Executions of Christians

If there has been one element of the arena that has captured imaginations and condemnation for centuries, it’s the execution of Christians in the arena. Although films about saintly early Christians being fed to the lions are not made at the same rate as they once were,[1] the image is still iconic, even though Christians were never executed in the Colosseum.  For more on this topic see: The Spectacle of Martyrdom.

We first hear of Christians being punished after the Great Fire of Rome in 64 CE. Nero, facing accusations that he had deliberately set the fire used the Christians as scapegoats:

Therefore, to scotch the rumour, Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians. Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus, and the pernicious superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judaea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue. First, then, the confessed members of the sect were arrested; next, on their disclosures, vast numbers were convicted, not so much on the count of arson as for hatred of the human race. And derision accompanied their end: they were covered with wild beasts’ skins and torn to death by dogs; or they were fastened on crosses, and, when daylight failed were burned to serve as lamps by night. Nero had offered his Gardens for the spectacle, and gave an exhibition in his Circus, mixing with the crowd in the habit of a charioteer, or mounted on his car. Hence, in spite of a guilt which had earned the most exemplary punishment, there arose a sentiment of pity, due to the impression that they were being sacrificed not for the welfare of the state but to the ferocity of a single man.

Tacitus, Annals 47

Perpetua was arrested and executed in Carthage in 203 CE; the account of her trial and execution is unusual in that much of it is a first person account, taken from her diary.

Mosaic of Saint Perpetua in the Euphrasian Basilica in Porec in Croatia.

A few days after, the report that we were to be tried. My father returned from the city weary and exhausted and he begged me to disavow my faith saying: “Have pity, daughter, on my grey hairs; have pity on your father, if I am worthy to be called father by you; if with these hands I have brought you up to this blossoming youth and I have preferred you to all your brothers; give me not over to the reproach of men. Look upon your brothers; look upon your mother and aunt; look upon your son, who will not survive you. Give up your resolution; do not destroy us all together; for none of us will speak openly against men again if you suffer anything.” This he said because of his father’s love, kissing my hands and grovelling at my feet; and with tears called me lady instead of daughter. And I was grieved for my father because he alone would not rejoice at my passion out of all my family; and I comforted him, saying: “Whatever God wishes shall be done at this tribunal; for know that we are not established in our own power, but in God’s.” And he left in deep sorrow.

Another day as we were eating we were suddenly dragged away to be tried; and we came to the forum. At that point a report spread abroad through the parts near to the forum and a very great number gathered together. We went up to the tribunal. The others confessed when asked. So they came to me. And my father appeared there with my son, and tried to draw me from the step, saying: “Perform the Sacrifice; have mercy on the child.” And Hilarian the procurator – he that after the death of Minucius Timinian the proconsul had received in his room the right and power of the sword – said: “Spare your father’s grey hair; spare your infant boy. Make a sacrifice for the Emperors’ prosperity.” And I answered: “I am a Christian.” And when my father stood by me yet to cast down my faith, Hilarian ordered him to be thrown down and he was hit with a rod. And I sorrowed for my father’s harm as though I had been hit myself; so sorrowed I for his unhappy old age. Then Hilarian passed sentence upon us all and condemned us to the beasts and we went cheerfully down to the cells.

The section I have cut tells how the Christians are kept in prison awaiting execution for several days; we pick up the narrative where Perpetua is describing a vision:

