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History Of The Christian Church Volume I by Philip Schaff

Section 37. The Roman Conflagration and the Neronian Persecution.

|And I saw the woman drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus. And when I saw her, I wondered with a great wonder.| -- Apoc.17:6.


I. Tacitus: Annales, 1. XV., c.38-44. Suetonius: Nero, chs.16 and 38 (very brief). Sulpicius Severus: Hist. Sacra, 1. II., c.41. He gives to the Neronian persecution a more general character.

II. Ernest Renan: L'Antechrist. Paris, deuxième ed., 1873. Chs. VI. VIII, pp.123 sqq. Also his Hibbert Lectures, delivered in London, 1880, on Rome and Christianity.

L. Friedländer:Sittengeschichte Roms, I.6, 27; III.529.

Hermann Schiller:Geschichte der röm. Kaiserzeit unter der Regierung des Nero. Berlin, 1872 (173-179; 424 sqq.; 583 sqq.).

Hausrath: N. T.liche Zeitgeschichte, III.392 sqq. (2d ed., 1875).

Theod. Keim: Aus dem Urchristenthum. Zürich, 1878, pp.171-181. Rom u. das Christenthum, 1881, pp.132 sqq.

Karl Wieseler: Die Christenverfolgungen der Cäsaren.1878.

G. Uhlhorn: The Conflict of Christianity with Heathenism. Engl. transl. by Smyth and Ropes, N. Y.1879, pp.241-250.

C. F. Arnold: Die Neron. Christenverfolgung. Leipz.1888.

The preaching of Paul and Peter in Rome was an epoch in the history of the church. It gave an impulse to the growth of Christianity. Their martyrdom was even more effective in the end: it cemented the bond of union between the Jewish and Gentile converts, and consecrated the soil of the heathen metropolis. Jerusalem crucified the Lord, Rome beheaded and crucified his chief apostles and plunged the whole Roman church into a baptism of blood. Rome became, for good and for evil, the Jerusalem of Christendom, and the Vatican hill the Golgotha of the West. Peter and Paul, like a new Romulus and Remus, laid the foundation of a spiritual empire vaster and more enduring than that of the Caesars. The cross was substituted for the sword as the symbol of conquest and power.

But the change was effected at the sacrifice of precious blood. The Roman empire was at first, by its laws of justice, the protector of Christianity, without knowing its true character, and came to the rescue of Paul on several critical occasions, as in Corinth through the Proconsul Annaeus Gallio, in Jerusalem through the Captain Lysias, and in Caesarea through the Procurator Festus. But now it rushed into deadly conflict with the new religion, and opened, in the name of idolatry and patriotism, a series of intermittent persecutions, which ended at last in the triumph of the banner of the cross at the Milvian bridge. Formerly a restraining power that kept back for a while the outbreak of Antichrist, it now openly assumed the character of Antichrist with fire and sword.


The first of these imperial persecutions with which the Martyrdom of Peter and Paul is connected by ecclesiastical tradition, took place in the tenth year of Nero's reign, a.d.64, and by the instigation of that very emperor to whom Paul, as a Roman citizen, had appealed from the Jewish tribunal. It was, however, not a strictly religious persecution, like those under the later emperors; it originated in a public calamity which was wantonly charged upon the innocent Christians.

A greater contrast can hardly be imagined than that between Paul, one of the purest and noblest of men, and Nero, one of the basest and vilest of tyrants. The glorious first five years of Nero's reign (54-59) under the wise guidance of Seneca and Burrhus, make the other nine (59-68) only more hideous by contrast. We read his life with mingled feelings of contempt for his folly, and horror of his wickedness. The world was to him a comedy and a tragedy, in which he was to be the chief actor. He had an insane passion for popular applause; he played on the lyre; he sung his odes at supper; he drove his chariots in the circus; he appeared as a mimic on the stage, and compelled men of the highest rank to represent in dramas or in tableaux the obscenest of the Greek myths. But the comedian was surpassed by the tragedian. He heaped crime upon crime until he became a proverbial monster of iniquity. The murder of his brother (Britannicus), his mother (Agrippina), his wives (Octavia and Poppaea), his teacher (Seneca), and many eminent Romans, was fitly followed by his suicide in the thirty-second year of his age. With him the family of Julius Caesar ignominiously perished, and the empire became the prize of successful soldiers and adventurers.

