Siemiradzki, Les Torches de Néron (Lumières
guidant la Chrétienté),
huile sur toile, 305 X 704,1876, National Museum Kraków
Saints Premiers martyrs de Rome
Injustement accusés par Néron de la responsabilité de l'incendie de Rome, cité qui, selon l'Apocalypse, "se saoulait du sang des témoins de Jésus." Ils furent livrés aux bêtes, éclairèrent les fêtes de Néron en brûlant comme des torches dans les jardins de Rome où ils furent torturés pour le plaisir sadique de leurs bourreaux.
Mémoire des premiers saints martyrs de la sainte Église romaine. En 64, après l'incendie de la ville de Rome, l'empereur Néron accusa faussement les chrétiens de ce forfait et en fit cruellement périr un grand nombre: les uns, revêtus de peaux de bêtes, furent exposés aux morsures des chiens; d'autres crucifiés; d'autres transformés en torches, afin qu'à la chute du jour ils servissent d'éclairage nocturne dans le cirque. Tous étaient disciples des Apôtres; ils furent les premiers des martyrs que l'Église romaine offrit au Seigneur.
Les premiers martyrs de l'Eglise de Rome
Le Saint du jour.
Médiaspaul, Paris, p.189
SOURCE : http://jardinierdedieu.fr/article-les-premiers-martyrs-de-l-eglise-de-rome-53163151.html
Le 59 juillet 64, commença l'incendie de Rome, qui dura neuf jours. Quand il fut éteint, une immense population réduite au plus complet dénuement s'entassa aux enviions du Champ de Mars, où Néron fit dresser des baraques et distribuer du pain et des vivres. D'ordinaire, ces oisifs acclamaient l'empereur; maintenant qu'ils avaient faim, ils le haïrent. Des accusations persistantes poursuivaient le pitre impérial. On savait qu'il était venu d'Antium pour jouir de l'effroyable spectacle dont la sublime horreur le transportait; on racontait même, ou du moins on insinuait, que lui-même avait ordonné ce spectacle, tel qu'on n'en avait jamais vu de pareil. Les accusations se haussaient jusqu'à la menace. Néron, qui le sut, essaya de détourner les soupçons en jetant à la foule un nom et une proie. Il y en avait un tout trouvé. En brûlant Rome, Néron avait blessé au vif les préjugés tenaces d'un peuple conservateur au plus haut degré de ses monuments religieux. Toute la friperie liturgique du paganisme, trophées, ex-votos, dépouilles opimes, pénates, tout le matériel religieux du culte avait flambé. L'horreur avait sa source dans le sentiment très vif de la religion et de la patrie outragées. Or il y avait, à Rome même, un groupe de population que son irréductible protestation contre les dieux de l'empire signalait à tous, c'était la colonie juive ; une circonstance semblait accablante contre eux dans l'enquête sur la responsabilité des récents désastres. Le feu avait pris dans les échoppes du Grand-Cirque, occupées par des marchands orientaux, parmi lesquels étaient beaucoup de Juifs. Mais il avait épargné la région de la porte Capène et le Transtevère, dont les Juifs formaient presque exclusivement la population. Ils n'avaient donc souffert quelque dommage qu'au Champ de Mars. De là à inculper les Juifs il y avait peu à faire, cependant ils échappèrent ; c'est que Néron était entouré de Juifs : Tibère Alexandre et Poppée étaient au plus haut point de leur faveur ; dans un rang inférieur, des esclaves, des actrices, des mimes, tous juifs et fort choyés. Est-ce trop s'avancer, que d'attribuer à ce groupe l'odieux d'avoir fait tomber sur les chrétiens la vengeance menaçante? Il faut se rappeler l'atroce jalousie que les Juifs nourrissaient contre les chrétiens, et si on la rapproche « de ce fait incontestable que les Juifs, avant la destruction de Jérusalem, furent les vrais persécuteurs des chrétiens et ne négligèrent rien pour les faire disparaître », on y trouvera le commentaire authentique d'un mot de saint Clément Romain, qui, faisant allusion aux massacres de chrétiens ordonnés par Néron, les attribue « à la jalousie, dia Zelon ».
Quand la rumeur se répandit, à l'aide de ce que nous appellerions aujourd'hui « la pression officielle », on fut surpris de la multitude de ceux qui suivaient la doctrine du Christ, laquelle n'était autre chose, aux yeux du plus grand nombre, qu'un schisme juif. Les gens sensés trouvèrent l'artifice pitoyable; l'accusation d'incendie portée contre ces pauvres gens ne tenait pas debout; « leur vrai crime, disait-on, c'est la haine du genre humain ».
Néanmoins on ne s'apitoya pas longtemps, car on allait s'amuser. En effet, les jeux que l'on donna dépassèrent en horreur tout ce que l'on avait jamais vu. Tacite et le pape saint Clément nous ont laissé quelques traits de ces jeux, qui durèrent peut-être plusieurs jours; nous donnons plus loin leurs trop courts récits, dont la brièveté ne peut se passer du commentaire que l'on va lire.
« A la barbarie des supplices, cette fois, on ajouta la dérision. Les victimes furent gardées pour une fête, à laquelle on donna sans doute un caractère expiatoire. Rome compta peu de journées aussi extraordinaires. Le ludus matutinus, consacré aux combats d'animaux, vit un défilé inouï. Les condamnés, couverts de peaux de bêtes fauves, furent lancés dans l'arène, où on les fit déchirer par des chiens ; d'autres furent crucifiés ; d'autres, enfin, revêtus de tuniques trempées dans l'huile, la poix ou la résine, se virent attachés à des poteaux et réservés pour éclairer la fête de nuit. Quand le jour baissa, on alluma ces flambeaux vivants. Néron offrit pour le spectacle les magnifiques jardins qu'il possédait au delà du Tibre et qui occupaient l'emplacement actuel du Borgo, de la place et de l'église de Saint-Pierre. Il s'y trouvait un cirque, commencé par Caligula, continué par Claude, et dont un obélisque, tiré d'Héliopolis (celui-là même qui marque de nos jours le centre de la place Saint-Pierre), était la borne. Cet endroit avait déjà vu des massacres aux flambeaux. Caligula, en se promenant, y fit décapiter, à la lueur des torches, un certain nombre de personnages consulaires, de sénateurs et de clames romaines. L'idée de remplacer les falots par des corps humains, imprégnés de substances inflammables, put paraître ingénieuse. Comme supplice, cette façon de brûler vif n'était pas neuve; mais on n'en avait jamais fait un système d'illumination. A la clarté de ces hideuses torches, Néron, qui avait mis à la mode les courses du soir, se montra dans l'arène, tantôt mêlé au peuple en habit de jockey, tantôt conduisant son char et recherchant les applaudissements. Il y eut pourtant quelques signes de compassion. Même ceux qui croyaient à la culpabilité des chrétiens et qui avouaient qu'ils avaient mérité le dernier supplice eurent horreur de ces cruels plaisirs. Les hommes sages eussent voulu qu'on fit seulement ce qu'exigeait l'utilité publique, qu'on purgeât la ville d'hommes dangereux, mais qu'on n'eût pas l'air de sacrifier des criminels à la férocité d'un seul.
« Des femmes, des vierges furent mêlées à ces jeux horribles. On se fit une fête des indignités sans nom qu'elles souffrirent. L'usage s'était établi, sous Néron, de faire jouer aux condamnés, dans l'amphithéâtre. des rôles mythologiques entraînant la mort de l'acteur. Ces hideux opéras, où la science des machines atteignait à des effets prodigieux, étaient chose nouvelle ; la Grèce eût été surprise si on lui eût suggéré une pareille tentative pour appliquer la férocité à l'esthétique, pour faire de l'art avec la torture. Le malheureux était introduit dans l'arène, costumé en dieu ou en héros voué à la mort, puis représentait, par son supplice, quelque scène tragique des fables consacrées par les sculpteurs et les poètes. Tantôt c'était Hercule furieux brûlé sur le mont Oeta, arrachant de dessus sa peau la tunique de poix enflammée ; tantôt Orphée mis eu pièces par un ours, Dédale précipité du ciel et dévoré par les bêtes, Pasiphaé subissant les étreintes du taureau, Atys meurtri ; quelquefois c'étaient d'horribles mascarades, où les hommes étaient accoutrés en prêtres de Saturne, le manteau rouge sur le dos, les femmes en prêtresses de Cérès, portant les bandelettes au front ; d'autres fois enfin, des pièces dramatiques, au courant desquelles le héros était réellement mis à mort, comme Lauréolus, ou bien des représentations d'actes tragiques, comme celui de Mucius Scaevola. A la fin, Mercure, avec une verge de fer rougie au feu, touchait chaque cadavre pour voir s'il remuait; des valets masqués, représentant Pluton ou l'Orcus, traînaient les morts par les pieds, assommant avec des maillets tout ce qui palpitait encore.
« Les dames chrétiennes les plus respectables durent se prêter à ces monstruosités. Les unes jouèrent le rôle des Danaïdes, les autres celui de Dircé. Il est difficile de dire en quoi la fable des Danaïdes pouvait fournir un tableau sanglant. Le supplice que toute la tradition mythologique attribue à ces femmes coupables, et dans lequel on les représentait, n'était pas assez cruel pour suffire aux plaisirs de Néron et des habitués de son amphithéâtre. Peut-être défilèrent-elles portant des urnes et reçurent-elles le coup fatal d'un acteur figurant Lyncée. Peut-être vit-on Amymone, l'une des Danaïdes, poursuivie par un satyre et violée par Neptune. Peut-être enfin ces malheureuses traversèrent-elles successivement devant les spectateurs la série des supplices du Tartare et moururent-elles après des heures de tourments.
« Quant aux supplices des Dircés, il n'y a pas de doute. On connaît le groupe colossal désigné sous le nom de Taureau Farnèse, maintenant au musée de Naples. Amphion et Zethus attachent Dircé aux cornes d'un taureau indompté, qui doit la traîner à travers les rochers et les ronces du Cithéron. Ce médiocre marbre rhodien, transporté à Rome dès le temps d'Auguste, était l'objet de l'universelle admiration. Quel plus beau sujet pour cet art hideux que la cruauté du temps avait mis en vogue et qui consistait à faire des tableaux vivants avec les statues célèbres? Un texte et une fresque de Pompei semblent prouver que cette scène terrible était souvent représentée dans les arènes, quand on avait à supplicier une femme. Attachées nues par les cheveux aux cornes d'un taureau furieux, les malheureuses assouvissaient les regards lubriques d'un peuple féroce. Quelques-unes des chrétiennes immolées de la sorte étaient faibles de corps ; leur courage fut surhumain; mais la foule infâme n'eut d'yeux que pour leurs entrailles ouvertes et leurs seins déchirés. »
TACITE, Annales, liv. XV, ch. XLIV. — CLÉMENT ROMAIN, Epître aux Corinthiens, I, ch. III, V et VI. — SUÉTONE, Néron, 16. — Pour la discussion des textes, leur valeur critique, voyez : RENAN, Origines du christianisme, t. IV (cité ici pour le commentaire du texte), p. 152 et suiv. — P. ALLARD, Hist. des Perséc., t. 1, p. 33 et suiv.: «L'incendie de Rome et les martyrs d'août 64. » — Douais, La persécution des chrétiens de Rome en l'année 64, dans la Rev. des Quest. hist. du 1er octobre 1885, en réponse à Recasa : : La persécution des chrétiens sous Néron (1884).—Ramsay, The Church in the Roman Empire (1884), p. 232 et suiv., et les ouvrages de DOULCET, MILMAN, NEUMANN, traitant des rapports de l'Eglise avec l'Etat Romain. — BAUER, Christus und die Caesaren (1877), p. 273. — ARNOLD, Die Neronische Christenverfolgung, p. 105. — SCRILLER, Gesch. d. Kaiserrechts enter der Regierung des Nero, p. 437. — Voyez la note de HOLBROOKE ad Tacit., Annal. XV, 44. — ATTILIO PROFUMO, Le fonti ed i tempi dell' incendio neroniano, in-4°, Roma, 1904.
Ni les efforts humains, ni les largesses du prince, ni les prières aux dieux, ne détruisirent la persuasion que Néron avait eu l'infamie d'ordonner l'incendie. Pour faire taire cette rumeur, Néron produisit des accusés et livra aux supplices le plus raffinés les hommes odieux à cause de leurs crimes que le vulgaire nommait « chrétiens ». Celui dont ils tiraient ce nom, Christ, avait été sous le règne de Tibère supplicié par le procurateur Ponce-Pilate. Réprimée d'abord, l'exécrable superstition faisait irruption de nouveau, non seulement en Judée, berceau de ce fléau, mais jusque dans Rome, où reflue et sé rassemble ce qu'il y a partout ailleurs de plus atroce et de plus honteux. On saisit d'abord ceux qui avouaient; puis, sur leur déposition, une grande multitude, convaincue moins du crime d'incendie que de la haine du genre humain. On ajouta la dérision au supplice ; des hommes enveloppés de peaux de bêtes moururent déchirés par les chiens, ou furent attachés à des croix, ou furent destinés à être enflammés et, à la chute du jour, allumés en guise de luminaire nocturne. Néron avait prêté ses jardins pour ce divertissement et y donnait des courses, mêlé à la foule en habit de cocher, ou monté sur un char. Aussi, quoique coupables et dignes des derniers supplices, on avait pitié de ces hommes, parce qu'ils étaient sacrifiés, non à l'utilité publique, mais à la barbarie d'un seul.
[A Pierre et à Paul] on joignit une grande multitude d'élus qui endurèrent beaucoup d'affronts et de supplices, laissant aux chrétiens un illustre exemple. Par l'effet de la jalousie, des femmes, les Danaïdes et les Dircés, après avoir souffert de terribles et monstrueuses indignités, ont atteint leur but dans la course sacrée de la foi, et ont reçu la noble récompense, toutes faibles de corps qu'elles étaient.
