I had originally written this reflection for publication in an online magazine, but I didn’t submit it in time. So I’ll publish it here!
Happy Feast of the First Martyrs of Rome
On a late July night in AD 64, hidden in the imperial palace, Emperor Nero’s dark thoughts stirred. A substantial portion of the great city of Rome lay under ashes. Outrage spread throughout the streets of the empire’s capital. Like any outraged populous, the people of Rome called for answers. They needed answers. For many, their lives seemed utterly ruined. The emperor, that sick and twisted man who had murdered his wife and his mother, must be to blame. So the rumbling crowds shouted. Nero needed an answer for them, something that would divert their anger from him to someone, or some group, of no consequence.
Perhaps it was an aide to him who made the suggestion. Perhaps he had heard tales of a strange group that had trickled out from Palestine, a group that adhered to strange rituals and bizarre teachings. They were a relatively unpopular group, often at odds with the traditional Roman priests. Perhaps reports came to Nero’s court that these new zealots had stirred up trouble in Greece a few years earlier. The more the emperor thought on this, the more he knew he had his scapegoat.
He announced by imperial decree that this radical group was to blame for the fire of Rome. The religion became illegal, and for the 250 years that spanned the fire of Rome in AD 64 and the Edict of Milan in 313, Christians throughout the empire lived and preached under that ban. The hunt began, and it was not long before the first Christians appeared in a Roman court for that most persistent of crimes: faithfully following Jesus of Nazareth.
The feast of the First Martyrs of the Roman Church falls on June 30, the day after the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul. It is a fitting placement for such a feast, for if we include in the list of the earliest Roman martyrs those who died before Nero’s bloody suicide in AD 68, then tradition holds that both St. Peter and St. Paul fall into this category of First Roman Martyrs. On the other hand, this feast celebrates the lesser known martyrs, those whose names or life stories are lost to history.
Their deaths, however, scar the period of the early Roman Empire and provide a blueprint for the persecution of Christians even in more recent years. Imperial troops scoured the city for Christians. Arrested Christians often confessed that they were Christian, and under torture often gave the names of other Christians. The Roman writer Tacitus describes how “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” (Tacitus, Annals 15: 44). Soon this multitude filled the prisons in Rome, and executions followed.
These executions, providing the martyrs with their crowns, stand in history as among the most appalling murders ever recorded. Men, women, and children died in the circus on the Vatican Hill, near where St. Peter’s Basilica is today. Some were killed by more traditional Roman methods of execution, such as beheading or crucifixion (St. Paul died through beheading; St. Peter died via crucifixion). Others died in more diabolical ways. Nero held grand parties in his private gardens. There the attendees would see performances of horrific tales from Greco-Roman mythology, particularly ones where the tragic figure would perish at the end. The part of the helpless victim fell to the Christian prisoners. In similar fashion, guests of the emperor hunted game in the gardens, though in this scenario the game was a Christian dressed in animal skins. Nero’s dogs attacked the caught Christian and killed him or her, as they might any wild animal. The most horrific, however, came after the sun set. Nero mounted his personal chariot and rode along the garden’s pathways, cheered on by the guests. As he rode, servants lit torches along his route. These torches, burning and spitting in the Roman night air, contained not mere pitch or oil, but rather helpless Christians, who being condemned to die, served as Nero’s “Roman candles.” Many died in such horrible manners, shocking though they may be. Though the death of Nero granted the Christians some respite from such tortures, it would not be long before another Roman emperor saw reason to wipe out Christians from the empire. As French historian Henri Daniel-Rops puts it,
Between 64 and 314 every single day held for the faithful believer the ever-present threat of a frightful death: the period is divided fairly evenly into the years of active bloodshed and those of relative quiet. And every so often, during those two hundred and fifty years of history, we shall hear that cry of distress and agony rising heavenwards again, just as it had risen from the gardens of the Vatican glade in Nero’s day. But from the moment of the first tortures the faith had known how to transform that cry into a cry of hope. (Daniel-Rops, The Church of Apostles and Martyrs, 159)
How do these stories of men and women slain nearly 1950 years ago apply to us today? Like in the days of Ancient Rome, Christians today face persecution. While many are not called to martyrdom, as the Christians under Nero were, we are all prepared for it. By our baptism we are brought into new life in Christ, and by living in Christ, we also share in His death and Resurrection. We are all called to suffer for the sake of the Name, even if it isn’t to the death. We are all called to sacrifice our lives for the glory of God. No matter our vocation, we are called to give up what we once were and embrace a radical new way of living. This, then, is the ultimate lesson from these earliest martyrs of the Church, the same proclaimed by the Second Vatican Council: the Universal Call to Holiness. Only when we embrace this call can we stand with the martyrs of the early Roman Church and worship the Triune God for all eternity.
For Further Reading:
Henri Daniel-Rops. The Church of Apostles and Martyrs
Warren H. Carroll. A History of Christendom. Volume 1. The Founding of Christendom.