Christian History Project. This site contains the text of 12 volumes on the history of mankind over the last 2,000 years written from a 'collectively-denominational' Christian perspective.

8. Emperor Nero |
Confrontation with the diabolical

Emperor Nero is drawn from Chapter Eight, beginning on page 210, of Volume One, The Veil is Torn of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

The Christians had known persecution before, but in Nero they meet the man who gives evil a whole new meaning

Emperor Nero - Confrontation with the diabolical

Emperor Nero - Confrontation with the diabolical
Nero’s penchant for spectacle was mixed with a seemingly insatiable appetite for human pain. Christians had been accused of setting the fires in an attempt to subvert the empire. Then, herded together, bound and tied to stakes, they serve as torches to illumine the gardens of the emperor’s palace. Accounts of this first mass persecution horrified Christian communities all over the empire.

During the first six decades of the first century a.d., Christians were no strangers to cruel treatment. They had in their collective lore and memory the story of Herod’s massacre of the children at Bethlehem, the stoning to death of Stephen at Jerusalem, and the execution of the apostle James, son of Zebedee and brother of John. Paul had been repeatedly beaten. Finally, of course, Jesus had died by crucifixion.

Yet, in the year a.d. 64, they were to encounter cruelty on an altogether new and unimaginably evil plane. Herod the Great could at least justify his infanticidal order on the grounds of public security. A peasant movement formed around some mystically destined infant would almost certainly become political, he might have reasoned, and thousands of innocent people would, as usual, perish. Better to lose a few infants and put an end to it forthwith, he might have told himself; in any event, he did not revel in the details of the slaughter or make a point of witnessing it. Similarly, the high priest Caiaphas, who condemned Jesus, contended with some logic that it was “expedient that one man should die for the people”(John 11:50 RSV). And Pontius Pilate, though he caved in when his career was threatened, at least tried to fight for justice and gave every evidence, including washing his hands symbolically in public, of disgust at the crucifixion that was about to take place.

Now, however, the Christians met cruelty, not just as a byproduct of harsh policy or political expediency, but as cruelty for its own sake. Pain was inflicted for the sheer joy of inflicting it, as an entertainment, a crowd-pleaser, an orgy of brutality so horrific that they would identify the man who inflicted this upon them as ultimate evil incarnate. The Christians at Rome, in the little community to whom Paul, some seven years before, had addressed his famous letter, were to be the victims, and their appalling fate would strike horror in Christ’s followers all over the empire.

The Christians, like everyone else in Rome, had heard unsettling stories about the emperor Nero–his ribald parties, his irrational cruelty, his grandiose public exhibitionism. They believed, too, that Rome had not always been like this. Perhaps out of idealistic reminiscence of a noble past, traditionalist Romans harkened back to a time when the city, and particularly its patrician citizens, had seemed to stand for integrity, honesty, rectitude, valor, and even, despite the Roman penchant for bloodshed, justice.

But that was the Rome of an earlier era, the Rome that, like so many ancient cities, revered a past wrapped in mythology. In the myth describing Rome’s origin, twin infants, Romulus and Remus, abandoned by their parents, were suckled by wolves. Romulus killed his brother in a petty quarrel and later went on to found the city. The scholar Varro (166-127 b.c.) sets that date at 753 b.c., thereafter the standard starting line for Roman history. Some seven centuries later, the city had become the capital of a vast empire.

Rome evolved out of antiquity as a republic, with at least some power vested in a senate consisting of patrician elders and a number of tribunes representing the common citizenry, the plebeians, though the aristocracy always maintained a firmly controlling hand. From about 90 to 31 b.c., the old republic endured a bloody civil war and emerged, after the dictatorship and assassination of the genius general Julius Caesar, as an imperial autocracy, with Caesar succeeded in 31 b.c. by his adopted nephew, the Emperor Augustus. Augustus founded the empire that would ultimately recognize, but at first ferociously resist, the faith to be known as Christianity.1

Augustus reigned until a.d. 14, presiding over an era of unprecedented peace. Though he had been a ruthless general, he seemingly tried to sustain the perceived purity of the old republic, issuing decrees to raise the level of morality, encouraging literature and the arts, building an artificial lake2 and an Altar of Peace3 as well as three new aqueducts to bring water to the million or more inhabitants of the great city of Rome.

