Three decades after Christ’s crucifixion, Emperor Nero began the Roman Empire’s persecution of the early Christians. It all culminated with executions in Nicomedia almost 300 years later. Emperor after emperor tried to stifle the Christian faith with prohibitions, extreme torture, and monstrous methods of execution. But it didn’t help much. Roman governors reported that condemned Christians seemed almost elated at the prospect of becoming Christian martyrs.
The First Christian Martyr: Stephen’s Stoning by the Jewish Council
The earliest Christians did not fear Roman persecution as much as they feared established Judaism. The Jews would not accept the Christians’ insistence that Jesus was the son of God. At most they could agree that he was a prophet and teacher. The Jewish leaders also feared that Christianity would split the Jewish faith in two. The tiny Christian community that arose in Jerusalem in the wake of Christ’s crucifixion was therefore thoroughly persecuted.
For the same reason, the Christian Church’s first official martyr was not killed by the Romans, but by the Jews. The martyr’s name was Stephen, and he was stoned to death in the year 35 CE by order of the Jewish Council. Among the executioners was a man named Saul, who later became a Christian convert known as the apostle Paul. The persecution of the Christians in Jesus’ homeland forced Christian missionaries, who had until now only preached only among the Jews, to head to other parts of the Roman Empire. The Roman overlords of the Jews saw the conflict between Jews and Christians as an internal Jewish problem and would not intervene. But that was soon to change.
Emperor Nero: The Architect of Early Christian Martyrdom
Emperor Nero is known for being one of the earliest and most notorious persecutors of Christians in ancient Rome. He is often depicted as the architect of early Christian martyrdom due to the brutal ways in which he sought to eliminate the fledgling religion. Nero’s reign began in 54 CE, and by 64 CE, a great fire broke out in Rome, destroying much of the city. Rumors spread that Nero himself had ordered the fire to be set to clear land for a new palace. To deflect blame, Nero accused the Christians of starting the fire. This marked the beginning of a wave of brutal persecution against Christians, as Nero sought to scapegoat them for the disaster.
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Shortly after the fire, the hunt for the capital’s Christians began. “First Nero had those who admitted to being Christians arrested, and on their statements, a large group of others was condemned,” writes Tacitus. According to the historian, they were not only convicted of arson, “but just as much for their hatred of man”.
The punishment was death. Nero wanted to show that he was a man of the people, so he made the executions a public spectacle. “Their death was made into a sport. Dressed in animal skins, they were torn to pieces by dogs or crucified”. Other Christians were hung on poles and drenched in tar. At night, executioners lit the human torches so that they could light up the streets as the screams resounded, and a sickening smell of burning flesh settled over Rome.
Not even the apostle Paul escaped. The old missionary was beheaded. According to legend, his head jumped three times over the ground when it was separated from his body, and with each jump, a spring miraculously sprang forth. Shortly afterward, the apostle Peter was also executed in Rome on Nero’s orders.
Saint Ignatius of Antioch: A Beacon of Faith and Courage in the Face of Persecution
Saint Ignatius of Antioch was an early Christian bishop and martyr who lived in the 1st century CE. He is believed to have been a student of the Apostle John and the third bishop of Antioch. During his journey, Ignatius wrote letters to different Christian communities. These letters are an essential source of information on the development of early Christianity. They have been highly regarded by Christians throughout the centuries and used as a source of inspiration and guidance.
Ignatius emphasized the importance of unity among believers and obedience to lawful authority. He also wrote about the importance of the Eucharist and the role of bishops in the church. Despite the harsh circumstances, Ignatius remained positive and hopeful. He was willing to die for God, but only if it wouldn’t compromise others’ faith. The exact date of Saint Ignatius of Antioch’s death is unknown, but it is believed to have occurred around 107 CE. According to tradition, he was martyred during the reign of the Emperor Trajan (98–117 CE). He was sent to Rome where he was thrown to the lions as a form of execution.
