Tertullian's Address to Martyrs
T. Herbert BINDLEY, The Epistle of the Gallican Churches : Lugdunum and Vienna - with an appendix containing Tertullian's Address to Martyrs and The Passion of St. Perpetua.  Translated with introduction and notes.  SPCK, London (1900) pp. 51-61



So many references have been made in the fore­going pages to Tertullian’s Address to Martyrs that it has been thought well to include that inspiriting Tract in this volume, and also to add some passages from the Passion of St. Perpetua which throw especial light upon the circumstances under which early Christian martyrdoms took place.

The date of the Address and of the African martyrdoms is A.D. 203; the scene, Karthage.

The translation of the Address has been made from the text edited by the present writer for the Delegates of the Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1893 ; of the Passion from Dr. Armitage Robinson’s edition, Texts and Studies, i. 2, Cambridge, 1891.



I. Amongst the provisions for the body which not only our lady mother, the Church, from her own bosom, but also individual brethren from their own private resources supply to you in your prison, blessed martyrs1 designate, accept something from me too, |p52 which may serve to nourish your spirit also. For it is not well for the body to be filled and for the spirit to hunger. Surely if that which is weak receives attention, that which is weaker ought still less to be neglected. Not that I have any claims to address you; yet to the most skilled gladiators, not only experts and their own trainers give advice, but even non-professionals and any chance onlookers from outside the ring, so that hints suggested from the very crowd have often proved profitable.

First of all, then, blessed ones, grieve not the Holy Spirit (Eph. iv. 30) Who hath entered with you into the prison. For if He had not entered in with you, you yourselves would not be there to-day. Therefore give heed that He may remain there with you, and so may He lead you thence to the Lord.

The prison is also the devil’s house wherein he keepeth his own family. But ye have come into the prison to trample on him in his own house. For already have ye trampled on him, having engaged with him outside. Let him not then say, “They are in my house; I will tempt them with petty quarrels, failings, and mutual strifes.” Let him fly from your sight and skulk away into his own abyss, coiled up and torpid like a charmed or out-smoked snake. Nor let him so prosper in his own kingdom as to set you at variance, but let him find you fortified and armed  |p53 with concord; because your peace is war to him. And this “peace” some in the Church having lost, have been wont to entreat from martyrs in prison.2 Wherefore also on this account you ought to have it in yourselves, and to cherish it and guard it, so that you may be able to give it, it may be, to others also.

II. Similarly other hindrances of the soul may have accompanied you to the prison doors, just as far as your relatives did. From that point you were separated from the world itself: how much more from the spirit of the age and its affairs! Nor will this dismay you, that you have been separated from the world. For if we regard the world itself as a prison, we shall deem you rather to have gone forth from prison than to have gone into prison. The world has the greater darkness which blindeth the hearts of men. The world puts on the heavier chains which bind the very souls of men. The world breathes the worse impurities, even the lusts of men. The world in the end contains the more criminals, namely, the whole race of men. It awaiteth accordingly the judgment, not of the proconsul, but of God. And from this prison, blessed ones, consider yourselves to have been translated, it may be, into a watch-house. It has its darkness, but ye yourselves are light (Matt. v. 14; Eph. v. 8); it has its chains, but ye have been freed by God (cp. Gal. v. 1). Its breath is evil, but ye are an odour of sweet savour (Eph. v. 3; 2 Cor. ii. 15). A judge is awaited, but ye are destined to judge (cp. I Cor. vi. 2) the very judges. It may be |p54 gloomy for him who sighs for the enjoyments of the worldly life. The Christian even outside the prison has renounced the worldly life,3 and when in prison a prison also. It matters not to you who are beyond the world where you may be in it. And if ye have lost some of the joys of life, it is only business to lose somewhat in order to gain more. I say nothing now of the reward to which God calls martyrs. Let us for a moment compare the life of the world and of the prison, to see whether in the prison the spirit does not gain more than the flesh loses. Nay, indeed, through the care of the Church and the love of the brethren, the flesh does not lose anything that is requisite, while, in addition, the spirit gains what is always serviceable to faith. Thou dost not look upon strange gods, thou dost not come upon their images, thou dost not, by the mere fact of intercourse, partici­pate in the solemn days of the heathen. Thou art not tormented with filthy fumes of sacrifices, thou art not pained by the shouts at the public shows, nor by the brutality and madness and indecency of the festival-keepers. Open vice doth not parade itself before thee; thou art free from causes of stumbling, temptations, evil recollections, and, now, even from persecutions. The prison is to the Christian what the desert was to the prophets. The Lord Himself very frequently used to go into retirement to pray the more freely, and to withdraw from the world. It was in a solitary place that He showed His own glory to His |p55 disciples. Let us do away with the name of prison; let us call it a retreat. Even if the body is shut in and the flesh held fašt, all things are open to the spirit. In spirit roam forth, in spirit walk abroad, setting before thyself not shady walks or long porches but that way which leads to God.4 As often as thou walkest along it in spirit so often wilt thou not be in prison. The ankle feels naught of the stocks when the mind is in heaven. The mind carries with it the whole man, and whither it wills it carries him. Now where thy heart will be, there will be thy treasure also (Matt. vi 21). Let therefore our heart be where we would have our treasure.

