It always bugs me when I hear people – usually members of the Jesus appreciation society – using the expression ‘thrown to the lions’ as a synonym for Christian perscution. I mean, it’s an everday expression, and that’s what it means... but it’s wrong. It’s referring to something which didn’t really happen.
Now, let me get it straight. I’m not saying that Christians weren’t persecuted during Roman times. They were – certainly during the reigns of Nero and Septimus Severus, at least – though it usually gets overlooked that during the reigns of most of the other Emperors, Christians were left to their own devices (which is why they were permitted to build such vast catacombs outside Rome).
But they weren’t thrown to the lions. Didn’t happen. They were certainly executed – Tacitus records Christians being crucified, burned alive and fed to dogs – and some of those executions may possibly have taken place at the Colosseum (although it was only one of many sites of execution in Rome).
But they wouldn’t have used lions. They were too valuable – too expensive to import – and were reserved for gladiatorial contests. If you think about it, it wouldn’t even work – lions will only kill what they need for food, so effectively you’d need to have a lot more lions than Christians.
The only record of a Christian execution using wild cats appears to be that of St Ignatius. Which isn’t conclusive – all we actually have is his description of being transported to Rome with some leopards. Which may simply be a mistranslation of ‘guards’.
I’m not denying Christians were executed, which was either heroic or tragic, depending on your point of view. But surely, out of respect for these martyrs if nothing else, the very least you can do is to try and get your facts right.