Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Testimonies to the Roman Martyrs

As already noted, today in the modern Roman calendar we mark the First Martyrs of the Holy Roman Church. Speaking personally, over the years I have developed a great interest in and devotion to the early Roman martyrs. One of my first introductions to the topic of the martyrs was the devotional classic of St. Alphonsus Liguori, The Victories of the Martyrs. Later, I turned toward the Roman Martyrology and to the testimonies of various of the Fathers of the Church, such as Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History for instance.

Another interesting set of sources, however, are the writings of some of the Roman historians and other Romans whose writings have come down to us. Take for example this quotation (which I shared with you last year as well), from the Annals of Tacitus (A.D. 56–117) which accounts for some of the cruel torments inflicted by the Emperor Nero (A.D. 37-68):

Nero fastened the guilt [for the great fire of Rome] 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

As well, I have lately been reading Suetonius's (ca. A.D. 69-130) account of the lives of the first twelve Caesars, De vita Caesarum, and this work, while not giving the bloody details specific to Christians such as is related by Tacitus, certainly does make reference to the persecution of the Christians at Rome. In his life of the Emperor Claudius (10 B.C. - A.D. 54) he speaks of how Claudius "banished from Rome all the Jews, who were continually making disturbances at the instigation of one Chrestus [Christus]."

Finally, I will make mention of the Roman magistrate Pliny the Younger who, in his Letters, also discusses how he would have confessed Christians executed, "[f]or I felt certain that whatever it was that they professed, their contumacy and inflexible obstinancy obviously demanded punishment."

The early Roman martyrs are great witnesses to courage and constancy in the Faith in the midst of persecutions and trials and can serve as a source of great inspiration and source of encouragement for us today. Let us familiarize ourselves with these our courageous ancestors in the Faith.

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