Polycarp of Smyrna
Polycarp was born about 69 A.D. just a few years after the death of Peter, Paul, and James. He was a disciple of John, a younger friend of Ignatius, and the teacher of Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons in Gaul. Polycarp went to Rome in 154 A.D. to discuss the Passover controversy with his fellow bishop, Anicetus, which, as I have said, resulted in their peaceful disagreement.
Polycarp's martyrdom took place the following year, Feb. 25, 155, when he was 86 years old. It took place during the reign of Emperor Antonius Pius, the successor of Hadrian, who had put down the Bar-Cochba revolt in Judea. Antonius Pius had been formally adopted by Hadrian on Feb. 25, 138 A.D., and upon Hadrian's death took the throne and ruled from 138-161 A.D.
Antonius Pius is called by historians “one of the five good emperors,” because in general he ruled justly and fairly. He did not think that Rome needed to conquer further, and so his rule was one of peace and prosperity. This emperor actually protected the Christians from much violence which broke out against them as the result of frequent public calamities, for which the Christians were blamed. Even so, Christianity was an illegal religion (religio illicita) because it refused to sacrifice to the gods.
Persecution broke out in Asia at that time, particularly in Smyrna. Eusebius relates:
“Sometimes they were torn with scourges to the innermost veins and arteries, so that even the secret parts of their body, the entrails and internal organs, were laid bare; sometimes they were forced to lie on pointed seashells and sharp spikes. After going through every kind of punishment and torture, they were finally flung to the beasts as food.” (Eccl. Hist., IV, 15)
One teenager, Germanicus by name, was urged by the proconsul to spare himself on account of his youth, but he walked toward the wild beasts with no hesitation and goaded them into attacking him. The crowd was astounded at his courage, and perhaps shamed by it, for then a great shout went up: “Away with the godless! Fetch Polycarp!”
When Polycarp heard the news, his friends urged him to flee to safety. He preferred to remain in the city (Smyrna), but was persuaded to escape to a nearby farm house. There he stayed with a few companions, devoting himself to prayer that God would grant peace to the churches. Eusebius continues,
“Three nights before his arrest, while at prayer he saw in a trance the pillow under his head burst into flames and burn to a cinder. He awoke at once and interpreted the vision to those present, opening the book of things to come and leaving his friends in no doubt that for Christ's sake he was to depart this life by fire. As the efforts of his pursuers went on relentlessly, the love and devotion of the brethren compelled him to move on to yet another farm. There he was soon overtaken; two of the farm servants were seized, and under torture one of them revealed Polycarp's quarters. Late in the evening they arrived and found him in bed upstairs.
“He might easily have moved to another house, but he had refused, saying, ‘God's will be done.’ Indeed, when he heard that they had come, the account informs us, he came down and talked to them in the most cheerful and gentle manner, so that, never having seen him before, they could hardly believe their eyes when confronted with his advanced years and dignified confident bearing. Why, they wondered, was there such anxiety to arrest an old man of this kind? He meanwhile ordered the table to be laid for them immediately, and invited them to eat as much as they liked, asking in return a single hour in which he could pray unmolested.”
He was put on a donkey to go back to the city. He was met by the chief of police, whose name was Herod, and they took him up in their carriage. Herod tried to persuade him, “What harm is there in saying ‘Lord Caesar’ and sacrificing? You will be safe then.” At first he remained silent, but when they persisted, he told them, ‘I have no intention of taking your advice’.”
They then pushed him out of the carriage and left him to escape. But Polycarp set off at a good pace toward the stadium. As he approached, a voice from heaven came to him saying, “Be strong, Polycarp, and play the man.” Eusebius says that “no one saw the speaker, but many of our people heard the voice.”
When he approached the proconsul, he was asked to identify himself. Then the proconsul attempted to persuade him to “Swear by Caesar's fortune; change your attitude; say ‘Away with the godless’; swear, and I will set you free; execrate Christ!’”
Polycarp replied, “For eighty-six years I have been His servant, and He has never done me wrong; how can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”
When the proconsul persisted (for he was reluctant to execute an old man), Polycarp replied, “If you imagine that I will swear by Caesar's fortune, as you put it, pretending not to know who I am, I will tell you plainly, I am a Christian. If you wish to study the Christian doctrine, choose a day and you shall hear it.”
“I have wild beasts,” said the proconsul. “I shall throw you to them if you don't change your attitude.”
“Call them,” he replied. “We cannot change our attitude if it means a change from better to worse. But it is a splendid thing to change from cruelty to justice.”
“If you make light of the beasts, I'll have you destroyed by fire.”
“The fire you threaten burns for a time and is soon extinguished . . . But why do you hesitate? Do what you want.”
Polycarp was then bound to a stake and the fire was lit. According to the accounts, the fire swirled around him like a sail and refused to burn him. “The fire took the shape of a vaulted room, like a ship's sail filled with wind, and made a wall round the martyr's body,” Eusebius records. So the proconsul ordered him to be stabbed with a sword. Polycarp's blood then was said to flow in such a quantity that the fire was extinguished.
It is not possible to know how much the story was embellished later, but certainly something of the miraculous occurred, which caused a reaction from the authorities and the spectators. Eusebius writes,
“So Nicetes, Herod's father and Alce's brother, was induced to request the governor not to give up the body, ‘lest they should abandon the Crucified and start worshipping this fellow.’ These suggestions were made under persistent pressure from the Jews, who watched us when we were going to take him out of the fire, not realizing that we can never forsake Christ, who suffered for the salvation of those who are being saved in the entire world, or worship anyone else. For to Him, as the Son of God, we offer adoration; but to the martyrs, as disciples and imitators of the Lord, we give the love that they deserve for their unsurpassable devotion to their own King and Teacher; may it be our privilege to be their fellow-members and fellow-disciples.” (Eccl. Hist. IV, 15)
When Eusebius wrote this in the early fourth century, his words still were true. Unfortunately, as the centuries passed, Christians began to venerate the relics and bones of the martyrs to the point of great superstition. But in the days of Polycarp, their reverence was based upon love and respect for this humble, honest, and simple servant of Christ. Though he was not known for intellectual force, as some others were, he was a true man of God.
And so it was that Polycarp's friends were able to gather only a few of his remaining bones, which they buried with loving care. With his death came the virtual end of the sub-Apostolic age, the age of those who had been taught by and who knew the original apostles and others who had seen Christ.