|Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.| -- Matt
It had been revealed to St. John that the Church should have tribulation for ten days; and accordingly, in her first three hundred years, ten emperors tried to put out her light. Nero, Domitian, Trajan, Antoninus, and Aurelius, have been mentioned; and the next persecutor was Severus, an emperor who went to Britain, firmly established the Roman power over England, and built the great wall to keep the Scots from injuring the northern settlers.
In his time died the glorious band of martyrs of Carthage -- five young converts, two men, named Satur and Saturninus, a noble young married lady, called Perpetua, who had a young infant, and two slaves, Revocatus and Felicitas, the last of whom gave birth to a daughter in the prison. But not even love to their babes could lead these faithful women to dissemble their belief; Perpetua left her child with her family; Felicitas gave hers to a Christian woman to bring up; and the lady and the slave went out singing, hand in hand, to the amphitheatre, where they were to be torn by beasts. A wild cow was let loose on them, and threw down the two women; but Perpetua at once sat up again, covered herself with her garments, and helped up Felicitas, but as if in a dream, for she did not remember that the cow had been loosed on her. Satur had an especial horror of a bear, which was intended to be the means of his death, and a good soldier named Pudens put meat in front of the den, that the beast might not come out. A leopard then flew at him, and tore him; Satur asked the soldier for his ring, dipped it in his own blood, and gave it back as a memorial, just before he died under the teeth and claws of the animal. The others were all killed by soldiers in the middle of the amphitheatre, Perpetua guiding the sword to her own throat.
The persecution of the Emperor Decius was one of the worst of all, for the heathen grew more ingenious by practice in inventing horrible deaths.
Under the Emperor Valerian died St. Lawrence, a young deacon at Rome, whom the judge commanded to produce the treasures of the Church. He called together all the aged widows and poor cripples who were maintained by the alms of the faithful, |These,| he said, |are the treasures of the Church.| In the rage of the persecutors, he was roasted to death on bars of iron over a fire. St. Cyprian, the great Bishop of Carthage, was beheaded; and one hundred and fifty martyrs at Utica were thrown alive into a pit of quick-lime. At Antioch one man failed; Sapricius, a priest, was being led out to die, when a Christian named Nicephorus, with whom he had a quarrel, came to beg his forgiveness ere his death. Sapricius would not pardon, and Nicephorus went on humbly entreating, amid the mockery of the guards, until the spot of execution was reached, and the prisoner was bidden to kneel down to have his bead cut off. Then it appeared that he who had not the heart to forgive, had not the heart to die; Sapricius's courage failed him, and he promised to sacrifice to the idols; and Nicephorus was put to death, receiving the crown of martyrdom in his stead. The persecuting Valerian himself came to a miserable end, for he was made prisoner in a battle, in 258, with the Persians, and their king for many years forced the unhappy captive to bow down on his hands and knees so as to be a step by which to climb on his elephant, and when he died, his skin was taken off, dyed red, and hung up in a temple. After his captivity, the Church enjoyed greater tranquillity; many more persons ventured to avow themselves Christians, and their worship was carried on without so much concealment as formerly.
But the troublous times were not yet over, and the rage of the prince of this world moved the Romans to make a yet more violent effort than any before to put down the kingdom of the Prince of Peace. Two emperors began to reign together, named Diocletian and Maximian, dividing the whole empire between them into two parts, the East and the West. After a few years' rule, they both of them fell savagely upon the Christians. In Switzerland, a whole division of the army, called the Theban Legion, 6,000 in number, with the leader, St. Maurice, all were cut to pieces together rather than deny their faith. In Egypt the Christians were mangled with potsherds, and every torture was invented that could shake their constancy. Each tribunal was provided with a little altar to some idol, and if the Christians would but scatter a few grains of incense upon it, they were free; but this was a denying of their Lord, and the few who yielded in the fear of them who could kill the body, grieved all their lives afterwards for the act, and were not restored to their place in the Church until after long years of penance, or until they had atoned for their fall by witnessing a good confession. Sometimes they were not allowed to receive the Holy Communion again till they were on their dying beds. But these were the exceptions; in general, God's strength was made perfect in weakness, and not only grown men, but timid women, tender maidens, and little children, would bear the utmost torture with glad faith, and trust that it was working for them an exceeding 'weight of glory. St. Margaret of Antioch was but fifteen years old, St. Agnes of Rome only twelve, and at Merida, in Spain, Eulalia, at the same age, went out in search of martyrdom, insulting the idols, until she was seized and put to death full of joy; but in general, the Christians were advised not needlessly to run into the way of danger.
This was the first persecution that reached to Britain, There a kind-hearted Roman soldier, named Alban, received into his house a priest who was fleeing from his persecutors, and while he was there, learnt from him the true faith. When search was made for his guest, Alban threw on the dress of the priest, and was taken in his stead; he was carried to the tribunal, and there declaring himself a Christian, was sentenced to be beheaded. The city where he suffered is called after him St. Alban's, and a beautiful church was afterwards built in memory of him. These cruelties did not long continue in Britain, for the governor, Constantius, had married a Christian British lady, named Helena; and as soon as he ventured to interfere, he stopped the persecution.
Diocletian became tired of reigning, and persuaded his comrade, Maximian, to resign their thrones to Constantius and to another prince named Galerius. Constantius forbade all persecution in the West, but Galerius and his son-in-law, Maximin, were very violent in the East; and Maximin is counted as the last of the ten persecuting emperors. Under him a great many Christians were blinded, scarred with hot iron, or had their fingers and ears cut off. Some were sent to the deserts to keep the emperor's cattle; some were driven in chains to work in the mines. These, who suffered bravely everything except death, were called confessors instead of martyrs. Galerius died in great misery in 311, of the same horrible disease as the persecutor of the Jews, Antiochus Epiphanes; and like him, he at last owned too late the God whom he had rejected, and sent entreaties that prayers might be offered up for him.