Pionius (died 12 March 250) was an inhabitant of the city of Smyrna (modern Izmir) who was executed for refusing the sacrifice to pagan deities ordered by the Roman emperor Decius. He is regarded as a saint and martyr, being remembered by churches of the Latin Rite on 1 February, and by the Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic churches on 11 March.
The edict of Decius
In 249 the new emperor issued an edict requiring all free subjects of the Roman Empire to make a public sacrifice at a recognised pagan site and to get a certificate that they had done so. According to the rite, this might involve offering food, libation or incense and then consuming offered food or drink. Jews, as an ancient cult, were exempted but the recent cult of Christianity was not.
Reaction of Christians
Faced with this edict, Christians in Smyrna and throughout the Roman Empire had various choices. They could comply, but some felt that acknowledging pagan deities implied rejection of the Christian God. They could get a false certificate, not necessarily a very moral act but a practical way of buying peace. If accepted, as some were, they could join a Jewish synagogue and claim exemption. They could emigrate or go into hiding, in the hope that enforcement of the law would peter out. Or they could defy the law, which could well lead to arrest, imprisonment, torture and execution.
Reaction of Pionius
Pionius was a scholar and a well-travelled man who was respected in the busy port of Smyrna. He was also an active Christian who studied the history of his faith and served his fellow believers in the city. With two other Christians, Sabina and Asclepiades, he resolved to defy the law.
After spending the night in prayer and fasting, on 23 February (the anniversary of Polycarp's martyrdom) they took communion and tied themselves in symbolic chains to signify that they were already condemned. People seeing them led off unbound might have supposed that the three were prepared, like many other Christians in Smyrna including the bishop, to perform sacrifice.
That morning the three were arrested by an official called Polemon and after a brief interrogation were led into the market place to make an enforced sacrifice. Being a public holiday, with the square full of both Greeks and Jews, on his way Pionius was able to address the crowd. He asked the Greeks to remember what Homer had said about not mocking the corpse of an enemy. Therefore they should not mock those Christians who had apostatized. He then turned to the Jews and quoted the Hebrew Bible to the same effect. He ended with a vehement refusal to offer sacrifice.
Polemon tried further questioning and menaces, but Pionius was adamant. He then threatened Sabina, a young runaway slave who was being hidden by the Christian community under a false identity, with being put in a brothel but she did not relent. So the three were sent to prison to await trial.
Imprisonment, torture and execution
In prison, the three found other Christians - Limnus, a priest in Smyrna, and his wife Macedonia from the inland village of Karine – and a Montanist priest called Metrodorus. They were visited by pagan friends as well as by Christians who had sacrificed, but Pionius refused all gifts (which annoyed the jailers who were entitled to a percentage) and urged the latter group to repent. Before the trial, in another effort to save their lives, they were taken back to the town square and entreated to make a sacrifice, but without success. Turned hostile, the crowd gave them insults and blows.
On 12 March, Pionius was brought before the proconsul who first tried persuasion and then torture. Both having failed, he was condemned to be burnt alive. After nailing him to a cross, they stacked wood around him and lit the fire.
- Pionius at the Catholic Encyclopedia
- The Martyrdom of Pionius and his Companions
- Orthodox Church in America
- Louis Robert, Le Martyre de Pionios, prêtre de Smyrne, mis au point et complété par G. W. Bowersock et C. P. Jones (Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C., 1994)
- E. Leigh Gibson. Jewish Antagonism or Christian Polemic: The Case of the Martyrdom of Pionius. Journal of Early Christian Studies, Volume 9, Number 3, Fall 2001. pp.339-358.
- O. Zwierlein, Die Urfassungen der Martyria Polycarpi et Pionii und das Corpus Polycarpianum (De Gruyter, Berlin, 2014)
- Great Synaxaristes: (Greek) Ὁ Ἅγιος Πιόνιος ὁ Μάρτυρας ὁ Πρεσβύτερος. 11 Μαρτίου. ΜΕΓΑΣ ΣΥΝΑΞΑΡΙΣΤΗΣ.
- At Smyrna the prime cult was of two manifestations of Nemesis. More akin to Aphrodite than to Artemis, it has been suggested that they represented two aspects of the goddess, the kindly and the implacable, or else the two goddesses of the old city and of the new city refounded by Alexander the Great. The martyrology Acts of Pionius, set in the Decian persecution of AD 250–51, mentions a lapsed Smyrnan Christian who was attending to the sacrifices at the altar of the temple of these Nemeses.
- The true day of his martyrdom, according to the 'Acts of Pionius', was 12 March. Eusebius ("H.E.", IV, xv; "Chron.", p. 17, ed. Schoene) places the martyrdom in the reign of Antoninus Pius. His mistake was probably because he found the martyrdom of Pionius in a volume containing the Acts of Martyrs of an earlier date. Possibly his manuscript lacked the chronological detail of surviving ones.