The soldiers planned to kill the prisoners to prevent any of them from swimming away and escaping. But the centurion wanted to spare Paul’s life and kept them from carrying out their plan.
— Acts 27: 42-43
Martin, born into a pagan family around 330 CE, was a professional soldier in the Roman army. He was considering conversion to Christianity when, as a well-known story goes, he saw an ill-clad beggar outside the gate of Amiens, in Gaul. As it was a cold winter, Martin was moved to cut his Roman army-issue cloak in half and give half to the indigent man. That night, the story goes, he dreamed of Jesus in the guise of a beggar, wearing the half-cloak. This dream, it is said, sealed his conversion, and he then sought, and received, baptism.
When his Gallic campaign ended, Martin requested a discharge. “Hitherto I have faithfully served Caesar,” he said. “Let me now serve Christ.” Predictably unable to give credence to his assertion of a religious motive, his superiors accused Martin of cowardice. He languished in prison until the war ended.
So not only did Martin have first-hand experience of Roman imprisonment, he also had undoubtedly been indoctrinated into the military mindset toward prisoners that nearly led to a massacre, as described in the passage from Acts quoted above. Although Roman law enshrined the right to a hearing and something resembling our modern “presumption of innocence”, Roman prisoners—especially non-citizens—were, in practice, subject to many abuses. Another passage from the Book of Acts makes it clear why the shipwrecked soldiers thought it better to kill the prisoners than to allow them to escape: the consequences for a Roman soldier who lost imperial prisoners were dire. (In this passage, Paul, a Roman citizen educated in the law, was able to intimidate the local authorities into apologizing to him and his companion Silas, and escorting them safely from the town, but this recourse would have been unavailable to run-of-the-mill prisoners.)
In 371, Martin was elected bishop of Tours. When an officer of the Imperial Guard arrived with a number of prisoners who were to be tortured and executed the next day, Martin intervened and secured their release.
In 384, the heretic Priscillian and six companions were condemned to death by the emperor Maximus. The bishops who had found them guilty in the ecclesiastical court pressured Maximus for their execution by the secular power. Martin maintained that the secular power had no authority to punish heresy, and that the excommunication by the bishops was an adequate sentence. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, upheld Martin in this. Martin refused to leave Treves until the emperor promised to reprieve the prisoners. No sooner was the promise given and Martin on his way back to Tours than the bishops prevailed upon Maximus to break his promise; Priscillian and his followers were executed. This was the first time that heresy was punished by death.
Martin was furious, and excommunicated the bishops responsible. But he took them back into communion in exchange for a pardon from Maximus for certain men condemned to death, and for the emperor’s promise to end the persecution of the remaining Priscillianists. He never felt easy in his mind about this concession, and thereafter avoided assemblies of bishops where he might encounter some of those concerned in this affair. He died on or about 11 November 397, and his shrine at Tours became a sanctuary for those seeking justice.
If, like me, you are both appalled at, and terrified by, the imprisonment, torture, and execution of people by their governments, simply for their principled stands against government abuses, you can learn more about two human rights organizations that advocate for the imprisoned and, if you are moved to do so, make a monetary donation or volunteer to help them in their work. Founded in 1961, Amnesty International advocates for prisoners of conscience, and against torture, ill-treatment and capital punishment.
The Innocence Project is an American organization dedicated to overturning wrongful convictions, securing, since their founding in 1992, the exoneration of some 200 prisoners after they had served from four to thirty-plus years in prison.
Lord God of hosts, who clothed your servant Martin the soldier with the spirit of sacrifice and set him as a bishop in your Church to be a defender of the catholic faith: Give us grace to follow in his holy steps, that, at the last, we may be found clothed with righteousness in the dwellings of peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Scott Robinson is a communicant at the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Philadelphia.
Image Credit: ‘Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P.’ via Flickr
Collect for the Commemoration of Martin of Tours used with permission from Church Publishing.