Monday, June 29, 2009

The Roman Empire, the Early Christian Martyrs and a Thought about the Martyrology

At this time of the year, I find that my mind particularly turns toward the martyrs and Rome. This is for two reasons. For one, we find ourselves today celebrating the feast of Ss. Peter and Paul, both of whom were martyred within Rome. As well, tomorrow in the modern Roman calendar, we mark the feast of the First Martyrs of the Holy Roman Church. In the spirit of these liturgical days, I thought it might be worthwhile to share some brief and random reflections on the martyrs from some early historical sources.

We begin with the Roman orator and historian, Tacitus (ca. A.D. 56-125). In The Annals, Tacitus speaks of the persecution and martyrdom of some of the Christians in the time of the Emperor Nero (reigned A.D. 54-68) -- while also providing some period pagan Roman commentary about the "superstition" and "abomination" of the Christian Faith. The account comes in the context of the great fire of Rome, "a disaster... whether accidental or treacherously contrived by the emperor, is uncertain... and more dreadful than any which have ever happened to this city by the violence of fire." (Annals, 15.38)

Tacitus picks up on Nero's machinations to deal with the political fallout from this event, which involved the martyrdom of many Christians:

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.

Annals, 15.44

The Torches of Nero, by Henryk Siemiradzki

The Roman lawyer and magistrate, Pliny the Younger (ca. A.D. 61-112), spoke as follows with regard to the consequence of simply being a Christian, writing to the Emperor Trajan to receive confirmation (which he received) from the Emperor:
Never have been present at any trials of the Christians, I do not know what means and limits are to be observed in examining or punishing them... This is the way I have dealt with those who have been denounced to me as Christians: I asked them if they were Christians. If they admitted that they were, I asked them again a second and a third time threatening them with capital punishment. If they still persevered, I ordered them to be executed. For I felt certain that whatever it was that they professed, their contumacy and inflexible obstinancy obviously demanded punishment. There were others of like madness, but since they were Roman citizens, I had them sent to Rome....

- Letters 10.96

Pope St. Clement, the fourth Roman Pontiff (reigned A.D. 88-97) wrote briefly of the martyrdom of Ss. Peter and Paul and of other Roman martyrs in his epistle to the Corinthians. There, he also makes a reference to the persecution ("calamitous events") of the Emperor Domitian (reigned A.D. 81-96) against the Church:
The church of God which sojourns at Rome, to the church of God sojourning at Corinth, to them that are called and sanctified by the will of God, through our Lord Jesus Christ: Grace unto you, and peace, from Almighty God through Jesus Christ, be multiplied.

Owing, dear brethren, to the sudden and successive calamitous events which have happened to ourselves, we feel that we have been somewhat tardy in turning our attention to the points respecting which you consulted us...

Let us take the noble examples furnished in our own generation. Through envy and jealousy the greatest and most righteous pillars [of the church] have been persecuted and put to death. Let us set before our eyes the illustrious apostles. Peter, through unrighteous envy, endured not one or two, but numerous labours; and when he had at length suffered martyrdom, departed to the place of glory due to him. Owing to envy, Paul also obtained the reward of patient endurance, after being seven times thrown into captivity, compelled to flee, and stoned. After preaching both in the east and west, he gained the illustrious reputation due to his faith, having taught righteousness to the whole world, and come to the extreme limit of the west, and suffered martyrdom under the prefects. Thus was he removed from the world, and went into the holy place, having proved himself a striking example of patience.

To these men who spent their lives in the practice of holiness, there is to be added a great multitude of the elect, who, having through envy endured many indignities and tortures, furnished us with a most excellent example. Through envy, those women, the Danaids and Dircæ, being persecuted, after they had suffered terrible and unspeakable torments, finished the course of their faith with steadfastness, and though weak in body, received a noble reward.

- Letter to the Corinthians, ch. 5-6

The great ecclesiastical historian Eusebius (ca. A.D. 263–339), in his Historia Ecclesiastica also gives us this account of the martyrdom of Ss. Peter and Paul in Rome:
The Persecution under Nero in which Paul and Peter were honored at Rome with Martyrdom in Behalf of Religion.

1. When the government of Nero was now firmly established, he began to plunge into unholy pursuits, and armed himself even against the religion of the God of the universe.

2. To describe the greatness of his depravity does not lie within the plan of the present work. As there are many indeed that have recorded his history in most accurate narratives, every one may at his pleasure learn from them the coarseness of the man's extraordinary madness, under the influence of which, after he had accomplished the destruction of so many myriads without any reason, he ran into such blood-guiltiness that he did not spare even his nearest relatives and dearest friends, but destroyed his mother and his brothers and his wife, with very many others of his own family as he would private and public enemies, with various kinds of deaths.

3. But with all these things this particular in the catalogue of his crimes was still wanting, that he was the first of the emperors who showed himself an enemy of the divine religion.

4. The Roman Tertullian is likewise a witness of this. He writes as follows: "Examine your records. There you will find that Nero was the first that persecuted this doctrine, particularly then when after subduing all the east, he exercised his cruelty against all at Rome. We glory in having such a man the leader in our punishment. For whoever knows him can understand that nothing was condemned by Nero unless it was something of great excellence."

5. Thus publicly announcing himself as the first among God's chief enemies, he was led on to the slaughter of the apostles. It is, therefore, recorded that Paul was beheaded in Rome itself, and that Peter likewise was crucified under Nero. This account of Peter and Paul is substantiated by the fact that their names are preserved in the cemeteries of that place even to the present day.

6. It is confirmed likewise by Caius, a member of the Church, who arose under Zephyrinus, bishop of Rome. He, in a published disputation with Proclus, the leader of the Phrygian heresy, speaks as follows concerning the places where the sacred corpses of the aforesaid apostles are laid:

7. "But I can show the trophies of the apostles. For if you will go to the Vatican or to the Ostian way, you will find the trophies of those who laid the foundations of this church."

8. And that they both suffered martyrdom at the same time is stated by Dionysius, bishop of Corinth, in his epistle to the Romans, in the following words: "You have thus by such an admonition bound together the planting of Peter and of Paul at Rome and Corinth. For both of them planted and likewise taught us in our Corinth. And they taught together in like manner in Italy, and suffered martyrdom at the same time." I have quoted these things in order that the truth of the history might be still more confirmed.

- Church History II.21.7


We could of course continue on with various sources which speak to the persecution and martyrdom of so many Christians in the Roman empire in these times. Instead I will focus on two points.

One is that this consideration of the plight of the early Church further emphasizes the importance of the activities of the Emperor Constantine for the Church, who, with the Edict of Milan, legalized Christianity, removing the penalties associated with it. Accordingly, he is revered as a saint within the Eastern Churches, and given the title of "Constantine the Great" also within the Latin Church.

(Right: A statue of Constantine which is found in the portico of the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran)

In the second instance, these matters bring us to an extension of our recent consideration of the importance of the breviary, which is the further consideration of the Martyrlogium Romanum or Roman Martyrology. The Roman Martyrology, like the breviary, is a liturgical book proper. It strikes me that in our day, we should strive to be more conscientious of the sacrifice made by the early martyrs. What better way than by reading each day the brief and commemorative accounts carried in the Martyrology, to at least bring them, however briefly, to our daily recollection.

(For those interested, Preserving Christian Publications sells a copy of the edition published in 1961. See here: The Roman Martyrology)

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