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Early Christian Martyrs

Updated on May 2, 2013



The blood of the martyrs is a seed.”


This seemingly simple analogy aptly describes the complexity inherent within martyrdom. Like the stands of DNA which take a seed on its journey to becoming a plant, we are faced with many facets involved in the creation and growth of martyrdom. Even the term ‘martyr’ evolved in meaning over time. Before it came to mean sacrificing oneself for a cause in the mid second century CE, it derived from the Greek word ‘witness’ and “could be used metaphorically for all kinds of observation and attestation” (Bowersock, 5). Involved from the beginning of Christianity, women also contributed to the concept of martyrdom and without their involvement martyrdom may have proven to be a far different and/or less effective ideology. They elicited sympathy, influenced action and challenged stereotypes. Like the men, women represented a broad spectrum of the population and included young and old, mistress and servant, as well as the intellectual. Their actions often surprised and terrified the non-Christian observers who puzzled over their source of “strength and their joy” (Chenu, 5).


The Christian martyrs’ religion perplexed the non-Christian. The Jews could not accept God incarnate, whereas the Greeks’ mythological history was filled with divine/human encounters, yet by the Christian era they had become more sceptical and were “more inclined to wisdom than to piety” (Chenu,1). While the Romans should have been the most accepting, due to their incorporations of other gods, they were the most hostile. The Jewish nation had been “particularly rebellious”, and the offshoot Christians proved to be even more fanatical due to their diligent missionary work, and were considered by the Romans as a “contagious disease” (Chenu, 2). Adding in their refusal to sacrifice “to the gods of the country” (Chenu, 2) Christians were fair game for reprisal. Yet the Romans’ reprisals would, in the main, only succeed in furthering the Christians’ cause. In fact the public spectacle of execution “fit within a pre-existing social order that shaped them” (Bowersock 50) where “it may be said that the form of the early martyrdoms was conditioned and nurtured by the traditional pagan institutions of Greco/Roman life, and … inconceivable without it” (Bowersock 56). While Christians were considered a “disease” in the Roman Empire, women had stereotype issues to deal with as well.


Because she was woman, Mary of Magdala’s story of Christ’s resurrection was considered to be the ravings of a “hysterical female” (MacDonald 1). This statement by Celus reflected the belief in the empire “that women were inclined towards excesses in matters of religion” (MacDonald 2). Such excesses, Christian or non-Christian, were thought to be almost absent in men. Early Christian women in particular were thought to be “excessive and hysterical” and “the early church threatened images of the ideal woman … [of] the … Mediterranean world” (MacDonald 7). Several non-Christian writers specifically refer to women in the early church. After torturing two women to gain information about the church Pliny “found nothing else but a depraved and excessive superstition” (MacDonald 51). Minucuis Felix, echoing Fronto, called Christians “the dregs of society … with gullible women readily persuaded, as is their weaker sex” (MacDonald 60). The satirist Lucian painted the Christian women waiting outside the prisons as “old hags called widows” (MacDonald 74). Occasionally, as in the writings of Galen of Pergamum, the new sect was painted in kinder terms. He described Christians as being “self-discipline[d] … and hav[ing] attained a pitch not inferior to that of genuine philosophers” which included women as well as men (MacDonald 82). Despite the usual uncomplimentary details the fact that women were included in the writings only adds emphasis to their contributions.



Perpetua and Polycarp

One such contributor was Perpetua who “in a sense [is] the archetype of all later Acts of the Christian Martyrs”, because her account “is an Apocalypse in its own right, reminiscent of the Book of Revelation” (Musurillo xxv). While there are many references in her story which “stress a woman’s point of view” (Musurillo xxvi), her visions or dreams give a decidedly male emphasis. Her first vision contains a heavenly directed ladder which echoes the ladder presented to Jacob, one of the patriarchal fathers of Israel. She also steps on the head of a dragon, yet another exercise attributed to a man. In her fourth vision her “clothes were stripped off, and suddenly [she] … was a man (Musurillo 119). It is interesting to note that unlike some other female martyrs who dressed as men, Perpetua retains her female identity, yet dreams herself as male. Her final action of taking “the trembling hand of the young gladiator and guiding [the sword] to her throat” (Musurillo 131) puts Perpetua in the traditional heroic male role, while the gladiator is described in more a feminine (i.e. “trembling”) context. With Perpetua, gender seems most ambiguous, giving her neither all male nor all female attributes. Yet this gender ambiguity is not found in the male martyrs. A contemporary male martyr, Polycarp, is in fact described with Christ-like comparisons.

Unlike Perpetua, Polycarp was considerably older and held the post of Bishop. It is said to be one of the “the earliest accounts of a martyrdom” and contains “numerous parallels [with] the Gospel (Chenu 36). Like Christ, Polycarp’s arrest was made possible through a betrayal and the arresting captain’s name was Herod (Musurillo 7). Where Christ made a triumphal entry into Jerusalem on a donkey, Polycarp was taken into the city after his arrest on a donkey (Musurillo 9). Like Christ, Polycarp is faced with an accusing Jewish mob and during his execution by fire he is stabbed.

Women of Salonki, and Pionus

Polycarp’s status of Bishop can be contrasted with Agape, Irene, Chione and their companions who were “a group of consecrated women” (Musurillo xliii). Where Polycarp was publicly acknowledged as a Bishop, these women of Salonki had “abandoned their native city, their family, property and possessions” for the mountains so as to escape persecution and practice their faith (Musurillo 281). Once arrested the older Agape and Chione were sentenced to be immolated while the others members Agatha, Irene, Cassia, Phiippa and Eutychia were put in prison because of their youth (Musurillo 287). When Irene, considered the most virtuous, would not cooperate she was “to be placed naked in the brothel” (Musurillo 291). This punishment, unlike death, was an attack not only upon her virtue, but upon her very state of womanhood. When this action didn’t prove to work successfully she too was burned on a pyre. Yet another woman Sabina, the companion of Pionus, was also threatened with a brothel.

One of the most notable differences in Pionus’s story “is the inclusion of lengthy speeches” (Musurillo xxvii). While many of the martyrs were recorded as having ‘preached to the crowd’ only in Pionus do we have them written out in elaborate detail. Unlike Pionus Sabina was either not given this opportunity, or the writers simply didn’t acknowledge that she too sermonized. Sabina’s fate is unknown. Whether or not she was put in a brothel we are not told, and her last appearance in the account simply has her denying her native city in favour of being Pionus’s sister (Musurillo 159).

The Gender Issue

These are but a few examples of the pre-Constantine martyrs which stretched over a period of two to three hundred years. Yet despite the time involved there appear to be some similarities in the way women were treated and/or recorded. Their gender seems to be an issue, unlike the men. Women were often threatened prior to their executions with a brothel. In fact in Pionus’s account we find the statement “Women who refuse to sacrifice are put into a brothel” (Musurillo 147), which would suggest this was a common occurrence. The writers and spectators viewed the bodies of the martyrs differently according to gender. When Perpetua and Felicitas were brought into the stadium naked “the crowd was horrified … and so they were brought back again and dressed” (Musurillo 129). Yet just prior to his execution Pionus “gladly removed his clothes … [and when]… realising the holiness and dignity of his body, he was filled with great joy” (Musurillo 163). The writers seem to regard the male nude form as acceptable, whereas the woman’s form is regarded as more shameful. Pregnant women were given more consideration. Felicitas was concerned that she wouldn’t be martyred because she was pregnant, and Eutychia was put into prison because of her pregnancy when Agape and Chione were executed. The women martyrs were often portrayed as having male attributes, such as Perpetua which suggests only a male, or a female with male characteristics could possible endure martyrdom.

