Victims of Roman Christian Persecution

Home | Category: Christianized Roman Empire / Christianity and Judaism in the Roman Empire / Early History of Christianity / Early Christian Saints and Martyrs


Death of St Stephen

St. Peter, St. Paul and St. James were among the first martyrs and saints. They were all said to have died violent deaths. St. James was one of Christ's 12 apostles. According to legend he sailed to Spain to preach the Gospel and then returned to Jerusalem, where he was beheaded in 44 AD. for preaching and converting on the orders of Herod Agrippa and was thought to have been buried in Jerusalem. Because St. James was the first apostle to be martyred after Christ's crucifixion, many consider him the most senior and most important of all the martyred disciple-saints of the Roman Catholic Church.

According to the traditional story, in 67 A.D. St. Peter was hung upside down and beheaded at the Circus Maximus during a wave of brutal anti-Christian persecution under Emperor Nero, after the burning of Rome. His brutal treatment was partly of the result of his request not to be crucified, because he didn't consider himself worthy of the treatment of Jesus. After Peter died, it is said, his body was taken to a burial ground, situated where St. Peter's cathedral now stands. His body was entombed and later secretly worshiped.

It is not exactly clear what happened to St. Paul but it is believed that he was martyred in A.D. 64, the year that Nero blamed the great fire of Rome on the Jews. Before he was killed St. Paul invoked his right as a Roman citizen to be beheaded. His wish was granted. According to some, Paul was martyred at the site occupied by the Monastery of the Three Fountains in Rome. The Cathedral of St. John Lateran, the oldest Christian basilica in Rome, founded by Constantine on A.D. 314, contains reliquaries said to hold the heads of St. Paul and St. Peter and the chopped off finger doubting Thomas stuck in Jesus' wound.

The first saints were martyrs who were believed to have died for their faith and were immediately whisked off to heaven. Local congregation began venerating them. Pilgrims visited their burial sites and groups or towns adopted them as patron saints and prayed to them for help and miracles. Later saints included "confessors," people who lived heroic lives but were not killed for their beliefs.

Websites and Resources: Early Christianity: PBS Frontline, From Jesus to Christ, The First Christians ; Elaine Pagels website ; Sacred Texts website ; Gnostic Society Library ; Guide to Early Church Documents; Early Christian Writing ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins ; BBC on Christianity ; Candida Moss at the Daily Beast Daily Beast Christian Classics Ethereal Library; Saints and Their Lives Today's Saints on the Calendar ; Saints' Books Library ; Saints and Their Legends: A Selection of Saints libmma.contentdm ; Saints engravings. Old Masters from the De Verda collection ; Lives of the Saints - Orthodox Church in America ; Lives of the Saints:

Websites on Ancient Greece and Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks; Canadian Museum of History; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; ;; British Museum; Illustrated Greek History, Dr. Janice Siegel, Department of Classics, Hampden–Sydney College, Virginia ; The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization ; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ;; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Ancient City of Athens; The Internet Classics Archive ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History”; “The Private Life of the Romans”|; BBC Ancient Rome;
The Roman Empire in the 1st Century; The Internet Classics Archive ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame / ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History