More pertinently for the Christians who would emerge in the following generation, Augustus tried to renew Rome’s ancient pagan religion, rebuilding temples and reviving rites for the whole plethora of gods and goddesses. Both the Romans and Greeks viewed their deities as inhabiting a supernatural society that occasionally intervened in the lives of mortal men. Julius Caesar had declared himself a god, an innovation that may have contributed to his eventual assassination. Augustus, more cautious, allowed himself to be worshiped as a god in the East, but merely to receive sacrifices in the West. Thereafter, many of the emperors associated themselves closely with the divine and demanded that sacrifices be made to their genius or greatness, a demand that in the coming years would cost the lives of hundreds of Christians because they refused to meet it.

As gods, however, even if they were not so proclaimed until after their deaths, Augustus’s immediate successors left much to be desired. Following Augustus, the dynasty began a fifty-five-year descent into depravity. Tiberius, his successor, was in his mid-years an altogether competent administrator, but according to

his later chroniclers, slid as a graybeard into lechery and pederasty, setting up

a lavish bordello of erotic perversion for his own entertainment, and sexually abusing children down to the years of infancy.

Next came Gaius, nicknamed from his childhood soldier-playing games as “Little Boots” or Caligula, who began in his early youth an incestuous relationship with his three sisters, all of whom he would later farm out as prostitutes to his bawdy friends. Caligula came to power at age twenty-four, and after two years of efficient administration, was felled by a severe illness that transformed the character of his reign. Now showing every sign of being mentally disturbed, he was rumored to have built a palace for his horse, equipping it with a staff of slaves, and to have announced plans to have the animal made consul of Rome. After three years, ten months and eight days of such behavior, a group of conspirators closed the door to keep spectators out, ran swords through his breast and genitals, and quietly burned his body.

This placed the stammering, eccentric, fifty-year-old Claudius on the imperial throne, through haphazard coincidence. The troops stationed at Rome, first in jest and then in earnest, carried him in horrified terror to their camp and proclaimed him emperor. While far less distinguished for sexual extravaganza than his predecessors, Claudius gained a reputation for sadistic cruelty.

Though some of his rulings, such as his intervention in the conflict between Jews and Alexandrians, appeared to be wise and balanced, he rarely missed an execution and took delight in watching the condemned die painfully. He also manifested unpleasant physical traits, twitching at the head, foaming at the mouth and trickling from the nose when angry, his weak knees collapsing under him when he walked.

When Claudius died in a.d. 54, Romans hoped for something better. What they got was something worse–in the eyes of the some, the most sordid monster of them all–and none were to discover this more hideously than the tiny Roman community already called by the name Christian.

Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, known to history as Nero, was born in December of 37 in Antium.4 He appeared just as the fledgling Jewish sect called “The Way” was encountering the rising hostility of Jewish authorities in Jerusalem.

Nero’s family history, true enough, did not encourage confidence. Ancient, noble, prestigious, and highly accomplished, his family nevertheless had a reputation for ostentatious cruelty, debauchery, and sexual perversion. Gladiatorial contests staged by his grandfather became so vicious that Augustus ordered them stopped. His father rather specialized in avarice, adultery, and incest. His mother, the ambitious and wanton Agrippina, had such a varied roster of courtiers that when she announced her pregnancy, her husband, presumably considering his own licentious record, declared that any child of himself and Agrippina would become a monstrosity and a curse on the state. He was to prove correct on both counts.

Yet, as a youth of sixteen when he came to the throne, Nero inspired confidence. Fair-haired, blue-eyed, he had been tutored by the venerable Seneca, the preeminent Stoic philosopher of the day–tutored, according to the

historian Dio Cassius, not only in philosophy but also in pederasty, sex with young men or boys. His perverse education notwithstanding, his mother, Agrippina, had persuaded the reigning Claudius to betroth his daughter Octavia to her son, thereby assuring him the succession.

Styling himself Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus, he announced an impressive agenda. He would improve public order, curtail forgery, and reform the treasury. Even his enemies agree that Nero’s first five years were marked with some creditable accomplishments. He forbade provincial governors from exploiting locals during gladiatorial shows, and he worked hard at his judicial duties. But most of his reforms went nowhere. He abolished indirect taxes and promptly saw direct taxes increasing. He forbade Praetorian Guardsmen from attending circuses and theaters, only to see unruly spectators, now unpoliced, spread havoc. He tried to prohibit the public killing of gladiators, but had to back down when a bloodthirsty public loudly demanded its return.

