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The Blood of the Martyrs

February 6th, 2010 2 comments

The Blood of the Martyrs

In ancient Rome, refusal to worship the state sponsored gods was considered ‘atheism’. The crime of atheism was punishable by death. Certain religions were granted various degrees of tolerance at divers times. But the underlying Roman attitude towards such ‘superstitions’ was one of disdain. And one who practiced ‘impious’ rites was considered less than a true Roman.

In western Christian society we are accustomed to the concepts of human rights and guaranteed liberties. This modern bias makes it difficult for us to relate to cultures which not only did not protect freedom of speech or religion, but saw nonconformity in these areas as undesirable – disloyalty to the established order, as it were. For this reason, we tend to downplay the idea that the Romans could have really executed ‘vast multitudes’ of early Christians merely for an observance of custom. Progressive historians such as Gibbon have added to the notion that the tales of martyrdom surely must have been overstated. How could ‘civilized’ Romans, responsible for much of our law and cultural institutions, have really massacred tens or hundreds of thousands of innocents, over what amounts to a difference of opinion?

Rather than debate the inherent capacity of man for good or evil, regaling in the legacies of Stalin, Hitler, Mao, or those up and coming tyrants, Ahmadinejad for instance, I thought I would let the Romans tell the story in their own words. The Christian testimony to these atrocities is far more vivid and comprehensive of course, but how much more compelling to let the culprit, rather than the victim, speak of the crime?

Tiberius, pertaining to the Jews during Christ’s lifetime [19 AD]:

As the Jews flocked to Rome in great numbers and were converting many of the natives to their ways, he [Tiberius] banished most of them.

-Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book LVII, 18.5 [written around 220 AD]

There was a debate too about expelling the Egyptian and Jewish worship, and a resolution of the Senate was passed that four thousand of the freedmen class who were infected with those superstitions and were of military age should be transported to the island of Sardinia, to quell the brigandage of the place, a cheap sacrifice should they die from the pestilential climate. The rest were to quit Italy, unless before a certain day they repudiated their impious rites.

-Publius Cornelius Tacitus, The Annals, Book II, 85 [written around 110 AD]

He [Tiberius] abolished foreign cults, especially the Egyptian and the Jewish rites, compelling all who were addicted to such superstitions to burn their religious vestments and all their paraphernalia. Those of the Jews who were of military age he assigned to provinces of less healthy climate, ostensibly to serve in the army; the others of that same race or of similar beliefs he banished from the city, on pain of slavery for life if they did not obey. He banished the astrologers as well, but pardoned such as begged for indulgence and promised to give up their art.

-Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, Tiberius 36 [written 121 AD]

Claudius, when Christianity was still considered to be a sect of Judaism and therefore a ‘legal’ Roman religion [around 50 AD]. ‘Chrestus’ was a common Græco-Roman variant of ‘Christos’ or ‘Christ’:

1After this, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth.

2There he met a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all the Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them…

-Acts 18:1, 2 (NIV) [written around 62 AD]

Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome.

-Suetonius, Claudius, 25.4 [written 121 AD]

Nero, upon recognition in 64 AD of Christianity as a religion separate from Judaism, non-sanctioned by the Roman state, and therefore punishable by death:

Such indeed were the precautions of human wisdom. The next thing was to seek means of propitiating the gods, and recourse was had to the Sibylline books, by the direction of which prayers were offered to Vulcanus, Ceres, and Proserpina. Juno, too, was entreated by the matrons, first, in the Capitol, then on the nearest part of the coast, whence water was procured to sprinkle the fane and image of the goddess. And there were sacred banquets and nightly vigils celebrated by married women. But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order. Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed.

-Tacitus, Annals, XV, 44 [written around 110 AD]

He devised a new form for the buildings of the city and in front of the houses and apartments he erected porches, from the flat roofs of which fires could be fought; and these he put up at his own cost. He had also planned to extend the walls as far as Ostia and to bring the sea from there to Rome by a canal…

Punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition.

-Suetonius, Nero, 16 [written 121 AD]

After Nero was overthrown in 68 AD, a period of civil unrest followed that claimed the lives of three of his successors within eighteen months[i]. Then in December of 69 AD, Vespasian’s general Antonius Primus defeated Aulus Vitellius’ forces for possession of Rome[ii], thus fulfilling the prophecy of Joseph and establishing the Flavian dynasty. Joseph was given his freedom, an apartment in Vespasian’s own house in Rome, an Imperial pension, and Roman citizenship in recognition of his support[iii]. Adopting his benefactor’s family name, Flavius Josephus proceeded under Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian to write the various histories which have provided us so much source material.

