The Story behind the Martyrs: Times of the Roman Asia Minor & Christian Persecutions

martyrdom-of-polycarp

Asia Minor is the land, a witness to the challenges and the sufferings of the early Church during its global extension. Asia Minor or as we locals say Anatolia is also known as the“the cradle” of the Church: Anatolia, today’s Turkey perhaps the only land where so many significant events were converged outside of the Holy Land.

During the first three centuries of the Church history, the Roman Empire led 10 major waves of persecutions against Christians: The one led by Diocletian was the worst and brutal:When Diocletian (284-305) Major Empire-Wide Persecution begins ca. 303; confiscation of Christian churches and books; arrest, torture, and execution of many Christian leaders) raised a column with the inscription of “The name Christian is extinguished”, 3000-3500 Christians were executed already. That was recorded as the most intense period of violence in the early Christian history.

Together with some other significant sites in Asia Minor, Nicomedia in particularly (today’s modern Izmir, an important port city close to Istanbul) was target: On 23 February 303, Diocletian ordered that the newly built church at Nicomedia be razed. The very next day, Diocletian’s first “Edict against the Christians” was published. The edict ordered the destruction of Christian scriptures and places of worship across the empire, and prohibited Christians from assembling for worship. Before the end of February, a fire destroyed part of the Imperial palace, and many innocents were executed, including St. Juliana of Nicomedia. A daughter to Emperor’s advisor who is hostile to the Christians, Juliana was secretly accepted holy baptism. Nicomedia was no longer safe…

Nicomedia was the eastern and most senior capital city of the Roman Empire between 286 and 324, during the Tetrarchy introduced by Diocletian. Following Constantine the Great's victory over co-emperor Licinius at the Battle of Chrysopolis in 324, Nicomedia served as an interim capital city for Nova Roma.
Nicomedia was the eastern and most senior capital city of the Roman Empire between 286 and 324, during the Tetrarchy introduced by Diocletian. Following Constantine the Great’s victory over co-emperor Licinius at the Battle of Chrysopolis in 324, Nicomedia served as an interim capital city for Nova Roma

However, persecutions didn’t destroy Christianity, on the contrary, martyrs were canonized and the belief spread like a wildfire. As Tertullian, the father of Latin Christianity said once:“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church” Occurred intermittently over a period of about three centuries, persecutions heavily influenced the development of Christianity together with shaping its inner theology and the structure of the Church. At this stage, starting from early 4th century, saints turned to cults- and took their place in manuscripts, arts and religious books: Persecution –martyr theme brought rapid growth and spread of Christianity along-as well as the education, which mainly painted into the walls with storytelling, chronological order of events, life of Jesus Christ and many other early Christian experiences. Since then, many ancient Christians came to believe that “to be Christian was to suffer”: Ignatius, the third bishop of Antioch- perhaps the most famous and known martyr of Asia Minor wrote to all the churches: “I enjoy in all that I am dying willingly for God’s sake, if only you do not prevent it. I beg you; do not do me an untimely kindness. Allow me to be eaten by the beasts, which are my way of reaching to God. I am God’s wheat, and I am to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts, so that I may become the pure bread of Christ.” Ignatius was one of the five apostolic church fathers and his statement was one of the earliest Christian theology samples.  The Martyrdom of Polycarp tells us the same story indeed. Polycarp was the Bishop of the church in Smyrna (today’s Izmir) died a martyr, bound and burned at the stake, then stabbed when the fire failed to touch him. This is the earliest chronicle of martyrdom outside the New Testament. Polycarp had been a disciple of John the Evangelist. Both in nature and the miracle in the persecution, this martyrdom account became immediately popular among the Christians of that age and fueled growing martyrdom cult.

During the first centuries, when it was all hidden, the cult of Martyrdom was celebrated more quietly and secretly in the graveyards and outside of the cities. When Christianity was Hellenized and spread all around the Mediterranean World, imperial support was there to praise the cult and celebrations were more openly, even with greater splendor: “The martyrs’ sanctuaries grew from modest chapels into splendidly adorned basilicas.”

