*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***
It is July the 18th of 2022. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I’m Adam Francisco in for Dan van Voorhis, who is out of the country for the next two weeks traveling, working, and enjoying time with his family. Or so he says.
Today, on the Christian History Almanac, we take a look at the fire of Rome and the origins of state-sponsored persecution of Christianity.
The city of Rome was for centuries the center of a proud republic that had become an empire. Indeed, for a Roman citizen, it was the center of the world. And it was impenetrable, protected by the gods as a reward for the civic piety of generations of Roman people. So when a fire broke out on July 18th in AD 64 and burned for nearly a week, destroying large portions of the city, killing hundreds, and leaving thousands homeless, everyone wanted to know who or what was to blame.
At least one Roman historian tells us that a rumor quickly spread identifying the culprit. It was the emperor. After all, he made no secret of his dislike of the city’s architecture, and he was looking for a reason to rebuild. The problem was: that the emperor was nowhere to be found. He had been away from the city off and on for extended periods of time over the last few years, avoiding public scrutiny for murdering his mother and all sorts of imperial endeavors.
That emperor was the infamous Nero (54-68). You’ve probably heard of him. He was an unusual man, to say the least—a man of excess, cruelty, and unpredictable violence. He was also, in the words of the church father Tertullian (c. 155-220), “the first to let his imperial sword rage against Christianity when it was just arising in Rome.”
While Nero most likely had nothing to do with the fire—nor did he play his fiddle while flames engulfed the city (fiddles hadn’t been invented yet)—he was nonetheless blamed for it. He tried and tried to influence public opinion by buying friendships and offering extravagant displays of piety, but there was nothing he could do to change the mind of the public. Until the Roman historian Tacitus (56-120) wrote, he found the perfect scapegoat—a new religious sect, at least in the city of Rome, called Christianity. Christians were already considered suspect and hated by Roman citizens. So, to deflect or at least distract the people, Nero accused them and decided to punish them. Arrests were made of individuals, which were soon to be followed by arrests of “an immense multitude” of people guilty by association.
Summary executions were followed by torture where Christians were “made to serve as objects of amusement; they were clad in the hides of beasts and torn to death by dogs; others were crucified, others set on fire to serve to illuminate the night when daylight failed. Nero had thrown open his grounds for the display and was putting on a show in the circus [a stadium for races], where he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or drove about in his chariot.” So reports Tacitus.
The Neronian persecution was, by all accounts, the first state-sponsored persecution of the early church. It was, however, by no means the last. For more than two decades, Christians were crucified, thrown before carnivorous animals, set on fire, and other gruesome things. Sometimes the persecution was a local affair, executed in response to a particular event; Other times, it was prosecuted across the empire when emperors like Diocletian (at the turn of the third and into the beginning of the fourth century) tried to extinguish the faith.
Despite its trials and tribulations, however, the faith and the church persisted. While the resurrection of the crucified and dead Jesus of Nazareth convinced and emboldened the apostles to preach the truth and comfort of the gospel, the hope of the resurrection of those who died in the persecutions that began in AD 64 had the opposite effect of what emperors like Nero and Diocletian intended. The blood of the martyrs laid the seed for the remarkable growth of the church in the centuries following the ascension of Jesus.
In a way, the persistence of Christianity in Rome before the conversion of emperor Constantine is a miracle. From a worldly perspective, they had everything to lose and nothing to gain by standing bold in their confession that Jesus was the Christ, the son of the living God. They faced not just death but, often, prolonged painful tortures. And yet they persisted—men, women, and children—confident that Christ’s death decades and centuries before their time was for their sin and his resurrection three days afterward for their justification.
The last word for today comes from Paul’s letter to the Christians at Colossae, chapters 1 and 2, which Paul most likely wrote while awaiting trial before Nero a year or two before the fire and would soon be executed in the years after the fire.
27To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. 28 Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. 29 For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.
2 For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face, 2 that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God's mystery, which is Christ, 3 in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. 4 I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments. 5 For though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good order and the firmness of your faith in Christ. 6 Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, 7 rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 18th of July brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org
The show is produced by Christopher Gillespie and written by Adam Francisco.
You can catch us here every day. And remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true. In the end, everything is going to be ok.