He was himself an irrepressible entertainer. He wrote poetry, acted in skits

at the palace, and sang and danced before family and close friends. Many in the public found him fascinating and even admirable, in the way that any accomplished performer is admirable. Soon, however, his fondness for celebrity ran rampant. In his increasingly elaborate public banquets, it was said, he used the whole city as his private house.

The historian Tacitus, a highly skilled author with a keen eye for the corruption of power, describes one extravaganza of Nero’s that, he writes, was typical. The festivities took place on a lake, populated with exotic birds, fish, and other animals imported for the occasion. Guests were floated out on rafts, with crews “arranged according to age and experience in vice.” On one side of the lake were brothels crowded with noble ladies (doing exactly what, Tacitus does not specify); on the other, naked prostitutes tried to lure guests. As darkness descended, torches were lit, and the groves and buildings resounded with song and laughter. The emperor, dressed in drag, pretended to marry a man named Pythagoras–and then, in front of the guests, consummated the “marriage.”

Even Nero’s Rome, long fallen from any hint of republican rectitude, became appalled, though fascinated, by the tales of imperial conduct–his allegedly erotic relationship with his mother, Agrippina (actually consummated, writes Tacitus, though no one knows whether mother or son initiated it), and his liaison with his fourteen-year-old stepbrother Britannicus.

The Britannicus affair ended badly. Nero arranged to have him poisoned at a banquet. Not to worry, he told his guests as the youth lay writhing on the floor. It was just epilepsy. Britannicus was carried in convulsions from the room to die a tortuous death, while the dinner party cheerily continued.

His most celebrated victim was his chief sponsor and champion, Agrippina, his mother. She was doomed, it was said, by Poppaea Sabina, a friend’s wife and Nero’s current paramour. Poppaea urged Nero to divorce Octavia and marry her, but knew that the powerful Agrippina would prevent it. So Poppaea taunted him. He was “the mere ward” of his parent, she said, a mother’s boy. This worked. Nero began avoiding his mother, encouraging her to spend time away at her distant estates, finally plotting her death.

He staged a false reconciliation party at his summer home at Baiae,5 fondly embraced and kissed her, then sent her home across the Bay of Naples on a craft rigged to collapse at sea and drown her. The trick failed, she landed safely, and Nero panicked. “Paralyzed with terror,” writes Tacitus, he feared she would

discover the stratagem, arm her slaves, and assassinate him. Acting quickly, he dispatched an assistant and three high-ranking military men to her home. They beat her with clubs and ran her through with a sword.

However disgusting, even these things Rome’s nobility could reluctantly stomach, because they went on in the relative privacy of the imperial circle. What they could not endure was the persona Nero presented publicly–his habit of dressing as a common slave as he meandered through Rome’s darkened streets with a handful of equally decadent cronies, drinking, visiting brothels, stealing from shops, thrashing anyone who resisted or deplored them. Fistfights were common, Nero proudly showing off his wounds the next morning.

Worse still, as his nightly revels became known, others of Rome’s elite began imitating him, rendering the city on some nights virtually lawless. His advisers delicately urged restraint. Perhaps, they suggested, His Excellency could, well, cut back a little–at least, say, on the poetry readings, the singing, the acting, the lyre recitals, which were causing him to lose whatever dignity remained to him and his office. His Excellency demurred. “Too small a scale for so fine a voice,” he said. So in a.d. 64, he began performing on the stage publicly, with a debut at Neapolis, Greece, before a mostly Greek audience, then in Rome at the Neronian Games. He also began entering poetry and lyre-playing contests.

Rome’s gentry, if not the masses, were horrified. “It was insufferable,” writes Dio Cassius, a safe century and a half later, “to hear of a Roman, a Caesar and Emperor, an Augustus, put his name on the list of competitors, exercise his voice, practice various songs, appear with long hair and smooth chin, with robe thrown back, present himself in the lists with only one or two attendants, stare savagely at his opponents, defy his rivals with abusive words, and then bribe the overseers in the games–all this to win a prize for lyre-playing.”