Vespasian, as Emperor, immediately placed his son Titus in command of the War in Judea. When Jerusalem was razed in 70 AD, Vespasian enacted the Fiscus Judaicus, a tax upon Jews which went to support the worship of Jupiter Capitolinus, as punishment to the Jewish People for their rebellion[iv].

Nero’s policy mandating death for those who practiced Christianity was apparently still in effect throughout the reign of Vespasian. There is no evidence that Nero’s anti-Christian decrees were revoked, or that Christianity was ever recognized as an approved religion. Indeed, it is hard to imagine that Vespasian could rescind the anti-Christian policies in the immediate aftermath of the Judean War, when Roman sentiment against all things Judean still ran high[v].

Titus succeeded upon Vespasian’s death in 79 AD. He apparently trusted his father’s policies concerning Christians and Jews throughout his two years of supremacy, as there is no record of any deviation in this regard.

Titus Flavius Domitianus (Domitian) became Emperor when his older brother passed away in 81 AD. Domitian actively hunted Christians early in his reign[vi]; executed many who “drifted into Jewish ways” even toward the end of his reign, and vigorously enforced the Fiscus Judaicus from 81-96 AD. Conversion to Christianity was frequently described by Romans as ‘drifting into Jewish ways’, since Christianity was seen as an offshoot of Judaism. Remember that Judaism was legal although subject to the Fiscus Judaicus, Christianity was punishable by death:

And the same year Domitian slew, along with many others, Flavius Clemens the consul, although he was a cousin and had to wife Flavia Domitilla[1], who was also a relative of the emperor’s. The charge brought against them both was that of atheism, a charge on which many others who drifted into Jewish ways were condemned. Some of these were put to death, and the rest were at least deprived of their property. Domitilla was merely banished to Pandateria.

-Dio, Roman History, LXVII, 14 [written around 220 AD]

Domitian’s agents collected the tax on Jews with a peculiar lack of mercy; and took proceedings not only against those who kept their Jewish origins a secret in order to avoid the tax, but against those who lived as Jews without professing Judaism. As a boy, I remember once attending a crowded Court where the imperial agent had a ninety-year-old man inspected to establish whether or not he had been circumcised.

- Suetonius, Domitian, 12 [written 121 AD]

When Domitian was assassinated, Marcus Cocceius Nerva (Nerva) finally granted some relief to Christians and Jews:

Nerva also released all who were on trial for maiestas and restored the exiles; moreover, he put to death all the slaves and the freedmen who had conspired against their masters and allowed that class of persons to lodge no complaint whatever against their masters; and no persons were permitted to accuse anybody of maiestas or of adopting the Jewish mode of life.

Dio, Roman History LXVIII, i, 2 [written around 220 AD]

Notice that Nerva did not repeal the Fiscus Judaicus, which was still in effect when Tertullian and Origen wrote in the early Third Century[vii]. Neither did he grant legal status to Christianity. Nor did he condone proselytization by Christians or Jews. He merely ended the prosecution of these “crimes” by preventing accusations. Whether he intended an eventual long term policy change we will never know. Due to his age, Nerva’s reign was only to last one year, four months, and nine days[viii]. Shortly after adopting Marcus Ulpius Traianus (Trajan) as his heir, Nerva passed away.

By the time of Trajan (98-117 AD) it was accepted policy that practicing Christians were to be executed, and Jews were to be taxed. There is no reason to infer that some variant of these basic policies were not in effect from the times of Nero and Vespasian respectively until the time of Trajan. The only question is how vigorously offenders were to be sought out.

Gaius Plinius Luci filius Caecilius Secundus, or Pliny the younger, was a Roman statesman, writer, and personal friend of the Emperor Trajan who reigned from 98-117 AD. Appointed legatus propraetore consulari potestate of the province Bithynia around 111 AD[ix], Pliny exchanged a series of letters with the Emperor discussing the problems he faced as Governor. This unique correspondence provides an insightful look into the inner workings and attitudes of Roman administrations during the period immediately preceding 110-115 A.D. Pliny and Trajan agree in Epistles XCVI & XCVII that Christians who denied Christ and worshipped Roman Gods were to obtain a full pardon – those who remained committed to Christ were to be executed:

Pliny the Younger to the Emperor Trajan:

It is my practice, my lord, to refer to you all matters concerning which I am in doubt. For who can better give guidance to my hesitation or inform my ignorance? I have never participated in trials of Christians. I therefore do not know what offenses it is the practice to punish or investigate, and to what extent. And I have been not a little hesitant as to whether there should be any distinction on account of age or no difference between the very young and the more mature; whether pardon is to be granted for repentance, or, if a man has once been a Christian, it does him no good to have ceased to be one; whether the name itself, even without offenses, or only the offenses associated with the name are to be punished.