LES MARTYRS. TOME I. LES TEMPS NÉRONIENS ET LE DEUXIÈME SIÈCLE. Recueil de pièces authentiques sur les martyrs depuis les origines du christianisme jusqu'au XXe siècle traduites et publiées par le B. P. DOM H. LECLERCQ, Moine bénédictin de Saint-Michel de Farnborough. Précédé d’une Introduction. Quatrième édition. Imprimi potest FR. FERDINANDUS CABROL, Abbas Sancti Michaelis Farnborough. Die 4 Maii 1903. Imprimatur. Turonibus, die 18 Octobris 1920. P. BATAILLE, vic. Gen. Animulae Nectareae Eorginae Franciscae Stuart.
SOURCE : http://www.abbaye-saint-benoit.ch/martyrs/martyrs0001.htm#_Toc90633597
Eugène Thirion (1839-1910). Triomphe de la Foi. Martyrs chrétiens au temps de Néron.
Saints premiers martyrs de l'Eglise de Rome : par le sang versé
ARTICLE | 28/06/2003 | Numéro 1328 | Par Marie-Christine Lafon
«Martyr»... le mot est ancien.
SOURCE : https://www.famillechretienne.fr/contenu/archives/archive/saints-premiers-martyrs-de-l-eglise-de-rome-par-le-sang-verse-35059
PREMIERS MARTYRS DE L’ÉGLISE DE ROME
Les Premiers martyrs de l’Église de Rome concerne, suivant l’hagiographie catholique, le nom donné à un groupe indéterminé de chrétiens victimes du premier épisode de persécution des chrétiens qui prend place à Rome entre 64 et 68 à l’instigation de Néron à la suite du grand incendie de Rome.
Un violent incendie se déclare à Rome en 64, que les pompiers de l’Urbs ne peuvent maîtriser. La rumeur court alors que la catastrophe serait le fait de Néron, désireux de détruire les quartiers insalubres et de rebâtir la ville.
L’historien Tacite, tout en étant réservé quant à l’origine de l’incendie (« Fut-il dû au hasard ou à la malignité du prince, on ne sait ») rapporte dans ses Annales (XV, 44) que l’empereur était incapable de faire taire la rumeur dévastatrice : « Aucun moyen humain, ni largesses princières, ni cérémonies expiatoires ne faisaient reculer la rumeur infamante d’après laquelle l’incendie avait été ordonné ». Les chrétiens – un groupe religieux minuscule, encore mal distingué des juifs – sont choisis comme boucs émissaires : « [Néron] supposa des coupable et infligea des tourments raffinés à ceux que leurs abominations faisaient détester et que la foule appelait "Chrétiens" ».
Tacite décrit les supplices atroces auxquels les chrétiens sont soumis (et qui ont largement alimenté l’iconographie chrétienne) : « On ne se contenta pas de les faire périr ; on se fit un jeu de les revêtir de peaux de bêtes pour qu’ils fussent déchirés par la dent des chiens, ou bien ils étaient attachés à des croix et enduits de matières inflammables, quand le jour avait fui, ils éclairaient les ténèbres comme des torches… ». Tacite n’a aucune attirance personnelle pour cette « détestable superstition ». Cependant, à la vue de ce spectacle horrible, il en vient à éprouver quelque sympathie : « Aussi quoique ces gens fussent coupables et dignes des dernières rigueurs on se mettait à les prendre en pitié ».
Sans se prononcer sur la culpabilité des chrétiens, Tacite propose une théorie du bouc émissaire lui permettant de faire ressortir la cruauté et l’arbitraire de l’empereur et non par sympathie pour les chrétiens qui sont amalgamés aux juifs, porteurs à ses yeux d’une même « haine du genre humain ».
Suétone mentionne également une persécution au milieu d’une liste de mesures prises par Néron mais sans la lier à l’incendie.
Les chrétiens sont peut-être visés après avoir vu dans l’incendie le signe précurseur de l’imminence de la fin du monde : se répandant dans les rues pour appeler à la conversion, tombant ainsi sous le coup du crime de prosélytisme, ils auraient ainsi attiré l’attention sur eux. Ils sont condamnés comme incendiaires et subissent une peine réflexive : ils sont eux-mêmes, pour certains, brûlés vifs dans les jardins impériaux ; d’autres sont utilisés pour des jeux de rôle de type mythologiques ou des jeux de chasse, dont est friand le public romain, dans les arènes du cirque du Vatican. Ils sont condamnés en vertu de la lex Cornelia de sicariis et veneficis sans que leur religion ne rentre pour autant en ligne de compte. Ainsi, la justification de cette première persécution par un hypothétique institutum neronianum relève de la légende.
Une tradition de la communauté chrétienne de Rome lie dès la fin du Ier siècle à cet épisode la mort des apôtres Pierre et Paul de Tarse, comme en atteste pour la première fois Clément de Rome dans son épître aux Corinthiens, bien qu’on n’en connaisse rien d’un point de vue historique. La communauté chrétienne de Rome sera prompte, malgré le traumatisme subi, à dédouaner le pouvoir impérial de cette persécution suivant l’injonction paulinienne de se soumettre « à toute institution humaine » et Clément de Rome lui-même impute les victimes néroniennes et la mort des deux apôtres à des tensions intra-communautaires.
Suivant cette tradition, l’apôtre Pierre aurait été crucifié et son corps fut déposé dans une sépulture au flanc de la colline du Vatican soit en 64, soit en 67. L’apôtre Paul de Tarse, suivant une tradition remontant au IIIe siècle, aurait lui été décapité aux Aquae Salvae, sur la route d’Ostie, en 65 ou 67, à l’emplacement de l’actuelle basilique Saint-Paul-hors-les-Murs.
Christians who were blamed by the Roman Emperor Nero with setting fire to Rome, Italy, and were sentenced to death as punishment. They were all disciples of the Apostles. The total number of these murders is known only to God.
- martyred in 64 in a variety of ways, the gorier the better from Nero‘s point of view; some were covered with the skins of animals and thrown to wild dogs to be torn apart; others were crucified and at sunset were covered in oil and used as human torches
Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904).Prière des Martyrs chrétiens à Rome.
1863-1883, 87.9 X 150.1, Walters Art Museum
Tertullian observes, that it was the honour of the Christian religion that Nero, the most avowed enemy to all virtue, was the first Roman emperor who declared against it a most bloody war. The sanctity and purity of the manners of the primitive Christians was a sufficient motive to stir up the rage of that monster; and he took the following occasion to draw his sword against them. The city of Rome had been set on fire, and had burned nine days, from the 19th to the 28th of July, in the year 64; in which terrible conflagration, out of the fourteen regions or quarters into which it was then divided, three were entirely laid in ashes, seven of them were miserably defaced and filled with the ruins of half-burnt buildings, and only four entirely escaped this disaster. During this horrible tragedy, Nero came from Antium to Rome, and seated himself on the top of a tower upon a neighbouring hill, in the theatrical dress of a musician, singing a poem which himself had composed on the burning of Troy. The people accused him of being the author of this calamity, and said he caused fire to be set to the city that he might glut his eyes with an image of the burning of Troy. Tillemont, Crevier, and other judicious critics make no doubt but he was the author of this calamity. Suetonius and Dion Cassius positively charge him with it. Tacitus indeed doubts whether the fire was owing to accident or to the wickedness of the prince; but by a circumstance which he mentions, it appears that the flame was at least kept up and spread for several days by the tyrant’s orders; for several men hindered all that attempted to extinguish the fire, and increased it by throwing lighted torches among the houses, saying they were ordered so to do. In which, had they been private villains, they would not have been supported and backed, but brought to justice. Besides, when the fire had raged seven days, and destroyed every thing from the great circus, at the foot of mount Palatine, to the further end of the Esquiliæ, and had ceased for want of fuel, the buildings being in that place thrown down, it broke out again in Tigellinus’s gardens, which place increased suspicion, and continued burning two days more. Besides envying the fate of Priam, who saw his country laid in ashes, Nero had an extravagant passion to make a new Rome, which should be built in a more sumptuous manner, and extended as far as Ostia to the sea; he wanted room in particular to enlarge his own palace; accordingly, he immediately rebuilt his palace of an immense extent, and adorned all over with gold, mother-of-pearl, precious stones, and whatever the world afforded that was rich and curious, so that he called it the Golden Palace. But this was pulled down after his death. The tyrant seeing himself detested by all mankind as the author of this calamity, to turn off the odium and infamy of such an action from himself, and at the same time to gratify his hatred of virtue and thirst after blood, he charged the Christians with having set the city on fire. Tacitus testifies, that nobody believed them guilty; yet the idolaters, out of extreme aversion to their religion, rejoiced in their punishment.
The Christians therefore were seized, treated as victims of the hatred of all mankind, insulted even in their torments and death, and made to serve for spectacles of diversion and scorn to the people. Some were clothed in the skins of wild beasts, and exposed to dogs to be torn to pieces: others were hung on crosses set in rows, and many perished by flames, being burnt in the night-time that their execution might serve for fires and light, says Tacitus. This is further illustrated by Seneca, Juvenal, and his commentator, who say that Nero punished the magicians, (by which impious name they meant the Christians,) causing them to be besmeared over with wax, pitch, and other combustible matter, with a sharp spike put under their chin to make them hold it upright in their torments, and thus to be burnt alive. Tacitus adds, that Nero gave his own gardens to serve for a theatre to this spectacle. The Roman Martyrology makes a general mention of all these martyrs on the 24th of June, styling them the disciples of the apostles, and the first fruits of the innumerable martyrs with which Rome, so fruitful in that divine seed, peopled heaven. These suffered in the year 64, before the apostles SS. Peter and Paul, who had pointed out the way to them by their holy instructions. After this commencement of the persecution, laws were made, and edicts published throughout the Roman empire, which forbade the profession of the faith under the most cruel torments and death, as is mentioned by Sulpicius Severus, Orosius, and others. No sooner had the imperial laws commanded that there should be no Christians, but the senate, the magistrates, the people of Rome, all the orders of the empire, and every city rose up against them, says Origen. Yet the people of God increased the more in number and strength the more they were oppressed, as the Jews in Egypt had done under Pharoah.
- Father Alban Butler. “Martyrs of Rome, under Nero”. , 1866. CatholicSaints.Info. 25 June 2013. Web. 30 June 2020. <https://catholicsaints.info/butlers-lives-of-the-saints-martyrs-of-rome-under-nero/>
Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri, Roma
Died 64. On a summer’s day, July 19, in the reign of the Emperor Nero, the city of Rome caught fire. For six days the fire raged, from the foot of the Palatine Hill to the outer suburbs, and only by the demolition of property to create a gap in the path of the flames were four districts of the city preserved.
The mystery of the fire’s origin was never solved, but it was thought to be due to incendiarism. There was an ugly rumor that Nero himself had set fire to his own capital, and that slaves of the imperial household had been seen spreading the flames. Nero was at Antium when it occurred, and for three days, despite urgent messages, made no move and issued no instructions; only after this delay did he return to the capital, and from the Tower of Macaenas he surveyed the blazing city.
With a lyre in his hand and in a theatrical pose, he declaimed Homer’s account of the destruction of Troy, and it was this incident which gave rise to the legend that Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Though it is unlikely that he caused the calamity, the suspicion was strengthened by his annexation, after the fire, of a considerable part of the desolated area for the erection of his ‘Golden House,’ a palace of immense size, with triple colonnades a mile long, where, he declared, ‘now at last he was housed like a human being.’
But the growth of the rumor spread by the outraged population who were homeless and without food, and also the fear of revolution, obliged him to take counter measures. The imperial gardens were thrown open as a refuge to the destitute, temporary buildings were improvised, welfare and food services were organized; and, to divert attention from himself, he turned upon the Christians and openly declared that they were responsible.
Then began the most ruthless persecution. He ranged against them not only him own bitter hostility but also the rage and hatred of the populace. Tacitus records the grim story: “They died in torments and their torments were embittered by insult and derision. Some were nailed on crosses, others sewn up in the skins of wild beasts and exposed to the fury of dogs, others again, smeared over with combustible materials, were used as torches to illuminate the darkness of night.” Rarely has the world known such a spectacle of horror as when the gardens of Nero blazed with this fiendish carnival.
How many suffered is beyond compute. We only know that through the deserted streets and among the smoldering ruins the Christians were hunted like rats and, when caught, became the victims of Nero’s insensate fury. They were nights of horror and days when no man could trust his neighbor. Whole families were rounded up and sent to death. In the pages of the martyrs there is an honored place for these unknown victims who suffered for the faith and in the patience of Christ, and left behind them an imperishable memory (Gill).
- Katherine I Rabenstein. , 1998. CatholicSaints.Info. 29 June 2020. Web. 30 June 2020. <https://catholicsaints.info/saints-of-the-day-roman-martyrs-under-nero/>
Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri, Roma
The Greek word martus signifies a witness who testifies to a fact of which he has knowledge from personal observation. It is in this sense that the term first appears in Christian literature; the Apostles were "witnesses" of all that they had observed in the public life of Christ, as well as of all they had learned from His teaching, "in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and Samaria, and even to the uttermost part of the earth" (Acts 1:8). St. Peter, in his address to the Apostles and disciples relative to the election of a successor to Judas, employs the term with this meaning: "Wherefore, of these men who have accompanied with us all the time that the Lord Jesus came in and went out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day he was taken up from us, one of these must be made witness with us of his resurrection" (Acts 1:22). In his first public discourse the chief of the Apostles speaks of himself and his companions as "witnesses" who saw the risen Christ and subsequently, after the miraculous escape of the Apostles from prison, when brought a second time before the tribunal, Peter again alludes to the twelve as witnesses to Christ, as the Prince and Saviour of Israel, Who rose from the dead; and added that in giving their public testimony to the facts, of which they were certain, they must obey God rather than man (Acts 5:29 sqq.). In his First Epistle St. Peter also refers to himself as a "witness of the sufferings of Christ" (1 Peter 5:1).
