The Church of the Martyrs

“Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in this matter.” (1Peter 4:16)

In its first three centuries, the Christian church endured persecution by the hands of Roman authorities. Persecution sparked the cult of the saints and facilitated the rapid growth and spread of Christianity.
Historians have named the Coptic Church the `Church of the Martyrs’, not only because of their great number, but also because of their desire for martyrdom. When prevented from worship, they did not hide in the catacombs, but worshipped openly. Many went from place to place, seeking the crown of martyrdom, not considering it death, but rather, as entry into the new life.

Waves of Persecution
We can count ten major persecutions in the early church. These ten persecutions are:

  • Persecution under Nero (c. 64-68). Traditional martyrdoms of Peter and Paul.
  • Persecution under Domitian (r. 81-96).
  • Persecution under Trajan (112-117). Christianity is outlawed but Christians are not sought out.
  • Persecution under Marcus Aurelius (r. 161-180). Martyrdom of Polycarp.
  • Persecution under Septimus Severus (202-210). Martyrdom of Perpetua.
  • Persecution under Decius (250-251). Christians are actively sought out by requiring public sacrifice. Could buy certificates instead of sacrificing. Martyrdoms of bishops of Rome, Jerusalem and Antioch.
  • Persecution under Valerian (257-59). Martyrdoms of Cyprian of Carthage and Sixtus II of Rome.
  • Persecution under Maximinus the Thracian (235-38).
  • Persecution under Aurelian (r. 270–275).
  • Severe persecution under Diocletian and Galerius (303-324).

The first wave of persecution took place in the first century when the Apostle Saint Mark suffered martyrdom in Alexandria by the pagan Egyptians.

It is reported that Nero have tortured Christians with great cruelties for his own enjoyment. It was the first official persecution and marked the first time the government distinguished Christians from Jews. After Nero, it became a capital crime to be a Christian, although pardon was always available if one publicly condemned Christ and sacrificed to the gods.

Domitian is recorded as having executed members of his own family on charges of atheism and Jewish manners, who are thus generally assumed to have been Christians.

Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher on the throne, was a well-educated, and reached the old Roman ideal of self-reliant Stoic virtue (man should be free from passion, unmoved by joy or grief, and submissive to natural law), but for this very reason he had no sympathy with Christianity, and probably regarded it as an absurd and fanatical superstition. Belonging to the Stoical school, which believed in an immediate absorption after death into the Divine essence, he considered the Christian doctrine of the immortality of the soul, with its moral consequences, as vicious and dangerous to the welfare of the state. A law was passed under his reign, punishing every one with exile who should endeavor to influence people’s mind by fear of the Divinity, and this law was, no doubt, aimed at the Christians. At all events his reign was a stormy time for the church. The law of Trajan was sufficient to justify the severest measures against the followers of the “forbidden” religion. It was during the reign of Marcus Aurelius that Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, was martyred. Later, there is record of “new decrees” making it easier for Christians to be accused and have their property confiscated.

From year 202-210 AD, the Coptic Church suffered persecution under the reign of Septimus Severus. The church was gaining power and making many converts and this led to popular anti-Christian feeling and persecution in Catharge, Alexandria, Rome and Corinth between about 202 and 210. The famed St. Perpetua was martyred during this time, as were many students of Origen of Alexandria. Consequently, the School of Alexandria was closed and Saint Clement was compelled to flee.

During the reign of the Roman Emperor Decius, an edict was issued to re-establish the state religion. The persecution under Decius was the first universal and organized persecution of Christians. In January of 250, Decius issued an edict requiring all citizens to sacrifice to the emperor in the presence of a Roman official and obtain a certificate proving they had done so.

In 257 and 258 AD, under Emperor Valerian, all Christian clergy were required to sacrifice to the gods. In a 257 edict, the punishment was exile; in 258, the punishment was death, leading to the arrest and exile of Pope Dionysius of Alexandria.

In 302 AD, the last major Roman persecution of Christians occurred under Diocletian, and it was the worst of all. It is known as the “Great Persecution. Emperor Diocletian began his persecution of the Christians by dismissing every soldier from the army who refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods. On 23 February of the following year, he issued his famous edict against the Christians. It was his belief that if he could crush Christianity in Egypt, it would be easier to eliminate it from the rest of the world. Hence the persecution of the Christians in Egypt was more intense than in any other country; about 800,000 men, women and children were martyred in Egypt.

Official persecution of Christians ended with the Edict of Milan, signed by the Christian convert Constantine and his co-emperor Licinius.

The theologian Tertullian had converted to Christianity based in part on his wonder at Christians’ faithfulness in the face of martyrdom and it clearly had a similar effect on others as well. It was Tertullian who famously declared, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

For this reason, the Coptic Christians adopted the Coptic calendar to start from the year of Diocletian’s accession to the throne in 248 AD, identified by the abbreviation A.M. (for Anno Martyrum or “Year of the Martyrs”).

Throughout these waves of persecution, many spiritual leaders devoted themselves to strengthening the martyrs and confessors, visiting them in prisons, and accompanying them in their trials, and even to the place of execution. Some of them cared for and buried the saints’ bodies, and wrote the biography of their trials and martyrdom as eye-witnesses, calling their accounts, ‘The Acts of the Martyrs’.