- At this time, when the greatest persecutions were exciting Asia, Polycarp ended his life by martyrdom. But I consider it most important that his death, a written account of which is still extant, should be recorded in this history.
2. There is a letter, written in the name of the church over which he himself presided, to the parishes in Pontus, which relates the events that befell him, in the following words:
3. “The church of God which dwelleth in Philomelium, and to all the parishes of the holy catholic Church in every place; mercy and peace and love from God the Father be multiplied. We write unto you, brethren, an account of what happened to those that suffered martyrdom and to the blessed Polycarp, who put an end to the persecution, having, as it were, sealed it by his martyrdom.”
4. After these words, before giving the account of Polycarp, they record the events which befell the rest of the martyrs, and describe the great firmness which they exhibited in the midst of their pains. For they say that the bystanders were struck with amazement when they saw them lacerated with scourges even to the innermost veins and arteries, so that the hidden inward parts of the body, both their bowels and their members, were exposed to view; and then laid upon sea-shells and certain pointed spits, and subjected to every species of punishment and of torture, and finally thrown as food to wild beasts.
5. And they record that the most noble Germanicus especially distinguished himself, overcoming by the grace of God the fear of bodily death implanted by nature. When indeed the proconsul wished to persuade him, and urged his youth, and besought him, as he was very young and vigorous, to take compassion on himself, he did not hesitate, but eagerly lured the beast toward himself, all but compelling and irritating him, in order that he might the sooner be freed from their unrighteous and lawless life.
6. After his glorious death the whole multitude, marveling at the bravery of the God-beloved martyr and at the fortitude of the whole race of Christians, began to cry out suddenly, “Away with the atheists; let Polycarp be sought.”
7. And when a very great tumult arose in consequence of the cries, a certain Phrygian, Quintus by name, who was newly come from Phrygia, seeing the beasts and the additional tortures, was smitten with cowardice and gave up the attainment of salvation.
8. But the above-mentioned epistle shows that he, too hastily and without proper discretion, had rushed forward with others to the tribunal, but when seized had furnished a clear proof to all, that it is not right for such persons rashly and recklessly to expose themselves to danger. Thus did matters turn out in connection with them.
9. But the most admirable Polycarp, when he first heard of these things, continued undisturbed, preserved a quiet and unshaken mind, and determined to remain in the city. But being persuaded by his friends who entreated and exhorted him to retire secretly, he went out to a farm not far distant from the city and abode there with a few companions, night and day doing nothing but wrestle with the Lord in prayer, beseeching and imploring, and asking peace for the churches throughout the whole world. For this was always his custom.
10. And three days before his arrest, while he was praying, he saw in a vision at night the pillow under his head suddenly seized by fire and consumed; and upon this awakening he immediately interpreted the vision to those that were present, almost foretelling that which was about to happen, and declaring plainly to those that were with him that it would be necessary for him for Christ’s sake to die by fire.
11. Then, as those who were seeking him pushed the search with vigor, they say that he was again constrained by the solicitude and love of the brethren to go to another farm. Thither his pursuers came after no long time, and seized two of the servants there, and tortured one of them for the purpose of learning from him Polycarp’s hiding-place.
12. And coming late in the evening, they found him lying in an upper room, whence he might have gone to another house, but he would not, saying, “The will of God be done.”
13. And when he learned that they were present, as the account says, he went down and spoke to them with a very cheerful and gentle countenance, so that those who did not already know the man thought that they beheld a miracle when they observed his advanced age and the gravity and firmness of his bearing, and they marveled that so much effort should be made to capture a man like him.
14. But he did not hesitate, but immediately gave orders that a table should be spread for them. Then he invited them to partake of a bounteous meal, and asked of them one hour that he might pray undisturbed. And when they had given permission, he stood up and prayed, being full of the grace of the Lord, so that those who were present and heard him praying were amazed, and many of them now repented that such a venerable and godly old man was about to be put to death.
15. In addition to these things the narrative concerning him contains the following account: “But when at length he had brought his prayer to an end, after remembering all that had ever come into contact with him, small and great, famous and obscure, and the whole catholic Church throughout the world, the hour of departure being come, they put him upon an ass and brought him to the city, it being a great Sabbath. And he was met by Herod, the captain of police, and by his father Nicetes, who took him into their carriage, and sitting beside him endeavored to persuade him, saying, ‘For what harm is there in saying, Lord Cæsar, and sacrificing and saving your life?’ He at first did not answer; but when they persisted, he said, ‘I am not going to do what you advise me.’
