Blandina and the Martyrs of Lyon

Blandina and the Martyrs of Lyon

"The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church"

It was 177AD in the City of Lyon, and the churches were under severe threat from persecution stirred up by the mob and executed by the Roman authorities. Having been conquered by the Romans, Lyon had become a proudly cosmopolitan city, teeming with officers, administrators and merchants drawn from across the Roman world. And as the effective capital of Gaul since the time of Augustus, it possessed a temple complex dedicated to the former Roman emperor who, of course, was now regarded as a god to be worshipped along with many others. Altars to other gods abounded, including one to Cybele, a primal nature goddess worshipped with orgiastic rites by castrated priests.

This made the situation of Christians in the city precarious. Although the formal, state-sponsored persecution unleashed by the likes of Nero had petered out, the fact that Christians – like the Jews – did not worship the gods or celebrate their feast days, made them suspect to the populace in general. And whereas the Jewish religion enjoyed protection under Roman law, Christianity – this strange offshoot of Judaism – enjoyed no such amnesty from persecution.

The very distinctiveness of how Christians worshipped made them objects of much scandalous gossip among the population in general. After all, they had no image of a god to worship, so this made people suspect them of being ‘atheists’. What’s more, it was rumoured, they committed incest, worshipped the genitals of their elders and bishops, and even indulged in cannibalism. While Christians indignantly refuted these claims, fake news – then as now – tended to carry its own stigma. There was no smoke, surely, without fire, reasoned the heathen populace, their hostility stoked by the fact that many of the Christians were immigrants who had settled in the city from Asia Minor.

a lion entering an amphitheatre where a group of christians huddle together
Christians who refused to renounce their faith were horribly tortured and condemned to be killed by wild beasts in the amphitheatre

This xenophobic prejudice against these foreigners who worshipped a crucified criminal as Lord rather than Caesar, and refused to engage in the city’s ritual sacrifices to the gods on feast days, was easily kindled. Even though the governors had a legal obligation not to disturb the order of the provinces by rooting out minority groups who to them presented no threat to civic order, the mob felt no such constraint.

Hence in 177, when the rage of the mob finally erupted against the Christian population in Lyon, it seemed to have come from the darkest reaches of hell itself. Violence against the followers of Christ spread with alarming swiftness and savagery, with groups of armed thugs roaming the streets, hunting down Christians of all classes wherever they could find them. Men and women were dragged through the streets amid a hail of fists and stones to the central square of Lyon and then flung into gaol to await the sentencing of the governor for their ‘subversive’ activities.

Being confined in the darkest and most awful part of the prison, many of the Christians suffocated there. Some were placed in stocks while others were placed in a hot-iron seat where their flesh was burned. This was literally a human barbecue where the victim was chained onto a grate over burning coals. An example of this barbaric torture instrument can still be seen today at the archeological museum at Lyon.

Even Pothinus, the 92-year-old Bishop of Lyon, was not spared the cruelty, and died in his prison cell two days after his torture. That cell too can still be visited today in Lyon. It is about the size of a home electric dishwasher, so cramped he could not have even stood up straight.

It is said that when Pothinus was carried before the governor and was asked, “Who is the God of Christians?” the old man simply answered, “If thou be worthy, thou shalt know.” The bishop, old and feeble as he was, was then dragged about by soldiers, and such of the mob as could reach him gave him blows and kicks, while others, who were further off, threw anything at him which came to hand. After being so brutally treated, he was put back into his tiny cell, where he died within two days.

Sanctus, a deacon from Vienne stood firm in his faith, even after red hot plates were fastened to the most tender parts of his body, making his torso appear to be one complete wound and bruise. He was, says Eusebius, “an example for the others, showing that nothing is fearful where the love of the Father is, and nothing is painful where there is the glory of Christ.”

Interrogated in the forum by the provincial governor, those who professed to being Christians and did not save themselves by renouncing their faith were horribly tortured and condemned to the beasts of the amphitheatre, “being [according to Eusebius] made all day long a spectacle to the world in place of the gladiatorial contest in its many forms.” One feature of each Roman city was the arena, where cheering crowds gathered to enjoy the brutality of gladiatorial games or, for a divergence, the sight of criminals being torn apart by wild animals or enduring the sort of agonising tortures that depraved minds conjured up.

