The Book of Saints and Friendly Beasts, Chapter 15
Saint Prisca, the Child Martyr
SAINT PRISCA'S name has always been dearly loved, especially in England. January eighteenth is the day which is sacred to her, and she lived over seventeen hundred years ago. She is one of the few child-martyrs whose names have come down to us from those early days, although there were many other brave children who suffered and were strong, and who, at last, gave their lives to prove their faith.
Saint Prisca was a little Roman girl whose parents were Christians of a noble family. Claudius was the Emperor at that time, and though during his reign the Christians were not persecuted in such numbers as they had been before that, still many cruel things were done here and there, and it was a dangerous thing to be a Christian.
It was in the evil times when one did not always dare to say what he really thought, nor publicly to worship as he believed was right. Many of the Christians were not ashamed to conceal their real belief from the heathen Romans, who were everywhere seeking with hatred for the followers of Christ, to torture and slay them.
Prisca's father and mother had managed to keep their secret, and were not suspected of being Christians. They probably went to church in the secret chapels which the Christians had dug deep in the ground under the city. In these dark, gloomy catacombs, as they were called, the Christians held services directly under the feet of the cruel Romans, who were passing overhead without suspecting what was going on so near to them.
But Prisca scorned to use any precaution. Small and defenseless though she was, she did not fear to tell every one what she believed and Whose Cross she followed. So she soon became known as a firm little Christian maiden. And there were people in the city cruel enough and wicked enough to hate even a little child-Christian and to wish her evil.
These persons reported to the Emperor's officers her brave words of faith, and told them how she would not sacrifice to the Roman gods as the other children did. So very soon she was seized by the guards and brought before the Emperor.
Claudius looked at the little maid in surprise to find her so young. And he thought: "Ho! I shall easily make this small Christian change her mind and obey me." And he bade his men take her to the temple of Apollo and make her offer incense to the beautiful god of the silver bow. So they carried her to the top of the Palatine, one of the seven hills on which Rome was built.
They first passed under a great marble arch and came into a fair courtyard surrounded by fifty-two marble pillars. In the centre of this space stood the temple of Apollo, the most magnificent building in all Rome. With its ivory gates and wonderful groups of statues, its inlaid marble floors and altars wreathed with flowers, its golden tripods breathing incense, its lamps and beautiful silver vases, it was a very different place from the bare, dark caverns in which the Christians worshiped. In front of the temple was a group of four oxen made of bronze, and in the centre of this group burned a fire upon a golden tripod. This was the altar to Apollo, the sun-god, whose enormous golden statue, in his four-horse chariot, stood over the door of the temple just above. He was the likeness of a beautiful youth with a wreath of bay about his head, carrying a bow in his hand, with which Apollo was believed to shoot the sunbeams down upon the earth.
They thrust incense into Prisca's hand and bade her throw a few grains into the fire in honor of the beautiful god of the sun. It seemed a very simple thing to do, to save her life,--just to scatter a handful of dark powder on the flames. Prisca loved the dear sun as well as any one, but she knew it was foolish to believe that he was a god, and wicked to worship his statue in place of the great God who made the sun and everything else. So Prisca refused to burn the incense.
Then the Emperor was very angry, and bade the soldiers whip her until she obeyed his command. But they could not make her yield by cruelty. Even the hard-hearted Romans who had come to look on admired her bravery and pitied her suffering. The women wept to see her so cruelly treated, and the men cried, "Shame! shame! To torture a little child."
And then a beautiful thing happened; for Prisca appeared dressed in a robe of yellow sunshine. A wonderful light shone all about her, and she seemed herself a little star giving out light, so brightly did her brave spirit shine among those cruel men.
It seemed as if no child could bear all this suffering without yielding, and the Emperor hoped she would give in, for he did not want to have her killed. But Prisca was firm, and would not make the sacrifice. The Emperor was surprised to find a child so brave. He ordered them to drag her away to prison and to keep her there for many days. Here she was most unhappy,--lonely and cold and hungry often, wondering what dreadful thing was to happen next. But her heart was always brave, and she was not afraid.
After a long time, one morning the guard came for little Prisca. They led her forth into the dear sunshine, and glad she was to see it and the blue sky once more. But it was only for a short time that they let her enjoy even this little pleasure; for they brought her to the amphitheatre, a great open place like the circus, with tiers upon tiers of seats all about, and crowds of faces looking down into the centre where she was.
Prisca knew what this meant, for she had often heard how the Christians were put into the arena to be torn in pieces by wild beasts. And kneeling down on the sand she made a little prayer, not that she might be saved from the fierce beasts, but that she might have courage to show her Christian bravery and teach a lesson to these fiercer men and women who were looking on.
Then the keeper opened the grated door of a den at the end of the arena, and out stalked a great yellow lion. With a dreadful roar he rushed into the centre of the circle, and stood there lashing his tail and flashing his big yellow eyes all about the place. Then suddenly he spied the little girl standing quietly at one side with her hands clasped in front of her, looking at him without fear. And the great beast strode gently up to her on his padded paws. He bent his head and licked her little bare feet, and then he crouched down by her side, as a Saint Bernard dog might place himself to guard his little mistress. And this is why the old pictures of Saint Prisca represent her with a lion by her side.
There fell a great silence on the tented place. The Emperor and all the people sat perfectly still, wondering at the strange sight and admiring the courage of the child; for she had reached out her hand and was stroking the yellow head of the lion, playing with his mane. She bent her head and no one heard her whisper into his ear:--
"My good friend! you will not hurt me, I know, for the Lord has closed your mouth, just as he did the mouths of the lions into whose den Daniel was thrown by wicked men. These cruel men will put me to death, but you are kinder than they."
And the lion looked up in her face as though he understood, and growled softly. He was quite gentle with her, but when the keeper came towards them he roared and bristled and showed his great teeth, so that for a long time no one dared to come near.
But even the lion could not save her from the death which she had no wish to shun. At last they captured him and took him away. The Emperor's heart was softened by Prisca's bravery, and he wished to give her one more chance to save her life. They shut her up for many days in the heathen temple, and tried in every way to make her sacrifice to the gods and give up Christianity. They coaxed her and made her fine promises; they threatened and punished her. But still Prisca stood firm, although she was now very worn and tired and ill because she had suffered so much.
So when she had borne it all patiently and bravely, and they saw it was impossible to make a little Christian turn back again into a little heathen, they led her away down the road which leads south from the Palatine hill, to the place of execution. This was just outside the Ostian gate, an archway in the great wall which surrounded Rome, through which the road led to the town of Ostium and to the sea. Just outside this gate, to show that they were no longer worthy of being Romans and living within its walls, criminals were executed. And here many Christian martyrs lost their lives. Prisca was one of these, for here she was beheaded. And till the very end she neither cried nor screamed nor was in any way afraid. And so she became Saint Prisca, a little martyr.
Then another strange thing befell. When she died a great eagle appeared in the sky, hovering over Saint Prisca's body far up in the air. And when any of the Romans ventured near her the eagle swooped down upon them with dreadful cries and flapping of his wings. And his round gray eyes looked so fierce and his claws so long and sharp, that no one dared to touch her for fear of the bird. Saint Prisca had found another protector in cruel Rome. And this is why many of the old pictures of Saint Prisca's martyrdom show a great eagle hovering over her.
The creature guarded her body night and day, driving every one away, until the Christians, who had been waiting for the chance to venture out, came secretly one night and carried her away. They buried her where the Romans could not find her, in their little secret cemetery in the catacombs. This is how Saint Prisca lived and died two hundred and seventy years after Christ's birth. But I wish we knew what became of the noble lion and the devoted eagle.