As the world watches in horror and dismay at the brutality displayed by modern-day terrorists, I cannot help but think to put this in perspective and recall to memory the slew of Christians who suffered similarly (or arguably worse) under the Roman Empire.
Convert or die
In the seventh century Amr ibn al-‘As led the Muslim conquest of Egypt and offered Egypt’s inhabitants three options identical to what some radical terrorists propose today: either convert to Islam, pay Jizya (a tax), or face death.
Under Rome, two notable emperors—Decius and Diocletian—similarly required Christians to express allegiance to the Roman gods, or otherwise face torture or death.
Around AD 250, the Roman emperor Decius published an imperial edict to arrest every single Christian. Why? Simply put: in his view, the decline of the Roman Empire was caused by the Roman gods who were punishing Rome because its subjects were not devout enough, and particularly because people were converting to Christianity. Thus, in order to revive the empire, Decius decided to force all Christians to express allegiance to the gods of Rome (including the emperor himself, who was regarded as divine). The emperor’s edict ordered all citizens to perform an act of worship in the presence of Roman commissioners—often no more than throwing a pinch of incense into a votive lamp burning in front of the emperor’s bust—after which they would receive a certificate (libellus) that they had sacrificed. Prison, slavery, torture, and death awaited those who refused.
During Roman imperial reign, Christian responses were not always as brave and glorious as one may think.
Christians are accustomed to hearing of the glorious heroes of the faith who valiantly accepted torture and death rather than deny their faith. But that was just a few exemplary individuals. Most people responded in other, less noble ways. Before you judge them too harshly, I ask you to think about what you would do if terrorism was at your doorstep.
Christians responded to the edict of Decius in four ways:
(1) Fleeing or hiding
(2) Breaking under pressure and offering a sacrifice (those who regretted their decision were called the lapsi—i.e., “fallen”; they were allowed to return to the Church so long as they repented—re-baptism was not required, as some proposed)
(3) Others with connections in the government, had certificates written out for them without offering a sacrifice
(4) A few incredibly brave faithful refused to sacrifice. Those who stood their ground, confessing their unrelenting loyalty to Christ, were put into prison and usually tortured. Those who were not actually killed were simply called “confessors.” Those who died were called “martyrs.”
Brutality of the Romans rivaling that of modern terrorism
The Coptic archbishop of Alexandria living at the time of the Decian persecution, Pope Dionysius (14th pope of the Coptic Church), wrote about the persecution endured by his flock, and the frailty of many in remaining loyal to God:
“The persecution against us did not begin with the imperial edict, but preceded it by a whole year…. They seized an old man named Metras and ordered him to blaspheme. When he refused, they beat him with clubs, stabbed his face and eyes with pointed reeds, took him to the suburbs, and stoned him to death….
“Then they led a believer named Quinta to the temple of idols and tried to make her worship… [She refused, so they] stoned her to death….
“Then they all rushed in a group to the houses of the godly and attacked and plundered… The brethren gradually yielded and cheerfully endured the plundering of their possessions….
“No road, no highway, no alley could we use either by night or day….
“The edict arrived indeed, almost like that predicted by our Lord in His fearful words, ‘so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect [Matthew 24:24]’….
“Called up by name, they approached the unclean, unholy sacrifices, some pale and trembling as if they were not going to sacrifice, but be sacrificed as victims to the idols …. it was obvious they were total cowards, afraid to die….
“Others, however, ran to the altars eagerly as if to show that they had never been Christians….
“Of the rest, some followed one or another of these groups, while others fled….
“Some were captured and imprisoned, of whom some, after long incarceration, renounced their faith even before coming into court, while others endured torture for a while before giving in….
“The firm and blessed pillars of the Lord, however, strengthened by Him and receiving power and endurance in proportion to their vigorous faith, proved magnificent martyrs of His Kingdom.”
Two Exemplary Heroes
One notable young Christian man, revered by both Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Christians, who has become particularly popular in recent times in the Coptic Church, boldly defied emperor Decius to his face. At the age of 25, he was highly acclaimed for his military efforts on behalf of the emperor, so much so that he was promoted to a significant army rank. After watching him display his skill on the battlefield, some fellow soldiers gave him the name Mercurius (quite possibly an allusion to the Roman god Mercury). Philopateer Mercurius was asked by Decius to join him and his elite guests to pay homage to the gods for his recent victory in battle. Philopateer publicly refused the emperor’s request and as a consequence suffered imprisonment, excruciating torture (e.g., a red hot iron instrument was thrust into his members, and afterward blazing torches were applied to his sides), and eventually he was killed.
Another notable figure during the Decian persecution was the great church scholar and dean of the ancient catechetical school of Alexandria, Origen. Eusebius, the church historian, bishop, and trusted confidant of Emperor Constantine tells us:
“In this persecution the evil demon [Decius] attacked Origen, in particular, with all the weapons in his arsenal, making him endure chains and torture for the word of Christ, as he lay in irons in the depths of his dungeon. Day after day his legs were stretched apart four paces in the stocks, but he courageously endured threats of fire and every other torment devised by his enemies.”
Then came even worse: Diocletian and the Great Persecution; but God was present (as He is now) despite it all
Around 30 years later, things got much worse for Christians when Diocletian became emperor. His persecution was so bad that the Coptic Church re-dated year one of the Egyptian calendar to the year that this man took his throne, to always remember.
Bishop and historian Eusebius was an eye witness to the brutality of this emperor’s regime. He tells us:
“I myself was there when this was happening [i.e., Christians being thrown to wild beasts], and I saw the divine power of our Savior Jesus Christ Himself—the object of their witness—clearly present and revealing itself to the martyrs….
“The [beasts] for some time did not dare to touch or even approach those who were God’s beloved but attacked others who were goading them on from the outside. The holy champions, though they stood naked and waved their hands to attract the animals, as they were ordered to do, were left untouched. Or when the beasts did rush at them, they were stopped, as if by some divine power, and would retreat.”
They kept releasing beasts one after another until the Christian was eventually killed.
“Such was the ordeal of the Egyptians who contended so gloriously for the faith….
“Those … who were martyred … [included] countless numbers of men, women, and children….
“Scraped, racked, ruthlessly whipped, and tortured in ways too terrible to describe and finally given to the flames or drowned in the sea…
“Others courageously bared their necks to the executioners or died of torture or hunger….
“Some again were crucified as criminals usually are, while others, even more cruelly, were nailed in the opposite way—head downward— kept alive until they died of hunger on the cross….
“The outrageous agonies endured by the martyrs in the Theban area [the ancient capital of Egypt], however, defeat all description….
“Sometimes ten or more, at times more than twenty were put to death, or thirty, or almost sixty; at other times a hundred men, women, and little children were condemned to a variety of punishments and killed in a single day….
“I myself saw some of these mass executions by decapitation or fire… But I also observed a marvelous eagerness and divine power and enthusiasm in those who placed their faith in Christ….
“As soon as the first was sentenced, others would jump up on the tribunal in front of the judge and confess themselves Christians…. Boldly proclaiming their devotion to the God of the universe, they received the final sentence of death with joy, laughter, and gladness, singing hymns of thanksgiving to God until their last breath.”
From now on, whenever you read or watch news about terrorism, keep it in perspective, and never forget those brave souls before us who experienced similar and worse treatment and how they triumphantly accepted their means of entry into Paradise.
The Church helps you with that nearly every day with a reading in the Synaxarium (biography of the saints) reminding you about its martyrs… hopefully we will all find it more relevant now than before (rather than zoning out, as some of us often do, whenever it is read).