A Brief History of Christian Martyrdom Accounts in Antiquity
I'm currently prepping notes for Revelation and veered off course when the motif of martyrdom kept reoccurring and reoccurring. I've done some work on the Martyrdom of Polycarp that documents the literary structure after the "Gospel Narratives" (published here). I've engaged Candida Moss's literature on Martyrdom in the early Church. During my time in the doctoral program, I read the whole Eusebian Church history corpus with a colleague. All of these happened during the same season.
Since then, martyrdom in antiquity has intrigued me. Even my research in the Didache, I have some work on where I perceive martyrological traditions emerging in the Didache's tradition. So, martyrdom in antiquity has continued to peak my interest and cause me to consider its presence and function for the development of early Christian theology. Even revisiting these traditions, I was reminded once more on ideas that I'd love to develop, though have very little time to do so, on the use of Scripture in early martyrological accounts, female noble martyrs in antiquity, and the role of imitatio christi in antiquity.
Regardless, I've copied and pasted my talking notes on Revelation 6 and the 5th seal. I stopped in my exposition and asked the question: "What was persecution like during the first few hundred years of the church?" The following is a non-critical reading of primary texts accompanied with general summaries of these traditions. I glossed over some accounts and others I quote more extensively.
In a brief way, let us ask a small and simple question that produces profound results. If Revelation is written near the end of the 1st century, what was persecution like during the first few hundred years of the church?
By the time we get to Revelation, the term μάρτυς, μαρτυρία, and μαρτυρέω – the Greek terms for “Witness” and “Martyrdom” – refers exclusively to the act of dying through offering a witness or testimony of Christ. Jesus Christ, himself, is the prototypical martyr who is given this title in Rev 1:5 and 3:14. We hear of the “faithful martyrdom” of Antipas in Rev 2:13.
Eusebius of Caesarea is an early Christian historian who lives during the years of 263–339. He writes a history of the church from its origins up to his day. He says that it was during the time of Nero that Christian persecutions began. In July of 64, a fire ravaged most of the center of Rome. It was rumored that Nero started this fire. Nero could not banish the rumors and blamed the Christians for the actions. This began the Neronian Persecution. Hundreds of Christians died under the rule of Nero. As Tacitus notes, many were killed, covered in hides of wild beasts, fed to dogs, fastened to crosses, lit on fire to give light to for his garden.
Domitian was the Caesar during the writing of Revelation. Eusebius says of Domitian: he
“put to death without any reasonable trial no small number of men distinguished at Rome by family and career, and had punish without a cause myriads of other notable men … he finally showed himself the successor of Nero’s campaign of hostility to God.”
In the early 2nd century, we see pockets of persecution throughout the Roman Empire. Trajan considers how to punish those who gather on the Lord’s day. Ignatius of Antioch writes 7 letters to churches and Polycarp, many of which are in Revelation 1–3 as he heads to Rome for his execution. We hear of the Scillian martyrs in North Africa.
The Martyrdom of Polycarp depicts a large gladiatorial arena as an old man, Polycarp, is led in to be devoured by beasts and eventually burned to death.
During his death, Eusebius mentions that there were others who were
“torn by scourges down to deep-seated veins and arteries, so that the hidden contents of the recesses of their bodies, their entrails and organs, were exposed to sight. At another time they were stretched on seashells and on sharp points, were taken through all kinds of punishment and torture, and finally were given to be eaten by wild beasts.”
Two martyrdom stories extol the noble character of females: Blandina (d.177) and Perpetua (d. 203). Some died in stocks, some died after being stretched out, some died in prison. Blandina is suspended upon a stake as animals are gnawing at her; she encourages a few others in the arena with her as she watched them suffer in an Iron Chair.
Perpetua, likewise, was led into the arena with four other men and woman. She was 22 years of age, well-born, educated, and had a newborn child still breast-feeding. The group is led out into the arena with nets over them and she valiantly encourages them, wards off the beasts, and all eventual suffer at the mouths of the beasts or the sword of their persecutors.
During his two-year reign in 249–251, the following account occurred under Decius. This is known as the Decian Persecution that was under Caesar’s order to “offer sacrifices to the Roman deities.”
Of an old man, the following is recorded:
“First, then, they seized an old man name Metras, and bade him utter blasphemous words; and when he refused to obey, they belabored his body with cudgels, stabbed his face and eyes with sharp reeds, and leading him to suburbs stoned him.”
