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The Christian Scapegoats and the Great Fire of Rome
It wasn't long before Nero arrived to bring order to the chaos. A rumor had
gone forth which accused Nero of starting the fire himself, and had even sang a
song from his Palace tower as he watched the flames engulf the city. Nero had
also planned in detail for the cities reconstruction but the rumors continued.
Nero had to find a way to "suppress this rumor" according to Tacitus. Nero chose the new secret religious sect of the Christians as his scapegoats and punished them severely. They were arrested throughout the empire and "their deaths were made farcical." Nero took pleasure in the Christian persecutions and even offered many of them upon stakes to be burned to death as torches for his parties. According to history many of them were hunted down and tortured, some were sewn into skins of animals and fed to starving dogs while the mob cheered.
Even the historian Tacitus, who did not like Christians, objected to the way Nero had made scapegoats of them.
The persecution of the Christians under Nero revealed the growing resentment the people had toward the early church. It also revealed that 20 years after the reign of Claudius, the Christians in Rome had become recognized as a distinct group, separate from the Jews.
Why the Christians?
Christianity was a new religion and did not appear to be very threatening. The Christians refused to participate in pagan rituals and therefore those who practiced them found it very offensive, according to Tacitus. He describes the Christians as "depraved" and says that this religion is "deadly superstition", "mischief", and "shameful practices." Tacitus also indicted the Christians as "not so much for incendiarism as for their anti-social tendencies," and a hidden hatred for mankind, which was a label that had been originally put on the Jews. It is interesting that Tacitus was more than a historian, he was a member of the aristocracy and a friend of several emperors. Therefore his feelings toward the Christians may have reflected also among the aristocrats. Suetonius, a writer and government official, also indicted the Christians explaining that they were proponents of "a new and mischievous religious belief."
Before Nero had began persecuting Christians, they were generally non-threatening to the peace of the empire. The main hostility have been brought about by Jewish leaders who had gone to Roman officials about the Christians.
Primary Sources for the Study of the Emperor Nero are: Tacitus, Dio Cassius, Suetonius, Christian and Jewish Tradition, and Archaeology.
The 5th Emperor (Princeps) of Rome (54-68 A.D.)
The Roman Empire beyond Italy was divided into about 40 provinces
(territories), with each province having its own governor who kept order and
collected taxes for Rome. He was either appointed by the emperor or named by the
During the first century A.D. the Roman Empire was near its peak with a population of 50-60 million. This was more than 1/5 of the world's population at that time. Jesus lived and died during the period known in Roman history as the Pax Romana or the "Peace of Rome".
It was an amazing time in history when the risen Jesus empowered His church to go into all the world to preach the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In fact the apostles journeyed throughout the Mediterranean world which was part of the Roman Empire. They traveled through Roman cities on Roman roads and everywhere that they traveled they came into contact with Rome.
Julius Caesar had a dream for Rome but he was assassinated before he could see it fulfilled. The big problem was who would become the next emperor after his assassination. Very few had expected the young Octavian (Augustus) to become the chief heir and new emperor after Julius Caesar, but it was Augustus who turned out to be the most important emperor in all of Roman history.
Augustus was very aware of what had happened with Julius Caesar, and desired to avoid the same problems with the Roman Senate. He wanted his stepson Tiberius to be emperor after his death and to make sure that this would happen he began to share his power with Tiberius. When Augustus died in 14 A.D. Tiberius was easily accepted as emperor. In fact this became the new way that emperors would be chosen. Each emperor would choose a successor from among his family or he would adopt someone who he thought would be fit to rule after him.
During the 200 years after the death of Augustus, four dynasties (family lines) ruled the Roman Empire. Some of the emperors in each dynasty were somewhat moral emperors and others were horribly cruel. Each of the four dynasties ended with a violent overthrow of an unfit emperor.
Augustus’ family line ended in disgrace in 68 A.D. with the Emperor Nero, who came to power when he was a young boy at the age of 17. Nero Claudius Caesar was born in December of 37 A.D. at Antium and reigned as the fifth emperor (Princeps) of Rome, from 54-68 A.D. under the political system created by Augustus after Civil War had finally put an end to the Roman Republic.
Throughout the early years of his rule Nero was directed by his tutors (including the famous writer Seneca) and there was peace throughout the Empire. The Emperor Nero loved performing in the Theatre, races and games. He was not respected by the senators or the army. He was criticized by the people of Rome for being more interested in entertaining himself than in governing the empire. However, when his main advisors had either retired, or were dead, Nero revealed his true character. It did not take long for the people to realize that Nero was a tyrant. In 59 A.D. Nero executed his mother, his wife, Claudius’s son Britannicus, and several of his advisors and anyone that opposed him was executed.
In 64 A.D. a devastating fire swept through Rome destroying everything in its path. Everyone thought that Nero had started the fire so that he could rebuild a more beautiful city, including his Golden House. According to the Roman historian Suetonius, Nero sang and played the lyre while Rome burned. When Nero felt that the rumor had turned everyone against him he found some scapegoats to bare the blame for the fire, the Christians. He punished them severely and had many of them burned alive or torn apart by wild beasts. It is believed that the apostles Paul and Peter were martyred during this persecution.
There were many who sought Nero’s death and in 68 A.D. his own army rebelled against him and various military commanders attempted to seize the throne. The Emperor Nero was forced to flee from Rome and soon afterward he committed suicide. He was the last emperor who was of the dynasty of Augustus (Julio-Claudian dynasty).
- Agrippina - Nero's dominating mother
The main people involved in the life of Nero were:
- Nero Himself - Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus
- Claudius - The emperor before Nero- Octavia - Claudius' daughter and Nero's first wife
- Britannicus - Claudius' son and rightful heir to the throne- Seneca and Burrus - Nero's trusted tutors
- Poppaea - Nero's second wife- Galba - General in Spain and the next emperor of Rome
- The First Imperial 'Persecution' of Christians – 64 A.D.
Important events that happened during the life of Nero:
- The Great Fire of Rome – 64 A.D.
- The first Jewish Revolt Against Rome – 66 A.D.
- Suetonius Svetonius Tranquillus (70-140 A.D. approx.)
The main historical sources about the life of Nero were:
- Tacitus Tacitus Publius Cornelius (55-120 A.D. approx.)
- Cassius Dio Dion Cassius Cocceianus (155-235 A.D. approx.)- Jewish and Christian Tradition
- Archaeology: inscriptions, coins, written text.
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