NUMBER OF THE MARTYRS
Of the 249 years from the first persecution under Nero (64) to the year 313, when Constantine established lasting peace, it is calculated that the Christians suffered persecution about 129 years and enjoyed a certain degree of toleration about 120 years. Yet it must be borne in mind that even in the years of comparative tranquillity Christians were at all times at the mercy of every person ill-disposed towards them or their religion in the empire. Whether or not delation of Christians occurred frequently during the era of persecution is not known, but taking into consideration the irrational hatred of the pagan population for Christians, it may safely be surmised that not a few Christians suffered martyrdom through betrayal. An example of the kind related by St. Justin Martyr shows how swift and terrible were the consequences of delation. A woman who had been converted to Christianity was accused by her husband before a magistrate of being a Christian. Through influence the accused was granted the favour of a brief respite to settle her worldly affairs, after which she was to appear in court and put forward her defence. Meanwhile her angry husband caused the arrest of the catechist, Ptolomæus by name, who had instructed the convert. Ptolomæus, when questioned, acknowledged that he was a Christian and was condemned to death. In the court, at the time this sentence was pronounced, were two persons who protested against the iniquity of inflicting capital punishment for the mere fact of professing Christianity. The magistrate in reply asked if they also were Christians, and on their answering in the affirmative both were ordered to be executed. As the same fate awaited the wife of the delator also, unless she recanted, we have here an example of three, possibly four, persons suffering capital punishment on the accusation of a man actuated by malice, solely for the reason that his wife had given up the evil life she had previously led in his society (St. Justin Martyr, II, Apol., ii).
As to the actual number of persons who died as martyrs during these two centuries and a half we have no definite information. Tacitus is authority for the statement that an immense multitude (ingens multitudo) were put to death by Nero. The Apocalypse of St. John speaks of "the souls of them that were slain for the word of God" in the reign of Domitian, and Dion Cassius informs us that "many" of the Christian nobility suffered death for their faith during the persecution for which this emperor is responsible. Origen indeed, writing about the year 249, before the edict of Decius, states that the number of those put to death for the Christian religion was not very great, but he probably means that the number of martyrs up to this time was small when compared with the entire number of Christians (cf. Allard, "Ten Lectures on the Martyrs", 128). St. Justin Martyr, who owed his conversion largely to the heroic example of Christians suffering for their faith, incidentally gives a glimpse of the danger of professing Christianity in the middle of the second century, in the reign of so good an emperor as Antoninus Pius (138-61). In his "Dialogue with Trypho" (cx), the apologist, after alluding to the fortitude of his brethren in religion, adds, "for it is plain that, though beheaded, and crucified, and thrown to wild beasts, and chains, and fire, and all other kinds of torture, we do not give up our confession; but, the more such things happen, the more do others in larger numbers become faithful. . . . Every Christian has been driven out not only from his own property, but even from the whole world; for you permit no Christian to live." Tertullian also, writing towards the end of the second century, frequently alludes to the terrible conditions under which Christians existed ("Ad martyres", "Apologia", "Ad Nationes", etc.): death and torture were ever present possibilities.
But the new régime of special edicts, which began in 250 with the edict of Decius, was still more fatal to Christians. The persecutions of Decius and Valerian were not, indeed, of long duration, but while they lasted, and in spite of the large number of those who fell away, there are clear indications that they produced numerous martyrs. Dionysius of Alexandria, for instance, in a letter to the Bishop of Antioch tells of a violent persecution that took place in the Egyptian capital, through popular violence, before the edict of Decius was even published. The Bishop of Alexandria gives several examples of what Christians endured at the hands of the pagan rabble and then adds that "many others, in cities and villages, were torn asunder by the heathen" (Euseb., "Hist. eccl.", VI, xli sq.). Besides those who perished by actual violence, also, a "multitude wandered in the deserts and mountains, and perished of hunger and thirst, of cold and sickness and robbers and wild beasts" (Euseb., l. c.). In another letter, speaking of the persecution under Valerian, Dionysius states that "men and women, young and old, maidens and matrons, soldiers and civilians, of every age and race, some by scourging and fire, others by the sword, have conquered in the strife and won their crowns" (Id., op. cit., VII, xi). At Cirta, in North Africa, in the same persecution, after the execution of Christians had continued for several days, it was resolved to expedite matters. To this end the rest of those condemned were brought to the bank of a river and made to kneel in rows. When all was ready the executioner passed along the ranks and despatched all without further loss of time (Ruinart, p. 231).
But the last persecution was even more severe than any of the previous attempts to extirpate Christianity. In Nicomedia "a great multitude" were put to death with their bishop, Anthimus; of these some perished by the sword, some by fire, while others were drowned. In Egypt "thousands of men, women and children, despising the present life, . . . endured various deaths" (Euseb., "Hist. eccl.", VII, iv sqq.), and the same happened in many other places throughout the East. In the West the persecution came to an end at an earlier date than in the East, but, while it lasted, numbers of martyrs, especially at Rome, were added to the calendar (cf. Allard, op. cit., 138 sq.). But besides those who actually shed their blood in the first three centuries account must be taken of the numerous confessors of the Faith who, in prison, in exile, or in penal servitude suffered a daily martyrdom more difficult to endure than death itself. Thus, while anything like a numerical estimate of the number of martyrs is impossible, yet the meagre evidence on the subject that exists clearly enough establishes the fact that countless men, women and even children, in that glorious, though terrible, first age of Christianity, cheerfully sacrificed their goods, their liberties, or their lives, rather than renounce the faith they prized above all.