First Martyrs of the Church of Rome

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St. Peter by Carvaggio

For the memorial of the first martyrs of the Church of Rome, we recommend the painting “The Crucifixion of St. Peter” by Michelangelo Merisi da Carvaggio.

When we picture the Roman emperor, Nero, we imagine a rotund little cartoon of a man, wearing a toga and playing the violin while, behind him, a small fire burns. But the truth is no caricature. Nero was a wicked man, a wickedness that perhaps grew out of the terrible reality that he was the first of the Roman emperors to be declared, and worshipped as, a god. What good can come of a teen-ager who takes the throne of the world’s great empire and then saves his tears in glass bottles as relics for future generations?

When a fire destroyed two-thirds of the city of Rome in 64 A.D. (including the poorest parts of the city, right where Nero wanted to build a new palace) public opinion turned against the emperor. Some speculated that Nero had himself ordered the fire as a kind of self-dealing urban planning. God or no, people were afraid and angry.

Nero looked for some group to blame and he decided upon the newborn Christian Church. (Its founders, the apostles Peter and Paul, were imprisoned in Rome during the fire. They would die in the post-fire persecutions.)

Those who held to their faith were called martyrs, a word that means, “witness.”

The Church was an easy target.  Christians were forbidden to be soldiers or to hold public office, either of which meant swearing an oath of eternal fealty to the emperor. They were forbidden to swear falsely in order to make money or help their businesses grow. So they had no civil power base from which to argue their case. And, since only the baptized were allowed at the liturgy, rumors about their practices spread.

“They claim to eat the body of their God and drink his blood.” Soon, the charge of cannibalism surfaced. And the whispers about what, or whom else, they might consume fueled more idle talk. There were rumors of perverse sexual practices, something worse than the simple accusation of “squalid superstition.”

Christians acknowledged no gods but Christ. They refused to bow down and worship the emperor, which led to charges of treason to Rome. The formal charge was “hatred of the human race,” and Christians were found guilty. A simple act of worship on an altar of the emperor was enough to be set free. But for those who stood fast, the sentence was death.

Those who held to their faith were called martyrs, a word that means, “witness.”  They testified to, or witnessed, the truth with their very lives. They died in the amphitheatres, killed by lions, both lions and Christians entertainment for the crowds.  Those who, like Paul, were Roman citizens were beheaded. Eyewitnesses write of Nero hosting garden parties, lighting the dark with Christians bound to poles and set afire.

Several thousands Christians died in this first wave of persecution, the start of government-sanctioned persecutions, which waxed and waned for the next 250 years.

The Church honors all the women and men, many of whom are not named or known, who died in Nero’s terror.  Their joy in Christ and their courage before a death that could never separate them Christ’s love was a strong witness. Tertullian called their blood “the seed of the Church.”

May we be its abundant fruit.