Martyrs and the Persecution of Christians in Rome

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PERSECUTION OF CHRISTIANS

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Christian martyrs in the Colosseum
In the first centuries of its existence, Christianity was a despised movement. Many of the earliest Christians were slaves, a status that did not win them favor with authorities. Christians were accused of immorality and cannibalism, the latter probably explained by the reference to the bread and wine of the Lord's Supper as "the body and blood of Christ." [Source: Michael J. McClymond, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, 2000s, Encyclopedia.com]

Dr Sophie Lunn-Rockliffe of the University of Cambridge wrote for the BBC: “The story of Christianity’s rise to prominence is a remarkable one, but the traditional story of its progression from a tiny, persecuted religion to the established religion in the medieval West needs some debunking. |Although in the first few centuries A.D. Christians were prosecuted and punished, often with death, there were also periods when they were more secure. Secondly, the rise of Christianity to imperial-sponsored dominance in the fourth and fifth centuries, although surprising, was not without precedent, and its spread hardly as inexorable as contemporary Christians portrayed it. [Source: Dr Sophie Lunn-Rockliffe, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

Due to persecution, Christians met in secret primarily in the houses of wealthy members. This only seemed to raise the level of hostility against them. Because early Christians held services "behind closed doors" at night instead of during the day in open temples like the Roman they were accused of having orgies and engaging in cannibalism (partly from a misinterpretation of the practice of Communion).

Websites and Resources: Early Christianity: PBS Frontline, From Jesus to Christ, The First Christians pbs.org ; Elaine Pagels website elaine-pagels.com ; Sacred Texts website sacred-texts.com ; Gnostic Society Library gnosis.org ; Guide to Early Church Documents iclnet.org; Early Christian Writing earlychristianwritings.com ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; BBC on Christianity bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ; Candida Moss at the Daily Beast Daily Beast Christian Classics Ethereal Library www.ccel.org; Saints and Their Lives Today's Saints on the Calendar catholicsaints.info ; Saints' Books Library saintsbooks.net ; Saints and Their Legends: A Selection of Saints libmma.contentdm ; Saints engravings. Old Masters from the De Verda collection colecciondeverda.blogspot.com ; Lives of the Saints - Orthodox Church in America oca.org/saints/lives ; Lives of the Saints: Catholic.org catholicism.org

Websites on Ancient Greece and Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; BBC Ancient Greeks bbc.co.uk/history/; Canadian Museum of History historymuseum.ca; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; ; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org; British Museum ancientgreece.co.uk; Illustrated Greek History, Dr. Janice Siegel, Department of Classics, Hampden–Sydney College, Virginia hsc.edu/drjclassics ; The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization pbs.org/empires/thegreeks ; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive beazley.ox.ac.uk ; Ancient-Greek.org ancientgreece.com; Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/about-the-met/curatorial-departments/greek-and-roman-art; The Ancient City of Athens stoa.org/athens; The Internet Classics Archive kchanson.com ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Forum Romanum forumromanum.org ; “Outlines of Roman History” forumromanum.org; “The Private Life of the Romans” forumromanum.org|; BBC Ancient Rome bbc.co.uk/history;
The Roman Empire in the 1st Century pbs.org/empires/romans; The Internet Classics Archive classics.mit.edu ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review bmcr.brynmawr.edu; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors roman-emperors.org; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources web.archive.org/web; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library web.archive.org ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame /web.archive.org ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History unrv.com



Persecution of Christians by Roman Authorities

About A.D. 49 Claudius expelled Jews from Rome because of a disturbance. When the emperor Nero wanted to blame someone for a fire in Rome in 64, he unjustly charged the Christians. Soon Christians were exposed to wild beasts in the Roman arenas, a punishment normally reserved for heinous criminals. Christians were suspected as being political subversives by professing that "Jesus is Lord" and refusing to acknowledge the divinity of the Roman rulers.

Persecution under Nero after the Great Fire in Rome seems to be less than what was long reported. The only martyrs of whom there is some plausibility are Peter and Paul. The persecution was a local police action limited to the city of Rome. It was probably not associated with a fire. Even so Nero's name has ever since been associated with a policy of persecution. The real major empire-wide persecution began around 200 years after Nero’s death under the Roman Emperor Decius, who rule from A.D. 249 to 251. [Source: Carl A. Volz, late professor of church history at Luther Seminary, web.archive.org, martin.luthersem.edu /~]

The Romans demanded that their gods be worshipped, but at the same time they received the local gods. The reason the Jews and Christian were persecuted is that they presented a threat and refused to worship the Roman gods. Judaism and Christianity were not the only religions in the Roman empire. Mithraism, Manichaeism, Gnosticism and many others were practiced. There were lots of other strange religions around — Manichaeans, Donatist, Pelagians, Arians. Subjects from all religions were expected to make sacrifices to the Roman gods and worship the Roman emperor as a god.

