Six Horrible Deaths of Early Christian Martyrs

Were the persecutors or the writers more imaginative?

Tim Gebhart
9 min readMar 15, 2022


The death of St. Antipas as depicted in an 1886 edition of The Bloody Theatre (

CChristianity saw plenty of martyrs in its first several centuries. By definition, a martyr is someone who suffers death rather than denies his faith. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it, “Martyrdom is the supreme witness given to the truth of the faith: it means bearing witness even unto death.”

Many stories of early Christian martyrs are awash with brutality, violence, and torture. It not only illustrated the evil of their persecutors but imitated Christ’s suffering. Martyrdom meant immediate passage to heaven, and the extent of suffering might improve the quality of the afterlife. Also, as sources of inspiration, the serenity of the martyrs during their deaths rendered them religious superheroes. At some point, distinctions between witnessing and suffering disappeared.

Early martyrs met their fate in various ways: crucifixion, stoning, beheading, and burning at the stake. Some deaths, perhaps more legend than fact, were extremely gruesome. Here are six of the more horrific demises.

St. Antipas of Pergamum

Antipas, one of the earlier Christian martyrs, is reported to have been a follower of John the Apostle. Tradition has it that John made Antipas the bishop of Pergamum (an area in what is now northwest Turkey) during the reign of the Roman emperor Nero (54–68). Nero’s persecution of Christians after the Great Fire of Rome in 64 is considered the first organized by the Roman government.

Pagan priests, upset by people abandoning the traditional gods, demanded Antipas stop preaching about Christ and sacrifice to the idols. He refused. Tradition says the priests dragged Antipas to a temple and locked him inside a red-hot copper bull used to sacrifice to their idols. Antipas “prayed loudly to God,” including asking “forgiveness for his tormentors,” according to the Orthodox Church in America. It also says he “went to the Lord peacefully, as if he were going to sleep.”

Although this reportedly occurred during the reign of Emperor Domitian (81–96), the exact year is unknown. However, a passage in the Book of Revelation, believed to have been written around 95–96, refers to Antipas…



Tim Gebhart

Retired Lawyer. Book Addict. History Buff. Lifelong South Dakotan. Blog: