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A Handbook of Patrology


At a very early date the Christian communities began to gather accounts of the sufferings and death of the martyrs, to honor their memory and foster piety. These "acts" were copied and passed on to the neighboring churches and constitute what we call the Acta Martyrum. Their importance, both for apologetics and for history, may be easily understood; hence it will not be useless to say a word about them here.

The Acts of the Martyrs may be divided into three groups. There are first the "acta" properly so called, i.e., the official records of the trial and condemnation of martyrs, drawn up by notaries of the court before which they appeared. These documents, generally curt and dry, are rather scarce. However, we have a few which Christians either copied or provided with a short introduction and conclusion, both of which can be easily distinguished from the official document that forms the body. Such are, for example, the Acts of St. Justin and Companions, those of St. Cyprian, etc. It is evident that these are documents of the first order.

The second group comprises unofficial narratives, written by eye-witnesses or other contemporaries. Such is the account of the death of St. Polycarp, written the day after his death in the name of the Christians of Smyrna, and that of

[1] The authentic Acts of the ancient martyrs have been gathered by Th. Ruinart, Acta Primorum Martyrum Sincera et Selecta, Paris, 1689, often reprinted. Certain pieces should be suppressed in this collection and recently discovered ones introduced. Two collections of select acts have been furnished by O. von Gebhardt, Ausgewahlte Martyreracten, Berlin, 1902, and by R. Knopf (same title) Tubingen, 1901. French translation published by D. H. Leclercq: Les Martyrs, Recueil des Pieces Authentiques . . . depuis les origines du christianisme jusqu'au XX siecle, Paris, 1902. See A. Dufourq, Etudes sur les Gesta martyrum romains, Paris, 1900-1907. Id., Article Actes des martyrs grecs et latins in the Dictionnaire d'Hist. et de Geogr. Ecclesiastique, I. P. Delehaye, Les Legendes Hagiographiques, Paris, 2nd ed., 1906; (Engl. tr. by Crawford); Les Origines du Culte des Martyrs, Brussels, 1912.


the sufferings of the martyrs of Lyons, sent by the churches of Lyons and Vienne to the churches of Asia and Phrygia. Although these acts are unofficial, they are not inferior in authority to the first group and are equally reliable.

Finally, we have acts which are neither official documents nor the work of eye-witnesses and contemporary writers, but accounts, written often several centuries after the events they narrate. These are the most numerous and plainly cannot claim the same authority as those of the first groups. Yet it can be readily understood that their authority may vary widely and depends upon the value of the traditions or accounts reproduced and the fidelity with which are reproduced.

Immediately after the persecution of Diocletian, c. 312, Eusebius had written the history of the martyrs who suffered in Palestine during this persecution and appended it to his Church History. We still possess this account. Later, he had set himself, before the year 303, to collect whatever authentic accounts he could find of the martyrs of first three centuries. Unfortunately, this collection, to which he often alludes, has disappeared; it is by other means that some of the documents it contained have come down to us.

For the persecution of the first three centuries we find about 40 acts of martyrs. They belong to the first two groups, for even where their actual form is that of a later period, they are redactions and reproduce at least a part of the primitive acts.[2] We will mention among the oldest and known only the Martyrium Sti Polycarpi (155-157), already spoken of; the Acta SS. Carpi, Papyli et Agathonices (d. 161-169), the account of an eye-witness; the official Acta St. Justini et Sociorum (d. 163-167); the Epistula Ecclesiarum Viennensis et Lugdunensis on the martyrs of 177, written in 177 or 178; the Acta Martyrum Scilitanorum (d. July 17, 180), another first-hand account if not the official record; the Acta S. Apollonii (d. 180-185), inserted in his collection by Eusebius[3]; the Acta SS. Perpetuae et Felicitatis (d. probably Mar. 7, 203), the long recension of which, made by an eye-witness, is the most ancient; the Acta Proconsularia S. Cypriani (d. Sept. 14, 258), an official court record, etc.

[2] A complete list may be found in Bardenhewer, Gesch. der altkirchlichen Literatur, II, 615-641.

[3] H. E., v, 21, 5.


In all these accounts — contrary to more or less legendary ones — the attitudes of judges and martyrs are what they must have been in reality, the magistrates apply the law, often reluctantly and only because they feel themselves obliged to do it, and the Christians simply die for their faith without boast or recrimination.

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