Neronian Persecutions

Neronian Persecutions were really the first severe trials which the Christians of Rome had to endure. They occurred in A.D. 64, and were instigated by Nero (q.v.) himself. Although we possess no positive information as to the manner in which the first Christian community was established at Rome, it appears certain that it was not originally instituted by the apostles. It is more probable that the frequent intercourse of the Roman Jews with Palestine and Jerusalem led at an early time to the introduction of the new doctrines, the believers still remaining connected with the synagogues. They became gradually more numerous; and the frequent controversies which here, as in other cities, arose among the Jews, partly on their own tenets, partly concerning the person and the coming of Christ, led at last to open disturbances, and gave occasion to the emperor Claudius to publish in 41 a strict edict banishing all the Jews, including those who acknowledged Christ. The edict, however, did not receive a very severe execution, only the leaders, such as Aquila, whom we find mentioned in the N.T., being banished. As to the others, there was probably some alleviation made in the decree; but while allowed to remain at Rome, they were not permitted to assemble in the synagogues until a new edict, promulgated about the end of the same year, again restored them this privilege also, and guaranteed the Jews religious liberty throughout the empire. This temporary closing of the synagogues, however, led the Christians to organize places of worship for themselves, and to form an independent community. Their number now increased so rapidly that St. Paul, who had been informed of their position by Aquila at Corinth, expressed in his Epistle to the Romans the desire to visit them, which he fulfilled three years later, when he was led as a prisoner from Cesarea to Rome, remaining there a while, and laboring for the new religion with such success that Tacitus speaks of the Christians of Rome as "an immense multitude." The rapid increase of the Christians made them of course unpopular at Rome. Suetonius, in his Nero (chap. 16), speaks of them as a "dangerous sect." They were mistrusted because they abstained from participation in the sacrifices and other heathen ceremonies, and were hated because they were believed secretly at work against the peace of Roman citizens. They were accused of misanthropy, and were suspected of all manner of crimes. But no open intent to persecute them manifested itself until Nero ordered ceremonies after the great fire, and the Christians failed to participate. They were now accused as the authors of the conflagration; first, probably, by friends of the court, in order to turn public animosity from Nero, who was by many believed to have favored the burning of Rome. SEE NERO. The emperor himself took up the public rumor, and acted upon it as a verity. "He inflicted," says Tacitus, "the most exquisite tortures on those men, who, under the vulgar appellation of Christians, were already branded with deserved infamy," and a vast multitude, or as Tacitus has it, "ingens multitudo," were put to death in the most shocking manner. Indeed, it appears from the detailed accounts of Tacitus that Nero's proceedings were quite different from mere capital executions according to the Roman law; for the Christian martyrs were not simply put to death, but their execution was made to gratify the bloodthirstiness of the tyrant, and to serve as an amusement to the people. Says Renan:

"Though persuaded that the conflagration was the crime of Nero, many serious Romans saw in this coup a means of delivering the city from an intolerable pest. Tacitus, notwithstanding some qualms of pity, was of this opinion ; and as to Sletonius, he reckons among the meritorious acts of Nero the punishment which he had inflicted on the partisans of a new and mischievous superstition. Yet these punishments were something absolutely frightful. Never before had such refinements of cruelty been witnessed. Almost all the Christians who were arrested were of the humble class; and the usual punishment of such unfortunates, when treason or sacrilege was laid to their charge, was to be thrown to wild beasts, or to be burned alive in the amphitheater, with an addition of cruel scourgings. One of the most hideous characteristics of Roman manners was that they converted punishments into a fete, and public executions into a public entertainment. Persia, in moments of fanaticism and terror, had used frightful forms of torture; and on more than one occasion had tasted a somber kind of pleasure in inflicting them. But never before the establishment of Roman dominion had these horrors been made a public diversion, a subject for peals of laughter and applause. The amphitheatres had become the regular places of execution, and the tribunals of justice furnished materials for the sport. The roads that converged to Rome were crowded with the criminals of the whole world, to provide victims for the circus and amusement for the populace... But, this time, to the barbarity of the executioner was added a touch of derision. The victims were reserved for a fete, to which (no doubt) an expiatory character was attached. Roman annals had known few days so extraordinary. The ludus matutinus, usually devoted to combats of animals, saw today an unheard-of procession. The condemned persons, sewn up in skins of wild beasts, were thrust out into the arena to be torn by dogs; others were crucified; others again were clothed in tunics dipped in oil, pitch, or rosin, and then found themselves attached to stakes, and reserved to illuminate the nocturnal festivities. When dusk came on, these living torches were set on fire. Nero offered for the spectacle his magnificent gardens beyond the Tiber, on the site of the modern Borgo and in the precincts of the Church of St. Peter" (pages 163- 165).