The Conflagration in Rome.

For such a demon in human shape, the murder of a crowd of innocent Christians was pleasant sport. The occasion of the hellish spectacle was a fearful conflagration of Rome, the most destructive and disastrous that ever occurred in history. It broke out in the night between the 18th and 19th of July, among the wooden shops in the south-eastern end of the Great Circus, near the Palatine hill. Lashed by the wind, it defied all exertions of the firemen and soldiers, and raged with unabated fury for seven nights and six days. Then it burst out again in another part, near the field of Mars, and in three days more laid waste two other districts of the city.

The calamity was incalculable. Only four of the fourteen regions into which the city was divided, remained uninjured; three, including the whole interior city from the Circus to the Esquiline hill, were a shapeless mass of ruins; the remaining seven were more or less destroyed; venerable temples, monumental buildings of the royal, republican, and imperial times, the richest creations of Greek art which had been collected for centuries, were turned into dust and ashes; men and beasts perished in the flames, and the metropolis of the world assumed the aspect of a graveyard with a million of mourners over the loss of irreparable treasures.

This fearful catastrophe must have been before the mind of St. John in the Apocalypse when he wrote his funeral dirge of the downfall of imperial Rome (Apoc.18).

The cause of the conflagration is involved in mystery. Public rumor traced it to Nero, who wished to enjoy the lurid spectacle of burning Troy, and to gratify his ambition to rebuild Rome on a more magnificent scale, and to call it Neropolis. When the fire broke out he was on the seashore at Antium, his birthplace; he returned when the devouring element reached his own palace, and made extraordinary efforts to stay and then to repair the disaster by a reconstruction which continued till after his death, not forgetting to replace his partially destroyed temporary residence (domus transitoria) by |the golden house| (domus aurea), as a standing wonder of architectural magnificence and extravagance.

The Persecution of the Christians.

To divert from himself the general suspicion of incendiarism, and at the same time to furnish new entertainment for his diabolical cruelty, Nero wickedly cast the blame upon the hated Christians, who, meanwhile, especially since the public trial of Paul and his successful labors in Rome, had come to be distinguished from the Jews as a genus tertium, or as the most dangerous offshoot from that race. They were certainly despisers of the Roman gods and loyal subjects of a higher king than Caesar, and they were falsely suspected of secret crimes. The police and people, under the influence of the panic created by the awful calamity, were ready to believe the worst slanders, and demanded victims. What could be expected of the ignorant multitude, when even such cultivated Romans as Tacitus, Suetonius, and Pliny, stigmatized Christianity as a vulgar and pestiferous superstition. It appeared to them even worse than Judaism, which was at least an ancient national religion, while Christianity was novel, detached from any particular nationality, and aiming at universal dominion. Some Christians were arrested, confessed their faith, and were |convicted not so much,| says Tacitus, |of the crime of incendiarism as of hating the human race.| Their Jewish origin, their indifference to politics and public affairs, their abhorrence of heathen customs, were construed into an |odium generis humani,| and this made an attempt on their part to destroy the city sufficiently plausible to justify a verdict of guilty. An infuriated mob does not stop to reason, and is as apt to run mad as an individual.

Under this wanton charge of incendiarism, backed by the equally groundless charge of misanthropy and unnatural vice, there began a carnival of blood such as even heathen Rome never saw before or since. It was the answer of the powers of hell to the mighty preaching of the two chief apostles, which had shaken heathenism to its centre. A |vast multitude| of Christians was put to death in the most shocking manner. Some were crucified, probably in mockery of the punishment of Christ, some sewed up in the skins of wild beasts and exposed to the voracity of mad dogs in the arena. The satanic tragedy reached its climax at night in the imperial gardens on the slope of the Vatican (which embraced, it is supposed, the present site of the place and church of St. Peter): Christian men and women, covered with pitch or oil or resin, and nailed to posts of pine, were lighted and burned as torches for the amusement of the mob; while Nero, in fantastical dress, figured in a horse race, and displayed his art as charioteer. Burning alive was the ordinary punishment of incendiaries; but only the cruel ingenuity of this imperial monster, under the inspiration of the devil, could invent such a horrible system of illumination.

