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Chapter XXXVIII.—Of the persecutions in Persia and of them that were martyred there.
At this time Isdigirdes,948948 Yezdegerd I. son of Sapor III. Vide note on p. 156. King of the Persians, began to wage war against the churches and the circumstances which caused him so to do were as follows. A certain bishop, Abdas by name,949949 Abdas was bishop of Susa. In Soc. vii. 8 he is “bishop of Persia.” adorned with many virtues, was stirred with undue zeal and destroyed a Pyreum, Pyreum being the name given by the Persians to the temples of the fire which they regarded as their God.950950 The second of the six supreme councillors of Ahuramazda in the scheme of Zarathustra Spitama (Zoroaster) is Ardebehesht, light or lightness of any kind and representing the omnipresence of the good power. Hence sun, moon and stars are symbols of deity and the believer is enjoined to face fire or light in his worship. Temples and altars must be fed with holy fire. In their reverence for fire orthodox Parsees abstained from smoking, but alike of old and today they would deny the charge of worshipping fire in any other sense than as an honoured symbol.
On being informed of this by the Magi Isdigirdes sent for Abdas and first in moderate language complained of what had taken place and ordered him to rebuild the Pyreum.
This the bishop, in reply, positively refused to do, and thereupon the king threatened to destroy all the churches, and in the end carried out all his threats, for first he gave orders for the execution of that holy man and then commanded the destruction of the churches. Now I am of opinion that to destroy the Pyreum was wrong and inexpedient, for not even the divine Apostle, when he came to Athens and saw the city wholly given to idolatry, destroyed any one of the altars which the Athenians honoured, but convicted them of their ignorance by his arguments, and made manifest the truth. But the refusal to rebuild the fallen temple, and the determination to choose death rather than so do, I greatly praise and honour, and count to be a deed worthy of the martyr’s crown; for building a shrine in honour of the fire seems to me to be equivalent to adoring it.
From this beginning arose a
tempest which stirred fierce and cruel waves against the nurslings of
the true faith, and when thirty years had gone by the agitation still
remained kept up by the Magi, as the sea is kept in commotion by the
blasts of furious winds. Magi is the name given by the Persians to the
worshippers of the sun and moon951951 The
word in the original is στοιχεῖα; on this Valesius annotates “This does not mean the
four elements, for the Persian Magi did not worship the four elements
but only fire and the sun and moon.” In illustration of this use
of the word he quotes Chrysostom. Hom. 58 in Matth.
ὁ γὰρ δαίμων ἐπὶ διαβολᾐ τοῦ στοιχείου καὶ ἐπιτίθεται τοῖς ἀλοῦσι, καὶ ἀνίησιν αὐτοὺς κατὰ τοὺς τῆς σελήνης δρόμους; and St. Jerome Ep. ad Hedyb. 4 where he speaks of the days of the week as being described by the heathen “Idolorum et elementorum nominibus.” but I have exposed their fabulous system in another treatise and have adduced solutions of their difficulties.
On the death of Isdigirdes, Vararanes, his son, inherited at once the kingdom and the war against the faith, and dying in his turn left them both together to his son.952952 i.e. Isdigirdes II. 440–457. To relate the various kinds of tortures and cruelties inflicted on the saints is no easy task. In some cases the hands were flayed, in others the back; of others they stripped the heads of skin from brow to beard; others were enveloped in split reeds with the cut part turned inwards and were surrounded with tight bandages from head to foot; then each of the reeds was dragged out by force, and, tearing away the adjacent portions of the skin, caused severe agony; pits were dug and carefully greased in which quantities of mice were put; then they let down the martyrs, bound hand and foot, so as not to be able to protect themselves from the animals, to be food for the mice, and the mice, under stress of hunger, little by little devoured the flesh of the victims, causing them long and terrible suffering. By others sufferings were endured even more terrible than these, invented by the enemy of humanity and the opponent of the truth, but the courage of the martyrs was unbroken, and they hastened unbidden in their eagerness to win that death which ushers men into indestructible life.