But physical suffering was not enough to satisfy the infernal malice of the heathen world against these pure and patient servants of the Crucified One. Moral tortures, mental anguish, brutal and Satanic invasions of all that a Christian holds most sacred and most inviolable, must be undergone by them ere the baptism of blood was complete, ere the infant Church could be (like her Master) " made perfect through sufferings." The pen almost refuses to write, the brain almost refuses to conceive, the atrocities which followed. The heart and conscience of the reader can do no more, even now at the distance of 1800 years, than cry to heaven, with the souls of the slain under the Apocalyptic altar, "How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge this blood on them that dwell on the earth?" (Re 6:10).

"Women, and even virgins, were mixed up with these horrible sports; and nameless indignities were inflicted on them, as part of the festivities. It had become an established usage under Nero to force condemned persons to play in the amphitheatre mythological scenes which involved at least the death of the actor. These hideous operas, to which the application of ingenious mechanism lent an astonishing effect, were the novelties of the day. Greece would indeed have recoiled with surprise had such attempts been suggested to her, to supplement aesthetics by ferocity, to make torture minister to art! The unhappy wretch was introduced into the arena richly dressed as a god or a hero destined to death. He then represented by his sufferings some tragic scene of pagan myth, consecrated by the works of poets and sculptors. Sometimes it was Hercules, frantic and burning on Mount Oeta and madly tearing from his flesh the tunic of blazing pitch. Sometimes it was Orpheus torn in pieces by a bear Daedalus thrown from heaven and devoured by beasts, Pasiphae undergoing the attacks of the bull, or Attys put to death... Nero, no doubt, was present at these spectacles. As he was nearsighted, he used to wear a concave emerald in his eye to serve as an eye-glass for watching the combats of gladiators. He loved to make a parade of his knowledge as a connoisseur in sculpture... Worthy of a connoisseur like him must have been the plastic forms and the colors presented by a human frame palpitating under the teeth of beasts; by a poor timid maiden with chaste gestures veiling her nudity, and then tossed by a bull and torn in pieces on the pebbles of the arena! Yes, he was there, in the front rank, on the podium, supported by vestals and curule magistrates" (pages 157-173).

So great were the sufferings of the tormented that even the pagan historian is forced to confess that "pity arose for the guilty, though they deserved the severest punishment, since they were put to death, not for the public good, but to gratify the cruelty of one man" (Annales, 15:44). But even the cruelty of Nero is not generally adjudged sufficient ground for all these executions, and it is believed by some that the powerful Poppsea Sabina, proved by Josephus (Ant. 20:8) to have been a convert to Judaism, mainly instigated the severity of this persecution. It is thought by some that the apostle: Paul lost his life on this occasion. Wieseler (Chronol. Synopse der vier Evangelien [1843], page 531) places the execution of Paul in the beginning of the year 64, and the crucifixion of Peter in the Neronian persecution, therefore some months later. Tradition places the death of both apostles in the Neronian persecution, and some witnesses, as Jerome and Gelasius, put both martyrdoms on the same day; but others, as Arator, Cedrenus, Augustine, separate them by an interval of one year or less. That Paul suffered first, before the outbreak of the persecution properly so called, seems to be indicated by the easier mode and the locality of his death; for in the persecution itself his Roman citizenship would hardly have been respected; and the scene of that persecution was not the Ostian Way, but the Vatican across the Tiber, where Nero's gardens and the circus lay (comp. Tacitus, Ann. 14:14; and Bunsen, Beschreibung der Stadt Rom. 2:1, page 13 sq.). At the same time, this persecution, notwithstanding the statement of Orosinu, does not seem to have extended through all the provinces, but rather to have been restricted to Rome and the surrounding country.

