THE AD MARTYRAS OF TERTULLIAN
AND THE CIRCUMSTANCES
OF ITS COMPOSITION
By Dom G. D. SCHLEGEL
THE Address to the Martyrs breathes a spirit of high and
dauntless courage. It provides a notable instance of its
author's faculty of keen concentration, his entire absorption
in his theme, which is here the encouragement of the martyrs
awaiting tortures and death in the prison of Carthage. The
working out of a dominant idea, the expression of a single mood,
is characteristic of Tertullian : in his controversial treatises he
carries it to such extremes as sometimes to lead him into unsound
argument: here however, bent solely on kindling the courage of
Christian confessors condemned to death, he proffers a sympathy
and encouragement such as can only have been the outcome of
strong faith. It is with a depth of feeling not to be found in his
later works that he sets out to fortify the spirit against betrayal
by the flesh. After reminding the candidates for martyrdom of
their heavenly hope, he proceeds to cite instances from classic
story of men and women who faced death unflinchingly: Lucretia;
Scevola, Heraclitus; Empedocles, Peregrinus, Dido, and even an
Athenian harlot. He recalls the episode of young Spartans
scourged before the altar and accounting it glorious to die under
the lash. The orator in him is plainly seen in the manner in which
he evokes these examples of stoical constancy: 'Behold,' he cries,
'what a strong will can accomplish to gain the worthless bauble
of earthly renown. Shall less be endured for the true peace of
eternal life ?'1
Incidentally in this little treatise Tertullian gives us a faithful
picture of several aspects of contemporary society. He tells us
what the prison life was like and what sort of tortures were
commonly employed therein : the fire, the cross, the wild beasts
and the sword. He speaks of gladiators, the hunters and their
whips, the trainers and the presidents of the games. He includes
also certain details regarding Baptism and Penance which are
not without importance to historical theology: Uocati sumus ad
militiam dei uiui iam tunc cam in sacraments uerba respondemus,
where the term sacramentum is employed in its old classical sense
of a military oath, and Pacem quidam in ecclesia non habentes a
Martyribus in carcere exorare consueuerunt,2 an allusion to the
Cap. iv. -- For all references to the Ad Martyras I have used the edition
of T. H Bindley, Oxford 1893). 2 Cap. III,. and cap.
custom of begging the intercession of martyrs ,awaiting death
in order to obtain some mitigation of canonical penance. The
interest of this last question ;will be obvious : it involves the
origin of indulgences, and Tertullian's witness to these appeals
for the intervention of the saints is the more valuable in that he
is evidently referring to a practice too well known to need detailed
explanation. At this period of his life he has no objection to make
to such a custom.
The chronology of Tertullian's writings is still undecided, and
beset with many difficulties. In particular, the assigning of a date
to the work we are considering involves many perplexing factors,
historical, theological and biographical. We do not, know, enough
about the life of Tertullian, his controversial activity, his official
connections, to do more than suggest a date. That the work is
very early seems generally agreed. There is in it no trace of the
Montanist heresy, and it is therefore reasonable to allot it a
place prior to his secession (c. 210). On the other hand, it visibly
belongs to a period of persecution, and, despite the great and
fruitful labours of the last two centuries, our knowledge of the
age of the persecutions is still very far from complete.
Now, an allusion at the end of
the discourse to the fact that
even if one were not a Christian one would still be in danger of a
violent end, has led to the conclusion that the Ad. Martyras was
composed while the defeat of Albinus' army near Lyons -- 27th
February, 197 -- and the. terrible massacre, by the order of
Septimius Severus, of all his partisans in Rome was: still fresh
in people's memories. But this theory is unconvincing. All these
years about the close of the second century and the beginning
of the third are filled with accusations of treason frequently ill
founded ; with resulting violence and insecurity of life and
property. The Mediterranean world was thus distracted by civil
strife, and in the midst of that welter of human passion and fear,
only the Christians knew serenity of spirit., Moreover the pro-
scription and execution of all the suspected persons could not
have been completed in the space of a single year. The allusion
in chapter six, also, is vague, and could equally well be understood
as referring to the punishment of the adherents of Pescennius
Niger in the East -- or, indeed, to any other of the numerous
cases of imperial revenge in the beginning of the reign of Severus.
The date 197, therefore, proposed by Nöldechen1 as an hypo-
thesis, and since accepted by many literary historians2 does not
1 Die Abfassungszeit.den Schriften Tertullians. Leipzig 1888.
2 E.g., P. de Labriolle, in his Histoire de la littérature latine chrétienne.
The Ad Martyras of Tertullian
necessarily command our adherence, and, in default of more
cogent reasons than he advances, I suggest that, on the evidence
set out below, we assign to the Ad Martyras a date a few years
later than that generally accepted.
