Saturday, November 09, 2019

Eusebius, EH.5.1: The Gallic Martyrs: "Athletes of Piety"

This is an occasional series of readings from and brief notes and commentary upon Eusebius of Caesarea’s The Ecclesiastical HistoryHere is Book 5, chapter 1. Listen here.

Notes and Commentary:

Book 5 begins with a brief preface in which Eusebius, after noting the succession of Eleutherus as bishop of Rome following Soter, explains that whereas non-Christians historians write about victories in wars, triumphs over enemies, and the exploits of generals, Christian historians write about the martyrs, those “athletes of piety” who are “valiant for the truth.” The idea of the martyrs as athletes engaged in a great contest of faith is a theme throughout this chapter.

There then follows a very long and extended opening chapter.

Eusebius begins by citing a description of the martyrs of Gaul (Lyons and Vienne) from his “collection of martyrs.”

These included Vettius Epagathus, called “the Comforter of Christians.”

He records that some, under duress, failed in faithfulness. Heathen household servants falsely accused the brethren of Thyestean Feasts (eating children) and Oedipodean intercourse (incest).

Among the martyrs there was Blandina, a woman mercilessly tortured but who confessed, “I am a Christian and nothing wicked happens among us.”

There was also Sanctus, the deacon from Vienne, who despite unspeakable tortures would only say, “I am a Christian.”

A woman named Biblis first denied Christ, but then rallied and confessed faith to die as a martyr.

Those not immediately killed were thrown into prisons to suffer and die.

Account is given of the sufferings and abuse of Pothinus, the 90 year-old bishop of Lyons, who died after just two days in prison. This recalls the martyrdom of Polycarp.

Even those who initially denied Christ did not escape, but they suffered shameful death in imprisonment.

Description is given of Marturus, Sanctus, Blandina, and Attalus who were led to wild beasts. Marturus and Sanctus were first tortured in the amphitheater by being roasted on an iron chair. Blandina was hung on a stake, as if crucified. Attalus had a placard paraded before him which said, “I am a Christian”, and he was railed against by the crowd.

Mention is made of Alexander, a Phrygian physician, who was encouraging those who had initially denied the faith to be restored, till he was also seized and cast into the amphitheater to join the martyrs.

On the last day of the gladiatorial sports, the still-suriving Blandina and Ponticus, a fifteen-year old believer, were brought forward. Blandina encouraged the youth till he met his end, then she was put in a net and thrown to a bull.

The bodies of the saints were afterwards abused by the pagans in their zeal and hatred. Those who died in prison had their bodies desecrated and fed to the dogs, with the pagans mocking, “Where is their god and what good to them was their worship, which they preferred above their lives?” After six days the bodies of the martyrs were burned, and the ashes thrown in the Rhone river so as to leave no relics. The account ends with pagans mocking their hope in the resurrection: “now let us see if they will rise again….”, but the reader knows the reality of this hope.


This narrative not only describes the persecutions endured by early Christians, but also the brutality and bloodthirstiness of the pre-Christian Roman world. It also illustrates the early Christian interest in the cult of the martyrs (cf. the epistles of Ignatius of Antioch and the Martyrdom of Polycarp).


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