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Persecution of Christians under Nero

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Bust of Nero

Emperor Nero removed Britain, the overprotective mother of Agrippina, Octavia’s wife, and persecuted the senators. However, few people know that Nero was also a favourite of the crowd, to which he provided entertainment. The young man we associate with the number 666 was a relatively talented poet and actor who loved Hellenistic culture – he played the lyre, drove chariots and sang. However, everyone knows him primarily from the great fire that engulfed Rome in July 64 CE.

The element carried by the southeast wind consumed a large part of the city, and accusations began to be made against the emperor that he had set Rome on fire to gain inspiration to write a poem about the destruction of Troy. In the opinion of the people, nothing happened without a cause; such a cataclysm must have occurred because the emperor angered the gods. Nero was at this time in Antium by the sea; as soon as he learned about the situation, he went to Rome. The fire occurred near the Grand Circus, around which there was a market selling flammable goods (especially olive oil and fabrics) and food shops that used wood or charcoal. People went berserk, there was chaos in the street, people were trampled, and the number of victims was countless. The fire lasted for 6 days, destroying 10 of 14 districts, two of which were probably untouched. Extinguishing the fire was difficult – wooden buildings located close to each other and narrow and winding streets meant that the fire spread at an incredible pace, and the fire brigade was helpless. Nero himself helped extinguish the fire and managed the fire brigade. We can certainly say that it was the hardest job he had ever done in his life!

The Last Prayer of the Christian Martyrs, Jean-Leon Gerome

Additionally, not only wood was used for their construction, but also stone, which did not crack in fire. Each house also had to have fire-fighting equipment. The remains of the 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 and the Temple of Jupiter Stator, the house of Octavian Augustus. However, Nero did not remain deaf to the people’s requests – he helped the homeless and hungry. Everyone could come to the emperor’s gardens and eat, sleep, and bandage their wounds. The price of grain also changed and was lowered; relief was also granted to landowners. Nero ordered the reconstruction of the city, where he built a huge palace (the so-called “golden house”), whose splendour was to overshadow other buildings erected by his predecessors. Some accused Nero of ordering the city to be burned for this reason; the emperor’s guards with torches were even said to have been seen. This is of course a fantasy; the fire almost destroyed the emperor’s previous, recently built estate, Domus Transitoria, where the ruler had numerous works of art, which were certainly of priceless value to such a culture enthusiast.

Building a city posed many difficulties – money was also collected from the provinces; there were riots from, for example, Judea, Gaul and Spain. It cannot be denied that by rebuilding the city, Nero made it more beautiful and safer – wide streets with courtyards and porticos were built, and houses were built at a distance from each other so that when subsequent fires occurred, the fire could not spread so easily.

The rumours that appeared about the emperor forced him to look for a “scapegoat” to erase this “shameful rumor”. The accusations were made against Christians, a then insignificant sect, whom the pagans considered enemies of the human race because they expected the end of the world, after which the true Kingdom of God would take place. Many wondered whether Jews might have been involved in 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 subsequent persecutions. Moreover, even Tacitus in his “Annals” stated that even if Christians were accused unjustly, there was nothing wrong with it.

Christian Dirce, painting by Henryk Siemiradzki. A Christian woman martyred during the persecutions of Nero.

The persecution was limited to the city of Rome itself. The punishments for the convicts seemed like something out of a madman’s wildest dreams – crucifixion, beheading, torture, even simulating a “game” hunt, i.e. dressing the convicts in animal skins, which were then chased by hungry dogs. Nero was also active at night. “Living torches” appeared in his Vatican gardens, where people were doused with tar and resin. In addition to these “attractions”, Christians also had performances on stage, where they performed myological scenes during which they were humiliated and insulted. It should be noted that such punishments were the norm in ancient Rome. Burning alive was simply a punishment for arsonists; instead, the penalty of crucifixion was a punishment for the lowest social classes.

Why did pagans hate Christians so much? The answer is very simple – they were accused of incest and cannibalism. Also, the only accusation that Nero brought against those sentenced to death was being a Christian. We must 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! Spiritism, necromancy and even vampirism! Needless to say, the faithful were not ready for such repression – some pagans and Jews regretted that they had turned their eyes to God and would gladly hide in the shadow of the synagogue; also the first captured Christians, filled with fear for their lives. The prisons were overcrowded, even bursting at the seams. We can therefore say that Christians were not accused of burning Rome, but of “hatred towards the human race.” However, it is difficult for us to say how many victims there were; even the “Acts of the Apostles” does not mention anything about persecution! Moreover, the killing of Christians was certainly supposed to be an attempt to appease the gods, since standard sacrifices did not help. It was also a threat to the arsonists!

It is known that Nero was not a saint, but are not 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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