Letter of The Church at Smyrna Concerning the Martyrdom of the Holy Polycarp

The Martyrdom of Polycarp is the earliest existing account of the capture and death of an early Christian Martyr after St. Stephen. It is an exceptional valuable document since Polycarp is one of the most eminent figures of the 2nd century Church.  The letter provides evidence for the honor given to the martyrs and their relics as well as the practice of celebrating the Eucharist at the martyrs grave each year on the anniversary of their martyrdom. This, by the way, is the origin of the many Saints days in the Catholic liturgical calendar.

The Church of God which sojourns at Smyrna, to the Church of God
sojourning in Philomelium,(1) and to all the congregations(2) of the Holy
and Catholic Church in every place: Mercy, peace, and love from God the
Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, be multiplied.


We have written to you, brethren, as to what relates to the martyrs,
and especially to the blessed Polycarp, who put an end to the persecution,
having, as it were, set a seal upon it by his martyrdom. For almost all
the events that happened previously [to this one], took place that the Lord
might show us from above a martyrdom becoming the Gospel. For he waited to
be delivered up, even as the Lord had done, that we also might become his
followers, while we look not merely at what concerns ourselves but have
regard also to our neighbours. For it is the part of a true and well-
founded love, not only to wish one’s self to be saved, but also all the


All the martyrdoms, then, were blessed and noble which took place
according to the will of God. For it becomes us who profess(3) greater
piety than others, to ascribe the authority over all things to God. And
truly,(4) who can fail to admire their nobleness of mind, and their
patience, with that love towards their Lord which they displayed?–who,
when they were so torn with scourges, that the frame of their bodies, even
to the very inward veins and arteries, was laid open, still patiently
endured, while even those that stood by pitied and bewailed them. But they
reached such a pitch of magnanimity, that not one of them let a sigh or a
groan escape them; thus proving to us all that those holy martyrs of
Christ, at the very time when they suffered such torments, were absent from
the body, or rather, that the Lord then stood by them, and communed with
them. And, looking to the grace of Christ, they despised all the torments
of this world, redeeming themselves from eternal punishment by [the
suffering of] a single hour. For this reason the fire of their savage
executioners appeared cool to them. For they kept before their view escape
from that fire which is eternal and never shall be quenched, and looked
forward with the eyes of their heart to those good things which are laid up
for such as endure; things “which ear hath not heard, nor eye seen, neither
have entered into the heart of man,”(5) but were revealed by the Lord to
them, inasmuch as they were no longer men, but had already become angels.
And, in like manner, those who were condemned to the wild beasts endured
dreadful tortures, being stretched out upon beds full of spikes, and
subjected to various other kinds of torments, in order that, if it were
possible, the tyrant might, by their lingering tortures, lead them to a
denial [of Christ].


For the devil did indeed invent many things against them; but thanks be
to God, he could not prevail over all. For the most noble Germanicus
strengthened the timidity of others by his own patience, and fought
heroically(6) with the wild beasts. For, when the proconsul sought to
persuade him, and urged him(7) to take pity upon his age, he attracted the
wild beast towards himself, and provoked it, being desirous to escape all
the more quickly from an unrighteous and impious world. But upon this the
whole multitude, marvelling at the nobility of mind displayed by the devout
and godly race of Christians,(1) cried out, “Away with the Atheists; let
Polycarp be sought out !”


Now one named Quintus, a Phrygian, who was but lately come from
Phrygia, when he saw the wild beasts, became afraid. This was the man who
forced himself and some others to come forward voluntarily [for trial]. Him
the proconsul, after many entreaties, persuaded to swear and to offer
sacrifice. Wherefore, brethren, we do not commend those who give themselves
up [to suffering], seeing the Gospel does not teach so to do.(2)


But the most admirable Polycarp, when he first heard [that he was
sought for], was in no measure disturbed, but resolved to continue in the
city. However, in deference to the wish of many, he was persuaded to leave
it. He departed, therefore, to a country house not far distant from the
city. There he stayed with a few [friends], engaged in nothing else night
and day than praying for all men, and for the Churches throughout the
world, according to his usual custom. And while he was praying, a vision
presented itself to him three days before he was taken; and, behold, the
pillow under his head seemed to him on fire. Upon this, turning to those
that were with him, he said to them prophetically,” I must be burnt alive.”