For the Christians, however, their conviction was that in all this they were following their Lord who had suffered and died on the hill at Golgotha. Paul had later compared himself and his companions to ‘men condemned to death in the arena’, so to these courageous followers of Christ the humiliations and agonies heaped on them in the arena was an opportunity to let their light shine in a public display of their devotion to the crucified Messiah.
So whether savaged by wild dogs, gored by bulls or roasted on red hot iron chairs in the most brutal fashion, according to Eusebius, they only cried out “the words they had repeated all along – the declaration of their faith.” In doing so the Christians were sending out the most subversive message possible to the might of the Roman Empire that, “the things reckoned by men as low, invisible, and contemptible, are precisely what God ranks as deserving of great glory.”

No one illustrated this subversive message more than the slave girl named Blandina, a ‘slight, frail, despised woman’ whose heroism in the face of intense suffering put even her fellow martyrs – including even her mistress, who was also sentenced to the arena with her – into the shade.

Other Christians failed when facing the horrors of Roman torture, but not Blandina; though suffering more than any, she held her faith firm to the end like a beacon. Her companions had, in fact, greatly feared that on account of her bodily frailty she might not remain steadfast under torture; but although the legate caused her to be tortured in a horrible manner, so that even the executioners became exhausted – ‘as they did not know what more they could do to her’ – she still remained faithful. In fact the only confession they could wring out of her was, “I am a Christian, and nothing wrong is done among us!”

Blandina tied to the stake with wild animals circling

When the rage of the mob finally erupted against the Christian population in Lyon, it seemed to have come from the darkest reaches of hell itself[/caption]

Having already endured every imaginable torture and cruelty, Blandina’s broken body was suspended on a stake and exposed to the wild beasts. Because she appeared to be hanging on a cross and because of her intense prayers, she inspired the other Christians. In the midst of their own agonies, it was reported, “they had looked upon their sister and seen in her person the One who was crucified for them.”

Incredibly, none of the beasts touched Blandina at the time, and she was taken down from the stake and cast back into prison, the Christians believing that God had preserved her for other contests so that her victory over the forces of darkness might be even greater.

On the last day of the perverted amusements held in the amphitheatre, Blandina was again brought in with Ponticus, a boy of about 15. Each day of the so-called ‘games’ they had been brought to witness the sufferings of others and pressed to deny their faith and swear by idols. Ponticus died first, and Blandina remained the last.

She had encouraged many others and saw them go on before her to Jesus. Now she was again ready to join them in martyrdom. It is said that she faced her death rejoicing – as if being called to a marriage feast rather than being brutally scourged then savaged by wild beasts.

The report stated: “After the scourging, after the wild beasts and after the roasting seat, she was finally enclosed in a net, and thrown before a bull. And having been tossed about by the animal, but feeling none of the things which were happening to her, on account of her hope and firm hold upon what had been entrusted to her, and her communion with Christ, she also was sacrificed.”

Incredibly, it appears that even after these terrible ordeals, breath still remained in Blandina’s body, so she was finally killed with a dagger.

After the bodies of the martyrs had been exposed for six days, they were burned to ashes and thrown into the Rhone river. The bodies of those who had died in prison were thrown to the dogs, and guards were stationed to prevent the remaining Christians from burying them. So the pagan authorities vainly hoped to prevent the hope of resurrection for the Christians, being ignorant of the fact that, for the Christian, being absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.

The willingness of Blandina and her fellow Christians to embrace these excruciating tortures, followed by an equally agonising death, might have appeared madness to the mocking crowds in the arena, but it was based on a clear conviction – that Jesus Christ had risen from the dead and was standing by their side. As once he had suffered the excruciating agony of being nailed to the cross, so they were willing to follow him and share his sufferings in order that they might share his risen glory in eternity.

They would have reckoned with the Apostle Paul that, “our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” Or as the writer to the Hebrews puts it: They “were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection.”

Blandina and her fellow Christians died in faith. But as the Church father Tertullian once said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” Within two centuries Christianity had been adopted as the official religion, not just in Lyon, but across the entire Roman Empire.

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