The day before we fought, I saw in a vision that Pomponius the deacon had come here to the door of the prison and knocked hard on it. And I went out to him and opened it; he was dressed in an unbelted, white robe and wearing very curiously made shoes. And he said to me: “Perpetua, we await you; come.” And he took my hand, and we began to go through rugged and winding places. At last, breathing hard, we came to the amphitheatre, and he led me into the middle of the arena. And he said to me: “Be not afraid; I am here with you and suffer together with you.” And he went away. And I saw many people watching closely. And because I knew that I was condemned to the beasts I marvelled that beasts were not sent out against me. And there came out against me an ugly Egyptian with his helpers to fight with me. Also there came to me attractive young men, my helpers and aiders. And I was stripped naked and I became a man. And my helpers began to rub me with oil as their custom is for a contest; and facing was that Egyptian wallowing in the dust. And there came out a very tall man, so tall that he towered over the very top of the amphitheatre, wearing an unbelted robe, and beneath it between the two stripes over the breast a robe of purple; having also shoes strangely made in gold and silver; bearing a rod like a master of gladiators, and a green branch with golden apples. And he asked for silence and said: “ Egyptian, if he shall conquer this woman, shall kill her with the sword; and if she shall conquer him, she shall receive this branch.” And he went away. And we came close to each other, and began to strike one another. He tried to trip up my feet, but I with my heels kicked his face. And I rose up into the air and began so to hit him as though as I did not stand on earth. But when I saw that there was yet delay, I joined my hands, setting finger against finger. And I caught his head, and he fell upon his face; and I trod upon his head. And the people began to shout, and my helpers began to sing. And I went up to the master of gladiators and received the branch. And he kissed me and said to me: “Daughter, peace be with you.” And I began to go with glory to the gate called the Gate of Life.

And I awoke; and I understood that I should fight, not with beasts but against the devil; but I knew that mine was the victory. Thus far I have written this, till the day before the games; but the events of the games themselves let him write who will.

The next section is written by another Christian, who relates what eventually happened to Perpetua and the rest of the Christians:

Opening page of The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity

These were the glorious visions of those martyrs themselves, the most blessed Saturus and Perpetua, which they themselves wrote down. But God called Secundulus earlier from this world while he was yet in prison; not without grace, but so he would escape the beasts. Yet if not his soul, his flesh at least knew the sword. As for Felicity, she too received this gift from the Lord. For because she was eight months pregnant (being already with child when she was arrested) she was very sad as the day of the games came closer, fearing that she should be kept back for this reason (for it is not lawful for pregnant women to be exhibited for torment) and she would shed her holy and innocent blood after us among strangers and criminals. Also her fellow martyrs were very sad to leave behind them so good a friend and as it were their fellow-traveller on the road of the same hope. Wherefore with joint and united groaning they poured out their prayer to the Lord, three days before the games. Her birth pains came to her early after their prayer. And when by reason of the natural difficulty of the eighth month she was oppressed with labour and made cried out, there said to her one of the servants of the keepers of the door: You that cry out now, what will you do when you are thrown to the beasts, which you despised when you would not sacrifice? And she answered, I myself now suffer that which I suffer, but there another shall be in me who shall suffer for me, because I am to suffer for him. So she gave birth to a daughter, whom a sister reared up to be her own daughter.

Since therefore the Holy Spirit has suffered, and suffering has willed, that the order of the games also should be written; though we are unworthy to finish the recounting of so great glory, yet we accomplish the will of the most holy Perpetua, nay rather her sacred trust, adding one testimony more of her own steadfastness and height of spirit. When they were being more cruelly handled by the tribune because through advice of certain most despicable men he feared that they might be taken from the prison secretly by magic charms, Perpetua answered him to his face: Why do you not allow us to take some comfort, seeing we are victims most noble, namely Caesar’s, and on his feast day we are to fight? Or is it not your glory that we should be taken out thither fatter of flesh? The tribune trembled and blushed, and gave order that they should be more gently handled, granting that her brothers and the rest should come in and rest with them. Also the adjutant of the prison now believed.

