Roman Times and Events: Those about to Die, Chapter 14, Part 5 of 10

(by Daniel P. Mannix)

Records by the early church fathers tell us that Christians in the arena had red-hot plates of iron strapped to their bodies, their flesh was torn from their bones with hot pincers, they were chained in iron seats over fires, and roasted on spits.

Eusebius tells of the death of Blandina, one of these martyrs. She was first forced to watch the death of her friends in the arena. When that didn't break her resolve, she was made to run the gantlet between two lines of men armed with whips and iron bars. She was then hung from a pole as bait for starved hyenas and wolves. Half-dead, she was cut down and forced to watch her little brother flogged, burned over a fire and finally flung to wild beasts—constantly told that if she would recant, the child's life would be spared. As Blandina still stood firm, she was finally put in a net and swung from the scaffolding of the arena for wild bulls to gore.

We have an eye witness account of these martyrdoms left us by two brothers, Felix and Verus Macarius. The events described took place on October 11, 290 A.D. under the Emperor Maximus.

"The stadium was crowded; Maximus also attended. A number of wild beasts being let loose, many criminals were devoured. We Christians in the stands kept ourselves concealed and were awaiting with great fear to see the martyrs brought forth. The martyrs were Tharacus, Probus, and Andronicus. They were carried by other condemned people, having been tortured so they could not walk. They looked so pitiful that we wept, hiding our faces so the crowd would not notice. They were tossed like refuse on the sand. Many people murmured and Maximus shouted to the soldiers, 'Note those people. They'll be down with those Christians if they're so fond of them.' "

"The wild beasts were let loose, especially a very frightful bear; then a lioness. Both roared fearfully at each other but did not attack the martyrs, much less devour them. The Master of the Games became enraged and commanded the spearmen to kill them. The bear was pierced through but the lioness made her escape through a door left open by some of the bestiarii who ran away in terror. Then Maximus commanded the Master of the Games to let the gladiators kill the Christians and afterwards fight to the death among themselves. When this tragedy was over, Maximus before he left the podium ordered ten soldiers to mutilate both the martyrs and the gladiators so the Christians couldn't tell them apart."

It was usual for Christians to bribe the arena slaves for the bodies of the martyrs so that they could be given decent burial.

How many Christians were martyred we have no idea. Tacitus only says that Nero "killed a great multitude of Christians." However, later we have a few statistics. During the persecutions under Maximus, nineteen hundred Christians were martyred in Sicily alone.

Diocletian killed seventeen thousand in one month. Eusebius says that during one of the persecutions, ten thousand men (not counting women and children) were killed in Egypt. The executioners blunted their swords and had to work in relays.

Of course, compared to Hitler, who killed 2,500,000 people in concentration camps within a few years, this is pretty small potatoes, but the Romans did their best.

Very few of the Christians recanted, although an altar with a fire burning on it was generally kept in the arena for their convenience. All a prisoner had to do was scatter a pinch of incense on the flame and he was given a Certificate of Sacrifice and turned free.

It was also carefully explained to him that he was not worshiping the emperor; merely acknowledging the divine character of the emperor as head of the Roman state. Still, almost no Christians availed themselves of the chance to escape.

Naturally, there were a few exceptions. Polycarp tells of one man in a provincial amphitheater who held out until actually in the arena. Then he collapsed and begged to be allowed to sacrifice. The editor refused and demanded that the animals be released.

The only animal was a lion who had been starved to make him savage. But the bestiarius had overdone it and when the lion was released, the poor brute just lay down and died. The martyr had to be burned at the stake.

Roman Events: Those about to Die, Chapter Fourteen, Part 6 is next.

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