III. Granted now, blessed ones, that the prison is grievous even to Christians. We have been called to the military service of the living God since the moment when we responded to the words of the Sacrament.5 No soldier goes to a war equipped with luxuries, nor does he go forth to the battle-line from his bed-chamber, but from light and narrow tents wherein every hardship and roughness and uncomfortableness is to.be found. Even in peace soldiers are already learning by toil and hardships to endure warfare by marching under arms, by manœuvring over the plain, by working in the trenches, by |p56 closing files so as to form the “testudo.”6 Their occupations are all severe, lest body and mind should quake at passing from shade to sun, and from sun to cold weather, from vest to leather cuirass, from silence to clamour, from repose to tumult. Similarly do ye, blessed ones, account whatever hardships ye experi­ence as a drill of mind and body. You are about to undergo a good contest (1 Tim. vi. 12; 2 Tim. ii. 4 f.; iv. 8) wherein the living God is the President,7 the Holy Spirit is the Trainer, the wreath is that of eternity, the prize (1 Cor. ix. 24; Phil. 14), angelic being, the citizenship in the heavens (Phil. iii. 20), the glory unto ages of ages. Therefore your Master, Christ Jesus, Who anointed you with the Spirit, and hath brought you forth to this wrestling-ground, hath willed before the day of contest to set you apart from a less restrained condition unto a sterner training, that your powers may be strengthened within you. For as everybody knows, athletes are separated for a stricter training, that they may have opportunity to build up their strength. They are kept from luxury, from more agreeable kinds of food, from pleasanter kinds of drink. They are under restraint, they are racked, they are worn out with fatigue; and the more they toil in these exercises the better hope have they of victory. And they, says the Apostle, that they may obtain a corruptible wreath (I Cor. ix. 25). Let |p57 us, who are destined to obtain an eternal one, interpret our prison as a wrestling-school,8 so that, as persons well drilled in all kinds of hardships, we may be presented at the stadium of the judgment-seat: for virtue is built up by hardness but destroyed by softness.

IV.       We know from the Lord’s teaching that the flesh is weak, the spirit ready (Matt. xxvi. 41). Let us not therefore flatter ourselves, because the Lord allowed that the flesh. is weak. For He said first that the spirit was ready because He wished to show which ought to be subject to the other; namely, that the flesh should be subservient to the spirit, the weaker to the stronger, so that itself also may receive strength from it. Let the spirit confer with the flesh about the salvation of both, not now thinking of the hardships of the prisOn, but of the actual contest and battle. The flesh perhaps will fear the heavy sword and the uplifted cross,9 and the fury of the beasts and the extremest punishment of fire and all the ingenious devices of the torturer. But against all this, let the spirit place before itself and the flesh the fact that these tortures, although bitter, have yet been endured by many without complaint, nay, have even been |p58 willingly sought after, for the sake of fame and glory, and that, not only by men but also by women, so that you too, blessed women, may answer for your own sex. It would be a long tale were I to enumerate one by one those who have killed themselves with the sword; led to such an act by their own determination. Of women there is a ready example in the violated Lucretia, who stabbed herself in the sight of her relatives to win praise for her chastity. Mucius burnt his own right hand on the altar that fame might preserve the memory of his deed. Philosophers have achieved less—Heraclitus, who smeared himself with ox-dung, and burnt himself to death; Empedocles, who leaped down into the fires of Mount Ætna; Peregrinus, who no long time ago threw himself upon a funeral pyre—since, even women have despised the flames: Dido, for instance, lest she should be com­pelled to wed again, after the loss of her dearly beloved husband; and Hasdrubal’s wife, who, when Karthage was already burning, saw her husband a suppliant before Scipio, and flew with her children into the flames of her native city. Regulus, a general of the Romans, when captured by the Karthaginians, refused to allow his single self to be exchanged for many Karthaginian prisoners, but preferred to be restored to the enemy; and then, crammed into a kind of chest, was pierced all over with nails driven in from the outside, and experienced so many crucifixions. A woman has even voluntarily desired the wild beasts and even asps—reptiles surely more dreadful than bull or bear—which Cleopatra applied to herself lest she should fall into the hands of her enemy. But, you |p59 will say, the fear of death is not so great as that of tortures. Indeed? then the Athenian harlot10 succumbed to the executioner !—she who, being privy to a conspiracy, was tortured by the tyrant, yet refused to betray the conspirators, and in the end spat out her tongue, which she had bitten off, in the tyrant’s face, so that he might know that tortures would avail nothing in her case, though he might go on to the bitter end. Moreover, that highest solemnity to-day amongst the Lacedemonians, the flagellation, is no secret; for in that religious ceremony all the noble youths are scourged before the altar, their parents and relatives standing by and encouraging them to endure to the end. For honour and glory will be reckoned with greater reason if the soul rather than the body yield itself to stripes. Consequently, if it is allowed to earthly glory to have such sway over the powers of body and mind so that the sword and fire, and the cross, and beasts and tortures are despised for the sake of the reward of human praise, I am able to assert that those sufferings of yours which lead to the attain­ment of celestial glory and divine reward are unworthy of mention. Is the glass bead of such value? How much more the true pearl! Who, then, is not bound to undergo most willingly as much for the real as others do for the false?

