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Persecution of Christians under Nero

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Bust of Nero
Bust of Nero

Emperor Nero removed Britannicus, overprotective mother Agrippina, wife Octavia and persecuted the senators. Few, however, know that Nero was also the favourite of the crowd, to whom he provided entertainment. The young man associated with the number 666 was a relatively talented poet and actor, who loved Hellenistic culture – he played the lyre, drove horses and sang. However, everyone knows him primarily from the great fire that engulfed Rome in July 64. The element carried by the southeast wind consumed a large part of the city, and accusations were brought against the emperor as he was to set fire to Rome in order to inspire him to write a poem about the destruction of Troy. In the opinion of the people, nothing happened without a reason, such a cataclysm must have arisen because the Emperor angered the gods. At that time, Nero was in Antium by the sea, and as soon as he found out about the situation, he went to Rome. The fire appeared in the vicinity of the Great Circus, around which there was a market with flammable goods (in particular oil and fabrics) and food shops where wood or charcoal was used. People went berserk, the streets became confused, people were trampled, the number of victims was countless. The fire lasted for 6 days, destroying 10 out of 14 districts, two of which were probably intact. It was difficult to extinguish the fire – wooden buildings standing close to each other and narrow and winding streets made the fire spread at an amazing pace and the fire brigade was helpless. Nero himself helped extinguish the fire and managed the guard troops. We can say for sure that it was the hardest job he has ever done!

Last Prayer of Christian Martyrs, Jean-Leon Gerome

Additionally, not only wood but also stone were used for their construction. it did not burst in the fire. Each house also had to have fire-fighting equipment. The remains of walls and blackened ruins must have been a sad monument to those events. Important places for the Romans were also lost: the Chapel of Vesta, the Sanctuary of Hercules or the Temple of Jupiter Stator, the house of Octavian Augustus. Nero, however, did not remain deaf to the requests of the people, he helped the homeless and the hungry. Anyone could come to the Emperor’s gardens and eat, sleep and dress their wounds. The price of grain changed as well, and it was lowered, and landowners were granted relief. Nero ordered to rebuild the city where he built himself (golden house), a huge palace that was supposed to overshadow other buildings erected by his predecessors with its splendour. Some accused Nero of ordering the city to be burned down, and some reportedly even saw the Emperor’s guards with torches. This is, of course, a figment, the fire almost completely destroyed the previous, recently built estate of the Emperor Domus Transitoria, in which the ruler had numerous works of art, which for such an enthusiast were certainly priceless. There were many difficulties in building the city – money was also collected from the provinces; there were riots in, for example, Judea, Gaul and Spain. It cannot be denied that by rebuilding the city of Nero, he made it more beautiful and safer – wide streets with courtyards and porticoes were created, houses were built at a distance from each other so that when there were subsequent fires, the fire could not spread so easily.

The rumours about the Emperor forced him to look for a “scapegoat” to wipe out this “shameful rumour”. The charges were brought against the Christians, a then insignificant sect whom the pagans regarded as enemies of mankind because they awaited the end of the world followed by the true kingdom of God. Many wondered if the Jews could have been linked to the accusations. It is known that the emperor’s concubine – Poppaea – sympathized with the followers of Judaism and it was probably she who persuaded Nero to accuse the Christians. As we can see, there was a clear distinction between Judaism and Christianity, which was no longer so visible during the subsequent persecution. Moreover, even Tacitus in his Annals stated that even if the accusations of Christians were groundless, there was nothing wrong with that.

Christian Dirce, a painting by Henryk Siemiradzki. A Christian martyred during the persecution for Nero.

The persecution was confined to the city of Rome itself. Punishments for the condemned, it would seem, were like the most colourful dreams of a madman – crucifixion, beheading, torturing, even faking hunting for “game”, that is, skinning the condemned in the skins of animals, which were then chased by hungry dogs. Nero was also busy at night time. In his gardens on the Vatican, there were “living torches” where people were doused with tar and resin. In addition to these “attractions”, there were performances on the stage for Christians, where they performed myological scenes, during which they were humiliated and insulted. It should be noted immediately that in ancient Rome such punishments were the norm. Smoking alive was simply a punishment for arsonists, while crucifixion was a punishment for the lowest classes of society. Why did the pagans hate Christians so much? The answer is very simple – they were accused of incest and cannibalism. Also, the only charge that Nero made on the doomed to death was being a Christian. We have to imagine what Nero thought when people told him about Jesus who, although he died, came back to life after 3 days. And the Romans believed in ghosts! Spirit, necromancy and even vampirism! Needless to say, the faithful were not ready for such repressions – some pagans and Jews regretted that they turned their eyes to God and would gladly hide in the shadow of the synagogue. The first Christians caught, filled with fear for their own lives. Prisons were overcrowded, even bursting at the seams. So we can conclude that Christians were not accused of the mere arson of Rome as “hatred of mankind. However, it is difficult for us to say how many victims there were, even the” Acts of the Apostles “does not mention anything about the persecution! gods, since the standard sacrifices were not helping, and it was also a threat to arsonists!

It is known that Nero was not a saint, but aren’t his words eloquent when the list of death sentences was brought to him: “How I wish I had never learned to write!”1.

Author: Judyta Włodek (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  1. Suetonius, Nero, 10
  • Tim Dowley, Historia chrześcijaństwa, 2002
  • Władysław Dziewulski, Zwycięstwo chrześcijan w świecie starożytnym, 1969
  • Richard Holland, Neron. Okrutny zbrodniarz rozgrzeszony, 2000
  • Maria Jaczynowska Marcin Pawlak, Starożytny Rzym, 2011
  • Aleksander Krawczuk, Poczet Cesarzy Rzymskich, 2006
  • Aleksander Krawczuk, Neron, 1988
  • Mieczysław Maliński, Historia kościoła, 1986

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