In the book of Matthew 28: 16-20 Jesus Christ give us what is known as the “Great Commission” in this passage of scripture Jesus says I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth! Go to the people of all nations and make them my disciples. Baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teach them to do everything I have told you. I will be with you always, even until the end of the world.” 1 In the centuries following the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ the church did just that. However not without resistance from local governments, Christianity was considered a rouge movement that defied the governmental establishments of the time.
While Christians were simply seeking to live their life in worship to the living God, the government especially in the Roman Empire saw them as outliers and a threat to the roman way of life. While other religions were generally accepted by the roman government, Christianity was different. Romans were religious people, they had their pantheon of gods, but they did not see Christianity as a religion, they saw it as “superstitio” or a superstition. In fact Pliny a Roman governor circa 110 AD called Christianity “superstition taken to extravagant lengths. 2 Roman distrust for this new religion continued to swell with each century. Some emperors were tolerant and some were intolerant to the point of killing Christian non-conformist.
Despite growing and widespread persecutions, imprisonments, and Martyrdoms
2. Robert L. Wilkin, “The Piety of the Persecutors.” Christian History, Issue 27 (Vol. XI, No. 3), p. 18
Church of Jesus Christ grew. Through the bravery, tenacity, and audacity of early Christian men and women we today have a surviving legacy of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. When it would have been easier to succumb to the Roman government and its edicts and religious institutions, God gave his people the willingness and power to stand up for what they knew was the truth. The Roman Government thought they could intimidate Christians to silence but they were wrong.
Persecution of the church started almost at the beginning and continued sporadically through the next three hundred and fifty years. During this period Christians endures minor persecutions to the more extreme measures of persecution. At times the persecutions were local and at times they were empire wide. There was generally what is considered tem great periods of persecution.
History of Persecutions
The Persecution under Emperor Nero in Circa 64-68AD
The Persecution under Emperor Nero was the beginning of what is considered the ten periods of persecution. it was under Nero’s rule that the Apostle Paul was martyred. At his second trial before Nero he knew that he would not be acquitted of the offences against him, the Roman government saw him as a threat and wanted him dead. His exact manner of death is unknown however it is generally accepted that he was beheaded.3 Nero is also responsible for the _________________________
3. Albert Barnes, Scenes and Incidents in the Life of the Apostle Paul: Viewed as Illustrating the Nature and Influence of the Christian Religion (Ulan Press, 2012), 1. Martyrdom of the apostle Peter. Peter was by all accounts crucified, but he was said that he felt himself to be unworthy to be put to death in the same manner as his Master, and was therefore, at his own request, crucified with his head downward.4 this was only the Beginning of the persecutions, many more followed
Persecution under Domitian (r. 81-96).
The Emperor Domitian was a cruel man, not only to Christians he murdered his own brother, and killed high ranking governmental officials so that he could confiscate their land and estates. He successfully raised the second persecution of Christians by demanding that anyone who came from the lineage of David be killed. Fabricated stories were made up about Christian during this time in order to scare the roman public. For example people were told that just about any natural disaster was the fault of the Christians. Christians were brought before the magistrates and ordered to take a test oath, if the person failed to take the oath they were sentenced to death, if they claimed faith in Jesus the same sentence was pronounced. The Roman government passed a law, “That no Christian, once brought before the tribunal, should be exempted from punishment without renouncing his religion.5 “The notable martyrs during this persecution were St. John, who was boiled in oil, and afterward banished to Patmos. Simeon, bishop of Jerusalem, who was crucified; and Flavia, the daughter of a Roman senator, was also banished to Pontus6 _________________________
4. William Byron Forbush, ed., Fox’s Book of Martyrs: a History of the Lives, Sufferings, and Deaths of the Early Christian and Protestant Martyrs (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), Chapter 11. 5. William Byron Forbush, ed., Fox’s Book of Martyrs: a History of the Lives, Sufferings, and Deaths of the Early Christian and Protestant Martyrs (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), Chapter 11. 6. ibid
Persecution under Trajan (112-117)
During the third Persecution, the persecution of Trajan from 122-117 AD Christianity was officially outlawed, however the government of Rome did not seek out Christians to imprison or kill them at this time. If a Christian was imprisoned for some reason during this persecution they would have
however been killed in particularly gruesome ways. For example many Christians were crucified on Mt. Ararat, the officials would use crowns of thorns as well as pierce the sides of Christians in mockery mimicking what was done to Jesus himself. Ignatius was probably the most noted martyr during this period. Appointed the Bishop of Antioch after Peter, because he confessed Christ he was handed over to the wild beast as tradition holds. He wrote to the church in Rome saying; “Now I begin to be a disciple.
