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The Scillitan Martyrs were a company of twelve North African Christians who were executed for their beliefs on 17 July 180 AD. The martyrs take their name from Scilla (or Scillium), a town in Numidia. The Acta of the Scillitan Martyrs are considered to be the earliest documents of the church of Africa and also the earliest specimen of Christian Latin.
It was the last of the persecutions under Marcus Aurelius, which is best known from the sufferings of the churches of Vienne and Lyon in South Gaul. Marcus Aurelius died on 17 March of the year in question, and persecution ceased sometime after the accession of his son Commodus. A group of sufferers called the Madaurian martyrs seems to belong to the same period: for in the correspondence of St Augustine, Namphamo, one of their number, is spoken of as "archimartyr," which appears to mean protomartyr of Africa.
The martyrs' trial and execution took place in Carthage under the Pro-consul Vigellius Saturninus, whom Tertullian declares to have been the first persecutor of Christians in Africa.
The Scillitan sufferers were twelve in all—seven men and five women. Their names were Speratus, Nartzalus, Cintinus (Cittinus), Veturius, Felix, Aquilinus, Laetantius, Januaria, Generosa, Vestia, Donata, and Secunda. Two of these bear Punic names (Nartzalus, Cintinus), but the rest Latin names. Six had already been tried: of the remainder, to whom these Acta primarily relate, Speratus was the principal spokesman. He claimed for himself and his companions that they had lived a quiet and moral life, paying their dues and doing no wrong to their neighbors. But when called upon to swear by the name of the emperor, he replied "I recognize not the empire of this world; but rather do I serve that God whom no man hath seen, nor with these eyes can see." The response was a reference to the language of 1 Tim. vi. 16. In reply to the question, "What are the things in your satchel?", he said "Books and letters of Paul, a just man." The martyrs were offered a delay of 30 days to reconsider their decision, which they all refused. The fame of the martyrs led to the building of a basilica in their honor at Carthage and their annual commemoration required that the brevity and obscurity of their Acta should be supplemented and explained to make them suitable for public recitation.
Agobard, archbishop of Lyons (c. 779–840) stated that the relics of Speratus, and those of Cyprian, were translated by Charlemagne's orders from Carthage to Lyons.
The historical questions connected with these martyrs were addressed by bishop Joseph Barber Lightfoot in Ignatius.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Martyrs, Scillitan". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
- Stokes, G.T., "Scillitan Martyrs", Dictionary of Christian Biography, (Henry Wace ed.), John Murray, London, 1911
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