Syriac Tradition

To balance the view of early Christian Martyrdom one should take the Syriac tradition into account. By giving us a fuller picture it also allows us to see that the Syriac version was not completely separate from the Greco-Roman tradition and “underscores the fluidity of cultural boundaries in antiquity” (Brock xiv). As an example the Febronia story “shares a number of key elements with Hellenistic romance (Brock xv). Like the rest of the ancient world texts written by women are few or non-existent. “Febronia” is said to be written by a woman named Thomais, and even though it may be a fiction, even fiction “had to share the values and assumptions of that society” (Brock 3).

Some of the major differences between these two areas of Christianity are directly related to their foundations. Where the Syriac tradition was “born of Semitic tradition … and inherited biblical tradition directly from Judaism … the Greek and Latin churches dealt with Judaism is its Diaspora form” (Brock 6-7). Yet another major difference lies in the timing of martyrdom, and in the “credal definition of the relationship between human and divine natures of Christ” (Brock 5). The 451 CE Council of Chalcedon’s definition left most Syriac Christians cold and “led … to the exile into Persia of some Syrian Christians” (Brock 5). After this point peace rarely remained a part of life as territorial gains losses bounced among the Byzantines, Persians, Arabs and Muslim Turks. (Brock 6). The Gnostic traditions also left their influence and would leave “an ascetic understanding of religious faith” (Brock 7).

This ascetic belief in Syrian Christianity came from their tendency “to literalize symbols” (Brock 8), especially the symbol of Christ as bridegroom. If one was betrothed to Christ “then earthly marriage had no place” (Brock 9). Yet their extreme asceticism would prove to be one of the reasons for being martyred. While Christians generally lived peacefully with their non-Christian neighbours (pre Council of Chalcedon) the ascetics practice of retaining their virginity, and not marrying, “was unsettling in its social impact, [and] erod[ed] …the family” (Brock 16). The story of Febronia illustrates an extreme form of martyrdom because of these ascetic beliefs.



Febronia and More Gender Issues

The young nun Febronia was rumoured to be uncommonly beautiful. The head of the convent, Bryene, for this reason kept Febronia isolated from the world and most of the convent. When the convent was warned of an upcoming attack, Bryene refused to evacuate, and to the belief of the convent members this was due to Febronia and her forced isolation. All but Bryene, Febronia and Thomais (the female author of the tale) left. Because of her notoriety of beauty, Febronia was taken to trial. The persecutor, Selonos, offered to have her married to a Lord Lysimachos, yet she refused and her refusal earned her torture and eventual death. At one point in her torture she is stripped of most of her clothes, and is accused by Selonos of being “impudent” and “deserving every kind of disgrace” (Brock 166) because she does not exhibit shame at her nakedness. While this view of women is exemplary of the time’s stereotypes, Febronia likens herself to a male athlete who would enter the “fight at Olympia … naked until he has conquered his adversary” Brock 166). Again we see a woman taking on male characteristics by way of comparing herself to a male. Yet, many ascetics took this even further and changed their gender identities, such as Anastasia who lived as a eunuch monk for many years in Egypt. Pelagia of Antioch of the fourth century was a prostitute whose “appearance incited everyone who set eyes on her to fall in love with her” (Brock 43). After her conversion she lived her life as “a [eunuch] recluse on the Mount of Olives, performing miracles” (Brock 61). While these women were not martyrs, in the strict sense of the word, they did sacrifice their lives and female identity to Christianity.

The subject of women passing themselves off as eunuchs in the early Christian period has been debated by a number of scholars who have come to a variety of conclusions. Stephen J. Davis discusses many of them in his essay “Crossed Texts, Crossed Sex”. Marie Delcourt approaches the issue from a Freudian perspective where she “identifies the female act of cross-dressing as psychologically equivalent to the male act of self-castration” (Davis 6-7). John Anson reads the texts as “monastic hostility toward women as the source of their sexual desire, and on the other [hand], the monks’ suppressed longing for female presence” (Davis 8). Evelyne Patagean believes “the transvestite saint was an image of female independence and autonomy” (Davis 9). Elizabeth Castelli sees the cross-dressing as “signs of how early Christian society was re-evaluating … traditional gender differences in the context of a theology that called for personal and corporate transformation” (Davis 10). Davis himself takes a more intertextual postmodern view of questioning our Master Narrative (as coined by postmodernist Frederick Jamison) truth of binary systems, stating the “transvestite saint … destabilizes binary gender categories by undermining even the fundamental opposition of sexual division/nondivision itself” (Davis 36).

No matter how we view the women’s behaviour there are certain stereotypical ideas of the time that influenced the mostly male writers of the texts. They saw women of beauty as dangerous things which should be hidden away, as found in the story of Febronia. Women were also “weak-minded, wantonly sensual … beings… saved by the grace of God (and men wiser and stronger than themselves)” (Brock 21). Elizabeth A. Clark in her essay “Holy Women, Holy Words” observes “some ways in which the accounts of women ascetics differ from those of their male counterparts” (Clark 417). She points out that males tend to practice their asceticism in the deserts or some natural setting whereas women often practiced “’house asceticism’ … in … familial households … or monasteries for women” (Clark 417). This plays to the ancient belief that ideally women should remain within the confines of the home. Women also had “fewer exotic features” (417). Where Clark admits that “surprisingly … women ascetics … are represented as purveyors of wisdom” (Clark 422) she suggests this is only due to men using Women as Wisdom as “an inversed alter ego … metaphorically buffering any notion of God’s homoerotic association with Israelite men” (Clark 425-26). While there is some logic to this we also see through the female martyr and holy person examples of women “who are strong of character … who are assertive and even aggressive” (Brock 21). They display leadership qualities over men and women alike, and their “actions speak far louder than the words said about them” (Brock 21).


Women as martyrs in an ancient world dominated by men certainly left their mark on history. Despite the often condescending attitude expressed in the texts, there is no doubt that women were influential in this aspect of Christianity. In many of the texts it states that their actions were successful in producing many converts. Whether this is simply a rhetorical device used by the writers to influence future generations is not of real consequence, because either way women martyrs did influence their present and future. Not only did they affect the issue of Christianity, but they started to batter the doors of convention in a world where they were rarely allowed to step outside the accepted boundaries. Posing as men called into question of what was male and what was female. Whether this is seen as a positive or a negative is not really important. Their actions allowed the world to see women could not be as easily categorized as was previously thought. Unlike the ancient martyr, today’s martyr is politically motivated where the participant sacrifices not just himself, but many innocents as well. It is interesting to note that very few women participate in this kind of action, maybe due to a very stereotypical view of women as nurturers and therefore as a whole less willing to commit such acts. Perhaps this is one positive aspect of a stereotype we would do well to encourage.

Works Cited

1)Bowersock, G.W. Martyrdom and Rome. Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity

Press, 1995.

2)Brock, Sebastian P., and Susan Ashbrook Harvey. Holy Women of the Ancient

Orient. Berkley: University of California Press, 1998.

3)Chenu, Bruno, et al. The Book of Christian Martyrs. New York: Crossroad, 1990.

4)Clark, Elizabeth A. “Holy Women, Holy Words: Early Christian Women, Social

History, and the ‘Linguistic Turn’.” Church History. 67 (1998): 1-31.

5)Davis, Stephen J. “Crossed Texts, Crossed Sex: Intertextuality and Gender in

Early Christian legends of Holy Women Disguised as Men.” Journal of

Early Christian Studies 10:1, (2002) : 1-39.

6)MacDonald, Margaret, Early Christian Women and Pagan Opinion: The Power

Of the Hysterical Woman. Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press, 1996.

7)Musurillo, Herbert. The Acts of the Christian Martyrs. Oxford: The Clarendon

Press, 1972.


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