Martyrdom under the Several Roman Emperors

Having passed in review the history of this martyrdom, let us now attend to the “why” of it and to its significance.

To begin and to end with this hostility of the heathen world toward the primitive church in the men of this world, in their wickedness, more particular, in their native hatred of the truth or of God’s gospel, or in the various other motives by which they were driven in troubling God’s people, is to be at a loss how to explain the reception of the gospel on the part of the others unless one wants to take the position, as many do, that they were men and women inherently better than the wicked by whom they were harassed. But we know that “all are under sin; as it is written, there is none righteous, no, not one; there is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God,” Rom. 3:10, 11.

When the question is one of the sovereign reason of this hostility, we must certainly look to God with an appeal to Rom. 9:18, “and whom he will he hardeneth.” As it is with all things, so it is with this martyrdom,—it remains in the final instance an unanswered question, if in uncovering its causes, God is not in all our thoughts as one who “worketh all things after the council of his own will,” Eph. 1:11. It is only as armed with this truth as a working principle that we have true understanding of events and movements in history.

In hardening the heathen—the persecutors of the Believers—God used means both objective and subjective. The objective means was the very gospel and the men and women in whose lives it was seen to bear fruit. The gospel was a savor of death unto death with respect to the persecuting heathen. But it was this as God’s means. But there are in addition, subjective means to be mentioned, to wit, the wickedness of the heathen, their hatred, pride, sinful lusts, and superstitions. As God, in the language of the apostle, gave up the heathen to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts—mark you, through the lusts of their own heart—(Rom. 1:24), so did He give up these same heathen to the sin of actively hating and persecuting the church, through the wickedness—pride, selfishness, superstition and the like—that dwelt in their flesh. To express this same fact and truth in a language borrowed from the Old Testament Scriptures, He turned the heart of the heathen to hate the Christians and to deal subtlety with them, (Ps. 105:25), and, God moved the heathen against the Christians to say, Come, let us destroy them, (2 Sam. 24:1).

So then, these persecutions were God’s work—a work in which the heathen functioned as His agent but on this account, certainly, none the less responsible. What they did to the Christians, they desired and willed to do and in doing what they did they acted in full agreement with their character. So all the fault was theirs. But God moved them.

Now both God and the heathen had their own reasons, designs. It is of importance to know the reasons of the heathen; but it is of far greater importance to know God’s reasons. If we be willingly ignorant of the latter—ignorant of the fact and truth that He moved the heathen to persecute His people—all our inquiring after the true significance of this early martyrdom is an essentially fruitless occupation. We will not know. What has weight here is not why the heathen persecuted the church, but why God willed that they should.

What were the heathen’s reasons? There were several. The basic of these is set forth by St. John in this language: “Behold what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us that we should be called the sons of God: therefore the world knoweth us not, because it knew not him”, John 3:1. And again, and this with reference to Cain, “And wherefore slew he him (Abel)? Because his own works were evil and his brother’s righteous,” John 3:12. Fundamentally the spiritual contest between paganism and Christianity was a combat between good and evil, a struggle of darkness against light, but a struggle in which light had the victory,. These early persecutions formed hell’s answer to the preaching of Paul.

When, in obedience to the command of Christ, the gospel ministers of the church went forth to preach the tidings of salvation to all creatures, pagan civilization and culture had attained to the measure of its fullness. It was the golden age of literature. The far-flung empire, whose internal organization was perfected by Tragan, stood under a well-ordained jurisdiction. The seas had been swept of piracy. Canals had been dug and military roads had been built and the result was that commerce flourished on the Mediterranean Sea. There was protection of life and property. Improved methods of farming had increased the yield of the soil. The great cities were renowned for their temples, theatres, aqueducts, swimming pools, and magnificent buildings of every kind. Industry in all its departments prospered. Institutions of learning sowed abroad culture. Though the printing press is an invention of our modern era, books in ancient Rome were plentiful and cheap as copies were multiplied by hundreds of slaves employed as scribes. A house without a private library was not considered respectable; public libraries were in every great city and resorted to by the cultured.

