About the same time with Justin the Martyr, St. Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, was put to death. He was a very old man; for it was almost ninety years since he had been converted from heathenism. He had known St. John, and is supposed to have been made bishop of Smyrna by that Apostle himself, and he had been a friend of St. Ignatius, who, as we have seen, suffered martyrdom fifty years before. From all these things, and from his wise and holy character, he was looked up to as a father by all the churches, and his mild advice had sometimes put all end to differences of opinion which but for him might have turned into lasting quarrels.
When the persecution reached Smyrna, in the reign of Marcus Aurelius, a number of Christians suffered with great constancy, and the heathen multitude, being provoked at their refusal to give up their faith, cried out for the death of Polycarp. The aged bishop, although he was ready to die for his Saviour, remembered that it was not right to throw himself in the way of danger; so he left the city, and went first to one village in the neighbourhood and then to another. But he was discovered in his hiding-place, and when he saw the soldiers who were come to seize him, he calmly said, “God’s will be done!” He desired that some food should be given to them, and while they were eating, he spent the time in prayer. He was then set on an ass, and led towards Smyrna; and, when he was near the town, one of the heathen magistrates came by in his chariot, and took him up into it. The magistrate tried to persuade Polycarp to sacrifice to the gods; but finding that he could make nothing of him, he pushed him out of the chariot so roughly that the old man fell and broke his leg. But Polycarp bore the pain without showing how much he was hurt, and the soldiers led him into the amphitheatre, where great numbers of people were gathered together. When all these saw him, they set up loud cries of rage and savage delight; but Polycarp thought, as he entered the place, that he heard a voice saying to him, “Be strong and play the man!” and he did not heed all the shouting of the crowd. The governor desired him to deny Christ, and said that, if he would, his life should be spared. But the faithful bishop answered “Fourscore and six years have I served Christ, and He hath never done me wrong; how then can I now blaspheme my King and Saviour?” The governor again and again urged him, as if in a friendly way, to sacrifice; but Polycarp stedfastly refused. He next threatened to let wild beasts loose on him, and as Polycarp still showed no fear, he said that he would burn him alive. “You threaten me,” said the bishop, “with a fire which lasts but a short time; but you know not of that eternal fire which is prepared for the wicked.” A stake was then set up, and a pile of wood was collected around it. Polycarp walked to the place with a calm and cheerful look, and, as the executioners were going to fasten him to the stake with iron cramps, he begged them to spare themselves the trouble. “He who gives me the strength to bear the flames,” he said. “will enable me to remain steady.” He was therefore only tied to the stake with cords, and as he stood thus bound, he uttered a thanksgiving for being allowed to suffer after the pattern of his Lord and Saviour. When his prayer was ended, the wood was set on fire, but we are told that the flames swept round him, looking like the sail of a ship swollen by the wind, while he remained unhurt in the midst of them. One of the executioners, seeing this, plunged a sword into the martyr’s breast, and the blood rushed forth in such a stream that it put out the fire. But the persecutors, who were resolved that the Christians should not have their bishop’s body, lighted the wood again, and burnt the corpse, so that only a few of the bones remained; and these the Christians gathered out, and gave them an honourable burial. It was on Easter eve that St. Polycarp suffered, in the year of our Lord 166.