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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
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.
"I began to hate you, when, after murdering mother and wife, you turned out to
be a jockey, a mountebank, and an incendiary." (Tacitus ann. 15:67).
Nero - A Devotional Message
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
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
- 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.
Nero, Emperor of
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Great Fire of Rome