Martyrs and Monks

In the early days of Christianity, Martyrdom was considered the ultimate way to follow in Christ’s footsteps. But, it turns out that getting yourself martyred by the rather reasonable and accommodating Roman authorities was a more difficult task than you might think.

painting of Christian martyrs in the Roman Coliseum waiting to be eaten by lions

During the pre-Constantinian period, when Christianity was an illegal religion, and a persecuted one at times, Christianity’s religious elite consisted of confessors and of martyrs. Confessors were individuals who openly professed their Christianity to Roman officials in the expectation that they would be martyred for openly stating their beliefs. Martyrs were those who were actually killed after confessing their Christianity. Christians who were looking for the ultimate spiritual challenge, and who wanted to test their mettle, became confessors to see if they could withstand the fear that accompanied announcing one’s Christianity and courting death in this manner.

The Ultimate Imitation of Christ

To accept martyrdom was to imitate Jesus of Nazareth as perfectly as a human being could. It was to submit oneself to Roman authorities just as Jesus of Nazareth had done. It was to accept one’s own death willingly just as Jesus of Nazareth had done in order to atone for the sins of humanity. Indeed, the act of confessing one’s belief in the expectation of martyrdom was seen as so spiritually meritorious that it was regarded as a second baptism. It wiped clean all of the sins that one had committed up to that point in time.

Martyrdom, as you might imagine, required a great deal of fortitude, but it also required, more surprisingly, a great deal of persistence.

Martyrdom, as you might imagine, required a great deal of fortitude, but it also required, more surprisingly, a great deal of persistence. We have in our possession a number of trial transcripts, actual records that were jotted down as martyrs were examined by Roman officials, and these transcripts often reveal how hard it was to get one’s self martyred. This was because while Romans had no trouble killing people for not paying their taxes, the notion of killing people for a religious belief was rather alien to the pagan way of thinking.

medieval painting of a trial of a christian martyr
Trial of a Christian Martyr

Martyrs often had to undergo two or three successive trials before they could actually be executed. At the end of the first trial, when found guilty, the Roman judge would throw you back in the prison and say, “You should think about this for a while, because you’re actually going to be dead if you go through with this.” You had to appear before the judge one more time as the Romans virtually begged you not to go through with this.

Prosecutors and local Roman judges often tried to find some sort of compromise with individual Christians and Christian communities so that they didn’t actually have to kill people. Christians would be asked, “If you don’t want to offer a sacrifice to the pagan gods, how about one just to the emperor? We’ll just call him an emperor rather than emperor and god; would that be acceptable to you?” Some Christians welcomed the opportunity to get off the hook, but others refused this particular offer.

Sometimes the nature of the sacrifice would be open to debate: “If you won’t kill an animal, perhaps a pinch of incense, maybe a really small pinch of incense? Would that be acceptable to you?” The hardiest of the Christians would not even accept that.

One very resourceful North African governor, when charged with destroying all copies of the Christian Gospel, notified local Christian authorities that he had to burn all copies of the Gospel. He said this would be a difficult task because he didn’t know what the Gospel actually looked like, so if the Christians handed over to him any book, any book at all whose contents he did not recognize, and said that it was a Gospel, well, he would just have to take their world for it, wouldn’t he? Then, everyone could all go home at the end of the day. Harried Roman officials often looked for a way to clear their outbox of Christian martyrs, but some Christians persisted to the end and refused every effort at accommodation on the part of Romans.

Martyrdom in a Christian Rome

mosaic portrait of Constantine the Great
Constantine the Great was the first Roman Emperor to claim conversion to Christianity.

The conversion of Constantine changed the situation dramatically. It had been somewhat hard to get yourself martyred before, but now that Christianity was becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire, it was impossible to get oneself martyred within the confines of the Roman Empire, and there was no certainty of martyrdom if one traveled beyond the confines of that Empire.

Furthermore, the conversion of Constantine resulted in an influx of many opportunistic converts to Christianity, as people saw the writing on the wall and became Christian because of job advancement, to make their own lives easier. These new Christian converts seemed to the old Christians, to those who had weathered the persecution of Diocletian, to be rather namby-pamby in their faith. Christianity seemed to be more watered down. It was becoming harder and harder to stand out from the crowd, and the crowd was increasingly one from which you wanted to stand out, because its own faith was so lukewarm.

Antony Pioneers Monasticism

icon image of St. Anthony, inventor of Monasticism
St. Anthony

This trend was going to lead more and more individuals to follow the example of a man named Antony, an Egyptian, who was remarkably long-lived, born around 250 and who did not die until around 355. He made it well into his nineties. Antony began to pioneer in the deserts of Egypt a new type of Christian heroicism that was going to resonate powerfully with those who were seeking a spiritual challenge in the post-Constantinian world.

Antony was orphaned in his late teens, and shortly after his parents’ deaths, as he was going through a period of searching in his life, he heard from the Gospel text—a text that was going to change more than one life in the history of the Middle Ages—a passage in which Jesus of Nazareth stated that all those who wished to be perfect should sell all that they possessed, give it to the poor, and come and follow him.

Antony decided that he was going to follow this command quite literally. He sold everything he possessed, and decided that to follow Jesus he was going to retreat into the deserts of Egypt and abandon civilization.

Antony decided that he was going to follow this command quite literally. He sold everything he possessed, and decided that to follow Jesus he was going to retreat into the deserts of Egypt and abandon civilization. He lived there for a while and decided that this lifestyle in the desert was not sufficiently tough. Revealingly, he attempted to get himself martyred by traveling down to Alexandria at one point. He could not get himself martyred by local Roman officials, and so resigned himself to the notion that he was going to have to carve out a new sort of life for himself in the deserts of Egypt.

Antony attracted followers, which was the last thing that he wanted to do because he wished to live as a hermit.

Antony attracted followers, which was the last thing that he wanted to do because he wished to live as a hermit. But Egyptians who heard about Antony and his life in the desert came to admire him, and they’d travel out into the desert to live near him. Whenever they approached, he would move farther out into the desert and try and lose them, but they were persistent, and eventually he reconciled himself to the notion that there were going to be others living nearby.

painting: Michelangelo's Torment of St. Anthony
The Torment of St. Anthony, the earliest known painting by Michelangelo.

As for the life that Antony was leading, it was a life of rigorous asceticism that consisted of long and punishing fasts. He would not eat for days on end and he tried to reduce his consumption of food to the bare minimum necessary for human survival. It was a life characterized by long vigils at night in the cold of the desert, depriving himself of sleep as much as possible, and total sexual abstinence.

His self-deprivation, his mortification of his own flesh, gave him spiritual powers beyond those of ordinary Christians. He was able to confront Satan directly in the desert, and triumph in these one-on-one encounters. His contemporaries in Egypt referred to Antony and his followers as monachos; “the lonely one” is the literal translation. We get the word “monk” from this term.
From the lecture series The Early Middle Ages
Taught by Professor Philip Daileader, The College of William and Mary