Evangelists to the Death

The blood of Christians is seed,” wrote Tertullian, a North African Christian, in about 197. “[It is] the bait that wins men to our school. We multiply whenever we are mown down by you.”

Tertullian, of course, wrote with rhetorical exaggeration. Pagans hardly flocked to the church after witnessing the death of Christians. Martyrdom eventually made a large-scale impact on pagans but not before two centuries of sacrifice.

The pleasure of persecution

Ordinary citizens in Tertullian’s day were not impressed with Christian deaths. In fact, they seemed to take pleasure in the persecution of Christians.

"Faggot-fellows” and “half-axle men” were nicknames of contempt for people who allowed themselves to be tied to a half-axle post or have faggots (wood chips) heaped around them in preparation for being burnt. Christians were viewed as only a sect or school that opposed the established order, dabbled in black magic, and practiced incest and ritual child-murder. They were seen as a dangerous cult, disliked and despised.

"Through trusting [in resurrection], they have brought in this strange and new worship and despised terrors, going readily and with joy to death,” mocked one ancient. “Now let us see if they will rise again, and if their god be able to help them and take them out of our hands.”

Officials were even more contemptuous, telling one group of Christians in the province of Asia (now Asian Turkey) that if they wanted to kill themselves, there were precipices and halters enough for the job.

We find similar feelings aroused by Christians in the account of the martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas at Carthage in March 203. Inside the prison, many visitors were impressed by the constancy of Christians, but once in the amphitheater, attitudes changed.

When Perpetua and Felicitas came into the arena, the crowd was alternately enraged at their defiance and shocked at their being displayed naked. But no mercy was demanded. Furthermore nothing in the account suggests that any were influenced to become Christians and share their fate.

People throughout the empire were used to watching brutal scenes in the amphitheater, sometimes involving the execution of criminals by wild beasts. Besides, Christians deserved scant sympathy. They were subversive fanatics, motivated, as the emperor Marcus Aurelius believed (c. 170), with “sheer opposition.” If they wanted death, they could have it.

Pity for the fools

By the end of the second century, examples of courageous and virtuous Christian living were beginning to earn a grudging respect among some influential contemporaries. In about 200, the physician Galen, while criticizing the ignorance and gullibility of Christians, acknowledged their “contempt of death and restraint in cohabitation” and their “self-control in matters of eating and drinking and their keen pursuit of justice [which is] not inferior to that of genuine philosophers.”

There is, however, little evidence that victims of the widespread local persecutions in the years 202–206 were regarded more favorably. In Rome, Alexandria, and Corinth, where these outbreaks took place, popular attitudes seem to have resembled those of the Carthaginians.

Between 210 and 235, and again from 238 to 250, Christianity received a measure of toleration. But in January 250, Emperor Decius, beset with a devastating invasion by the Goths on the frontier, ordered an empire-wide sacrifice to the Roman gods, following the example of the yearly sacrifice on the Capitol in Rome. Those who failed to sacrifice would be severely punished.

The response was immediate and overwhelming. Faced with the alternative of obeying the emperor or suffering for their faith, the great majority of Christians went with the emperor. Temples bulged with sacrificers. Masses apostatized. Pagans felt themselves morally and intellectually on top. Christian confessors—those who kept the faith—were derided and treated as fools.

The Acts of the Martyr Pionius and His Companions (martyred at Smyrna in 250) provides a vivid firsthand account of events there: Every effort was made to persuade Pionius and a small band of fellow Christians to sacrifice in the temple of Nemesis and avoid punishment. Even Euctemon, the bishop, had sacrificed; why should he not?

Loud guffaws erupted when Pionius confessed he worshipped the crucified Christ, though the public executioner pleaded for him to change his mind and allow the nails fastening him to the gibbet to be taken out.

But in the end Pionius’s sacrifice aroused nothing but sorrow and pity.

Show of strength

During the next half century martyrdom slowly made an impact on public opinion. During that time, Emperor Valerian ordered another round of persecution, lasting three years. The Christian hierarchy and wealthy supporters were harassed and church buildings and cemeteries confiscated. The persecution ended only when, in June 260, the Persians defeated and captured the emperor near Edessa.

In Carthage the most notable victim was Bishop Cyprian, and at his execution on September 14, 258, Christians demonstrated their support by keeping a public vigil for him the night before his beheading. It was a show of strength, a sign they had become a sizable and self-confident minority in some of the major provinces of the empire.