Inspired by martyrs such as Paul, Peter, and Ignatius, it became popular to seek Christian martyrdom. The early Christians did not believe that they went to heaven immediately after death. Instead, they had to wait until the resurrection — the day when Christ returned to earth. However, that did not apply to the martyrs, who, according to the church, suffered for all humanity, just as Jesus had done, and therefore went directly to heaven to God. It required not only that they were innocent of the charges, but also that they suffered.
Brutal Methods of Execution
The Romans prided themselves on their violent death games in the arena. But they reserved the Empire’s most brutal methods of death for the Christians. Five of the most brutal we know of were as follows:
Burning: Many Christians were put to death by being burned alive, a punishment that was intended for arsonists. Emperor Nero, in particular, targeted Christians with this method, by coating them in tar, binding them to stakes, and setting them on fire. This punishment was not just limited to the holy texts of Christianity but also included the execution of its followers.
Dismemberment: Some Christians were sentenced to be divided into four — a punishment many traitors were sentenced to. Four wild horses were tied to the victim’s arms and legs and then driven to tear the victim apart.
Eaten by lions: One of the most common ways to execute Christian martyrs was by throwing them to lions. A punishment usually reserved for the empire’s most heinous criminals such as murderers and thieving slaves. The lions were kept hungry for several days before the execution, to increase their ferocity. Additionally, the victims were often dressed in animal skins stained with blood, to further provoke them. Ignatius of Antioch was one of many Christians who was killed in this manner.
Crucifixion: One of the Romans’ preferred methods of execution consisted of nailing victims to a wooden cross. Thirst took the life of the crucified man after several days. The Romans considered the punishment one of the worst, and it was typically used against rebels. Like many other Christians, the apostle Peter was sentenced to crucifixion. However, Peter did not think he was worthy to be executed in the same way as Jesus, so he asked to be crucified upside down. The Romans let him get his wish.
Condemned to the mines: One of the mildest punishments for Christians was to be sent to the mines of Rome. Here the condemned man worked underground for the rest of his days. Pope Pontian I, died in this way around the year 235 CE after he was sent to the mines of Sardinia.
The Christian Martyrs Secured the Future of Christianity
Despite facing persecution, Christianity continued to gain followers. By the start of the 4th century, around 10% of the population in the empire may have been Christians. This caused concern among some, as many of these followers held influential positions in society, leading to the belief that Christianity might take over the empire.
In February 303 CE, Emperor Diocletian ordered a direct attack on the Christian faith. Now it was to be eradicated once and for all. Soldiers stormed and razed the newly built Christian church in the eastern metropolis of Nicomedia. The city’s Christians were executed and their holy books were burned.
The next day the emperor issued a decree forbidding the Christians from gathering to pray. All Christian writings were also to be burned and churches demolished. Christians who did not voluntarily surrender their holy scriptures or refused to renounce their faith were executed.
Emperor Diocletian’s efforts to eliminate Christianity were largely unsuccessful. The number of Christians continued to increase. When Diocletian stepped down in 305 CE, Constantine was among the contenders for the role of emperor. He recognized that it was not possible to eliminate Christianity, so he decided to use it to gain an advantage in the competition for the throne.
In 312 CE, Constantine, who had been a general, gained control of the Roman Empire by winning a battle against his rivals at the Milvian Bridge outside Rome. According to legend, before the battle, Constantine saw a Christian cross in the sky with the words “in this sign you shall conquer” inscribed beneath it. As a result, he instructed his soldiers to put the Christian cross on their shields.
In the year 313 CE, Constantine issued a decree making it legal to worship the Christian god again. He had churches built, and according to tradition, he even allowed himself to be baptized on his deathbed. In the year 380 CE, Emperor Theodosius followed suit and made Christianity the only approved religion of the Empire. In just 300 years, Christianity transformed from a faith facing persecution to becoming the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. The sacrifices of the Christian martyrs played a crucial role in this transformation.