Punishments Given Christians

Under Roman rule, Christians were denied business opportunities and status in society, prohibited from worshiping, attacked by mobs, persecuted, tortured and killed in organized campaigns by the Romans government. The Roman historian Tacitus accused them of "hatred of the human race." The Book of Revelation was written in response to the Roman persecutions.

Christians sometimes had their foreheads tattooed by Romans (some Christian slaves carried religion symbols to counteract images inscribed on them by their Roman masters) or were condemned to work in mines. In the worst cases, they were arrested and given the choice of recanting their faith or facing execution, with some being thrown to hungry lions in the Coliseum and other arenas.

Tacitus wrote Christians, "were nailed on crosses...sewn up in the skins of wild beasts, and exposed to the fury of dogs; others again, smeared over with combustible materials, were used as torches to illuminate the night."

Why Were Christians Persecuted?

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Peter, Paul, Simon Magus and Nero
Why were the Christians persecuted? Dr Sophie Lunn-Rockliffe of the University of Cambridge wrote for the BBC: “Much seems to have depended on local governors and how zealously or not they pursued and prosecuted Christians. The reasons why individual Christians were persecuted in this period were varied. In some cases they were perhaps scapegoats, their faith attacked where more personal or local hostilities were at issue. [Source: Dr Sophie Lunn-Rockliffe, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|] “Contemporary pagan and Christian sources preserve other accusations levelled against the Christians. These included charges of incest and cannibalism, probably resulting from garbled accounts of the rites which Christians celebrated in necessary secrecy, being the agape (the ‘love-feast’) and the Eucharist (partaking of the body and blood of Christ). |::|

“Pagans were probably most suspicious of the Christian refusal to sacrifice to the Roman gods. This was an insult to the gods and potentially endangered the empire which they deigned to protect. Furthermore, the Christian refusal to offer sacrifices to the emperor, a semi-divine monarch, had the whiff of both sacrilege and treason about it. |::|

“Thus the classic test of a Christian’s faith was to force him or her, on pain of death, to swear by the emperor and offer incense to his images, or to sacrifice to the gods. In the mid-second-century account of the martyrdom of Polycarp, officials begged Polycarp to say ‘Caesar is Lord’, and to offer incense, to save his life. He refused. Later, in the arena, he was asked by the governor to swear an oath by the ‘luck of Caesar’. He refused, and although he was apparently eager to meet his death, beast-fighting had been declared closed for the day and so he was burnt alive instead. |::|

“General persecutions tended to be sparked by particular events such as the fire at Rome under Nero, or during periods of particular crisis, such as the third century. During the third century the turn-over of emperors was rapid - many died violent deaths. As well as this lack of stability at the head of the empire, social relations were in turmoil, and barbarian incursions were on a threatening scale. The economy was suffering and inflation was rampant. Pagans and Christians alike observed this unrest and looked for someone or something, preferably subversive, to blame. It was hardly surprising that a series of emperors ordered savage empire-wide persecutions of the Christians.” |::|

Conditions in the Roman Empire When Christians Were Persecuted?


