persecuted intermittently from 180 until 305. In assessing the strength and effects of persecution, one must recognise that not all Christians in every area of the empire were persecuted at the same time in the same way. Even imperial edicts designed to promote empire-wide uniformity depended upon local enforcement which may have been sporadic or non-existent in one place while sustained and severe elsewhere. The ambient ideal of human sacrifice, whether in war or at the altar, supported the Christian notion of the acceptability of offering one's life in fidelity, but it should be noted that no motifs of human sacrifice directly colour martyrdom narratives.37
The earliest martyr story, Martyrum Scillitanorum acta, demonstrates intransigent refusal to offer divine honours to the emperor, even in the face of death. The proconsul tried to treat his prisoners leniently, offering them opportunities to recant. They only became more steadfast in claiming the name 'Christian'. Speratus, their spokesman, made common apologetic moves (§§ 2-8). He defended Christianity as rational, worshipping God alone as the supreme ruler of the cosmos. Christians were model citizens abiding by laws and honouring the emperor. They drew the line, though, at idolatrous acts of swearing by the genius of the emperor, for it would have given the lie to their belief in God as the only divinity. In both intransigence and apologetic, Speratus provided a model for other martyr stories.
A generation later, Septimius Severus made conversion to Christianity illegal. From that period come two stories of unyielding, principled refusal to commit idolatry The first is from Tertullian's De corona. A soldier was executed for refusal to wear a laurel wreath, an emblem of victory Tertullian construed this crown as a symbol of the idolatry endemic in military life. While the juridical verdict may be interpreted more as a punishment for violation of military discipline than for adherence to the name 'Christian', there is some indication that the soldier's conduct embarrassed even some believers. However, the Martyrium Perpetuae et Felicitatis (203) portrays persecution specifically for adherence to Christianity. The diaries of Perpetua and her co-martyr Saturus manifest a refusal to sacrifice or even to wear priestly robes as theatrical costumes (M. Perp. 18.4-6). They depict a charismatic Christianity in which prophecy was respected and revelations in dreams trumped the authority of the clergy. The conflict between charismatic and ordained authority would be one of the major stress points for the African church in the 250s where it again emerged directly from the context of persecution. Likewise
37 The one exception may be M. Perp. 18.4 where Christians were forced to wear the garb of Ceres' priestesses whereby executed criminals were dedicated to the goddess. See Picard, Les religions de l'Afrique antique, 134.
Was this article helpful?