History of the Church: Christian Antiquity - Notre Dame

The Persecutions

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I. The Catacombs

In reading the stories of the martyrs we shall often see the Catacombs mentioned. So much are they mixed up with the early history of the Church that it is important we should know something about them.

Description of the Catacombs.

Stretching out from Rome in all directions are still to be seen the old paved roads made by the Romans, some of them dating back quite to the earliest days of the city.

Near almost all of these roads, but outside the walls of the city, there are openings leading down by stairs into underground galleries, dark, narrow, and intricate. Some of these give entrance into little rooms which, like the galleries, have niches cut into their walls. Niches, galleries, and rooms are all dug out of the solid rock; only where it is soft and crumbling are there to be seen remains of brickwork keeping up the roof.

Passing through gallery after gallery, we may come to a staircase, and, going down, we shall find, on a lower level underneath the former, a new set of passages and chambers.

Here and there a long, narrow opening to the surface above lets in light and air, otherwise all is dark and gloomy. Perhaps we shall find another staircase leading lower down, and still another, for in some places there are four or even five sets of galleries, one below the other. But everywhere in the walls of both passages and rooms are the same long, low, narrow niches cut back into the rock. Sometimes they are open and empty; some-times bones may be seen in them; sometimes they are closed with a slab, on which a little bird with an olive-branch, or an inscription, or a cross, may be made out.

Some of the rooms have one large tomb, with an arch over it, let into the wall at the end, and round the walls there are stone benches. These chambers are often decorated, paintings and inscriptions covering the walls and ceilings. Most of the decorations have a hidden meaning, representing symbolically the great mysteries of religion, and proving that the faith of the early Christians was identical with our own.

History of the Catacombs.

These wonderful underground dwellings of dead are the Catacombs. There are so many of them that if all the galleries were put in one straight line, they would reach from one end of Italy to the other. They were almost all made by the Christians of Rome during the days of persecution.

At first they were used only to bury the dead, for the niches are all graves, some of martyrs, the others of those who did not die for the faith, but wished to be buried near those who had. Some families made a room for themselves as a family vault, or in honour of some important martyr. But later on, when it was not safe for the faithful to meet for Holy Mass in the houses of the richer Christians, as they had at first done, they made the little rooms larger and used them as churches. As all the Romans were very careful about burial, and had laws protecting cemeteries, the Christians were at first quite safe in the Catacombs.

But we shall see, as time went on, that even here they were discovered and put to death, and that the faithful were forbidden to go to the Catacombs again, while the openings to them were sometimes walled up.

When the persecutions were over, burials still went on for nearly a hundred years. Gradually, however, this was given up, but people still went down as to a place of pilgrimage.

During the barbarian invasions from the fifth to the ninth centuries, the bodies of the Saints were removed to the churches above ground, and little by little the Catacombs were forgotten.

For six hundred years only an occasional pilgrim visited the neglected Catacombs, but at length in the sixteenth century they were discovered anew. Little was done except to destroy what was found, until, nearer our own days, they have been opened up again and carefully examined. The chambers and galleries have been cleared of the rubbish that had accumulated during ages of neglect.

Staircases have been made or repaired, and now anyone who wishes may go down to pray on the very spot where the Saints and martyrs of old heard Holy Mass and received Holy Communion, and so strengthened themselves for the hard combat awaiting them before they could attain the crown of everlasting life.

II. The Early Martyrs

For about two centuries and a half the Church was exposed to outbursts of persecution, sometimes general throughout the Empire, sometimes only local. The years of actual persecution, when added together, come to one hundred and twenty, interspersed with periods of comparative peace and prosperity for the Christians.

Under Nero, A.D. 64–68.

Note: The dates by the emperors' names indicate the duration of the persecution, not the reign of the emperor.

Nero had burned Rome, for the city did not satisfy him; he wanted finer palaces. As he was afraid to own it, he accused the Christians of being the authors of the crime. He ordered a persecution against them as enemies of the State.

The persecution seems to have been confined to Rome itself. The martyrs endured most horrible torments. Some were cast into the Tiber with stones round their necks; others were crucified; others, again, were clothed with the skins of wild beasts, and exposed to be devoured by dogs. Many were covered with inflammable materials and set on fire to illuminate the city at night.

