Marcus Aurelius succeeded Antoninus Pius as Roman Emperor about 161 A.D. Marcus Aurelius was a man of stern and severe nature. Although he was very adept in the study of philosophy and in the art of civil government, yet, toward the Christians he was sharp and fierce. He began the fourth wave of persecution against the Christians. The cruelties used in this persecution were such that many of the spectators shuddered with horror at the sight, and were astonished at the intrepidity of the sufferers. Some of the martyrs were obliged to pass, with their already wounded feet, over thorns, nails, and sharp shells upon their points. Others were scourged until their sinews and veins lay bare. After suffering the most excruciating tortures that could be devised, they were destroyed by the most terrible deaths.
Germanicus, a young man, but a true Christian, being delivered to the wild beasts on account of his faith, behaved with such astonishing courage that several pagans became converts to a faith which inspired such fortitude. Polycarp, the venerable bishop of Smyrna, hearing that persons were seeking for him, escaped, but was discovered by a child. After feasting the guards who apprehended him, he desired an hour in prayer, which being allowed, he prayed with such fervency, that his guards repented that they had been instrumental in taking him. He was, however, carried before the proconsul, condemned, and burned in the market place. The proconsul then urged him, saying, "Swear, and I will release thee;--reproach Christ." Polycarp answered, "Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never once wronged me; how then shall I blaspheme my King, Who has saved me?" At the stake to which he was only tied, but not nailed as usual, as he assured them he should stand immovable, the flames, on their kindling the fagots, encircled his body, like an arch, without touching him. The executioner, on seeing this, was ordered to pierce him with a sword, when so great a quantity of blood flowed out as extinguished the fire. But his body, at the instigation of the enemies of the Gospel, especially Jews, was ordered to be consumed in the pile, and the request of his friends, who wished to give it Christian burial, rejected. They nevertheless collected his bones and as much of his remains as possible, and caused them to be decently interred.
Metrodorus, a minister, who preached boldly, and Pionius, who made some excellent apologies for the Christian faith, were likewise burned. Carpus and Papilus, two worthy Christians, and Agatonica, a pious woman, suffered martyrdom at Pergamopolis, in Asia. Felicitatis, an illustrious Roman lady, of a considerable family, and the most shining virtues, was a devout Christian. She had seven sons, whom she had educated with the most exemplary piety. Januarius, the eldest, was scourged, and pressed to death with weights. Felix and Philip, the two next had their brains dashed out with clubs. Silvanus, the fourth, was murdered by being thrown from a precipice. And the three younger sons, Alexander, Vitalis, and Martial, were beheaded. The mother was beheaded with the same sword as the three latter.Justin, the celebrated philosopher, fell a martyr in this persecution. He was a native of Neapolis, in Samaria, and was born 103 A.D. Justin was a great lover of truth, and a universal scholar. He investigated the Stoic and Peripatetic philosophy, and attempted the Pythagorean. But the behavior of its professors disgusting him, he applied himself to the Platonic, in which he took great delight. About the year 133, when he was thirty years of age, he became a convert to Christianity. Then, for the first time, he perceived the real nature of truth. He wrote an elegant epistle to the Gentiles, and employed his talents in convincing the Jews of the truth of the Christian rites. He next spent a great deal of time in traveling, until he took up his abode in Rome, and fixed his habitation upon the Viminal mount. He kept a public school, taught many who afterward became great men, and wrote a treatise to confuse heresies of all kinds. As the pagans began to treat the Christians with great severity, Justin wrote his first apology in their favor. This piece displays great learning and genius, and occasioned the emperor to publish an edict in favor of the Christians. Soon after, he entered into frequent contests with Crescens, a person of a vicious life and conversation, but a celebrated cynic philosopher. His arguments appeared so powerful, yet disgusting to the cynic, that he resolved on, and in the sequel accomplished, his destruction. The second apology of Justin, upon certain severe punishments, gave Crescens the cynic an opportunity of prejudicing the emperor against the writer of it. So Justin, and six of his companions, were apprehended. Being commanded to sacrifice to the pagan idols, they refused, and were condemned to be scourged, and then beheaded. This sentence was executed with all imaginable severity.