Christian Martyrs

Saint Sebastian

Professor Paula Fredriksen told PBS: ““The martyrs are a heroic minority. They don't represent a huge popular swelling. We don't have tens of thousands of people being martyred. What we do have, is tens of thousands of people admiring the few who are martyred. So in that sense, like any extreme, a martyr marks out a spiritual height to be admired but not necessarily emulated. In that sense, the martyr stories have an incredible effect on the imagination of Christians, because who's the first Christian martyr? Jesus, himself. Heroically witnessing to his own faith, in a sense, and against a hostile government tribunal. So there's this kind of imaginative continuity between Christ and the martyr. [Source: Paula Fredriksen, William Goodwin Aurelio Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture, Boston University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“What's most interesting is when the heroic age stopped and when the Church itself converted into being a form of Roman imperial culture, after the conversion of Constantine in 312. That's where you get the incredible efflorescence of the cult of the martyrs. Martyrs' shrines, bits of martyrs' bodies, liturgies being written to the martyrs. There's an incredible energy involved in worshipping at the tombs of the martyrs after the age of martyrs have ... has stopped. And I think that's, in a way, Christianity's effort to reclaim its own heroic history after it had already become an arm of government, itself, and was, of course, persecuting other Christians. More Christians were persecuted by the Roman Government after the conversion of Constantine, than before. The difference is that's it's a Christian government who's persecuting the other Christians. Elizabeth Clark of Duke University told PBS: “I think the martyrdom stories that got circulated were very important for the development of early Christianity. Several of the martyrdoms talk about — of course we don't know how to judge the historical veracity of those tales — but they do say that there were pagans present at these martyrdoms who were so impressed by the... courage of the Christians that they came to see the truth of the Christian religion themselves and immediately converted to Christianity.... Probably, for the most part, though, these martyrdom accounts were written for other Christians to try to bolster the Christians' faith at a time of persecution. To keep up your courage in case this happened to you as well. But by and large the Christian leaders did not encourage people volunteering themselves as martyrs. We have a few notable accounts on the books where in a fit of enthusiasm somebody would run into the arena and say, "Martyr me!" and then when the wild beast came running after them they decided this wasn't such a good idea after all, and this brought some degree of shame and disgrace to Christianity. So it was thought it was quite all right not to volunteer yourself and to go to your martyrdom only if pressed and really pushed to the wall, but then you should not deny your faith. [Source: Elizabeth Clark, John Carlisle Kilgo Professor of Religion and Director of the Graduate Program in Religion Duke University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

On the Martyrdom of St. Domnina and Her Two Daughters, Eusebius wrote in “Ecclesiastical History,” Book 8, Chapter 12: “A certain holy person, — in soul admirable for virtue, in body a woman, — who was illustrious beyond all in Antioch for wealth and family and reputation, had brought up in the principles of religion her two daughters, who were now in the freshness and bloom of life. Since great envy was excited on their account, every means was used to find them in their concealment; and when it was ascertained that they were away, they were summoned deceitfully to Antioch. Thus they were caught in the nets of the soldiers. When the woman saw herself and her daughters thus helpless, and knew the things terrible to speak of that men would do to them, — and the most unbearable of all terrible things, the threatened violation of their chastity, — she exhorted herself and the maidens that they ought not to submit even to hear of this. For, she said, that to surrender their souls to the slavery of demons was worse than all deaths and destruction; and she set before them the only deliverance from all these things, — escape to Christ. They then listened to her advice. And after arranging their garments suitably, they went aside from the middle of the road, having requested of the guards a little time for retirement, and cast themselves into a river which was flowing 333 by. Thus they destroyed themselves. [Source: Eusebius, “Church History “, translated in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, ed. P. Schaff and H. Wace, (repr. Grand Rapids MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1955), I, 332-333]

Problem of Recanters

20120224-393px-Herbert Schmalz Faithful Unto Death (1897).png
Faithful Unto Death by Herbert Schmalz (1897)
Elizabeth Clark of Duke University told PBS: “After the two major persecutions of the third century and the early fourth century — these are the persecutions under the Emperor Decius that occurred around 250 and then the persecution under Diocletian in the opening years of the fourth century — there was a grave problem for the church because many Christians were not made of the kind of moral fiber of the people who went to their death as martyrs. [Source: Elizabeth Clark, John Carlisle Kilgo Professor of Religion and Director of the Graduate Program in Religion Duke University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“They had been willing to recant the faith, to offer a pinch of incense to the emperor.... [or] to bribe the officials at the pagan temples to give them a certificate saying they had offered the sacrifice when in fact they had not. All this made a grave problem for the church when the persecutions were over because many of these people then wanted to come back into the church. It was also a problem because there were some bishops who had defected, you might say, during the persecutions, and they had baptized people. The question then was were you really baptized if you had been baptized by a bishop who fell away from the faith during the persecutions?

“There were many controversies about this. Some churchmen took a very lax line on this, "Well, people are repentant. We've all committed sins. They should just be forgiven and brought back in." Others took a kind of moderate line: after a period of penance and public recantation and repentance for what they had done, then they would be allowed back into the church. There were some hard-liners who thought once you handed over scripture, recanted the faith, done these various acts, there was no way you could ever be a Christian again. [There was] a great deal of controversy among church people in this era, some of which went on for a long, long time. In North Africa, for example, the group of Christians called the Donatists held out all through the fourth century into the fifth century on some of these issues about not allowing such people back into the church.”



Elizabeth Clark of Duke University told PBS: “[The story of Polycarp is one of our first martyrdom stories]. Polycarp was a bishop of a place called Smyrna, which today is modern Izmir in Turkey, and at a very old age he was brought up for trial and persecution.... Probably his martyrdom occurred somewhere around A.D. 165 give or take some years. We're not too sure about that. What 's important about the story of his martyrdom that the church of Smyrna wrote... was that it tended to present Polycarp's martyrdom as copying in some respects the "martyrdom"of Jesus. That is, that there's a government official named Herod who's partly responsible for Polycarp's death. [Source: Elizabeth Clark, John Carlisle Kilgo Professor of Religion and Director of the Graduate Program in Religion Duke University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“Polycarp is put upon a donkey and rides into the city.... Pagan officials are trying to make Polycarp recant. They ask him to curse Christ, which was always thought to be a sure sign that you weren't really a Christian if you had cursed Christ, and ... to offer the kind of pinch of incense to Caesar to indicate your reverence for the Roman gods and for the emporium. He refuses to do any of these things and is put to death by burning.

“An interesting feature of the story is that his father must go and collect his bones after he has been put to death. This becomes one of [the] first instances we have of what turns into the cult of the martyrs... [the practice] of preserving bits and pieces of the bodies of martyred people and holding these in great honor and esteem. Many of the martyrdoms written after the time of Polycarp tend to follow this basic model.”

Trial of The Scillitan Martyrs

The Scillitan Martyrs were a company of twelve North African Christians who were executed for their beliefs on July 17, 180 A.D. The martyrs take their name from Scilla (or Scillium), a town in Numidia. The Acta of the Scillitan Martyrs are considered to be the earliest documents of the church of Africa and also the earliest specimen of Christian Latin.It was the last of the persecutions during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, which is best known from the sufferings of the churches of Vienne and Lyon in South Gaul. [Source: Wikipedia]

Martyrdom of St Pontianus

The Passion Of The Scillitan Martyrs: “When Praesens, for the second time, and Claudianus were the consuls, on the seventeenth day of July, at Carthage, there were set in the judgment-hall Speratus, Nartzalus, Cittinus, Donata, Secunda and Vestia.
Saturninus the proconsul said: Ye can win the indulgence of our lord the Emperor, if ye return to a sound mind.
Speratus said: We have never done ill, we have not lent ourselves to wrong, we have never spoken ill, but when ill-treated we have given thanks; because we pay heed to OUR EMPEROR,
Saturninus the proconsul said: We too are religious, and our religion is simple, and we swear by the genius of our lord the Emperor, and pray for his welfare, as ye also ought to do.
Speratus said: If thou wilt peaceably lend me thine ears, I can tell thee the mystery of simplicity. [Source: “Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs”, translated by J.A, Robinson in the Original supplement to the American Edition in Ante Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, (repr. Grand Rapids MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1955), X, 290-291]

Saturninus said: I will not lend mine ears to thee, when thou beginnest to speak evil things of our sacred rites; but rather swear thou by the genius of our lord the Emperor.
Speratus said: The empire of this world I know not; but rather I serve that God, whom no man hath seen, nor with these eyes can see.(1) I have committed no theft; but if I have bought anything I pay the tax; because I know my Lord, the King of kings and Emperor of all nations.
Saturninus the proconsul said to the rest: Cease to be of this persuasion.
Speratus said: It is an ill persuasion to do murder, to speak false witness.
Saturninus the proconsul said: Be not partakers of this folly.
Cittinus said: We have none other to fear, save only our Lord God, who is in heaven.
Donata said: Honour to Caesar as Caesar: but fear to God.(2)
Vestia said: I am a Christian.
Secunda said: What I am, that I wish to be.
Saturninus the proconsul said to Speratus: Dost thou persist m being a Christian?
Speratus said: I am a Christian. And with him they all agreed.