Likewise on the day before the games, when at the last feast which they call Free they made (as far as they might) not a Free Feast but a Love Feast,[2] with like hardihood they cast these words at the people; threatening the judgment of the Lord, witnessing to the felicity of their passion, setting at nought the curiosity of those that ran together. And Saturus said: Is not tomorrow sufficient for you? Why do you favourably behold that which you hate? You are friends today, foes tomorrow. Yet mark our faces diligently, that you may know us again on that day. So they began all to go away thence astonished and many now believed. Now dawned the day of their victory, and they went forth from the prison into the amphitheatre as it were into heaven, cheerful and bright of countenance; if they trembled at all, it was for joy, not for fear. Perpetua followed behind, glorious of presence, as a true spouse of Christ and darling of God; at whose piercing look all cast down their eyes. Felicity likewise, rejoicing that she had given birth to a child in safety, that she might fight with the beasts, came now from blood to blood, from the midwife to the gladiator, to wash after her travail in a second baptism. And when they had been brought to the gate and were being compelled to put on, the men the dress of the priests of Saturn, the women the dress of the priestesses of Ceres, the noble Perpetua remained firm to the end, and would not. For she said: For this cause came we willingly unto this, that our liberty might not be obscured. For this cause have we devoted our lives, that we might do no such thing as this; this we agreed with you. Injustice acknowledged justice; the tribune suffered that they should be brought out as they were, without more fuss. Perpetua began to sing, as already treading on the Egyptian’s head. Revocatus and Saturninus and Saturus threatened the people as they gazed. Then when they came into Hilarian’s sight, they began to say to Hilarian, stretching out their hands and nodding their heads: You judge us, they said, and God you. At this the people being enraged begged that they should be beaten with scourges before the line of gladiators (those who fought with beasts). Then truly they gave thanks because they had received somewhat of the sufferings of the Lord.

But He who had said Ask and you shall receive [John 16:24] gave to them asking that end which each had desired. For whenever they spoke together of their desire in their martyrdom, Saturninus for his part would declare that he wished to be thrown to every kind of beast, that so indeed he might wear the more glorious crown. At the beginning of the spectacle therefore himself with Revocatus first had ado with a leopard and was afterwards torn by a bear on a raised bridge. Now Saturus detested nothing more than a bear, but was confident already he should die by one bite of a leopard. Therefore when he was being given to a boar, the gladiator instead who had bound him to the boar was torn asunder by the same beast and died after the days of the games; nor was Saturus more than dragged. Moreover when he had been tied on the bridge to be assaulted by a bear, the bear would not come out of his den. So Saturus was called back unharmed a second time.

But for the women the devil had made ready a most savage cow, prepared for this purpose against all custom; for even in this beast he would mock their sex. They were stripped therefore and made to put on nets; and so they were brought fout. The people shuddered, seeing one a tender girl, the other her breasts yet dropping from her late childbearing. So they were called back and clothed in loose robes. Perpetua was first thrown, and fell upon her loins. And when she had sat upright, her robe being rent at the side, she drew it over to cover her thigh, mindful rather of modesty than of pain. Next, looking for a pin, she likewise pinned up her dishevelled hair; for it was not fit that a martyr should suffer with hair dishevelled, in case she should seem to grieve in her glory. So she stood up; and when she saw Felicity struck down, she went up and gave her her hand and lifted her up. And both of them stood up together and as the hardness of the people was now subdued were called back to the Gate of Life. There Perpetua being received by one named Rusticus, then a catechumen, who stood close at her side, and as now awakening from sleep (so much was she in the Spirit and in ecstasy) began first to look about her; and then (which amazed everyone there), When, she asked, are we to be thrown to the cow? And when she heard that this had been done already, she would not believe till she perceived some marks of mauling on her body and on her dress. Thereupon she called her brother to her, and that catechumen, and spoke to them, saying: “Stand fast in the faith, and love you all one another; and be not offended because of our passion.”

Saturus also at another gate exhorted Pudens the soldier, saying: “So then indeed, as I trusted and foretold, I have felt no assault of beasts until now. And now believe with all your heart. Behold, I go out thither and shall perish by one bite of the leopard. “And immediately at the end of the spectacle, the leopard being released, with one bite of his he was covered with so much blood that the people (in witness to his second baptism) cried out to him returning: “Well washed, well washed.” Truly it was well with him who had washed in this way. Then said he to Pudens the soldier: “Farewell; remember the faith and me; and let not these things trouble you, but strengthen you.” And then he took from Pudens’ finger a little ring, and dipping it in his wound gave it back again for an heirloom, leaving him a pledge and memorial of his blood. Then as the breath left him he was cast down with the rest in the accustomed place for his throat to be cut. And when the people begged that they should be brought forward, that when the sword pierced through their bodies their eyes might be witnesses to the slaughter, they rose of themselves and moved, whither the people willed them, first kissing one another, that they might accomplish their martyrdom with the rites of peace. The rest not moving and in silence received the sword; Saturus much earlier gave up the ghost; for he had gone up earlier also, and now he waited for Perpetua likewise. But Perpetua, that she might have some taste of pain, was pierced between the bones and shrieked out; and when the swordsman’s hand wandered still (for he was a novice), herself set it upon her own neck. Perhaps so great a woman could not else have been killed (being afraid by the unclean spirit) had she not herself so willed it.

