One of the books I am reading this summer is Ten Caesars: Roman Emperors from Augustus to Constantine by Barry Strauss, who is Professor of History and Classics at Cornell University.
In his chapter on Nero, who ruled Rome from 54 to 68, Strauss provides the following summary of Nero’s persecution of Christians (a long but worthy read):
After the Great Fire (64 A.D./CE), Nero put on a private show in his gardens. To deflect blame for starting the blaze, he accused an unpopular and relatively new religious sect: Christianity.
Christianity was now about thirty-five years old. It began in Judea and Galilee with the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus’ mission in Galilee attracted large numbers of followers through his emphasis on the values of goodness, humility, charity, and prayer. He electrified them with the notion that the Kingdom of God, which many prayed for, was already beginning to arrive. Eventually Jesus went to the capital city of Jerusalem, where his enthusiastic crowds alarmed both the Jewish and Roman authorities. He was executed by crucifixion around the year 30 during the reign of Tiberius.
Galvanized by the conviction that Jesus had risen from the dead, his adherents spread the new faith, first in Palestine and then around the Mediterranean world. Early churches were communities of faith and charity, havens in an often-hostile world. As a result of missionary work, a small Christian community developed in Rome itself.
Authorities sneered at Christians and perhaps feared them. Roman distrusted innovation and suspected people who assembled for a purpose that the authorities neither knew of nor controlled. Elite writers active several generations later referred to Christians as “a class hated for their disgraceful acts.” There might have been a Christian community near where Rome’s Great Fire started. It is possible that some Christians stated openly after the fire that Rome had been punished for its sins. Hence, Christians made good scapegoats for a crime of which they were surely innocent.
According to Tacitus, Nero punished those guilty not only of starting the fire – a crime to which they had supposedly confessed – but also guilty more simply of “hatred of the human race.” Ever the impresario, Nero turned their execution into a ghastly show. The scene was apparently his private estate across the Tiber River in the Vatican territory, which included a circus. Romans liked to enact scenes from myth, which may be why some of the victims wore animal skins and were torn apart by dogs, in a dramatization of the myth in which a hunter was turned into a stag and killed by his enraged hounds. Others were crucified or burned to death at night like living torches. Nero himself was present and dressed like a charioteer. He went from the chariot to the crowd, where he mingled with the spectators. Tacitus sneers that his presence merely inspired sympathy for the victims. According to Christian tradition, two of the apostles or early missionaries of the church, Saints Peter and Paul, were among the victims of the persecution following the Great Fire. That, however, cannot be proven.
Why did Nero persecute Christians? They were a convenient target, available and unpopular. But perhaps on some level, Nero recognized them as a deeper threat. Like him, they represented a powerful response to a crisis in Roman culture. By Nero’s day, monarchy was dulling the edge of Roman manhood. In the republic, liberty and militarism loomed large in Roman culture, but free elections and freewheeling conquerors were now both things of the past. Largely deprived of prior outlets in the Forum or on the battlefield, Romans began to look inward. The writings of Seneca bear eloquent witness to the development. Nero’s Rome was rich, as no one knew better than he did. Yet beneath the opulence lay emptiness. Seneca and the Stoics understood inner peace as a solution.
Nero, of course, offered a different solution. He delivered ever more numerous, more spectacular, more shocking, and more outrageous entertainments. Yet neither food nor drink nor sex could speak to the soul’s needs as religion could. Perhaps Nero saw in Christians a challenge that he couldn’t defeat, and so he tried to destroy them.
It’s interesting to notice the reasons for the persecution of Christians:
- They were unpopular because they didn’t “go with the flow” and join in with what everyone else was doing or how others were living.
- They were feared and distrusted because they were not understood.
- They were looked on with suspicion because they could not be controlled.
- They were viewed as a threat by those who did not want to recognize any moral standard and who wanted to do whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted, to and with whomever they wanted.
- They were made scapegoats as an act of deflection by people who did not want to own up to their own immorality and corruption.
It’s also interesting to note Nero’s solution to the moral crisis in Roman culture and the sense of purposeless life that had crept into their society: “He delivered ever more numerous, more spectacular, more shocking, and more outrageous entertainments.” He looked to distract and numb, instead of face the true reason for their troubles.
Today, throughout the world, Christians are persecuted for the same reasons (see the world watch list of Christian persecution at Open Doors); and, in America particular, people seek to distract themselves and numb their pain with more and more entertainment, rather than seeking the peace for which their souls yearn that only comes from the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ.
History really does repeat itself, doesn’t it?