Meanwhile, in the case of those who were denounced to me as Christians, I have observed the following procedure: I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed. For I had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished. There were others possessed of the same folly; but because they were Roman citizens, I signed an order for them to be transferred to Rome.

Soon accusations spread, as usually happens, because of the proceedings going on, and several incidents occurred. An anonymous document was published containing the names of many persons. Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ—none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to dothese I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.

They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food—but ordinary and innocent food. Even this, they affirmed, they had ceased to do after my edict by which, in accordance with your instructions, I had forbidden political associations. Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition.

I therefore postponed the investigation and hastened to consult you. For the matter seemed to me to warrant consulting you, especially because of the number involved. For many persons of every age, every rank, and also of both sexes are and will be endangered. For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms. But it seems possible to check and cure it. It is certainly quite clear that the temples, which had been almost deserted, have begun to be frequented, that the established religious rites, long neglected, are being resumed, and that from everywhere sacrificial animals are coming, for which until now very few purchasers could be found. Hence it is easy to imagine what a multitude of people can be reformed if an opportunity for repentance is afforded.

Trajan to Pliny the Younger:

You observed proper procedure, my dear Pliny, in sifting the cases of those who had been denounced to you as Christians. For it is not possible to lay down any general rule to serve as a kind of fixed standard. They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it–that is, by worshiping our gods–even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance. But anonymously posted accusations ought to have no place in any prosecution. For this is both a dangerous kind of precedent and out of keeping with the spirit of our age.

-The Letters of Pliny, Book X (The Correspondence of Pliny with Trajan,) XCVI & XCVII

It seems unlikely that recantation would have saved a Christian during the reign of Nero, but the policy approved by Pliny and Trajan probably developed gradually during the reigns of Vespasian through Nerva. This policy was certainly still in effect ninety years later (198-204 A.D.) when the Roman jurist Tertullian, having converted to Christianity, presented his famous defense[x] to the Romans:

And then, too, you do not in that case deal with us in the ordinary way of judicial proceedings against offenders; for, in the case of others denying, you apply the torture to make them confess—Christians alone you torture, to make them deny; whereas, if we were guilty of any crime, we should be sure to deny it, and you with your tortures would force us to confession.

-Tertullian, Apology, II

The reign of Hadrian (117-138 AD) seems relatively free from such charges. It is unclear whether Telesphorus, Bishop of Rome, was martyred during the end of Hadrian’s reign, or the beginning of the reign of Antoninus Pius. And there may have been unrecorded instances based upon long standing Imperial policy. But Melito and Justin both reference the following rescript from Hadrian to Minucius Fundanus, proconsul of Asia, dated around 125 AD, as evidence of this Emperor’s leniency towards Christians:

I have received the letter addressed to me by your predecessor Serenius Granianus, a most illustrious man; and this communication I am unwilling to pass over in silence, lest innocent persons be disturbed, and occasion be given to the informers for practising villany. Accordingly, if the inhabitants of your province will so far sustain this petition of theirs as to accuse the Christians in some court of law, I do not prohibit them from doing so. But I will not suffer them to make use of mere entreaties and outcries. For it is far more just, if any one desires to make an accusation, that you give judgment upon it. If, therefore, any one makes the accusation, and furnishes proof that the said men do anything contrary to the laws, you shall adjudge punishments in proportion to the offences. And this, by Hercules, you shall give special heed to, that if any man shall, through mere calumny, bring an accusation against any of these persons, you shall award to him more severe punishments in proportion to his wickedness.” – Attached to Justin’s Apology to Antoninus Pius (written around 140 AD).

By the time of Marcus Aurelius’ reign, Christians were renowned throughout the Roman Empire for their disdain of torture and death. And the knowledge was not confined to the lower echelons of society. Marcus Aurelius, himself, was aware of the problem. Following the Stoic influence of Epictetus[xi], the Roman Emperor echoed the sentiments of Pliny and Trajan when he wrote:

What a soul that is which is ready, if at any moment it must be separated from the body, and ready either to be extinguished or dispersed or continue to exist; but so that this readiness comes from a man’s own judgement, not from mere obstinacy, as with the Christians, but considerately and with dignity and in a way to persuade another, without tragic show.

-Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, XI, 3 (Translation by George Long)

Or as Lucian of Samosata, a popular satirist to the Greco-Roman world, so eloquently put it [written around 169 AD]:

You see, these misguided creatures start with the general conviction that they are immortal for all time, which explains the contempt of death and voluntary self-devotion which are so common among them; and then it was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws. All this they take quite on trust, with the result that they despise all worldly goods alike, regarding them merely as common property.