I care for nothing, of visible or invisible things, so that I may but win Christ. Let fire and the cross, let the companies of wild beasts, let breaking of bones and tearing of limbs, let the grinding of the whole body, and all the malice of the devil, come upon me; be it so, only may I win Christ Jesus! I am the wheat of Christ: I am going to be ground with the teeth of wild beasts, that I may be found pure bread.” 7 Finally during this time Quadratus, bishop of Athens, made an apology to the emperor on behalf of Christians. This apology coupled with an epistle written by a philosopher in the city, relaxed the emperors views toward Christians to relent8 _________________________
7. William Byron Forbush, ed., Fox’s Book of Martyrs: a History of the Lives, Sufferings, and Deaths of the Early Christian and Protestant Martyrs (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), Chapter 11 8. ibid
Persecution under Marcus Aurelius (r. 161-180)
During the persecution under Marchs Aureluis, The torture Christians received during this period, was so grievous that even spectators to the torture would shudder at the extent of it. Christians were severely tortured during this period. They were often scourged to the point that their muscles and veins were visible; they were made to walk over nails, sharp shells, and thorns with feet that were already badly injured. The fate of their lives weren’t much better, if they did not succumb to the torture they were made to endure, they were beheaded, pressed together with weights, or burnt at the steak.
The notable Martyrs of this period are Polycarp, who after being captured by Roman guards was permitted an hour to pray. After the hour was done the guards who had watched him pray so fervently, actually repented that they had been instrumental in his capture. He was then dragged before proconsul and urged “Swear and I will release thee;–reproach Christ.” 9 Upon his refusal he was burned in the market place. Justin was another notable martyr during this period. Justin was a notable scholar, philosopher, and teacher. After finishing The Second Apology Justin the emperor was angry and as a result Justin and six of his companions were imprisoned and forced to make sacrifices to pagan gods, when they refused the were scourged and the beheaded.
9. William Byron Forbush, ed., Fox’s Book of Martyrs: a History of the Lives, Sufferings, and Deaths of the Early Christian and Protestant Martyrs (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), Chapter 11 10. ibid
Persecution under Septimus Severus A.D. 192
The emperor Severus, was not especially violent toward Christians. One had saved his life from a sever sickness. However ignorance in the people coupled with outdated laws put in place to execute Christians is what drove the persecution during this period. Pleasure on the Emperor by The masses, made Severus make a new edict that any new believer to Jesus Christ should be executed. Many Christians were inevitably killed under Severus because of this edict Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons was one of the notable martyrs of this period. His zeal for the things of God made the Emperor take notice of him, after a considerable amount of resentment grew Irenaeus was tortured and beheaded.11 Perpetua and Felicitas were two other notable figures in this period. Bothe women were married Perpetua was nursing and infant son and Felicitas was pregnant at the time of her capture and later gave birth in prison. On the day appointed for their execution, they were led to the amphitheater. Felicitas and Perpetua were stripped, in order to be thrown to a mad bull, the bull attacked Perpetua first and then darted at Felicitas, and gored her. Both women survived being attacked by the bull, but were later executed by sword. The audience watching the torture and execution was said to have been sickened by the sight of Felisitas’ lactating breast from her recent birth.
11. William Byron Forbush, ed., Fox’s Book of Martyrs: a History of the Lives, Sufferings, and Deaths of the Early Christian and Protestant Martyrs (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), Chapter 11
12. Alexander Roberts et al., 10 Early Christian Saints: Polycarp, Perpetua and Felicitas, Cyprian, Eusebius, Antony, Athanasius, Chrysostom, Jerome, Patrick, Benedict (publication place: Error, 2012), 1.
The Sixth Persecution, Under Maximus, A.D. 235, mn
During the sixth persecution under the Emperor Maximus the president Seremianus was on a mission to kill as many Christians as he could. Many Christians were sentenced to death without ever even receiving a trial, Christians were killed in mass killings and dumped into mass graves
not unlike the genocide bestowed upon the Jews, during Hitler’s reign of terror in the early part of the 1900’s. Christians were denied any or the respect or decency that so called “loyal Roman citizens” would expect in their death and burial.
Many Christians were killed or tortured during this period; most notable are Pontianus, bishop of Rome, Anteros, his successor, who gave offence to the government by collecting the acts of the martyrs. As well as Hippolitus, a Christian prelate (high ranking member of the clergy) 13, who was cruelly tied to a wild horse, and dragged until he died.
Persecution under Decius (250-251)
After a time of relative peace and an emperor that was deemed a Christian, the emperor Decius had a decidedly vigorous hate for Christians. Decius goal was to erase even the name “Christian” at any cost. His decrees to kill Christians emboldened the heathens who were happy
13. Merriam-Webster, The Merriam-Webster Dictionary. (Springfield, MA: Merriam Webster Mass Market, 2004), 1. 14. William Byron Forbush, ed., Fox’s Book of Martyrs: a History of the Lives, Sufferings, and Deaths of the Early Christian and Protestant Martyrs (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), Chapter 11 to honor the decrees by killing any Christian they could find. The More Christian deaths attributed to one heathen the higher that heathen’s merit would be. Fabian, the bishop of Rome, was the first person of prominence to fall victim to this murderous rampage. The previous emperor, Phillip thought highly of Fabian and made the bishop his treasurer; however Decius did not think so highly of Fabian. On January 20, A.D. 250, he was beheaded Peter, a young, strong man, was stretched upon a wheel, by which all his bones were broken was beheaded for refusing to sacrifice to Venus.
He was quoted as saying “I am astonished you should sacrifice to an infamous woman, whose debaucheries even your own historian’s record, and whose life consisted of such actions as your laws would punish. No, I shall offer the true God the acceptable sacrifice of praises and prayers.” 15 An innumerable amount of Christians were killed during this time. Christians are actively sought out by requiring public sacrifice. If they refused they would be killed or they could buy certificates (libelli) instead of sacrificing. The latter was against the rules of the church and carried a severe punishment16 Persecution under Valerian (257-59)
Valerian took his position in A.D. 257 and maintained his position for three and a half years. During his reign there is no number that can be put on how many Christians were martyred during this time. A couple of the martyrs that were named were bishops with in Rome. There was Stephen who was beheaded and then there was a Toulouse who refused to sacrifice.
15. William Byron Forbush, ed., Fox’s Book of Martyrs: a History of the Lives, Sufferings, and Deaths of the Early Christian and Protestant Martyrs (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), Chapter 11 16. Ferguson, Everett. Church History. 2 vols. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2005-2013. Pp 161-162 Idols, which had his feet tied to the tail of a bull that ran down stairs causes his head to be smashed. Sextus who succeeded Stephen was very courageous during his time a bishop. It was during his time that the government released an order to put to death all Christian clergy in Rome, Stephen as well as his deacons where martyred.
With no regard of age, sex, or title Valerian continued to martyr Christian until he was captured and brought into slavery by the emperor of Persia. After being a slave for seven years, Valerian had his eyes removed and was flayed alive by the emperor, which is what caused Valerian to die. In A.D. 260, Gallienus, who was Valerian, succeeded his father and actually during his time, enjoyed peace with the church17
Persecution under Aurelian (r. 270–275)
In A.D 274 Aurelian was in emperor of Rome and had been mainly responsible for the martyrs of two known Christians. The first being a bishop named Felix, who was an advanced prelate to the Roman see. He was later martyred by being sentenced to death by being beheaded. The other known martyr was a gentleman named Agapetus, who sold everything and gave it all to the poor. He was arrested for being a Christian, tortured and then beheaded for this deed. Although Aurelian is not tied together with many martyrs, we planted the seed that was later picked up by a leader named Diocletian.
17. William Byron Forbush, ed., Fox’s Book of Martyrs: a History of the Lives, Sufferings, and Deaths of the Early Christian and Protestant Martyrs (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), Chapter 11
Severe persecution under Diocletian and Galerius (303-324)
In A.D 303 were succumbed to a new leader that had a vision of removing all Christians and everything related to the faith. A Roman leader named Galerius was persuaded by his adopted son Diocletian to start the persecution of Christians. The persecution that was set forth towards became so bad that the time frame of these leaders became known as the Era of the Martyrs.
This Era began on February 23, A.D 303 by churches being forced open and all books were removed and set to flames. Not being satisfied by the burning of the books Diocletian and Galerius had all churches levelled to the ground and all Christians render as outlaws. Many Christians were seized, severely tortured, and then burned alive. Enable to increase the persecution of Christians Galerius ordered the imperial palace to be set on fire and charge Christians with the crime. This lead to Christian homes being set on fire while families were in them and perishing in the fire. Some families were tied together with rocks around their necks and thrown into the sea. This kind of tortured last ten years and got to the level were new inventions were created on how to conduct torture as well as an entire city named Phrygia, was burnt to the ground with all the Christians from the town dying in the flames. At one point many of the governors came to the imperial court submitting how they were tired with the slaughtering of the people. From that point on, since they could not be put to death, Christians had their ears, eyes, noses, or limbs removed to make life as hard as possible.