Behind such fulminations lay the Roman elite’s historic abhorrence of decline. Still deeply ingrained in the proud city’s psyche were the high virtues and noble ways celebrated by the old republic, where family fidelity was outweighed only by duty to the civitas, the community itself. Nero’s carryings-on were not merely revolting and immoral. They were un-Roman! “This thick-necked, pot-bellied emperor with skinny legs,” says the historian Suetonius, “was entirely shameless

in style and appearance, always had his hair set in rows of curls, and when he visited Greece, he let his hair grow long and hang down his back. He often gave audiences in an unbelted silk dressing-gown and slippers, with a scarf around his neck.” The foppish dress, the passion to perform, all this was unmanly, effeminate, essentially Greek. Romans did not behave in this way.

Not in the days of the real Rome, anyway. Not in the days, two centuries past, when the republic had conquered its great rival Carthage, the other Mediterranean superpower. Yet it was that very victory over Carthage that began the republic’s gradual decline. Very slowly, recalls the historian Richard E. Smith in The Failure of the Roman Republic (Cambridge University Press, 1955), family priorities began to weaken, loose sexual relations and divorce became common, discipline in the

army slackened, women became far more influential in high places, foreign religions and mystical cults proliferated in the capital city, government spending ran wild, and public debt soared.

Perhaps the most severe indictment of the squalor and degradation that seemed to overwhelm the Imperial Rome was written in the middle of the Neronian era. “God gave them up to degrading passions,” it ran. “Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness; they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.”

The author of that denunciation was a Roman citizen and proud of it, and his stern language in that regard would have been wholly endorsed by those who revered and loved the old republic. Yet he was not from the city but from Tarsus in Asia Minor. He was Paul, the Christian apostle to the Gentiles. His words in the opening chapter of the letter he addressed to the Christian community in the capital city disclosed a distinct irony. For the Christians, who would be despised and persecuted by Roman officialdom for most of the next three hundred years, in fact stood for nearly all the virtues and principles which Rome had once enshrined.

The Roman Christians lived a modest walk from Nero’s palace, in a district just across the Tiber called Transtibiris. (Twenty centuries later, the Italians would call it Trastevere.) Many of Rome’s Jews lived there too, and early Christianity was in general considered a Jewish religion.

When the first Jews reached Rome is not known. There is some evidence of their presence in 139 b.c., and more after 63 b.c., when Pompey conquered Palestine and shipped off both prisoners of war and slaves to the capital. Within four years, Cicero was complaining about “how numerous” and “how clannish” they were, and “how they can make their influence felt.” By the middle of the first century a.d., their number had risen to forty or fifty thousand, making Rome’s the second largest concentration of Jews outside Judea, after Alexandria.

By Paul’s day, they were served by over a dozen synagogues, where it was likely the first converts to Christianity tried to convince their fellow Jews of Jesus’ messiahship. Such endeavors may in fact have occurred in the mid-30s, for the Acts of the Apostles notes that “visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes” attended the Pentecost Feast.

Perhaps the first evidence of a Christian presence emerges in Roman history in the year a.d. 57. Tacitus reports that Pomponia Graecina, wife of Aulus Plautius, the conqueror of Britain, was charged with subscribing to a “foreign superstition.” A family court, presided over by her husband, acquitted her. By the end of the second century, some members of her family, the gens Pomponia, had become Christian and were buried in one of Rome’s oldest Christian catacombs, lending a degree of credence to the theory that the “foreign superstition” was indeed Christianity.

There may have been other highly placed Christians early on. Paul, in his letter to the Romans (16:11), mentions a certain Narcissus, possibly Tiberius Claudius Narcissus, a senior government officeholder under both Tiberius and Claudius, later executed by Nero at the insistence of Agrippina. In the same chapter of his letter Paul greets “the household of Aristobulus,” a name common in the family of Herod the Great.6

Though Gentiles joined the movement too, Roman Christianity from the start reflected its Jewish origins. Hippolytus’s Apostolic Tradition, a third-century manual of church order in Rome, describes practices patterned on Jewish rites. An anonymous fourth-century Latin commentator (whom scholars for convenience call Ambrosiaster) said the first Roman Christians embraced the faith before they saw any of the apostles, though later both Peter and Paul played key roles in the growth of the Roman Church. Catholic and Eastern Orthodox tradition claims Peter as Rome’s first bishop.7 Paul’s arrival there is well documented by the Acts of the Apostles, and can be reliably dated to about a.d. 60, about three years after he wrote his letter to the faithful at Rome.