16. And when they failed to persuade him, they uttered dreadful words, and thrust him down with violence, so that as he descended from the carriage he lacerated his shin. But without turning round, he went on his way promptly and rapidly, as if nothing had happened to him, and was taken to the stadium.
17. But there was such a tumult in the stadium that not many heard a voice from heaven, which came to Polycarp as he was entering the place: ‘Be strong, Polycarp, and play the man.’ And no one saw the speaker, but many of our people heard the voice.
18. And when he was led forward, there was a great tumult, as they heard that Polycarp was taken. Finally, when he came up, the proconsul asked if he were Polycarp. And when he confessed that he was, he endeavored to persuade him to deny, saying, ‘Have regard for thine age,’ and other like things, which it is their custom to say: ‘Swear by the genius of Cæsar; repent and say, Away with the Atheists.’
19. But Polycarp, looking with dignified countenance upon the whole crowd that was gathered in the stadium, waved his hand to them, and groaned, and raising his eyes toward heaven, said, ‘Away with the Atheists.’
20. But when the magistrate pressed him, and said, ‘Swear, and I will release thee; revile Christ,’ Polycarp said, ‘Fourscore and six years have I been serving him, and he hath done me no wrong; how then can I blaspheme my king who saved me?’
21. “But when he again persisted, and said, ‘Swear by the genius of Cæsar,’ Polycarp replied, ‘If thou vainly supposest that I will swear by the genius of Cæsar, as thou sayest, feigning to be ignorant who I am, hear plainly: I am a Christian. But if thou desirest to learn the doctrine of Christianity, assign a day and hear.’
22. The proconsul said, ‘Persuade the people.’ But Polycarp said, ‘As for thee, I thought thee worthy of an explanation; for we have been taught to render to princes and authorities ordained by God the honor that is due, so long as it does not injure us; but as for these, I do not esteem them the proper persons to whom to make my defense.’
23. But the proconsul said, ‘I have wild beasts; I will throw thee to them unless thou repent.’ But he said, ‘Call them; for repentance from better to worse is a change we cannot make. But it is a noble thing to turn from wickedness to righteousness.’
24. But he again said to him, ‘If thou despisest the wild beasts, I will cause thee to be consumed by fire, unless thou repent.’ But Polycarp said, ‘Thou threatenest a fire which burneth for an hour, and after a little is quenched; for thou knowest not the fire of the future judgment and of the eternal punishment which is reserved for the impious. But why dost thou delay? Do what thou wilt.’
25. Saying these and other words besides, he was filled with courage and joy, and his face was suffused with grace, so that not only was he not terrified and dismayed by the words that were spoken to him, but, on the contrary, the proconsul was amazed, and sent his herald to proclaim three times in the midst of the stadium: ‘Polycarp hath confessed that he is a Christian.’
26. And when this was proclaimed by the herald, the whole multitude, both of Gentiles and of Jews, who dwelt in Smyrna, cried out with ungovernable wrath and with a great shout, ‘This is the teacher of Asia, the father of the Christians, the overthrower of our gods, who teacheth many not to sacrifice nor to worship.’
27. When they had said this, they cried out and asked the Asiarch Philip to let a lion loose upon Polycarp. But he said that it was not lawful for him, since he had closed the games. Then they thought fit to cry out with one accord that Polycarp should be burned alive.
28. For it was necessary that the vision should be fulfilled which had been shown him concerning his pillow, when he saw it burning while he was praying, and turned and said prophetically to the faithful that were with him, ‘I must needs be burned alive.’
29. These things were done with great speed,—more quickly than they were said,—the crowds immediately collecting from the workshops and baths timber and fagots, the Jews being especially zealous in the work, as is their wont.
30. But when the pile was ready, taking off all his upper garments, and loosing his girdle, he attempted also to remove his shoes, although he had never before done this, because of the effort which each of the faithful always made to touch his skin first; for he had been treated with all honor on account of his virtuous life even before his gray hairs came.
31. Forthwith then the materials prepared for the pile were placed about him; and as they were also about to nail him to the stake, he said, ‘Leave me thus; for he who hath given me strength to endure the fire, will also grant me strength to remain in the fire unmoved without being secured by you with nails.’ So they did not nail him, but bound him.