During this time there was a Christian officer of the emperor’s guard at Rome named Sebastian. Not willing to give in to the pagan believe that was being taught to him as a guard, Sebastian was shot to death with arrows. Once the execution was completed, other Christians were allowed to recover his body for burial. It was during this time, that they found life in his body and proceeded to help him recover. Sebastian decided to confront Diocletian, who was overcome with surprise to see him alive, and reprehended him for various cruelties and prejudices against Christian. Sebastian was sentenced to death by beating and was thrown into the sewers where his body was later recovered and buried by Christians.
The Christian Response
One would expect for Christianity to have died out after so many centuries of an all-out demonic attack against the people of God. That’s not what happened though. Despite all torture, discrimination. And mass killings. Christianity grew tremendously. In the face of immense persecution, many Christians decided that it was worth it to die before they would deny their Lord and Savior. Justin Martyr was quoted as saying Though beheaded, and crucified, and thrown to wild beasts, and chains, and fire, and all other kinds of torture, we do not give up our confession; but, the more such things happen, the more do others in larger numbers become faithful.20 The killing of Christians was meant to dissuade other citizens from becoming Christians and to persuade Christians to turn their back on God. Martyrdom was meant to be a dishonor; instead it became the highest honor for a Christian. Many onlookers marveled at the fact that Christians could be put through so much and still be strong in their faith.
19. William Byron Forbush, ed., Fox’s Book of Martyrs: a History of the Lives, Sufferings, and Deaths of the Early Christian and Protestant Martyrs (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), Chapter 11
20. Justin Martyr, Michael Slusser, and Justin, Dialogue with Trypho (Selections from the Fathers of the Church), Revised ed. (Washington, DC: Catholic Univ of Amer Pr, 2003), 1.
The very thing that was supposed to deter Roman citizens from Christianity was in actuality driving them toward it. Another Christian response to persecution was to write an apology, not an apology in the sense of the way we use the term today, but as a defense of Christianity. The Apologist as they are known wrote apology’s to defend Christians and their faith, against pagan actions and misconceptions. These apologies were mainly aimed at emperors to dispute the erroneous claims that pagans held about Christians, and to promote Christians as Good citizens of the Roman Government that held differing religious beliefs. Christians were not cannibalistic, law breaking, people who involved in orgies and this is what the apologies tried to convey, in hopes that the persecution of the time would subside.
From the beginning of the Christian faith there was always demonic opposition to the growth of Christianity. Satan used people as his pawns from the moment of the birth of Jesus to exterminate Gods plan for the world. After the death and resurrection of our Savior this demonic influence was kicked into overdrive. Roman Emperor after Roman Emperor tried to eradicate Christianity, but because of the strength and faith of many early Christians this did not happen. Today we can thank the early church fathers for laying the foundation and planting the seeds of the Church that we have today and especially in America take for granted. This does not mean that the devils all-out assault on the Christian church is over; it is still under attack even today. Still in many party of the world Christians are tortured and die every day because they refuse to deny the truth. The struggle of the early church seems to be so far away for some of us who live comfortably and have the freedom to worship how we want. In reality as a people we are not that far removed from it. Every Christian person should be aware of the price that was paid for the Christianity there is today.
1. Wilken, Robert L. The Christians as the Romans Saw Them. 2nd ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003.
2. Barnes, Albert. Scenes and Incidents in the Life of the Apostle Paul: Viewed as Illustrating the Nature and Influence of the Christian Religion. Publication place: Ulan Press, 2012.
3. Forbush, William Byron, ed. Fox’s Book of Martyrs: a History of the Lives, Sufferings, and Deaths of the Early Christian and Protestant Martyrs. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978.
4. Roberts, Alexander, James Donaldson, St. Athanasius, Philip Schaff, St Patrick, and Tertullian. 10 Early Christian Saints: Polycarp, Perpetua and Felicitas, Cyprian, Eusebius, Antony, Athanasius, Chrysostom, Jerome, Patrick, Benedict. publication place: Error, 2012.
5. Merriam-Webster. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Springfield, MA: Merriam Webster Mass Market, 2004.
6. Ferguson, Everett. Church History. 2 vols. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2005-2013.
7. Martyr, Justin, Michael Slusser, and Justin. Dialogue with Trypho (Selections from the Fathers of the Church). Revised ed. Washington, DC: Catholic Univ of Amer Pr, 2003.