Shortly after the death of Nero, July 11, 68. the belief commenced to gain adherents among the people that he was not dead. They expected him to return from the East as a great conqueror, and this induced several adventurers to assume his name and create insurrections. As for the Christians, the remembrance of that terrible persecution, their manner of interpreting the Book of Revelations, and still more the Sibvlline Oracles, led them for several centuries to believe that Nero was still living, and even that he would appear at the latter day as the Antichrist or with him. Says Schaff: "The report arose first among the heathen that Nero was not really dead, and would come forth again from his concealment; according to Tacitus (Flist. 2:8), 'Sub idem tempus Achaja atque Asia falso exterrite, velut Nero adventaret, vario super exitu ejus rumore, eoque pluribus vivere eum fingentibus credentibusque.' Among the Christians this rumor took the form that Nero would return as Antichrist, or (according to Lactantius) as the forerunner of Antichrist. That such an expectation arose, at least afterwards, in the Church, though merely as the private opinion of individuals, is plain from Augustine, De civitate Dei, lib. 20, cap. 19, where he says that by the 'mystery of iniquity' (2Th 2:7) some understood Nero, and then proceeds: ' Unde nonnulli ipsum (Neronem) resurrecturum et futurum Antichristmrn suspicantur. Alii vero nec eum occisum putant, sed subtractum potius, ut putaretur occisus; et vivum occultari in vigore ipsius setatis, in qua fuit, quum crederetur exstinctus, donec suo tempore reveletur et restituatur in regnum. Sed multum mihi mira est haec opinantium tanta praesumptio.' Lactantius mentions a similar opinion (De mort. persec. c. 2) with a reference to a passage in the Sibylline Oracles (lib. 4, page 525, ed. Ser. Gallaeus), which, however, refers not at all to Antichrist, but probably to the appearance of the pseudo-Nero in the time of Titus (comp. Tacitus, Hist. 1:2) as to a past fact, as Thiersch has shown (Kritik der N.-Test. Schriften, 1845, page 410 sq.) against Bleek. Altogether erroneous is the view of Ewald, Liucke, and others, who charge this superstition respecting Nero as the future Antichrist upon the author of the Apocalypse; taking the beast, which ' was, and is not, and yet is' (17:8, 11), to be Nero. This betrays an exceedingly low, unworthy view of this holy book" (Hist. Apostol. Ch. page 347). Yet very recently this "low and unworthy view" of the Apocalypse has found general favor in England, and in France also. Not only has the rationalistic Renan espoused it, but several of the British conservative reviews, in notices of L'Antechrist, commend Mr. Renan's researches as to the authorship and object of the Apocalypse. The name of the Antichrist is believed by Renan to be found in chapter 13:18, which (number of the beast) amounts to precisely 666, and signifies, if to each Hebrew letter is given its numerical value, Νέρων Καῖσαρ, or נרון קסר, well known in that form by sight to all the provincials on their coin and standards and inscriptions (comp. Edinburgh Review, October 1874, art. 8; and see under NERO, above). See Pauly, Real-Encyklopadie d. Klass. Alterthumnswissenschaft, part 5, pages 576-591; Kortholt, De persecutioni. bus ecclesice primitivce sub imperatoribus ethnicis (Kilon. 1689); Walch, )e Romanorum in tolerandis diversis religionibus disciplina publica (in the Nov. Commentt. Soc. Reg. [Gott. 1733, volume 3]); Lehmann, Studien z. Gesch. d. apost. Zeitalters (Greifw. 1856, 4to); Masson, Histoire critique de la Republique des lettres, 8:74, 117; 9:172, 186; Toinard, Ad Lactant. de Mortibus Persequutorum, page 398 (ed. Du Fresnoy); Tillemont, Hist. des Empereurs, 1:564; Baratier, De successione Romanor. Pontificum, cap. 5, page 60; Mosheim, Commentaries, 1:97, 120; Schaff, Hist. of the Apostolic Church, page 395; id. Hist. of the Christian Church, 1:162, 305; Mosheim, Eccles. Hist. (1st cent. in volume 1); Neander, Ch. Hist. 1:94; Leckey, Hist. Europ. Morals, i, 274, 326, 456; Burton, Eccles. Hist. pages 190, 195, 200, 203, 231, 237,242, 322; Gieseler, Eccles. Hist. 1:56 sq.; Riddle, Hist. of the Papacy, 1:5 sq.; Meth. Quar. Rev. January 1875, pages 127-131; Christian Quarterly, April 1874, pages 275-277; Journal of Sacred Literature, volume 26.

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