32. And he, with his hands behind him, and bound like a noble ram taken from a great flock, an acceptable burnt-offering unto God omnipotent, said,
33. ‘Father of thy beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have received the knowledge of thee, the God of angels and of powers and of the whole creation and of the entire race of the righteous who live in thy presence, I bless thee that thou hast deemed me worthy of this day and hour, that I might receive a portion in the number of the martyrs, in the cup of Christ, unto resurrection of eternal life, both of soul and of body, in the immortality of the Holy Spirit.
34. Among these may I be received before thee this day, in a rich and acceptable sacrifice, as thou, the faithful and true God, hast beforehand prepared and revealed, and hast fulfilled.
35. Wherefore I praise thee also for everything; I bless thee, I glorify thee, through the eternal high priest, Jesus Christ, thy beloved Son, through whom, with him, in the Holy Spirit, be glory unto thee, both now and for the ages to come, Amen.’
36. When he had offered up his Amen and had finished his prayer, the firemen lighted the fire and as a great flame blazed out, we, to whom it was given to see, saw a wonder, and we were preserved that we might relate what happened to the others.
37. For the fire presented the appearance of a vault, like the sail of a vessel filled by the wind, and made a wall about the body of the martyr, and it was in the midst not like flesh burning, but like gold and silver refined in a furnace. For we perceived such a fragrant odor, as of the fumes of frankincense or of some other precious spices.
38. So at length the lawless men, when they saw that the body could not be consumed by the fire, commanded an executioner to approach and pierce him with the sword.
39. And when he had done this there came forth a quantity of blood so that it extinguished the fire; and the whole crowd marveled that there should be such a difference between the unbelievers and the elect, of whom this man also was one, the most wonderful teacher in our times, apostolic and prophetic, who was bishop of the catholic Church in Smyrna. For every word which came from his mouth was accomplished and will be accomplished.
40. But the jealous and envious Evil One, the adversary of the race of the righteous, when he saw the greatness of his martyrdom, and his blameless life from the beginning, and when he saw him crowned with the crown of immortality and bearing off an incontestable prize, took care that not even his body should be taken away by us, although many desired to do it and to have communion with his holy flesh.
41. Accordingly certain ones secretly suggested to Nicetes, the father of Herod and brother of Alce, that he should plead with the magistrate not to give up his body, ‘lest,’ it was said, ‘they should abandon the crucified One and begin to worship this man.’ They said these things at the suggestion and impulse of the Jews, who also watched as we were about to take it from the fire, not knowing that we shall never be able either to forsake Christ, who suffered for the salvation of the whole world of those that are saved, or to worship any other.
42. For we worship him who is the Son of God, but the martyrs, as disciples and imitators of the Lord, we love as they deserve on account of their matchless affection for their own king and teacher. May we also be made partakers and fellow-disciples with them.
43. The centurion, therefore, when he saw the contentiousness exhibited by the Jews, placed him in the midst and burned him, as was their custom. And so we afterwards gathered up his bones, which were more valuable than precious stones and more to be esteemed than gold, and laid them in a suitable place.
44. There the Lord will permit us to come together as we are able, in gladness and joy to celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom, for the commemoration of those who have already fought and for the training and preparation of those who shall hereafter do the same.
45. Such are the events that befell the blessed Polycarp, who suffered martyrdom in Smyrna with the eleven from Philadelphia. This one man is remembered more than the others by all, so that even by the heathen he is talked about in every place.”
46. Of such an end was the admirable and apostolic Polycarp deemed worthy, as recorded by the brethren of the church of Smyrna in their epistle which we have mentioned. In the same volume concerning him are subjoined also other martyrdoms which took place in the same city, Smyrna, about the same period of time with Polycarp’s martyrdom. Among them also Metrodorus, who appears to have been a proselyte of the Marcionitic sect, suffered death by fire.
47. A celebrated martyr of those times was a certain man named Pionius. Those who desire to know his several confessions, and the boldness of his speech, and his apologies in behalf of the faith before the people and the rulers, and his instructive addresses and, moreover, his greetings to those who had yielded to temptation in the persecution, and the words of encouragement which he addressed to the brethren who came to visit him in prison, and the tortures which he endured in addition, and besides these the sufferings and the nailings, and his firmness on the pile, and his death after all the extraordinary trials—those we refer to that epistle which has been given in the Martyrdoms of the Ancients, collected by us, and which contains a very full account of him.
48. And there are also records extant of others that suffered martyrdom in Pergamus, a city of Asia,—of Carpus and Papylus, and a woman named Agathonice, who, after many and illustrious testimonies, gloriously ended their lives.