This is the account of the greatest heathen historian, the fullest we have -- as the best description of the destruction of Jerusalem is from the pen of the learned Jewish historian. Thus enemies bear witness to the truth of Christianity. Tacitus incidentally mentions in this connection the crucifixion of Christ under Pontius Pilate, in the reign of Tiberius. With all his haughty Roman contempt for the Christians whom he knew only from rumor and reading, he was convinced of their innocence of incendiarism, and notwithstanding his cold stoicism, he could not suppress a feeling of pity for them because they were sacrificed not to the public good, but to the ferocity of a wicked tyrant.

Some historians have doubted, not indeed the truth of this terrible persecution, but that the Christians, rather than the Jews, or the Christians alone, were the sufferers. It seems difficult to understand that the harmless and peaceful Christians, whom the contemporary writers, Seneca, Pliny, Lucan, Persius, ignore, while they notice the Jews, should so soon have become the subjects of popular indignation. It is supposed that Tacitus and Suetonius, writing some fifty years after the event, confounded the Christians with the Jews, who were generally obnoxious to the Romans, and justified the suspicion of incendiarism by the escape of their transtiberine quarter from the injury of the fire.

But the atrocious act was too public to leave room for such a mistake. Both Tacitus and Suetonius distinguish the two sects, although they knew very little of either; and the former expressly derives the name Christians from Christ, as the founder of the new religion. Moreover Nero, as previously remarked, was not averse to the Jews, and his second wife, Poppaea Sabina, a year before the conflagration, had shown special favor to Josephus, and loaded him with presents. Josephus speaks of the crimes of Nero, but says not a word of any persecution of his fellow-religionists. This alone seems to be conclusive. It is not unlikely that in this (as in all previous persecutions, and often afterwards) the fanatical Jews, enraged by the rapid progress of Christianity, and anxious to avert suspicion from themselves, stirred up the people against the hated Galilaeans, and that the heathen Romans fell with double fury on these supposed half Jews, disowned by their own strange brethren.

The Probable Extent of the Persecution.

The heathen historians, if we are to judge from their silence, seem to confine the persecution to the city of Rome, but later Christian writers extend it to the provinces. The example set by the emperor in the capital could hardly be without influence in the provinces, and would justify the outbreak of popular hatred. If the Apocalypse was written under Nero, or shortly after his death, John's exile to Patmos must be connected with this persecution. It mentions imprisonments in Smyrna, the martyrdom of Antipas in Pergamus, and speaks of the murder of prophets and saints and all that have been slain on the earth. The Epistle to the Hebrews 10:32-34, which was written in Italy, probably in the year 64, likewise alludes to bloody persecutions, and to the release of Timothy from prison, 13:23. And Peter, in his first Epistle, which may be assigned to the same year, immediately after the outbreak of the persecution, and shortly before his death, warns the Christians in Asia Minor of a fiery trial which is to try them, and of sufferings already endured or to be endured, not for any crime, but for the name of |Christians.| The name |Babylon| for Rome is most easily explained by the time and circumstances of composition.

Christianity, which had just reached the age of its founder, seemed annihilated in Rome. With Peter and Paul the first generation of Christians was buried. Darkness must have overshadowed the trembling disciples, and a despondency seized them almost as deep as on the evening of the crucifixion, thirty-four years before. But the morning of the resurrection was not far distant, and the very spot of the martyrdom of St. Peter was to become the site of the greatest church in Christendom and the palatial residence of his reputed successors.

The Apocalypse on the Neronian Persecution.

None of the leading apostles remained to record the horrible massacre, except John. He may have heard of it in Ephesus, or he may have accompanied Peter to Rome and escaped a fearful death in the Neronian gardens, if we are to credit the ancient tradition of his miraculous preservation from being burnt alive with his fellow-Christians in that hellish illumination on the Vatican hill. At all events he was himself a victim of persecution for the name of Jesus, and depicted its horrors, as an exile on the lonely island of Patmos in the vision of the Apocalypse.

