Although Trajan was no friend to the Gospel, and put St. Ignatius to death, he made a law which must have been a great relief to the Christians. Until then they were liable to be sought out, and any one might inform against them; but Trajan ordered that they should not be sought out, although, if they were discovered, and refused to give up their faith, they were to be punished. The next emperor, too, whose name was Hadrian (AD 117-138) did something to make their condition better; but it was still one of great hardship and danger. Notwithstanding the new laws, any governor of a country, who disliked the Christians, had the power to persecute and vex them cruelly. And the common people among the heathens still believed the horrid stories of their killing children and eating human flesh. If there was a famine or a plague,--if the river Tiber, which runs through Rome, rose above its usual height and did mischief to the neighbouring buildings,-- or if the emperor's armies were defeated in war, the blame of all was laid on the Christians. It was said that all these things were judgments from the gods, who were angry because the Christians were allowed to live. And then at the public games, such as those at which St. Ignatius was put to death, the people used to cry out, "Throw the Christians to the lions! away with the godless wretches!" For, as the Christians were obliged to hold their worship secretly, and had no images like those of the heathen gods, and did not offer any sacrifices of beasts, as the heathens did, it was thought that they had no God at all, since the heathens could not raise their minds to the thought of that God who is a spirit, and who is not to be worshipped under any bodily shape. It was, therefore, a great relief when the Emperor Antoninus Pius (AD 138 to 161), who was a mild and gentle old man, ordered that governors and magistrates should not give way to such outcries, and that the Christians should no longer be punished for their religion only, unless they were found to have done wrong in some other way.
There were now many learned men in the Church, and some of these began to write books in defence of their faith. One of them, Athenagoras, had undertaken, while he was a heathen, to show that the Gospel was all a deceit; but when he looked further into the matter, he found that it was very different from what he had fancied; and then he was converted, and, instead of writing against the Gospel, he wrote in favour of it.
Another of these learned men was Justin, who was born at Samaria, and was trained in all the wisdom of the Greeks; for the Greeks, as they were left without such light as God had given to the Jews, set themselves to seek out wisdom in all sorts of ways. And, as they had no certain truth from heaven to guide them, they were divided into a number of different parties, such as the Epicureans, and the Stoics, who disputed with St. Paul at Athens (Acts xvii. 18). These all called themselves "philosophers," (which means, "lovers of wisdom"); and each kind of them thought to be wiser than all the rest. Justin, then, having a strong desire to know the truth, tried one kind of philosophy after another, but could not find rest for his spirit in any of them.
One day, as he was walking thoughtfully on the sea-shore, he observed an old man of grave and mild appearance, who was following him closely, and at length entered into talk with him. The old man told Justin that it was of no use to search after wisdom in the books of the philosophers, and went on to speak of God the maker of all things, of the prophecies which He had given to men in the time of the Old Testament, and how they had been fulfilled in the life and death of the blessed Jesus. Thus Justin was brought to the knowledge of the Gospel; and the more he learnt of it, the more was he convinced of its truth, as he came to know how pure and holy its doctrines and its rules were, and as he saw the love which Christians bore towards each other, and the patience and firmness with which they endured sufferings and death for their Master's sake. And now, although he still called himself a philosopher, and wore the long cloak which was the common dress of philosophers, the wisdom which he taught was not heathen but Christian wisdom. He lived mostly at Rome, where scholars flocked to him in great numbers. And he wrote books in defence of the Gospel against heathens, Jews, and heretics, or false Christians.
The old Emperor Antoninus Pius, under whom the Christians had been allowed to live in peace and safety, died in the year 161, and was succeeded by Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, whom he had adopted as his son. Marcus Aurelius was not only one of the best emperors, but in many ways was one of the best of the heathens. He had a great character for gentleness, kindness, and justice, and he was fond of books, and liked to have philosophers and learned men about him. But, unhappily, these people gave him a very bad notion of Christianity, and, as he knew no more of it than what they told him, he took a strong dislike to it. And thus, although he was just and kind to his other subjects, the Christians suffered more under his reign than they had ever done before. All the misfortunes that took place, such as rebellions, defeats in war, plague, and scarcity, were laid to the blame of the Christians; and the emperor himself seems to have thought that they were in fault, as he made some new laws against them.
Now the success which Justin had as a teacher at Rome had long raised the envy and malice of the heathen philosophers; and, when these new laws against the Christians came out, one Crescens, a philosopher of the kind called "Cynics", or "doggish" (on account of their snarling, currish ways), contrived that Justin should be carried before a judge, on the charge of being a Christian. The judge questioned him as to his belief, and as to the meetings of the Christians; to which Justin answered that he believed in one God and in the Saviour Christ, the Son of God, but he refused to say anything which could betray his brethren to the persecutors. The judge then threatened him with scourging and death: but Justin replied that the sufferings of this world were nothing to the glory which Christ had promised to His people in the world to come. Then he and the others who had been brought up for trial with him were asked whether they would offer sacrifice to the gods of the heathen, and as they refused to do this, and to forsake their faith, they were all beheaded (AD 166). And on account of the death which he thus suffered for the Gospel, Justin has ever since been especially styled "The Martyr."