Whether due to the demonstration or not, during the next 43 years, the church enjoyed peace from all but minor, isolated persecutions. The decline in civic values and an economic downturn helped Christianity, and the church’s size and influence increased enormously.

In Rome, catacombs such as that of Peter and Marcellinus expanded into great necropolises containing 11,000 or more burial sites. Church organization progressed throughout the empire. Even Roman Britain had its bishops. Once a purely urban institution, Christianity was finding increasing support in the countryside.

Thus, when the emperor Diocletian (reigned 284–305), after long hesitation, tried to destroy the church—the one non-conformist element in the empire-his task was infinitely harder than in his predecessors’ day.

The failed persecution

The Great Persecution of 303–312 affected town and countryside alike. It was carried out to the letter by imperial officials, but many pagans had growing doubts about its justification and success.

First, there were too many Christians to suppress. By this time, many Christians served in the army and administration. In addition, Christians didn’t defect en masse this time, and the fortitude of persecuted Christians influenced public opinion.

L. Caelius Firmicanus Lactantius (c.270–320) was a North African teacher of rhetoric who immigrated to Asia Minor and found employment at Diocletian’s court. He became a Christian and wrote of events at Nicomedia and in the surrounding province of Bithynia. Christianity was growing rapidly, Lactantius said, and God permitted the persecution of some believers to draw in others.

"Great numbers are driven from the worship of the false gods by their hatred of cruelty,” he wrote. Still more onlookers marveled at Christians who would rather die than worship Roman gods and wondered if their own gods were worth dying for:

"The people who stand around hear them saying in the midst of these very torments that they do not sacrifice to stones wrought by the hand of man but to the living God, who is in heaven: many understand that this is true and admit it into their breast.”

Lactantius credited “numerous causes being collected together” (including miracles and exorcisms) for winning “a great multitude to God.” But chief among them was the fortitude of the Christians when confronted with persecution.

Several hundred miles away from Lactantius’s Nicomedia, a struggle of often horrific proportions engulfed Coptic Egypt. Eusebius of Caesarea (269–339) was in Upper Egypt during the final spasm of persecution ordered by emperor Maximian in 311.

Describing the carnage, Eusebius wrote, “Some suffered beheading, others punishment by fire; so that the murderous axe was dulled and worn out and was broken in pieces while the executioners themselves grew utterly weary.” But every time this happened, Eusebius claimed volunteers for death rushed forward: “As soon as sentence was passed on one, another from one quarter and others from another would leap up to the tribunal and confess themselves Christians.” They often went to their deaths singing psalms and hymns.

Coptic Christians in Egypt have never forgotten those days. They date their era from the accession of Diocletian in 284 as a permanent reminder of their triumph over imperial persecution.

From Tertullian’s time many Christians became “evangelists to the death,” but only in the fourth century did martyrdom become a serious factor in the church’s growth. So long as the empire flourished and the values of Roman civilization prevailed, Christians were seen as an illegal and disloyal minority. Martyrs merely displayed their zeal to a largely hostile or indifferent populace.

About face 

The Great Persecution seems to have flipped the scales. After the conversion of Constantine, martyrs became part of a “Golden Legend.” In Rome, for example, the Spanish poet, Prudentius (d. 402) embellished the story of the martyrs with miraculous details of their legendary heroism against pagan governors.

So Tertullian was right after all, though his statements took time to become fulfilled. For him the martyrdom of Christians was the supreme influence that drew people (him among them) to Christianity: “For who that beholds [martyrdom] is not stirred to inquire what lies indeed within it?”

More resources:

  • William H.C. Frend’s latest book Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church: A Study of a Conflict from the Maccabees to Donatus will give you far more of the story than we had room to print here.
  • De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors contains short biographical essays of all the Roman emperors from the accession of the Emperor Augustus to the death of the Emperor Constantine XI Palaeologus. Each essay on this site, which is peer reviewed, is written by a scholar and is accompanied by a bibliography, illustrations, and footnotes.
By William H.C. Frend

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #57 in 1998]

William H. C. Frend is professor emeritus of ecclesiastical history at Glasgow University. His most recent of many works is The Archaeology of Early Christianity (Fortress, 1996).
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