Home  »  A Library of American Literature  »  The Christian Martyr

Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Christian Martyr

By William Ware (1797–1852)

[Probus. 1838.—Revised, and entitled “Aurelian,” 1848.]

THE DAY appointed for the death of Probus has arrived, and never high festival were come, for all Rome is afoot. Heralds parade the streets, proclaiming the death of Probus, Felix, and other Christians, in the Flavian, at the hour of noon. At the corner of every street, and at all the public places, the name of “Probus the Christian, condemned to the beasts,” meets the eye. Long before the time of the sacrifice had come, the avenues leading to the theatre, and all the neighborhood of it, were crowded with the excited thousands of those who desired to witness the spectacle. There was little of beauty, wealth, fashion, or nobility in some that was not represented in the dense multitude that filled the seats of the boundless amphitheatre. Probus had said to me, at my last interview with him, “Piso, you may think it is a weakness in me, but I would that one at least, whose faith is mine, and whose heart beats as mine, might be with me at the final hour. I would, at that hour, meet one eye that can return the glance of friendship. It will be a source of strength to me, and I know not how much I may need it.” I readily promised what he asked, though, as you may believe, Fausta, I would willingly have been spared the trial. So that making part of that tide pouring toward the centre, I found myself borne along at the appointed hour to the scene of suffering and death….

The Emperor was not as yet arrived, but the amphitheatre, in every part of it, was already filled with its countless thousands. All were seated idly conversing, or gazing about as at the ordinary sports of the place. The hum of so many voices struck the ear like the distant roar of the ocean. How few of those thousands—not one perhaps—knew for what it was that Probus and his companions were now about to suffer a most cruel and abhorred death! They knew that their name was Christian, and that Christian was of the same meaning as enemy of the gods and of the empire; but what it was which made the Christian so willing to die, why it was he was so ready to come to that place of horror and give up his body to the beasts—this they knew not. It was to them a riddle they could not read. And they sat and looked on with the same vacant unconcern, or with the same expectation of pleasure, as if they were to witness the destruction of murderers and assassins….

The long peal of trumpets, and the shouts of the people without, gave note of the approach and entrance of the Emperor. In a moment more, with his swift step, he entered the amphitheatre, and strode to the place set apart for him, the whole multitude rising and saluting him with a burst of welcome that might have been heard beyond the walls of Rome. The Emperor acknowledged the salutation by rising from his seat and lifting the crown from his head. He was instantly seated again, and at a sign from him the herald made proclamation of the entertainments which were to follow. He who was named as the first to suffer was Probus.

When I heard his name pronounced, with the punishment which awaited him, my resolution to remain forsook me, and I turned to rush from the theatre. But my recollection of Probus’s earnest entreaties that I would be there, restrained me and I returned to my seat. I considered, that as I would attend the dying bed of a friend, so I was clearly bound to remain where I was, and wait for the last moments of this my more than Christian friend; and the circumstance that his death was to be shocking and harrowing to the friendly heart was not enough to absolve me from the heavy obligation. I therefore kept my place, and awaited with patience the event.

I had waited not long when, from beneath that extremity of the theatre where I was sitting, Probus was led forth and conducted to the centre of the arena, where was a short pillar to which it was customary to bind the sufferers. Probus, as he entered, seemed rather like one who came to witness what was there than to be himself the victim, so free was his step, so erect his form. In his face there might indeed be seen an expression, that could only dwell on the countenance of one whose spirit was already gone beyond the earth, and holding converse with things unseen. There is always much of this in the serene, uplifted face of this remarkable man; but it was now there written in lines so bold and deep, that there could have been few in that vast assembly but must have been impressed by it, as never before by aught human. It must have been this, which brought so deep a silence upon that great multitude—not the mere fact that an individual was about to be torn by lions—that is an almost daily pastime. For it was so, that when he first made his appearance, and, as he moved toward the centre, turned and looked round upon the crowded seats rising to the heavens, the people neither moved nor spoke, but kept their eyes fastened upon him as by some spell which they could not break.

When he had reached the pillar, and he who had conducted him was about to bind him to it, it was plain, by what at that distance we could observe, that Probus was entreating him to desist and leave him at liberty; in which he at length succeeded, for that person returned, leaving him alone and unbound. O sight of misery!—he who for the humblest there present would have performed any office of love, by which the least good should redound to them, left alone and defenceless, they looking on and scarcely pitying his cruel fate!

