Nero Persecutes the Christians Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Nero persecuted the Christians, marking the beginning of the Roman Empire’s prolonged harassment of a religious group for political purposes.

Summary of Event

Nero, fifth emperor of Rome and the last of the Julio-Claudian line, ruled the Roman Empire from 54 to 68 c.e. and is generally considered one of the cruelest men in history. Born on December 15, 37 c.e., in Antium, Italy, to consul Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus and Agrippina the Younger, daughter of Germanicus Caesar and great-granddaughter of Emperor Augustus, Nero was originally named Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus. After the death of his father in approximately 40, Nero’s scheming mother married her uncle, Emperor Claudius I, in 49, and persuaded him to adopt her son, whose name was then changed to Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus. Nero then married Claudius’s daughter Octavia, an act that marked him as Rome’s next emperor, thus bypassing Claudius’s biological son Britannicus. Agrippina then poisoned Claudius in 54, and the Praetorian Guard and the senate united in declaring Nero emperor at the age of seventeen. Nero had blotchy skin, a fat belly, spindly legs, and a thick neck, a feature that is recorded in his coinage. Nero Paul, Saint Peter, Saint

Guided by the praetorian prefect Burrus and the Stoic philosopher-tutor Seneca, Nero began the first five years of his reign as a man of moderation, known for his clemency. He also made several popular changes within Roman government, including his proposal to abolish some forms of taxation. Although many of Nero’s subjects initially received him with great enthusiasm, Burrus and Seneca were unable to hold the boy emperor’s cruelty in check for long. Nero soon began to rule unrestrained, violently plotting against people he perceived as threats to his power. Britannicus, his stepbrother and rightful heir to the throne, was poisoned in 55 c.e., and Agrippina, whose plotting gained Nero the throne in the first place, was murdered in 59 after criticizing Nero’s mistress, Poppaea Sabina. He later divorced and murdered his wife, Octavia, and married Poppaea. Nero later kicked Poppaea to death while she was pregnant. His third marriage was to Statilia Messalina, whose husband he had ordered to be executed.

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A great fire swept through Rome in the hot July of 64 c.e. Flames raged for about ten days, burning nearly two-thirds of the city. Three of the fourteen Augustan municipal districts were completely gutted, and seven others were badly damaged. Rumors quickly circulated that Nero himself had started the fire to make room for his new palace, but most historians believe there is no factual evidence to support this theory. Some historians have suggested that Nero was away at Antium, and legend says that Nero viewed the blaze from the Tower of Maecenas, amusing himself by playing his lyre and reciting his own epic poem “The Sack of Troy” on his private stage while thousands died and Rome was reduced to ashes. This story led to the popular expression “fiddling while Rome burns,” a label often bestowed on public officials who fail in their civil duty during an emergency.

Nero and other Romans watch as the Christians are burned.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

According to some accounts, Nero sought to avert rumors accusing him of irresponsibility by accusing Rome’s Christian inhabitants of starting the fire, thereafter making Christians the victims of vicious and cruel tortures. Up to this time, Rome had been tolerant of non-national monotheistic religions such as Judaism and Christianity but was always watchful. Jews generally were treated relatively well by Pompey the Great, Caesar, and Augustus, in part as a result of support by Herod the Great and Herod Agrippa, and were envied by other religious groups. The Christian apostle and preacher Paul enjoyed Roman protection and “appealed to Caesar” when persecuted by followers of his own Jewish heritage.

The year 64 c.e., however, marked a dramatic change in Rome’s attitude toward Christians for the next 250 years. Christians were charged with incendiarism and were torn by lions and dogs, crucified, and burned alive as torches to light nocturnal games during which Nero paraded around the Palatine Gardens and Vatican Circus dressed as a charioteer. Tacitus recorded that public reaction to Nero’s atrocities was generally pity of the Christians as victims of Nero’s brutality, with few observers believing they were perpetrators of actual crimes. Suetonius, the other classical authority, mentions that Christians began to be driven out of Rome but does not associate them with the accusation of starting the great fire. Christian executions increased in 65, when an assassination plot by a group of aristocrats, senators, and equestrians was uncovered and Nero revived the wide-ranging law of treason, under which many were executed on spurious charges or forced to commit suicide. Questions as to the legal basis behind the attacks on the Christians and the specific charges filed against them will undoubtedly never be answered.

The number and names of the early Christian martyrs under Nero and those persecuted by Roman authorities after his death were not reliably documented. Tradition beginning with Clement of Rome in approximately 95 c.e. lists Saints Peter and Paul as martyrs under Nero in Rome, whereas later tradition holds that their deaths occurred several years later and may not have even happened in Rome. Biblical references in the New Testament book of 1 Peter indicate that Nero’s Christian persecutions reached far beyond the city of Rome into Asia Minor, Pontus, Galicia, and Bithynia.

Significance

The trials conducted under Nero established that crimes such as secret assembly were punishable by death, with numerous Christians regularly convicted of such acts. Rome set a precedent for all its governors in that no formal law was necessary for prosecution, and proof of a definite crime was not required. Persecution of people called by the name “Christian” was begun during Nero’s reign, possibly to divert attention away from the arson, and was continued with Christians being generally condemned as a sect dangerous to public safety and as permanent enemies of civilization. Orosius later popularized the idea of ten persecutions against the Christian church, which were often lackadaisically carried out by half-hearted Roman officials.

Arguably the worst period of Christian persecution occurred in 303 under Diocletian and continued under Galerius and Maximinus until 313, when the Edict of Milan gave official recognition to the Christian religion. The total number of Christians tortured and executed between 64 and 313 c.e. remains controversial but is commonly estimated to be between 10,000 and 100,000.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bowersock, G. W. Martyrdom and Rome. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. This work, created from the Wiles lectures given at the Queen’s University of Belfast, deals with the early Church and the persecution it faced. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Freud, W. H. C. Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church. 1967. Reprint. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1981. This well-written text documents numerous theories as to the underlying causes and legal basis for the sudden onset of Christian persecution in 64 c.e.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Massie, Allan. The Caesars. New York: Franklin Watts, 1984. This text details the relationships between Rome’s first twelve emperors and the Roman Empire, including Nero’s manipulative control over those by whom he felt threatened.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Novak, Ralph Martin. Christianity and the Roman Empire: Background Texts. Harrisburg, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 2001. Novak weaves his narrative of the history of the Christian church from 27 b.c.e. to 419 c.e. around selections of primary sources. Bibliography and indexes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ramsay, William. The Church in the Roman Empire. 5th ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1954. This often-cited text, originally published in 1893, attempts to assess the meaning of the Neronian persecution and often cites writings by Tacitus and Suetonius, considered the only two reliable witnesses.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Workman, H. B. Persecution of the Early Church. 1923. Reprint. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980. A history of the Christian persecution under Nero.
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