A Letter From the Suffering Church in Gaul — c. 175 AD

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Eusebius, in Book 5 of his Ecclesiastical History, records a letter sent from the Christians in Gaul to their brothers in Asia. As Eusebius writes, this record is “worthy of perpetual memory.” Amid persecution they discovered depths of faith, received great grace, and fought the good fight to the end. May we never see such tribulation; but if we must, may we contend for the faith as triumphantly as these saints did. Eusebius writes:

Other writers of history record the victories of war and trophies won from enemies, the skill of generals, and the manly bravery of soldiers, defiled with blood and with innumerable slaughters for the sake of children and country and other possessions. But our narrative of the government of God will record the most peaceful wars waged in behalf of the peace of the soul, and will tell of men doing brave deeds for truth rather than country, and for piety rather than dearest friends. It will hand down to imperishable remembrance the discipline and the much-tried fortitude of the athletes of religion, the trophies won from demons, the victories over invisible enemies, and the crowns placed upon all their heads.

The country in which the arena was prepared for them was Gaul, of which Lyons and Vienne are the principal cities. The most celebrated churches in that country sent an account of the witnesses to the churches in Asia and Phrygia, relating in the following manner what was done among them. I will give their own words:

The servants of Christ residing at Vienne and Lyons, in Gaul, to the brethren throughout Asia and Phrygia, who hold the same faith and hope of redemption: Peace and grace and glory from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.

The greatness of the tribulation in this region, and the fury of the heathen against the saints, and the sufferings of the blessed witnesses, we cannot recount accurately; indeed they could not possibly be recorded. For with all his might the adversary fell on us, giving us a foretaste of his unbridled activity at his future coming. He endeavored in every manner to practice and exercise his servants against the servants of God — not only shutting us out from houses and baths and markets, but any forbidding us to be seen in any place at all.

But the grace of God led the conflict against him, and delivered the weak, and set them as firm pillars, able through patience to endure all the wrath of the evil one. And they joined battle with him, undergoing all kinds of shame and injury. Regarding their great sufferings as little, they hastened to Christ, manifesting truly that “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” First of all they endured nobly the injuries heaped upon them by the populace — clamors and blows, draggings and robberies, stonings and imprisonments, and every other thing an infuriated mob delights in inflicting on enemies and adversaries. Then they were taken to the forum by the chiliarch and the authorities of the city and were examined in the presence of the whole multitude; and having confessed [Christ], they were imprisoned until the arrival of the governor.

Afterwards they were brought before him, and he treated us with the utmost cruelty. Then one of the brethren, Vettius Epagathus, a man filled with love for God and his neighbor, interfered. Though he was a yong man, his life was so consistent that he had attained a reputation equal to that of the elder Zacharias: for he “walked in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.” He was untiring in every good work for his neighbor, zealous for God and fervent in spirit. As this was his character, he could not endure the unreasonable judgment against us, but was filled with indignation, and asked to be allowed to testify in behalf of his brethren, that there is among us nothing ungodly or impious.

But those around the judgment seat cried out against him, for he was a man of distinction, and the governor refused to grant his just request. The governor merely asked if he also were a Christian. Confessing this with a loud voice, he was taken into the order of those bearing witness [for Christ]. Vettius Epagathus was called the advocate of the Christians, but he had the Advocate in himself, the Spirit more abundantly than Zacharias. He showed this by the fullness of his love, being well pleased even to lay down his life in defense of the brethren. For he was and is a true disciple of Christ, “following the Lamb wherever He goes.”

Then the others were divided, and the first witnesses were manifestly ready [to be executed], and finished their confession with all eagerness. But some appeared unprepared and untrained, weak as yet, and unable to endure so great a conflict. About ten of these proved to be abortions, causing us great grief and sorrow beyond measure, and impairing the zeal of the others. These others had not yet been seized, but continued constantly with the witnesses and did not forsake them.

Then all of us were greatly afraid because of uncertainty as to their confession — not because we dreaded the sufferings to be endured, but because we looked to the end, and were afraid that some of them might fall away. But those who were worthy were seized day by day, filling up their number so that all the zealous ones, and especially those through whom our affairs had been established, were collected together out of the two churches.