Several during this time were beheaded for refusing to sacrifice to the image of Jupiter. Among these were Concordus, a deacon of the city of Spolito. Some of the restless northern nations having risen in arms against Rome, the emperor marched to encounter them. He was, however, drawn into an ambush, and dreaded the loss of his whole army. Enveloped with mountains, surrounded by enemies, and perishing with thirst, the pagan deities were invoked in vain. Then the men belonging to the militine, or thundering legion, who were all Christians, were commanded to call upon their God for succor. A miraculous deliverance immediately ensued. A prodigious quantity of rain fell, which, being caught by the men, and filling their dykes, afforded a sudden and astonishing relief. It appears that the storm which miraculously flashed in the face of the enemy so intimidated them, that part deserted to the Roman army. The rest were defeated, and the revolted provinces entirely recovered. This affair occasioned the persecution to subside for some time, at least in those parts immediately under the inspection of the emperor. But we find that the persecutions soon after raged in France, particularly at Lyons, where the tortures to which many of the Christians were put, almost exceed the powers of description. The principal of these martyrs were Vetius Agathus, a young man; Attalus, of Pergamus; Pothinus, the venerable bishop of Lyons, who was ninety years of age; Blandina, a Christian lady of weak constitution; Biblias, a weak woman, once an apostate; and Sanctus, a deacon of Vienna. Red hot plates of brass were placed upon the most tender parts of Sanctus’ body when he was killed.
Blandina, on the day when she and the three other champions were first brought into the amphitheater, she was suspended on a piece of wood fixed in the ground, and exposed as food for the wild beasts. At this point, by her earnest prayers, she encouraged the others. But none of the wild beasts would touch her, so that she was remanded to prison. When she was again produced for the third and last time, she was accompanied by Ponticus, a youth of fifteen, and the constancy of their faith so enraged the multitude that neither the sex of the one nor the youth of theother were respected, being exposed to all manner of punishments and tortures. Being strengthened by Blandina, he persevered unto death. She, after enduring all the torments heretofore mentioned, was at length slain with the sword.
When the Christians, upon these occasions, received martyrdom, they were ornamented, and crowned with garlands of flowers. More importantly, they in heaven received eternal crowns of glory. It has been said that the lives of the early Christians consisted of "persecution above ground and prayer below ground." Their lives are expressed by the Coliseum and the catacombs. Beneath Rome are the excavations which we call the catacombs, which were at once temples and tombs. The early Church of Rome might well be called the Church of the Catacombs. There are some sixty catacombs near Rome, in which some six hundred miles of galleries have been traced, and these are not all. These galleries are about eight feet high and from three to five feet wide, containing on either side several rows of long, low, horizontal recesses, one above another like berths in a ship. In these the dead bodies were placed and the front closed, either by a single marble slab or several great tiles laid in mortar. On these slabs or tiles, epitaphs or symbols are engraved or painted. Both pagans and Christians buried their dead in these catacombs. When the Christian graves have been opened the skeletons tell their own terrible tale. Heads are found severed from the body, ribs and shoulder blades are broken, bones are often calcined from fire. But despite the awful story of persecution that we may read here, the inscriptions breathe forth peace and joy and triumph. Here are a few:
"Here lies Marcia, put to rest in a dream of peace."
"Lawrence to his sweetest son, borne away of angels."
"Victorious in peace and in Christ."
"Being called away, he went in peace."
Remember when reading these inscriptions the story the skeletons tell of persecution, of torture, and of fire.
But the full force of these epitaphs is seen when we contrast them with the pagan epitaphs, such as:
"Live for the present hour, since we are sure of nothing else."
"I lift my hands against the gods who took me away at the age of twenty though I had done no harm."
"Once I was not. Now I am not. I know nothing about it, and it is no concern of mine."
"Traveler, curse me not as you pass, for I am in darkness and cannot answer."
The most frequent Christian symbol on the walls of the catacombs is the fish, the symbol of Christianity.