First Martyrs of the Church of Rome

June 30: First Martyrs of the Church of Rome—Optional Memorial

Died c. 64
Pre-Congregation canonizations

At Rome, in the time of Nero, the commemoration of many holy martyrs, who were accused of having set fire to the city, and cruelly put to death in various manners by the emperor’s order. Some were covered with the skins of wild beasts and lacerated by dogs; others were fastened to crosses, others again were delivered to the flames to serve as torches in the night. All these were disciples of the Apostles, and the first fruits of the martyrs, which the Roman Church, a field so fertile in martyrs, offered to God before the death of the Apostles. ~Roman Martyrology

Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus was the fifth Roman Emperor who reigned from 54–68 A.D. He was known to be extravagant, impulsive, tyrannical, violent, and a madman. He murdered his first wife and even his own mother. In the year 64, when Nero was twenty-seven and had been Roman emperor for ten years, a fire broke out in Rome. The fire burned for nine days, destroying most of the city. Many believe that Nero himself had the fire set to make room for a new palace. When people started to question him, he blamed the Christians for the fire. At that time, Christians were a small minority within Rome and were seen as a menace and disruption to the traditional Roman way of life and the traditional Roman gods. Nero then systematically had as many Christians as he could arrested, tried, and murdered in the most brutal ways. One ancient pagan historian from that time named Tacitus recounts it this way:

Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace…Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. 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.

These first Christian martyrs in the city of Rome are remembered and honored by the Church today. Saints Peter and Paul were among them, but numerous unknown others also gave their lives. Some of them were sewn into the bellies of animals while still alive and then fed to wild dogs to be torn to pieces. Others were coated with wax and lit on fire at night as torches in Nero’s gardens while he entertained guests. Still others were crucified like our Lord. These persecutions went beyond mere execution for a crime. They manifested an evil of the most diabolical nature.

Though these martyrdoms were expected to eliminate Christianity from the Roman Empire, those expectations were never realized. Instead, the courageous witness of these men and women planted and watered the seeds of faith that would continue to grow, blossom, and produce an abundance of good fruit.

For nearly three centuries, the persecution of Christians varied under different Roman Emperors. The most severe persecutions within the empire would occur two centuries later during the reigns of Emperors Decius (249-251) and Diocletian (284-305). It was not until the year 313, when Emperor Constantine the Great legalized Christianity with the Edict of Milan, that imperial persecutions ceased.

Today’s feast is strategically placed just one day after the Church honors Saints Peter and Paul, the two most notable martyrs during this Neronian persecution. By celebrating Saints Peter and Paul first, followed by a feast for every other martyr who died alongside them, the Church invites us to place ourselves not only in the shadow of Saints Peter and Paul, but also to join with these many unknown Christians who shed their blood for their faith. Though the physical shedding of one’s blood for Christ is a rare occurrence today, the depth of resolve Christians must have is the same. Every Christian, of every time and circumstance, must be so completely devoted to Christ that nothing, not even martyrdom, must deter us from our resolve.

As we ponder these unnamed heroes of our faith, prayerfully unite yourself to them. Look to Saints Peter and Paul as your chief inspiration and then resolve to become one of these unnamed witnesses who follow behind them. In Heaven, every sacrifice will be known and will become a cause for the glory of God. For now, many of our sacrifices are hidden and known only to us and to God. Rejoice in your own hidden sacrifices and know that those sacrifices unite you with those whom we honor today.

Holy First Martyrs of Rome, you each endured much torment, hatred, and abuse, ultimately shedding your blood as the result of your deep courage and love of Christ. Please pray for me, that I may be counted among your numbers in Heaven by manifesting the same depth of love and courage that you did. First Martyrs of Rome, pray for me. Jesus, I trust in You.

Further Reading:

Catholic Saints Info

Butler’s Lives of the Saints

Catholic News Agency

Saint of the Day

Catholic Culture

Franciscan Media

America Needs Fatima


 All Saints for Today

Saints A–Z

All Saints for the Liturgical Year

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