The placement of the feast of the First Martyrs of the See of Rome is directly after the Solemnity of Sts Peter and Paul, who are the principal patron saints of Rome.
A great number of Christians were martyred at the hands of the Roman Emperor Nero during the terrible persecution that lasted from the years 64-68 A.D. (They were accused of burning Rome, a crime ordered by Nero to deflect the public’s wrath from his own crimes.) The event is recorded by both Tacitus and Pope Clement I, among others.
According to the historian Tacitus, many Christians were put to death “not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind.”
Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed.
Peter and Paul were probably among the victims.
This was the first of many major persecutions of the newly founded Church at Rome. The holy men and women who first died for the Gospel of Jesus Christ are also called the “Protomartyrs of Rome.” Some were burned as living torches in the Emperor’s gardens; some were crucified; others were fed to wild animals. Many died even before Sts. Peter and Paul, and therefore it is said of them that they are the “disciples of the Apostles . . . whom the Holy Roman Church sent to their Lord before the Apostles’ death.” God used the sacrifice of these holy men and women, who died like their Saviour Jesus Christ, to lay the indestructible foundation of His Church. Through their bold witness in the face of a brutal death, they won many converts and caused the Church to grow and spread throughout the world.
“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church” – (Taken from Treatise of Tertullian: Apologeticus, Chapter 50).