Speaking of the martyrs of Early Christianity in Anatolia, we should mention the martyrdom of the Holy Forty Martyrs. Very dear to Eastern Orthodox Church, every year on 9th of March, there is a commemoration day for these forty soldiers who suffered for their faith to Christ, by freezing in a lake near Sebaste (today’s Sivas, central Anatolia, Turkey) in the former Armenia(In the early 4th century, Sebaste was the capital of the province of Armenia Minor). Even though the previous arguments say that suffering occurred at different times and many places, here the most important thing is that belief brought this story today with the venerations of the hundreds of the years.

The Fourty Martyr of Mardin (Syrian Border) is the “the only active church in a city that until a century ago was largely Christian... The Church of the 40 Martyrs holds the historic manuscript collection of the Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate.
The Fourty Martyr of Mardin (Syrian Border) dates back to the 4th century, was renamed in the 15th century to commemorate Cappadocian martyrs and  is the “the only active church in a city that until a century ago was largely Christian… The Church of the 40 Martyrs holds the historic manuscript collection of the Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate.

When Roman Emperor Licinius ruled the eastern half of the Roman Empire from 307 to 323 AD, many early Christians died as a result of his harsh politics. Soldiers known as Cappadocians’, 40 men jailed for eight days, beaten with stones just because they refused to sacrifice the pagan idols. Eventually, they were sentenced to death for disobeying the emperor and for witchcraft: “The punishment consisted of freezing them in Sebaste Lake, in a mountainous region. So martyrs were obliged to enter naked in the lake, at the time of the dusk. They were forced to undress and enter the cold waters, one of the martyrs burst out: “We don’t take off our clothes, but take off the old man. Winter is harsh, but the Paradise is sweet; the cold is strong, but the delight is pleasant. For the Paradise lost we should today no longer endure the corruptible clothes. We shall defame the ice which melts us and to hate our body”. However, that night a miracle happens and the lake’s water warms up, the ice melts and 39 of the shiny crowns come down from heaven upon the martyrs.

The depiction of the forty Martyrs gives us that entire dramatic story with one look: “A group of early Christians from Sivas who refused to give up their faith and was driven out onto a frozen lake to freeze to death. There's even an image of the one man who recanted being replaced by a local official who converted to Christianity and who is shown casting off his elaborate robe to join the men on the lake.”
The depiction of the forty Martyrs (Sahinefendi, Cappadocia) gives us that entire dramatic story with one look: “A group of early Christians from Sivas who refused to give up their faith and was driven out onto a frozen lake to freeze to death. There’s even an image of the one man who recanted being replaced by a local official who converted to Christianity and who is shown casting off his elaborate robe to join the men on the lake.”

Only one Roman soldier, Aglaius sees this miracle, wakes the others while he strips his clothes and jumps into water shouting “    I am a Christian too.” They survived in the lake; however Roman soldiers broke their legs and left them alive to die in the freezing cold. Even though their bodies were burnt and thrown in the river afterwards and Christians were not able to recover their relics, this dramatic story remained and spread all over the “Ancient Christian World” in pagan reality. It is commonly known that a martyr’s death in the early Christianity was also seen like the death of the heroes-just like the old times, even Greek Mythology and automatically ensures salvation and the likeness with the sacrifice of Christ.

This is one of the inspirational stories from the days of the Roman Empire in the transitional years as it became more Christianized. The earliest account of the martyrdom of the Cappadocian soldiers is given by Bishop Basil of Caesarea (370-379) in a homily delivered on the feast of the Forty Martyrs.

Many churches and sanctuaries erected in their honor, all around the world-One of them in Sahinefendi village, Cappadocia. Church of Forty Martyrs is one of the finest of all Cappadocia’s less-visited (off the beaten path) treasures, hidden inside of one of the rock-cut formations. Housing amazing wall-paintings back to 13th century, walls and ceilings are newly restored by an Italian team.

 

References

  • Raymond Van Dam, “Becoming Christian: The Conversion of Roman Cappadocia”
  • Gordon Robertson, “How Christianity Survived in Pagan Rome”
  • Carlos Madrigal, “Suffering, Persecuation, and Martyrdom in History and Geography”. From Asia Minor to Contemporary Turkey.
  • John Leemans, Wendy Mayer, Pauline Allen, Boudewijn Dehandschutter, “Let Us Die That We May Live”

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