Tertullian, born a Roman citizen at or near Carthage, was originally a pagan, the son of a Roman centurion. He was educated in rhetoric and law, the standard education of a well-to-do Roman, and converted to Christianity before the year 197. Following his conversion, Tertullian traveled through Greece and Asia Minor before settling in Carthage and marrying. According to St. Jerome, he served the church as a presbyter. He wrote numerous theological treatises, apologies, and attacks on various heresies, and was the first important Christian theologian to write in Latin. According to Augustine, Tertullian broke with Montanism and in his later years formed his own sect, the Tertullianists; some modern scholars assert that the sect was simply named after him. In either case, the sect survived some two centuries until the time of Augustine. Because of his apostasy, Tertullian was scorned in antiquity, but in the 19th and 20th centuries has been re-considered to be a seminal figure in early Christianity and, with Augustine, one of the preeminent formative fathers of modern Christianity.
Tertullian’s literary style was highly individualistic and original: he was witty, vehement, and eloquent, often employing puns and seeming contradictions. His work is often described as legalistic in character. Much of it falls into three main categories: attacks against Jews and other non-Christians (Apologeticum, an animated defense of Christians against Roman accusations of depravity and sedition, and Adversus Judaeos); denunciations of Christian heresies (Adversus Valentinianos, which attacked Gnosticism); and later writings in which he began to be critical of the “visible” Church and became sympathetic to the Montanists, a prophetic sect with a demanding moral code that had become well known from Asia Minor to Africa. Other writings (De cultu feminarum, on the proper dress of women, and De monogamia, concerning monogamy) dealt with practical and moral issues. Among his many contributions to Christian thought, Tertullian developed the concepts of the Trinity; of the dual nature, divine and human, of Jesus; and of Original Sin; as well as an early version of natural law and the view that Scripture can be interpreted rightly only within the Church, though he later emphasized private interpretation of scriptural texts. He promoted an extreme austerity in dress and fasting. In accordance with Montanist views, he strongly encouraged Christians to embrace persecution and even martyrdom.
In the early work entitled “To the Martyrs,” Tertullian praises past martyrs and invites Christians to accept the “harsher treatment” God has prepared for them and consider the “heavenly glory and divine reward” that awaits the willing martyr. This work and “The Crown of Martyrdom” together provide an account of the merits and benefits of martyrdom. Tertullian’s exhortation to martyrdom poses a challenge to the line between suicide and martyrdom; in it, he presents a number of examples of suicide that Roman culture would have respected—Empedocles, Lucretia, Regulus—and argues in effect that Christians too should be respected for their steadfastness in persecution and their willingness to sacrifice themselves for their faith.
Tertullian, “To the Martyrs,” chs. 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, in Disciplinary, Moral, and Ascetical Works, trs. Rudolph Arbesmann, Emily Daly, and Edwin Quain, in The Fathers of the Church, ed. Roy Defarrari. New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1959, pp. 17-29; “The Crown of Martyrdom,” from The Christian’s Defense, in Fathers of the Church: A Selection of the Writings of the Latin Fathers, tr. F. A. Wright, London: George Routledge and Sons, Ltd., 1928, pp. 48-51.
from TO THE MARTYRS
Blessed martyrs elect, along with the nourishment for the body which our Lady Mother the Church from her breast, as well as individual brethren from their private resources, furnish you in prison, accept also from me some offering that will contribute to the sustenance of the spirit. For it is not good that the flesh be feasted while the spirit goes hungry. Indeed, if care is bestowed on that which is weak, there is all the more reason not to neglect that which in still weaker. Not that I am specially entitled to exhort you. Yet, even the most accomplished gladiators are spurred on not only by their trainers and managers but also from afar by people inexperienced in this are and by all who choose, without the slightest need for it, with the result that hints issuing from the crowd have often proved profitable for them.
In the first place, then, O blessed, ‘do not grieve the Holy Spirit’ who has entered prison with you. For, if He had not accompanied you there in your present trial, you would not be there today. See to it, therefore, that He remain with you there and so lead you out of that place to the Lord. Indeed, the prison is the Devil’s house, too, where he keeps his household. But you have come to the prison for the purpose of trampling upon him right in his own house. For you have engaged him in battle already outside the prison and trampled him underfoot.
