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       The Fifth Persecution of the Early Church


From MILLAR’S Propagation of Christianity, Vol. I.  page 465, &c.



The next persecution was under Antoninus Philosophus, and his brother Verus. The writers of Antoninus’ life speak great things of him, as a good man, and a great philosopher; but, withal, zealous of heathen rites to the highest degree of superstition. He had, from his youth, been educated in the Salian college, all the offices whereof he had gone through,1 affecting an imitation of Numa Pompilius, from whom he pretended to derive his original. What thoughts he had of the Christians appears from this; that he ascribes their resolute undergoing of death to stubbornness and obstinacy;2 he was, therefore, easily led, by the priests and philosophers about him, into a prejudice against Christianity, and persuaded to begin a fifth persecution against the Christians, whom he endeavoured to suppress by new laws and edicts, exposing them to all the malice of their enemies.


This persecution commenced in the eastern parts, about the seventh year of his reign, and continued several years; it spread likewise into the west, especially France, where it raged with great severity. That the conflict was very sharp, may be guessed by the crowd of apologies [vindications/pleas] presented to the Emperor by Justin Martyr, Melito, Athenagoras, and Apollinaris. In Asia, Polycarp of Smyrna was among the first martyrs; twelve others, from Philadelphia, suffered with him. When the proconsul began to persuade him, saying, “Regard thy great age; swear by the genius of Cćsar; say, with us, Take away the impious, swear, blaspheme Christ, and I will release thee:” Polycarp answered, “These fourscore and six years [eighty-six years] have I served him, and He never did me any harm; how shall I blaspheme my Saviour!” He suffered about the hundredth year of his age, in the year of our Lord 167. In this persecution many others received the crown of martyrdom. At Rome, Ptolemy and Lucius, Justin, the martyr, and his companions, were first scourged, and then beheaded.


In France, the letter writ by the churches of Lyons and Vienne to these of Asia and Phrygia, preserved by Eusebius,3 informs us,


“That it was impossible for them to describe the cruelty of their enemies, and the severity of these torments the martyrs suffered, being beaten, hurried from place to place, plundered, stoned, imprisoned, with all expressions of ungovernable fury. Vettius Epagathus, a man full of zeal and piety, seeing his fellow-Christians unjustly dragged before the judgment seat, asked leave of the president that he might plead his brethren’s cause, and openly show that they were not guilty of the least wickedness or impiety. But the court not daring to grant him so reasonable a request, the judge took the advantage to ask, if he was a Christian? which he publicly owning, suffered martyrdom. Blandina, a lady of singular virtue, but of whom the church doubted how she would hold out to make a resolute confession, by reason of the weakness of her sex, and tenderness of her education, yet endured all with such invincible magnanimity, that her tormentors, though they used all kinds of tortures, were forced to give over, and confess themselves overcome; wondering that a body so broken and mangled should yet be able to draw its breath: and declared, that one of these torments was sufficient to take away her life; much more so many and so great! But her happy soul gained strength by suffering, and mitigated all the sense of her pain, by repeating these words, I am a Christian. Biblis, though at first she fainted, yet recovered her courage, and expired in the midst of the most acute tortures. Pothinus, of Lyons, an infirm man, above ninety years old, was beaten and stoned to death. Sanctus, a deacon of Vien, together with Maturus, were exposed in the amphitheatre, tormented, and imprisoned several days together, presented to wild beasts, placed in an iron chair red-hot; and, at last, run through with a spear. Attalus, a Roman citizen, was disgracefully led up and down, as in triumph, and then beheaded; as was also Alexander, the physician, a Phrygian, who readily professed himself a Christian; and Ponticus, a youth of fifteen years of age, who, through all methods of cruelty and torment, which might have shaken a more mature age, entered the kingdom of heaven.”


These, and some others, the circumstances of whose sufferings are more at large preserved by Eusebius, in the place last cited, cheerfully endured these extremities themselves, and encouraged and strengthened others.




[1] Julius Capitolinus, p. 152.

[2] Meditations, Book ii. Sect. 3.

[3] Church Hist. Book v. Chap. i.  


“HISTORICAL COLLECTIONS OF ACCOUNTS OF REVIVAL,” compiled by the Rev. John Gillies, D.D., 1754. Published by The Banner of Truth Trust, 1981. p 14.