The first state-sponsored terror against Christians in the Roman Empire came at the order of one of the most debased of all emperors: Nero. Tacitus, the Roman historian, in Book XV of his Annals, gives a lengthy account of Nero's debaucheries and cruelties. These led the Romans to distrust him.
So despised was Nero that when Rome caught fire, on this day, July 19, 64, popular opinion attributed the catastrophe to him. Many citizens perished in the flames. The fire was aggravated by rowdies who threw firebrands into untouched houses, claiming they had been ordered to do so. In the public mind, those orders came from Nero. A rumor spread that Nero had appeared on a stage during the catastrophe and sung a song "comparing present misfortunes with the calamities of antiquity," especially Troy.
Nero tried to counter this downturn in his "public approval ratings" by throwing open his own resources to the homeless. He sponsored a number of religious activities designed to show himself innocent. Nothing worked. And so he determined to find scapegoats. He fastened upon the Christians as most suitable for his diabolical purpose.
A few who admitted their faith were tortured until they revealed the names of others. Beginning a few weeks after the fire, the city was the scene of every imaginable torment. And not Rome only, for persecution spread throughout the empire. But in the capital Nero held nightly spectacles in which every torture was applied to the suffering saints.
Some were burned alive. Others were sewn into the skins of wild animals and given to dogs to tear. Still others were crucified. Martyrs were exhibited in the circus with Nero presiding, dressed as a charioteer. The wicked emperor threw open his own gardens to more such spectacles. So many Christians died so brutally that public sympathy swung in their favor.
The people realized that Christians were being put to death not for starting the fire but to cover Nero's crimes and to sate his appetite for cruelty. Compassion for the meek followers of Jesus, whose blameless conduct was apparent to many, led to a new wave of conversions.
Among those who almost certainly perished in Nero's fury in Rome was the apostle Peter. Paul is thought to have been executed a few years later. Others who were martyred elsewhere in the empire were the Bishop of Damascus and a man mentioned in scripture: Joseph called Barsabas. Paul's fellow minister, Trophimus, is also said to have perished in this outpouring of hostility as did many others whose names we do not know. Christ had taught that as men persecuted him so they would persecute his followers. A servant is not above his master.
- Durant, Will. Caesar and Christ. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1944, 274ff.
- Frend , W. H. C. The Early Church. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982.
- "The Great Fire of Rome." Secrets of the Dead. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/secrets/case_rome/
- Tacitus. The Annals. (in book XV). Great Books of the Western World, volume 15. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica.
- Various encyclopedia and internet articles.
Last updated June, 2007