The Martyr of the Catacombs: A Tale of Ancient Rome

Martyr of the Catacombs: A Tale of Ancient Rome: A Novel


Book: The Martyr of the Catacombs: A Tale of Ancient Rome

Author: James De Mille

Publisher: Kregel Publications, republished in 1990

ISBN-13: 978-0-8254-2143-3

Related website: (publisher)

Language level: 1

(1=nothing objectionable; 2=common euphemisms and/or childish slang terms; 3=some cursing or profanity; 4=a lot of cursing or profanity; 5=obscenity and/or vulgarity)

Reading level: Ages 10 and up

Rating: 5 stars (EXCELLENT)

Reviewed by Wayne S. Walker

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     De Mille, James.   The Martyr of the Catacombs: A Tale of Ancient Rome (originally published in 1858 or 1865 by Nelson and Phillips, New York City, NY; republished in 1990 by Kregel Publications, a division of Kregel Inc., P. O. Box 2607, Grand Rapids, MI  59501).  It is during the reign of the Roman Emperor Decius (A. D. 249-251).  Marcellus is a Roman soldier, born at Gades, Spain, who has served in Africa, Syria, and Britain.   Upon his arrival in Rome, he witnesses a spectacle in the Coliseum.  A famous gladiator Macer defeats all the animals sent against him, but when he announces that he will not kill a fellow gladiator because he himself is a Christian, Macer is killed instead.  Following this, an aged Christian teacher named Alexander and a group of young Christian maidens singing, “Unto Him that loved us, to Him that washed us from our sins in His own blood…,” are brought in to be ripped apart by savage beasts.  As Marcellus muses upon what he has seen, his friend Lucullus brings him word from the Emperor as to why he has been brought to Rome.  Marcellus is to lead a group of soldiers from the Praetorian Guard down into the catacombs to ferret these Christians out and bring them to punishment.

     While on a scouting mission, Marcellus meets several Christians, including a thirteen-year-old boy named Pollio, the lady Cecelia who is Pollio’s mother, and an elderly teacher Honorius.  As a result of their influence, Marcellus becomes a Christian.  A price is then put on his head, and he must also flee to the catacombs.  But then Pollio is arrested.  What will happen to him?  What will happen to Marcellus when he goes in an attempt to exchange himself for Pollio?  And what does Lucullus think about all this?  According to the Foreword, an anonymous copy of this book was salvaged from an American sailing vessel commanded by Captain Richard Roberts which had been abandoned at sea after a disastrous hurricane in January, 1876.    Sometimes Roberts is listed as the author.  Often the book is still reprinted with the attribution “By an Anonymous Christian.”  However, it is now known that it was written by James De Mille (1833-1880), a Canadian novelist born in Saint John, New Brunswick, son of the merchant and shipowner, Nathan De Mille.  In addition to writing, De Mille also served as Professor of Classics, first at Acadia University, then at Dalhousie University, both in Nova Scotia, Canada.

     In my research, I have found dates of both 1858 and 1865 for The Martyr of the Catacombs; perhaps one is the first publication in Canada and the other is the first publication in the United States.  This story, drawn from church history, of a young Roman army captain who is converted to Christianity in the third century uses fictional characters to show how the early Christians lived in the catacombs of Rome and to emphasize the severe persecutions which they had to suffer.  It is not for the faint of heart, but there is nothing objectionable or overly graphic; and even though the reader encounters much sadness, the end certainly has a ring of triumph in it.  Numerous Biblical quotations, especially from the book of Revelation, are found throughout. We did it as a family read aloud, and everyone liked it.  There were times when it brought tears to my eyes.  It is recommended by Nathaniel Bluedorn in Hand that Rocks the Cradle: 400 Classic Books for Children.  The novel is not to be confused with another book having a similar title, Valeria, the Martyr of the Catacombs, by William Henry Withrow (1839-1906).  Other works by De Mille include the 1867 historical novel Helena’s Household: A Tale of Rome in the First Century, which takes place in the time of Paul and Nero.

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