Friday, February 08, 2019

"They seized her and knocked out all her teeth" ~ The martyrdom of Saint Apollonia and the persecution of Decius in Alexandria

The Martyrdom of Saint Apollonia, taken from Shea's Pictorial Lives of the Saints.
Apollonia was an elderly matron who lived in Roman Alexandria. She is remembered nearly 1, 800 years after her death because she was one of the victims of mob attacks on Christians in Alexandria which immediately preceded the empire-wide persecution under the emperor Decius in AD 250. Her memory is commemorated by Catholics and Orthodox Christians on her feast day—February 9.

The Roman Emperor Decius reigned for two years from AD 249 through 251. A would-be reformer, Decius attempted to reinstitute pagan piety throughout the empire as a means of restoring political order and unity. To accomplish this, Decius issued an edict that enjoined all citizens of the empire to offer sacrifice to the pagan pantheon. Once a citizen had offered this obligatory sacrifice, they would be issued a document known as a libellus to certify that they had done so.

A marble bust of Decius.
Examples of libelli from this period have survived antiquity. Following is one from Roman Egypt:
To the commissioners of the village of Alexandrou-Nesos, elected to superintend the sacrifices. From Aurelius Diogenes, son of Satabos, of the village of Alexandrou-Nesos, aged seventy-two years, with a scar on his right eyebrow.

I have at all times offered sacrifices to the gods, and now again in accordance with the edict in your presence I have again made sacrifice and libations and partaken of the sacred offerings, and I request you certify this statement. May you prosper. I, Aurelius Diogenes, have presented this application.

I, Aurelius Syros, have witnessed your sacrifice.

The first year of the Emperor C├Žsar Gaius Messius Quintus Trajanus Decius, pious and prosperous, Augustus, on the second of the month Epiphi.
Clearly, a Christian could not do what was necessary to receive such a certificate. The result was the outbreak of the first empire-wide persecution of Christians. This persecution was apparently prosecuted with great vigor in Alexandria, a city with a long history of moral corruption as Saint Clement of Alexandria opined in a previous post. Alexandria was also well known in antiquity for outbreaks of political and religious violence, as per the observations of Ammianus Marcellinus, Socrates Scholasticus and Hermias Sozomen.

For the Decian persecution as it relates to Alexandria, we have an amazing first-hand account from Saint Dionysius, patriarch of Alexandria (AD 248-264) in the form of a letter to his colleague Fabian, bishop of Antioch, saved for posterity by Eusebius Pamphilus in his Ecclesiastical History. It is within this account that we find a brief notice of the martyrdom of Saint Apollonia.

Engraving of St. Dionysius
of Alexandria.
Dionysius’s description begins with a note indicating that attacks against the Christians actually anticipated the arrival of the imperial edict:
The persecution did not begin amongst us with the Imperial edict, for it anticipated that by a whole year. And the prophet and poet of evil to this city, whoever he was, was beforehand in moving and exciting the heathen crowds against us, rekindling their zeal for the national superstitions. So they being aroused by him and availing themselves of all lawful authority for their unholy doings conceived that the only piety, the proper worship of their gods was this—to thirst for our blood.
Dionysius then goes on to record a litany of outrages committed against Christians whose only crime was refusing to deny Christ and worship the pagan gods:
First, then they carried off an old man, Metras, and bade him utter impious words, and when he refused they beat his body with sticks and stabbed his face and eyes with sharp bulrushes as they led him into the outskirts of the city and there stoned him.

Then they led a believer named Quinta to the idol-house and tried to make her kneel down, and when she turned away in disgust, they bound her by the feet and hauled her right through the city over the rough pavement, the big stones bruising her poor body, and at the same time beat her till they reached the same spot, and there stoned her.

