Ancient Christian Martyrdom: A Brief Overview

"The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church"--Tertullian

In the first few centuries, Christianity grew quickly. By AD100, it had become mostly Gentile and had begun to break from its Jewish origins. By 200, the faith had permeated most regions of the Roman Empire, though Christians were mostly in the larger urban areas (Gaul, Lyons, Carthage, Rome). By 325, an estimated 7 million were Christians with as many as 2 million killed for the faith. This growth can be attributed to the new faith's meeting needs across cultural barriers, its giving general meaning to life for many, the overall transformation of those lives, the social concerns of Christians during the plagues for the sick and the poor, and the power of its doctrine. News of the resurrection of Christ produced great loyalty among followers. Christian martyrdom also, ironically,  created vast interest in and respect for the Christians and increased their numbers.

Reasons for Persecutions

  1. Sometimes local, socio-economic conflict with Jewish circles created persecution in the first century.
  2. After A.D. 50, Christianity was put on the imperial list of "illicit" sects, and after A.D. 64, it was declared illegal, though this did not always result in continual persecution. Christians had many periods of nominal and benign neglect.
  3. Christian refusal to worship or honor other gods was a source of great contention.
  4. Before A.D. 300, Christians were often from the urban poor and lower classes; thus, they were easy prey for those seeking power or goods. However, a sizeable group of educated, middle-class Christians also existed.
  5. Christians were accused of being atheists because of their denial of the other gods and refusal of emperor worship. Thus, they were accused of treason to the state.
  6. They were accused of "secret immoral worship" practices, including cannibalism, incest, and beastalism.
  7. They were also charged as haters of humanity and being irrational in their beliefs. For many provincial governors, Christians were considered social radicals, rather than being persecuted specifically for their faith only.

Periods of Persecution

  1. Early Jewish Persecution (1st century)--cf. I Peter, Hebrews, and James.
  2. Early Sporadic persecutions--Nero (A.D. 64); Domitian (A.D. 81-96); and Trajan (A.D. 108)
  3. Marcus Aurelius (A.D.162)--The perseuction of the Christians at Lyon is the most famous incident during his period.
  4. Severus (A.D. 192)--Not everone agrees that Severus himself was responsible for Christian persecutions. The most well-known incidents took places in North Africa, such as the executions of Perpetua and Felicity.
  5. Maximus (A.D. 235)--Again, it is debated whether Maximus himself authorized these or whether they were the decisions of local governors. Several well-known Christian senators and leaders were executed during this time, while others such as Hippolytus were sent into exile.
  6. Decius (A.D. 249-251) tried to force apostasy rather than create martyrdom. He created the libellus, a stamp of state approval given after swearing fealty to Caesar.
  7. Valerian (A.D. 253-260) singled out bishops, forcing them to recant or die. He also kept Christians from meeting in cemeteries. This period has been called the Great Persecution.
  8. Diocletian (A.D. 285-305)/ "Age of the Martyrs"  known for evicting Christians from their homes, the army, and jobs. Christian churches and homes are burnt, copies of scriptures burnt, and Christian civil servants persecuted.

Responses to Persecution

  1. The Apostates: Many left the faith.
  2. The Lapsed: Some denied under torture but returned amidst opposition.
  3. The Confessors: Those who endured persecution and lived to tell about it.
  4. The Martyrs: Those who witnessed unto death.
  5. Black Market: Some in wealthier families purchased the libellus on the black market.

**The question of how the lapsed were to be restored to the Church was an important one with some demanding harsh penance and others wanting to extend the forgiveness and love of God. We will discuss this in more detail later in the semester.


"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding