Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Burning of Rome and the Neronian Persecution

Reading N°22 in the History of the Catholic Church

 Fr. Fernand Mourret, S.S.

Nero watching the burning of Rome
Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939)

On July 19, A. D. 64, a fire started in the shops surrounding the Circus Maximus and, fanned by a strong wind, destroyed, one after the other, the sections of the Palatine, the Forum, the Caelian hill, the Aventine, and the Esquiline. This conflagration lasted six days. More than half of old Rome was burned. The people for the most part were able to save their lives by fleeing to the Campus Martius, where they had temporary shelter; but they saw themselves reduced to utter destitution by this disaster. As usually happens in such cases, they at once asked who was the person responsible for the calamity. On every tongue was one name - that of the Emperor.[1]

Not long before, Nero had revealed his cruel, vain, and whimsical nature. Three years earlier, to avenge the murder of Pedanius Secundus, prefect of Rome, he had ordered the victim's four hundred slaves put to death. Popular indignation expressed itself by an uprising, which the police had difficulty in curbing.[2] Since then, the tyrant's crimes had increased. Burrus was dead, and public opinion accused Nero of putting him out of the way. Octavia, overwhelmed with shame, had likewise disappeared. Seneca, in retirement, was hourly expecting a decree of death or torture. The terrible Tigellinus ruled. The Emperor, elated by the base flattery of his courtiers, curiously mingled his bloody cruelties with visions of literary glory and, it was said, lulled his remorse (if the monster was capable of that feeling) by reciting poetry. Word spread that some one had seen Nero, in actor's costume, contemplating the conflagration from the top of a tower, while he sang the destruction of Troy.

An idea, possibly suggested by one of the many Jews at court,[3] entered the despot's mind. To accuse the Christians of the outrage would deflect the unpleasant gossip from his own person and at the same time give occasion for those mass executions which his notion of beauty transformed into horrible festivity. But the investigation which was begun soon brought to light the existence of a "vast multitude"[4] of Christians. To hold them all responsible for the fire would be too open a defiance of likelihood. A pretext was at hand for condemning them en masse: were they not, as a whole, "enemies of mankind," that is, of Roman civilization? Tacitus says they "were convicted, not so much on the charge of burning the city, as of hating the human race."[5] This same historian continues:
In their deaths they were also made the subjects of sport, for they were covered with the hides of wild beasts, and worried to death by dogs or nailed to crosses or set fire to and, when day declined, burned to serve for nocturnal lights. Nero offered his own gardens for that spectacle and exhibited a Circensian game, indiscriminately mingling with the common people in the habit of a charioteer.[6]
Nero's Torches
Henryk Siemiradzki (1843-1902)

A passage in St. Clement's Epistle to the Corinthians adds a few details to Tacitus' account. It seems that Nero, whose depraved taste set all decency at nought, had introduced the custom of making those condemned to death impersonate certain characters of mythology. The people would be treated to the sight of Hercules painfully tearing from his body a burning garment made of pitch, or of Orpheus torn to pieces by a bear, or of Daedalus tumbling from the sky. Christian women were forced to impersonate the Danaides or Dirce. In the former case, before dying, they had to go through a series of tortures which we can only surmise; in the latter case they were fastened to the horns of wild bulls and dragged about the amphitheater.[7] These horrible executions were the signal for a persecution that extended into the provinces and lasted at Rome until Nero's death in 68.[8]

The most illustrious victims of this persecution were the Apostles Peter and Paul. Tradition fixes the year of their martyrdom as 67. In the first and second centuries, St. John, St. Clement of Rome, and St. Dionysius of Corinth speak of St. Peter's martyrdom without mentioning the manner of it; but in the next century, Origen says that the head of the Roman Church was crucified head downwards.[9] Thus was fulfilled a prophecy spoken by the Savior when He said to Peter:
Thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and lead thee whither thou wouldst not.[10]
The Martyrdom of St. Peter
Caravaggio (1571-1610)

