Our earliest literary record of Christianity in North Africa is a court record. It is very short and straightforward. On July 17, 180, Publius Vigellius Saturninus, the proconsul of Africa, was saddled with the irksome duty of interrogating a group of seven men and five women from the obscure town of Scilli. They stood before him in Carthage accused of “living as Christians”—literally, “living by the Christian rite” (ritu Christiano…vivere). According to policy set by the Emperor Trajan in 112, this was a capital offense, and the twelve Scillitan martyrs—Speratus (the Christians’ spokesman, perhaps a member of the clergy), Nartzalus, Cittinus, Veturius, Felix, Aquilinus, Laetantius, Januaria, Generosa, Vestia, Donata, and Secunda—were all summarily beheaded.
It did not have to end that way. Trajan had also stipulated that Christians who recanted their Christianity and proved it “by praying to our gods” (supplicando dis nostris) could be granted “pardon for their repentance” (veniam ex paenitentia). Saturninus was quick to remind the Scillitans of this: “You can gain the indulgence of our lord the emperor if you come back to your senses.” Saturninus even seemed open to glossing over the bit about renouncing Christ. All Speratus and his companions had to do was to swear an oath by the emperor’s genius (his personal divinity) and pray for his wellbeing. Saturninus was prepared to wink at the rest. But the recalcitrant bumpkins refused to budge.
Saturninus was obviously annoyed with the whole proceeding. The gesture of goodwill toward the emperor that he demanded was a very small thing, an everyday thing, routine as purchasing wares or paying taxes—which the Christians admitted they did. These obnoxious people were also strangely inconsistent. One of them, Donata, openly said that they paid “honor to Caesar as Caesar, but fear to God” (cf. 1 Pet. 2:17). Well, that is really all Saturninus was asking for: a simple token of honor to Caesar. Surely there was some misunderstanding. These folks were worked up, maybe overexcited by their ordeal in the big city. They needed time to cool off and get a grip. But they just kept saying, again and again, “I am a Christian.” Saturninus tried to give them a thirty-day grace period to think things over. Speratus repeated, “I am a Christian,” and all the rest agreed.
Reluctantly, Saturninus passed his sentence. Absurdly, the Christians reacted with joy: “We give thanks to God!” “Today we are martyrs in heaven! Thanks be to God!”
Parts of Tertullian’s Apology, written within two decades of the Scillitans’ martyrdom, read almost like a theological commentary on these events. A Carthaginian who had likely trained in law, Tertullian was surely aware of the Scillitans’ appearance before Saturninus, whom Tertullian identifies as the first Roman official to put Christians to the sword in North Africa (To Scapula 3). Tertullian explains that Christians refuse to swear oaths by the emperor’s genius not because they wish the emperor harm but because the genii are in fact demons (Apology 32). Christians do pray for the emperor’s welfare, as well as for imperial security, for the emperor’s household, for a valiant military, for a loyal senate, for an upstanding citizenry, for world peace—only they offer such prayers to the one true God who providentially appointed the emperor (Apology 30, 33).
Tertullian’s assertion that Christians recognize the divinely ordained legitimacy of the emperor seems at loggerheads with Speratus’s protestation, “I do not acknowledge the Empire of this world … I acknowledge my Lord, the Emperor of kings and of all nations [cf. Rev. 1:5].” But the context is one in which Saturninus has insistently equated honoring Caesar with swearing by his genius. He has rejected the distinction Tertullian and other Christians observed between the emperor and the demon to whom pagans sacrificed on his behalf. In the person of its proconsular representative, the Roman Empire has thus aligned itself with “the Empire of this world [huius seculi]”—that is, of “the world” whose prince is the evil one (2 Cor. 4:4) and which is at enmity with God (Jas. 4:4).
All this, naturally, was lost on the inconvenienced Saturninus, who was not interested in being lectured by rural religious fanatics. To him, this was madness. He referred to it, literally, as dementia. So it would have appeared to most Romans. With the eyes of faith, the martyrs and their Christian brothers and sisters could recognize martyrdom as a glorious victory over the power of darkness. Sometimes the martyrs’ comportment was an occasion of grace leading to the conversion of onlookers. But most of the time non-Christians simply found the martyrs pathetically obstinate. Pliny observed to Trajan that, even if the fantastic rumors of Christians committing horrible crimes were false, their uncivil stubbornness was reason enough to eliminate them from society. Many who watched martyrdoms taunted and jeered. Others must have just shaken their heads at such tragic folly. They did not see praiseworthy heroism but foolish, unnecessary suffering.
I do not know whether Christians in the West will be faced with state-sanctioned red martyrdom in the future. What I do know is that when Christians are called upon either to betray their Master or to give up their reputation, liberty, property, or life, they should not expect to be applauded by neutral public observers. They should not expect to be widely congratulated on social media for their unwavering adherence to principle. They should not seek praise from men (John 5:41, 44). They should expect to be reviled and mocked. That is what the Lord himself promised.
There is an opposite danger as well. Some zealous believers might take the lesson of the Scillitan martyrs and others as an invitation to make themselves a nuisance. This too is a mistake. St. Paul taught us to pray “that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Tim. 2:2). Early martyrdom accounts condemn the theatrics of hotheads like a certain Quintus, who turned himself in voluntarily, thinking to make himself a hero, then buckled under the pressure and apostatized (Martyrdom of Polycarp 4). Jesus blesses, not self-righteous provocateurs, but whose who are slandered falsely on his account (Matt. 5:11).
May the holy Scillitan martyrs pray for us, that we might serve our Lord, “the Emperor of kings and of all nations,” with undivided hearts, so that we can announce with them, in all our words and deeds, with simplicity and humility, “I am a Christian.” If we do, when we are called upon to suffer for the Name, we, like the Scillitan martyrs, will rejoice and be glad (Matt. 5:12).