Following this story, the mob martyred a woman:
“Then they led a woman called Quinta, a believer, to the idol temple, and were forcing her to worship. But when she turned away an d showed her disgust, they bound her by the feet and dragged her through the whole city over the rough pavement, so that she was bruised by the big stones, beating her all the while; and bringing her to the same place they stone her to death.”
This narrative continues when the mob plundered the houses and riches of all the Christians in the city. They then seized an aged female virgin, Apollonia, and “broke out all her teeth with blows on her jaws, and piling up a pyre before the city threatened to burn her alive, if she refused to recite along with them their blasphemous sayings.”
This Decian persecution continues with breaking of limbs, dragging people off to be burned, cast head long off buildings, and more. There are more stories of boy as young as 15 years of age up through elderly men and women.
The last edict given in the Roman Empire was under Diocletian in 302–3 where Romans are ordered to ravage churches and destroy the Scriptures.
During this persecution, Eusebius recalls that “each underwent a series of varied forms of torture: one would have his body maltreated by scourgings; another would be punished with the rack and torn to an unbearable degree, whereat some met a miserable end to their life.”
During this Diocletian persecution, the Romans created new forms of punishments against the Christians. For example, a certain man was brought forward because he refused to offer sacrifices. He was raised up naked and his whole body was torn with scourges, hoping that he would give in. The Romans then mixed vinegar and salt together and poured them onto his body. Romans made a gridiron (a large iron table like a BBQ) and slowly put the remnants of his body on it.
I’ll only mention one more section from Eusebius. These stories grieve me the deepest. As the descriptions continues,
“They had the entire body torn to pieces with sharp shards instead of claws … Women were fastened by one foot and swung aloft through the air, head-downwards, to a height by certain machines, their bodies completely naked … Others, again, were fastened to trees and trunks … For, they drew together by certain machines the very strongest of the branches, to each of which they fastened one of the martyr’s legs, and then released the branches to take up their natural position.”
Eusebius mentions this practice was not done for a few days but whole years and upwards to 100 persons a day were condemned to such punishments, ranging from young children, to women, to older men.
The stories don’t end here – but I need to end here!
May we remember brothers and sisters who gave (and continue to give) their lives as a testimony to the one true God. Can you pause just for a moment and cry out to God to avenge his name!
 Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. II. 25.1–4.
 Seutonius Life of Nero 38:
“But he showed no greater mercy to the people or the walls of his capital. When someone in a general conversation said:
“When I am dead, be earth consumed by fire,”
he rejoined "Nay, rather while I live," and his action was wholly in accord. For under cover of displeasure at the ugliness of the old buildings and the narrow, crooked streets, he set fire to the city so openly that several ex-consuls did not venture to lay hands on his chamberlains although they caught them on their estates with tow and fire-brands, while some granaries near the Golden House, whose room he particularly desired, were demolished by engines of war and then set on fire, because their walls were of stone. 2 For six days and seven nights destruction raged, while the people were driven for shelter to monuments and tombs. At that time, besides an immense number of dwellings, the houses of leaders of old were burned, still adorned with trophies of victory, and the temples of the gods vowed and dedicated by the kings and later in the Punic and Gallic wars, and whatever else interesting and noteworthy had survived from antiquity. Viewing the conflagration from the tower of Maecenas and exulting, as he said, in "the beauty of the flames," he sang the whole of the "Sack of Ilium," in his regular stage costume. 3 Furthermore, to gain from this calamity too all the spoil and booty possible, while promising the removal of the debris and dead bodies free of cost he allowed no one to approach the ruins of his own property; and from the contributions which he not only received, but even demanded, he nearly bankrupted the provinces and exhausted the resources of individuals.”
 Tacitus Annals 15.44
 Tacitus Annals 15.44
 Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. III. 17.1
 Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. IV. 15.4–5.
 Thomas J. Heffernan, The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 265.
 Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. V. 1.39–41.
 Perpetua II.1–3
 Perpetua XX–XXI
 Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. VI. 41.3.
 Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. VI. 41.4–5.
 Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. VI. 41.7
 Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. VI. 41.
 Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. VIII, 2.4–5.
 Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. VIII, 3.1–2
 Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. VIII, 6.1.
 Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. VIII, 6.2–4
 Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. VIII, 9.1–2
 Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. VIII, 9.3