On This Day in 180 AD: “Won’t you return to your senses?”

On this day in 180 AD, twelve North African Christians were martyred for their faith.

Speratus, Nartzalus, Cittinus, Donata, Secunda, Vestia and six other Christians were brought before the Roman Governor in the provincial capital at Carthage. After resolutely refusing to forsake their Saviour, all twelve were sentenced to death and beheaded by the sword.

The Story

On the 17th of July, 180 AD, the twelve Christian believers were brought before the Roman Governor Saturninus.

Their faith was an offence to Roman ears, but the Governor was willing to show mercy to these men and women from nearby Scillium. Turning to face them all, Saturninus spoke: “You can have mercy from our lord the Emperor, if you return to your senses.”

Speratus spoke up for the prisoners, refusing, politely, to acquiesce. Saturninus was afronted, these Christians claimed to be too religious to bow before the Emperor of Rome, the most powerful man in the world! Another opportunity was presented, and Saturninus challenged their religiosity. “We too are religious and our religion is simple: we swear by the birth spirit of our lord the Emperor and offer sacrifice for his health, which you must do as well.”

His offer was simple; substitute the one religion for the other. To Saturninus this was a simple act of fidelity. Illustrate that the Emperor remains foremost in your affections, and you will live.

Yet the Christians remained firm on their position. Speratus offered to share the reason for their faith with the Governor, but Saturninus was not interested. Donata affirmed that though she honoured Caesar, she feared God alone. Vestia was likewise bold, answering, “I am a Christian.” Secunda echoed this.

The surviving record of this exchange notes that Saturninus was exasperated. He urged the Christians to abandon their faith, even offering them a thirty day reprieve to reconsider their position. Nonetheless, when it became apparent that not one of the twelve would give up their hope in Christ, he reached his decision.

Saturninus reads out the name of each believer and concludes that they “are to be executed.” The penalty for their crime of belief was swiftly administered, and by sunset the twelve Christian brothers and sisters were dead.

The Significance

This exchange, and martyrdom, is recorded in the short text, the Acts of the Scillitan Matyrs (from which the above account is taken.) Written shortly after the event, this brief work is thin on detail, describing what happened in a fairly matter-of-fact manner. Some have speculated that this could indicate this text is in fact the official court record of these proceedings, but regardless, it remains the earliest surviving authentic text on Christianity in North Africa, as well as the first Christian text in Latin. This last point is always worth flagging up – the church in the West can trace its earliest roots to places like North Africa, and it is this region that would produce some of the greatest Latin Christian thinkers: Tertullian, Augustine and many more.

Returning to these twelve martyrs. The names of the seven men and five women were as follows. Speratus, Nartzalus, Cittinus, Veturius, Felix, Aquilinus, Laetantius, Januaria, Generosa, Vestia, Donata and Secunda. Their names might sound unusual to us today, but here is a record of 12 Christian men and women who died for their faith. They chose eternal hope and a sure and certain future over the physical comfort and security of this world.

Their race ended in the courtroom of the Governor Saturninus, their earthly fate was sealed and the punishment administered. But they stood firm for a greater glory. Their story offers an example of the living out of both the hope and challenge of Peter’s first epistle, written only a hundred or so years before their martyrdoms.

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.”

1 Peter 1:3-7

The Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs can be read in both Latin and English here.

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