Let him, therefore, not say: ‘Now that they are in my domain, I will tempt them with base hatreds, with defections or dissensions among themselves.’ Let him flee from your presence, and let him, coiled and numb, like a snake that is driven out by charms or smoke, hide away in the depths of his den. Do not allow him the good fortune in his own kingdom of setting you against one another, but let him find you fortified by the arms of peace among yourselves, because peace among yourselves means war with him. Some, not able to find this peace in the Church, are accustomed to seek it from the martyrs in prison. For this reason, too, then, you ought to possess, cherish and preserve it among yourselves that you may perhaps be able to bestow it upon others also.
Other attachments, equally burdensome to the spirit, may have accompanied you to the prison gate; so far your relatives, too, may have escorted you. From that very moment on you have been separated from the very world. How much more, then, from its spirit and its ways and doings? Nor let this separation from the world that is more truly a prison, we shall realize that you have left a prison rather than entered one. The world holds the greater darkness, blinding men’s hearts. The world puts on the heavier chains, fettering the very souls of men. The world breathes forth the fouler impurities—human lusts. Finally, the world contains the larger number of criminals, namely the entire human race. In fact, it awaits sentence not from the proconsul but from God. Wherefore, O blessed, consider yourselves as having been transferred from prison to what we may call a place of safety. Darkness is there, but you are the light; fetters are there, but you are free before God. It breathes forth a foul smell, but you are an odor of sweetness. There the judge is expected at every moment, but you are going to pass sentence upon the judges themselves. There sadness may come upon the man who sighs for the pleasures of the world. The Christian, however, even when he is outside the prison, has renounced the world, and, when in prison, even prison itself. It does not matter what part of the world you are in, you who are apart from the world. And if you have missed some of the enjoyments of life, remember that it is the way of business to suffer some losses in order to make larger profits.
I say nothing yet about the reward to which God invites the martyrs. Meanwhile, let us compare the life in the world with that in prison to see if the spirit does not gain more in prison than the flesh loses there. In fact, owing to the solicitude of the Church and the charity of the brethren, the flesh does not miss there what it ought to have, while, in addition, the spirit obtains what is always beneficial to the faith: you do not look at strange gods; you do not chance upon their images; you do not, even by mere physical contact, participate in heathen holidays; you are not plagued by the foul fumes of the sacrificial banquets, not tormented by the noise of the spectacles, nor by the atrocity or frenzy or shamelessness of those taking part in the celebrations; your eyes do not fall on houses of lewdness; you are free from inducements to sin, from temptations, from unholy reminiscences, free, indeed, even from persecution.
The prison now offers to the Christian what the desert once gave to the Prophets. Our Lord Himself quite often spent time in solitude to pray there more freely, to be there away from the world. In fact, it was in a secluded place that He manifested His glory to His disciples. Let us drop the name ‘prison’ and call it a place of seclusion.
Though the body is confined, though the flesh is detained, there is nothing that is not open to the spirit. In spirit wander about, in spirit take a walk, setting before yourselves not shady promenades and long porticoes but that path which leads to God. As often as you walk that path, you will not be in prison. The leg does not feel the fetter when the spirit is in heaven. The spirit carries about the whole man and brings him wherever he wishes. And where your heart is, there will your treasure be also. There, then, let our heart be where we would have our treasure.
Granted now, O blessed, that even to Christians the prison is unpleasant—yet, we were called to the service in the army of the living God in the very moment when we gave response to the words of the sacramental oath. No soldier goes out to war encumbered with luxuries, nor does he march to the line of battle from the sleeping chamber, but from light and cramped tents where every kind of austerity, discomfort, and inconvenience is experienced. Even in time of peace soldiers are toughened to warfare by toils and hardships: by marching in arms, by practicing swift maneuvers in the field, by digging a trench, by joining closely together to form a tortoise-shield. Everything is set in sweating toil, lest bodies and minds be frightened at having to pass from shade to sunshine, from sunshine to icy cold, from the tunic to the breastplate, from hushed silence to the war cry, from rest to the din of battle.
In like manner, O blessed, consider whatever is hard in your present situation as an exercise of your powers of mind and body. You are about to enter a noble contest in which the living God acts the part of superintendent and the Holy Spirit is your trainer, a contest whose crown is eternity, whose prize is angelic nature, citizenship in heaven and glory for ever and ever. And so your Master, Jesus Christ, who has anointed you with His Spirit and has brought you to this training ground, has resolved, before the day of the contest, to take you from a softer way of life to a harsher treatment that your strength may be increased. For athletes, too, are set apart for more rigid training that they may apply themselves to the building up of their physical strength. They are kept from lavish living, from more tempting dishes, from more pleasurable drinks. They are urged on, they are subjected to torturing toils, they are worn out: the more strenuously they have exerted themselves, the greater is their hope of victory. And they do this, says the Apostle, to win a perishable crown. We who are about to win an eternal one recognize in the prison our training ground, that we may be led forth to the actual contest before the seat of the presiding judge well practiced in all hardships, because strength is built up by austerity, but destroyed by softness.