And some of our unbelieving household members also were seized, as the governor had commanded that all of us should be examined publicly. These, being ensnared by Satan, and fearing for themselves the tortures which they beheld the saints endure, and being also urged on by the soldiers, accused us falsely of Thyestean [cannibalistic] banquets and Oedipean [incestuous] intercourse; of deeds which are not only unlawful for us to speak of or to think, but which we cannot believe were ever done by men.

When these accusations were reported, all the people raged like wild beasts against us, so that even if any had formerly been moderate on account of friendship, they were now exceedingly furious and gnashed their teeth against us. And that which was spoken by our Lord was fulfilled: ” The time will come when whosoever killeth you will think that he is serving God.” Then finally the holy witnesses endured sufferings beyond description, Satan striving earnestly to make some of them speak slander as well.

But the fury of the populace, and governor, and soldiers was aroused exceedingly against Sanctus, the deacon from Vienne, and Maturus, a late convert but a noble combatant, and against Attalus, a native of Pergamos where he had always been a pillar and foundation, and Blandina, through whom Christ showed that things which appear poor, obscure and despicable to men are of great glory with God, through love toward Him manifested in power, and not boasting in appearance. For while we all trembled, and Blandina’s earthly mistress, who was herself also one of the witnesses , feared that on account of the weakness of her body, she would be unable to make bold confession, Blandina was filled with such power that she was delivered and raised above those who were torturing her by turns from morning till evening in every manner, so that they acknowledged that they were conquered and could do nothing more to her. And they were astonished at her endurance, as her entire body was mangled and broken; and they testified that one of these forms of torture was sufficient to snuff out a life, not to speak of so many and such great sufferings. But the blessed woman, like a noble athlete, renewed her strength in her confession; and her comfort and consolation and relief from the pain of her sufferings was in exclaiming, “I am a Christian, and nothing vile is done by us.”

But Sanctus also endured marvelously and superhumanly all the outrages which he suffered. While the wicked men hoped, by the continuance and severity of his tortures to wring something from him which he ought not to say, he girded himself against them with such firmness that he would not even tell his name, or the nation or city to which he belonged, or whether he was bond or free, but answered in the Roman tongue to all their questions, “I am a Christian.” He confessed this instead of name and city and race and everything besides, and the people heard no other word from him. For this reason the governor and his tormentors desired to conquer him, but having nothing more that they could do to him, they finally fastened red-hot brazen plates to the most tender parts of his body. And these indeed were burned, but he continued unbending and unyielding, firm in his confession, and refreshed and strengthened by the heavenly fountain of the water of life, flowing from Christ Himself.

Sanctus’ body was a witness of his sufferings, being one complete wound and bruise, pulled out of shape, and altogether unlike a human form. Christ manifested His glory, suffering in him, delivering him from his adversary, and making him an example for the others. He showed in Sanctus that nothing is fearful where the love of the Father is, and nothing painful where there is the glory of Christ. For when the wicked men tortured him a second time after some days, supposing that with his body swollen and inflamed to such a degree that he could not bear the touch of a hand, if they should again apply the same instruments, they would overcome him — or at least by his death under his sufferings others would be made afraid — not only did not this occur, but, contrary to all anyone could have expected, his body arose and stood erect in the midst of the subsequent torments, and resumed its original appearance and the use of its limbs, so that through the grace of Christ these second sufferings became to him, not torture, but healing.

The devil thought that he had already consumed Biblias, who was one of those who had denied Christ. Desiring to increase her condemnation through the utterance of blasphemy, brought her again to torture, to compel her to report impious things concerning us. But she recovered herself under the suffering, and as if awaking from a deep sleep, and reminded by the present anguish of the eternal punishment in hell, she contradicted the blasphemers. “How,” she said, “could we eat children, when we do not think it lawful to taste the blood even of irrational animals?” [cf. Acts 15:20] And from that point on she confessed herself a Christian, and was given a place in the order of the witnesses .

But as the tyrannical tortures were made of no effect by Christ through the patience of the blessed ones, the devil invented other contrivances: confinement in the dark and most loathsome parts of the prison, stretching of the feet to the fifth hole in the stocks, and the other outrages which his servants are accustomed to inflict upon the prisoners when furious and filled with the devil. A great many were suffocated in prison, being chosen by the Lord for this manner of death that He might show forth His glory in them.

