The Letter of Ignatius to the Romans 5.1-3

Desire for martyrdom

Name of the author: 
Ignatius of Antioch
125 CE to 150 CE
Literary genre: 
Title of work: 
Letter of Ignatius to the Romans



Ignatius was bishop of Antioch in Syria, and first becomes known to us only weeks prior to his death in Rome in the early-second century, through seven letters written on his way to Rome as a prisoner. Ignatius provides the day and month of his Letter to the Romans (August 24th), but unfortunately not the year. There are complex debates about the dating (and for some scholars, the authenticity) of Ignatius’s letters (for a concise yet substantial summary, see Paul Foster, “The Epistles of Ignatius of Antioch,” p. 84-89), but composition during the reign of Hadrian or the early period of Antoninus Pius’s reign is a sensible estimate. Our only other evidence for Ignatius’s journey to Rome comes from Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History, written in the fourth century CE. There are of course inherent problems with ascribing too much trust to a source such as this, which had its own agenda regarding the portrayal of early-Christian figures such as Ignatius, who provided powerful rhetorical material for emphasising the fervour of the “persecuted” early church and its heroic martyrs.

After Ignatius’s arrest in Syria, he was escorted to Rome by ten soldiers (the “ten leopards” of 5.1) for execution. From Antioch, the journey continued through Philadelphia to Smyrna, where supportive representatives of the churches of Tralles, Magnesia, and Ephesus were waiting for Ignatius (they had probably heard that the party were taking the northern route, thereby bypassing the southern churches, and decided to travel to see him) (see Michael Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers, p. 167). Ignatius showed his gratitude by sending letters to these three churches, and it is at this point at which the present Letter to the Romans was also sent, to alert the church there that he would be arriving soon. After this, the party’s next stop was in Troas, where Ignatius wrote letters to the churches in Smyrna and Philadelphia, as well as to Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna. The Letter to the Romans is the only one of Ignatius’s seven epistles that is addressed to a community which he had not previously had contact with. The guards and prisoners then moved on to Neapolis and Philippi, where we lose contact with Ignatius. It is assumed that he was probably killed in Rome in the arena, although we have no definite confirmation of this (there are later legendary accounts of his martyrdom, but of course these cannot be taken as historically useful).

His letters are interesting for the picture that they give us of the church’s organisation and characteristics during this early period of Christianity. It seems that Ignatius was majorly concerned with the threat of false teachers leading the Christian congregation astray, the way that church leadership ought to be structured, and the maintenance of church unity. It is Ignatius’s musings on his upcoming martyrdom, however, which are of most interest here, as his attitude towards his upcoming death reveals something of the way that Christians during this period rationalised and responded to the threat of death at the hands of the Roman authorities. Ignatius seems to eagerly anticipate his death (see also 4.2 and 7.2 of the present letter, where he claims he will coax the wild beasts of the arena to devour every bit of his flesh, and claims to be “passionately in love with death”). A significant factor in this attitude is Ignatius’s desire to follow in the footsteps of Christ, his impending death marking the beginning of his true “discipleship” (5.3).

We do not know for certain any details of why Ignatius was arrested or the circumstances under which this occurred, but scholars of the last few decades have suggested that perhaps an internal dispute within the Antiochene church brought the bishop to the attention of the authorities, who were concerned that this may get out of hand and cause social disruption. However, Thomas Robinson has argued that Ignatius’s understanding of martyrdom (which we see in the present passage) is clearly not one which has developed suddenly in direct response to being arrested by the authorities. Rather, he suggests that opponents of Ignatius (commonly referred to as docetics in the scholarship) who diminished the physical suffering and death of Jesus have led him to write a fervent account of the importance of following in Christ’s steps through martyrdom. The gruesome description that Ignatius gives in this passage of the physical torture he anticipates in the arena (5.3) serves to combat such circulating views (Ignatius of Antioch and the Parting of the Ways, p. 127, 153-158).

