THE SECOND & THIRD CENTURIES: THE AGE OF MARTYRS
Roman Persecutions in the Second and Third Centuries
The brutal Roman persecutions actually lasted for three hundred years. The most severe persecutions in the second and third centuries were those from Trajan (A.D. 98-117), Septimius Severus (A.D. 193-211), Maximinus Thrax (A.D. 235-238) and Diocletian (A.D. 284-305). In A.D. 286 the Roman Empire was split between the east and the west, but Diocletian continued to reign as Emperor of the Eastern Empire until A.D. 305.
During these persecutions Christians who refused to disown their faith or to worship the Roman gods (or idols) were thrown into cauldrons of boiling oil, crucified, beheaded, or cast into the arena to be devoured by lions. Some were thrown into the Tiber. Others were burned to provide light for their games at the Colosseum. Entire families, including children and women, were tortured beyond description. Those were terrible times. Rome, the seat of paganism and monstrous idolatry, was drenched by the blood of Christians. The bones of Christians who suffered martyrdom in that city could still be seen to this day in the underground catacombs where they were buried by their fellow Christians.
The period of Roman persecutions was at the same time the Age of Martyrs. It was during this time that St. Ignatius of Antioch was devoured by lions at the Amphitheater. St. Polycarp was burned at the stake, then stabbed to death when the fire failed to consume him. Saints Perpetua and Felicitas were slain by a sword. St. Lawrence was roasted on a gridiron. The names are too numerous to mention. But here is the thing. Had Christianity been a purely human invention, it would have been destroyed during these terrible Roman persecutions. But being the work of God, the torments suffered by Christians for their faith, instead of putting an end to Christianity, became the catalyst that propelled the further expansion of Christianity. The more Christians were persecuted, the more pagans were converted. For this reason Tertullian did not hesitate to say that the blood of Christians was the seed of Christianity. See Tertullian, The Apology, Chapter 50.
Of course, not all Christians died for their faith or became martyrs. For fear of being tortured or killed, some of them renounced their faith and became apostates. To save their lives some even offered sacrifices to the pagan gods of the Romans.
The persecutions, first by the Jews and later by the Romans, were not the only challenges faced by the early Christians. They also had to face the more important challenges to the faith, known as heresies, which were unorthodox teachings of false teachers in the early Christian communities.
Although the seeds of heresy started in Palestine during the time of Simon Magus, the second and third centuries saw the rise of (a) Gnosticism, which taught that the world was eternal, and (b) Manicheism, which affirmed the existence of two eternal principles – one good, the other evil. Gnosticism actually has its roots in first century Palestine, and even before the Christian era. It is a mixture of various belief systems, predominantly pantheistic and idealistic, but with some elements copied from the Judaeo-Christian religion. Its errors persisted beyond the second century, and its influence may be seen even in present-day New Age belief systems.
In addition to these heresies the third century also witnessed the rise of three heresies against the Blessed Trinity. First, there was Sabellianism, which denied that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit were really distinct Persons, but were merely three different modes or aspects of the same Divine Substance. Another heresy, known as Tri-theism, did not merely deny the distinction between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, but went so far as to say that they were three different Gods! Origen, a brilliant ecclesiastical writer of the third century, started as a great defender of Christianity, but later also became a heretic for his unorthodox ideas. For example, he taught the doctrine of subordinationism (aka Origenism), which affirms that the Son and the Holy Spirit are subordinate, rather than equal to the Father in being and nature.
Just as God raised martyrs to become heroic witnesses to the faith during the time of persecutions, God also sent the world saintly scholars and men of learning to defend the faith during the time of heresies. These were the great Fathers of the Church. For example, Saint Dionysius the Great opposed Sabellianism, while St. Gregory Thaumaturgus defended the Church against Sabellianism and Tri-theism. In the west St. Irenaeus defended the Church against the Gnostics who claimed to possess a secret revelation from Christ. Many of these heresies, such as Gnosticism, Manicheism and Origenism, persisted beyond the third century, and had been opposed also by future Fathers and Doctors of the Church. (The list of Fathers and Doctors of the Church are under the Charts Menu of this website.)
The Easter Controversy
In A.D. 155 Saint Polycarp of Smyrna and Pope St. Anicetus had a discussion regarding the date of Easter. Apparently, the the church of Smyrna and the churches of the east were calculating and celebrating the date of Easter differently from the way that the Church of Rome and the western churches were doing. So they each tried to persuade the other to agree on a common method of figuring the date of Easter, in order that there would only be one Easter date for all of Christendom. But Saint Polycarp failed to persuade the Pope, nor the Pope, Polycarp.
Pope St. Anicetus and the churches of the west wanted to celebrate the resurrection of the Lord always on a Sunday. Saint Polycarp, following the custom of the eastern churches, wanted to link Easter with the Jewish passover, which is the fourteenth day of the month of Nisan regardless of the day of the week. Pope Anicetus was insistent that we don't have to follow Jewish customs anymore, but St. Polycarp said that his method was the method of St. John the Apostle, whose disciple he was. Failing to persuade the Pope, Saint Polycarp went back to Smyrna disappointed, but he at least got the Pope's permission to continue celebrating Easter in their own customary way.
Through the centuries several proposals were made to resolve this difference between the eastern and western churches, but to this day the controversy has not been resolved.
The Christian Martyrs' Last Prayer
A painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904)
Image source link: commons.wikimedia.org
An illustration from the Nuremberg Chronicles
Image source link: marysrosaries.com
Pope St. Anicetus
His portrait in the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls
Image source link: commons.wikimedia.org