Paul’s letter shows that Rome’s Christians probably gathered in at least five houses, those belonging to (1) Priscilla and Aquila; (2) the family of Aristobulus; (3) the family of Narcissus; (4) a home occupied by Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas and Hermas; and (5) a home belonging to Philogus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympus. Aristobulus and Narcissus, among others, are Greek names, and so the Roman church likely included a number of converted non-Jews, though many Jews had Greek names. In his letter to Philippi, Paul writes that some members of the praitorion/praetorium (which might refer to

the praetorian guard or to the headquarters of a governor in a province) were believers, and these would no doubt have met in another house church on the opposite side of the Tiber. Distinct house-churches could be a source of division, of course, and New Testament scholar Paul Minear, professor emeritus of the Yale Divinity School, discerns five possible factions, divided over ethics, rituals, and spirituality.

Many of these house churches met in the tenement buildings that crowded the narrow, winding streets of Transtibiris. Rome in the first century had much in

common with urban third-world cities in the twenty-first, with population density approaching two hundred per acre. The tenement buildings (called insulae) were typically built around an inner courtyard, allowing light and fresh air only in the upper quarters. The apartments were one- or two-room affairs, with the

interior room, the one exposed to the most light and fresh air, used for sleeping. Sometimes several unrelated families shared a common sitting room, but this

would still be too small to permit entertaining. Since apartments had no kitchens, families cooked on charcoal braziers located near an opening. They used public latrines or chamber pots or the small spaces found under stairs to relieve themselves.

Small shops (called tabernae) were often built around the outer ring of the first floor, and the families who operated them lived in a back room behind or slightly above the shop. Some insulae had “deluxe” apartments behind the shops and facing the courtyard, apartments with servants’ quarters and a room to entertain guests–or to host meetings. But even these apartments generally lacked kitchens and latrines.

Privacy was thus rare. “Not much happened in a neighborhood that would escape the eyes of the neighbors,” writes social historian Wayne Meeks (The First Urban Christians: Yale University Press, 1983). “News or rumor would travel rapidly; riots could flare up in a moment.”

One such riot occurred in 49, when a theological disagreement over the identity of the Jewish messiah seems to have erupted into a brawl. The incident is alluded to by the Roman historian Suetonius, who says that the Jews who constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus were expelled from Rome, the first apparently specific reference to Christians in secular history.8 To Roman authorities, of course, it would have appeared as a quarrel among Jews, merely an internecine religious squabble.

The monotheism of the Jews, their disciplined religious life, and their ethical ideals impressed

some Romans, even among the aristocracy–impressed them enough for them to submit to circumcision and become “God-fearers,” as the Jews called them. But most Romans despised the Jews as

foreigners, little better than slaves, and the same stigma at first came to attach itself to Christians.

Yet Christianity soon began to represent a cross-section of society. Indeed, some of its early success was due in part to the generosity of wealthy Christians, who from the start shared their homes, fed the general community at special gatherings, and entertained travelers.

This was the role played by a couple who seem from the records to be the most well-known Christians in Rome. Priscilla (or Prisca) and Aquila are mentioned five times in the New Testament. Their tent-making business enabled them to host a Christian congregation in their home and to travel to other cities like Corinth and Ephesus. It’s possible that they had a fine apartment on the first floor of an insula, with their tent-making shop facing out into the street. Since they had long acted as a patron of Paul, they were no doubt thrilled when they heard, about a.d. 60, that he had arrived in Rome to appeal to Emperor Nero the case that had been brought against him by the Jewish authorities at Jerusalem. In Rome, Paul was merely confined to house arrest. So he set up a

residence, at his own expense, possibly in an apartment in one of the Transtibiris tenement houses.

In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke reports that three days after his arrival, Paul invited local Jewish leaders to hear his story. He told the gathering that he had “done nothing against our people or our customs,” nor anything worthy of arrest, let alone of the death penalty. He was in Rome simply because he had been forced to the legal recourse of appealing to the emperor “even though I had no charge to bring against my nation.”