The most illustrious martyrs were SS. Peter and Paul, who are said to have suffered on the same day. While confined in the Mamertine prison, they converted forty-seven of the guard and their two captains. God caused a miraculous spring to rise in the prison, in which the converts were baptized. St. Peter was condemned to be crucified. Feeling himself unworthy to die in the same posture as his Divine Master, he asked to be placed with his head downwards. As we have said, the great church of St. Peter on the Vatican Hill was built over the spot where the Apostle was buried. St. Paul, being a Roman citizen, could not be crucified, so Nero ordered him to be beheaded. His martyrdom took place outside Rome, where the church of the Three Fountains now stands. St. Andrew also suffered martyrdom during this persecution. He was crucified on a cross made in the form of the letter X.

Under Domitian, A.D. 95-96.

During the reigns of Vespasian and Titus, the Christians enjoyed peace, but Domitian renewed the edicts against them in A.D. 95. Many belonging to the noblest families in Rome suffered death or banishment. Flavius Clemens, cousin of the Emperor, and Acilius Glabrio, who had been consuls with Trajan, both received the crown of martyrdom. The two Domitillas, the niece and grand-niece of Domitian, were banished.

The younger Flavia Domitilla, grand-niece of the Emperor Domitian, was put to death by this Emperor, together with two of her servants, SS. Nereus and Achilleus. One of the most famous of the Catacombs had been constructed by this noble lady.

It was during this persecution that St. John was thrown into a cauldron of boiling oil outside the Latin Gate, but, being miraculously preserved, he was banished to the island of Patmos.

Under Trajan and Hadrian, A.D. 106–124.

Trajan, one of the best Roman Emperors, was yet among the persecutors of the Church. He left it in peace, however, till the ninth year of his reign, when, returning triumphant from the con-quest of the Scythians, he ordered a public thanks-giving to the gods, in which the Christians refused to take part. By this time the Roman Emperor and Governors were getting alarmed at the progress of Christianity. The old laws against Christians were revived, and new ones added against secret assemblies. This was to prevent the faithful from meeting for Holy Mass. Then it was that the Catacombs were first used as churches. Pliny the Younger, Proconsul of Pontus and Bithynia, uncertain about the laws against the Christians, wrote to the Emperor for instructions. Trajan gave the following inconsistent reply: That he was not to search for the Christians, but to punish them if they persevered in the faith after being denounced and convicted.

The persecution raged most fiercely in Asia Minor. The most illustrious martyrs were St. Simeon and St. Ignatius of Antioch. The former was a cousin of our Lord, and brother to St. James the Less, whom he succeeded as Bishop of Jerusalem. He was denounced as a Christian, and suffered martyrdom at the advanced age of a hundred and twenty years.

St. Ignatius, called Theophorus, was the third Bishop of Antioch. Summoned before Trajan, who was passing through the city after conquering the Parthians, A.D. 107, the Saint refused to offer sacrifice to the gods. He was taken in chains to Rome, and during the public festivities exposed in the Colosseum, where he was torn to pieces by lions.

After the death of Trajan, the persecution continued under Hadrian, but it was not by any means so violent. This was because the Emperor had read the writings by which Aristides and Quadratus defended the Christians. He issued an edict in A.D. 124, ordering that no Christian should be put to death without trial. In spite of his own order, Hadrian himself (says the legend) condemned to death St. Symphorosa and her seven sons. This holy family lived in a beautiful house near the Emperor's palace at Tivoli. On their refusal to sacrifice to the gods, they were brought before the Emperor, and St. Symphorosa was terribly tortured, but to no purpose. She was finally cast into the river Anio with a stone tied about her neck. Her bright example was followed next day by her seven sons, who all received the crown of martyrdom.

Under Marcus Aurelius, A.D. 161–180.

Marcus Aurelius, although the most virtuous of the Roman Emperors, yet issued fresh edicts against the Christians, A.D. 161 They were followed by an outburst of fury against the faithful in Rome, Asia Minor, and Gaul.

Among the most glorious martyrs in Rome were St. Felicitas, with her sons, and St. Justin, the Christian philosopher, with several of his disciples.