persecution of Christians with scenes of martydom in the background

Wayne A. Meeks told PBS: “One thing we have to remember is that the old Hollywood view of Christianity as kind of an underground persecuted society that skulks around in catacombs for three centuries before they finally emerge after Constantine's conversion, clearly cannot be true. Before [the year 250], we hear only rarely and locally of persecution of Christians, which is small scale and often times, has purely local kinds of causes, I think. But the question remains, since the things we see them doing seem fairly innocuous, at least to our eyes, why did people persecute them? Where did the suspicion arise that they did all kinds of dangerous anti-social things like cannibalism and incestuous sexual relations, orgies, this sort of thing? They're different. They are a people that, in a way, declare their boundaries over against the larger society by their very rituals that lead to conversion - turning away from the gods and turning to the one God, living and true, as Paul puts it in his First Letter of the Thessalonians. That means that they are not going to participate in a great many of not only the religious, but the civic functions, which emerged in the ordinary society of a Roman or Greek city. This is bound to arouse suspicion. Why do the Christians not participate in these rituals that are necessary to maintain the relationship between our society and the gods?” [Source: Wayne A. Meeks, Woolsey Professor of Biblical Studies Yale University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“At the time of the major empire-wide persecution, under the Emperor Decius, you have to realize, this is also a time when the Emperor's feeling under great pressure. The middle of the 3rd century is often time identified as a crisis in the Roman Empire. There is a lot of internal dissension, there is a lot of what Ramsey MacMullen has identified as sheer corruption in the aristocracy, from the Emperor down. There is a sense that we are being besieged on the borders, that the barbarians may be coming in at any moment, the Persians are dangerous, the Germans are dangerous and so on. There's a great sense that anything that upsets this ancient contract between the Romans and the gods has got to be dangerous to us.... This is one of the factors which must be feeding into the sense of the crisis, expressed in the persecution against the church.”

Robert Grant wrote in The Sword and The Cross: "To say that persecution was inevitable is to neglect the whole history of Rome's dealings with foreign religions. The Roman understanding of Christianity was so limited and bound up with precedent that simple ignorance was one of the chief causes of persecution. The Romans did not know what Christianity was. There was a double failure of communication. Rome could not express her aims in Christian terms, and Christians could not express their aims in Roman terms.

Legal Basic of Persecution

The legal bases for persecution, especially since the Roman government had high respect for legality. 1) The State controlled foreign religions and occasionally repressed them. (Bacchic rites, Isis, Jews). 2) Local police were given authority to maintain the peace and put down disturbances under the general legal right of "coercitio." 3) "Majestas" or treason was another umbrella formula whereby enemies of the "Majestas" or treason state were brought to trial. 4) There was popular hatred of Christians who interfered with the established order of things - trade interests, amusements, family life, military service, civic duties, and state religion. Was there a law against being a Christian? Apparently so by the time of Trajen (98-117) and Justin infers such (c. 150) but we do not know its contents or reasons. [Source: Carl A. Volz, late professor of church history at Luther Seminary, web.archive.org, martin.luthersem.edu /~] Is persecution a necessary part of authentic Christian life? Workman (Persecution In The Early Church) believes Christianity naturally calls forth opposition. Grant (The Sword and the Cross) believes the Romans persecuted because they were ignorant and failed to investigate, but there is nothing about Christianity which necessarily invites abuse. Were Christians persecuted "per nomen ipsum" (for the name only) or for the alleged crimes associated with the name?

Professor Paula Fredriksen told PBS: “It's difficult to track the legal status of Christianity in the second and third century. What's happened as a result of the spread of the movement is that we have, in Roman antiquity, an entire population of gentiles who are, in effect, claiming the legal prerogatives of Jews while insisting at the same time, rightly, that they're not Jews. Judaism had long ago come to a legal agreement with the Emperor that Jews would not be forced to participate in pagan rituals. And pagan rituals are part of the normal fabric of life in a Roman city. Jews were exempted from this because Romans knew that Jews were odd about this kind of thing. But a gentile who refused to participate in [the] civic cult had no legal standing. If they were a gentile, then the proper thing to do would be to honor the god of the Emperor and of the empire and of the city. And by insisting on not doing this, certain Christians made themselves conspicuous and invited upon themselves legal action on the part of governors.... [Source: Paula Fredriksen, William Goodwin Aurelio Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture, Boston University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]


“Paganism is, in a sense, the religious articulation of citizenship. Civitas is city. A civis is a citizen, and... the analogy between family and city is made continuously, in philosophy, and in popular piety. To exempt yourself from that, then, would have real social consequences.And this is one of the reasons, I think, for the persecution of Christians. Christians, who exempt themselves from this are criticized for — I'm going to sound like I'm speaking in California dialect, but it's really a similar idea — confusing the vibrations, the sympathetic harmony between heaven and earth. They are exempting themselves from the peace of the gods, the Pax Deorum and therefore, one church father, Tertullian says, on the cusp of the third century, "if the Tiber overflows or the Nile doesn't, the cry goes up. Christians to the lion." Christians are ... and by this I mean, specifically, gentile Christians. There are Jewish Christians, too, but in the literature, it's ... it's gentile Christians who populate the martyr stories that we have. They are they have made themselves outlanders in their own town. And therefore, they are used as an explanatory device whenever there are the usual natural insults of human existence. Plague. Earthquake. Flood. It's because the Christians, as gentiles who are not doing their duty to heaven ... why should the gods do anything for the city then?And that's how you get Christians dragged before Governors and before these circuit courts and named as troublemakers.