Thereupon they all with one consent made a rush on the houses of the believers, and falling each upon those whom they recognized as neighbors, plundered, harried and despoiled them, setting aside the more valuable of their possessions and casting out into the streets and burning the cheaper things and such as were made of wood, till they produced the appearance of a city devastated by the enemy.
We then get to the case of Saint Apollonia. The events of her martyrdom would later be embellished with legendary elements, but given that Dionysius is a contemporary, we may trust that his account represents the bare facts:
Another notable case was that of the aged virgin Apollonia, whom they seized and knocked out all her teeth, striking her on the jaws. Then they made a pyre before the city and threatened to burn her alive if she would not join them in uttering blasphemies. But she asked for a brief respite, and being let go, suddenly leapt into the fire and was devoured by the flames.
Subsequent political unrest in the city caused the Christian community to be forgotten for a short time. However, when the imperial edict of Decius finally arrived, the persecution broke out again in Alexandria with renewed ferocity. The imperial imprimatur on the actions of the persecutors apparently convinced numerous Christians to become apostate. Dionysius continues:
The edict arrived, which was itself almost to be compared with that foretold by the Lord, well-nigh the most terrible of all, so as to cause, if possible, even the elect to stumble. Nevertheless all were panic-stricken, and numbers at once of those who were in higher positions, some came forward in fear, and some who held public posts were led by their official duties. Others, again, were brought in by those about them and when their names were called, approached the impure and unholy sacrifices, pale and trembling in some cases as if they were not going to sacrifice but themselves become sacrifices and victims to the idols, so that they incurred ridicule from the large crowd that stood by and proved themselves to be utter cowards both in regard to death and in regard to sacrificing, whilst others ran readily up to the altar, making it plain by their forwardness that they had not been Christians even before.
However, there were still plenty of stout souls who resisted the imperial will with admirable fortitude. Here Dionysius offers another litany of those who suffered martyrdom, including the following:
But the steadfast and blessed pillars of the Lord, being strengthened by Him and receiving due and proportionate power and endurance for the mighty Faith that was in them, proved themselves admirable witnesses of His Kingdom. Foremost among them was Julian, a sufferer from gout, unable to stand or walk. He was brought up with two others who carried him, of whom the one straightway denied the Faith. The other, Cronion by name, but surnamed Eunous (well-disposed) and the old man Julian himself confessed the Lord and were conveyed on camel’s back and scourged as they rode right through the city—big though it be, as ye know—and at last were burnt with fire unquenchable, whilst all the people stood round. And a soldier who stood by as they were carried along and protested against those who insulted them was denounced and brought up, to wit God’s brave warrior Besas, and after heroic conduct in the great war of piety, was beheaded.

And yet another, a Libyan by race, who rightly and happily was named Mauar (happy), though the judge urged him strongly to renounce the Faith, would not give in and so was burnt alive. After them Epimachus and Alexander, when they had remained a long time in bonds and had endured endless tortures from the “claws” and scourges, were also consumed with fire unquenchable. And with them four women: Ammonarion, a holy virgin, though the judge tortured her vigorously for a long time because she had declared beforehand that she would say nothing that he bade her, kept true to her promise and was led off to punishment. And of the rest there was the aged and reverend Mercuria and Dionysia who, though she had many children, did not love them above the Lord. These the Prefect was ashamed to go on torturing in vain and be beaten by women, and so they died by the sword without further tortures, for the brave Ammonarion had exhausted all their devices.
Dionysius goes on to describe several more martyrdoms in similar detail. Finishing up his account, he makes it clear that these are only a fraction of those who perished in Alexandria during the persecution:
And these things I have described at length, brother, not without purpose, but in order that thou mightest know how many terrible things have taken place amongst us, of which those who have had more experience will know of more cases than I do.
Dionysius himself was pursued by the prefect Sabinus. He was eventually captured, imprisoned and sent into exile. He would later be released from captivity by the emperor Gallienus who came to the throne in AD 253.

As for Decius, his short and violent reign came to a fitting end as he was defeated and slain by the Goths at the Battle of Abritus in AD 251. Writing about 60 years later, the Christian apologist Lactantius describes Decius’s death in his work entitled, On the Manner in Which the Persecutors Died:
Click for more info.
[Decius] was suddenly surrounded by the barbarians and slain, together with a great part of his army. Nor could he be honored with the rites of sepulture, but stripped and naked, he lay to be devoured by wild beasts and birds—a fit end for the enemy of God.”
All of the above excerpts (including the libellus, excerpts from Dionysius and Lactantius) were taken from I Am a Christian: Authentic Accounts of Christian Martyrdom and Persecution from the Ancient Sources which is a collection of some of the best ancient sources on the persecution of the early Church. This book includes additional details from the letter of Dionysius as well as other accounts related to the persecution of Decius, and is well worth reading if you are interested in the early Christian martyrs.

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