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Martyrs in the History of Christianity by Franklyn J. Balasundaram (ed.)


Rev. Dr. Franklyn J. Balasundaram was Professor in the Department of the History of Christianity , United Theological College, Bangalore, India. Published by the Indian Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, Delhi, India 1997, for The United Theological College. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Chapter 3: The Martyrdom of Prominent Martyrs of Lyons and Vienne, by M. Reginold


Introduction and Historical background:

In 177 AD. there existed a Christian community in Southern France in the two towns of Lyons and Vienne. This paper attempts to portray within its limitations the tragic story of the trials, sufferings and persecutions which have become a part of our history of the early church.

Most of the early Christians living in Lyons and Vienne were Greeks who had migrated from Asia. Although the persecution broke out in Lyons, most of the description and account of the persecutions was. probably written in Vienne without which we could never have got a clear picture about what really happened. (Bruno, Chenu, et. al., The Book of Christian Martyrs, London: SCM Press, 1990, p. 44.)

Shortly after the persecutions and the martyrdom of many great men and women, the surviving community of Lyons sent a letter to the churches of Asia, and this letter was preserved by Eusebius of Caesaria in his writings of Ecclesiastical history. This documentary evidence is valuable because it is not only a story of heroism, but because it gives us an idea of how the Christian community then understood ‘Martyrdom’. It also helps us to see what the official policy of the empire was towards the church, thus it provides a starting point for the study on the ‘Clash of cultures’ that divided the ancient world. (Ibid., p. 44.)

The two churches:

The two churches of Lyons and Vienne were founded just before the actual persecution started and it is possible that the founders may also have been involved in the actual persecution. But it is not very clear how the two churches were related to each other and how they organized themselves; for example, did the two churches form a single ecclesiastical diocese, under one bishop, or were they separate? Eusebius, however, mentions that ‘Pothinus’ and ‘Ireneus’ were both bishops of Lyons, but there are indications that say that Ireneus was bishop of a number of communities and it is possible that ‘Vienne’ which is twenty miles from Lyons may have been one of the these. But there is a serious objection to this because these two cities never got on well with each other and there was intense rivalry between these two cities. There was also a civil war between them. (Frend, W.H.C. Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church, p. l.)

The two churches in Asia Minor, the letter written after persecution was sent to the churches in Asia minor and most of the martyrs mentioned by Eusebius and Jerome were Asiatics. All the names of the martyrs indicate Greek of Asiatic origins and the fact that they addressed themselves to the churches of the provinces of Asia and Phrygia in their hour of need strengthens the Assumption that most of the martyrs were from Asia. W.H.C Frend claims that the foreigners who came from Asia and Phrygia brought along with them their religions and one of them was Christianity

These foreigners came, settled and prospered in various avenues of life and so they became rich and influential, and in one way or the other, they aroused hatred and jealousy in the general population. (Ibid., p. 2.)

Reasons for persecution: We do not know exactly how the trouble started but one reason that may have been a significant one is that the emperor Marcus Aurelius wanted to relieve the rich landlords of the high expenses involved in procuring professional gladiators who used to fight and kill for their amusement. The emperor allowed the rich landlords to acquire victims in the form of condemned criminals at 1/10 of the price they actually had to pay for the gladiators. So the rich landlords quickly grabbed this opportunity and pounced on the Christians because, Christians were at that time already charged with murder, incest and cannibalism. The elite section of the society found this a great opportunity to save the money in their pockets, and at the same time could get rid of this alien and hateful group of people called ‘Christians’.

The persecutions : Hatred against the Christians increased until it was at its peak in 177 AD. At first they were subjected to all kinds of social restrictions, they were heated as outcastes and polluted persons, they were banned from showing themselves at the baths and market places and finally they were excluded from all public places, essentially places where they worshipped their gods, because they believed that the very presence of these outcastes violated the place of their gods. At a time when the governor was away, the mob broke loose, Christians were hounded and attacked openly, they were treated as public enemies, and they were assaulted, beaten up and stoned. (Ibid., p. 5.) Finally, on the orders of the city magistrates, there was a wholesale arrest of Christians in Lyons, they were flung into prison where they lay in their own filth and excrement, some died and some lived.

