The First Roman Martyrs

Why is it that it’s only when I have a dozen other things I’m supposed to be doing (cleaning my disgusting apartment, doing laundry, revising a history paper for school) that my mind is bursting with blog ideas?

The Christian Martyrs' Last Prayer

The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer (1883), by Jean-Léon Gérôme, my favorite Orientalist painter. It truly captures the drama and the agony of the first Christian persecutions, and yet the peace before God.

Today is the Feast of the First Holy Martyrs of the Holy Roman Church, celebrated the day after the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul. This celebration encompasses the many nameless Christian martyrs who suffered under the persecution of the emperor Nero beginning in A.D. 64 (Peter and Paul both also died under this persecution), as well as many other lesser-known Roman martyrs.



These persecutions are vividly described in the Annales (Annals) of the Roman historian Tacitus (A.D. 56–117), one of the first mentions of Christianity in secular literature, written ca. A.D. 116. The context is the aftermath of the Great Fire of Rome in July 64 (Annales XV. 44, ed. G. P. Goold, trans. John Jackson, for Loeb Classical Library, 1937):

But neither human help, nor imperial munificence, nor all the modes of placating Heaven, could stifle scandal or dispel the belief that the fire had taken place by [Nero’s] order. Therefore, to scotch the rumour, Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians. Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus, and the pernicious superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judaea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue. First, then, the confessed members of the sect were arrested; next, on their disclosures, vast numbers were convicted, not so much on the count of arson as for hatred of the human race. And derision accompanied their end: they were covered with wild beasts’ skins and torn to death by dogs; or they were fastened on crosses, and, when daylight failed were burned to serve as lamps by night. Nero had offered his Gardens for the spectacle, and gave an exhibition in his Circus, mixing with the crowd in the habit of a charioteer, or mounted on his car. Hence, in spite of a guilt which had earned the most exemplary punishment, there arose a sentiment or pity, due to the impression that they were being sacrificed not for the welfare of the state but to the ferocity of a single man.

St. Paulinus of Nola

Ah, the weekend. I’m working on a pretty substantial post that I think will be worthwhile — but I don’t think I’m going to finish tonight.

Today is the Feast of St. Paulinus of Nola (354–431), a pagan convert, bishop, and poet, and a contemporary and friend of St. Augustine. Born of a wealthy Roman family of the senatorial class, educated in the richest literary tradition, he rejected his worldly wealth and devoted himself to Christ following the sorrow of the death of his first child. In the poem I excerpt below, he writes to his friend and mentor Ausonius extolling the virtues of Christ and his total commitment to Him, and defending his rejection of the pagan Muses:

St. Paulinus of Nola

St. Paulinus of Nola.

Why, father, do you bid the deposed Muses return to my charge? Hearts dedicated to Christ reject the Latin Muses and exclude Apollo. Of old you and I shared common cause . . . in summoning deaf Apollo from his cave at Delphi, invoking the Muses as deities, seeking from groves or mountain ridges that gift of utterance bestowed by divine gift. But now another power, a greater God, inspires my mind and demands another way of life. He asks back from man His own gift, so that we may live for the Father of life. He bids us not spend our days on the emptiness of leisure and business, or on the fictions of literature, so that we may obey His laws and behold His light which is clouded by the clever powers of philosophers, the skill of rhetoricians, and the inventions of poets. These men steep our hearts in what is false and empty. They form only men’s tongues, and bring nothing to bestow salvation or to clothe us in the truth. What good, what truth can they possess who do not have the Head of all, God who is the Kindling and the Source of truth and goodness, whom no man sees except in Christ?

He is the Light of truth, the Path of life, the Power and Mind, Hand and Strength of the Father. He is the Sun of justice, Source of blessings, Flower of God, God’s Son, Creator of the world, Life of our mortality, and Death to our death. He is the Master of the virtues. He is God to us and became Man for us by stripping off His nature and assuming ours, forging eternal relations between man and God, while He Himself is both. So when He has flashed His rays over our hearts, He cleans the enfeebling foulness from our sluggish bodies and renews the dispositions of our minds. All that delighted us before He draws away, and in its stead leaves a pleasure that is chaste. By His rights as Lord He demands wholly our hearts, tongues, and heads. He wishes to be the object of our thought and understanding, our belief and reading, our fear and love. . . .

Source: Poem 10, from The Poems of St. Paulinus of Nola, translated by P. G. Walsh, volume 40 in the Ancient Christian Writers series, (New York and Paramus, N.J.: Newman Press, 1975), 58-59. (This book was a 99¢ thrifting conquest!)

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