c. 145 CE He went to Alexandria to study with the famous Cynic Agathobulus, where he learned the ‘amazing askesis’ of the sect.
c. 147 CE He arrived at Rome, where he began a campaign of abuse against the Roman authorities, and especially the emperor Antoninus Pius. He gained a following among the masses, and it may be at this point that Theagenes became his chief disciple.
c 150 - 152 CE He was expelled by the city prefect. He next went to Elis in Greece, where he continued his anti-Roman preaching.
153 CE He appeared at the Olympic games and abused the wealthy philanthropist Herodes Atticus, whereby the infuriated crowd attacked Peregrinus, and he was forced to take refuge at the altar of Zeus.
153 - 157 CE He lived in a hut in Athens and had Aulus Gellius as a pupil
157 CE Appeared at the Olympic games
161 CE At the Olympic Games he announced that he would publicly burn himself to death at the following Olympics: He said that he wanted to put a tip of gold on a golden life; for one who had lived as Heracles should die like Heracles and be commingled with the aether. And I wish, said he, to benefit mankind by showing them the way in which one should disregard death; wherefore all men ought to play Philoctetes to my Heracles. He seems also to have criticized Herodes for exaggerating his mourning over the loss of his wife.
165 CE He carried out his promise: on the final night of the Olympic games, he immolated himself on a funeral pyre located 20 stadia (3.7 km) east of Olympia. Lucian, who was present, witnessed the event, having heard Theagenes, Peregrinus' most ardent disciple, praise his master's intentions
We have just completed the barest of historical sketches for the life of our stranger of Elea - ‘Peregrinus’ - and we are now ready to integrate that information with what is known of the Church Father ‘Polycarp.’ As recently as the year 2000 Lee Martin McDonald in his Early Christianity and Its Literature noted that “some scholars believe that [Lucian] was writing about the life of Polycarp, who was martyred about the same time as Peregrinus died. They point to some obvious parallels to the Christian story of the Martyrdom of Polycarp.” (p. 258) Are there enough similarities between Lucian’s Peregrinus was Irenaeus’s ‘Polycarp’ to argue that the two reports go back to one historical figure? Perhaps the best place to begin is really the end - that is to say that both men go out in a blaze of glory, quite literally.
Almost a century ago Lightfoot enumerates the possible references to the martyrdom of Polycarp in Lucian’s Peregrinus. The salient points are (i) the lighting of the pyre with torches and fagots, (ii) the stripping off the clothes, (lit) the prayer on the pyre, (iv) the comparison with a baking, and (v) the eagerness of the crowd for relics. As we shall see this amounts to only the tip of the iceberg. Everett Ferguson points to several studies which demonstrate Lucian's knowledge of Ignatius's letter to Polycarp, and his possible parody of the letter in Peregrinus. Dale also references that “remarkable coincidence that Polycarp was burnt in a fire made of logs and faggots at Smyrna, just about the time that Peregrinus was said to have immolated himself at Olympia, about ad 165. The date is very uncertain but scholars vary in regard to it from 161 to 169.”
Of course a number of more recent studies are more specific about the dates of the martyrdom of the two men being established in the same year. It was Billerbeck (1991 Die Kyniker in der modernen Forschung p.179) who did so most recently noting that “according to some estimates, the martyrdom of St. Polycarp occurred in the same year as the self-immolation of Peregrinus.” So Emil Egli in his article Lucian und Polycarp also gives a list of passages in which the account of Lucian regarding the burning of Peregrinus contains details closely resembling incidents in the martyrdom of Polycarp as related in the Passio Polycarpi and he concludes “the two pyres of Polycarp and of the Peregrinus must have been almost simultaneous events, therefore, the reports of the Smyrna and of Lucian, probably quite simultaneous documents.” [p. 166] Perhaps the most thorough discussion occurs in Planck who makes reference to a number of signs that Lucian may have - in his words - “borrowed some traits from the history of this martyr [i.e. Polycarp].” Planck references a number of interesting parallels including that “the Martyrium Polycarpi itself intimates (19), that the end of this man was everywhere discussed among the the pagans, morover that the relics of Polycarp were solicitously collected and honored (17, 18), and the proconsul labored hard to make him yield (7. 9, as in Lucian, chap. 14).” He also notes that “the most remarkable circumstance from this account of Polycarp's end, is the dove, which, according to chap. 16, when Polycarp had expired, flew up from the burning pile” which as he notes is paralleled by the vulture or hawk of Peregrinus. Thus Planck concludes “we should have in the hawk of Lucian a parody so much the more striking, because the year of Polycarp's death is perhaps exactly the same as that of Peregrinus, namely, 165.”
The point of course is that there is enough evidence from just studying the two martyrdom accounts of Lucian and Irenaeus to assume the lead characters are one and the same character. Nevertheless this is certainly not the only evidence we have available to us. As Schaff notes “Lucian, in his satire on the Death of Peregrinus, represents this Cynic philosopher as a hyocritical bishop and confessor, who while in prison received and sent message, and was the centre of attention and correspondence among the credulous and good-natured Christians in Syria and Asia Minor. The coincidence is so striking that Zahn and Renan agree in the inference that Lucian knew the story of Ignatius, and intended to mimic him in the person of Peregrinus Proteus, as he mimicked the martyrdom of Polycarp.” The difficulty here of course is that once we introduce the figure of Ignatius (Lat. ‘the fiery one’) the study becomes unbearably complex and too difficult to follow. For this chapter at least we will limit ourselves to discussing the reasons for understanding the Martyrdom of Polycarp as a hagiography developed from the original historical event satirized by Lucian.