Assuredly, on the surface we have to do here with a lovely and magnificent achievement. The eighty-four years from the accession of Nerva to the death of Marcus Aurelius—a period in which the Roman empire was at the height of its glory—has been pronounced by some “the most happy and prosperous period in the history of the world.

It was this perhaps but only on the surface. The civilization and culture of the Roman-Graeco world was rotten at the core. The majority of men were wretchedly poor or they were slaves and as such were treated like beasts of burden; gladiatorial shows, i.e. public games in which men were forced into mortal combat with their fellow men or with wild beasts for the amusement of the people—the free citizens—were the order of the day in Rome. There was perpetual war between the legions of Rome and the fierce barbarian tribes who dwelt on the border of the empire; and the followers of Christ—the most loyal and virtuous of subjects—were being thrown to wild beasts or driven into exile for no other reason than their being Christians. The luxury that resulted from the influx of wealth from the conquered nations was amazingly extravagant. Fortunes were spent on the pleasures of the table. The belly was the god of the rich. They ate until they were replete and then resorted to an agent of emptying the stomach and ate again. With luxury came the vices of sensuality, both natural and unnatural. Avarice, suspicion, robbery and bribery prevailed on every hand. The idea of natural sympathy and kindness between man and man seems hardly to have existed. Poisonings and assassinations were so common that such atrocities seem hardly to have been regarded as a breach of morality. There were no alms-houses, no hospitals, no societies of benevolence.

Alongside of great wealth was hopeless poverty. The provinces were exhausted by enormous taxes and industry was crushed by slavery so that an immense number of the population was but slightly removed from begging. The slaves came from the conquered nations and they were so plentiful and cheap that the masters inhumanly wore them out by neglect and hard usage.

As to the emperors, all were godless men and not a few of them were monsters of iniquity. Soon Tiberius entered upon a career of crime and surrendered himself to luxury, and to every sensual indulgence. Caligula was wholly under the dominion of lust and passions, and his cruelty was equal to his insane folly. He had men tortured, beheaded, or sawn in pieces for his amusement. Demonized by cruelty, he was heard to express the wish that all the Roman people had but one neck, that he might dispatch (them at a blow. The vileness of Nero was bottomless. Claudius, in the midst of his boundless debaucheries, was an imbecile brute. Vitellius, though neither cruel nor tyrannical, surrendered himself to every possible degree of voluptuousness, and self-indulgence. Domitian amused himself most with the torments of the dying. Commodus with his hundreds of concubines idled away his time with butchering men and beasts in the arena. Heliogobalus, as dressed in women’s clothes, was joined in marriage to a profligate boy like himself. He violated all the laws of nature and was at last butchered by the soldiers and thrown into the Tiber. And after their death such monsters, by the authority of the senate, were canonized gods; and their memory was perpetuated by festivals and temples.

Certainly the apostle Paul’s picture (Rom. 1) of the state of corruption of the Graeco-Roman world, is not overdrawn.

All this corruption and wickedness was concentrated in Rome, though not confined to this city. This metropolis was the chief offender. “Never, probably”, says Canon Farrar, “was there any age or any place where the worst forms of wickedness were practiced with a more unblushing effrontery than in the city of Rome under the government of the Caesars.”

But, as was just said, this wickedness was not confined to Rome. Every city of considerable size had its gladiatorial shows; and the amphitheater was the most imposing building. There murder was practiced as a sport, from morning to evening, and countless men and beasts were sacrificed to satisfy a thirst for blood on the part of the on looking populace. The human combatants, called gladiators, were condemned criminals and captives of war. Paganism assumed supreme lordship over human life and dealt with it as it pleased.