In Asia Minor the chief sufferers were St. Poly-carp and St. Germanicus; the latter was torn to pieces by lions. St. Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna and a disciple of St. John, when called upon to deny Christ, said: "Six and eighty years have I been His servant, and He has never done me wrong. How, then, can I blaspheme my King?" St. Polycarp was condemned to be burnt alive; but, when placed on the pyre, the flames encircled without touching him, so that he had to be killed

by a spear-thrust by one of the soldiers. After he had persecuted them for fifteen years a miraculous event caused Marcus Aurelius to be more favourable to the Christians. The Roman troops were engaged against the Quadi in Bohemia, and were surprised by the enemy and cut off from all supply of water. It was during an exceptionally dry summer, A.D. 174, and the sufferings of the soldiers were intense. In one of the legions there was a great number of Christians, who threw themselves on their knees and prayed to God for relief. An abundant shower of rain came as an answer to their prayer. The soldiers caught the water in their helmets and eagerly refreshed themselves. This caused great disorder in the Roman ranks, and the enemy took advantage of it to renew the attack. But God sent a violent thunderstorm which drove full against the Quadi without touching the Romans, who were able to gain an easy victory. We are told by Eusebius, an ancient historian, that, in consequence of this, Marcus Aurelius ordered the persecution to cease, and gave the name of "Thundering Legion" (Fulminatrix)  to the division to which the Christian soldiers belonged.

But peace only lasted for three years. Then popular hatred against the Christians burst out afresh. The number of martyrs was immense, especially in Southern Gaul. SS. Maturus, Sanctus, and Attalus were made to sit on red-hot chairs, and were afterwards thrown to wild beasts.

SS. Epipodius and Alexander, two brave young Christians of Lyons, were put to death after cruel tortures; and St. Symphorian, a young noble of Autun, was beheaded before the eyes of his mother, who encouraged him to be faithful.

St. Blandina, a young slave, was dragged to death by a wild bull. St. Pothinus, the Bishop of Lyons, was so old and feeble that he had to be carried before his judges. His bold profession of faith enraged the people, who kicked and struck him so violently that he died in prison from his wounds. He was succeeded by the great St. Irenaeus. It was during this persecution that Lucius, King of one of the small British States, sent to Pope Eleutherius for missionaries. Thus it was that Britain so early received the faith.

III. The Later Martyrs

Under Septimius Severus, A.D. 202–211.

Septimius Severus was at first favourable to the Christians, but in the tenth year of his reign he renewed all the edicts against them. The persecution raged in Africa, Italy, and Gaul. At Carthage great numbers suffered, among them St. Perpetua and St. Felicitas, who, with three other catechumens, were tormented and then thrown to wild beasts.

Vivia Perpetua was a noble lady, Felicitas a slave. The former had a little son a few months old. When she was accused of being a Christian, her father begged her to renounce her faith. But she was firm, and, with several others, was thrown into a dark, dismal prison, where they received baptism. Again her father came to implore her to yield, but in vain. When these brave martyrs were led before the tribunal, once more the poor old father approached Perpetua, holding her little babe on his arm, and besought her not to bring misery on her child. The judge ordered that he should be removed, and the soldiers struck him as they did so. Perpetua was more grieved at the sight of her father's distress and at seeing him struck than at her own fate, for she was immediately after condemned to be exposed to wild beasts. She and Felicitas were thrown before a wild cow, which tossed and gored them. But the people, touched by their courage and modesty. would not let the terrible scene continue, so they were put to death by the sword.

The persecution was not less furious in Egypt. It was there that St. Leonidas, father of Origen, suffered for the faith.

In Gaul the Emperor himself conducted the persecution. Hearing that Lyons had become entirely Christian, through the labours of St. Irenaeus, its Bishop, he surrounded the city with his troops, and massacred all the inhabitants who would not renounce the faith. According to an ancient inscription, still to he seen in Lyons, the number of martyrs reached 19,000, without counting the women and children.

