The First Martyrs of the Holy Roman Church
Died: Circa 64 AD
Canonized: The Universal Church first celebrated this feast liturgically in 1969.
Feast Day: June 30
Patronage: The City of Rome
Few churches in Rome will leave as profound an impression upon you as the Basilica of San Stefano Rotondo near the Cathedral of St. John Lateran. Dedicated to St. Stephen the Protomartyr, this church commemorates the martyrs of Rome up until the 4th century AD. Being circular in design, the frescos on the inside walls of the church invite you to begin your journey through the history of Roman martyrdom by first looking at an image of the Crucified Lord, with the Holy Innocents (the children killed by King Herod at the time of Christ’s birth) lying at the foot of the Cross. From there you encounter frescos of the martyrdoms of St. Stephen, St. Peter and St. Paul and then numerous other martyrs who died in various horrific ways until the reign of the Emperor Constantine, when the age of the martyrs began to decline.
As you move from fresco to fresco, you cannot help but be both edified and disturbed by the violence you see before you. Decapitated heads, severed limbs, men and women boiled alive in scalding water, men crushed under heavy stones, women having their breasts cut off…the brutality of these frescos is almost inconceivable to comprehend. And yet they capture the depravity and cruelty that was unleashed upon the martyrs of Rome and elsewhere throughout the Roman Empire.
It is believed that St. Peter moved from his Episcopal See of Antioch to become the first Bishop of Rome around the year 43 AD. Prior to his arrival, a small number of Christians lived in Rome, most likely in the Trastevere district of the city that was also home to a large Jewish settlement. (Trastevere would remain the home of Rome’s Jewish population until 1943, when despite the valiant efforts of Pope Pius XII and other Vatican officials to save the Roman Jews, the Gestapo arrested most of its occupants and sent them to various concentration camps.)
But who were the first Christians of Rome? While we have very little historical information about them, many of the early Christian writers have left us testimonies as to their identities:
Tertullian argued that the early Christians of Rome and elsewhere were men, women and children who sought to integrate into all facets of society and believed themselves to abide in the Word of Christ as those who were “in the world but not of the world” (Jn 15:17). “We Christians don’t turn our backs on the world, we are present in the Forum, at the baths, in workshops, the bazaars, the market place and public squares. We are sailors, soldiers, farm hands, businessmen.”
St. John Chrysostom spoke of the first Christians of Rome as being men and women who occupied all states of life: “Daniel was young and Joseph a slave. Aquila wrought at a craft. The woman who sold purple dye-stuffs supervised a busy workshop. Another was a prison governor and another a centurion like Cornelius. Yet another was in ill health, like Timothy. Another was a runaway slave, like Onesimus. Nothing proved a hindrance to any of these, but all were joyously welcomed and accepted, both men and women, both young and old, both slaves and freemen, both soldiers and civilian citizens alike.”
St. Justin Martyr described the Christians of Rome as those who sought to be upstanding citizens of the Roman Empire. ”We pay our taxes and dues promptly and in full to your agents…so while adoring God alone, we willingly obey you in everything else, openly recognizing you as kings and governors of mankind and asking in our prayer that both you and the imperial power would possess in full wisdom the skill of government.”
Finally, an unknown Christian author offered this eloquent description: “Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life…With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in…And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through…Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives. They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh…Christians love all men, but all men persecute them. Condemned because they are not understood, they are put to death, but raised to life again…For the good they do they receive the punishment of malefactors, but even then they rejoice, as though receiving the gift of life.”
Despite the noble efforts of the First Christians of Rome to be model citizens (all the while remaining true to the Gospel of Jesus Christ), the start of the reign of the Emperor Nero was also the beginning of an intense period of persecution. Nero, known by the Romans as both mad and prone to excessive behavior, desired to rebuild much of the Eternal City. In the year 64 AD, a massive fire began to spread throughout Rome. Many whispered that Nero had started the fire to make more room for renovations on his imperial palace. The Emperor responded by saying that the Christians were to blame for the tragedy. With his scapegoat in place, Nero ordered the arrest and execution of any Christian in the city.
The 1st century AD Roman historian Tacitus described how the martyrdom of the Roman Christians unfolded:
“Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed.”
Soon after these first martyrdoms, St. Peter and St. Paul would also win the martyrs’ crown, with St. Peter being crucified upside down near the present day St. Peter’s Basilica, and St. Paul being decapitated outside of the city walls at the present day Tre Fontane monastery.
The horrors of these martyrdoms did not see the Christian faith dissipate in Rome, but rather led to exponential growth. The more men, women and children died for the faith, the more people sought to be numbered among those who would give their lives to follow Christ and bear his Sacred Cross. Truly, the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church!
During the 4th century AD, many of the well-known Roman martyrs began to be honored in the City of Rome on various days throughout the year. Familiar names like Cecilia, Clement, Felicity, Anastasia, Cosmas, Damian and many more were given specific feast days as a way to remember the martyrs of the first 300 years of Christianity in the Eternal City.
It was not until 1969 that a single day was assigned to honor all of the first martyrs of Rome who died in the year 64 AD. June 30th was chosen as the day for this celebration – to connect this feast to the celebration of the previous day, the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul, as Apostles, Princes and Martyrs of Rome.
It is of dire importance that we continue to honor the martyrs of the Early Church, especially in light of the intense persecutions that are occurring against Christians today, in our own modern times. It has been properly observed that more Christians have died in this past century than in all of Christian history combined. Christian men, women and children are being tortured and martyred on a daily basis and world leaders do little to alleviate such suffering or end this genocide. Let us continue to beseech the Father of Mercies and invoke the intercession of the Martyrs of Rome, and of all nations and ages, to intercede for those who this very day suffer for bearing the name of Christ.
Fr. Nathan Siray
Unless otherwise indicated, all of the photos of the frescos in this post are from the Basilica of Santo Stefano Rotondo, Roma.
 Tertullian, Apologia, 42.
 St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on St. Matthew’s Gospel, 43, 7.
 St. Justin Martyr, First Apologia, 17.
 From A Letter to Diognetus, 5-6.
 Tacitus, Annals XV, 44.