-Lucian of Samosata, The Death of Peregrine, Paragraph 13, (Translated by H. W. Fowler and F. G. Fowler)

Written during the reign of Lucius Septimius Severus around 197 AD, Tertullian makes our closing argument:

In that case, you say, why do you complain of our persecutions? You ought rather to be grateful to us for giving you the sufferings you want. Well, it is quite true that it is our desire to suffer, but it is in the way that the soldier longs for war. No one indeed suffers willingly, since suffering necessarily implies fear and danger.  Yet the man who objected to the conflict, both fights with all his strength, and when victorious, he rejoices in the battle, because he reaps from it glory and spoil. It is our battle to be summoned to your tribunals that there, under fear of execution, we may battle for the truth. But the day is won when the object of the struggle is gained.  This victory of ours gives us the glory of pleasing God, and the spoil of life eternal. But we are overcome. Yes, when we have obtained our wishes. Therefore we conquer in dying; we go forth victorious at the very time we are subdued. Call us, if you like, Sarmenticii and Semaxii, because, bound to a half-axle stake, we are burned in a circle-heap of fagots. This is the attitude in which we conquer, it is our victory-robe, it is for us a sort of triumphal car. Naturally enough, therefore, we do not please the vanquished; on account of this, indeed, we are counted a desperate, reckless race. But the very desperation and recklessness you object to in us, among yourselves lift high the standard of virtue in the cause of glory and of fame… But go zealously on, good presidents, you will stand higher with the people if you sacrifice the Christians at their wish, kill us, torture us, condemn us, grind us to dust; your injustice is the proof that we are innocent. Therefore God suffers that we thus suffer; for but very lately, in condemning a Christian woman to the leno rather than to the leo you made confession that a taint on our purity is considered among us something more terrible than any punishment and any death. Nor does your cruelty, however exquisite, avail you; it is rather a temptation to us.  The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed. Many of your writers exhort to the courageous bearing of pain and death, as Cicero in the Tusculans, as Seneca in his Chances, as Diogenes, Pyrrhus, Callinicus; and yet their words do not find so many disciples as Christians do, teachers not by words, but by their deeds. That very obstinacy you rail against is the preceptress. For who that contemplates it, is not excited to inquire what is at the bottom of it? who, after inquiry, does not embrace our doctrines? and when he has embraced them, desires not to suffer that he may become partaker of the fulness of God’s grace, that he may obtain from God complete forgiveness, by giving in exchange his blood? For that secures the remission of all offences. On this account it is that we return thanks on the very spot for your sentences. As the divine and human are ever opposed to each other, when we are condemned by you, we are acquitted by the Highest.

Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus, Apology, Chapter L


[1] Lightfoot argued that these two Flavia Domitilla’s, one the wife and one the niece of Flavius Clemons, are in fact the same person. He believed that she was the wife of Flavius Clemons and the niece of the Emperor Domitian. He also provides archeological evidence which indicates that Flavia Domitilla dedicated land for use as one of the earliest Roman Christian cemeteries. – (J.B. Lightfoot, The Apostolic Fathers, Part I, Volume 1, Chapter 2: Clement the Doctor.) Whether niece and aunt shared a family name, as was common, or whether Lightfoot’s mistaken identity occurred matters not to us. Domitian persecuted Christians in either case.


[i] Will Durant, Caesar and Christ, The Story of Civilization, Part III, Simon and Schuster, 1944, eleventh printing, Chapter XIII, Page 284-285

[ii] Dio, Roman History, LXV, 20-22; Tacitus, Histories III, 84-85; IV, 1; Josephus, Wars IV, ix, 2; xi, 4; Suetonius, Vitellius XVII-XVIII

[iii] Josephus, The Life of Flavius Josephus 76

[iv] Josephus, Wars VII, vi, 6; Dio, Roman History LXVI, vii, 2; Appian, The Syrian Wars 50; Origen, Epistle to Africanus 14; Tertullian, Apology XVIII

[v] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History III, xii; Josephus, Wars VII, iii, 1; J.B Lightfoot, The Apostolic Fathers, Second Edition (Reprint), Part Two, Ignatius & Polycarp, Volume 1, Ignatius Chapter 1, Ignatius the Martyr, pp 15-16,  (Hilary of Poitiers on Vespasian)

[vi] Tertullian, Apology, V

[vii] Origen, Epistle to Africanus 14; Tertullian, Apology XVIII

[viii] Dio, Roman History LXVIII, iv, 2

[ix] C. Plinii Caecilii Secundi Epistulae Ad Traianum Imperatorem Cum Eiusdem Responsis, Edited, With Notes and Introductory Essays by E.G. Hardy, M.A., London, Macmillan and Co., 1889, Introductary Biography of Pliny, page 24; Pliny, Letters, Books I-VII, Translated by Betty Radice,  Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England, 1969, Introduction, page xii

[x] See also Tertullian, Ad Nationes, Book I, ii

[xi] Epictetus (Arrian), Discourses, IV, 7.6

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