Christians to the Lions
N OW that an emperor of the Roman Empire had for the first time become a Christian, it will be interesting to note what had been happening with regard to the band of Christians in Rome since the days when St Paul and St Peter had suffered martyrdom more than two hundred years before.
Persecution had only served to spread the faith which the followers of Christ would sooner die than give up. Before long little bands of Christians were to be found in many of the cities under Rome. At Antioch, at Alexandria, at Carthage there were large numbers.
Let us see by the lives and deaths of a few of these, what firm root the new faith had taken. In the days of the Emperor Trajan, away in Antioch there lived a Christian bishop called Ignatius. When the emperor had won his victory over the Dacians he ordered that sacrifice should be offered to the gods in all the provinces of his vast empire. Ignatius and the Christians in Antioch refused. Trajan ordered that Ignatius should be brought before him, and reproved him for keeping the people from the temples of the gods.
"O Cæsar," answered Ignatius, "wert thou to offer me all the treasures of thy empire, yet would I not cease to adore the only true and living God."
When Trajan heard this he commanded that Ignatius's mouth should be stopped and that he be cast into a dungeon. At first he settled that the bishop should be put to death at once; then he ordered that he should be sent to Rome and reserved for the amphitheatre. Weeping and kissing his garments and his chains, the Christians of Antioch saw Ignatius depart in a ship bound for Rome. There he was led forth into the amphitheatre, where two furious lions were let loose upon him, tearing him to pieces, till nothing was left but a few bones.
Under Marcus Aurelius the persecutions of the Christians still went on, while under his successors it was yet more rigorously pursued.
Some fifty years before the rule of Diocletian there lived at Carthage a bishop called Cyprian, who was the most important Christian in the whole of North Africa. Carthage had been rebuilt since the old days, when the Roman conquerors had burnt the ships in the harbour so dear to the conquerors of the sea: it was now a beautiful city with white walls and houses shining by the blue waters of the Mediterranean, rich in temples, gardens, and palm trees. Here, then, Cyprian laboured and taught; here was a strong band of Christians under him, so strong indeed that one of the emperors ordered a wholesale persecution of them.
"Cyprian to the lions" cried the excited crowd of pagans in the city, anxious to please the severe emperor. But Cyprian felt he could serve his cause best by living yet a little, so he took refuge in flight.
Eight years later, he was to show that he was no coward, but ready and willing to die for the faith if need be. The eyes of North Africa were upon him. He knew that an order had gone forth for the execution of all Christian teachers. The Bishop of Carthage knew, too, that he would be among the first to die. He was in his garden when the officers came to take him before his Roman judge. They placed him between them in the chariot and drove to a private house in the town. A supper was prepared for him and his friends. The streets outside were filled with anxious crowds passing to and fro. The next morning found him before the judge. He was commanded to offer sacrifice to the Roman gods. He firmly refused. The sentence of death was pronounced. As it reached the listening crowds of Christians waiting outside, a general cry arose from the heart-broken throng.
"We will die with him," they cried in their zeal and affection.
He was led away by guards and soldiers to a level plain near the city, and there, surrounded by his faithful followers, Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage and leader of all the Christians in North Africa, suffered martyrdom.
Not only men but women too were persecuted for their faith in these early days of Christianity. The beautiful legend of St Cecilia, the musician, is one of the earliest handed down to us through the long ages. She was a noble Roman lady, who suffered martyrdom when Constantine was quite a little boy. Her parents, who secretly professed Christianity, brought her up in their own faith, and from her earliest childhood she was remarkable for her enthusiasm over it.
Night and day she carried a copy of the Gospel concealed among the folds of her robe. She loved music, and composed hymns which she sang to herself so sweetly that, says the old legend, angels descended from heaven to listen to her. She invented the organ, and she is usually represented in the old pictures with reeds of organ pipes in her hands. When she was sixteen her parents married her to a rich young pagan Roman, to whom she soon taught her own Christian faith. He was afterwards thrown into a dungeon and put to death for his belief.
At last Cecilia was sent for and ordered to sacrifice to the gods. Tall, young, and beautiful, she smiled scornfully at the idea, while those around her wept and entreated her to yield. So firm was her refusal that others became Christians on the spot, and declared themselves ready to die with her.
"What art thou, woman?" cried the judge, struck with terror.
"I am a Roman of noble race," she answered. "I ask of thy religion," he said.
"Thou blind one, thou art already answered," she replied.
Enraged at her cool determination, the judge ordered that she should be put to death, but the hand of the executioner trembled so that he could not kill her. He wounded her and went away. For three days she lived, singing to the end.
A beautiful and simple white marble statue of St Cecilia may be seen