V. I say no more of the motive of fame. Desire for notoriety too, and a certain mental disease, have ere this trampled on all these same contests of cruelty and torture. How many civilians does a desire for |p60 notoriety in arms bring to the sword! For the same reason they actually descend into the arena to the very wild beasts, and regard themselves as greatly improved in looks by their bites and scars. Persons, too, ere this, have hired themselves out to the flames to traverse a certain space in a burning tunic. Others have run the gauntlet of the beast-fighters’ whips11 with most enduring shoulders.

These things, blessed ones, the Lord hath permitted to be in the world not without cause, but both for our encouragement now, and for our confusion in that day (2 Tim. iv. 8), if we through dread have avoided suffering for the truth’s sake unto salvation those things which others have eagerly entered upon for vanity’s sake unto perdition.

VI. But let us say no more of these examples of endurance arising from desire of notoriety. Let us turn to the simple contemplation of ordinary human life, and learn instruction also from those accidents which have to be bravely borne, which happen whether we will or no. How often have the flames burned men alive! How often have wild beasts devoured men both in their natural forests, and in the midst of cities when they have escaped from their dens! How many have been put an end to by brigands with the sword, and by enemies even on the cross, after having first been tortured, ay, and finally disposed of with every kind of insult! One will even suffer for the sake of a man 12 what he hesitates to undergo in the cause of God. On this point, indeed, even the present times may furnish us with proof, when so many persons of dignity are meeting with deaths never dreamt of for them in view of their family, rank, bodily condition and age—and all in the cause of a man, being punished either by himself if they have acted against him, or by his opponents if they have ranged themselves on his side.

Notes have been placed here at the end with a single numbering for ease of reading

1. p. 51 n 1. Tertullian’s use of “martyrs” for those who were destined to suffer, but had not yet done so, is in accordance with the Greek use of the word. See above, p. 45. They were “wit­nesses.” Later a distinction was drawn between those witnesses who suffered but escaped death (“ confessors “) and those who paid the extreme penalty (“ martyrs “).

2. p.53 n. 1. On this custom see above, pp. 21, 39, 46.

3. p.54 n.1 The reference is to the Vow of Renunciation at Baptism, for the various forms of which see Bright, Sermons of St. Leo, note 78, page 187.

4. p.55 n.1 These words contain a reference to the recreation walk planted with trees, and to the athletic and intellectual contests in the stadium and the Porch or school of Stoic philosophers. These are contrasted with Him Who is the true “Way” (John xiv. 6).

5. p55 n.2 In the Baptismal Vow of Obedience. The metaphor of the Christian soldier comes from 2 Tim. ii. 3, 4.

6. p.56 n.1 A movement in which the soldiers interlocked their shields over their heads, so as to resemble the shell of the tortoise (testudo).

7. p.56 n.2. The metaphor throughout this passage is that of the palæstra,

8. p.57 n. 1. It will have been noticed that the martyrs’ prison is viewed under five different aspects: It is first the house of the devil, the abode of criminals, and yet to be the scene of the devil’s discomfiture (chap. i.) secondly, it is a place of safety or watching (chap. ii.) thirdly, it is a retreat (chap. ii.); fourthly, a place for military training (chap. iii.) ; and fifthly, a wrestling­school.

9. p.57 n. 2. Compare the case of Blandina, p. 37.

10. p.59 n. 1 Her name was Leæna: see Pliny, Hist. Nat. vii. 23; Pausanias, i. 23.

11. p.60 n.1 See above, p. 36, and below, p. 73.

12. p.60 n.2 An emperor, for instance, or a usurper. The following words refer to the ruthless punishment inflicted by Severus on the followers of his rivals, Albinus in the west, and Niger in the east, in the earlier years of his reign; Spartian, Severus, 12; Dion. Cass. lxxv. 8, lxxvi. 4; Herodian, iii. 8, 12.

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