This mysterious book -- whether written between 68 and 69, or under Domitian in 95 -- was undoubtedly intended for the church of that age as well as for future ages, and must have been sufficiently adapted to the actual condition and surroundings of its first readers to give them substantial aid and comfort in their fiery trials. Owing to the nearness of events alluded to, they must have understood it even better, for practical purposes, than readers of later generations. John looks, indeed, forward to the final consummation, but he sees the end in the beginning. He takes his standpoint on the historic foundation of the old Roman empire in which he lived, as the visions of the prophets of Israel took their departure from the kingdom of David or the age of the Babylonian captivity. He describes the heathen Rome of his day as |the beast that ascended out of the abyss,| as |a beast coming out of the sea, having ten horns and seven heads| (or kings, emperors), as |the great harlot that sitteth among many waters,| as a |woman sitting upon a scarlet-colored beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns,| as |Babylon the great, the mother of the harlots and of the abominations of the earth.| The seer must have in view the Neronian persecution, the most cruel that ever occurred, when he calls the woman seated on seven hills, |drunken with the blood of the saints and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus,| and prophesied her downfall as a matter of rejoicing for the |saints and apostles and prophets.|

Recent commentators discover even a direct allusion to Nero, as expressing in Hebrew letters (Neron Kesar) the mysterious number 666, and as being the fifth of the seven heads of the beast which was slaughtered, but would return again from the abyss as Antichrist. But this interpretation is uncertain, and in no case can we attribute to John the belief that Nero would literally rise from the dead as Antichrist. He meant only that Nero, the persecutor of the Christian church, was (like Antiochus Epiphanes) the forerunner of Antichrist, who would be inspired by the same bloody spirit from the infernal world. In a similar sense Rome was a second Babylon, and John the Baptist another Elijah.


I. The Accounts of the Neronian Persecution.

1. From heathen historians.

We have chiefly two accounts of the first imperial persecution, from Tacitus, who was born about eight years before the event, and probably survived Trajan (d.117), and from Suetonius, who wrote his XII. Caesares a little later, about a.d.120. Dion Cassius (born circa a.d.155), in his History of Rome (Rhomaike Istoria, preserved in fragments, and in the abridgment of the monk Xiphilinus), from the arrival of Aeneas to a.d.229, mentions the conflagration of Rome, but ignores the persecutions of the Christians.

The description of Tacitus is in his terse, pregnant, and graphic style, and beyond suspicion of interpolation, but has some obscurities. We give it in full, from Annal., XV.44

|But not all the relief of men, nor the bounties of the emperor, nor the propitiation of the gods, could relieve him [Nero] from the infamy of being believed to have ordered the conflagration. Therefore, in order to suppress the rumor, Nero falsely charged with the guilt, and punished with the most exquisite tortures, those persons who, hated for their crimes, were commonly called Christians (subdidit reos, et quaesitissimis poenis affecit, quos per flagitia invisos vulgus 'Christianos' appellabat). The founder of that name, Christus, had been put to death (supplicio affectus erat) by the procurator of Judaea, Pontius Pilate, in the reign of Tiberius; but the pernicious superstition (exitiabilis superstitio), repressed for a time, broke out again, not only through Judaea, the source of this evil, but also through the city [of Rome], whither all things vile and shameful flow from all quarters, and are encouraged (quo cuncta undique atrocia aut pudenda confluunt celebranturque). Accordingly, first, those only were arrested who confessed. Next, on their information, a vast multitude (multitudo ingens), were convicted, not so much of the crime of incendiarism as of hatred of the human race (odio humani generis). And in their deaths they were made the subjects of sport; for they were wrapped in the hides of wild beasts and torn to pieces by dogs, or nailed to crosses, or set on fire, and when day declined, were burned to serve for nocturnal lights (in usum nocturni luminis urerentur). Nero had offered his own gardens [on the Vatican] for this spectacle, and also exhibited a chariot race on the occasion, now mingling in the crowd in the dress of a charioteer, now actually holding the reins. Whence a feeling of compassion arose towards the sufferers, though justly held to be odious, because they seemed not to be cut off for the public good, but as victims to the ferocity of one man.|

The account of Suetonius, Nero, c.16, is very short and unsatisfactory: |Afflicti suppliciis Christiani, genus hominum superstitionis novae ac maleficaea.| He does not connect the persecution with the conflagration, but with police regulations.

Juvenal, the satirical poet, alludes, probably as an eye-witness, to the persecution, like Tacitus, with mingled feelings of contempt and pity for the Christian sufferers (Sat. I.155):

|Dar'st thou speak of Tigellinus' guilt?

