SS. Martyrs of Rome under Nero
TERTULLIAN observes, that it was the honour of the Christian religion that Nero, the most avowed enemy to all virtue, was the first Roman emperor who declared against it a most bloody war. The sanctity and purity of the manners of the primitive Christians was a sufficient motive to stir up the rage of that monster; and he took the following occasion to draw his sword against them. The city of Rome had been set on fire, and had burned nine days, from the 19th to the 28th of July, in the year 64; in which terrible conflagration, out of the fourteen regions or quarters into which it was then divided, three were entirely laid in ashes, seven of them were miserably defaced and filled with the ruins of half-burnt buildings, and only four entirely escaped this disaster. During this horrible tragedy, Nero came from Antium to Rome, and seated himself on the top of a tower upon a neighbouring hill, in the theatrical dress of a musician, singing a poem which himself had composed on the burning of Troy. The people accused him of being the author of this calamity, and said he caused fire to be set to the city that he might glut his eyes with an image of the burning of Troy. Tillemont, Crevier, and other judicious critics make no doubt but he was the author of this calamity. Suetonius and Dion Cassius positively charge him with it. Tacitus indeed doubts whether the fire was owing to accident or to the wickedness of the prince; but by a circumstance which he mentions, it appears that the flame was at least kept up and spread for several days by the tyrant’s orders; for several men hindered all that attempted to extinguish the fire, and increased it by throwing lighted torches among the houses, saying they were ordered so to do. In which, had they been private villains, they would not have been supported and backed, but brought to justice. Besides, when the fire had raged seven days, and destroyed every thing from the great circus, at the foot of mount Palatine, to the further end of the Esquiliæ, and had ceased for want of fuel, the buildings being in that place thrown down, it broke out again in Tigellinus’s gardens, which place increased suspicion, and continued burning two days more. Besides envying the fate of Priam, who saw his country laid in ashes, Nero had an extravagant passion to make a new Rome, which should be built in a more sumptuous manner, and extended as far as Ostia to the sea; he wanted room in particular to enlarge his own palace; accordingly, he immediately rebuilt his palace of an immense extent, and adorned all over with gold, mother-of-pearl, precious stones, and whatever the world afforded that was rich and curious, so that he called it the Golden Palace. But this was pulled down after his death. The tyrant seeing himself detested by all mankind as the author of this calamity, to turn off the odium and infamy of such an action from himself, and at the same time to gratify his hatred of virtue and thirst after blood, he charged the Christians with having set the city on fire. Tacitus testifies, that nobody believed them guilty; yet the idolaters, out of extreme aversion to their religion, rejoiced in their punishment. 1
The Christians therefore were seized, treated as victims of the hatred of all mankind, insulted even in their torments and death, and made to serve for spectacles of diversion and scorn to the people. Some were clothed in the skins of wild beasts, and exposed to dogs to be torn to pieces: others were hung on crosses set in rows, and many perished by flames, being burnt in the night-time that their execution might serve for fires and light, says Tacitus. 1 This is further illustrated by Seneca, 2 Juvenal, 3 and his commentator, who say that Nero punished the magicians, (by which impious name they meant the Christians,) causing them to be besmeared over with wax, pitch, and other combustible matter, with a sharp spike put under their chin to make them hold it upright in their torments, and thus to be burnt alive. Tacitus adds, that Nero gave his own gardens to serve for a theatre to this spectacle. The Roman Martyrology makes a general mention of all these martyrs on the 24th of June, styling them the disciples of the apostles, and the first fruits of the innumerable martyrs with which Rome, so fruitful in that divine seed, peopled heaven. These suffered in the year 64, before the apostles SS. Peter and Paul, who had pointed out the way to them by their holy instructions. After this commencement of the persecution, laws were made, and edicts published throughout the Roman empire, which forbade the profession of the faith under the most cruel torments and death, as is mentioned by Sulpicius Severus, Orosius, 4 and others. No sooner had the imperial laws commanded that there should be no Christians, but the senate, the magistrates, the people of Rome, all the orders of the empire, and every city rose up against them, says Origen. 5 Yet the people of God increased the more in number and strength the more they were oppressed, as the Jews in Egypt had done under Pharoah. 2
Note 1. The words of Tacitus are: “Nero in order to substitute in his own stead victims, to the public indignation on account of the fire, inflicted the most cruel torments on a sect of men already detested for their crimes, vulgarly called Christians. Some of them were arrested, and owned themselves Christians; and on their informations a great number were taken, whom it was less easy to convict of being incendiaries, than of obstinately hating all mankind. Their punishments were made a sport of; some were covered with skins of beasts, to make dogs devour them; others were crucified; and others again, wrapped up in clothes covered with pitch and brimstone, were burnt in the night by way of torches. These punishments were inflicted in the emperor’s gardens as a sight, whilst he diverted the people with chariot races, mixing with the crowd in a coachman’s dress, or seated on a car, and holding the reins. Thence arose pity that was felt for a set of men, really guilty, and deserving the worst of punishments, but who, on that occasion, were sacrificed to the inhuman pleasure of one, and not to the good of the whole.” Tacitus attests their innocence even when he loads them with reproaches. And he could only tax them in general with being enemies to mankind, because they separated themselves from the corruption of the world. He was again mistaken when he says, they informed against one another. All ecclesiastical history witnesses they were ever ready to confess openly the name of their heavenly Master, and to suffer with joy the greatest torments, rather than betray their brethren to persecution.
Note 2. Seneca, ep. 14.
Note 3. Juven. Satyr. 1. v. 156, 235.
Note 4. L. 7, c. 7.
Note 5. L. Contra Cels.
Rev. Alban Butler (1711–73). Volume VI: June.
The Lives of the Saints. 1866.