The infant Church spread under pagan Roman rule that sought to crush the upstart religion in the time of Nero and Vespasian. But in its 1900 year life since, the number of those who have died for Christ has grown only larger from age to age.
The Age of Martyrs: 100 AD–337 AD
As you might infer from the traditional name given to the 200-year span prior to Constantine’s Edict of Milan, the age of martyrs was a fairly bad time to be a Christian. Though the Christian community flourished for the most part, there were fairly regular periods of persecution both for religious purposes and as a means of social shaping instigated by the likes of Vespasian, Valerian and Diocletian.
Born in northern Judaea, Justin tried Stoicism, Cynicism and eventually Platonism as life philosophies before converting to Christianity as an adult. With his training in philosophy, he set out to defend the Christian faith with philosophy and promote its moral precepts for living. He eventually carried his teachings all the way to Rome, where – as his name quite obviously points out – Justin was martyred by beheading.
One of the three great apostolic fathers, Polycarp has one of the few attested and verified martyrdoms in early church history. Though recognized as a father of the Church, the only complete work of Polycarp is a single letter addressed to the church in Philippi. His student Irenaeus – also well regarded as a theological father – gave as a biography the note that Polycarp learned from the apostles themselves, and personally knew people who had met and seen Christ. When ordered to burn incense in honor of the Roman emperor, Polycarp refused. He is recorded to have said: “Eighty and six years I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King and Savior? Bring forth what thou wilt.” He was bound and burned at the stake, but did not touch him. In order to complete the execution, the soldiers stabbed him to death.
Agnes of Rome was born into a wealthy, privileged Christian family during the reign of Diocletian – the most severe persecutor of the faith among the Roman emperors after Nero. A beautiful young woman of upper class, Agnes was highly desirable, and especially in ancient times, her marrying age of 12 was a key turning point in her life. Agnes had pledged herself to chastity until marriage and spurned the advances of several pagan Roman suitors due to her faith. Slighted by Agnes’ religious purity, some of these young men submitted her name to the authorities as a Christian, which under Diocletian was outlawed. From that moment, the accounts become unreliable and in some cases legendary, but what is evident from history is that she was executed for being a Christian woman protecting her own purity.