Thou too shalt shine like those we saw

Stand at the stake with throat transfixed

Smoking and burning.|

2. From Christians.

Clement of Rome, near the close of the first century, must refer to the Neronian persecution when he writes of the |vast multitude of the elect |who suffered, many indignities and tortures, being the victims of jealousy; |and of Christian women who were made to personate |Danaides| and |Dirces,| Ad Corinth., c.6. I have made no use of this passage in the text. Renan amplifies and weaves it into his graphic description of the persecution (L'Antechrist, pp.163 sqq., almost literally repeated in his Hibbert Lectures). According to the legend, Dirce was bound to a raging bull and dragged to death. The scene is represented in the famous marble group in the museum at Naples. But the Danaides can furnish no suitable parallel to Christian martyrs, unless, as Renan suggests, Nero had the sufferings of the Tartarus represented. Lightfoot, following the bold emendation of Wordsworth (on Theocritus, XXVI.1), rejects the reading Danaides kai Dirkai(which is retained in all editions, including that of Gebhardt and Harnack), and substitutes for it neanides, paidiskai, so that Clement would say:, Matrons (gunaikes) maidens, slave-girls, being persecuted, after suffering cruel and unholy insults, safely reached the goal in the race of faith, and received a noble reward, feeble though they were in body.|

Tertullian (d. about 220) thus alludes to the Neronian persecution, Ad Nationes, I. ch.7: |This name of ours took its rise in the reign of Augustus; under Tiberius it was taught with all clearness and publicity; under Nero it was ruthlessly condemned (sub Nerone damnatio invaluit), and you may weigh its worth and character even from the person of its persecutor. If that prince was a pious man, then the Christians are impious; if he was just, if he was pure, then the Christians are unjust and impure; if he was not a public enemy, we are enemies of our country: what sort of men we are, our persecutor himself shows, since he of course punished what produced hostility to himself. Now, although every other institution which existed under Nero has been destroyed, yet this of ours has firmly remained -- righteous, it would seem, as being unlike the author [of its persecution].|

Sulpicius Severus, Chron. II.28, 29, gives a pretty full account, but mostly from Tacitus. He and Orosius (Hist. VII.7) first clearly assert that Nero extended the persecution to the provinces.

II. Nero's Return as Antichrist.

Nero, owing to his youth, beauty, dash, and prodigality, and the startling novelty of his wickedness (Tacitus calls him |incredibilium cupitor,| Ann. XV.42), enjoyed a certain popularity with the vulgar democracy of Rome. Hence, after his suicide, a rumor spread among the heathen that he was not actually dead, but had fled to the Parthians, and would return to Rome with an army and destroy the city. Three impostors under his name used this belief and found support during the reigns of Otho, Titus, and Domitian. Even thirty years later Domitian trembled at the name of Nero. Tacit., Hist. I.2; II.8, 9; Sueton., Ner.57; Dio Cassius, LXIV.9; Schiller, l.c., p.288.

Among the Christians the rumor assumed a form hostile to Nero. Lactantius (De Mort. Persecut., c.2) mentions the Sibylline saying that, as Nero was the first persecutor, he would also be the last, and precede the advent of Antichrist. Augustin (De Civil. Dei, XX.19) mentions that at his time two opinions were still current in the church about Nero: some supposed that he would rise from the dead as Antichrist, others that he was not dead, but concealed, and would live until he should be revealed and restored to his kingdom. The former is the Christian, the latter the heathen belief. Augustin rejects both. Sulpicius Severus (Chron., II.29) also mentions the belief (unde creditur) that Nero, whose deadly wound was healed, would return at the end of the world to work out |the mystery of lawlessness| predicted by Paul (2 Thess.2:7).

Some commentators make the Apocalypse responsible for this absurd rumor and false belief, while others hold that the writer shared it with his heathen contemporaries. The passages adduced are Apoc.17:8: |The beast was, and is not, and is about to come up out of the abyss and to go into perdition| ... |the beast was, and is not, and shall be present| (kai parestai, notkaiper estin, |and yet is,| as the E. V. reads with the text. ec.); 17:11: |And the beast that was, and is not, is himself also an eighth, and is of the seven; and he goeth into perdition;| and 13:3: |And I saw one of his heads as though it had been smitten unto death; and his death-stroke was healed: and the whole world wondered after the beast.|

But this is said of the beast, i.e., the Roman empire, which is throughout clearly distinguished from the seven heads, i.e., the emperors. In Daniel, too, the beast is collective. Moreover, a distinction must be made between the death of one ruler (Nero) and the deadly wound which thereby was inflicted on the beast or the empire, but from which it recovered (under Vespasian).

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