But even in these first examples of the use of the word martus in Christian terminology a new shade of meaning is already noticeable, in addition to the accepted signification of the term. The disciples of Christ were no ordinary witnesses such as those who gave testimony in a court of justice. These latter ran no risk in bearing testimony to facts that came under their observation, whereas the witnesses of Christ were brought face to face daily, from the beginning of their apostolate, with the possibility of incurring severe punishment and even death itself. Thus, St. Stephen was a witness who early in the history of Christianity sealed his testimony with his blood. The careers of the Apostles were at all times beset with dangers of the gravest character, until eventually they all suffered the last penalty for their convictions. Thus, within the lifetime of the Apostles, the term martus came to be used in the sense of a witness who at any time might be called upon to deny what he testified to, under penalty of death. From this stage the transition was easy to the ordinary meaning of the term, as used ever since in Christian literature: a martyr, or witness of Christ, is a person who, though he has never seen nor heard the Divine Founder of the Church, is yet so firmly convinced of the truths of the Christian religion, that he gladly suffers death rather than deny it. St. John, at the end of the first century, employs the word with this meaning; Antipas, a convert from paganism, is spoken of as a "faithful witness (martus) who was slain among you, where Satan dwelleth" (Revelation 2:13). Further on the same Apostle speaks of the "souls of them that were slain for the Word of God and for the testimony (martyrian) which they held" (Revelation 6:9).
Yet, it was only by degrees, in the course of the first age of the Church, that the term martyr came to be exclusively applied to those who had died for the faith. The grandsons of St. Jude, for example, on their escape from the peril they underwent when cited before Domitian were afterwards regarded as martyrs (Eusebius, "Hist. eccl", III, xx, xxxii). The famous confessors of Lyons, who endured so bravely awful tortures for their belief, were looked upon by their fellow-Christians as martyrs, but they themselves declined this title as of right belonging only to those who had actually died: "They are already martyrs whom Christ has deemed worthy to be taken up in their confession, having sealed their testimony by their departure; but we are confessors mean and lowly" (Eusebius, op. cit., V, ii). This distinction between martyrs and confessors is thus traceable to the latter part of the second century: those only were martyrs who had suffered the extreme penalty, whereas the title of confessors was given to Christians who had shown their willingness to die for their belief, by bravely enduring imprisonment or torture, but were not put to death. Yet the term martyr was still sometimes applied during the third century to persons still living, as, for instance, by St. Cyprian, who gave the title of martyrs to a number of bishops, priests, and laymen condemned to penal servitude in the mines (Ep. 76). Tertullian speaks of those arrested as Christians and not yet condemned as martyres designati. In the fourth century, St. Gregory of Nazianzus alludes to St. Basil as "a martyr", but evidently employs the term in the broad sense in which the word is still sometimes applied to a person who has borne many and grave hardships in the cause of Christianity. The description of a martyr given by the pagan historian Ammianus Marcellinus (XXII, xvii), shows that by the middle of the fourth century the title was everywhere reserved to those who had actually suffered death for their faith. Heretics and schismatics put to death as Christians were denied the title of martyrs (St. Cyprian, Treatise on Unity 14; St. Augustine, Ep. 173; Euseb., Church History V.16, V.21). St. Cyprian lays down clearly the general principle that "he cannot be a martyr who is not in the Church; he cannot attain unto the kingdom who forsakes that which shall reign there." St. Clement of Alexandria strongly disapproves (Stromata IV.4) of some heretics who gave themselves up to the law; they "banish themselves without being martyrs".
The orthodox were not permitted to seek martyrdom. Tertullian, however, approves the conduct of the Christians of a province of Asia who gave themselves up to the governor, Arrius Antoninus (Ad. Scap., v). Eusebius also relates with approval the incident of three Christians of Cæsarea in Palestine who, in the persecution of Valerian, presented themselves to the judge and were condemned to death (Church History VII.12). But while circumstances might sometimes excuse such a course, it was generally held to be imprudent. St. Gregory of Nazianzus sums up in a sentence the rule to be followed in such cases: it is mere rashness to seek death, but it is cowardly to refuse it (Orat. xlii, 5, 6). The example of a Christian of Smyrna named Quintus, who, in the time of St. Polycarp, persuaded several of his fellow believers to declare themselves Christians, was a warning of what might happen to the over-zealous: Quintus at the last moment apostatized, though his companions persevered. Breaking idols was condemned by the Council of Elvira (306), which, in its sixtieth canon, decreed that a Christian put to death for such vandalism would not be enrolled as a martyr. Lactantius, on the other hand, has only mild censure for a Christian of Nicomedia who suffered martyrdom for tearing down the edict of persecution (Do mort. pers., xiii). In one case St. Cyprian authorizes seeking martyrdom. Writing to his priests and deacons regarding repentant lapsi who were clamouring to be received back into communion, the bishop after giving general directions on the subject, concludes by saying that if these impatient personages are so eager to get back to the Church there is a way of doing so open to them. "The struggle is still going forward", he says, "and the strife is waged daily. If they (the lapsi) truly and with constancy repent of what they have done, and the fervour of their faith prevails, he who cannot be delayed may be crowned" (Ep. xiii).
Acceptance of the national religion in antiquity was an obligation incumbent on all citizens; failure to worship the gods of the State was equivalent to treason. This universally accepted principle is responsible for the various persecutions suffered by Christians before the reign of Constantine; Christians denied the existence of and therefore refused to worship the gods of the state pantheon. They were in consequence regarded as atheists. It is true, indeed, that the Jews also rejected the gods of Rome, and yet escaped persecution. But the Jews, from the Roman standpoint, had a national religion and a national God, Jehovah, whom they had a full legal right to worship. Even after the destruction of Jerusalem, when the Jews ceased to exist as a nation, Vespasian made no change in their religious status, save that the tribute formerly sent by Jews to the temple at Jerusalem was henceforth to be paid to the Roman exchequer. For some time after its establishment, the Christian Church enjoyed the religious privileges of the Jewish nation, but from the nature of the case it is apparent that the chiefs of the Jewish religion would not long permit without protest this state of things. For they abhorred Christ's religion as much as they abhorred its Founder. At what date the Roman authorities had their attention directed to the difference between the Jewish and the Christian religion cannot be determined, but it appears to be fairly well established that laws proscribing Christianity were enacted before the end of the first century. Tertullian is authority for the statement that persecution of the Christians was institutum Neronianum — an institution of Nero — (Ad nat., i, 7). The First Epistle of St. Peter also clearly alludes to the proscription of Christians, as Christians, at the time it was written (I, St. Peter, iv, 16). Domitian (81-96) also, is known to have punished with death Christian members of his own family on the charge of atheism (Suetonius, "Domitianus", xv). While it is therefore probable that the formula: "Let there be no Christians" (Christiani non sint) dates from the second half of the first century, yet the earliest clear enactment on the subject of Christianity is that of Trajan (98-117) in his famous letter to the younger Pliny, his legate in Bithynia.