We know from our Lord’s teaching that, while the spirit is willing, the flesh is weak. Let us, however, not derive delusive gratification from the Lord’s acknowledgement of the weakness of the flesh. For it was on purpose that He first declared the spirit willing: He wanted to show which of the two ought to be subject to the other, that is to say, that the flesh should be submissive to the spirit, the weaker to the stronger, so that the former draw strength from the latter. Let the sprit converse with the flesh on their common salvation, no longer thinking about the hardships of prison but, rather, about the struggle of the actual contest. The flesh will perhaps fear the heavy sword and the lofty cross and the wild beasts mad with rage and the most terrible punishment of all—death by fire—and, finally, all the executioner’s cunning during the torture. But let the spirit present to both itself and the flesh the other side of the picture: granted, these sufferings are grievous, yet many have borne them patiently, nay, have even sought them on their own accord for the sake of fame and glory; and this is true not only of men but also of women so that you, too, O blessed women, may be worthy of your sex.
It would lead me too far were I to enumerate each one of those who, led by the impulse of their own mind, put an end to their lives by the sword. Among women there is the well-known instance of Lucretia. A victim of violence, she stabbed herself in the presence of her kinsfolk to gain glory for her chastity. Mucius burnt his right hand on the altar that his fair fame might include this deed. Nor did the philosophers act less courageously: Heraclitus, for instance, who put an end to his life by smearing himself with cow dung; Empedocles, too, who leaped down into the fires of Mt.Etna; and Peregrinus who not long ago threw himself upon a funeral pile. Why, even women have despised the flames: Dido did so in order not to be forced to marry after the departure of the man she had loved most dearly; the wife Hasdrubal, too, with Carthage in flames, cast herself along with her children into the fire that was destroying her native city, that she might not see her husband a suppliant at Scipio’s feet. Regulus, a Roman general, was taken prisoner by the Carhaginians, but refused to be the only Roman exchanged for a large number of Carthaginian captives. He preferred to be returned to the enemy, and, crammed into a kind of chest, suffered as many crucifixions as nails were driven in from the outside in all directions to pierce him. A woman voluntarily sought out wild beasts, namely, vipers, serpents more horrible than either bull or bear, which Cleopatra let loose upon herself as not to fall into the hands of the enemy.
You may object: ‘But the fear of death is not so great as the fear of torture.’ Did the Athenian courtesan yield on that account to the executioner? For, being privy to a conspiracy, she was subjected to torture by the tyrant. But she did not betray her fellow conspirators, and at last bit off her own tongue and spat it into the tyrant’s face to let him know that torments, however prolonged, could achieve nothing against her. Everybody knows that to this day the most important festival of the Lacedaemonians is the δίαμαστίγwσις, that is, The Whipping. In this sacred rite all the noble youth are scourged with whips before the altar, while their parents and kinsfolk stand by and exhort them to perseverance. For they regard it as a mark of greater distinction and glory if the soul rather than the body has submitted to the stripes.
Therefore, if earthly glory accruing from strength of body and soul is valued so highly that one despises sword, fire, piercing with nails, wild beasts and tortures for the reward of human praise, then I may say the sufferings you endure are but trifling in comparison with the heavenly glory and divine reward. If the bead made of glass is rated so highly, how much must the true pearl be worth? Who. Therefore, does not most gladly spend as much for the true as others spend for the false?
I omit here an account of the motive of glory. For inordinate ambition among men as well as a certain morbidity of mind have already set at naught all the cruel and torturing contests mentioned above. How many of the leisure class are urged by an excessive love of arms to become gladiators? Surely it is from vanity that they descend to the wild beasts in the very arena, and think themselves more handsome because of the bites and scars. Some have even hired themselves out to tests by fire, with the result that they ran a certain distance in a burning tunic. Others have pranced up and down amid the bullwhips of the animal-baiters, unflinchingly exposing their shoulders. All this, O blessed, the Lord tolerates in the world for good reason, that is, for the sake of encouraging us in the present moment and of confounding us on that final day, if we have recoiled from suffering for the truth unto salvation what others have pursued out of vanity unto perdition.