And when those who sought for him were at hand, he departed to another
dwelling, whither his pursuers immediately came after him. And when they
found him not, they seized upon two youths [that were there], one of whom,
being subjected to torture, confessed. It was thus impossible that he
should continue hid, since those that betrayed him were of his own
household. The Irenarch(3) then (whose office is the same as that of the
Cleronomus(4)), by name Herod, hastened to bring him into the stadium.
[This all happened] that he might fulfil his special lot, being made a
partaker of Christ, and that they who betrayed him might undergo the
punishment of Judas himself.


His pursuers then, along with horsemen, and taking the youth with them,
went forth at supper-time on the day of the preparation? with their usual
weapons, as if going out against a robber.(6) And being come about evening
[to the place where he was], they found him lying down in the upper room
of(7) a certain little house, from which he might have escaped into another
place; but he refused, saying, “The will of God(8) be done.”(9) So when he
heard that they were come, he went down and spake with them. And as those
that were present marvelled at his age and constancy, some of them said.
“Was so much effort(10) made to capture such a venerable man?(11)
Immediately then, in that very hour, he ordered that something to eat and
drink should be set before them, as much indeed as they cared for, while he
besought them to allow him an hour to pray without disturbance. And on
their giving him leave, he stood and prayed, being full of the grace of
God, so that he could not cease(12) for two full hours, to the astonishment
of them that heard him, insomuch that many began to repent that they had
come forth against so godly and venerable an old man.


Now, as soon as he had ceased praying, having made mention of all that
had at any time come in contact with him, both small and great, illustrious
and obscure, as well as the whole Catholic Church throughout the world, the
time of his departure having arrived, they set him upon an ass, and
conducted him into the city, the day being that of the great Sabbath. And
the Irenarch Herod, accompanied by his father Nicetes (both riding in a
chariot(13)), met him, and taking him up into the chariot, they seated
themselves beside him, and endeavoured to persuade him, saying, “What harm
is there in saying, Lord Caesar,(14) and in sacrificing, with the other
ceremonies observed on such occasions, and so make sure of safety?” But he
at first gave them no answer; and when they continued to urge him, he said,
“I shall not do as you advise me.” So they, having no hope of persuading
him, began to speak bitter(1) words unto him, and cast him with violence
out of the chariot,(2) insomuch that, in getting down from the carriage, he
dislocated his leg(3) [by the fall]. But without being disturbed,(4) and as
if suffering nothing, he went eagerly forward with all haste, and was
conducted to the stadium, where the tumult was so great, that there was no
possibility of being heard.


Now, as Polycarp was entering into the stadium, there came to him a
voice from heaven, saying, “Be strong, and show thyself a man, O Polycarp
!” No one saw who it was that spoke to him; but those of our brethren who
were present heard the voice. And as he was brought forward, the tumult
became great when they heard that Polycarp was taken. And when he came
near, the proconsul asked him whether he was Polycarp. On his confessing
that he was, [the proconsul] sought to persuade him to deny [Christ],
saying, “Have respect to thy old age,” and other similar things, according
to their custom, [such as],” Swear by the fortune of Caesar; repent, and
say, Away with the Atheists.” But Polycarp, gazing with a stern countenance
on all the multitude of the wicked heathen then in the stadium, and waving
his hand towards them, while with groans he looked up to heaven, said,
“Away with the Atheists.”(5) Then, the proconsul urging him, and saying,
“Swear, and I will set thee at liberty, reproach Christ;” Polycarp
declared, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any
injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?”


And when the proconsul yet again pressed him, and said, “Swear by the
fortune of Caesar,” he answered, “Since thou art vainly urgent that, as
thou sayest, I should swear by the fortune of Caesar, and pretendest not to
know who and what I am, hear me declare with boldness, I am a Christian.
And if you wish to learn what the doctrines(6) of Christianity are,
appoint me a day, and thou shalt hear them.” The proconsul replied,
“Persuade the people.” But Polycarp said, “To thee I have thought it right
to offer an account [of my faith]; for we are taught to give all due honour
(which entails no injury upon ourselves) to the powers and authorities
which are ordained of God.(7) But as for these, I do not deem them worthy
of receiving any account from me.”(8)


The proconsul then said to him, “I have wild beasts at hand; to these
will I cast thee, except thou repent.” But he answered, “Call them then,
for we are not accustomed to repent of what is good in order to adopt that
which is evil;(9) and it is well for me to be changed from what is evil to
what is righteous.”(10) But again the proconsul said to him, “I will cause
thee to be consumed by fire, seeing thou despisest the wild beasts, if thou
wilt not repent.” But Polycarp said, “Thou threatenest me with fire which
burneth for an hour, and after a little is extinguished, but art ignorant
of the fire of the coming judgment and of eternal punishment, reserved for
the ungodly. But why tarriest thou? Bring forth what thou wilt.”