Policy of the Roman Empire to Persecute Christians

Professor Paula Fredriksen told PBS: “Empires have better things to do than persecute nursing mothers, which is the example, of course with Perpetua. Emperors tend not to care much about what people are doing as long as the servants and horses are not disturbed, taxes are collected, and nobody starts a rebellion. So, empires in general, and I think the Roman Empire, in particular, are religiously tremendously ecumenical. If you have a huge expansive political territory with huge varieties of religions, within those boundaries, you don't care what people are doing religiously. You just want your tax money. And so the fact that we have incontrovertible evidence that Christians are being persecuted says several interesting things about the growth of movement and the social fortunes of the empire. [Source: Paula Fredriksen, William Goodwin Aurelio Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture, Boston University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“Before the year 250, the persecution of Christians is sporadic. It's local. It's improvised. It is at the discretion of a Governor to whom complaints are made and so on. It's not a dragnet and it's not an imperial policy. After 250, when the empire is being battered on every frontier by invading armies, when there's absolute rampant inflation, [there is] incredible governmental instability. There are an average of two or three Emperors in a year. They keep getting assassinated. It's just an incredibly fraught time. That's also the point at which you begin to get the imperial expression of persecution of Christians. Now then again, also, it's interesting. It's not a criminal offense to be a Christian. What you have to do is get a ticket, a lebevos, a chit saying that you have sacrificed for the well-being of the empire.... There [are] various response[s] on the part of different Christian communities. You can have your servant go and do it for you. He might also be a Christian, but, you know, that's his problem. Pay him. He'll get two chits and then you're covered.... Or you can pay for the ticket but not actually do the sacrifice if you can bribe a friend of yours who's a magistrate. Or you can just go ahead and sacrifice, knowing that these gods are nothing, after all. That's right in...Paul's letters, that these gods are nothing. There are all sorts of different ways that people deal with this. But some people absolutely refuse to oblige by this rule at all. And those are the people - again, it's the heroic minority - who end up being martyred by government force.

Roman Historians on the Persecution of Christians

In “The Annals of Imperial Rome Book XV, chapter 47 (A.D. 64), during the Great Fire of Rome, Tacitus wrote: “Neither human resources, nor imperial generosity, nor appeasement of the gods, eliminated the sinister suspicion that the fire had been deliberately started. To stop the rumor, NERO, made scapegoats — and punished with every refinement the notoriously depraved CHRISTIANS (as they were popularly called). Their originator, CHRIST, had been executed in Tiberius' reign by the Procurator of Judaea, PONTIUS PILATUS (governor from 26 to 36 A.D.). But in spite of this temporary setback, the deadly superstition had broken out again, not just in Judaea (where the mischief had started) but even in Rome. All degraded and shameful practices collect and flourish in the capital. First, NERO had the self-admitted Christians arrested. Then, on their information, large numbers of others were condemned — not so much for starting fires as because of their hatred for the human race. Their deaths were made amusing. Dressed in wild animals' skins, they were torn to pieces by dogs, or crucified, or made into torches to be seton fire after dark as illumination. [Source: csun.edu]


Nero torches Siemiradski


Nero had offered his Gardens for the spectacle, and gave an exhibition in his Circus, mixing with the crowd in the habit of a charioteer, or mounted on his car. Hence, in spite of a guilt which had earned the most exemplary punishment, there arose a sentiment of pity, due to the impression that they were being sacrificed not for the welfare of the state but to the ferocity of a single man. .... Despite their guilt as Christians, and the ruthless punishment it deserved, the victims were pitied. For it was felt that they were being sacrificed to one man's brutality rather than to the national interest."

In “Life of the Emperor Claudius,” Chapter 25, Suetonius wrote: "Since the Jews were constantly causing disturbances at the instigation of CHRESTUS, he expelled them from the city..." In Chapter Mohammed, he wrote: "[After the Great Fire]...punishments were also inflicted on the CHRISTIANS, a sect professing a new and mischievous religious belief ...."

