In its early years, Christianity suffered enormous setbacks. The early Christians suffered persecution under various Roman emperors. At first, the Roman Empire saw Christianity as just one new sect of Judaism. This is significant because the Romans had a policy of leaving the Jews alone in their religion since they were very inwardly focused and hence, generally did not bother other people. In fact, even the first Christians, being Jews themselves, did not even believe that they were following a new religion. The only difference between them and the other Jews was that they were convinced that the Messiah that they have all been waiting for had already come. Thus caused serious rifts with the ruling Jews because of their varying ideas on what the Messiah would be like. Most Jews, including Jesus’ apostles at first, believed that the Messiah would be a sort of military leader who would liberate them from Roman rule and restore the glory Israel had during the reign of Kings David and Solomon. Unfortunately for them, they saw that the man Jesus Christ, who claimed to be the Messiah, was killed by crucifixion by the Roman authorities. They thought that Jesus could not be the Messiah for he had failed in his mission miserably. Nevertheless, the early Christians did not see it that way. They saw the death and resurrection of Jesus as a victory and not as a defeat. As a result, Jesus was recognized as the Messiah or in Greek, the Christ.
As the distinction between Judaism and Christianity became clear, along with the Christians’ observance of Jesus’ commission to go and make disciples of all nations, baptize and teach, and as more and more Gentiles were converted, the Roman authorities quickly took notice of this new growing sect. It did not help at all that rumors of cannibalism and other horrific practices were being spread about Christianity. Due to the riots and disorder that this new sect has been causing among the Jews, the Roman authorities decided to expel and prevent them from teaching in the name of Christ, just as Peter and John experienced in Acts 4 under the Jewfish temple authorities.
As problems caused by Christians increased, including their stubborn refusal to burn incense to and worship the pagan gods and the emperor, not to mention their abstinence from participating in pagan festivities, the persecution against the followers of the Way increased all the more. First was under Emperor Nero, then under Domitian, the Pliny, Marcus Aurelius, Septimius Severus, Decius, Diocletian and Maximius. It was during this time when a lot of Christians suffered horrific tortures and death. Thus, the rise of the martyrs. Simply put, a martyr is a witness. Jesus said in Acts 1:8 that his disciples shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon and that they will be witnesses to him in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria and to the ends of the earth! And this, they, the Christian martyrs such as Stephen, Ignatius, Polycarp, Perpetua, Felicitas, Thelica and Justin, among others, fulfilled without shame or ambivalence.
Fortunately however, these persecutions later on came to a decisive end during the reign of Emperor Constantine, the first so-called “Christian” Emperor.