While he spoke these and many other like things, he was filled with
confidence and joy, and his countenance was full of grace, so that not
merely did it not fall as if troubled by the things said to him, but, on
the contrary, the proconsul was astonished, and sent his herald to proclaim
in the midst of the stadium thrice, “Polycarp has confessed that he is a
Christian.” This proclamation having been made by the herald, the whole
multitude both of the heathen and Jews, who dwelt at Smyrna, cried out with
uncontrollable fury, and in a loud voice, “This is the teacher of Asia,(11)
the father of the Christians, and the overthrower of our gods, he who has
been teaching many not to sacrifice, or to worship the gods.” Speaking
thus, they cried out, and besought Philip the Asiarch(12) to let loose a
lion upon Polycarp. But Philip answered that it was not lawful for him to
do so, seeing the shows(13) of wild beasts were already finished. Then it
seemed good to them to cry out with one consent, that Polycarp should be
burnt alive. For thus it behooved the vision which was revealed to him in
regard to his pillow to be fulfilled, when, seeing it on fire as he was
praying, he turned about and said prophetically to the faithful that were
with him,” I must be burnt alive.”


This, then, was carried into effect with greater speed than it was
spoken, the multitudes immediately gathering together wood and fagots out
of the shops and baths; the Jews especially, according to custom, eagerly
assisting them in it. And when the funeral pile was ready, Polycarp, laying
aside all his garments, and loosing his girdle, sought also to take off his
sandals,–a thing he was not accustomed to do, inasmuch as every one of the
faithful was always eager who should first touch his skin. For, on account
of his holy life,(1) he was, even before his martyrdom, adorned(2) with
every kind of good. Immediately then they surrounded him with those
substances which had been prepared for the funeral pile. But when they were
about also to fix him with nails, he said, “Leave me as I am; for He that
giveth me strength to endure the fire, will also enable me, without your
securing me by nails, to remain without moving in the pile.”


They did not nail him then, but simply bound him. And he, placing his
hands behind him, and being bound like a distinguished ram [taken] out of a
great flock for sacrifice, and prepared to be an acceptable burnt-offering
unto God, looked up to heaven, and said, “O Lord God Almighty, the Father
of thy beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, by whom we have received the
knowledge of Thee, the God of angels and powers, and of every creature, and
of the whole race of the righteous who live before thee, I give Thee thanks
that Thou hast counted me, worthy of this day and this hour, that I should
have a part in the number of Thy martyrs, in the cup(3) of thy Christ, to
the resurrection of eternal life, both of soul and body, through the
incorruption [imparted] by the Holy Ghost. Among whom may I be accepted
this day before Thee as a fat(4) and acceptable sacrifice, according as
Thou, the ever-truthful(5) God, hast fore-ordained, hast revealed
beforehand to me, and now hast fulfilled. Wherefore also I praise Thee for
all things, I bless Thee, I glorify Thee, along with the everlasting and
heavenly Jesus Christ, Thy beloved Son, with whom, to Thee, and the Holy
Ghost, be glory both now and to all coming ages. Amen.”(6)


When he had pronounced this amen, and so finished his prayer, those who
were appointed for the purpose kindled the fire. And as the flame blazed
forth in great fury,(7) we, to whom it was given to witness it, beheld a
great miracle, and have been preserved that we might report to others what
then took place. For the fire, shaping itself into the form of an arch,
like the sail of a ship when filled with the wind, encompassed as by a
circle the body of the martyr. And he appeared within not like flesh which
is burnt, but as bread that is baked, or as gold and silver glowing in a
furnace. Moreover, we perceived such a sweet odour [coming from the pile],
as if frankincense or some such precious spices had been smoking(8) there.


At length, when those wicked men perceived that his body could not be
consumed by the fire, they commanded an executioner to go near and pierce
him through with a dagger. And on his doing this, there came forth a
dove,(9) and a great quantity of blood, so that the fire was extinguished;
and all the people wondered that there should be such a difference between
the unbelievers and the elect, of whom this most admirable Polycarp was
one, having in our own times been an apostolic and prophetic teacher, and
bishop of the Catholic Church which is in Smyrna. For every word that went
out of his mouth either has been or shall yet be accomplished.


