Classic DACB Collection

All articles created or submitted in the first twenty years of the project, from 1995 to 2015.


Ancient Christian Church

Robert McQueen Grant has observed that “the churches of [the Roman province of] Africa first came to the attention of the state in 180, when, according to Tertullian, the proconsul Vigellius Saturninus ‘first drew the sword upon us’ and put to death the twelve Christians at Carthage” [1970: 187, citing Tertullian *Ad Scapulum *3.4 = ANF 3 (1885) 106; cf. Carrington 1957: II.290]. While persecution at various levels under diverse circumstances within distinct communities can be traced back throughout early Christian history to its origins, this specific episode began within weeks of the accession as sole emperor of Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus [161-192; co-emperor from 177 with his father Marcus Aelius Aurelius Verus (121-17 March 180)]. The date of their specific execution by beheading (a punishment normally reserved for Roman citizens, witness the tradition with respect to the Apostle Paul in contrast to that of the Apostle Peter) occurred on 16 kalends of August (which we render as 17 July), dated to the consulship of Praesens for the second time along with Claudian as his colleague (= 180 A.D.; cf. Musurillo 1972:87 n.2). William Hugh Clifford Frend has stated that these twelve were “drawn from the purely native, non-citizen classes of the [North African] population” (1952:88), but he ignores the mode of execution.

Among exacting accounts of the witnessing (in Greek marturein) of Christians before an imperial officer, “‘The Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs’ is our earliest dated document from the Latin Church and the first to make mention of a Latin Bible” (Musurillo 1972: xxii). This document conveys by its brevity and lack of frills the impression of a primitive court record wherein is met a cluster of twelve named individuals, seven males and five females, headed by Speratus who alone speaks more than once (for a total of nine curt replies to interrogation). Five others (two men: Nartzalus and Cittinus; three women: Donata, Vestia, and Secunda) make no more than one responsive comment, and the other six (four men: Veturius, Felix, Aquilinus, and Laetanius; two women: Januaria and Generosa) simply get identified in the concluding indication of the total of those sentenced. [See the Latin text and English translation of Musurillo 1972:86-89; separate entries are given for each of those named.]

This is little enough to go on relative to personality, individually or collectively considered, though one senses – at least speculatively – that, while no age is adduced, we may ascribe to each beside Speratus a probable youth appropriate to their level of enthusiasm for this witnessing to their Christian identification. Moreover, Philip Carrington has observed that “the record reminds us of the Acts of the Martyrdom of Justin and his companions in Rome, so that Speratus with his simple answers and his New Testament books may have been a teacher like Justin, witnessing to his faith with his pupils” (1957: II.292; for an edition of “The Acts of Justin and Companions,” see Musurillo 1972:42-61). One might also recall from Eusebius (c.260-340) the listing of seven students of Origen who were martyred [H.E. 6.4]; of these “at least five were unbaptized or lately baptized” (Lawlor 1928:193), where the issue against the Christians might also appear to be the law against proselytism, a charge especially obvious within catechetical schools. This “enthusiasm” of youth is also apparent in the witnessing of the African martyr Perpetua, a young mother of age 22, where her companions are specifically identified as “adolescentes catechumeni” (literally “adolescent catechumens,” not yet baptized; cf. Carrington 1957: II.425)! [See her separate, detailed entry.]