Pliny had been sent from Rome by the emperor to restore order in the Province of Bithynia-Pontus. Among the difficulties he encountered in the execution of his commission one of the most serious concerned the Christians. The extraordinarily large number of Christians he found within his jurisdiction greatly surprised him: the contagion of their "Superstition", he reported to Trajan, affected not only the cities but even the villages and country districts of the province (Pliny, Ep., x, 96). One consequence of the general defection from the state religion was of an economic order: so many people had become Christians that purchasers were no longer found for the victims that once in great numbers were offered to the gods. Complaints were laid before the legate relative to this state of affairs, with the result that some Christians were arrested and brought before Pliny for examination. The suspects were interrogated as to their tenets and those of them who persisted in declining repeated invitations to recant were executed. Some of the prisoners, however, after first affirming that they were Christians, afterwards, when threatened with punishment, qualified their first admission by saying that at one time they had been adherents of the proscribed body but were so no longer. Others again denied that they were or ever had been Christians. Having never before had to deal with questions concerning Christians Pliny applied to the emperor for instructions on three points regarding which he did not see his way clearly: first, whether the age of the accused should be taken into consideration in meting out punishment; secondly, whether Christians who renounced their belief should be pardoned; and thirdly, whether the mere profession of Christianity should be regarded as a crime, and punishable as such, independent of the fact of the innocence or guilt of the accused of the crimes ordinarily associated with such profession.
To these inquiries Trajan replied in a rescript which was destined to have the force of law throughout the second century in relation to Christianity. After approving what his representative had already done, the emperor directed that in future the rule to be observed in dealing with Christians should be the following: no steps were to be taken by magistrates to ascertain who were or who were not Christians, but at the same time, if any person was denounced, and admitted that he was a Christian, he was to be punished — evidently with death. Anonymous denunciations were not to be acted upon, and on the other hand, those who repented of being Christians and offered sacrifice to the gods, were to be pardoned. Thus, from the year 112, the date of this document, perhaps even from the reign of Nero, a Christian was ipso facto an outlaw. That the followers of Christ were known to the highest authorities of the State to be innocent of the numerous crimes and misdemeanors attributed to them by popular calumny, is evident from Pliny's testimony to this effect, as well as from Trajan's order: conquirendi non sunt. And that the emperor did not regard Christians as a menace to the State is apparent from the general tenor of his instructions. Their only crime was that they were Christians, adherents of an illegal religion. Under this regime of proscription the Church existed from the year 112 to the reign of Septimius Severus (193-211). The position of the faithful was always one of grave danger, being as they were at the mercy of every malicious person who might, without a moment's warning, cite them before the nearest tribunal. It is true indeed, that the delator was an unpopular person in the Roman Empire, and, besides, in accusing a Christian he ran the risk of incurring severe punishment if unable to make good his charge against his intended victim. In spite of the danger, however, instances are known, in the persecution era, of Christian victims of delation.
The prescriptions of Trajan on the subject of Christianity were modified by Septimius Severus by the addition of a clause forbidding any person to become a Christian. The existing law of Trajan against Christians in general was not, indeed, repealed by Severus, though for the moment it was evidently the intention of the emperor that it should remain a dead letter. The object aimed at by the new enactment was, not to disturb those already Christians, but to check the growth of the Church by preventing conversions. Some illustrious convert martyrs, the most famous being Sts. Perpetua and Felicitas, were added to the roll of champions of religious freedom by this prohibition, but it effected nothing of consequence in regard to its primary purpose. The persecution came to an end in the second year of the reign of Caracalla (211-17). From this date to the reign of Decius (250-53) the Christians enjoyed comparative peace with the exception of the short period when Maximinus the Thracian (235-38) occupied the throne. The elevation of Decius to the purple began a new era in the relations between Christianity and the Roman State. This emperor, though a native of Illyria, was nevertheless profoundly imbued with the spirit of Roman conservatism. He ascended the throne with the firm intention of restoring the prestige which the empire was fast losing, and he seems to have been convinced that the chief difficulty in the way of effecting his purpose was the existence of Christianity. The consequence was that in the year 250 he issued an edict, the tenor of which is known only from the documents relating to its enforcement, prescribing that all Christians of the empire should on a certain day offer sacrifice to the gods.
This new law was quite a different matter from the existing legislation against Christianity. Proscribed though they were legally, Christians had hitherto enjoyed comparative security under a regime which clearly laid down the principle that they were not to be sought after officially by the civil authorities. The edict of Decius was exactly the opposite of this: the magistrates were now constituted religious inquisitors, whose duty it was to punish Christians who refused to apostatize. The emperor's aim, in a word, was to annihilate Christianity by compelling every Christian in the empire to renounce his faith. The first effect of the new legislation seemed favourable to the wishes of its author. During the long interval of peace since the reign of Septimius Severus — nearly forty years — a considerable amount of laxity had crept into the Church's discipline, one consequence of which was, that on the publication of the edict of persecution, multitudes of Christians besieged the magistrates everywhere in their eagerness to comply with its demands. Many other nominal Christians procured by bribery certificates stating that they had complied with the law, while still others apostatized under torture. Yet after this first throng of weaklings had put themselves outside the pale of Christianity there still remained, in every part of the empire, numerous Christians worthy of their religion, who endured all manner of torture, and death itself, for their convictions. The persecution lasted about eighteen months, and wrought incalculable harm.
Before the Church had time to repair the damage thus caused, a new conflict with the State was inaugurated by an edict of Valerian published in 257. This enactment was directed against the clergy — bishops, priests, and deacons — who were directed under pain of exile to offer sacrifice. Christians were also forbidden, under pain of death, to resort to their cemeteries. The results of this first edict were of so little moment that the following year, 258, a new edict appeared requiring the clergy to offer sacrifice under penalty of death. Christian senators, knights, and even the ladies of their families, were also affected by an order to offer sacrifice under penalty of confiscation of their goods and reduction to plebeian rank. And in the event of these severe measures proving ineffective the law prescribed further punishment: execution for the men, for the women exile. Christian slaves and freedmen of the emperor's household also were punished by confiscation of their possessions and reduction to the lowest ranks of slavery. Among the martyrs of this persecution were Pope Sixtus II and St. Cyprian of Carthage. Of its further effects little is known, for want of documents, but it seems safe to surmise that, besides adding many new martyrs to the Church's roll, it must have caused enormous suffering to the Christian nobility. The persecution came to an end with the capture (260) of Valerian by the Persians; his successor, Gallienus (260-68), revoked the edict and restored to the bishops the cemeteries and meeting places.
From this date to the last persecution inaugurated by Diocletian (284-305) the Church, save for a short period in the reign of Aurelian (270-75), remained in the same legal situation as in the second century. The first edict of Diocletian was promulgated at Nicomedia in the year 303, and was of the following tenor: Christian assemblies were forbidden; churches and sacred books were ordered to be destroyed, and all Christians were commanded to abjure their religion forthwith. The penalties for failure to comply with these demands were degradation and civil death for the higher classes, reduction to slavery for freemen of the humbler sort, and for slaves incapacity to receive the gift of freedom. Later in the same year a new edict ordered the imprisonment of ecclesiastics of all grades, from bishops to exorcists. A third edict imposed the death-penalty for refusal to abjure, and granted freedom to those who would offer sacrifice; while a fourth enactment, published in 304, commanded everybody without exception to offer sacrifice publicly. This was the last and most determined effort of the Roman State to destroy Christianity. It gave to the Church countless martyrs, and ended in her triumph in the reign of Constantine.