His guests appeared mystified. They had heard nothing from Judea about Paul, they said, but they had heard a great deal locally about the sect he represented. These Christians were despised. Everyone spoke against them. They would like to hear what Paul thought.

And so, Luke continues, Paul met with a “great number” of Jews in his own lodging, marshaling reason, scriptural proofs, and personal testimony to convince his listeners that Jesus was the long-awaited messiah. There were questions, accusations, arguments and rebuttals. In the end, some were convinced, others not. To those who objected, Paul, who had run out of patience, delivered his parting shot: “This salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles. They will listen!” For two years, Luke reports, Paul conducted such home meetings.

And there Luke drops the story unresolved. What happened to Paul he doesn’t say, nor does he recount the fate of any of the other Christians mentioned in his accounts. Why? No one knows, but this puzzle has given historians and theologians something to speculate about for the next two thousand years. What became of Paul’s hearing before Nero? Some scholars suggest that his case was simply dismissed, though that rarely happened in such circumstances. Others say Paul was acquitted, and others still, that he was found guilty and exiled to Spain.

Spain is a possibility because of some ancient evidence. Clement, spokesman for the elders at the church at Rome and recognized by Catholics as the third bishop of Rome, writing around a.d. 96, says of Paul that “to the whole world he taught righteousness, and reaching the limits of the West, he bore his witness before rulers.” The limits of the Roman West would have been where Spain began. Another scenario is that Paul was, for whatever reason, set free, then went to Spain on his own, to extend his missionary endeavors. This was indeed his intent in going to Rome in the first place, or so he implies in his letter to the Romans (15:24). For the much-traveled Paul, the journey to Spain would not have represented much of a challenge. The sailing time to Spain was only about seven days.

However, accomplishing anything in Spain was a different matter. Historian Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, a Dominican priest, piecing together the evidence, concludes Paul indeed went to Spain, stayed a season and returned, his mission a failure because he couldn’t speak the language. He knew Greek, not Latin. Others question that assumption. Whether Paul did or did not know Latin, they say, is itself unknown.

In any event, far more alarming news would have reached Paul, wherever he was. Word would come that Rome had suffered a truly terrible fire. Much of the city had been wiped out, countless numbers were dead, two hundred thousand were homeless. Worse still, the Roman church was in dire trouble. Nero was blaming the Christians for the fire. He was arresting them by the dozen; some were being put to death–by crucifixion, gruesomely, as a spectacle, as an example to the world. The first major disaster for the early Christian church was now unfolding.

Rome had had fires before, of course. In fact, fire was recognized as an ever-present menace to the entire city. Between 31 b.c. and a.d. 410, contemporary authors record no fewer than forty large fires in Rome, conflagrations in which numerous buildings and large residential districts were destroyed–an average

of one destructive blaze every eleven years.

Most Romans were wholly aware that the problem was the residential architecture, if it could be called that. The tenement buildings that housed most residents soared seven stories high, stood little more than an arm’s length apart, and were made of “wattle and daub” (wooden stakes, branches, and mud or clay) over a wood frame. Wattle and daub, according to the first-century b.c. Roman architect Vitruvius, should never have been invented: “For it is made to catch fire, like torches,” he writes.

The satirical poet Juvenal, who was a child at the time of the blazing disaster, complained that life in urban Rome was an “endless nightmare of fire and collapsing houses.” He would, he continued, “prefer to live where fires and midnight panics are not quite such common events. By the time the smoke is got up to your third floor apartment (and you are still asleep), your heroic downstairs neighbor is roaring for water, and shifting his bits and pieces to safety. If the alarm goes at ground-level, the last to fry will be the attic tenant, way up among the nesting pigeons with nothing but tiles between himself and the weather.”

Officialdom, whether emperors or city engineers, thought the solution lay in construction codes. Laws were passed that buildings could be no taller than seventy feet and had to be separated by at least two and one-half feet; tenants were required to have a bucket of water on hand at all times; some rental contracts forbade renters to make an open fire; and so on. The codes were routinely ignored.