However, Tertullian (c.160-220) had known of others caught up in this same persecution with those from Scillium. Carrington thought it began at a country town named Madauros in Numidia, where the “first martyr” was a native African with the Berber name of Namphanio [Maximus in his letter to Augustine sneeringly calls Namphanio “archimartus”; Augustine in response explains the Punic meaning of the name – cf. Letter of Augustine 16 and 17; NPNF ser.1 1.233-235, both dated 390], and a group of companions with equally non-Roman names – Lucitas, Mygdon (Miggin), and Samae (Saname), for whom no court record survives (Carrington 1957: II.291; see the entries for each). We may perceive therefrom the breadth but not the depth of this Christian community in the larger region about Carthage, where later persecution will catch up with even more noteworthy persons, such as the episcopal author, Cyprian (c.200-258). [For him are preserved “The Acts of St. Cyprian,” covering from his confession before the proconsul Aspasius Paternus until his final hearing and execution under Galerius Maximus – that is, from August 30, 257 to September 14, 258; cf. Musurillo 1972:168-175 (Latin text and English translation), which deserve to be read as companion piece to this slightly earlier and much briefer material. Agobard archbishop of Lyons (c.779-840) asserts that the relics of Speratus, with those of Cyprian, were translated by Charlemagne’s orders from Carthage to Lyons (cf. DCB 1887: 4.593, with reference to PL CIV 349).]

Because Speratus is most preeminent within these “Acts,” noteworthy are several of his affirmations: while holding “our emperor in honor” and committing no acts of wickedness, Christians, however, do not “swear by the genius of [the] lord emperor,” to whom the proconsul required their acquiescence, since we “do not recognize the empire of this world,” rather we serve “that God whom no man has seen.” Speratus can affirm recognizable examples from “the Ten Commandments”; but the basic is simply “I am a Christian” (thrice affirmed, twice by Speratus, once by Vestia)! When asked what he has in his “case,” the response is “Books, and letters of a just man named Paul” – a significantly early indication of the achievement of their collection as anticipated from Paul’s own instructions (Col. 4:16) or the comment found in Second Peter (3:15-16).

While the proconsul would offer reprieve for thirty days, neither Speratus nor his students require any more time to accept their sentence, which, like the original policy set by Marcus Ulpius Trajanus (53-117, emperor from 25 January 98), in written reply to the interrogative letter with its fundamental questions of propriety concerning the handling of Christians asked by Pliny the Younger in 110 A.D. [cf. Letters of Pliny 10.96 and 97], still proceeds to find guilty by virtue of their having “persevered in their obstinacy” going each to death with a “Deo gratias” (“Thanks be to God”) perhaps spoken in unison (citing throughout from the translation by Musurillo 1972:86-89). Within a listing of “saints” this group is collectively commemorated as “the Scillitan martyrs” with a feast day on that of their hearing and execution (PDS 303). Already in the era of Augustine, as examples of his sermons display, the group was recalled on their “birth day” (Grant 1970:309), which explains the title of Augustine’s “Sermon XVI,” “In Natali Martyrum Scillitanorum” (preserved in PL XLVI 869-874).

Clyde Curry Smith

Bibliography (see link to abbreviations table below):

PDS 303-304; ODCC 1230; NIDCC 889 (DFWright); OEEC 762 (VSaxer); GEEC 17 (DMScholer) [On “Martyr, Martyrdom” GEEC 724-728 (EFerguson)].

Supplementary Bibliography

Carrington 1957 The Early Christian Church, by Philip Carrington. Cambridge: At the University Press. 2 volumes.

Frend 1952 The Donatist Church: A Movement of Protest in Roman North Africa, by William Hugh Clifford Frend. Oxford: At the Clarendon Press.

Grant 1970 Augustus to Constantine: The Thrust of the Christian Movement into the Roman World, by Robert McQueen Grant. New York, Evanston, and London: Harper and Row.

Lawlor 1928 Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, The Ecclesiastical History and the Martyrs of Palestine, translated with Introduction and Notes, by Hugh Jackson Lawlor and John Ernest Leonard Oulton. London: SPCK. 2 volumes. Volume II: Introduction, Notes, and Index, by Hugh Jackson Lawlor.

Musurillo 1972 Acts of the Christian Martyrs: Introduction, Texts and Translations, by Herbert Musurillo. Oxford: At the Clarendon Press.

This article, received in 2004, was researched and written by Dr. Clyde Curry Smith, Professor Emeritus of Ancient History and Religion, University of Wisconsin, River Falls.

Click here forAbbreviations and Source References for Ancient African Christians.