Of the 249 years from the first persecution under Nero (64) to the year 313, when Constantine established lasting peace, it is calculated that the Christians suffered persecution about 129 years and enjoyed a certain degree of toleration about 120 years. Yet it must be borne in mind that even in the years of comparative tranquillity Christians were at all times at the mercy of every person ill-disposed towards them or their religion in the empire. Whether or not delation of Christians occurred frequently during the era of persecution is not known, but taking into consideration the irrational hatred of the pagan population for Christians, it may safely be surmised that not a few Christians suffered martyrdom through betrayal. An example of the kind related by St. Justin Martyr shows how swift and terrible were the consequences of delation. A woman who had been converted to Christianity was accused by her husband before a magistrate of being a Christian. Through influence the accused was granted the favour of a brief respite to settle her worldly affairs, after which she was to appear in court and put forward her defence. Meanwhile her angry husband caused the arrest of the catechist, Ptolomæus by name, who had instructed the convert. Ptolomæus, when questioned, acknowledged that he was a Christian and was condemned to death. In the court, at the time this sentence was pronounced, were two persons who protested against the iniquity of inflicting capital punishment for the mere fact of professing Christianity. The magistrate in reply asked if they also were Christians, and on their answering in the affirmative both were ordered to be executed. As the same fate awaited the wife of the delator also, unless she recanted, we have here an example of three, possibly four, persons suffering capital punishment on the accusation of a man actuated by malice, solely for the reason that his wife had given up the evil life she had previously led in his society (St. Justin Martyr, II, Apol., ii).
As to the actual number of persons who died as martyrs during these two centuries and a half we have no definite information. Tacitus is authority for the statement that an immense multitude (ingens multitudo) were put to death by Nero. The Apocalypse of St. John speaks of "the souls of them that were slain for the word of God" in the reign of Domitian, and Dion Cassius informs us that "many" of the Christian nobility suffered death for their faith during the persecution for which this emperor is responsible. Origen indeed, writing about the year 249, before the edict of Decius, states that the number of those put to death for the Christian religion was not very great, but he probably means that the number of martyrs up to this time was small when compared with the entire number of Christians (cf. Allard, "Ten Lectures on the Martyrs", 128). St. Justin Martyr, who owed his conversion largely to the heroic example of Christians suffering for their faith, incidentally gives a glimpse of the danger of professing Christianity in the middle of the second century, in the reign of so good an emperor as Antoninus Pius (138-61). In his "Dialogue with Trypho" (cx), the apologist, after alluding to the fortitude of his brethren in religion, adds, "for it is plain that, though beheaded, and crucified, and thrown to wild beasts, and chains, and fire, and all other kinds of torture, we do not give up our confession; but, the more such things happen, the more do others in larger numbers become faithful. . . . Every Christian has been driven out not only from his own property, but even from the whole world; for you permit no Christian to live." Tertullian also, writing towards the end of the second century, frequently alludes to the terrible conditions under which Christians existed ("Ad martyres", "Apologia", "Ad Nationes", etc.): death and torture were ever present possibilities.
But the new régime of special edicts, which began in 250 with the edict of Decius, was still more fatal to Christians. The persecutions of Decius and Valerian were not, indeed, of long duration, but while they lasted, and in spite of the large number of those who fell away, there are clear indications that they produced numerous martyrs. Dionysius of Alexandria, for instance, in a letter to the Bishop of Antioch tells of a violent persecution that took place in the Egyptian capital, through popular violence, before the edict of Decius was even published. The Bishop of Alexandria gives several examples of what Christians endured at the hands of the pagan rabble and then adds that "many others, in cities and villages, were torn asunder by the heathen" (Eusebius, Church History VI.41 sq.). Besides those who perished by actual violence, also, a "multitude wandered in the deserts and mountains, and perished of hunger and thirst, of cold and sickness and robbers and wild beasts" (Eusebius, l. c.). In another letter, speaking of the persecution under Valerian, Dionysius states that "men and women, young and old, maidens and matrons, soldiers and civilians, of every age and race, some by scourging and fire, others by the sword, have conquered in the strife and won their crowns" (Id., op. cit., VII, xi). At Cirta, in North Africa, in the same persecution, after the execution of Christians had continued for several days, it was resolved to expedite matters. To this end the rest of those condemned were brought to the bank of a river and made to kneel in rows. When all was ready the executioner passed along the ranks and despatched all without further loss of time (Ruinart, p. 231).
But the last persecution was even more severe than any of the previous attempts to extirpate Christianity. In Nicomedia "a great multitude" were put to death with their bishop, Anthimus; of these some perished by the sword, some by fire, while others were drowned. In Egypt "thousands of men, women and children, despising the present life, . . . endured various deaths" (Eusebius, Church History VII.4 sqq.), and the same happened in many other places throughout the East. In the West the persecution came to an end at an earlier date than in the East, but, while it lasted, numbers of martyrs, especially at Rome, were added to the calendar (cf. Allard, op. cit., 138 sq.). But besides those who actually shed their blood in the first three centuries account must be taken of the numerous confessors of the Faith who, in prison, in exile, or in penal servitude suffered a daily martyrdom more difficult to endure than death itself. Thus, while anything like a numerical estimate of the number of martyrs is impossible, yet the meagre evidence on the subject that exists clearly enough establishes the fact that countless men, women and even children, in that glorious, though terrible, first age of Christianity, cheerfully sacrificed their goods, their liberties, or their lives, rather than renounce the faith they prized above all.
The first act in the tragedy of the martyrs was their arrest by an officer of the law. In some instances the privilege of custodia libera, granted to St. Paul during his first imprisonment, was allowed before the accused were brought to trial; St. Cyprian, for example, was detained in the house of the officer who arrested him, and treated with consideration until the time set for his examination. But such procedure was the exception to the rule; the accused Christians were generally cast into the public prisons, where often, for weeks or months at a time, they suffered the greatest hardships. Glimpses of the sufferings they endured in prison are in rare instances supplied by the Acts of the Martyrs. St. Perpetua, for instance, was horrified by the awful darkness, the intense heat caused by overcrowding in the climate of Roman Africa, and the brutality of the soldiers (Passio SS. Perpet., et Felic., i). Other confessors allude to the various miseries of prison life as beyond their powers of description (Passio SS. Montani, Lucii, iv). Deprived of food, save enough to keep them alive, of water, of light and air; weighted down with irons, or placed in stocks with their legs drawn as far apart as was possible without causing a rupture; exposed to all manner of infection from heat, overcrowding, and the absence of anything like proper sanitary conditions — these were some of the afflictions that preceded actual martyrdom. Many naturally, died in prison under such conditions, while others, unfortunately, unable to endure the strain, adopted the easy means of escape left open to them, namely, complied with the condition demanded by the State of offering sacrifice.
Those whose strength, physical and moral, was capable of enduring to the end were, in addition, frequently interrogated in court by the magistrates, who endeavoured by persuasion or torture to induce them to recant. These tortures comprised every means that human ingenuity in antiquity had devised to break down even the most courageous; the obstinate were scourged with whips, with straps, or with ropes; or again they were stretched on the rack and their bodies torn apart with iron rakes. Another awful punishment consisted in suspending the victim, sometimes for a whole day at a time, by one hand; while modest women in addition were exposed naked to the gaze of those in court. Almost worse than all this was the penal servitude to which bishops, priests, deacons, laymen and women, and even children, were condemned in some of the more violent persecutions; these refined personages of both sexes, victims of merciless laws were doomed to pass the remainder of their days in the darkness of the mines, where they dragged out a wretched existence, half naked, hungry, and with no bed save the damp ground. Those were far more fortunate who were condemned to even the most disgraceful death, in the arena, or by crucifixion.