The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity

Perpetua, Felicitas, Revocatus, Saturninus and Secundulus.

Polycarp was a Bishop of Smyrna in the second century CE; he was executed in 155 CE, and the following relates the events of his death.

Brothers, we write to you the story of the martyrs and of the blessed Polycarp, who put an end to the persecution by his martyrdom as though adding a seal to it. For one might almost say that all that had gone before happened in order that the Lord might show to us from above a martyrdom in accordance with the Gospel. For he waited to be betrayed as Jesus had done, that we too might become his imitators, “not thinking of ourselves alone, but also of our neighbours.” For it is the mark of true and steadfast love, not to wish that oneself may be saved alone, but all your brothers also…

…But thanks be to God, for the devil had no power over any. For the most noble Germanicus encouraged them by his endurance and he fought gloriously with the wild beasts. For when the governor wished to persuade him and ordered him have pity on his youth, he violently dragged the beast towards himself, wishing to be released more quickly from their unrighteous and lawless life. So after this all the crowd, wondering at the nobility of the God-loving and God-fearing people of the Christians, cried out: “Away with the Atheists; let Polycarp be searched for.” But one, named Quintus, a Phrygian lately come from Phrygia, when he saw the wild beasts turned coward. Now it was he who had forced himself and some others to come forward of their own accord. The governor persuaded him with many entreaties to take the oath and offer sacrifice. For this reason, therefore, brothers, we do not praise those who give themselves up, since the Gospel does not teach this. But the most wonderful Polycarp, when he first heard it, was not disturbed, but wished to remain in the city; but the majority persuaded him to go away quietly, and he went out quietly to a farm, not far distant from the city, and stayed with a few friends, doing nothing but pray night and day for all and for the Churches throughout the world, as was his custom. And while he was praying he fell into a trance three days before he was arrested, and saw the pillow under his head burning with fire, and he turned and said to those who were with him: “I must be burnt alive.”

Polycarp is captured and brought to the Governor. After some backwards and forwards the governor condemns him to the wild beasts.

Saint Polycarp

And the governor said: “I have wild beasts. I will send you to them, unless you repent.” And he said: “Call for them, for repentance from better to worse is not allowed us; but it is good to change from evil to righteousness.” And the governor said again to him: “I will cause you to be consumed by fire, if you not scared by the beasts, unless you repent.” But Polycarp said: “You threaten with the fire that burns for a time and is quickly quenched, for you do not know the fire which awaits the wicked in the judgment to come and in everlasting punishment. But why are you waiting? Come, do what you will.” And with these and many other words he was filled with courage and joy, and his face was full of grace so that it not only did not fall with trouble at the things said to him, but that the governor, on the other hand, was astounded and sent his herald into the midst of the arena to announce three times: “Polycarp has confessed that he is a Christian.” When this had been said by the herald, all the multitude of pagans and Jews living in Smyrna cried out with uncontrollable anger and a loud shout: “This is the teacher of Asia, the father of the Christians, the destroyer of our gods, who teaches many neither to offer sacrifice nor to worship.” And when they said this, they cried out and asked Philip the Asiarch to let loose a lion on Polycarp. But he said he could not legally do this, since he had closed the games. Then they thought it right to cry out with one mind that he should burn Polycarp alive, for the vision which had appeared to him on his pillow must be fulfilled, when he saw it burning, while he was praying, and he turned and said prophetically to those of the faithful who were with him, “I must be burnt alive.”

These things then happened with great speed, quicker than it takes to tell, and the crowd came together immediately, and prepared wood and kindling from the work-shops and baths and the Jews were extremely zealous, as is their custom, in assisting at this. Now when the fire was ready Polycarp took off all his clothes, and untied his belt and tried also to take off his shoes, though he did not do this before, because each of the faithful was always zealous, which of them might the more quickly touch his flesh. For he had been treated with all respect because of his noble life, even before his martyrdom. Immediately therefore, he was fastened to the instruments which had been prepared for the fire, but when they were going to nail him as well he said: “Leave me thus, for He who gives me power to endure the fire, will grant me to remain in the flames unmoved even without the security you will give by the nails.” So they did not nail him, but tied him, and he put his hands behind him and was bound, as a noble ram out of a great flock, as a sacrifice, a whole burnt offering made ready and acceptable to God; and he looked up to heaven and said…

… Now when he had uttered his Amen and finished his prayer, the men in charge of the fire lit it, and a great flame blazed up and we, to whom it was given to see, saw a marvel. And we have been preserved to report to others what happened. For the fire made the likeness of a room, like the sail of a vessel filled with wind, and surrounded the body of the martyr as with a wall, and he was within it not as burning flesh, but as bread that is being baked, or as gold and silver being refined in a furnace. And we perceived such a fragrant smell as the scent of incense or other costly spices. At length the lawless men, seeing that his body could not be consumed by the fire, ordered an executioner to go up and stab him with a dagger, and when he did this, there came out a dove, and much blood, so that the fire was quenched and all the crowd marvelled that there was such a difference between the unbelievers and the elect. And of the elect was he indeed one, the wonderful martyr, Polycarp, who in our days was an apostolic and prophetic teacher, bishop of the Catholic Church in Smyrna. For every word which he uttered from his mouth both was fulfilled and will be fulfilled.

Thecla was an aristocratic virgin, engaged to a man called Thamyris. She became a follower of Paul after hearing his teachings on virginity; despite being thrown to animals in the arena several times, she kept surviving and bouncing back to Pauline pursuit. This account was probably written in the 2nd century CE and follows both Paul and Thecla on their travels around the Roman East; its authenticity is much debated.

Saint Thecla

At length her family missed Thecla and they and Thamyris searched for her in every street, as though she had been lost, but one of the porter’s fellow-slaves told them that she had gone out in the night. Then they questioned the porter, and he told them that she was gone to the prison to the strange man [Paul]. So they followed his directions, and found her there and when they came out they got a mob together, and went and told the governor all that had happened. So he ordered Paul to be brought before his tribunal. In the mean time Thecla lay wallowing on the ground in the prison, in that same place where Paul had sat to teach her; because of this the governor also ordered her to be brought before his tribunal – a summons she received with joy, and went. When Paul was brought there the mob cried out more eagerly, “He is a magician, let him die!” Nevertheless, the governor listened with pleasure to Paul’s speech in the holy works of Christ; and, after he called a council, he summoned Thecla, and said to her, “Why do you not, according to the law of the Iconians, marry Thamyris?” She stood still, with her eyes fixed upon Paul; and finding she made no reply, Theoclia, her mother, cried out, saying, “Let the unjust creature be burnt; let her be burnt in the middle of the theatre, for refusing Thamyris, so all women may learn from her to avoid such practices.” Then the governor was very concerned and ordered Paul to be whipped out of the city and Thecla to be burnt. So the governor arose and at once went into the theatre and all the people went to see the terrible sight.

But Thecla, just as a lamb in the wilderness looks every way to see its shepherd, looked around for Paul; and as she was looking upon the mob, she saw the Lord Jesus in the likeness of Paul, and said to herself, Paul is come to see me in my distressed circumstances. And she fixed her eyes upon him; but he instantly rose up to heaven while she stared at him. Then the young men and women brought wood and straw to burn her and she wrung tears from the governor after she was brought naked to the stake, as he was surprised when he saw how beautiful she was. And when they had placed the wood down the people commanded her to climb on it, which she did, first making the sign of the cross. Then the people set fire to the pile; but though the flame was very large, it did not touch her, for God took compassion on her, and caused a great eruption from the earth beneath her, and a cloud from above to pour down great quantities of rain and hail. Thus by the rupture of the earth very many were in great danger and some were killed and the fire was extinguished, and Thecla was preserved.