Some had been tortured so cruelly that it seemed impossible that they could live, even with the most careful nursing. Yet, deprived of human attention, they remained in the prison and were strengthened by the Lord and invigorated both in body and soul. These exhorted and encouraged the rest.

But those who were young and arrested recently, so that their bodies had not become accustomed to torture, were unable to endure the severity of their confinement, and died in prison.

The blessed Pothinus, who had been entrusted with the bishopric of Lyons, was dragged to the judgment seat. He was more than ninety years of age and very infirm, scarcely indeed able to breathe because of physical weakness. But he was strengthened by spiritual zeal through his earnest desire for martyrdom. Though his body was worn out by old age and disease, his life was preserved so that Christ might triumph in it. When he was brought by the soldiers to the tribunal, accompanied by the civil magistrates and a multitude who shouted against him in every manner as if he were Christ himself, he bore noble witness. When the governor asked who the God of the Christians is, Pothinus replied, “If you are worthy, you will know.” Then he was dragged away harshly, and received blows of every kind. Those near him struck him with their hands and feet, regardless of his age, and those at a distance hurled at him whatever they could seize. All of them thought that they would be guilty of great wickedness and impiety if any possible abuse were omitted, for in this way they thought to avenge the offense against their own deities. Scarcely able to breathe, Pothinus was cast into prison and died after two days.

Then a great dispensation of God occurred, and the compassion of Jesus appeared beyond measure in a manner rarely seen among the brotherhood, but not beyond the power of Christ. For those who had recanted at their first arrest were imprisoned with the others, and endured terrible sufferings, so that their denial was of no profit to them even for the present. But those who confessed that they were imprisoned as Christians, found that no other accusation being brought against them. But the first were treated afterwards as murderers and defiled, and were punished twice as severely as the others. For the joy of martyrdom, and the hope of the promises, and love for Christ, and the Spirit of the Father supported the latter; but their consciences so greatly distressed the former that they were easily distinguishable from all the rest by their very countenances when they were led forth. For the first went out rejoicing, glory and grace being blended in their faces, so that even their bonds seemed like beautiful ornaments, as those of a bride adorned with variegated golden fringes. And they were perfumed with the sweet savor of Christ, so that some supposed they had been anointed with earthly ointment.

But the others were downcast and humble and dejected and filled with every kind of disgrace, and they were reproached by the heathen as ignoble and weak, bearing the accusation of murderers, and having lost the one honorable and glorious and life-giving Name. The rest, beholding this, were strengthened, and when apprehended, they confessed without hesitation, paying no attention to the persuasions of the devil.

After these things, finally, their martyrdom was finally distributed into various kinds. For plaiting a crown of various colors and of all kinds of flowers, they presented it to the Father. It was proper therefore that the noble athletes, having endured a manifold strife, and conquered grandly, should receive the great and incorruptible crown.

Therefore Maturus, Sanctus, Blandina and Attalus were led to the amphitheater to be exposed to the wild beasts, and to give to the heathen public a spectacle of cruelty, a day for fighting with wild beasts being specially appointed on account of our people. Both Maturus and Sanctus passed again through every torment in the amphitheater, as if they had suffered nothing before, or rather, as if, having already conquered their antagonist in many contests, they were now striving for the crown itself. They endured again the customary running of the gauntlet and the violence of the wild beasts, and everything which the furious people called for or desired, and at last, the iron chair in which their bodies being roasted, tormented them with the fumes. And the persecutors did not stop, but were yet more enraged against them, determined to overcome their patience. But even so they did not hear a word from Sanctus except the confession which he had uttered from the beginning. So these, after their life had continued for a long time through the great conflict, were at last sacrificed, having been made a spectacle to the world throughout that day, in place of the usual variety of combats.

But Blandina was suspended on a stake, and exposed to be devoured by the wild beasts who should attack her. And because she appeared as if hanging on a cross, and because of her earnest prayers, she inspired the combatants with great zeal. For they looked on her in her conflict, and beheld with their outward eyes, in the form of their sister, Him who was crucified for them, that He might persuade those who believe on Him, that every one who suffers for the glory of Christ has fellowship always with the living God. As none of the wild beasts at that time touched her, she was taken down from the stake, and cast again into prison. She was preserved thus for another contest, so that, being victorious in more conflicts, she might make the punishment of the crooked serpent irrevocable; and, though small and weak and despised, yet being clothed with Christ the mighty and conquering Athlete, she might arouse the zeal of the brethren, and, having overcome the adversary many times, might receive through her conflict the incorruptible crown .