The Emperors who succeeded Septimius Severus were not so devoted to maintaining the Roman form of worship as their predecessors. They wanted to make a new form of religion by uniting several kinds of worship together; thus the Christians were not so much persecuted. The Emperor Alexander Severus was particularly favourable to the Christians, but the lesser officers in Rome often persecuted the faithful when he was obliged to be away at war. So, in spite of the peace, many martyrs gave their lives for the faith. Among other well-known names none is so familiar to us as that of St. Cecilia. She was descended from a noble Roman pagan family, but had received the faith in her early years, and had consecrated her virginity to God. Her parents had espoused her to a young pagan called Valerian. St. Cecilia told him of her vow, and said that she had an angel to protect her virginity. Valerian was so struck with this language that he said he would believe in our Lord if he could see the angel. At St. Cecilia's prayer his desire was granted. St. Cecilia instructed him in the doctrines of the faith, and he was soon baptized by Pope St. Urban. Valerian and his brother Tiburtius were denounced to the magistrate Almachius for burying the bodies of the martyrs, and were both condemned to death. The night before they suffered St. Cecilia, with several others, visited Valerian and his brother in the prison. Their example and conversation converted the pagan guard, who also underwent martyrdom at daybreak. St. Cecilia distributed her wealth to the poor, and devoted her time to converting many, who were then baptized by St. Urban. The Prefect soon summoned her to appear before him. She answered all his threats and questions boldly, and was condemned to be suffocated in the caldarium or bathroom of her own palace. After remaining three days without air in that burning heat, the holy virgin was found uninjured. A soldier was sent to cut off her head, but he struck at it three times without severing it from her body. According to Roman custom, he might not strike again, and the saint was left to die, but she did not expire till three days afterwards, November 22, A.D. 230. In the church, which was once her palace, the caldarium is still to be seen.

It was in a vineyard belonging to St. Cecilia that one of the most famous Catacombs was excavated. It contained the crypt in which several Popes were buried, and where St. Cecilia herself was laid after her martyrdom. Her body, still incorrupt, was found there in the ninth century, and was then put in a church above ground, where, eight hundred years afterwards, it was again uncovered and exposed for the veneration of the faithful. With the exception of a few martyrdoms, the Christians were left in peace during twenty-four years. This tranquillity was disturbed during the two years that Maximin the Thracian reigned.

Under Maximin, A.D. 235-238.

This persecution was directed chiefly against the clergy. The Emperor Maximin thought to shake the faith of the people by depriving them of their pastors. The chief martyrs were two Popes, St. Pontianus ( A.D. 235) and St. Anterus (A D. 236), both of whom were buried in the Papal crypt. After this short persecution, the Christians again had peace for eleven years.

Under Decius, A.D. 249-251.

In A.D. 249 the Emperor Decius resolved to destroy Christianity altogether, and to obtain this end he ordered that all who professed the faith should be cruelly tortured before being put to death. All the means of torture that human cruelty could invent were called into use—red-hot chairs and pincers, slow roasting before huge fires, boiling pitch, scourging, and racking—nothing was neglected to shake the constancy of the faithful. Many who would have met speedy death bravely recoiled before such horrible torments, and renounced their religion. These were known as the "Lapsed." The number of martyrs was so great that public buildings had to be used as prisons. St. Fabian, Pope, St. Alexander, Bishop of Jerusalem, and St. Agatha, may be specially named. The last was a native of Sicily, and a virgin of noble birth. She was placed on a rack, after suffering other dreadfal tortures, because she refused to break her vow of virginity and become the bride of the Proconsul, or to adore his gods. The torments she endured were so great that she died in the hands of her persecutors. It was during this persecution that many of the faithful fled to deserts to escape such terrible trials of their constancy. They set the example of living as hermits, a practice which afterwards became widespread throughout the Church.

Under Valerian, A.D. 257-250.

Valerian was at first favourable to the Christians, but afterwards issued two edicts against them. The first forbade Christians even to go to the Catacombs, and ordered bishops and priests who refused to sacrifice to the gods to be sent into exile. The second edict ordered all clergy to be beheaded, confiscated the property of senators and knights, and exiled all ladies and others of rank who remained faithful to Christianity. Among the chief sufferers were St. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, and Pope Sixtus II. This holy Pope was celebrating Mass in the Catacombs when seized by the soldiers. The Christians present all vied with each other in begging to be taken in his stead, but the deacons only were led away with the Pope, who was condemned to death, and taken back to the Catacombs to be beheaded. His pontifical throne was sprinkled with his blood. One of the deacons was St. Lawrence, who, when asked to give up the treasures of the Church, promised to do so. He then collected together all the poor of Rome, and presented them as the Church's greatest treasures to the Prefect, who, in anger, immediately ordered him to be put to death. He was roasted on a gridiron over a slow fire.

