Scillitan Martyrs  

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The Scillitan Martyrs were a company of twelve North African Christians who were executed for their beliefs on July 17, 180. The martyrs take their name from Scilla (or Scillium), a town in Numidia. The Acta of the Scillitan Martyrs are considered to be the earliest documents of the church of Africa and also the earliest specimen of Christian Latin.

The Martyrs trial and execution took place in Carthage under the Pro-consul Vigellius Saturninus, whom Tertullian declares to have been the first persecutor of Christians in Africa.

It is thus the concluding scene of the persecution under Marcus Aurelius, which is best known from the sufferings of the churches of Vienne and Lyons in South Gaul. Marcus Aurelius died on March 17 of the year in question, and persecution ceased almost immediately upon the accession of Commodus. A group of sufferers called the Madaurian martyrs seems to belong to the same period: for in the correspondence of St Augustine, Namphamo, one of their number, is spoken of as "archimartyr," which appears to mean proto-martyr of Africa.

We have in this martyrdom an excellent example of "Acts of Martyrs" properly so called. The document is in brief legal form, beginning with the date and the names of the accused, and giving the actual dialogue between them and their judge. It closes with the sentence, based on "obstinate" persistency in an illicit cult, and with the proclamation by the herald of the names of the offenders and the penalty. All this may quite well be a transcript of the Acta, or official report of the proceedings. A Christian appends the words: "And so they all together were crowned with martyrdom; and they reign with the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, for ever and ever. Amen."

The martyrs

The Scillitan sufferers were twelve in all—seven men and five women. Their names are Speratus, Nartzalus, Cintinus (Cittinus), Veturius, Felix, Aquilinus, Laetantius, Januaria, Generosa, Vestia, Donata, and Secunda. Two of these bear Punic names (Nartzalus, Cintinus), but the rest Latin names. Six had already been tried: of the remainder, to whom these Acta primarily relate, Speratus is the principal spokesman. He claims for himself and his companions that they have lived a quiet and moral life, paying their dues and doing no wrong to their neighbours. But when called upon to swear by the genius of the emperor, he replies: "I recognize not the empire of this world; but rather do I serve that God whom no man hath seen, nor with these eyes can see." Here he uses the language of 1 Tim. vi. 16; and it is interesting also to note that in reply to the question, "What are the things in your satchel?" he says, "Books and letters of Paul, a just man." The martyrs are offered a delay of thirty days to reconsider their decision, but this they all alike refuse. These Acts have been long known in an expanded form, or rather in a variety of later recensions. The fame of the martyrs led to the building of a basilica in their honour at Carthage; and their annual commemoration required that the brevity and obscurity of their Acts should be supplemented and explained, to make them suitable for public recitation.

The historical questions connected with these martyrs are treated by Lightfoot, Ignatius (1889, 2nd ed.), i. 524 if. The Latin text, together with later recensions and a Greek version, is published in Texts and Studies, i. 2 (Passion of Perpetua, 1890); see also Analecta Bollandiana (1889), viii. 5; HM Gwatkin, Selections from Early Christian Writers, where, as in Ante-Nicene Fathers, ix. 285, there is an English translation.

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