Persecution of Christians Under Roman Emperors

Nero began persecuting Christians on the grounds of disloyalty and blamed them for the great fire in Rome in A.D. 64, something which he was involved. Among those put to death under his rule, according to tradition, were the apostles Peter and Paul. Tacitus wrote that before the killing of Christians, Nero used them to amuse the people. Some were dressed in furs, to be killed by dogs. Others were crucified. Still others were set on fire . Although persecution was often cruel, the numbers have been wildly exaggerated. Most of the victims were bishops or other male leaders.

The height of the persecution of Christians was not during the reign of Nero, but much later. Domitian, Marcus Aurelius and Valerian all brutalized Christians after A.D. 150, when Christians held many high positions and presented a threat as "state within a state." In A.D. 202 the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus made baptism a criminal act. In A.D. 250 Emperor Decius increased the persecution of Christians.

Oppression of the Christians reached its peak under Emperor Diocletian, who ruled the Roman Empire in the early 300s and launched the “Great Persecution” in the year A.D. 284. It lasted until 311 and left 144,000 Egyptian Christians dead.

Believing that Christians profaned Roman pagan traditions, Diocletian ordered all Bibles burned and told priests to renounce their religion or face death. He prevented Christians from meeting together and holding government offices and denied them citizenship. A number of famous saints, including St. Nicholas, were persecuted and killed during his rule. Most of persecution was aimed at Christians in the East, where there were reports of Christians being stretched on racks and burned in public gatherings.

Toleration Versus Persecution in the Roman Empire


Martydom and Persecution of Christains


Dr Sophie Lunn-Rockliffe of the University of Cambridge wrote for the BBC:“Although fourth and fifth century A.D. Christian narratives tend to describe the preceding centuries bitterly as a period of sustained and vicious persecution, there were in fact lulls. How can we explain this? Well, the Roman empire was in the first few centuries A.D. expansionist and in its conquests accommodated new cults and philosophies from different cultures, such as the Persian cult of Mithraism, the Egyptian cult of Isis and Neoplatonism, a Greek philosophical religion. [Source: Dr Sophie Lunn-Rockliffe, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“Paganism was never, then, a unified, single religion, but a fluid and amorphous collection. But it would also be a mistake to describe Roman religion as an easy, tolerant co-existence of cults. ‘Toleration’ is a distinctly modern, secular idea. The very history of Christianity and Judaism in the empire demonstrates that there were limits to how accommodating Roman religion could be, and these were not the only cults to be singled out for persecution. |::|

“The cults of Bacchus and of Magna Mater had also been suppressed - by the Roman senate during the Republic, mainly because their behaviour was louche and ‘un-Roman’. Bacchic revels encouraged ecstatic drunkenness and violence, and the cult of Magna Mater involved outlandish dancing and music, and was served by self-castrating priests. |::|

“Under particular emperors, Christians were less liable to be punished for the mere fact of being Christians – or indeed, for ever having been Christian. Thus under Trajan, it was agreed that although admitting to Christian faith was an offence, ex-Christians should not be prosecuted.” |::|

Are Claims About the Roman Persecution of Christians Exaggerated

Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: When we look at the evidence, it becomes clear that the stereotype of cruel Roman emperors persecuting innocent Christians is a myth. From the Roman side, there is scant evidence for the persecution of Christians. It is not even clear that the Romans knew about the existence of Christians until the early second century. Even then they didn’t see Christianity as a religion. They describe it, rather, as a foolish superstition that could potentially harm local economies. Christians undoubtedly died as a result of legislation passed during the reign of the emperor Decius (ca. AD 250), but not because he was targeting them. Intriguingly, not a word of our Roman evidence for his legislation refers to Christians.

With the exception of the Great Persecution of Diocletian (AD 303-305), when Christians were indeed actively persecuted, it is difficult to find any examples of Roman emperors behaving as Christians typically portrayed them. Apart from this comparatively brief period, and an even briefer one during the reign of Valerian in 257-58, Roman emperors never targeted Christians for attack. At the beginning of the second century, the emperor Trajan actually stipulated that Christians were not to be sought out. Roman emperors simply don’t appear to have been that interested in Christians. For most of the first three centuries of their existence Christians flourished: they held lofty political positions, and were so comfortable under the Romans that they even constructed a prominent church across the road from the imperial palace in Nicomedia.