St. Paul was beheaded. This was the form of execution reserved for Roman citizens.[11]

The Beheading of St. Paul
Alessandro Algardi (1598-1654)


[1] Tacitus, Annals, XV, 44; cf. Annals, XV, 67; Suetonius, Nero, 38; Pliny, Natural History, XVII, I.
[2] Tacitus, Annals, XIV, 42 ff.
[3] St. Clement of Rome, alluding to the slaughter of Christians by Nero's orders, attributes it to jealousy (First Epistle, 5). Moreover, we know that Nero was surrounded by Jews (Josephus, Antiquities, XVIII, XIX, XX). It is noteworthy that the Jews, ordinarily confused with the Christians in the legal measures of this period (Tacitus, Annals, XV, 44; History, V, 5), were clearly distinguished from them in Nero's persecutions. Carlo Pascal (L'Incendio di Roma e i primi cristiani) and Bouché-Leclercq (L'Intolérance religieuse et la politique) blame the burning of Rome upon the fanaticism of a few Christians, whose criminal exaltation was made use of by Nero and his court for the accomplishment of a hateful scheme. Di Crescenzo in his reply (Un difensore di Nerone) and Semeria (Il primo sangue cristiano) have little difficulty in refuting this thesis, so contradictory to the texts of Suetonius, Pliny, Tacitus, and Dio. Renan and Havet hardly ventured to insinuate a similar accusation. Renan, The Anti-Christ, chap. 13; Havet, Le Christianisme et ses origines, IV, 228.
[4] "Multitudo ingens" (Tacitus, Annals, XV, 44).
[5] "Haud perinde in crimine incendii quam odio generis humani convicti sunt" (Tacitus, loco cit.). Tertullian attributes to Nero a decree which may be summed up in these words: "Christiani non sint, Let there be no Christians." Tertullian (Apol., 5; To the Nations, I, 7) calls this decree "institutum neronianum." The word institutum in Roman law does not necessarily mean "edict" or "decree." In itself, Tertullian's expression might signify only that Nero inaugurated the period of cruelty against the Christians (Cezard, Histoire juridique des persécutions, p. 18); but a comparison of this text with that of Sulpicius Severus (II, 41) and the early Christian writers' general way of speaking leads us to suppose that Tertullian had in mind a special undertaking by Nero against the Christians as such.
[6] Tacitus, loco cit. According to the old Roman law, the punishment for the crime of arson was death by fire or in the games of the circus. See the law of the Twelve Tables; Gaius, in the Digest, XLVII, IX, 9; Callistratus, in the Digest, XLVIII, XIX, 28; Paul, Sent., V, 20. Cf. Cezard, op. cit., p. 13.
[7] Clement, First Epistle, 6. A Pompeian text and fresco seem to prove that this last named punishment was often inflicted on women who had been condemned to death.
[8] See the reasons advanced by Tillemont, Ruinart, and De Rossi. They may be found in Allard, Hist. des pers., I, 58-76.
[9] In Eusebius, III, I. This form of capital punishment was not unprecedented. See Seneca, Consolation to Marcia, 20.
[10] "This He said, signifying by what death he [Peter] should glorify God." (John 21:18 f.) 
[11] A tradition, recorded by St. Jerome, places St. Paul's martyrdom on the same day as that of St. Peter. Another tradition, represented by St. Augustine, places a year's interval between the two deaths. Dionysius of Cornith, Tertullian, and the priest Caius merely associate the two Apostles in their martyrdom. (See Eusebius, II, XXV.) The most reliable tradition places St. Peter's martyrdom on the Vatican hill; the tradition placing it on the Janiculum did not arise until the Middle Ages. (See Marucchi, Elements d'archéologie chrétienne, I, II.)


Join the discussion at:

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are moderated according to both content and form. If you would like to keep your comments private, please indicate this, and include your email if you would like a personal response. Thank you for commenting.