It’s commonly known that early Christians were prosecuted for centuries in the Roman empire, up to execution via damnatio ad bestias, meaning they were made to fight lions and other beasts in deadly competitions.

However, there’s an article on the Friendly Atheist blog which, echoing a Cracked article, claims that

There are zero authentic accounts of Christian martyrdom in the Colosseum until over a century after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. In fact, not a single legitimate record exists of the Romans executing any Christians in the Colosseum. Zip. Zilch. Nada.

Now, the Friendly Atheist articles are generally well researched and thus believable, but this one is less so. For one thing, most of its references are to entirely unspecific (or not accessible) “Google Books” searches that prove nothing.

Furthermore, the claim that there are no legitimate records is directly contradicted by the Wikipedia article above, which cites several references by contemporaries, such as Tacitus and Tertullian. Another article claims that the persecution lasted three centuries and was witnessed by several historians.

All this directly contradicts the claim that “there are zero authentic accounts … until over a century after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire”, because that happened after the three centuries of persecution. It also contradicts a quote taken from The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom (by Candida Moss, published in 2013):

… the prosecution of Christians was rare, and the persecution of Christians was limited to no more than a handful of years.

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    The article says "There are zero authentic accounts of Christian martyrdom in the Colosseum". The author is picking one specific building (in an empire that spanned most of a continent) and trying to make a lot of there being no records of executions in that location. It doesn't mean there were no executions at all. Jul 10, 2013 at 18:15
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    What would make an account "authentic", or records "legitimate"?
    – user5582
    Jul 10, 2013 at 18:18
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    @DJClayworth Even that’s wrong, some of the (admittedly, Christian) historians mention the Colosseum. As to what makes an account authentic, my guess is good as yours. Simply discarding them because they are from Christians is intellectually dishonest, however. There needs to be specific evidence to justify that. Jul 10, 2013 at 18:20
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    @MattDMo The Colosseum (note capital “C”) is the building in Rome. That’s what’s referred to here. I haven’t heard it used in a generic way but it wouldn’t terribly surprise me if that usage existed. Jul 10, 2013 at 21:03
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    @MattDMo The generic term is "amphitheatre".
    – ChrisW
    Jul 10, 2013 at 21:33

1 Answer 1


I think the "...in the Colosseum" part is crucial to the claim.

Tacitus' description of Nero's persecution of Christians says:

And perishing [Christians] were additionally made into sports: they were killed by dogs by having the hides of beasts attached to them, or they were nailed to crosses or set aflame, and, when the daylight passed away, they were used as nighttime lamps. Nero gave his own gardens for this spectacle....

Nero's gardens were not part of the Colosseum. (There's some controversy about Tacitus' accuracy, but I think the quote speaks to the "...in the Colosseum" aspect.)

  • Well, yeah, but that was Nero. Didn't he also set fire to half of Rome to make room for a personal ego construction project?
    – Shadur
    Jul 24, 2013 at 9:24
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    @Shadur Probably not. (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Fire_of_Rome)
    – Karlth
    Aug 9, 2013 at 9:45
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    Tacitus was well-known for his hatred of emperors in general, with Nero his special hate. Take anything Tacitus says about Nero with a grain of salt. Apr 27, 2015 at 22:25
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    @DickHarfield -- possibly, but it certainly answers the OP's point: people were claiming (accurately or otherwise) as early as 100 AD that Christians were martyred. Jul 31, 2016 at 7:42

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