Potamiaena


Commentary by
Ben H. Swett
23 December 1998

I have read several recent theories concerning why and how Christianity spread and grew so rapidly without using violence -- and grew even more rapidly during times of persecution -- in the first 300 years of its existence. Although each of these theories is interesting and may be part of the answer, some ancient reports show there was a spiritual aspect of early Christianity that all of them have overlooked.

In his Ecclesiastical History (Book VI) Eusebius Pamphilus named the first six of Origen's students who were killed in Alexandria, Egypt, during the persecution of Christians by the Roman Emperor Septimus Severus. Then he continued:

Chapter V-- Of Potamiaena

But, among these, Basilides must be numbered the seventh; he who led away the celebrated Potamiaena to execution, concerning whom many traditions are still circulated abroad among the inhabitants of the place, of the innumerable conflicts she endured for the preservation of her purity and chastity, in which she indeed was eminent. For, besides the perfections of her mind, she was blooming also in the maturity of personal attractions. Many things are related of her fortitude in suffering for faith in Christ; and, at length, after horrible tortures and pains, the very relation of which makes some shudder, she was, with her mother Macella, committed to the flames.

It is said, indeed, that the judge, Aquila by name, after having applied the severest tortures to her on every part of her body, at last threatened that he would give her body to be abused by the gladiators; but that she, having considered the matter a little, after being asked what she would determine, made such a reply as made it appear that she uttered something deemed impious with them.

Immediately, therefore, receiving the sentence of condemnation, she was led away to die by Basilides, one of the officers in the army. But when the multitude attempted to assault and insult her with abusive language, he, by keeping off, restrained their insolence; exhibiting the greatest compassion and kindness to her.

Perceiving the man's sympathy, she exhorts him to be of good cheer, for that after she was gone she would intercede for him with her Lord, and it would not be long before she would reward him for his kind deeds towards her.

Saying this, she nobly sustained the issue; having boiling pitch poured over different parts of her body, gradually by little and little, from her feet up to the crown of her head. And such, then, was the conflict which this noble virgin endured.

But not long after, Basilides, being urged to swear on a certain occasion by his fellow soldiers, declared that it was not lawful for him to swear at all; for he was a Christian, and this he plainly professed. At first, indeed, they thought that he was thus far only jesting; but as he constantly persevered in the assertion, he was conducted to the judge, before whom, confessing his determination, he was committed to prison.

But when some of the brethren came to see him, and inquired the cause of his sudden and singular resolve, he is said to have declared that Potamiaena, indeed for the three days after her martyrdom, standing before him at night, placed a crown upon his head, and said that she had entreated the Lord on his account, and she had obtained her prayer, and that ere long she would take him with her.

On this, the brethren gave him the seal of the Lord [that is, they baptized him]; and he, bearing a distinguished testimony to the Lord, was beheaded.

Many others, also, of those at Alexandria, are recorded as having promptly attached themselves to the doctrine of Christ in these times; and this by reason of Potamiaena, who appeared in dreams, and exhorted many to embrace the divine word. But of these let this suffice.

From the foregoing and similar reports, I believe one of the reasons Christianity spread and prospered during times of persecution was because at least some of the early Christian martyrs kept right on working after they died, just as their Master did. Thus, the Romans didn't really accomplish anything by killing them.

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Notes:

Origen (AD 185 - 254) was the greatest and most influential Christian teacher in the 400 years between Paul and Augustine.

Septimus Severus was the Roman Emperor from AD 193 to 211. In the tenth year of his reign (AD 203), he began a persecution of Christians.

Eusebius Pamphilus (AD 264 - 340) was the Bishop of Caesarea in Palestine, and the first church historian. He wrote his Ecclesiastical History about AD 324.

The direct quotation is from:

The Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius Pamphilus
Christian Frederick Cruse, translator, 1850
Reprinted 1992 by Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI