The first grave conflict between Church and Roman Empire after Pilate's execution of Jesus was the accidental consequence of Nero needing to blame an unpopular scapegoat for fire at Rome in ad 64. But the Christian refusal to acknowledge the gods by whose favour the empire enjoyed fertile crops and wives and secure frontiers, or to take an oath by the genius of the emperor, provoked distrust and fear. The customs and institutions of society involved participation in idolatrous sacrifices. It was accepted that Jews were exempt from these; that was their ancestral religion and justifiable, even if bizarre. But Christians were being converted from all sorts of ethnic backgrounds. It could help one to lie low if one was vegetarian, as were a few philosophers mainly in the Pythagorean tradition. Little meat was eaten which had not first been offered at some altar. But soldiers could not avoid being present at polytheistic rites, which enhanced Christian reluctance to serve as army officers. A public stand would end in trial and martyrdom.
The apparently suicidal, almost theatrical impression created by martyrs drew much attention to the Church, where the model of the Maccabees' resistance to Antiochus Epiphanes was closely followed, short of military conflict. In Bithynia the governor Pliny was surprised to discover no secret vices practised at nocturnal assemblies, but reported to the emperor Trajan that the refusal to offer sacrifices was an obstinacy worthy of capital punishment. One governor, confronted by a Christian explaining that simply on ground of conscience he could not co-operate, saw further discussion as a waste of time and ordered immediate execution.
In Rome Justin, soon followed by Tertullian in north Africa, recorded that martyrdoms had the effect of providing huge publicity and attracting converts, notably by offering an obvious refutation of popular accusations of nocturnal vice. In Rome a public disputation between Justin and a pagan philosopher Crescens did nothing to diminish the already substantial community in the city even if it led on to Justin's own trial and death.
In the middle years of the second century the Cynic writer Lucian of Samosata (Syria) composed a witty sketch of a confidence trickster and charlatan, Peregrinus Proteus. Having murdered his father, he deceived a Christian community into making him their leader, so that he received