persecution of Christians
Until the reign of the Roman emperor Nero (54-68
CE) Roman authorities had not distinguished between Christians and
Jews. But when a great fire broke out in 64 CE and burned a large
percentage of the city of Rome, the populace accused Nero (wrongly)
of having been responsible. To deflect public hostility, Nero blamed
the Christians, who were almost universally resented by Romans.
This passage from the Annals of the Roman historian Tacitus
(ca. 56-120 CE) describes the events.
neither human help, nor imperial munificence, nor all the
modes of placating heaven, could stifle scandal or dispel
the belief that the fire had taken place by order. Therefore
to scotch the rumor, Nero substituted as culprits, and punished
with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed
for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians.
the founder of the name, had undergone
the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius,
by sentence of the procurator Pontius
Pilatus, and the pernicious superstition was checked
for a moment, only to break out once more, not merely in
Judea, the home of the disease, but in the capital [Rome]
itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world
collect and find a vogue.
then, the confessed members of the sect were arrested; next,
on their disclosures vast numbers were convicted, not so
much on the count of arson as for hatred of the human race.
And derision accompanied their end: they were covered with
wild beasts' skins and torn to death by dogs; or they were
fastened on crosses, and, when daylight failed were burned
to serve as lamps by night. Nero had offered his gardens
for the spectacle, and gave an exhibition in his Circus,
mixing with the crowd in the habit of a charioteer, or mounted
on his car. Hence, in spite of a guilt, which had earned
the most exemplary punishment, there
arose a sentiment of pity, due to the impression that
they were being sacrificed not for the welfare of the state
but to the ferocity of a single man.