We have already noted in a previous chapter that ‘Polycarp’ is not the real name at all but a Greek translation of an Aramaic title which means both ‘fruitful one’ and ‘leader of the community.’ These ideas are present in the early reference to the Church Father in the Life of Polycarp as getting his name owing to fruitfulness of his studies - viz. his “Eastern stock bore blossom as a token of good fruit hereafter to come.” At the same time as the author wants us to behold Polycarp’s ‘fruitfulness’ he makes it clear from his studies of the early sources that he was very much attached to the ‘stranger’ concept. Thus we read again in his Life that “having been brought to Asia and having come by the will of God to live in Smyrna, after making himself fully acquainted with the ways of the people of the country … [he taught] that here on earth we are bidden to sojourn for a while and not to settle; for we are all strangers and visitors [italics in the original].”
There are other details from Life of Polycarp which seem to help us connect the Church Father to the anonymous Christian preacher in Lucian’s Peregrinus. One of the most striking things of course being the manner in which the description of Polycarp contained therein conforms to that of a “Cynic philosopher.” We must always remember that when Lucius reports to us the details of his Peregrinus he is necessarily forced to translate foreign ideas and concepts from Christianity into the general pagan milieu. So it is that when we read in Life that Polycarp “ate such food as came to hand, meagre and simple though it was, and he wore such clothing only as absolute necessity required, for the sake of warmth and of the modest and seemly covering of the body” Lucius could easily have taken this for adhering to the Cynic ideal. In fact Christians were often mistaken or deliberately connected with the followers of Diogenes throughout this period.
Similarly Life goes on to say that Polycarp spent most of his time withdrawn from humanity and:
in consequence of this he was staid alike in his mental thoughts and in his bodily … those also who came to see him and desired his conversation, he was wont to shun and avoid, if he possibly could, the garrulous and foolish talkers, on the plea that he was intent on some important business and had not noticed the person who met him; but if he happened to get entangled with him, he would answer him briefly just not to seem to be haughty, and then would keep silence.
This description taken together with what we just read conforms perfectly to the Cynic ideal of parrhēsia, which essentially means “frank speech” or “speaking so freely and frankly.” Cynics made it a point to shun such personal contact with people, groups or communities. Indeed “the Cynics strive for self-sufficiency and strength, neither of which is capable of being maintained once one enters into the conventional political game. The life of an impoverished, but virtuous and self-sufficient philosopher is preferable to the life of a pampered court philosopher.”
Indeed this is why I think it so important to pay careful attention to the details of Life because it is importan to see how his parrhēsia and his “strange” nature inevitably come together in an apparent event in the biography of the Church Father. We are told that when the chief men of the Smyrnaeans request that he break his Cynic ways in order to help them plead for rain. “Polycarp,” they say, “thou seest that the city of which thou also art an inhabitant is in straits, and thou thyself sharest with us and dost participate, if not in our customs, at all events in the scarcity which now exists owing to the drought.” Here again we should recognize that for all intents and purposes “our Polycarp” must have seemed to be a Cynic to contemporary witnesses.
Of course when Polycarp does indeed agree to help petition God for rain it is very important to note how he goes on to defend his decision to break from social conventions. Life records that Polycarp responds to this request by once again stressing his identity as a “stranger” to their ways:
Sirs, ye who inhabit this most beautiful city, give ear to me [as] a sojourner and a stranger, to whom every city is foreign by reason of my heavenly citizenship and all the world is a city by reason of the gift of God who created all things.
Not only did we demonstrate earlier then that the mayor of Smyrna saw Polycarp as a “stranger” (and identifies Christianity as such as the “religion of strangers” a little later) we now see that the Church Father applied this term to himself. So it is that Polycarp must have been quite comfortable being identified as a peregrinus. If Lucian’s account was really a report about Polycarp it would only have been natural that he should be so called. Irenaeus’s teacher apparently used the term repeatedly in his everyday discourse with people.
As such given the parrhēsia associated with both ‘strangers’ it is difficult not to see similarities in the parallel account of each their sojourns in Rome. In Lucian’s account the ‘frankness’ is front and center:
he set sail for Italy and immediately after disembarking he fell to abusing. everyone, and in particular the Emperor, knowing him to be mild and gentle, so that he was safe in making bold. The Emperor, as one would expect, cared little for his libels and did not think fit to punish for mere words a man who only used philosophy as a cloak, and above all, a man who had made a profession of abusiveness. But in our friend’s case, even from this his reputation grew, among simple folk any how, and he was a cynosure for his recklessness, until finally the city prefect, a wise man, packed him off for immoderate indulgence in the thing, saying that the city had no need of any such philosopher.
In the purified account of Irenaeus’s ‘Polycarp’ his parrhēsia is still front and center only now it is recast as a devotion to the truth and truthfulness - “he it was who, coming to Rome in the time of Anicetus caused many to turn away from the aforesaid heretics to the Church of God, proclaiming that he had received this one and sole truth from the apostles,--that, namely, which is handed down by the Church.”
Every step along the way of Polycarp’s visit to Rome we same the same characteristics reported in Lucian’s account. He attacks heretics and orthodox alike. He not only expresses ‘horror’ at every encounter with heretics but also orthodox figures too. While Irenaeus has done his best to polish up the encounter it is still acknowledged that while “Polycarp was sojourning in Rome in the time of Anicetus” a “controversy had arisen among them as to certain other points” too. All that we are not allowed to get a glimpse of his behavior Irenaeus does acknowledge that “neither could Anicetus persuade Polycarp ... nor, on the other hand, could Polycarp succeed in persuading Anicetus.” Small wonder that Anicetus couldn’t manage to get him to change his opinion as Irenaeus notes elsewhere that when he heard something he disagreed with “he would cried out, and stop his ears, and exclaim: O good God, for what times have You reserved me, that I should endure these things?"
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