But when the adversary of the race of the righteous, the envious,
malicious, and wicked one, perceived the impressive(10) nature of his
martyrdom, and [considered] the blameless life he had led from the
beginning, and how he was now crowned with the wreath of immortality,
having beyond dispute received his reward, he did his utmost that not the
least memorial of him should be taken away by us, although many desired to
do this, and to become possessors(11) of his holy flesh. For this end he
suggested it to Nicetes, the father of Herod and brother of Alce, to go and
entreat the governor not to give up his body to be buried, “lest,” said he,
“forsaking Him that was crucified, they begin to worship this one.” This he
said at the suggestion and urgent persuasion of the Jews, who also watched
us, as we sought to take him out of the fire, being ignorant of this, that
it is neither possible for us ever to forsake Christ, who suffered for the
salvation of such as shall be saved throughout the whole world (the
blameless one for sinners[1]), nor to worship any other. For Him indeed, as
being the Son of God, we adore; but the martyrs, as disciples and followers
of the Lord, we worthily love on account of their extraordinary[2]
affection towards their own King and Master, of whom may we also be made
companions[3] and fellow-disciples!


The centurion then, seeing the strife excited by the Jews, placed the
body[4] in the midst of the fire, and consumed it. Accordingly, we
afterwards took up his bones, as being more precious than the most
exquisite jewels, and more purified[5] than gold, and deposited them in a
fitting place, whither, being gathered together, as opportunity is allowed
us, with joy and rejoicing, the Lord shall grant us to celebrate the
anniversary[6] of his martyrdom, both in memory of those who have already
finished their course,[7] and for the exercising and preparation of those
yet to walk in their steps.


This, then, is the account of the blessed Polycarp, who, being the
twelfth that was martyred in Smyrna (reckoning those also of Philadelphia),
yet occupies a place of his own[8] in the memory of all men, insomuch that
he is everywhere spoken of by the heathen themselves. He was not merely an
illustrious teacher, but also a pre-eminent martyr, whose martyrdom all
desire to imitate, as having been altogether consistent with the Gospel of
Christ. For, having through patience overcome the unjust governor, and thus
acquired the crown of immortality, he now, with the apostles and all the
righteous[in heaven], rejoicingly glorifies God, even the Father, and
blesses our Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour of our souls, the Governor of
our bodies, and the Shepherd of the Catholic Church throughout the


Since, then, ye requested that we would at large make you acquainted
with what really took place, we have for the present sent you this summary
account through our brother Marcus. When, therefore, ye have yourselves
read this Epistle,[10] be pleased to send it to the brethren at a greater
distance, that they also may glorify the Lord, who makes such choice of His
own servants. To Him who is able to bring us all by His grace and
goodness[11] into his everlasting kingdom, through His only-begotten Son
Jesus Christ, to Him be glory, and honour, and power, and majesty, for
ever. Amen. Salute all the saints. They that are with us salute you, and
Evarestus, who wrote this Epistle, with all his house.


Now, the blessed Polycarp suffered martyrdom on the second day of the
month Xanthicus just begun,[12] the seventh day before the Kalends of May,
on the great Sabbath, at the eighth hour.[13] He was taken by Herod, Philip
the Trallian being high priest,[14] Statius Quadratus being proconsul, but
Jesus Christ being King for ever, to whom be glory, honour, majesty, and an
everlasting throne, from generation to generation. Amen.


We wish you, brethren, all happiness, while you walk according to the
doctrine of the Gospel of Jesus Christ; with whom be glory to God the
Father and the Holy Spirit, for the salvation of His holy elect, after
whose example[15] the blessed Polycarp suffered, following in whose steins
may we too be found in the kingdom of Jesus Christ!

These things[16] Caius transcribed from the copy of Irenaeus (who was a
disciple of Polycarp), having himself been intimate with Irenaeus. And I
Socrates transcribed them at Corinth from the copy of Caius. Grace be with
you all.

And I again, Pionius, wrote them from the previously written copy,
having carefully searched into them, and the blessed Polycarp having
manifested them to me through a revelation, even as I shall show in what
follows. I have collected these things, when they had almost faded away
through the lapse of time, that the Lord Jesus Christ may also gather me
along with His elect into His heavenly kingdom, to whom, with the Father
and the Holy Spirit, be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

This letter was written by the Church of Smyrna shortly after the Martyrdom of its revered bishop. St. Polycarp, around the year 155 AD. The secretary who actually penned the letter appears to have been a certain Marcion.  Polycarp is known as one of the Apostolic Fathers since he was alive at the time of St. John, son of Zebedee, and presumably had personal contact with him.

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