However, by the first century, fire brigades had been organized. Called vigiles, they consisted of seven cohorts of 560 men each. They patrolled the streets at night to discover fires that were still small. They carried buckets and axes, and their first action when encountering a fire was to form a chain of men to pass water buckets filled from the nearest reservoir. The vigiles were effective with small fires, but they were helpless when one got out of hand. This now happened, and the fire of 64 became the worst in Rome’s history.

Tacitus, who leaves the best account of the fire, says it began at the east end of the Circus Maximus, at the foot of the Palatine and Caelian Hills. “Amid the shops containing inflammable wares, the conflagration both broke out and instantly became so fierce and spread so rapidly before the wind that it seized in its grasp the entire length of the Circus.”

Fed by the tinder of the circus’s wooden bleachers and fanned by a brisk southeast wind, the flames roared through the circus, gathering force as they moved. Soon the whole valley between the Palatine and Aventine was one great ocean of fire, the flames climbing up hillsides and devouring the buildings and temples on their crowns. They raged through the narrow, twisting streets, engulfing the tenements and the barracks-like blocks that lined them.

acitus continues graphically, noting “the wailings of terror-stricken women, the feebleness of age, the helpless inexperience of childhood, the crowds who sought to save themselves or others, dragging out the infirm or waiting for them,

and by their hurry in the one case, by their delay in the other, aggravating the confusion.” Many people were simply overrun by the flames; some became so distraught at the loss of home and loved ones that they gave up and, even though they had a way of escape, simply let the fire sweep over them.

Then there were the ugly rumors. It was said that many who tried to stop the flames were prevented from doing so, some by men who were seeking plunder, others by men saying they were under orders to keep the fire going. Who could these be?

After five or six days, the fire, having consumed everything it could, simply sputtered out. By then it had come to the foot of the Esquiline Hill, where the buildings had been razed already so that the fire met nothing but open land and sky. But before the city could even count the toll, the fire burst forth again for another three days, consuming the more spacious districts of the city, though this time with less loss of life.

Tacitus assesses the damage: Ten of Rome’s fourteen districts were destroyed, three leveled to the ground, seven left with only a few shattered, half-burnt relics of houses. “It would not be easy to enter into a computation of the private mansions, the blocks of tenements, and of the temples which were lost,” he writes. He specifically mentions the altar and shrine to Hercules, the Temple of Jupiter, the “various beauties of Greek art” and “the ancient and genuine historical monuments of men of genius.” He concludes poignantly, “Old men will remember many things which could not be replaced.”

Historian R. F. Newbold estimates that at least ten to twelve thousand tenement buildings were destroyed, plus several hundred private homes. Large sections of the city had to be rebuilt at a pace that could only sacrifice quality. Meanwhile, in the untouched areas, house and room rents skyrocketed. One

of the quarters to escape unscathed was Transtibiris. The river had saved the whole district.

Since fire insurance did not exist, a wealthy family could be impoverished if its house burned down. If it had no country estate, as many did, its fate was left to the charity of friends and relatives. Wealthy families, of course, had wealthy friends and kinsmen, so they fared better than the poor. “If some millionaire’s mansion is gutted,” observes Juvenal sardonically, “contributions pour in while the shell is still hot.” It wasn’t so for the poor man.

The imperial treasury was tapped to render assistance, but those costs eventually had to be passed on to the countryside. Meanwhile, to help the homeless, Nero erected temporary buildings on the Campus Martius and in his own gardens. He opened the public buildings. He brought in food from neighboring towns and ordered that the price of grain be lowered.

Though these acts were popular, they did not stop a rumor that had begun spreading while the city still smoldered: that Nero himself had started the fire. While the flames engulfed the city, he watched the fire from the Tower of Maecenus, writes Suetonius, and was so stirred by the grandeur of the flames that he adorned himself in a tragedian costume and sang of the sack of Troy.

The charge is difficult to prove. Nero was at Antium when the fire began, and he did not rush back to Rome until he heard that his house, palace, and gardens were threatened. But his return accomplished nothing: Everything he treasured went up in flames like most of the city. His palace, the Domus Transitoria, was leveled.

However, the rumors persisted. To squelch them, he encouraged everyone to appease the gods. The Sibylline Books (of oracles) were consulted; prayers were offered to Vulcanus, Ceres, and Proserpina. Matrons entreated Juno; some married women held sacred banquets and nightly vigils. Yet, as Tacitus notes, “all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order.”