At Utica a hundred and fifty-three martyrs suffered together. They were thrown alive into a pit of quicklime, and are hence known as "Massa Candida." We have a beautiful example of courage and faith in the conduct of a little child called Cyril. His father was a pagan, and, in hatred of the name of Christian, had driven his son from his house. The soldiers brought the child before the Governor, who tried gently to persuade him to renounce his faith in order to be restored to his home. St. Cyril answered, "I rejoice to be driven from my father's home; God will give me one much more grand and beautiful." Threats were then tried to frighten him, but neither the sight of the fires nor the sword could shake the courage of the little hero, who begged to die that he might be sooner with God. The bystanders wept when they saw him receive the crown of martyrdom.

Valerian was succeeded by his son Galienus, A.D. 260. This Emperor was the first to issue edicts favourable to the Christians. They were declared a lawful society, and, as such, were protected by the State.

IV. The Last of the Persecutions

Under Aurelian and Diocletian, A.D. 274-288.

Fourteen years later Aurelian determined to succeed where others had failed. He made up his mind to exterminate the Christians from his dominions. He was, however, assassinated eight months after his edicts were brought out. Among the numerous martyrs may be named Pope St. Felix I. and St. Denis, First Bishop of Paris, who was beheaded on Montmartre.

Before commencing the history of the last persecution, it is necessary to glance at the changes which had taken place in the government of the Roman Empire. In A.D. 286 Diocletian divided his dominion into two parts, the Eastern Empire and the Western Empire. The latter he bestowed upon Maximinian, under the title of Augustus of the West. Six years later, in A.D. 292, Diocletian further divided each Empire into two, giving the Governors the title of Caesar. So now Diocletian governed the East, with Nicomedia as his capital; Maximinian had Italy and Africa, capital Milan; Constantius Chlorus received Gaul, Spain, and Britain, with Treves as his capital; while Galerius governed Illyricum and the country along the Danube, making Sirmium his capital.

Maximinian began to persecute the Christians in his dominions in A.D. 286. A revolt having broken out near Lyons, he sent for the Theban Legion, which, according to the legend, was composed entirely of Christians, to suppress it. But instead of employing them to quell the insurrection, Maximinian ordered the soldiers to seek out the Christians and put them to death.

The whole Legion, with their captain, St. Maurice, refused to obey such an unjust command. The Emperor then ordered them to stand in lines, and had the head of every tenth man struck off. This only served to encourage the remainder, and a second decimation had no better result. The Legion declared themselves faithful soldiers to the Emperor, ready to die in his defence, but persisted in refusing to put innocent Christians to death. At last, Maximinian, despairing of overcoming their constancy, caused them to be surrounded by the rest of his army, and slain as they stood. It is said that six thousand received the crown of martyrdom.

St. Sebastian.


Another celebrated martyr was St. Sebastian, captain of the Praetorian Guard. He was denounced to Diocletian for visiting and encouraging the imprisoned Christians. The Emperor reproached him with misuse of the trust he had put in him, to which Sebastian replied, that though always faithful to the Emperor, he had long ago discovered the folly of adoring gods of stone. Diocletian in anger called for a company of archers, commanding them to shoot the Saint to death. St. Sebastian's body was covered with wounds, and he was left for dead. Irene, a holy widow, who came to carry away his body, found that Sebastian still breathed. She nursed him back to life, and a few days afterwards Diocletian was astonished to see among his courtiers the pale face of the captain of the guards, whom he thought to be dead. Furious at such boldness, the Emperor instantly ordered the holy martyr to be taken to the hippodrome of the palace, where he was beaten to death by clubs ( A.D. 288).