158Of these I will cite one or two to serve as examples of the courage of the rest. Among the noblest of the Persians was one called Hormisdas, by race an Achæmenid953953 Achæmenes was the name of the Grandfather of Cambyses, father of Cyrus, and also of a son of Darius, son of Hystaspes. Hence the Achæmenidæ were the noblest stock of Persia. and the son of a Prefect. On receiving information that he was a Christian the king summoned him and ordered him to abjure God his Saviour. He replied that the royal orders were neither right nor reasonable, “for he,” so he went on, “who is taught to find no difficulty in spurning and denying the God of all, will haply the more easily despise a king who is a man of mortal nature; and if, sir, he who denies thy sovereignty is deserving of the severest punishment, how much more terrible a chastisement is not due to him who denies the Creator of the world?” The king ought to have admired the wisdom of what was said, but, instead of this, he stripped the noble athlete of his wealth and rank, and ordered him to go clad in nothing save a loin cloth, and drive the camels of the army. After some days had gone by, as he looked out of his chamber, he saw the excellent man scorched by the rays of the sun, and covered with dust, and he bethought him of his father’s illustrious rank, and sent for him, and told him to put on a tunic of linen. Then thinking the toil he had suffered, and the kindness shewn him, had softened his heart, “Now at least,” said he “give over your opposition, and deny the carpenter’s son.” Full of holy zeal Hormisdas tore the tunic and flung it away saying, “If you think that this will make one give up the true faith, keep your present with your false belief.” When the king saw how bold he was he drove him naked from the palace.
One Suenes, who owned a thousand slaves, resisted the King, and refused to deny his master. The King therefore asked him which of his slaves was the vilest, and to this slave handed over the ownership of all the rest, and gave him Suenes to be his slave. He also gave him in marriage Suenes’ wife, supposing that thus he could bend the will of the champion of the truth. But he was disappointed, for he had built his house upon the rock.954954 Matt. vii. 24
The king also seized and imprisoned a deacon of the name of Benjamin. After two years there came an envoy from Rome, to treat of other matters, who, when he was informed of this imprisonment, petitioned the king to release the deacon. The king ordered Benjamin to promise that he would not attempt to teach the Christian religion to any of the Magi, and the envoy exhorted Benjamin to obey, but Benjamin, after he heard what the envoy had to say, replied, “It is impossible for me not to impart the light which I have received; for how great a penalty is due for the hiding of our talent is taught in the history of the holy gospels.”955955 Matt. xxv. 25 Up to this time the King had not been informed of this refusal and ordered him to be set free. Benjamin continued as he was wont seeking to catch them that were held down by the darkness of ignorance, and bringing them to the light of knowledge. After a year information of his conduct was given to the king, and he was summoned and ordered to deny Him whom he worshipped. He then asked the king “What punishment should be assigned to one who should desert his allegiance and prefer another?” “Death and torture,” said the king. “How then” continued the wise deacon “should he be treated who abandons his Maker and Creator, makes a God of one of his fellow slaves, and offers to him the honour due to his Lord?” Then the king was moved with wrath, and had twenty reeds pointed, and driven into the nails of his hands and feet. When he saw that Benjamin took this torture for child’s play, he pointed another reed and drove it into his privy part and by working it up and down caused unspeakable agony. After this torture the impious and savage tyrant ordered him to be impaled upon a stout knotted staff, and so the noble sufferer gave up the ghost.
Innumerable other similar deeds
of violence were committed by these impious men, but we must not be
astonished that the Lord of all endures their savagery and impiety, for
indeed before the reign of Constantine the Great all the Roman emperors
wreaked their wrath on the friends of the truth, and Diocletian, on the
day of the Saviour’s passion, destroyed the churches throughout
the Roman Empire, but after nine years had gone by they rose again in
bloom and beauty many times larger and more splendid than before, and
he and his iniquity perished.956956 The
edict of Diocletian against the Christians was issued on the feast of
the Terminalia, Feb. 23, 303. Good Friday, here ἡ τοῦ
ἡμέρα, was commonly
known as ἡμερα τοῦ
σταυρώσιμον, and παρασκευή
Tertullian speaks of its early observance as a general fast, and Eusebius confirms his testimony.
These wars and the victory of the church had been predicted by the Lord, and the event teaches us that war brings us more blessing than peace. Peace makes us deli159cate, easy and cowardly. War whets our courage and makes us despise this present world as passing away. But these are observations which we have often made in other writings.
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