When we think of martyrs, we often go back to the early Christians as the typical examples - dying for the idea that they should worship one God and no other. Another often quoted example is Socrates - dying for the idea of open enquiry. I know that people have died throughout history but I am looking to see if there are earlier examples that fit the definition:

a person who sacrifices something of great value and especially life itself for the sake of principle.

I'm looking for specific people or groups of people that died a martyr's death (either in historical fact or literature). To attempt to hone the definition further, I am looking for people who placed an idea before their own safety or the safety of their kin and who had the choice to act otherwise.

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    Incidentally, ancient Christians were martyred more for worshipping a resurrected Christ sitting at God's right hand -- who also had them being labelled "cannibals" for eating and drinking "body and blood" -- than for monotheism, which, after all, the Jews around them were allowed to practice in the Empire (when they weren't instigating rebellions). In fact, Christians were and are accused of altering the foundation in Judaism to get rid of the monotheistic principle and create "three gods" in a Trinity not recognized by the other People of the Book! Mar 20, 2019 at 11:43
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    This might benefit from better definitions. What "principles" and for whom? "I want my meat and another woman" would be principles that extend far into the pre-historic past. Anyone facing an invader with "My village? Μολον λαβε" was potentially dying for a principle. Mar 20, 2019 at 12:11
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    Not sure if Socrates counts as history, but the descritpion of his death in Crito shows that the concept of dying for one's principle existed circa 400BC: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socrates#Refusal_to_escape (and probably before, since Paris was considered a coward in The Iliad for escaping his duel with Menelas)
    – Evargalo
    Mar 20, 2019 at 15:58
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    Must concur with @LangLangC; "principle" is an undefined term. I'm having trouble imagining a voluntary death (not disease, famine, age, etc.) that isn't for "principle". Every death in every war, every soldier, sailor or marine, and most probably every militiaman, etc. One might argue that the Vikingr didn't die for principle, but everyone they killed died for principle. I think that this question will be impossible to answer authoritatively.
    – MCW
    Mar 21, 2019 at 11:43

2 Answers 2


Abraham and his almost sacrifice of his son Isaac might be a good example. Even though we do not know whether is a real event or just a metaphor.
Spartans at Thermopylae battle are a good example as well. They died because they had to fulfill a tradition (principle) where their society was built, which was to die instead of return defeated.

  • I was thinking of Hasdrubals wife at Carthage, but Thermopylae predates that by several hundred years.
    – justCal
    Mar 20, 2019 at 15:12
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    If you are going to quote non-historical events, wouldn't Agamemnon and Iphigenia be a better choice? You could at least lose the "almost" part.
    – C Monsour
    Mar 20, 2019 at 22:33
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    It is extremely doubtful Abraham existed.
    – Jos
    Mar 20, 2019 at 23:58
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    Defending an untenable military position to gain time, while it is indeed a sacrifice, is not dying "for principles" anymore than a parent fighting off a lion to allow their sons fleeing away is dying "for principles". Religious sacrifices have been made by all primitive cultures and they are also a different category, imho.
    – Rekesoft
    Mar 21, 2019 at 9:40
  • I can't see who in that story died for a principle.
    – MCW
    Mar 21, 2019 at 11:43

I think the phenomenon is older than the recorded history. Literature is full of examples, since the beginning of its existence. Antigone is one example from Greek tragedy.

  • Thanks for the Antigone example. I don't doubt that martyrs are as old as the hills historically but I am after specific examples. I suspected that there would be many in literature "since the beginning of its existence" but I can't think/find any from Near Eastern/Indian/Chinese literature that predates classical Greece.
    – Matta
    Mar 21, 2019 at 13:14
  • @Matta: sorry, I am not familiar with ancient Indian and Chinese literature, but Greek mythology and the Bible are full of such examples.
    – Alex
    Mar 21, 2019 at 19:07

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