Under Diocletian, A.D. 303-305

During an expedition of Maximinian throughout Gaul, many others besides the Theban Legion suffered martyrdom. About the same time, a few fell victims, like St. Sebastian, to the angry passions of Diocletian, but the last persecution did not begin in earnest till A.D. 303. A fresh edict was passed in that year ordering all churches to be destroyed—among others those of the Catacombs—the Scriptures and all pious books to be burnt, and allowing the free use of torture against Christians. This edict was followed by three others, the later surpassing the earlier in cruelty.

The severity of the persecution varied in different countries according to the inclinations of their rulers. It was enforced with the greatest cruelty in the East by Galerius. In the West, Constantius secretly favoured the Christians, though he dared not openly disobey the edicts; hence many suffered for the faith—as, for instance, St. Alban, the first martyr in Britain.

St. Lucy


Among other glorious martyrs in other parts of the Empire may be named St. Peter, Patriarch of Alexandria, and St. Januarius, Bishop of Naples. In Spain, St. Eulalia, a child of twelve, was torn with iron hooks, and afterwards burned with lighted torches. SS. Justus and Pastor, little boys of thirteen and seven, ran away from school to declare themselves Christians, and were beheaded. St. Lucy suffered at Syracuse, St. Agnes at Rome. The latter was only thirteen years of age and very beautiful, so that the Prefect's son wanted to make her his wife. But St. Agnes had chosen Jesus Christ as her spouse, and refused all his offers and promises of wealth. She was placed on a funeral pile, but the flames separated without touching her, so that the Prefect ordered her to be beheaded, A.D. 304. The persecution raged furiously till A.D. 305, the number who suffered reaching many thousands.

In A.D. 305 Diocletian suddenly resigned, and Maximinian was obliged to do the same. Their places were filled by Galerius and Constantius, with Severus and Maximin as associates. This caused many changes in the government of the Roman Empire, and interrupted the fury of the persecution. Henceforth the sufferings of the Christians depended entirely on the disposition of each ruler. Thus, though Galerius continued the persecution in the East, the Christians of Spain, Gaul, and Britain enjoyed peace under Constantius.

St. Agnes


When Constantius died he was succeeded by his son, Constantine the Great, who was always, favourable to the Christians. As the persecution continued in the East, Constantine turned his arms against the persecutors, and successively defeated the Governors of Italy A.D. 312, Asia Minor and Syria A.D. 324. These victories made him sole ruler of the Roman Empire. Always a Christian at heart, Constantine now publicly professed the faith, and made Christianity the religion of the State by the edict of Milan A.D. 313. In A.D. 325 he issued a decree expressing his desire that all his subjects should become Christians, and proclaimed himself guardian and defender of the faith. Thus did the Christian religion triumph over the pagan world after more than three hundred years of persecution.

It may be remarked that nearly all the Emperors who persecuted the Church met with violent deaths.

  • Nero was declared an enemy of the State, and condemned to be hurled from the Tarpeian Rock, which fate he only escaped by suicide.
  • Domitian and Maximin were both assassinated.
  • Decius was killed by barbarians, and his body left as prey to the wild beasts.
  • Valerian was taken prisoner by the Persians, and served as stirrup-holder to their King. He was afterwards flayed alive.
  • Aurelian was murdered by his courtiers.
  • Diocletian, worn out by excess, let himself die of hunger, while
  • Maximinian strangled himself.
  • Galerius, whose cruelty against the Christians was so great, was seized with a most dreadful disease. Finding his doctors were unable to cure him, he issued an edict of toleration to the Christians, and begged their prayers for his recovery. But his repentance was not sincere, and he died amidst terrible sufferings.

Well may the Church, in the office of her martyrs, quote the following words from the Book of Wisdom: "Then shall the just stand with great constancy against those that have afflicted them, and taken away their labours. These seeing it, shall be troubled with terrible fear, and shall be amazed at the suddenness of their unexpected salvation, saying within themselves, repenting and groaning in anguish of spirit: 'These are they whom we had some time in derision, and for a parable of reproach. We fools esteemed their life madness, and their end without honour. Behold how they are numbered among the children of God, and their lot is among the saints.'"

[Illustration] from Church - Christian Antiquity by Notre Dame