“Saturninus the proconsul said: Will ye have a space to consider?
Speratus said: In a matter so straightforward there is no considering.
Saturninus the proconsul said: What are the things in your chest?
Speratus said: Books and epistles of Paul, a just man.
Saturninus the proconsul said: Have a delay of thirty days and bethink yourselves.
Speratus said a second time: I am a Christian. And with him they all agreed.
Saturninus the proconsul read out the decree from the tablet: Speratus, Nartzalus, Cittinus, Donata, Vestia, Secunda and the rest having confessed that they live according to the Christian rite, since after opportunity offered them of returning to the custom of the Romans they have obstinately persisted, it is determined that they be put to the sword.
Speratus said: We give thanks to God.
Nartzalus said: To-day we are martyrs in heaven; thanks be to God.
Saturninus the proconsul ordered it to be declared by the herald: Speratus, Nartzalus, Cittinus, Veturius, Felix, Aquilinus, Laetantius, Januaria, Generosa, Vestia, Donata and Secunda, I have ordered to be executed.
They all said: Thanks be to God.
And so they all together were crowned with martyrdom; and they reign with the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, for ever and ever. Amen.

Martyrdom of Perpetua


Professor Paula Fredriksen told PBS: “One of the most amazing documents historians of early Christianity are privileged to have is the prison diary of a young woman who was martyred in the year 202 or 203 in Carthage, as part of a civic celebration. Her name is Perpetua. And she insisted on being killed. It's an amazing, complicated story. The diary is in kind of a sandwich. The editor introduces the story, then there's the authentic diary of Perpetua, and then there are editorial conclusions, at the end. [Source: Paula Fredriksen, William Goodwin Aurelio Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture, Boston University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“Perpetua has brought herself to the attention of the governor. And she is really insisting on being put into the arena. There's an incredibly powerful trial scene where Perpetua's father is pleading with her and, finally, actually trying to beat her. And the Governor has him subdued by his soldiers. And the governor says, "Please, won't you cooperate?" And Perpetua, who's not even a baptized Christian, who's still catechumen, says, "No, I'm a Christian." Now, there's no dragnet out for Christians. Perpetua is visited by other Christians in prison. If the governor were trying to get all the Christians in Carthage, he just could have arrested whoever is going to visit Perpetua. But he doesn't. She's what one historian has called an overachiever in a sense. She's insisting on being martyred as part of her Christian witness. She gives her baby back over to her family, because she's still nursing. And she talks about this. And she's really insisting on being martyred because she says, and we have to believe her, this is the only word we have from her, because in so doing, she will get to God through Jesus....

“The authentic diary ends before Perpetua is led into the arena. What we have concluding the diary is a description by somebody who is presenting a hero tale. The majority of Christians were not volunteering to be martyred. For one thing, there wouldn't have been an audience for these martyr stories. For another thing, we have doctrinally, the evolution of penance as a way to reincorporate Christians who lapse in the face of persecution. So Perpetua is really being preserved by her community as a role model. She marks off the heroic limit against which other Christians can measure themselves. She's led out to the arena. She, with heroic chastity, faces down the animals and gladiators, and finally, after being tormented by several animals, a young gladiator is sent into the arena to dispatch her. And it's just an incredibly moving scene; his hand is trembling so much he can't cut her. And she grabs his hand and guides his sword to her own throat. It's a kind of assisted suicide....

Diocletianic Persecution of Christians

Diocletian was a Roman emperor from A.D. 284 to 305. He was not regarded as a cruel and vindictive man, and was at first favorably disposed toward the Christians. But in the latter part of his reign he was induced to issue an edict of persecution against them. It is said that he was led to perform this infamous act by his assistant Galerius, who had always been hostile to the new religion, and who filled the emperor’s mind with stories of seditions and conspiracies. An order was issued that all churches should be demolished, that the sacred Scriptures should be burned, that all Christians should be dismissed from public office, and that those who secretly met for public worship should be punished with death. The persecution raged most fiercely in the provinces subject to Galerius; and it has been suggested that the persecution should be known by his name rather than by the name of Diocletian. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~]

The Diocletianic Persecution (303–11) was Roman Empire’s last, largest, and bloodiest official persecution of Christianity. It failed to eliminate Christianity in the empire; indeed, after 324, Christianity became the empire's preferred religion under its first Christian emperor, Constantine. “Of the Manner in which the Persecutors Died” is a pamphlet listing the various persecutors of Christians, and how they died. It was written by Lactantius (A.D. c.240-c.320 CE) and addressed to Donatus, (318 CE?). Here are some excerpts related to the Diocletianic Persecution period:

Martyrdom of Saints Timothy and Maura

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins “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,; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible,; Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) , Frontline, PBS, Wikipedia, BBC, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Live Science,, 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

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.