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Among the items you will find in my bookcase is a 38-volume set. Each volume looks like the ones on either side of it. They are furniture books, the kind that look impressive on the shelf and therefore stay there. When guests browse my library, these aren’t usually the volumes they select—other books are far more inviting. If ever a serious peruser sees past their stand-offish appearance and actually pulls one of these volumes down, he finds himself face to face with two columns per page of dense, aged typeface. Though he sees no maps, diagrams, or pictures, he does spot some Greek and Latin rendered in 6-point font. At this, all but the bravest browsers close the book gently, return it to its resting place, and move on to the next shelf.

However, in moving on, they miss out on passages like this: “They seized first an old man named Metras, and commanded him to utter impious words. But as he would not obey, they beat him with clubs, and tore his face and eyes with sharp sticks, and dragged him out of the city and stoned him.”

Who was this old man named Metras? The quote above, found in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, is our only record of him. This old man could have been a laborer or a merchant. Did he have grandchildren? Perhaps what is most remarkable about him is how unremarkable—indeed, how ordinary—he truly was. Yet he was one of countless brothers and sisters of ours who perished in the horrific persecutions of the third century. We would do well to blow the dust off our books and remember not only the violence of their deaths, but also the faithfulness of their lives, which prepared them for death.

Metras died in a mob-aroused persecution in the great North African city of Alexandria. This persecution started in a.d. 249 and grew worse after Decius donned the imperial purple and handed down his vicious edicts early the following year. For more than a century leading up to this time, Christians had faced seasons of persecution in various places within the vast Roman dominions. But Decius was the first emperor to pursue an empire-wide, systematic extermination of all Christians. In an effort to root out these Christians, he decreed that commissions be set up in every community throughout the empire. These commissions were charged to administer oaths of loyalty to the state cult, and to certify in writing the religious loyalty of every person within Rome’s borders. Such oaths were even required of pagan priests and priestesses.

More than 50 of these certificates still survive. A typical one reads: “We have sacrificed to the gods all along, and now in your presence according to orders I poured a libation and sacrificed and tasted of the sacred offerings, and I request you to subscribe this for us. [Signatures] We, Aurelius Serenus and Aurelius Hermas, saw you sacrificing. Signed by me, Hermas.” However, Metras, and thousands of others with him, refused to participate in the civic cults of Rome. He would neither pour out wine as a ritual offering to the genius of Caesar nor sacrifice animals or grain to any of Rome’s gods. Pouring out wine is an easy thing, but Metras opted instead to have his face torn, let his body be clubbed and dragged, and be stoned to death by mobs.

The author of this persecution was, by the standards of his day, a capable administrator and military leader. Decius was a Roman’s Roman in an age when the empire was falling apart. He launched this vast persecution in a desperate attempt to bring order to his chaotic realm. How chaotic was it? Between 235 and 285, 26 emperors, or AugustiAugusti not by the Senate, but by their armies. One emperor, Gallienus, had to destroy no fewer than 18 rivals who aspired to the purple during his reign of 15 years (or perhaps he reigned six years; it depends on whether for some years we count him or one of his rivals as the real emperor).

To Decius, such turmoil meant that the gods were angry with Rome. Decius saw that his predecessors had tolerated the Christians, whom he regarded (correctly) as subversives who flouted Roman piety. So when he established himself as emperor, Decius sincerely believed his anti-Christian campaign was a holy cause, necessary for the preservation of traditional Roman order.

When we read that the elderly Metras was “commanded to utter impious [or blasphemous] words,” we see a likely reference to Decius’ loyalty oath. It reminds us that the Romans persecuted Christians not because they worshiped Jesus Christ, but because they refused to worship other gods. In fact, throughout their history, the Romans tolerated, and sometimes even adopted, the gods of other cultures. Their religious multiculturalism enabled differing cultures to coexist within the same empire, so long as Rome’s law was respected and taxes were paid to the one who embodied this law—the emperor. It posed little problem for pagan polytheists, even those of different cultures, to add Caesar to their list of deities. But Christians were loyal to one God and to one God only. Therefore, they would bow to no other, and for this they were punished. They were punished for their atheism.

Returning to the old book, we read on: “Then they carried to their idol temple a faithful woman, named Quinta, that they might force her to worship. And as she turned away in detestation, they bound her feet and dragged her through the entire city over the stone-paved streets, and dashed her against the millstones, and at the same time scourged her; then, taking her to the same place, they stoned her to death.”

Like that of Metras, the account of Quinta is disappointingly brief. We have no information about the acts of charity she had performed, how her refusal to compromise may have shone forth on other occasions, of the loved ones who survived her, or even of her last words as she faced a horrible death.

So it is for another martyr of the Decian persecutions, an old spinster named Apollonia. After striking her jaw until all her teeth were broken out, the Romans started a fire and threatened to cast her into it if she refused to blaspheme. When they relaxed their hold on her, she freely cast herself into the fire. We read also of two mothers, Mercuria and Donysia, each of whom “did not love her own children above the Lord.” From his previous embarrassments, the governor had learned that mature Christian women did not cave in to torture; they made him look bad. So, “being always defeated by women,” the governor simply ordered that Mercuria and Donysia be run through with swords, not bothering with his customary attempts to coerce loyalty oaths from them through torture. Such were the martyrs, thousands of them, of whom the world was not worthy.

During Decius’ short reign, Christians mourned their dead all over the Mediterranean world. The thousands who were martyred were dear neighbors and relatives, people with whom the survivors had sung, prayed, and broken bread. The persecutions surely brought grief and confusion.

Even worse, however, they brought controversy. How was the church to regard those who were weak, who engaged in pagan rites in order to save their own lives? When the persecution passed and these compromisers sought readmission to fellowship, were they to be admitted? A very capable theologian named Novatian, an elder in Rome, believed not. When some church leaders who had compromised in the face of persecution were later asked to return to leadership, Novatian wanted nothing to do with them. He even helped to set up rival officers to challenge them.

The controversy raised such a commotion among the faithful that a synod gathered to address the question. At least 60 bishops descended upon Rome, along with a great many other presbyters and deacons. (The day when such questions would simply be put to the Roman bishop—the pope—for his authoritative answer would not come for a thousand years.) The synod determined, rightly, that “the medicines of repentance” should cover their sin, and that the church did indeed ha
ve a place for weaker brothers. Restoration after compromise would later prove powerful: Many of those brothers who had been weak in the Decian persecutions would stand fast, even unto death, when persecutions returned.

The church today needs to raise up a new generation of readers who love to open old, dusty books and to be instructed from them. In these books we discover a great cloud of witnesses who bear testimony to us, charging us to fight the good fight of faith. These are the saints with whom we gather in heaven on the Lord’s Day. Readers who know these saints, who keep alive their memory, may be used to strengthen those who are persecuted in our own day. And if, in God’s providence, persecutions come upon us, the testimony of our suffering forebears maybe used of God to help us stand firm.

Out of This World

The Long Road Home

Keep Reading Counting It All Joy: The Acts of Christ in the Third Century

From the August 2003 Issue
Aug 2003 Issue