We know that, on the 7th March, 203, there suffered in the
amphitheatre of Carthage a group of young martyrs of both
sexes. The story of their trials and death for the name of Christ
has come down to us in. a document known as the Passio SS.
Perpetuae et Felicitatis. The editing of these 'acta' -- the authors
are for the most part two of the martyrs themselves, Perpetua
and Saturus -- is, as is now almost unanimously admitted by
critics, the work of Tertullian.
Now, we cannot affirm with certainty that Tertullian was living
at Carthage in March 203; but he was a priest of Carthage, and
we know that his ardent nature and his great interest in the
martyrs would not fail to lead him back to Perpetua and her
companions -- who were there enduring their long imprisonment --
in order to keep up their spirits and receive their confidences.
I propose that the text of the Ad Martyras preserves for us one
of these sermons, preached, or sent, by Tertullian to St Perpetua.
and her fellow-martyrs in prison.
There are many resemblances, both of style and circumstances,
which fortify the suggestion that there is a real connection
between the two texts. This view has the support of J. Rendel
Harris in the introduction -- unfortunately forgotten when his
text was for other reasons, superseded -- to his edition of the
The sufferers in the Ad Martyras, like the
martyrs in the
Passio, are of both sexes,2 and they seem to be mostly young
people.3 Both documents refer in a special way to the darkness
of the prison where the confessors were confined4, to the minis-
The Acts of the Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas. London 1890
The edition was rendered obsolete by the publication, in 1891, of Dean
Armitage Robinson's contribution to Texts and Studies I. The latest
available edition of the Ad Martyras - that of T. H. Bindley - also favours
2 Note the recurring vocative benedicti in the former treatise, sometimes
in the masculine, sometimes in the feminine: benedictae.
3 Caetera aeque animi impedimenta usque, ad limen carceris deduxerint
uos quousque et parentes uestri. Cap. II. - Parentes, it is true, does not mean
exclusively 'parents' but has here the wider post-Augustan sense of
'relatives' -- propinqui -- nevertheless it does convey the impression that
those to whom the author was speaking were young rather than old.
4 Ad mart. II ; Pass. Perp.III. -- For the references to the
Passio I have
made use of Dr Van Beek's edition, Noviomagi 1936.
trations of their fellow-Christians,1 to the preservation of peace
and concord among themselves,2 to the whips of the hunters,3
and to the torture of the rack4. In the Ad Martyras the devil is
compared to a serpent5 ; in the Passio he is seen as a
dragon6. Finally, the preparation for the fight as portrayed in
the Ad Martyras7 is very suggestive of the description by Perpetua
of her wrestling match with the Egyptian.8
Of course, these resemblances taken by themselves do not
suffice to prove our theory ; but when one considers that there
are no very conclusive arguments for dating the 'Address' before
203 it appears that the Ad Martyras and the Passio Perpetuae
complete one another very happily. We suggest that the reader
who wishes to form his own opinion on the matter should read
the two texts side by side. The striking parallelisms of both
thought and language are a strong argument.
Turning to the theological aspect of the sermon, although
Tertullian's full doctrine on martyrdom is rather to be looked for
in the Scorpiace, a treatise of his semi-Montanist period, yet we
find that the 'Address to the Martyrs' reveals a great part of his
thought on a subject which appears to have been one of the few
lasting preoccupations of an exceptionally versatile mind. He
speaks of prison and its advantages for the spiritual life as we
should speak of a monastery. Everything has been left behind
on entering : family ties, the world, even persecution itself.
Humble as is his tone throughout, there is, underlying his respect-
ful exhortations, the rigour of an almost pitiless asceticism in
face of the least shadow of yielding before the storm. Such strict-
ness was inherent in Tertullian's nature, ardent with the ardour
of the African sun, and with the generosity of a Christian faith
still young, gravely eager to demonstrate to a hostile and sceptical
world that it is very much in earnest about something which is
very important. Even before he gave full adherence to the here-
tical notions of Montanus, he was for ever combating those
symptoms of softness and weakening whose mortal languor he
felt weighing down the atmosphere of his time. From what we
know; we may be sure that this severity of his was by no means
unwelcome to Perpetua and her companions, who, in a day
when the human frame was not made overdelicate by too much
solicitude for its comfort, probably took a sufficiently equable
view of their approaching ordeal, and were willing to face it
without undue alarm.
1 Ad mart. I; Pass. Perp. III.
2 Ad mart. I; Pass. Perp. XXI.
3 Ad mart. V; Pass. Perp. XVIII. 4
Ad mart. II; Pass. Perp. VII.
5 Cap. I. 6 Cap. ix.
7 Cap. III. 8 Pass.