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Christian Martyrdom

Christians faced persecution intermittently from the first century C.E. until the legalization of Christianity in the fourth century.

Agrippina crowns her son Nero with a laurel wreath. Aphrodisias Museum
Agrippina crowns her son Nero with a laurel wreath

Important Romans—emperors, senators, men of letters—largely ignored the phenomenon of Christianity altogether. The earliest surviving indication of Christianity’s spread is in a letter from provincial governor Pliny to Emperor Trajan, dated 111 C.E.—decades after Jesus’ death. Pliny calls Christianity a superstitio, “superstition,” one that is potentially dangerous to Roman order. Four years later, the historian Tacitus used the same derogatory term when mentioning Christians in a famous passage of his Annals:

They got their name from Christ, who was executed by sentence of the procurator, Pontius Pilate, in the Reign of Tiberius. That checked the pernicious superstition for a short time, but it broke out afresh—not only in Judea, where the plague first arose, but in Rome itself, where all the horrible and shameful things in the world collect and find a home. (Annals 15.44)

Another historian, Suetonius, also thought of Christianity in the same terms: he called the Christians “a body of people addicted to a novel and mischievous superstition.”

So what happened to those accused of following this new, pernicious superstition? Perhaps it first started with ridicule. But soon a sort of psychological terror campaign against Christians arose. The secrecy of their meetings made them easy targets for outrageous imaginings. Simple facts were twisted: Since Christians met at night, people believed their secret meetings were wild bacchanalian orgies. Since Christians called each other brother and sister, these must have been wild, incestuous bacchanalian orgies. Since Christians “ate” the flesh of Christ and “drank” his blood in a secret ceremony, these must have been wild, incestuous, cannibalistic orgies.

Although the claims were preposterous, public sentiment turned sharply against the Christians in the second century C.E. The Christian writer Tertullian complained at the end of that century, “if the Tiber reaches the walls, if the Nile does not rise to water the fields, if there is no rain, or if there is earthquake or famine, if there is plague, the cry at once arises, ‘The Christians to the lions!’” (Apology 40.2). Christians were indeed sent to be devoured by lions in gruesome public spectacles that matched human prisoners against wild beasts—not just lions, but tigers, bears, or any other large animals driven mad by hunger and fear.

The Roman emperors’ chief aim was to maintain order and (at least ideally) to keep people happy. So, on the principle of giving people what they wanted, emperors made a number of attempts to exterminate outright those nuisance-causing Christians. From 64 to 306 C.E., repeated persecutions (and violent executions) of Christians cropped up in countless places in the empire under a series of rulers; of these emperors, Nero, Domitian, Decius, and Diocletian were the most infamous. Decius was the first to put Christians to death simply for practicing Christianity; before him, there had been no comprehensive imperial persecution of Christianity as a religion. From the so-called Great Persecution of Diocletian (303-305 C.E.) the church gained dozens of new saints, incorporated into the formal commemoration of the martyrs.

Most Christians did not choose martyrdom, and most, in fact, never needed to make the choice at all—martyrdom was far from inevitable and customary. But the stories of those who stood up to Roman cruelty with extraordinary courage, facing death with equanimity or joy, were told and retold by other Christians—today, they still provide some of the most powerful Christian literature we possess. Following the model of Jesus, who had suffered at Roman hands, the few hundred Christians who met their death in arenas and amphitheaters inspired countless others to live lives devoted to Jesus Christ.

  • Nicola Denzey Lewis is a visiting associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Brown University. An award-winning teacher and researcher, she is a frequent contributor to Bible Odyssey. She is also featured in documentaries on the Bible and Early Christianity on the History Channel, the BBC, and CNN’s new six-part series, Finding Jesus: Faith, Fact, and Forgery.