This page will tend to concentrate on Christian martyrs of Ancient Rome, although we should also note that dying for one’s cause was not a Christian prerogative: the Ancient Romans themselves before the period of Christ had traditions of self sacrifice for common causes.
One such example was the belief that if a Roman general sacrificed himself to “Jupiter, Mars, the Earth and the Infernal Gods” he would ensure that the misadventures and misfortunes which were assailing himself and his soldiers would be thrown over to the enemies.
A concrete example of this is given to us by the Roman family of the Deciiof whom the grandfather, father and son all sacrificed themselves for the good of their armies, the first at war with the Latins, the second against the Etruscans and the son in the war against Pyrrhus. In all three cases the battles and wars were won against the odds.
The poet Juvenal immortalised the deeds of this family in verse:
From a mean stock the pious Decii came,
Small their estates and vulgar was their name,
Yes such their virtue, that their loss alone,
For Rome and all our legions could atone,
Their country’s doom they by their own retrieved,
Themselves more worth than all the host they saved.
Christian Martyrs in Rome
But on to Christian martyrs…. Being bloodthirsty times it is not surprising that the death of martyrs was often quite gory. Emperor Nero is particularly noted for the first systematic campaign against them and for the extremity of the violence, but he was followed by other Emperors who also had little patience for them. A few examples are listed below:
The Four Crowned Saints.
These four Christians were martyred by having crowns of thorns nailed into their heads. The crowns themselves were made of metal. A church commemorates their gory martyrdom.
Became quite a figure, particularly during the Roman Renaissance when during restoration work in the church bearing her name her mummified body was found under the altar: Perfectly preserved like the very day she was murdered.
A statue was sculpted in the very position she was found in and a copy may be viewed in the catacombs. Her hands are tied behind her back and her body is clearly contorted in anguish.
Cecilia was a Roman citizen.
Agnes was also a Roman citizen, of the noble Gens Claudia. She was martyred at the age of 12 during Emperor Diocletian’s persecution of the Christians.
The story goes that Agnes had made a promise of chastity. A nobleman’s son repeatedly proposed marriage but was scorned. Having realised she was Christian she was brought to a magitrate to be judged. At first the sentence was to have her dedicated to be a Vestal Virgin but on refusing the sentence was changed to being a prostitute. Her hair grew to cover her entire body and defend her nudity. A miracle occurred by which a man who dared look upon her was blinded. She was hence sentenced to be burned to death, but the flames parted and she remained unscathed. She was finally beheaded and her skull is still held in a church by Piazza Navona – once a Roman circus typical for public sentences.