tremble. The men of the pro-consul who surrounded him urged him to give in; he consented to take the oath and the sacrifice. In that the faithful saw a sign from heaven, and the condemnation of those who of their own accord sought for death. Such conduct, arising from pride, was considered as a sort of defiance of God. It was admitted that the courage to endure martyrdom came from on high, and that God, in order to demonstrate that he was the source of all strength, was pleased sometimes to show the greatest examples of heroism in those who, put to the proof, had been, distrustful of themselves, almost cowards.
People admired especially a young man named Germanicus. He gave to his companions in agony an example of superhuman courage. His struggle with the wild beasts was admirable. The pro-consul, Titus Statius Quadratus, a philosophic and moderate man, a friend of Ælius Aristides, exhorted him to take pity on his own youth. He thereupon set himself 244to excite the wild beasts, to call to them, to tease them, in order that they might despatch him more quickly from a perverse world. Such heroism, far from touching the multitude, only irritated it. “Death to Atheists! Let Polycarpus be brought!” was the general cry.
Polycarpus, although blaming the foolish act of Quintus, had not at first any desire to flee. Yielding to eager solicitations, he consented, however, to withdraw into a small country house, situated at no great distance from the city, where he passed several days. They came thither to arrest him. He quitted the house precipitately and took refuge in another; but a young slave, when put to the torture, betrayed him. A detachment of mounted police came to take him. It was a Friday evening, the 22d February, at dinner-hour, the old man was at table in an upper room of the villa; he might still have escaped, but he said, “Let God’s will be done!” He quietly came downstairs, spoke with the police, gave them something to eat, and asked only an hour in which to pray unmolested. He made then one of those long prayers to which he was accustomed, in which he included the whole Catholic Church. The night was passed in this manner. The following morning, Saturday, 23d February, he was placed upon an ass, and they departed with him.
Before reaching the city, Herod, the Irenach, and his father Nicetas, appeared in a carriage. They had had some relations with the Christians. Alces, sister of Nicetas, appears to have been affiliated with the Church. They, it is said, placed the old man in the carriage between them, and attempted to gain him over. “What harm can it be,” said they, “in order to save one’s life, to say Kyrios Kesar, to make sacrifice, and the rest?” Polycarpus was inflexible. It seems that the two magistrates then flew into a passion, said hard words to him, and ejected him 245so rudely from the carriage as to peel the skin off his leg.
He was taken to the stadium, which was situated about midway up Mount Pagus. The people were already assembled there; there was a tumultuous noise. At the moment the old man was brought in, the noise redoubled; the Christians alone heard a voice from heaven saying: “Be strong, be manly, Polycarpus!” The bishop was led to the pro-consul, who employed the ordinary phrases in such circumstances.
“From the respect that thou owest to thy age, etc., aware by the fortune of Cæsar, cry as every one does, ‘Death to Atheists’”
Polycarpus thereupon cast a severe look upon the multitude which covered the steps, and pointed to them with his hand.
“Yes, certainly,” said he, “no more Atheists,” and he raised his eyes to heaven with a deep sigh. “Insult Christ,” said Statius Quadratus.
“It is now eighty-six years that I have served him, and he has never done me any injury,” said Polycarpus. “I am a Christian. If thou wishest to know what it is to be a Christian,” added he, “grant me a day’s delay, and give me thy attention.”
“Persuade, then, the people to that,” responded Quadratus.
“With thee it is worth one’s while to discuss,” responded Polycarpus. “We hold it as a principle to render to the powers and to the established authorities, through God, the honours which are their due, provided that these marks of respect do no injury to our faith. As for these people there, I will never deign to condescend to make my apology to them.”
The pro-consul threatened him in vain with wild beasts and with fire. It was necessary to announce to the people that Polycarpus held obstinately 246to his faith. Jews and Pagans cried out for his blood.
“Look at him, the doctor of Asia—the father of the Christians,” said the former.
“Behold him, the destroyer of our gods, he who teaches not to sacrifice, not to adore,” said the latter. At the same time they demanded of Philippe of Tralles, asiarch and high priest of Asia, to let loose a lion upon Polycarpus. Philippe drew attention of the multitude to the fact that the games with the wild beasts were at an end.
“To the fire, then!” So was the shout which went up from all sides. The people dispersed themselves amongst the shops and the baths to search for wood and fagots. The Jews, who were numerous at Smyrna, and always strongly incensed against the Christians, exhibited in this work, as usual, a zeal wholly peculiar to them.
While the funeral pile was being made ready, Polycarpus took off his girdle, divested himself of all his garments, and attempted also to take off his shoes. This was not accomplished without some difficulty; for in ordinary times the faithful who surrounded him were in the habit of insisting on relieving him from that trouble, as they were jealous of the privilege of touching him. He was placed in the centre of the apparatus which was used for fixing the victim, and they were about to begin to nail him to it.
“Leave me thus,” said he; “He who gives me the fortitude to endure the fire will bestow on me also the strength to remain immovable on the pile, without its being necessary for you to nail me to it.”
They did not nail him, they simply bound him. So, with his hands tied behind his back, he had the look of a victim; and the Christians who watched him from afar saw in him a ram chosen from amongst the whole flock to be offered up to God as a burnt-offering. 247During this time he prayed and thanked God for having included him in the number of the martyrs.