It is easy to understand why those who endured so much for their convictions should have been so greatly venerated by their co-religionists from even the first days of trial in the reign of Nero. The Roman officials usually permitted relatives or friends to gather up the mutilated remains of the martyrs for interment, although in some instances such permission was refused. These relics the Christians regarded as "more valuable than gold or precious stones" (Martyr. Polycarpi, xviii). Some of the more famous martyrs received special honours, as for instance, in Rome, St. Peter and St. Paul, whose "trophies", or tombs, are spoken of at the beginning of the third century by the Roman priest Caius (Eusebius, Church History II.21.7). Numerous crypts and chapels in the Roman catacombs, some of which, like the capella grœca, were constructed in sub-Apostolic times, also bear witness to the early veneration for those champions of freedom of conscience who won, by dying, the greatest victory in the history of the human race. Special commemoration services of the martyrs, at which the holy Sacrifice was offered over their tombs — the origin of the time — honoured custom of consecrating altars by enclosing in them the relics of martyrs — were held on the anniversaries of their death; the famous Fractio Panis fresco of the capella grœca, dating from the early second century, is probably a representation (see s.v. FRACTIO PANIS; SYMBOLS OF EUCHARIST) in miniature, of such a celebration. From the age of Constantine even still greater veneration was accorded the martyrs. Pope Damasus (366-84) had a special love for the martyrs, as we learn from the inscriptions, brought to light by de Rossi, composed by him for their tombs in the Roman catacombs. Later on veneration of the martyrs was occasionally exhibited in a rather undesirable form; many of the frescoes in the catacombs have been mutilated to gratify the ambition of the faithful to be buried near the saints (retro sanctos), in whose company they hoped one day to rise from the grave. In the Middle Ages the esteem in which the martyrs were held was equally great; no hardships were too severe to be endured in visiting famous shrines, like those of Rome, where their relics were contained.
ALLARD, Ten Lectures on the Martyrs (New York, 1907); BIRKS in Dict. of Christ. Antiq. (London, 1875-80), s.v.; HEALY, The Valerian Persecution (Boston, 1905); LECLERCQ, Les Martyrs, I (Paris, 1906); DUCHESNE, Histoire ancienne de l'église, I (Paris, 1906); HEUSER in KRAUS, Realencyklopädie f. Christlichen Altenthümer (Freiburg, 1882-86), s.v. Märtyrer; BONWETCH in Realencyklopädie f. prot. Theol. u. Kirche (Leipzig, 1903), s.v. Märtyrer u. Bekenner, and HARNACK in op. cit., s.v. Christenverfolgungen.
Hassett, Maurice. "Martyr." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 9. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 30 Jun. 2020 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09736b.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.
Chiesa Santa Maria dei Martiri, Sancta Maria ad Martyres, Roma
Santi Primi martiri della santa Chiesa di Roma Martiri
- Memoria Facoltativa
sec. I, dall'anno 64
La Chiesa celebra oggi molti cristiani che, come attesta Papa Clemente, furono trucidati nei giardini vaticani da Nerone dopo l'incendio di Roma (luglio 64). Anche lo storico romano Tacito nei suoi Annali dice: 'alcuni ricoperti di pelle di belve furono lasciati sbranare dai cani, altri furono crocifissi, ad altri fu appiccato il fuoco al termine del giorno in modo che servissero di illuminazione notturna'. (Mess. Rom.)
Martirologio Romano: Santi protomartiri della Santa Chiesa di Roma, che accusati dell’incendio della Città furono per ordine dell’imperatore Nerone crudelmente uccisi con supplizi diversi: alcuni, infatti, furono esposti ai cani coperti da pelli di animali e ne vennero dilaniati; altri furono crocifissi e altri ancora dati al rogo, perché, venuta meno la luce del giorno, servissero da lampade notturne. Tutti questi erano discepoli degli Apostoli e primizie dei martiri che la Chiesa di Roma presentò al Signore.
L'odierna celebrazione introdotta dal nuovo calendario romano universale si riferisce ai protomartiri della Chiesa di Roma, vittime della persecuzione di Nerone in seguito all'incendio di Roma, avvenuto il 19 luglio del 64. Perché Nerone perseguitò i cristiani? Ce lo dice Cornelio Tacito nel XV libro degli Annales: "Siccome circolavano voci che l'incendio di Roma fosse stato doloso, Nerone presentò come colpevoli, punendoli con pene ricercatissime, coloro che, odiati per le loro abominazioni, erano chiamati dal volgo cristiani".
Ai tempi di Nerone, a Roma, accanto alla comunità ebraica, viveva quella esigua e pacifica dei cristiani. Su questi, poco conosciuti, circolavano voci calunniose. Nerone scaricò su di loro, condannandoli ad efferati supplizi, le accuse a lui rivolte. Del resto le idee professate dai cristiani erano di aperta sfida agli dei pagani gelosi e vendicativi... "I pagani - ricorderà più tardi Tertulliano - attribuiscono ai cristiani ogni pubblica calamità, ogni flagello. Se le acque del Tevere escono dagli argini e invadono la città, se al contrario il Nilo non rigonfia e non inonda i campi, se vi è siccità, carestia, peste, terremoto, è tutta colpa dei cristiani, che disprezzano gli dei, e da tutte le parti si grida: i cristiani ai leoni!".
Nerone ebbe la responsabilità di aver dato il via all'assurda ostilità del popolo romano, peraltro molto tollerante in materia religiosa, nei confronti dei cristiani: la ferocia con la quale colpì i presunti incendiari non trova neppure la giustificazione del supremo interesse dell'impero. Episodi orrendi come quello delle fiaccole umane, cosparse di pece e fatte ardere nei giardini del colle Oppio, o come quello di donne e bambini vestiti con pelle di animali e lasciati in balia delle bestie feroci nel circo, furono tali da destare un senso di pietà e di orrore nello stesso popolo romano. "Allora - scrive ancora Tacito - si manifestò un sentimento di pietà, pur trattandosi di gente meritevole dei più esemplari castighi, perché si vedeva che erano eliminati non per il bene pubblico, ma per soddisfare la crudeltà di un individuo", Nerone. La persecuzione non si arrestò a quella fatale estate del 64, ma si prolungò fino al 67.
Tra i martiri più illustri vi furono il principe degli apostoli, crocifisso nel circo neroniano, dove sorge la basilica di S. Pietro, e l'apostolo dei gentili, S. Paolo, decapitato alle Acque Salvie e sepolto lungo la via Ostiense. Dopo la festività congiunta dei due apostoli, il nuovo calendario vuole appunto celebrare la memoria dei numerosi martiri che non poterono avere un posto peculiare nella liturgia.
Autore: Piero Bargellini