The Governor who came back ordered a public trial of the Christians. During this trial, they were tortured in every possible way. At the first hearing, an influential person called "Vetlius Epagathus" voiced out his protest. He claimed that the judgements that were pronounced were unjust and that there was nothing godless about Christians, but everyone shouted him down and the governor did not allow the just claim he put forward. Then they asked him whether he was also a Christian. He confessed and was also put into prison.

The public not having any solid charge, brought the non-Christian slaves of the Christian prisoners and tortured them. This was done to make the slaves confess that their masters indulged in incest, cannibalism and murder. Some of the slaves unable to bear the agony and pain of torture, confessed. But these charges were angrily denied by the Christians. But for most people the admissions of the slaves to the indulgence of their masters in incest, murder and cannibalism, confirmed their worst suspicions. The trials went on, though admitting that one is a Christian was sufficient to convict a person. The procedure took many hours, every threat was employed and horrible tortures, were applied in order to break the will of the Christians. (Ibid., p. 5,6.)

Some of the martyrs refused to give even their names to the torturers. For example, Sanctus, finally when there was nothing more that they could do to him, they applied metal plates that were burned till they were red hot, to the most tender parts of his body, his body became swollen and enflamed but he did not yield. For every question they put to him, he had only one answer ‘I am a Christian’. (Bruno, Chenu, op.cit. p. 47.)

There was a woman named Biblias. Fellow Christians thought that since she was a frail and timid person, she would succumb when tortured, but she surprised them when she vehemently shouted against her torturers, saying "How can people like us eat children who are forbidden to drink the blood of brute beasts". (Ibid., p. 48.)

Pothinus who was the bishop of Lyons was a very sick person and was over ninety years old, but still the enraged crowd dragged him to the tribunal, the governor asked him "who was the God of Christians", the bishop only replied ‘If you are worthy, you shall know’. People kicked him and slapped him but he endured without saying anything, two days later he died. (Ibid., pp. 48-39.)

Marturus, Sanctus, Blandina and Attalus were condemned to the beasts, but that did not satisfy the angry crowd, they were forced to sit on red hot chairs, the crowd wanted to break their resistance but finally realizing that they failed in doing so, they cut their throats. (Ibid., p. 50.) Blandina was hung on a stake as food for wild beasts. But the beasts did not touch her at that time, she was taken down from the stake and was tortured. Attalus was a popular and well respected person in the society He was dragged into, the amphitheatre with a placard in front of him on which was written, "This is Attalus, the Christian’. But the Governor found out that he was a Roman citizen. So he sent a dispatch to Caesar asking for further instructions. Caesar ordered that he should be be-headed. But upon the demand of the crowd, he was placed on the red-hot chair. When they asked him what was the name of his God, he answered "God has no name as human beings have." (Ibid., p. 52.) Again Blandina and a fifteen year old boy named Ponticus were thrown to the beasts, but Blandina encouraged Ponticus to be strong. He endured every kind of torture and expired. Blandina was whipped and cast before the beasts, was made to sit on the red-hot chair. She was at last thrown into a net and cast before a bull, having no further sense of what was happening. She herself had her throat cut. Finally all the bodies of the martyrs were exposed for six days and then they were burnt and their ashes were thrown into the river Rhone.

Reflection: Reading about the martyrs of Lyons and Vienne has disturbed me more then I had expected. More than the gruesome tales of how they were tortured, it is more horrifying to imagine how mankind could create a burning hell on earth, that was what it must have been for the Christians of Lyons and Vienne; yet these primitive Christians suffered and endured just believing that a man called Jesus gave his life for many others.

The martyrs of Lyons and Vienne have special relevance to the oppressed and persecuted ‘Dalits’ in India. In a sense both of them are witnesses to the oppression and inhuman treatment of fellow beings. It is on the sweat and blood of these people that the kingdom of God will come to establish itself. We must often put our feet in the shoes of the martyrs but we must realize that we are not martyrs; we most often come closer to being the torturers and the persecutors, because we often fail to understand and what we do not understand we would like to hate and destroy.

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