The overwhelming majority of Christians idealized martyrdom and suffering like Jesus, but very few of them died violently—and even fewer died as the result of the kind of persecution described in Sunday school....Given that the Roman evidence for persecution is so thin, the origin of our misunderstandings about the early church must, and does, lie with the early Christians themselves. There are literally thousands of stories of Christians martyrs being brutally tortured and killed, but the overwhelming majority of these were written long after the events they claim to describe. Who is responsible for these misunderstandings about history? And why did they alter the historical record? One of the reasons is the explosion of the cult of the saints, the passion for collecting and displaying holy relics, in the fifth century and beyond. Everyone wanted a piece of the action and innumerable stories about martyrs were fabricated to support local churches and to attract pilgrims to particular towns.

Even the earliest, most ostensibly trustworthy, martyrdom stories have been edited and reworked. The authors of these accounts borrowed from ancient mythology, changed the details of events to make the martyrs appear more like Jesus, and made the Roman antagonists increasingly venomous...Claims about violent persecution may not be historically accurate, but in the hands of ancient Christian writers they did valuable work shoring up the authority of the church. The fourth-century historian Eusebius was able to use the stories of the martyrs to combat heresy and to establish the succession of bishops in the early church.

Evidence That Christians Were Not as Badly Treated as Claimed

Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: One of the central themes of the history of Christianity is the persecution of early Christians at the hands of the Romans. In his Church History, Eusebius of Caesarea, the first Christian historian”, writes extensively about the persecution. “Among his many claims about the persecution of Christians, Eusebius writes that Christians were sent “to the mines” at Phaeno (Khirbet Faynan) in southwestern Jordan during the early fourth century. He writes that “it was impossible to tell the incalculable number of those whose right eyes had first been cut out with the sword, and then had been cauterized with fire; or who had been disabled in the left foot by burning the joints, and afterward condemned to the provincial copper mines, not so much for service as for distress and hardship.” He later adds that 40 others were “beheaded … at the copper mines of Phaeno.” His claim that some martyrs and heretics were sent to the mines is supported by the Christian bishop Athanasius of Alexandria as well as some other early church writers. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, November 24, 2018]

Recent excavations at the Byzantine mining camp at Phaeno, however, have uncovered no evidence that Christians suffered in the ways that Eusebius described. Megan Perry, a bio-anthropologist at East Carolina University, has spent a number of years analysing excavated human remains from the local cemetery. The results of her analysis were recently published in a series of co-authored articles and essays for, among others, the Journal of Archaeological Science and the American Journal of Physical Anthropology. While the literary texts suggest that Phaeno was a state-run mining camp for martyrs and criminals condemned to the mines (damnatio ad metallum), Perry’s analysis of the skeletons suggests that the mines had a “much broader role and population in antiquity than that described by the ancient sources.” Most of the skeletons, she found, came from the local population. The isotope analysis found “no strong evidence” that people had been transported “over long distances to the mines.”

Even more suggestive was the good health that many of these individuals seemed to have enjoyed. An analysis of skeletal indicators of iron-deficiencies led her to conclude that “the general health of the Faynan population is not substantially poorer than the health of residents of a typical Byzantine agricultural village.” Her sample “also had lower-than-expected levels of bone degeneration, considering their supposedly hard lifestyle.” While this might suggest that these individuals weren’t involved with the mines, the presence of elevated copper and lead levels in some of the skeletons might lead one to the reasonable conclusion that these individuals worked in mining and smelting.

Perry’s findings are significant for the ways they potentially improve our understanding of early Christian history. Christian tradition, going all the way back to Eusebius, maintains that Christians were relentlessly persecuted by the Romans. In recent years a number of historians like Brent Shaw, James Rives, and myself have questioned the extent of this persecution. These arguments, however, have largely been based on textual evidence: they appealed to things like the lack of evidence of legislation targeting Christians until the fourth century, and the fact that so many of the stories of persecution came from centuries after the events they claimed to describe. Archaeologically speaking, however, it was difficult to analyse the evidence for widespread martyrdom because (according to tradition) the remains of Christians were often burned, thrown into rivers, and otherwise irreverently disposed of. Those remains that were collected, divided, and deposited in martyr shrines and churches are only very rarely available for scientists to study. The fact that they are such small samples made it impossible to ascertain cause of death.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible, gutenberg.org; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com; Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) ccel.org , Frontline, PBS, Wikipedia, BBC, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Live Science, Encyclopedia.com, Archaeology magazine, Reuters, Associated Press, Business Insider, AFP, Library of Congress, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024


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