It seems that Ignatius was actually worried that the church in Rome might try to secure his release. The beginning of the Letter to the Romans affirms that he wishes to greet them “in chains”, and wishes to receive his fate “without interference” (1.1-2). Ignatius writes “I am afraid of your love, in that it may do me wrong” and make it “difficult for me to reach God” (1.2), and it may be that he sees fit to warn the Roman Christians against trying to act compassionately towards him by attempting to free him. Far from helping him, robbing him of his martyrdom would deny Ignatius the “opportunity” to reach God in what he believed to be the most glorious manner. It is unlikely that the church would have been able to do anything to help Ignatius in reality – in general, a Christian could only be released from custody in such circumstances if they agreed to recant their belief in Christ and participate in the imperial cult (for a contemporary example, see the various attempts of the proconsul to get Polycarp and the martyrs who preceded him to recant and sacrifice to the genius of Caesar narrated in the Martyrdom of Polycarp 3; 4; 9; 10). However, Ignatius’s instructions to the Roman church likely have little to do with a genuine worry that he would be released, but rather serve as a rhetorical device to emphasise just how eager he is to die for the Christian cause.

For Allen Brent, the journey of Ignatius to Rome and his anticipation of his eventual appearance in the arena is composed in language that suggests he sees himself as confronting Roman power head on, as a “spiritual alternative” to the authority possessed by Rome. It is certainly possible to interpret 6.1 of the Letter to the Romans as a reversal of and challenge to imperial values, as Ignatius claims that neither the “ends of the earth nor the kingdoms of this age are of any use,” it is preferable for him “to die for Jesus Christ than to rule over the ends of the earth.” Ignatius effectively sets himself against the achievements of the Roman empire – his glory does not depend on a vast earthly kingdom, and what is more, he utilises Rome’s brutal punishment of his faith in order to attain its ultimate reward of finally reaching Jesus Christ (see Allen Brent, “Ignatius of Antioch and the Imperial Cult,” p. 31). This said, perhaps rather than the text presenting a head on collision between the martyr and Rome, Rome is understood merely a tool for Ignatius to reach his desired end.

Brent has argued that Ignatius sees himself and his journey to martyrdom as providing the Christian counterpart to the Imperial cult. For instance, Ignatius refers to himself with the title of “θεόφορος” (“god bearer”) in the openings of each of his seven letters, and Brent argues that this is intended to evoke a parallel with the bearer of the emperor’s image (εἰκών) in Imperial cult rituals (“Ignatius of Antioch and the Imperial Cult,” p. 32). The Roman Christians are also described in the present letter as a “chorus” (χορός) which will sing praises to God after Ignatius’s death in celebration that a mere “bishop from Syria [was] worthy to be found in the west” (2.2). For Brent, this alludes to the confrontation between the martyr ‘cult’ of Ignatius and that of the Roman emperor. He compares the image of the Christian congregation as a choir here with rites connected to the imperial cult, drawing on an inscription from the temple of Roma and Augustus in Pergamon, in which the altar inscription dedicated to Hadrian speaks of those who make the dedication as “hymn-singers” (ὑμνῳδοί) of the divine Augustus and the goddess Roma (IGGR 4, 353) (see “Ignatius of Antioch and the Imperial Cult,” p. 36; for further discussion of the possible relationship between Ignatius’s writings and Roman mystery cults see also Allen Brent, “Ignatius and Polycarp,” p. 331-340).

Just how consciously Ignatius sought to subversively mimic imperial religious rites remains debatable, but his apparent enthusiasm for what would likely be a torturous death well reflects the “countercultural” attitudes of some early Christians (Paul Foster, “The Epistles of Ignatius of Antioch, p. 103), who were able to gain a particular form of power over Rome by reinterpreting a place of dread and punishment (the arena) as one of fulfilment and victory, enabling the faithful to finally emulate and attain union with Christ. 

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