Thecla runs into further trouble in Antioch, where a magistrate called Alexander falls in love with her and tries to abduct her – failing in this he has Thecla tossed into the arena for a second time, despite the crowd’s displeasure.

When the people saw this they said, “The verdicts passed in this city are unjust.” But Thecla begged the governor to protect her chastity until she was thrown to the beasts. The governor then asked if anyone would look after her;[3] upon which a certain very rich widow, named Trifina, whose daughter had recently died, desired that she might look after her and she began to treat her in her house as her own daughter. 3 At length a day came, when the beasts were brought out to be viewed and Thecla was brought to the amphitheatre and, in front of a large number of spectators, put into a den in which was a very fierce lioness. Trifina, without any surprise, accompanied Thecla, and the lioness licked the feet of Thecla. The title written which gave her crime was: Sacrilege. Then the woman cried out, ”God, the verdicts passed in this city are unjust.” After the beasts had been shown, Trifina took Thecla home with her, and they went to bed; and behold, the daughter of Trifina, who was dead, appeared to her mother and said, “Mother, take the young woman, Thecla, your daughter in my place; and ask her to pray for me, that I may be translated to a state of happiness.” Upon which Trifina, with a mournful air, said, “My daughter Falconilla has appeared to me, and ordered me to receive you in her room; so I ask, Thecla, that you will pray for my daughter, that she may be translated into a state of happiness, and to life eternal.” When Thecla heard this, she immediately prayed to the Lord, and said: “O Lord God of heaven and earth, Jesus Christ, thou Son of the Most High, grant that her daughter Falconilla may live forever.” Trifina hearing this groaned again, and said: “O unjust verdicts! O unreasonable wickedness! That such a creature should (again!) be thrown to the beasts!” On the next day, at dawn Alexander came to Trifina’s house, and said: “The governor and the people are waiting; bring the criminal out.” But Trifina attacked him so violently that he was scared and ran away. (Trifina was born into the imperial family), and she thus expressed her sorrow, and said; “Alas! I have trouble in my house on two accounts, and there is no one who will relieve me, either under the loss of my daughter, or my being able to save Thecla. But now, O Lord God, help Thecla your servant.” While she was thus engaged, the governor sent one of his own officers to bring Thecla. Trifina took her by the hand, and, going with her, said: “I went with Falconilla to her grave, and now must go with Thecla to the beasts.” When Thecla heard this, she weeping prayed, and said: “O Lord God, whom I have made my confidence and refuge, reward Trifina for her compassion to me and preserving my chastity.” Upon this there was a great noise in the amphitheatre; the beasts roared, and the people cried out, “Bring in the criminal.” But the woman cried out, and said: “Let the whole city suffer for such crimes; and order all of us, O governor, to the same punishment. O unjust sentence! O cruel sight!” Others said, “Let the whole city be destroyed for this vile action. Kill us all, O governor. O cruel sight! O unjust sentence.”

“Thecla among the beasts”, altar of the cathedral of Tarragona, Spain

Then Thecla was taken out of the hand of Trifina, stripped naked, had a girdle put on, and thrown into the place appointed for fighting with the beasts: and the lions and the bears were let loose upon her. But a lioness, the fiercest of the animals, ran to Thecla, and fell down at her feet. Upon which the multitude of women shouted aloud. Then a she-bear ran fiercely towards her; but the lioness met the bear, and tore it to pieces. Again, a lion, who frequently devoured men and which belonged to Alexander ran towards her; but the lioness fought the lion, and they killed each other. Then the women worried more, because the lioness, which had helped Thecla, was dead. Afterwards they brought out many other wild beasts; but Thecla stood with her hands stretched towards heaven, and prayed; and when she had done praying, she turned about, and saw a pit of water, and said, “Now it is a proper time for me to be baptized”. Accordingly she threw herself into the water, and said, “In your name, O my Lord Jesus Christ, I am baptized on this final day.” The women and the people seeing this, cried out, and said, “Do not throw yourself into the water.” And the governor himself cried out, to think that the seals were like to devour so much beauty. Despite this, Thecla threw herself into the water, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. But the seals were killed when they saw the lighting and fire and swam dead upon the surface of the water, and a cloud of fire surrounded Thecla, so that as the beasts could not come near her and the people could not see her nudity. Yet they turned other wild beasts upon her; upon which they made a very mournful outcry; and some of them scattered nard, others cassia, other amomus, others ointment; so that the quantity of ointment was large, in proportion to the number of people. At this all the beasts lay as though they were asleep and did not touch Thecla. Whereupon Alexander said to the Governor, “I have some very terrible bulls; let us bind her to them.” To which the governor, with concern, replied, you may do what you think fit. Then they put a cord round Thecla’s waist, which bound also her feet, and with it tied her to the bulls, to whose testicles they applied red-hot irons, that so they being the more tormented, might more violently drag Thecla about, till they had killed her. The bulls accordingly tore about, making a most hideous noise, but the flame which was about Thecla burnt off the cords which were fastened to the members of the bulls and she stood in the middle of the stage, as unconcerned as if she had not been bound. But in the mean time Trifina, who sat upon one of the benches, fainted away and died; upon which the whole city was greatly worried. And Alexander himself was afraid, and called out to the governor, saying: “I entreat you, take compassion on me and the city, and release this woman, who has fought with the beasts; in case, both you and I, and the whole city be destroyed: For if Caesar should have any account of what has passed now he will certainly immediately destroy the city, because Trifina, a person of imperial birth and a relation of his, is dead where she sits” Upon this the governor called Thecla from among the beasts to him, and said to her, “Who are you? And what are your circumstances, that none the beasts will touch you?“ Thecla replied to him; I am a servant of the living God; and as to my state, I am a believer on Jesus Christ his Son, in whom God is well pleased; and for that reason none of the beasts could touch me. He alone is the way to eternal salvation, and the foundation of eternal life. He is a refuge to those who are in distress; a support to the afflicted, hope and defence to those who are hopeless; and, in a word, all those who do not believe on him, shall not live, but suffer eternal death. When the governor heard these things, he ordered her clothes to be brought, and said to her put on your clothes. Thecla replied: “May that God who dressed me when I was naked among the beasts, in the day of judgment clothe your soul with the robe of salvation.” Then she took her clothes, and put them on; and the governor immediately published an order in these words; “I release to you Thecla the servant of God. Upon which the women cried out together with a loud voice, and with one accord gave praise unto God, and said: There is but one God, who is the God of Thecla; the one God who has delivered Thecla.” So loud were their voices that the whole city seemed to be shaken; and Trifina herself heard the glad tidings, and arose again, and ran with the multitude to meet Thecla; and embracing her, said: “Now I believe there shall be a resurrection of the dead; now I am convinced that my daughter still lives. So, come home with me, my daughter Thecla, and I will give that I have to you.” So Thecla went with Trifina and was looked after for a few days at her home, teaching her the word of the Lord, whereby many young women were converted and there was great joy in the family of Trifina. But Thecla longed to see Paul, and inquired and sent everywhere to find him; and when at length she was informed that he was at Myra, in Lycia, she took with her many young men and women; and putting on a girdle, and dressing herself like a man, she went to him in Myra in Lycia, and there found Paul preaching the word of God; and she stood by him among the crowd.

Acts of Thecla and Paul, Adapted from the translation by Jeremiah Jones

Bibliography and Further Reading

  • Salisbury, Joyce. Perpetua’s Passion: the Death and Memory of a Young Roman Woman. New York: Routledge, 1997.
  • van den Hoek, Annewies. “Execution as entertainment: the Roman context of martyrdom.” In Pottery, Pavements, and Paradise, edited by Annewies van den Hoek and John J. Herrmann Jr., 403-434. Leiden: Brill, 2013.


Media Attributions

  1. Classic films on this topic include: The Sign of the Cross (1932), The Robe (1953), Quo Vadis (1951), and Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954).
  2. The cena libera was public meal given to gladiators and the condemned the night before they were to appear in the arena.
  3. Under house arrest.


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Spectacles in the Roman World Copyright © 2020 by Siobhán McElduff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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