The first person to be tortured was the senator Dativus who, due to his position, was thought to have been an instigator (Fortunatianus had placed the blame on him). While Dativus was being prepared for torture, another Christian, Thelica, stepped forward to clarify that the meeting was a collective decision: “We are Christians. It was we who came together.” As expected, Thelica was the next to be placed on the rack. While torn apart by iron claws, he alternated prayers for his persecutors with exhortations.
“Sine dominico non possumus” (“We can’t do without the Lord’s Day”). This was the answer of a group of 49 Christians (31 men and 18 women) who were arrested for participating in a Lord’s Day service. They lived in or around Abitina, a city in today’s Tunisia which was at that time under Rome. It was the year 304, and Emperor Diocletian had launched an empire-wide persecution against Christians, forbidding their meetings, destroying their churches, and demanding them to hand over (tradere) their Scriptures.
Defying the emperor’s orders, this group, led by their presbyter Saturninus, continued to meet secretly for worship in private homes. Discovered and arrested, they were sent to Carthage, about 50 miles away, to be tried by proconsul Gaius Annius Anulinus.
Commenting on this arrest, the author of the Acts of the Abitinian Martyrs – most likely an eye-witness – wrote: “As if a Christian could exist without the Lord’s Day, or the Lord’s Day exist without a Christian celebration! Do you not know, Satan, that the Christian is based on the Lord’s Day, and the Lord’s Day is based on a Christian, so that the one cannot survive without the other? When you hear the phrase ‘Lord’s Day,’ understand that it means the assembly of the Lord. And when you hear the bell ring, recognize that it is the Lord’s Day.”
On their way to Carthage, the Christians encouraged each other by singing hymns. Once there, they unanimously refused to renounce their faith. Imprisoned, they were denied food, while any supporter who tried to bring supplies was sent away. This measure gave way to a small brawl outside the prison.
A Collective Decision
When an eager relative, Fortunatianus, rushed to rescue his sister Victoria by claiming that she and a few other women had been deceived, Victoria rose in protest. She had attended worship of her own free will and with full knowledge of what she was doing, she said. Fortunatianus should have known better. She had previously refused an arranged marriage by escaping through a window.
Moved by this family exchange, Anulinus tried to convince Victoria to listen to her brother. “I am a Christian, and my brothers are those who keep God’s commandments,” she replied. “These are my convictions, and I have never changed them. If I have participated to the Sunday service with my brothers and sisters, it is because I am a Christian.”
Augustine of Hippo, writing a century later, gives a specific date for their trial: February 12, 304.