RELIGION: The Early Christian Martyrs

Section Author: Tracey J. Kinney, Kwantlen Polytechnic University


Learning Objectives

  • Explain the factors that led some people to reject the polytheism of the late Roman Empire
  • Identify several of the early Christian martyrs and their importance
  • Evaluate the role of martyrdom in the rise of Christianity in the late Roman Empire
  • Recognize the difficulties inherent in studying the early Christian martyrs
  • Identify and explain the ways in which early Christian martyrdom has been reinterpreted over time


Roman statue of Cybele from the 1st Century
Figure 1.1 Roman statue of Cybele from the 1st Century CE.

The later Roman Empire was a time of tremendous socioeconomic and political upheaval. Regional economies faltered as the empire ceased to expand, and rival contenders for the Imperial throne were raised and toppled with great frequency. It was around this time that many of Rome’s peoples began to question the polytheism of the Roman state and seek solace in new religious and philosophical belief systems. Stoic philosophy drew upper class adherents, especially in the age of Marcus Aurelius, as did the 3rd-century neoplatonist view of a universe that proceeded from “The One” – a single, divine source. Romans of the lower classes, were often drawn to mystery cults, such as those of Cybele and Isis, that promised either salvation in an afterlife, or simply relief from the day-to-day miseries of this world. This, then, is the context within which we must situate the emergence of the first ‘Christians’.

We should note too, that the belief system we now refer to as ‘Christianity’ developed out of first century Judaism and for many years, its teachings remained largely within the Judaic tradition. Where early adherents differed from their fellow Jews, however, was in their steadfast conviction that Jesus of Nazareth was their Messiah – the saviour promised in the holy texts of Judaism. Following the death of Jesus at the hands of the Roman State, his followers believed that he was resurrected and raised to the kingdom of heaven, thereby bringing salvation to all of the faithful. According to the Apostle Paul, “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.”[1] The early Christians preached equality, communal support for one another, and redemption after death – an appealing message in a time of great uncertainty.

Trade routes facilitated the spread of the Christian message, as did the efforts of evangelists, such as Paul/Saul of Tarsus. Historians continue to debate the extent to which early Christian beliefs made inroads within the Roman state, but the faith eventually came to the attention of the Roman authorities. Where most ‘foreign’  belief systems had simply been absorbed into the Roman pantheon, the Christians posed a particular challenge because of their absolute refusal to make sacrifices to the gods of Rome. Even so, the imperial reaction to the Christians varied substantially. Where some emperors (and even more local governors) launched brutal persecutions, others chose simply to ignore the Christians unless they posed a particular problem.

Christians themselves reacted inconsistently to the prosecutorial efforts of the state. Some renounced their faith and made the required sacrifices; others fled to avoid persecution, or accepted banishment rather than death. However, each of the individuals who are the focus of this chapter consciously chose death, rather than sacrifice to the gods of the Empire, if the accounts that remain are to be accepted. The ‘Narrative of the Martyrdom of Justin Martyr’ records the following exchange between Justin and his interrogator:

Justin answered, “No man of right judgment falleth from religion to irreligion.” Rusticus answered, “If ye will not obey me, ye shall be tortured without mercy.” Justin replied, “We ask in prayer, that we may be tortured for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and be saved; for this shall be our salvation and our confidence, at that more terrible tribunal whereat all the world must appear, of our King and Saviour.” In like manner said the other martyrs also. “Do what thou wilt, for we are Christians and do no sacrifice to idols.”

Then the Prefect Rusticus gave sentence, saying, “Let such as refuse to do sacrifice to the gods, and to obey the decree of the Emperor, be scourged, and then led away to capital punishment, in pursuance of the laws.” So the holy martyrs, giving glory to God, were led forth to the accustomed place, and were beheaded, giving full completion to their testimony by the confession of the Saviour.[2]

Here we see a pattern that will recur in other accounts of martyrdom: the accused defends their faith publicly, requests to be tortured, and finally, accepts their death, whatever form it may take. As you read the accounts that follow and study the images, consider the impact of these narratives and visuals on the audience.

Video: “The Third Century Crises,” Ryan M. Reeves, Assistant Professor of Historical Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

Questions for Consideration

  1. In what ways were these accounts of martyrdom significant? Consider not only the expansion of Christian beliefs, but also their impact on the Roman State.

  1. 1 Corinthians 15:22 "et sicut in Adam omnes moriuntur ita et in Christo omnes vivificabuntur"
  2. John Henry Newman, et al., Tracts for the Times (London & Oxford: Rivington & Parker, 1834), 3-4.


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The Ancient and Medieval World Copyright © by Adrianna Bakos; Barrie Brill; Niall Christie; Jessica Hemming; Aleksandar Jovanović; and Tracey J. Kinney is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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