When now he had stood there not many minutes, one of the doors of the vivaria was suddenly thrown back, and bounding forth with a roar, that seemed to shake the walls of the theatre, a lion of huge dimensions leaped upon the arena. Majesty and power were inscribed upon his lordly limbs; and as he stood there where he had first sprung, and looked round upon the multitude, how did his gentle eye and noble carriage, with which no one for a moment could associate meanness, or cruelty, or revenge, cast shame upon the human monsters assembled to behold a solitary, unarmed man torn limb from limb! When he had in this way looked upon that cloud of faces, he then turned and moved round the arena through its whole circumference, still looking upward upon those who filled the seats—not till he had come again to the point from which he started, so much as noticing him who stood, his victim, in the midst. Then—as if apparently for the first time becoming conscious of his presence—he caught the form of Probus; and moving slowly toward him, looked steadfastly upon him, receiving in return the settled gaze of the Christian. Standing there, still, awhile—each looking upon the other—he then walked round him, then approached nearer, making, suddenly and for a moment, those motions which indicate the roused appetite; but as it were in the spirit of self-rebuke, he immediately retreated a few paces and lay down in the sand, stretching out his head toward Probus, and closing his eyes as if for sleep.

The people, who had watched in silence, and with the interest of those who wait for their entertainment, were both amazed and vexed, at what now appeared to be the dulness and stupidity of the beast. When however he moved not from his place, but seemed as if he were indeed about to fall into a quiet sleep, those who occupied the lower seats began both to cry out to him and shake at him their caps, and toss about their arms in the hope to rouse him. But it was all in vain; and at the command of the Emperor he was driven back to his den.

Again a door of the vivaria was thrown open, and another of equal size, but of a more alert and rapid step, broke forth, and, as if delighted with his sudden liberty and the ample range, coursed round and round the arena, wholly regardless both of the people and of Probus, intent only as it seemed upon his own amusement. And when at length he discovered Probus standing in his place, it was but to bound toward him as in frolic, and then wheel away in pursuit of a pleasure he esteemed more highly than the satisfying of his hunger.

At this, the people were not a little astonished, and many who were near me hesitated not to say, “that there might be some design of the gods in this.” Others said plainly, but not with raised voices, “An omen! an omen!” At the same time Isaac turned and looked at me with an expression of countenance which I could not interpret. Aurelian meanwhile exhibited many signs of impatience; and when it was evident the animal could not be wrought up, either by the cries of the people, or of the keepers, to any act of violence, he too was taken away. But when a third had been let loose, and with no better effect, nay, with less—for he, when he had at length approached Probus, fawned upon him, and laid himself at his feet—the people, superstitious as you know beyond any others, now cried out aloud, “An omen! an omen!” and made the sign that Probus should be spared and removed.

Aurelian himself seemed almost of the same mind, and I can hardly doubt would have ordered him to be released, but that Fronto at that moment approached him, and by a few of those words, which, coming from him, are received by Aurelian as messages from Heaven, put within him a new and different mind; for rising quickly from his seat he ordered the keeper of the vivaria to be brought before him. When he appeared below upon the sands, Aurelian cried out to him,

“Why, knave, dost thou weary out our patience thus—letting forth beasts already over-fed? Do thus again, and thou thyself shalt be thrown to them. Art thou too a Christian?”

“Great Emperor,” replied the keeper, “than those I have now let loose, there are not larger nor fiercer in the imperial dens, and since the sixth hour of yesterday they have tasted nor food nor drink. Why they have thus put off their nature ’tis hard to guess, unless the general cry be taken for the truth, ‘that the gods have touched them.’”

Aurelian was again seen to waver, when a voice from the benches cried out,

“It is, O Emperor, but another Christian device! Forget not the voice from the temple! The Christians, who claim powers over demons, bidding them go and come at pleasure, may well be thought capable to change, by the magic imputed to them, the nature of a beast.”

“I doubt not,” said the Emperor, “but it is so. Slave! throw up now the doors of all thy vaults, and let us see whether both lions and tigers be not too much for this new necromancy. If it be the gods who interpose, they can shut the mouths of thousands as of one.”

At those cruel words, the doors of the vivaria were at once flung open, and an hundred of their fierce tenants, maddened both by hunger and the goads that had been applied, rushed forth, and in the fury with which in a single mass they fell upon Probus—then kneeling upon the sands—and burying him beneath them, no one could behold his fate, nor, when that dark troop separated and ran howling about the arena in search of other victims, could the eye discover the least vestige of that holy man.——I then fled from the theatre as one who flies from that which is worse than death.

Felix was next offered up, as I have learned, and after him more than fourscore of the Christians of Rome.