First Martyrs of the See of Rome
After the Footsteps of Christ
The Christian faith has been widespread for 2,000 years now. From the mission of the Apostles, it has grown into a worldwide community, one in faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. However, Christianity did not tread a smooth path leading to the present time. It has gone through difficulties and challenges.
The Gospel of Christ has gained many followers and believers. At the same time, it also went through persecutions which led many men and women, young and old alike, to die for their faith. This served as the fulfillment of Christ’s words: “If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first… Remember the word I spoke to you, ‘No slave is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” (John 15:18, 20).
The Persecution Begins
The Church remembers the First Martyrs of the See of Rome. In the first century, there was a large Jewish population living in Rome. Perhaps as a result of the controversy between Jews and Jewish Christians, the Roman Emperor Claudius expelled all Jews from Rome in 49-50. The historian Suetonius said that this expulsion was because of the disturbances in the city “caused by the certain Chrestus” (Christ). Probably many came back after the death of Claudius in the year 54.
A decade later, in the year 64, a huge fire consumed large sections of Rome. The emperor of the Roman Empire then was Nero. Rumors blamed the tragedy on Nero, who wanted to enlarge his palace. Nero blamed the Christians, who were then a growing “radical” sect in Rome, for the conflagration of the city.
Broken, but Not Crushed
The historian Tacitus, a staunch critic of Emperor Nero, wrote down a vivid description of what Nero did to the Christians in Rome:
Yet no human effort, no princely largess nor offerings to the gods could make that infamous rumor disappear that Nero had somehow ordered the fire. Therefore, in order to abolish that rumor, Nero falsely accused and executed with the most exquisite punishments those people called Christians, who were infamous for their abominations.
The originator of the name, Christ, was executed as a criminal by the procurator Pontius Pilate during the reign of Tiberius; and though repressed, this destructive superstition erupted again, not only through Judea, which was the origin of this evil, but also through the city of Rome, to which all that is horrible and shameful floods together and is celebrated.
Therefore, first those were seized who admitted their faith, and then, using the information they provided, a vast multitude were convicted, not so much for the crime of burning the city, but for hatred of the human race. And perishing they were additionally made into sports: they were killed by dogs by having the hides of beasts attached to them, or they were nailed to crosses or set aflame, and, when the daylight passed away, they were used as nighttime lamps.
Nero gave his own gardens for this spectacle and performed a Circus game, in the habit of a charioteer mixing with the plebs or driving about the race-course. Even though they were clearly guilty and merited being made the most recent example of the consequences of crime, people began to pity these sufferers, because they were consumed not for the public good but on account of the fierceness of one man. (Tacitus, The Annals, written around 116; 44.2-44.5)
Threatened by an army revolt and condemned to death by the senate, Nero committed suicide in the year 68 at the age of thirty-one. He left a horrible mark in the history of mankind, while these unnamed men and women are commemorated by the Church until the end of time. Their feast day is on June 30.
Five Interesting Facts About the First Martyrs of the See of Rome
- The First Martyrs of the See of Rome were called the “Disciples of the Apostles”. This was because of how many of them would have learned about Christ from His closest followers themselves.
- The site of Nero’s Circus was also the location of Peter’s crucifixion. Today, this place is marked by the Piazza dei Protomartiri Romani (Square of the Roman Protomartyrs) in the Vatican next to St. Peter’s Basilica.
- The Memorial of the First Martyrs of the See of Rome was actually not added to the Church’s liturgical calendar until 1969, nineteen hundred years later! It was then that the first martyrs of Rome began to be venerated collectively.
- Aside from being blamed for the fire, Christians were also accused of atheism. This was because they refused to believe in or recognize the Emperor as a deity, let alone the pagan Romans’ false gods.
- The placement of the Memorial of the First Martyrs of the See of Rome is on June 29, directly after the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul, who are the principal patron saints of Rome. The subsequent martyrs are associated with their patronage.
Prayer to First Martyrs of the See of Rome
O God, who consecratedthe abundant first fruits of the Roman Churchby the blood of the Martyrs,grant, we pray, that with firm couragewe may together draw strength from so great a struggleand ever rejoice at the triumph of faithful love.Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,God, for ever and ever. Amen.