The term 'martyrdom' was introduced by the 140s, with some of the first recorded accounts such as Polycarp's martyrdom occurring in the mid 150’s. Before the term was introduced, the phrase 'witness' of the Gospel was frequently used to describe these disturbing, yet holy events.
The trial consisted of one question. 'Are you a follower of Christ?' The answer 'no' would mean being set free from the authorities, however 'yes' would mean barbaric torture, humiliation, and eventually a brutal death in an arena. Naturally, there were several devout Christians that would have given in to unbearable pain, and denied their faith in Christ in order to be freed. However most of the accounts describe holy servants of God that fought this physical and psychological battle till the end, and defeated evil by confessing Christ's Holy name, dying, and therefore embracing eternal life and glory.
The initial view, was that if a Christian were to deny Christ in the arena then they would face eternal damnation - however this view certainly lacks understanding and sympathy for these Christians that would have faced the most intense and fierce psychological battle imaginable. Our human inclination to strive for survival, and the desire for lack of pain would have made this task almost impossible. With just a few words, the suffering servant of God could have been free of pain and suffering - by surrendering and denying Christ. For this reason, a necessary tradition of forgiveness began to develop, for the people who did not succeed. This was probably brought about after comparisons were made with Peter's denial of the Lord.
God's Presence during Martyrdom:
For when I am weak, then am I strong ( 2 Corinthians 12:10 )
Justin Martyr's Apology emphasises that the Holy Spirit promises boldness ( παρρησία ), and it was certainly given to those on trial - guiding them in what to say under their torture and persecution. The early accounts speak of holy scents rising from the bodies of the holy martyrs, like frankincense. To this day, we find these miraculous signs in the Orthodox Church, from its recent Martyrs, Saints and Icons. Many of the martyrs preached the Word of God beautifully, minutes before their death - proclaiming their love for Christ. In some instances, martyrs were imprisoned for a period of time before their death in the arena, and so we see historical accounts describing many Christians ( particularly those who had already backed out of a trial, living in repentance ) visiting them , providing them with food and water - and in return the holy martyrs would speak to them with reassurance, hear their confessions and bless them. So much so, that local Bishops began to complain about the situation - as they were 'stealing their flock'! The holy martyrs of the early Church were revered - with their prison chains kissed, and the faithful requesting for their intercessions in Heaven.
Due to the fact that the Holy Spirit was very much present throughout these painful, yet glorious events, several people began to bring themselves forward for martyrdom. However it was soon made clear that the holiness of martyrdom came out of humility, selflessness, complete submission to the will of God - and not egoism. Putting ones self forward in order to achieve a lasting name was quite rightly seen as a contradiction to the meaning and overall holiness of martyrdom. Martyrs were revered due to their true humility and self-sacrifice, rather than their desire to be killed and remembered.
To conclude, Martyrdom was, and continues to be proof that Christ did indeed rise from the dead and trample down upon death - as these Holy martyrs, through His divine grace, and their faithfulness and humility, were able to trample down upon evil themselves under unbearable pain and oppression. They managed to miraculously win this psychological battle against evil, and through this physical death that was brought upon them - came life and hope. Wild beasts were placed upon them, and they were forced into gladiatorial battle games - however they took every cross that they were forced to carry, as an opportunity to rise up against evil and death (with the strength and guidance of the Holy and Life-Giving Spirit) into eternal life with Christ.