Thus it is not strange that the religion of Jesus Christ roused the nameless pollution of Rome to a frenzy of rage, and that an attempt was made to crush the faith of the Church. Rome’s works were evil. And the religion of Christ was pure. It denounced adultery and extortion and all manner of evil. It demanded of men that they forsake their abominations, turn to the living God, and be saved from their sins by faith in His resurrected Christ. It proclaimed that God looked down with holy indignation upon idolatry, that He would avenge all wrong and that a day was coming when all the world would stand at His tribunal and that every man—emperor and slave—should receive according to his deeds.

However, examining this rage and the causes of it, we discover that each social cast had a reason of its own why it hated and persecuted God’s people. The religion of Christ disrupted the family, as when one or two of its members would believe and the others would cleave to their gods and persist in their sins. Then, as Christ had foretold, the brother delivered up brother to death, and the father his child; and children rose up against parents, and caused them to be put to death. As the second century drew to a close, there was scarcely a family but some member of it—slave or mistress, freedman or master, son or daughter—belonged to the community of Christians.

The great Roman statesmen including the best of the emperors, the serious thinkers who in their heart were too conscious (that the pagan religion of the empire was unreal, viewed Christianity as the Empire’s deadliest foe, an enemy which must be stamped out. For they were persuaded that the old State religion, with its immemorial traditions, was the policy which had built up and was the bulwark of Rome’s worldwide empire. In their eyes, the followers of Christ formed a estranged and dangerous community. They chose to live outside the pale of the religion of Rome. They refused to worship as God the emperor and his statue, and to take part in any idolatrous ceremonies at public festivals. They disregarded politics and depreciated all civil and temporal affairs; and this of necessity as politics and these affairs were in a state of hopeless corruption. Thus the Christian religion and its devotees stood quite alone among all the religions of the empire. And the spiritual antagonism was mutual. All the other gods of the empire were allowed to dwell together with the gods of Rome. There was mutual regard. In Rome the Persian Mithras, the Egyptian Isis, and the Roman Jupiter each had their temples and their altars side by side. But not so the God of the Christians. This is understandable. There was concord between Jupiter, Isis and Mithras. Gods they were, made by man himself in his own image. But the god of the Christians is light. In Him dwelleth no darkness at all.

The trader in sheep and oxen, and the maker of images and other ritual belongings hated the Christian because he spoiled the various markets open to them in connection with the sacrifices of the gods. The priestly cast disliked the Christian with a deadly antagonism, for as Christianity gained ground, the temples of the gods were depleted and the priests had to go a begging.

Finally, the superstitious common people had the grievance. They regarded the dreadful public calamities of that age as punishment justly inflicted by the angry gods for the disregard of their worship. In every flood, or drought, or famine, or pestilence, the fanatical populace cried: “Away with atheists! To the lions with the Christians.”

Finally, to the Jews the gospel was an offence and foolishness to the wise men in the world, to such as strove by their own wisdom to know God. An outstanding example of the latter class was Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic philosopher in the throne of the Caesars. The pagan religiousness and righteousness of Marcus is striking. Face to face with Christianity, he, from superstitious fear, honored the Roman gods. In his “Meditations” there is much that approaches the ethics of Christianity. Everywhere there is constant reference to the gods, not only to the ancient gods of Rome but to the Eastern deities with their corrupting rites as well. He sympathizes with all religions save one—the religion of Christ. Towards Christianity he is hostile. In his “Meditations” he alludes to it but once and this with scorn. Under his reign there flowed much Christian blood; and all the while he turned a deaf ear to the apologies of the Christian apologists by which he was flooded.

So were the Christians hated of all men, as Christ had foretold. Writing to Timothy, Paul with reference to himself asserts: “Who was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious, but I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in my unbelief,” 1 Tim. 1:13. So too, the persecuting heathen of the period of which we now write, they did it ignorantly in their unbelief. Their measure of guilt is thus not as great as that of those enemies of Christ of whom it is said (Heb. 6:4-9) that they were once enlightened, tasted of the heavenly gift, were made partakers of the Holy Spirit, tasted of the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come and crucified to themselves the son of God afresh.

A brief word about the significance of these persecutions in the following article.