But Attalus was called for loudly by the people, because he was a person of distinction. He entered the contest readily on account of a good conscience and his genuine practice in Christian discipline, and as he had always been a witness for the truth among us. He was led around the amphitheater, with a tablet carried before him on which was written in the Roman language “This is Attalus the Christian.” The people were filled with indignation against him. But when the governor learned that he was a Roman, he commanded him to be taken back with the rest of those who were in prison concerning whom he had written to Caesar, and whose answer he was awaiting.

But the intervening time was not wasted nor fruitless to the witnesses , for by their patience the measureless compassion of Christ was manifested. For through their continued life the dead were made alive, and the witnesses showed favor to those who had failed to bear witness. And the virgin mother had much joy in receiving alive those whom she had brought forth as dead. For through their influence many who had denied were restored, and re-begotten, and rekindled with life, and learned to confess. And being made alive and strengthened, they went to the judgment seat to be interrogated again by the governor. God, who does not desire the death of the sinner but mercifully invites to repentance, treated them with kindness. For Caesar commanded that they should be put to death, but that any who might deny should be set free. Therefore, at the beginning of the public festival which took place there, and which was attended by crowds of men from all nations, the governor brought the blessed ones to the judgment seat, to make of them a show and spectacle for the multitude. Wherefore also he examined them again, and beheaded those who appeared to possess Roman citizenship, but he sent the others to the wild beasts.

And Christ was glorified greatly in those who had formerly denied him. For, contrary to the expectation of the heathen, they confessed Christ. They were examined by themselves, as if they were about to be set free; but when they confessed, they were added to the order of the witnesses. But some continued outside, who had never possessed a trace of faith, nor any apprehension of the wedding garment, nor an understanding of the fear of God; but, as sons of perdition, they blasphemed the Way through their apostasy. But all the others were added to the Church.

Alexander was a Phrygian by birth and a physician by profession, who had resided in Gaul for many years, and was well known to all on account of his love to God and boldness of speech.

While these others were being examined, Alexander stood before the judgment seat and by signs encouraged them to confess, appearing to those standing by as if in travail. But the people being enraged because those who formerly denied now confessed, cried out against Alexander as if he were the cause of this. Then the governor summoned him and inquired who he was. And when Alexander answered that he was a Christian, the governor being very angry condemned him to the wild beasts. And on the next day he entered along with Attalus. For to please the people, the governor had ordered Attalus again to the wild beasts.

And they were tortured in the amphitheater with all the instruments contrived for that purpose, and having endured a very great conflict, they were at last sacrificed. Alexander neither groaned nor murmured in any manner, but communed in his heart with God. But when Attalus was placed in the iron seat, and the fumes arose from his burning body, he said to the people in the Roman language: “Look! What you are doing is devouring men; but we do not devour men, nor do any other wicked thing.” And being asked, what name God has, he replied, “God does not have a name as man has.”

After all these, on the last day of the contests, Blandina was again brought in, with Ponticus, a boy about fifteen years old. They had been brought every day to witness the sufferings of the others, and had been pressured to swear by the idols. But because they remained steadfast and despised them, the multitude became furious, so that they had no compassion for the youth of the boy nor respect for the sex of the woman. Therefore they exposed them to all the terrible sufferings and took them through the entire round of torture, repeatedly urging them to swear, but being unable to effect this; for Ponticus, encouraged by his sister so that even the heathen could see that she was confirming and strengthening him, having nobly endured every torture, gave up his spirit.

But the blessed Blandina, last of all, having, as a noble mother, encouraged her children and sent them before her victorious to the King, endured herself all their conflicts and hastened after them, glad and rejoicing in her departure as if called to a marriage supper, rather than cast to wild beasts. And, after the scourging, after the wild beasts, after the roasting seat, she was finally enclosed in a net and thrown before a bull. And having been tossed about by the animal, but feeling none of the things which were happening to her, on account of her hope and firm hold upon what had been entrusted to her, and her communion with Christ, she also was sacrificed. And the heathen themselves confessed that never among them had a woman endured so many and such terrible tortures.