Let us, however, no longer talk about those examples of perseverance proceeding from inordinate ambition. Let us, rather, turn to a simple contemplation of man’s ordinary lot so that, if we ever have to undergo such trials with fortitude, we may also learn from those misfortunes which sometimes even befall unwilling victims, For how often have people been burned to death in conflagrations! How often have wild beasts devoured men either in the forests or in the heart of cities after escaping from their cages! How many have been slain by the sword of robbers! How many have even suffered the death of the cross at the hands of enemies, after having been tortured first and, indeed, treated with every kind of insult! Furthermore, many a man is able to suffer in the cause of a mere human being what he hesitates to suffer in the cause of God. To this fact, indeed, our present days may bear witness. How many prominent persons have met with death in the cause of a man, though such a fate seemed most unlikely in view of their birth and their rank, their physical condition and their age! Death came to them either from him, if they had opposed him, or from his enemies, if they had sided with him.
from THE CROWN OF MARTYRDOM
“Why do you Christians complain,” you say, “that we persecute you, if you wish to suffer, since you ought to love those by whom you suffer what you wish?” Certainly we wish to suffer, but in the way in which a soldier suffers war. Nobody indeed willingly suffers war, since both panic and danger there must inevitably be faced; but yet the man who just now was complaining about battle fights with all his strength and rejoices when he wins a victory in battle, because he gains both glory and spoil. Our battle is to be summoned before tribunals, where we fight for the truth at the risk of our lives. And our victory is to obtain that for which you strive, a victory which brings with it both the glory of pleasing God and the spoil of eternal life. But, you may say, we are convicted; yes, when we have won the day; we conquer when we are killed, and we escape when we are convicted. You may call us “faggoted” and “axle-men”, because bound to a stake half an axle’s length we are burned amid heaps of faggots; but that is our garb of victory, our chariot of triumph, our garment decked with palm-leaves. Naturally therefore we do not please those whom we have conquered, and so we are regarded as desperate and reckless men.
Among you, however, such desperation and recklessness raises the standard of virtue in the cause of glory and renown. Mucius, for example, willingly left his right hand in the altar fire: “Oh loftiness of spirit!” Empedocles freely gave all his body to the flames of Etna for the people of Catana’s sake: “Oh what strength of mind!” The queen who founded Carthage flung herself upon the pyre in accordance with her marriage vow: “What an encomium for chastity!” Regulus, rather that be the one of all the foemen spared, suffered tortures all over his body: “What a brave man, victorious even in captivity!” Anaxarchus, when he was being crushed to death with a barely pestle, kept saying: “Pound, pound away: it is Anaxarchus’ coating, not Anaxarchus himself, that your are pounding”: “What a magnanimous philosopher who could even joke about such a death as his!”
In these cases glory was lawful, because it was human, and no imputation of reckless prejudice or desperate conviction was cast upon them when they despised death and every sort of cruelty. They were allowed for country, for empire, and for friendship to suffer what we are not allowed to suffer for God. For all these you cast statues and write inscriptions on their portraits, and engrave them epitaphs to last for ever. Certainly, as far as records can do it, you yourselves confer a kind of resurrection from God, if he should suffer for God, you deem to be mad. Go on, good governors; the mob will think you all the better if you sacrifice Christians to them; crucify, torture, condemn, destroy us; your injustice is the proof of our innocence. For that reason God allows us to suffer these things. Just recently by condemning a Christian woman to the brothel rather than to the wild beasts, you acknowledged that stain upon chastity is reckoned among us as more dreadful than any punishment and any death. Your cruelties, though each be more elaborate that the last, do not profit you; they serve rather as an attraction to our sect. The more you mow us down the greater our numbers become; our blood is the seed from which new Christians spring.
Many men among yourselves have written exhortations for the endurance of pain and death; Cicero, for example, in the Tusculans, Seneca in the treatise On Chance, Diogenes, Pyrrho, and Callinicus. But their words do not find as many disciples as the Christians make by their deeds. The very obstinacy, with which you reproach us, is our best teacher. Who is there that is not roused by the sight of it to ask what there is really within it? Who does not join us when once he has asked? Who does not long to suffer, when once he has joined, that he may buy back the whole grace of God and procure all indulgence from Him by the payment of his own blood? To this action all sins are forgiven. Hence it is that even in court we thank you for your verdict. There is an enmity between what is of God and what is of man; and when we are condemned by you we are acquitted by God.