The flames then began to rise. The exaltation of the faithful witnesses of this spectacle was at its height. As they were some distance from the pile, they might indulge in the most singular illusions. The fire seemed to them to round itself into a vault above the body of the martyr, and to present the aspect of a ship’s sail filled with the wind. The old man, placed amidst that chapelle ardent, appeared to them not as flesh which burned, but as bread being baked, or as a mass of gold and silver in the furnace. They imagined that they felt a delicious odour like that of incense, or of the most precious perfumes (probably the vine branches, and the light wood of the pile had something to do with this). They even declared afterwards that Polycarpus had not been burned, that the confector was obliged to give him a thrust with a poignard, and that there flowed from the wound so much blood that the fire was extinguished by it.
The Christians naturally attached the greatest value to their possessing the body of the martyr. But the authorities hesitated to give it to them, fearing that the martyr would become the object of a new worship. “They might be capable,” said they, laughing, “of abandoning the Crucified One for him.” The Jews mounted guard near to the funeral pile, to watch what they were going to do. The centurion on duty showed himself favourable to the Christians, and allowed them to take these bones, “more precious than the most precious stones, and than the purest gold.” They were calcined. In order to reconcile this fact with the marvellous recital, they pretended that it was the centurion who had burned the body. They put the ashes into a consecrated place, where people resorted every 248year to celebrate the anniversary of the martyrdom, and to incite one another to walk in the steps of the holy old man.
The fortitude of Polycarpus made a deep impression on the Pagans themselves. The authorities, not wishing a renewal of similar scenes, put an end to executions. The name of Polycarpus continued to be celebrated at Smyrna, whilst people soon forgot the eleven or twelve Smyrniotes or Philadelphians who had suffered before him. The Churches of Asia and of Galatia, at the news of the death of their great pastor, asked the Smyrniotes for the details of what had taken place. Those of Philomelium, in Phrigian Parorea, exhibited, in particular, a touching zeal. The Church of Smyrna caused one of the elders to write down the account of the martyrdom, in the form of a circular epistle, which was addressed to the different Churches. The faithful of Philomelium, who were not far off, were charged with transmitting the letter to the brethren at a distance.
The copy of the Philomelians, copied by a certain Evarestur, and carried by one named Marcion, served subsequently as the basis of the original edition. As happens frequently in the publication of circular letters, the finales of the different copies were made to dovetail the one into the other. This rare fragment constitutes the most ancient example known of the Acts of Martyrdom. It was the model which people imitated, and which furnished the form and the essential parts of those kinds of compositions. Only the imitations had not the naturalness and simplicity of the original. It seems that the author of the false Ignatian letters had read the Smyrniote epistle. There is the closest connection between these writings, and a great similarity of thought. After Ignatius, Polycarpus was the person who copied the most of the thoughts of the false letters and it is in the true or supposed epistle of Polycarpus 249that he seeks his point d’appui. The idea that martyrdom is the supreme favour that one ought to seek after, and to request of Heaven, found in the Smyrniote encyclical its first and perfect expression. But the enthusiasm for martyrdom is there kept within the limits of moderation. The author of this remarkable writing loses no occasion to show that true martyrdom, the martyrdom conformable with the Gospel, is that which one does not seek after, but which one expects. The provocation appeared to him so blameable, that he experiences a certain satisfaction in showing that the Phrygian fanatic yielded to the entreaties of the pro-consul, and became an apostate.
Frivolous, light-headed, prone to whimsicalities, Asia turned these tragedies into stories, and made a caricature of martyrdom. About that time there lived a certain Peregrinus, a cynic philosopher of Parium, upon the Hellespont, who called himself Protéus, and in regard to whom people boasted of the facility with which he could assume any character, and undertake any adventure. Among these adventures was that of posing as a bishop and a martyr. Having begun life by committing the most frightful crimes, parricide even, he became a Christian, then a priest, a scribe, a prophet, a thiasarch, and chief of the synagogue. He interpreted the sacred books, as composed by himself; he passed for an oracle, for a supreme authority, in fact, on ecclesiastical rules. He was arrested for that offence, and put in chains. This was the commencement of his apotheosis. From that hour he was adored; people raised heaven and earth to affect his escape, and manifested the greatest anxiety in regard to him. In the mornings, at the prison gate, the widows and orphans gathered to see him. The notables obtained, by means of money, the privilege of passing the night in his society. It was a constant 250succession of dinners and of sacred feasts; people celebrated the Mysteries in close proximity to him; he was called only “the excellent Peregrinus,” and was looked upon as a new Socrates.
All this took place in Syria. These public scandals delighted the Christians; they spared no effort in such a case to render the manifestation a brilliant affair. Envoys arrived from every town in Asia for the purpose of rendering service to the confessor, and of condoling with him. Money flowed in upon him. But it was found that the governor of Syria was a philosopher; he penetrated the secret of our subject, saw that he had but one idea, that of dying in order to render his name celebrated, and he set him free without punishment. Everywhere in his travels Peregrinus revelled in abundance, the Christians surrounded him, and gave him an escort of honour.
“These imbeciles,” adds Lucian, “were persuaded that they were absolutely immortal, that they would live eternally, which was the reason that they held death in contempt, and that many amongst them offered themselves up as sacrifices. Their first legislator had persuaded them that they were all brothers, from the moment that, denying the Hellenistic gods, they adored the Crucified One, their sophist, and lived according to his laws. They had, then, nothing but disdain for things terrestrial, and they held the latter as belonging to all in common But it were useless to say that they had not a serious reason for believing all this. If, then, some impostor, some crafty man, capable of making use of the situation, came to them, they immediately laid their riches at his feet, while he laughed in his sleeve at the silly fools.”
Peregrinus having exhausted his resources, sought, by means of a theatrical death at the Olympian Games, to satisfy the insatiable desire that he had, to wit: to make people speak of him. Pompous and 251voluntary suicide was, it is well known, the great reproach which the sage philosophers brought against the Christians.
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