But not even thus was their madness and cruelty toward the saints satisfied. For incited by the Wild Beast, wild and barbarous tribes were not easily appeased, and their violence found another peculiar opportunity in the dead bodies. For, through their lack of human reason, the fact that they had been conquered did not put them to shame, but rather further kindled their wrath like that of a wild beast, and aroused the hatred of both the governor and the people to treat us unjustly. This was in fulfillment of the Scripture: “He that is lawless, let him be lawless still, and he that is righteous, let him be righteous still.”

For they cast to the dogs those who had died of suffocation in the prison, carefully guarding them by night and day, lest any of them should be buried by us. And they exposed the remains left by the wild beasts and by fire, mangled and charred, and placed the heads of the others by their bodies, and guarded them in like manner from burial by a watch of soldiers for many days. And some raged and gnashed their teeth against them, desiring to execute more severe vengeance upon them; but others laughed and mocked at them, magnifying their own idols, and imputed to them the punishment of the Christians.

Even the more reasonable, and those who had seemed to sympathize somewhat, reproached them often, saying, “Where is their God? They chose their religion rather than life; what has it profited them?” So various was their conduct toward us; but we were in deep affliction because we could not bury the bodies. For night was no use to us for this purpose, nor did money persuade, nor entreaty move them to compassion; but they kept watch in every way as if the prevention of the burial would be of some great advantage to them.

The bodies of the witnesses, having thus in every manner been exhibited and exposed for six days, were afterward burned and reduced to ashes, and swept into the Rhone by the wicked men so that no trace of them might appear on the earth. And this they did, as if able to conquer God and prevent their new birth; “so that,” as they said, “they may have no hope of a resurrection. Through trust in a resurrection they bring to us this foreign and new religion and despise terrible things, and are ready even to go to death with joy; now let us see if they will rise again, and if their God is able to help them, and to deliver them out of our hands.”

Those who bore witness were so zealous in their imitation of Christ, “who, being in the form of God, counted it not a prize to be on an equality with God,” that, though they had attained such honor, and had borne witness, not once or twice, but many times, having been brought back to prison from the wild beasts, covered with burns and scars and wounds, yet they did not proclaim themselves witnesses, nor did they suffer us to address them by this name. If any one of us, in letter or conversation, spoke of them as witnesses, they rebuked him sharply. For they conceded cheerfully the appellation of Witness to Christ “the faithful and true Witness,” and “firstborn of the dead,” and Prince of the life of God; and they reminded us of the witnesses who had already departed, and said, “They are already witnesses whom Christ has deemed worthy to be taken up in their confession, having sealed their testimony by their departure; but we are lowly and humble confessors.”

And they besought the brethren with tears that earnest prayers should be offered that they might be made perfect. They showed in their deeds the power of testimony, manifesting great boldness toward all the brethren, and they made plain their nobility through patience and fearlessness and courage, but they refused the title of Witnesses as distinguishing them from their brethren, being filled with the fear of God.

They humbled themselves under the mighty hand by which they are now greatly exalted. They defended all, but accused none. They absolved all, but bound none. And they prayed for those who had inflicted cruelties upon them, even as Stephen, the perfect witness: “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.” But if he prayed for those who stoned him, how much more for the brethren!

For through the genuineness of their love, their greatest contest with the Beast was this: That, being choked, he might cast out alive those whom he supposed he had swallowed. For they did not boast over the fallen, but helped them in their need with those things in which they themselves abounded, having the compassion of a mother, and shedding many tears on their account before the Father. They asked for life, and He gave it to them, and they shared it with their neighbors. Victorious over everything, they departed to God. Having always loved peace, and having commended peace to us, they went in peace to God, leaving no sorrow to their mother, nor division or strife to the brethren, but joy and peace and concord and love.

This record of the affection of those blessed ones toward the brethren that had fallen may be profitably added on account of the inhuman and unmerciful disposition of those who, after these events, acted unsparingly toward the members of Christ.

Author: Father Silouan Thompson

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