Finally, Nero conceived a plan which, he calculated, would divert the attention of the people away from himself. As Tacitus puts it, he “fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace.” This was the news that reached Paul.

The persecution of Roman Christians by Nero is remarkable for many reasons. For one, it was the first time the authorities did not identify the Christians as a Jewish religion. That may have been due to highly placed Romans like Poppaea Sabina, Nero’s wife, and the actor Tigellinus, a close advisor, both of whom may have had strong Jewish sympathies–and the ear of Nero.

Then too, the persecution demonstrated that in the official view, Christianity had already become, as Tacitus puts it, “a most mischievous superstition.” It had broken out in Judea but was now found “even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular.” Christians, like Jews, tended to keep to themselves and their community; there were strange stories told about them–their agape or “love feast” which suggested sexual profligacy, their main service where they ate “the body and blood” of their master suggested cannibalism. Many Romans believed Christians held immoral nocturnal rites and practiced black magic.9

Indeed, when arrests were first made, some Christians pleaded guilty, says Tacitus–although it is unclear whether he means they pleaded guilty to starting the fire (perhaps to play their part in bringing God’s judgment on Rome), or simply admitted to being Christians. In any event, from those arrested early the authorities extracted the names of other Christians. These were also arrested, says Tacitus, not so much for starting the fire as for the charge of “hatred of mankind.” For this, nothing less than death seemed a satisfactory punishment.

Tacitus provides a brief but devastating account of what followed: “Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination.” Nero held some of the executions in his own gardens, others in the Circus Maximus, and he invited the populace to come watch. Nero made a party of even this; he dressed up as a charioteer and, moving about in his chariot, mingled with the spectators.

The horror of Nero’s action spread terror and consternation among Christians throughout the empire. Being hypothetically ready to die for Christ was one thing. To have it actually occurring to people was something else.

But Tacitus notes that Nero’s response was so excessive that “even for criminals [i.e., the Christians] who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment there arose a feeling of compassion. For it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty that they were being destroyed.”

Among the Christians destroyed were Paul and Peter. We know little about why they were in Rome at the time, nor about their deaths. Tradition has it that sometime between October 66 and October 68, Paul was beheaded and Peter was crucified upside down (because he didn’t feel worthy to be executed in the same manner as was his Lord).

It is often said that persecution brings the church together, but it seems to have had the opposite effect in Rome. That some Roman Christians gave the names of other Christians to the authorities during the persecution surely

didn’t help.

Murphy-O’Connor notes another outcome: “The unfortunate long-term consequence of the episode was the creation of a sinister precedent–that the guilt of Christians could be presumed.” Nero’s viciousness was fortunately limited in geography and time, to one city alone for about four years. But the episode suggested to later Roman authorities that Christians were a group that needed to be watched–and punished if necessary. It was another two and one-half centuries before Christians would be free from such suspicions.

In one other perverse way, Nero influenced the Christians. He helped crystallize Christian thought regarding the great enemy who would arise in the last days to attack the faithful. Thus, about two and one-half decades later, the author of the book called Revelation, or the Apocalypse, describing the brutality of the end times, fastens on Nero as the model of ultimate Evil incarnate, the apocalyptic Beast from the Abyss.

As for Nero,

in the years following the fire he became increasingly unbalanced. He did not hesitate to kill close advisers and friends if he merely suspected they were plotting against him. Finally, in early 68, governors in both Gaul and Spain rose up in rebellion, followed by generals in North Africa and Germany. Nero, paralyzed with fear, prattled on that he might win back his troops with displays of weeping. When the Senate condemned him to be flogged to death, Nero ordered his secretary to help him stab himself in the throat. The secretary obliged. Nero’s last words were, “What a showman the world is losing in me.”

Two years before Nero died, news had come that the Jews had broken into open rebellion in Judea. The Roman garrison in Jerusalem had been duped into surrendering, and then slaughtered. To suppress the revolt, Nero turned to an old soldier from the German and British wars. His name was Vespasian. Many said the appointment was Nero’s last sane act.

This is the end of the Emperor Nero category article drawn from Chapter Eight, beginning on page 210, of Volume One, The Veil is Torn. To continue reading more about Emperor Nero from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at